Burglar Bill is a picture book by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, first published in 1977. There are a number of picture books about burglars who break into houses at night, one of a child’s greatest fears going to sleep. Burglars can be found all across children’s literature. (Enid Blyton loved burglars.)
Be sure to examine the pictures in this one as there are plenty of visual gags. I love that Burglar Bill hangs a mugshot of himself on the wall.
I believe Burglar Bill has been hugely influential on the comical burglar stories that came after, notably:
As an English speaking child of the 80s I grew up on a heavy diet of Roald Dahl. Danny The Champion Of The World (1975) stands out in my adult memory my favourite Dahl story, perhaps only bested by the frisson of horror left by The Witches (in which I actually examined my J2 teacher, thinking she might be a witch. Fortunately she didn’t wear gloves, which absolved her.)
I have now, finally, revisited Danny The Champion Of The World as an adult, despite this being one of my favourite childhood reads. Why ‘finally’? I’m loathe to further promote Dahl’s work on the Internet, partly because an entire cottage industry has popped up around the man and the mythology, with teacher resources available, schools full of class sets of his books. My own child’s primary teachers are still teaching Roald Dahl, despite there being many, many better options for a class study.
“The Town Musicians Of Bremen” is a folktale that goes by various similar names. Its plot structure is so strong that many storytellers writing series for children borrow this story at some point.
The “Town Musicians of Bremen” tells the story of four ageing domestic animals, who after a lifetime of hard work are neglected and mistreated by their former masters. Eventually, they decide to run away and become town musicians in the city of Bremen. Contrary to the story’s title the characters never arrive in Bremen, as they succeed in tricking and scaring off a band of robbers, capturing their spoils, and moving into their house. “The Town Musicians of Bremen” is a story of Aarne–Thompson Type 130 (“Outcast animals find a new home”).
I like the art in the version below, based on the scarier (non-bowdlerised) story collected by the Brothers Grimm.
“The Little Governess” (1915) is one of the most functionally useful stories Katherine Mansfield wrote. It’s a cautionary tale without the Perrault didacticism. It’s Little Red Riding Hood, but social realism. This story exists to say, “You’re not alone.” It’s a gendered story, about the specifically femme experience of being alone in public space. Some critics find the ending inadequate. This is a stellar example of a lyrical short story with emotional closure but no plot closure. And it only succeeds in offering emotional closure if the reader can identify with the experience.
Tricksters, villains and criminals are everywhere in narrative. But throughout storytelling, across history the femme seule must deal with a particular subcategory of predator: The sexually predatory trickster. “The Little Governess” is Mansfield’s treatment of that particular dynamic.
Though this story is over 100 years old, it hasn’t dated as much as we might have hoped. Have you ever got a bad feeling about somebody but didn’t want to seem rude, so went along with their plan anyway? “The Little Governess” is a case study into why a young woman might ignore her instincts and find herself isolated.
a glass of water next to the bed, and a conically shaped bedside lamp
a large, warm kitchen with 1950s appliances (e.g. the chrome toaster, which has since come back into fashion, but has a retro feel)
It has become clear in 2019, with the publication of Mercy’s origin story, that this is not literally 1950s America. Chris Van Dusen was charged with the task of drawing a cute, young, highly loveable pig, and in one interview admits that he initially forgot to age-down Mr and Mrs Watson. He subsequently put sideburns on Mr Watson and gave Mrs Watson a fringe. This suggests it was the 1970s when Mercy was young, which actually makes this 1980s America. (How long do pigs live? This is getting depressing… Okay, I looked it up: 15-20 years. Could be the 1990s.)
Apart from all that, the following image is reminiscent of American TV shows from the 1950s and 60s, which made use of split screen. We rarely see split screen used today unless the filmmaker is deliberately evoking a mid-20th century vibe. (More correctly, the split screen has evolved. You could say we’re living in the age of the split screen — so often we are watching TV while simultaneously on the Internet.)
Even the cartoon convention of ‘screech’ zig-zags emerging from the toaster is reminiscent of Superhero comics from the Cold War era.
A GENUINE UTOPIA
Even in a genuine utopia, something exciting must happen. The storyteller’s challenge is to create the frisson of excitement while preserving the cosy, safe environment.
How does Kate diCamillo achieve that? First, she opens with a cosy goodnight scene. You can’t get much more reassuring than this:
Mr. Watson and Mrs. Watson have a pig named Mercy. Each night, they sing the pig to sleep. Then they go to bed. “Good night, my dear,” says Mr. Watson. “Good night, my darling,” says Mrs. Watson. “Oink,” says Mercy.
the opening to Mercy Watson Fights Crime
Chris Van Dusen’s illustration reinforces the love that the Watsons feel for their pig — they’ve even had Mercy’s initial inscribed into her bed head. But look again. Look at the shadows. You could argue that, well, of course the shadows must be there — if the illustration contains a light source, then there must be shadows. But every single thing in an illustration is on purpose. Nothing existed here before the blank page. That strong shadow which falls across the bed? That’s ‘The Other Parents’ a la Coraline. A shadow that strong and defined gives the illustration an exciting, menacing vibe. Van Dusen could easily have made that bedspread light orange and it would’ve looked fine. The addition of that shadow is a master stroke.
Compare with the next bedroom scene — a simple one-point perspective, which is a useful layout when the illustrator wants to avoid any scary art noir associations. In the illustration below, Mercy has heard a noise from downstairs. She’s not scared at all because she hears the toaster screech and thinks someone is making toast.
Notice how Van Dusen has avoided casting the bedroom in darkness. Yet no one has switched the light on. The brightly-lit bedroom is an outworking of Mercy’s state of mind ie. not worried one bit. And if Mercy’s not worried, readers needn’t worry either.
The shadow which does exist is of Mercy’s own head —comical rather than menacing.
Leroy Ninker is a small man with a big dream: he wants to be a cowboy. But for now he’s just a thief. In fact, Leroy is robbing the Watsons’ kitchen right this minute! As he drags the toaster across the counter—screeeeeech—and drops it into his bag—clannngggg—little does he know that a certain large pig who loves toast with a great deal of butter is stirring from sleep. Soon a comedy of errors (not to mention the buttery sweets in his pocket) will lead this little man on the wild and raucous rodeo ride he’s always dreamed of!
Importantly, Leroy is not very smart. (Not sure how much he thinks toasters fetch on the black market.)
He personifies objects and can’t work out how to get out of the house without disturbing a sleeping pig. More than that, he’s burgling someone’s house and doesn’t seem to realise he should leave the scene afterwards rather than ride around on a pig!
Leroy is also endearing because of his imaginative capacity. While riding Mercy, we are told he imagines riding a dangerous bucking horse. He’s a Walter Mitty character — harmless, with big ideas about himself. This ability to sink into a paracosm is also his downfall.
Ostensibly, Leroy wants to steal items from other people’s houses. This is the outworking of a deeper desire, which is to imagine himself a fearsome, respected and tough bandit, reminiscent of the fantasy of the Wild West.
Let’s consider Leroy as Opponent here for a moment.
Leroy Ninker is introduced in an ominously tinted scene. This is the archetypal robber, with the eye mask, the sack flung over his back. These would make him generic, much like the robbers in Walter The Farting Dog, in which generic robbers are useful. But diCamillo is turning the robber himself into a comedic character, and a comedic character requires a distinguishing feature or two. Kate diCamillo has made use of a mash-up of archetypes to arrive at a unique man:
archetypal child who wants to grow up to be a cowboy.
Leroy is basically a Cat In The Hat character, who turns up when he isn’t meant to and wreaks havoc. While wreaking havoc, the child viewpoint character (Mercy) has a lot of fun.
Before she lets Mercy have fun, diCamillo reveals Leroy as an unthreatening character, despite his sticky fingered ways. He contains several layers of comic irony:
A small man with a big hat (in which the hat symbolises his self-importance)
He makes plenty of noise himself while telling the toaster to be quiet
He has sticky fingers both literally and metaphorically, because his favourite food is butterscotch.
But what about the enduring opponent of Eugenia Lincoln next door? It’s a rule of this setting that the sisters must appear at one point, in which the narration switches point of view. It’s also necessary for the plot to work, because Leroy turns out to be Mercy’s comrade in fun.
Leroy will break into Mercy’s house and see if he can get away with stealing things. He will wear his cowboy costume because this is basically cosplay.
His Plan looks set to fail when Mercy trots downstairs thinking someone is making toast. Instead, expectations are foiled, because Mercy doesn’t realise this guy is a burglar. How does diCamillo turn this into a comedic situation? First there’s the comedic obliviousness — characters who don’t realise what we realise are always laughable (dramatic irony). But on top of that, diCamillo slows the pacing right down. Narratologists would say the story is set to ‘pause’.
One way a writer can achieve that is by saying what is not happening. This was pointed out to by by Jane Alison in her book Meander, Spiral, Explode. Mercy sees that there is no toaster, no bread and no butter. But she wholly fails to see what IS there; she is single-mindedly fixated on buttered toast.
In a carnivalesque story, the ‘Battle’ is an episode of extreme fun. Here it is the comedic sight of a tiny bandit cowboy riding a pig, all the while thinking he’s an actual cowboy.
Comedy is heightened when we are shown other characters enjoying the spectacle with us. Eugenia and Baby come in handy for that — they are functioning not so much as Opponents but as the two old men from The Muppet Show who make sardonic comments about everyone else in their vicinity.
The characters experience no anagnorisis because this is a comedic story in which the characters remain less knowledgeable about their situation than the readers, who have seen a broader picture. We’ve seen Mercy going to bed, the inside of Eugenia and Baby’s home, the arrival of the robber and the conversations between the police officers. This is true omniscient narration, and keeps the reader in audience superior position, feeling smart.
The revelation is simply a conclusion of fun. If we haven’t realised immediately we now know that Leroy’s penchant for butterscotch is going to be his downfall, because Mercy will accost him for it. Significantly, diCamillo made sure to ‘casually’ mention (twice) that Leroy enjoys butterscotch. (I was very slow on the uptake and didn’t even connect butterscotch sweets to Mercy’s love of buttered toast.) By the time we see Mercy on top of Leroy we’re wondering what she’s after. Then all is revealed: She’s sniffed out the treats!
We might assume Leroy is taken to prison, though subsequent tales in the off-shoot series reveal that Leroy finds gainful employ at the cinema. The rule of this series is that everyone sits down to enjoy buttered toast. Order has been restored.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Some people enjoy wine and food pairing — I enjoy pairing children’s stories with stories for adults. Compare Mercy Watson Fights Crime with “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” by John Cheever.
“Ernestine and Kit” is a short story by Kevin Barry, included in Dark Lies The Island (2013). It has been made into a short film by Simon Bird if you can get a hold of it.
This is black humour at its best. I was captivated with this crime story from beginning to end — the suspense is well-paced, and the reveals well-positioned, because we don’t know at first what these two are up to. By the time we see the two women carry out their plan it comes as a bit of a shock.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
“Ernestine and Kit” is sort of like Thelma & Louise meets “The Child” by Ali Smith. In fact, one of the children in “Ernestine and Kit” is called Allie, and I wonder if it’s a nod to Smith’s well-known short story, in which a woman finds a child in her supermarket trolley, takes it home and learns it’s a little bastard.
CHARACTERS OF “ERNESTINE AND KIT”
The fat lady/thin lady duo is pretty common across storytelling, which is useful for Kevin Barry because the reader will quickly form expectations from that.
For instance, we expect something light-hearted:
a fat and a skinny character make up a two-character ensemble. This is usually a comedy trope, usually with the skinny character being the Straight Man, although inversions of this are seen as well.
Ernestine and Kit remind me of the women in Kate diCamillo’s Mercy series. Eugenia is phonetically similar to Ernestine. Her sister is Baby Lincoln. The cover below summarises their relationship — Baby is (very obviously) the childlike character while the other is a parental disciplinarian.
Typically, one woman of the pair will be motherly; the other needing to be mothered. A two-older-woman due may be religious, or may be quasi-lesbian tropes. Kevin Barry covers this possibility in this story, too, when Eugenia and Kit wonder how they are perceived by others.
How else does Kevin Barry persuade us that these are two law-abiding ladies?
Others are waving at them. As readers we take our cue from other others within the world react to them. This way, even non-sympathetic characters can see sympathetic. Here people wave because everyone else is in a good mood and perhaps because they’ve been caught up in a vintage car rally.
It seems these old ladies are also going to the vintage car rally at Kilmore, or to other innocuous places (like the castle).
In light of two older women on a day trip, the following sounds innocuous but only on second reading we realise the opposite meaning is intended:
‘children played unguarded in the cool of the woods.’
STORYWORLD OF “ERNESTINE AND KIT”
A fine Saturday in June.
‘The world as fat on the blood of summer.’ This not only sets the scene but sets the vibe. (At this point we may assume it’s comedic hyperbole.)
Like “Beer Trip to Llandudno” this is a road trip between friends. Road trip stories are based on the classic mythic structure.
I can’t quite work out their route, because I can’t work out which places are real and which are made up for the story. (An Irish local may enlighten me.)
Notice how the women drive sedately at first, next it ‘lightly sped’, finally they’re breaking the speed limits terribly.
The lakeside to ride the ferry to Innisfree (an island in Lough Gill). I looked at the Google street view and wondered if there is such a thing as the ferry to Innisfree (spelt Innishfree in the story). The answer is no — ‘This pint-sized island lies tantalisingly close to the lough’s southeastern shore, but, alas, can’t be accessed. Still, it’s visible from the shore’. (Lonely Planet)
Tully (means a small hill in Irish, but is it a real place? Many Irish place names include the word Tully…)
Leckaun, Country Leitrim (where the young mother in stonewash denim is headed. The detail on the denim makes me wonder if this is the 1980s, but these old women are probably noticing what’s now called acid wash denim, themselves stuck in the 80s.)
An unspecified castle
Northern Ireland, a separate jurisdiction
The outskirts of Enniskillen, where there is another festival
The Asda in Enniskillen
The midland plain
A clump of hawthorn bushes near the side of the road. This is where the women leave the kidnapped child.
When I read Hawthorn I wondered why I got a fairytale ping. That’s right — in Sleeping Beauty it’s a Hawthorn hedge that springs up around the castle.
The symbolism in this tale is not opaque. The hedge represents [Beauty’s] hymen, the white blossoms her virginity. The odor of sex emitted by blossoming hawthorns signals that her purity will soon be a thing of the past.
There’s plenty of symbolism around the hawthorn, especially in Ireland:
Besides sex and death, Sleeping Beauty is also informed by contemporary realities and ancient beliefs about the powers of the hawthorn tree. Beginning in the late Middle Ages, dense thorny hedges were increasingly cultivated throughout Europe to keep the peasantry off land that had traditionally been used in common by serfs and nobles alike. In Ireland, at the time the story was published in 1812, these enclosures were particularly reviled, although lone hawthorns on the island were considered the home of faeries, and thus enchanted.
The hawthorn was a potent symbol in pre-Christian Europe—appealed to for good fortune, feared if harmed, and burned on funeral pyres to help waft the soul toward heaven—and later, the Church appropriated boughs of the Mayflower’s delicate white petals as devotional icons displayed during that month’s observances of the Cult of the Virgin. Many of the supernatural appearances of Mary reported by the faithful over the centuries—the so-called Marian Apparitions—place her under a hawthorn tree or perched on one of its branches.
This story makes an interesting case study into when (and how) to make use of The Rule of Three. It’s often said that when telling a story three incidents feels right to the audience — set it up, show it’s a pattern, change up the pattern. In this case we have a thwarted kidnapping followed by a successful one, so Kevin Barry has not made use of this Rule of Three at all. That’s two, is it not?
So what has Barry done instead? He’s using more of a step stool.
The women drive past a child in a stroller
They attempt a kidnapping
They succeed at Asda.
If we count like this, it’s a slightly different take on the same basic rule. But it’s children who are counted rather than kidnapping attempts.
“Ernestine and Kit,” the reader is presented with two chatty, unremarkable middle-aged women on a road-trip. The stage seems set for a warm story of female bonding. Only gradually, with slow dread, do we begin to read the cruel slant of their thoughts: they are predators planning to snatch a child.
Here’s the log line of the film, which gives a clue to the underlying psychology of the characters:
Two ladies in their seventies drive through north County Sligo in a neat Japanese car. As they pass by village pubs and beaches, they imagine the terrible, immoral lives people are living today. Their one consolation is the innocence of children. This is an absurd and macabre tale about how the petty-minded destroy themselves.
The details about these ladies are marvellous.
They’re into phrenology (‘She has a liar’s chin.’)
They leave their tea to brew until it’s as strong as ale.
They nibble at their scones like hungry mice
Ernestine keeps wine gums in her bag to lure children
Ernestine likes to leaf through power-tool catalogues, which gives her a genderless air — much like Kerry of This Country (Kerry likes steam engines.)
They drink a lot of New Zealand wine
Listen to classical music on the radio
Go through copious amounts of paper towels (the reason is not given, or at least I haven’t picked it up.)
We are at first persuaded that these two are on a nice day out. Their wants are minimal. “A Cornetto would go down a treat.”
They are revealed to be judgemental, unpleasant types. Perhaps they simply enjoy judging people as a way to strengthen the bond between them?
The first question I have is, why do these two ladies want to stop in at the pub they just dissed, the one with beer kegs and drugs and a pool table?
The big reveal is their desire to abduct a child.
Ernestine and Kit want to abduct a child to fulfil their deeper desire to take an uncorrupted slice of humanity home for themselves, to keep it pristine forever and make themselves feel good about a corrupt and evil world.
In a story like this one, where two women go on a crime spree, there will be a succession of Battles. “The” Battle is the bit that comes right before the Self-Revelation. So, the Battle where these women successfully steal a child is ostensibly the Battle they win.
But they realise on the way home that this is not the angelic child they thought it was. In fact, it stinks.
A child is not what they really want at all — a child is only what they think they want. The want to steal the children of drug addicts and prostitutes, but when they do get a child, they assume this of it, and for this very reason they don’t want it. They are stuck in a ludicrous, evil loop.
“Ernestine and Kit” is a take on a classic changeling story. Communities have believed in changelings until very recently. In the 1890s a man in Cork set his wife on fire believing she had been switched by fairies. Even now, ideas about changelings can accompany mental illness. When Ernestine and Kit realise the baby is not what they thought, it is — to them — as if the ideal baby has been switched out for an evil one.
What have people done across history when they don’t want a baby anymore? They left it in the woods, or in other out-of-the-way places: privies, roadside, dung-hills. This practice was ignored by society even though it wasn’t okay according to the church, reflecting the difference between church ideals and the realities of looking after another child.
They will never get what they want because they don’t want what they think they want, but they will keep on hunting because this is their Saturday pastime.
They do still believe there is such a thing as the angelic child, so we can be confident they’ll continue on their kidnapping exploits, forever thwarted by lack of perfection.
Unfortunately, when I see two older ladies out on a drive I sometimes think of Ernestine and Kit. More deeply, this is a story about how the realities of parenthood don’t match the idealised version of it. If we didn’t have these idealised visions of children the species would probably die out.
“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is a well-known short story by American writer Flannery O’Connor, published 1953. So much has already been said about this story — I will look into its structure from a plotting point of view. It’s also about time I read this story. Without reading Flannery O’Connor’s most famous work I can’t fully appreciate Alice Munro’s 1990s spin on it.
In Flannery O’Connor’s most famous story, “A Good Man in Hard to Find,” wherein a southern matriarch watches—or rather listens—as one-by-one the members of her family are executed by one of a pair of escaped serial killers in the woods close behind her, never once are we told how frightened and horrified she must feel. We aren’t told how she feels at all. The horror implicit in the scene is left entirely to our imagination. Which makes it all the more horrific.
A white family goes on a road trip. They are travelling from Tennessee through Georgia to Florida for a holiday. The grandmother, who would’ve been born in the late 1800s, shows a pitiful if kindly attitude towards the Black child they pass on the way. No one else in that car says anything about him at all, except the observation that he is not wearing pants.
THE ENVIRONMENT AS ENDLESSLY RENEWABLE AND GIVING
It is difficult to imagine this attitude now, but The Grandmother tells her grandchildren not to throw their lunch rubbish out the window. The parents remain silent, suggesting this behaviour would’ve been fine with them. It’s only a small detail but reminds me of a scene from Mad Men, in which Don and Betty take the children on a picnic. When they’re done they just leave all the rubbish in the park. Is that what people really did back then? I guess it must be.
When I grew up in 1980s New Zealand there was a TV advertisement showing two children in the back seat of a car, eating fast food, throwing the rubbish out the window. The children were understood to be greedy, lazy and destructive to the environment. The message was to be a Tidy Kiwi. I thought these children were rascals, and couldn’t believe anyone was allowed to eat in the car (we weren’t) let alone throw rubbish out the window. Although the Tidy Kiwi campaign started in the 1960s, by the 1980s, the ‘don’t litter’ message had gotten through to almost everyone. Throughout the 1990s, we were fed the message that if we picked up our own rubbish, we were sufficiently taking care of the environment. By the early 2000s, that had morphed into ‘recycle correctly’. The 2010s and beyond are a different story — right now the onus is on the consumer to avoid buying goods in ‘unnecessary packaging’ in the first place, to create as little rubbish as possible.
Of course this is part of a larger, deeply, more deadly problem — transportation, electricity production and industry are the main culprits in destroying the actual environment at a deep level, and all the ‘responsible consumerism’ won’t do much to help it, other than assuage our own anxiety-guilt. (Not to say we shouldn’t do every little thing we can.)
They stopped at The Tower for barbecued sandwiches. The Tower was a part stucco and part wood filling station and dance hall set in a clearing outside of Timothy.
Red Sam, who owns and runs the place, complains with The Grandmother that the world is going to wreck and ruin. The title of the story is a quote from Red Sam. The Grandmother and Red Sam are of the same generation. These are characters who would’ve lived through America’s depression, so it’s interesting they see 1950s America — an era still romanticised — as a downgrade on that. What, exactly, has been downgraded to them? Do they perhaps look back fondly on a time when slavery was legal? Are they able to put that into words, or would acknowledging it create uncomfortable dissonance with their own self image as ‘good people’?
THE PLANTATION HOUSE OUTSIDE TOOMSBORO
In slightly earlier times this is a plantation that would’ve been run by Black slaves. But this is not what the grandmother remembers:
the house had six white columns across the front and that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it and two little wooden trellis arbors on either side in front where you sat down with your suitor after a stroll in the garden. … the beautiful glass over the front doorway and the candle-lamp in the hall
The present scenery:
The dirt road was hilly and there were sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments. All at once they would be on a hill, looking down over the blue tops of trees for miles around, then the next minute, they would be in a red depression with the dust-coated trees looking down on them. … The road looked as if no one had traveled on it in months.
This feels like a Hotel California situation. That final sentence leads me to wonder: Are they are going to make it out? Sure enough, this dangerous description of a road foreshadows the accident:
The road was about ten feet above and they could see only the tops of the trees on the other side of it. Behind the ditch they were sitting in there were more woods, tall and dark and deep. … Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.
The woods are of course a trope from long ago, often a symbol for the subconscious.
CHARACTERS OF “A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND”
Flannery O’Connor’s characters are often described as grotesque, which has a specific meaning in literature:
Nowadays, when people talk about “the grotesque,” their meaning is closer to its adjectival form: “very strange or ugly in a way that is not normal or natural.” The grotesque in literature focuses on the human body, and all the ways that it can be distorted or exaggerated: its aim is to simultaneously elicit our empathy and disgust. Very much like the uncanny, the grotesque draws its power from the combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, or the familiar distorted. Gothic fiction often has elements of the grotesque, such as Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein or the off-kilter characters in Flannery O’Conner’s stories. In its earlier iterations, the term “grotesque” was used in a way that overlapped more with “the uncanny,” referring to works that blurred the line between the real and the fantastic, such as Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” in which the human protagonist is transformed into an insect. It is interesting to see the ways in which these terms overlap, and it’s important to note that their exact “definitions” can be hard to nail down because of the way they have changed over time.
The Grandmother — Has connections in Tennessee. Does not want to go to Florida because she has heard there’s a criminal on the loose. She is inclined to worry unnecessarily without being able to process probabilities and likelihood. For instance, she won’t leave the cat at home in case he brushes against the knob of the gas burner and asphyxiates himself. (Has this ever happened in the history of the world?) The Grandmother is therefore revealed to be a fantasist as well as a worrier. And this is why I interpret this plot as a metaphor or as a dream, probably endured by The Grandmother as she nodded off in the backseat, rather than as ‘real’ within the world of the story. (Not that it really matters whether the car wreck and the hearse really turned up or not — this doesn’t change any of the themes in the story.)
Bailey — The Grandmother’s son. She lives with him and his family. He doesn’t have much fun in him, but he is wearing bright blue parrots all over his shirt, as if to convince himself he’s going on holiday. This reminds me of the scene in Office Space, where the boss tells his staff to wear Hawaiian shirts on Friday, if they like, because it will be fun. (The staff don’t look like it will be fun — Hawaiian shirts will only remind them of how un-fun it is to be stuck in a cubicle.) Within the world of this story, the brightness of the shirt is equally ironic — it is the shirt he is wearing as he’s marched off for execution.
Bailey’s wife — ‘a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage’. We don’t know much else about her, except her grim acceptance of her own fate, much like Carla Jean Moss in No Country For Old Men.
The Baby — sits in the front seat on its mother’s lap, which gives me anxiety. I grew up with a TV advertisement which showed a baby flying through a windscreen, and the devastated, slow-mo aftermath. (It’s amazing what we kids weren’t allowed to watch compared to the trauma we was exposed to during regular TV shows, including the shows aimed at kids.)
June Star — the granddaughter, blonde hair. Sassy. Funny. Cheeky.
John Wesley — the grandson, 8 years old, stocky with glasses. ‘it’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He’s going to be into everything!’ This is according to the God-like (Devil-like?) killer, so I take it as a fairly accurate assessment of his character.
Pitty Sing — the cat. The Grandmother hides the cat in the car. Eventually the cat will reveal itself, angering Bailey, foreshadowing death. This cat turns The Grandmother into a bit of a witch archetype — the sort of witch who can divine the future.
The Misfit — has broken out of the Federal Penitentiary and is apparently headed towards Florida. Strong white teeth. Menacing. Like a character out of a Western, he wears a black hat. Has ditched his clothes and is not wearing a shirt. This tends to make a criminal look more confident. (I’m thinking of Kevin Bacon’s character in The River Wild.) He wears no armour at all, because he is confident he doesn’t need it. When he recounts all the things he has seen he is older than I first imagined. Wears glasses. ‘Without his glasses, The Misfit’s eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking.’
Bobby Lee — one of the men in the black hearse
Hiram — one of the men in the black hearse, the one who seems to know the most about engines.
The Grandmother is the character we know the most about. Her reactions are described in the most detail. She worries (needlessly) but eventually the very thing she worries about most comes true within the world of the story. So if we read this story at its most literal level, she doesn’t worry needlessly, on this particular occasion.
What gets her into this mess is that she has misremembered some roads from long ago. But if we take a fatalistic view of the story, it wouldn’t have mattered which roads they took — bad would’ve come for them wherever they were. And when I say ‘bad’, I mean death. The black hearse, of course, is an old woman facing her own impending death. Perhaps, metaphorically, the old woman dies on this trip (but in a much less melodramatic way).
Right to the end, The Grandmother has a black and white view of Good and Evil. She believes she is good — she is good because she looks nice; she is good because she comes from a good family (as if lineage is the thing). She thinks that these things will save her.
After the car rolls, the family plan to wait for someone to pass by and pick them up.
When The Grandmother realises they’re in great danger she tries appealing to God and offering money. Finally she tries to persuade The Misfit that they are all related somehow, in the scheme of things — appealing to his humanity (or perhaps she’s genuinely addled because The Misfit is wearing her dead son’s ironically loud-print shirt).
The scene where The Misfit turns up and shoots the adults is the Battle scene. Murder happens ostensibly because the grandmother recognises who he is and tells him she knows. There’s a chance they all would’ve left with their lives, otherwise. Or would they?
Did the grandmother learn anything about life before she died? She probably came to the conclusion that life contains the evil she always imagined it did — she’s been vindicated.
But she starts off quite hopeful — so long as she behaves correctly, going through the correct rituals in life, everything will turn out fine. By the end of the story all hope has been quashed, in the face of outright sociopathy, though The Grandmother never gives up, in contrast to her resigned daughter-in-law.
The reader’s revelation? Well, my takeaway point is that bad things happen to anyone, and sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Some churches teach that so long as you do everything right, your life and afterlife will be excellent. This idea poses a serious dilemma for any free-thinking person — what to make of very unfortunate individuals? To me, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is a critique on the idea that it’s possible to divide humanity into heaven-bound and hell-bound individuals.
The family are dead and the baddies keep going wherever they’re going to. The Misfit has a Zen outlook on life — he doesn’t remember what crimes put him in jail. It’s likely he’ll end up back in jail and won’t care to remember the reason. He’s almost a supernatural creature rather than a real one — an earthly Grim Reaper.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Annie Proulx’s short story “A Run Of Bad Luck“, because the way in which the reader is asked to consider fate.
When I was in Form 2 (now called Year 8), our teacher set a transactional writing exercise: Does violent media make a culture more violent?
I’d never heard of Rudine Sims Bishop who, five years earlier, in a different hemisphere, had been writing about how story functions as a mirror as well as a window, and also as a sliding glass door. I could’ve applied this to violence as well as to representation if I’d known about it.
This was pre-Internet. I had no opinions on the topic of Violence In Media. My essay got stapled onto the classroom cork board, I remember that much. This was a minor humiliation because the teacher had ruled a red line through my final sentence, which is the one sentence I do remember: ‘So what are you going to do about it?’ My passive attempt at turning punk was thereby stymied for all to see.
I’ve since thought more on this topic. I’m close to someone who sometimes plays first person shoot-em-ups and reads extensively and deeply about war, yet he’s the most laidback, non-confrontational person I’ve ever known. He rejects any claim that there’s a direct causal, one-way link between violent content and violent behaviour.
On the other hand, the analysis of someone like Anita Sarkeesian (Feminist Frequency) demonstrates that if we regard media as a corpus, the corpus becomes a behemoth and gains the power to influence culture itself. Not one of us is fully immune to that.
I do get to a point where I can’t take any more, but I am fascinated by the semi-autobiographical works by Helen Garner, who attends trials and then processes her own feelings on the page. (See Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House Of Grief.)
The most unrealistic thing about the “women solving crimes” genre is that the women aren’t CONSTANTLY getting complaints from weird old men that “solving crimes is a man’s job” and “a woman’s place is in the home, not solving murders on a train.”
I stopped listening to Casefile (a popular Australian podcast) when I noticed the anonymous host fails to pay victims sufficient respect. In line with the media reports he’s been reading as research, he is inclined to make excuses for male perpetrators of domestic violence.
In contrast, I admire the work of Laura Richards, a British Criminal Behavioural Analyst who critiques true crime shows on her podcast, and who is also active in changing outdated laws which put victims at further risk. Richards has changed the narrative around coercive control. In her discussions, Richards makes a point of acknowledging the victims and humanising them.
TRUE CRIME AND WOMEN
Like all kinds of stories enjoyed mainly by an audience of women, there’s a lot of dismissive harrumphs around the category of true crime. Why would you even read that? Is that not revelling in violence? Aren’t you supporting an industry that requires violence? And surely, surely, violent stories make us more violent, whether or not these stories are ostensibly true. (And what about paying respect to the privacy of victims? An adjacent matter; many families want memories of victims preserved via amplification.)
Women are unquestionably taught to be more fearful than men. Though men are more likely to be the victims of violence, women are more likely to be victims of certain kinds of violence. Women perform all sorts of invisible labour in the name of keeping ourselves safe.
These measures range from ritualistic and self-soothing — e.g. keeping a gun in one’s handbag, to semi-effective at an individual level — e.g. leaving a party before midnight, pleasantly buzzed rather than impaired. (The perpetrator will then find someone else, which is why there should be no broad service announcements urging women to keep safe.)
Are we looking at these true crimes because we can’t look away, akin to rubbernecking past a car accident? Is it because we are trying to understand a foreign mindset? What would make someone do that to another human being? If only we could learn to identify a dangerous person, we might then avoid him.
Perhaps that’s part of it.
A few writers have helped me think about what crime might do to help us, psychologically.
First, a closing paragraph in the second essay of Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay.
In her essay “Slaughterhouse Island”, Jill Christman describes a self-defence class in which she learns: Unless we are able to imagine performing acts of self-defence on a perpetrator, we’ll never be able to carry them out in real life.
In that vein, might reading about acts of violence prepare us mentally? Similar experiments have been done in sport. We know that when athletes imagine putting balls through a hoop, this helps them to actually put a ball through a hoop. (We’re talking at an elite level, when physical prowess is eclipsed by mental preparation.)
This is a rare example of a happy ending. John Meehan was impaired due to drug abuse at the time, Terra was at peak strength due to her age, and unusually strong because of her job working with dogs. But Terra’s story has such a cathartic, satisfying ending that Dirty John was a huge success with audiences, first as a podcast and later as a Netflix series. How many of us thought, You know what, if that happens to me, I’m gonna fight like a zombie as well.
Allowing bereft families to view images from crime and accident scenes can offer them a path to healing.
If a focus on crime detail helps real people in real situations, perhaps when we endure gore in crime story, an audience is somehow — though safely distanced from it — creating our own ‘path to healing’ in what we are led to perceive as a dangerous and violent world.
And if women experience the world more fearfully than men do, it makes intuitive sense that women achieve a higher psychological reward from crime narratives.
“The Three Strangers” is a short story by Thomas Hardy, published as a serial in 1883. The story is set in 1820s pastoral England and is one of Hardy’s ‘Wessex Tales’.
SETTING OF “THE THREE STRANGERS”
Reading this story now, nigh on 200 years after it’s set, this setting feels almost mythical.
This is partly achieved by language no longer in use:
grassy and furzy downs
Then there’s the reference to an actual mythical/legendary person: Nebuchadrezzar the second lived 630–562 BC. He was the Chaldean king of Babylon from 605 until his death. I don’t know enough about the Bible to infer any other deeper meaning. But others have looked deep into it:
References to Timon, Nebuchadnezzar, and Belshazzar are made not only because these are figures from the distant past but also because their abuses of power can be compared to that of the hangman, whose every action is lawful but derived from an inhumane system of justice.
Other, smaller things make this story feel old. For example, the description of ‘an elderly engaged man of fifty or upward’. Back then, 50 was elderly! Now it’s ‘middle aged’. Likewise, a ‘man of seventeen’ would today be just a boy.
Five miles of irregular upland, during the long inimical seasons, with their sleets, snows, rains, and mists
The ominousness of the rain is tempered by detail which describes the necessity of rain:
the grand difficulty of housekeeping was an insufficiency of water; and a casual rainfall was utilised by turning out, as catchers, every utensil that the house contained.
(We do the same at our Australian house, though we have four tanks, gutters and gutter guard for the purpose of collecting and storing rainwater for domestic use.)
The night of March 28, 182-, was precisely one of the nights that were wont to call forth these expressions of commiseration.
As Edgar Allen Poe does in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, Hardy omits the final digit off the exact year this was supposed to have happened. I wondered why Poe did this when everything else about the setting in the Rue Morgue story was so specific. Perhaps doing so was a writing convention of the late 19th century.
It was nearly the time of full moon, and on this account, though the sky was lined with a uniform sheet of dripping cloud, ordinary objects out of doors were readily visible.
At this time in history, people really did believe that eerie things happened at full-moon — that people turned into werewolves, or that the moon could turn you mad. An ambulance driver friend has told me that, even today, full moons tend to reveal mental illness, resulting in more ambulance call-outs during a full-moon. I asked her why that is but she has no idea. I’m not even sure it’s statistically fact, but the perception still exists.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE THREE STRANGERS”
“The Three Strangers” opens with a wide angle view of the local area, written in the continuous, then switches to the singulative with:
The night of March 28, 182-, was precisely one of the nights that were wont to call forth these expressions of commiseration.
A group of neighbours meet up at the shepherd’s house to celebrate a birth and a christening. It is pouring down with rain outside. (I also learned the original meaning of ‘eavesdroppings’ — literally, water which drops off the eaves and onto the ground, possibly down the wall. Before someone invented guttering, I suppose.)
A dark stranger turns up and asks to seek refuge inside. The shepherd welcomes him in. The stranger accepts mead and dries himself by the chimney.
The second stranger turns up. He starts drinking a lot and Mrs Fennel isn’t comfortable with him in the house. When they ask him what he does for a living, he replies in rhyme. They deduce he’s an executioner, come to hang the local sheep thief.
Then a third stranger turns up, this time short and blonde rather than tallish, gaunt and dark. But he won’t come in. He’s terrified by the sight of people in the room. He closes the door and runs away.
The characters stand around the ominous gray stranger in the centre of the room and someone chants as if trying to get rid of the devil. Then a gun goes off in the distance, which they know to be fired whenever a prisoner escapes from the nearby town of Casterbridge, where there is a prison.
They deduce that the terrified man was the sheep thief, and that he fled because he recognised his own executioner. The firing of the alarm gun continues at intervals.
A fifty-year-old guest advises the executioner to pursue the man, since that is his job after all. But the executioner says he needs to go home first and retrieve his staff. He insists he needs a staff as a weapon to hit his prisoner.
The rest of the men decide to take it upon themselves to catch the man so they gather pitchforks and planks of wood (staves) as weapons, light lanterns and go after him. The women stay in the house and comfort the Christened baby, who has been woken up.
The women vacate the room where the food is. The stranger who was sitting by the chimney turns back and reenters the property. He eats some of the cake. He drinks more mead. Then he is joined by the stranger in cinder-gray. After eating and drinking their fill, the two strangers go their separate ways.
Meanwhile, the men out hunting for the so-called escaped prisoner realise the executioner is no longer with them and aren’t sure what to do next. They’re having trouble navigating the land in the darkness, with its unexpected rubble and hollows.
The men eventually find the stranger they were pursuing, hiding near the trunk of an ash tree. In comical fashion (for the reader) the men confront the stranger with words they’d have heard constables say. “Your money or your life!”
The stranger allows himself to be arrested without fuss. The man take him back to the shepherd’s cottage. They arrive back at 11 o’clock. There they find two officers from the jail and a magistrate.
The constable tells them they’ve caught the escapee. But the officials don’t recognise him. It is revealed that the man they’re after is the gaunt one with an unmistakable bass voice — the man in the chimney corner.
The third stranger reveals that the condemned man is his own brother. He has come to bid him farewell. He was caught out by darkness falling and knocked on the door, shocked to see his own brother escaped from jail.
They ask for more information about the convict. The brother reveals that he is a watch-and-clock maker, when the man himself described himself as a wheelwright. The younger brother says ‘The wheels of clocks and watches he meant, no doubt’.
By the following morning, general local opinion has shifted even more in favour of the sheep thief, now for his daring escape as well as for the circumstances which led him to steal the sheep in the first place. So when they go out looking for him, they don’t look very hard. And when they do see him, they let him go.
The man was never found, perhaps escaped across the seas. The characters in this story are long since dead and the baby is now an old woman. The story has now become folklore in the local area.
CHARACTERS IN “THE THREE STRANGERS”
Hardy begins by setting up a cast of characters. He basically goes around the party and describes them.
Charley Jake — Described as a hedge-carpenter. What is a hedge carpenter? I tried looking it up online and was directed back to Hardy’s story. It seems to be specific to this story. Is it a man whose job it is to keep hedges trimmed? The word is also used in a 1905 story (in Chatterbox) and I deduce from context that a hedge-carpenter is a low-respect trade, whatever it is. Below that of a wood worker, anyhow. “‘My fingers be as full of thorns as an old pin-cushion is of pins.'”
Elija New — Parish clerk, booming voice, plays the serpent a bass wind instrument, descended from the cornet)
John Pitcher — neighbouring dairyman, the shepherd’s father-in-law
Shepherd Fennel — Master of the house where the party is being held. Married a dairyman’s daughter and therefore into this property, Higher Crowstairs.
Mrs. Shepherd Fennel — Sensibly frugal. Keeps control of her own inherited money for their future family. This probably sounded unfair to men of the time, but seems forward thinkingly feminist to my modern ears.
The fiddler — a boy of those parts, about twelve years of age, who had a wonderful dexterity in jigs and reels, though his fingers were so small and short as to necessitate a constant shifting for the high notes
Engaged man of fifty
The man in the chimney corner — a wheelwright
Oliver Giles — a man of seventeen, enamoured of his partner, a fair girl of thirty-three rolling years. Has a lot of money at his disposal.
He might have been about forty years of age. This makes him a generation older than Mrs Fennel though his accent tells her he comes from her parts.
He appeared tall, but…this was chiefly owing to his gauntness, and that he was not more than five-feet-eight or nine. Notwithstanding the regularity of his tread, there was caution in it, as in that of one who mentally feels his way; and despite the fact that it was not a black coat nor a dark garment of any sort that he wore, there was something about him which suggested that he naturally belonged to the black-coated tribes of men. His clothes were of fustian, and his boots hobnailed, yet in his progress he showed not the mud-accustomed bearing of hobnailed and fustianed peasantry.
Fustian = thick, hard-wearing twilled cloth with a short nap, usually dyed in dark colours
Stranger number two
The stranger was dark in complexion and not unprepossessing as to feature. His hat, which for a moment he did not remove, hung low over his eyes, without concealing that they were large, open, and determined, moving with a flash rather than a glance. His shoes are cracked.
He tells the party he’s fallen on rough times lately. Then he makes the most of his hosts’ generosity and asks for tobacco, then pipe to smoke it in, as well as all the paraphernalia, for despite being a smoker he has no equipment.
At this point I wonder if he’s a ghost. We’ve had two clues: He’s not of Mrs Fennel’s ‘time’, and he has not even the most basic equipment on his person.
Hardy seems to be posing a riddle for his reader: Hardy gives us clues about him, we’re to use those clues to work out who he is.
Rich is not quite the word for me, dame. I do work, and I must work. … the oddity of my trade is that, instead of setting a mark upon me, it sets a mark upon my customers. … O my trade it is the rarest one, Simple shepherds all – My trade is a sight to see; For my customers I tie, and take them up on high, And waft ’em to a far countree!
Is he an executioner? The grim reaper?
My tools are but common ones, Simple shepherds all – My tools are no sight to see: A little hempen string, and a post whereon to swing, Are implements enough for me!
At this, the party come to the same conclusion I had a few paragraphs earlier. (Hardy is deliberately keeping the reader one step ahead of the characters.) They think he’s an executioner, a ‘public officer’, who has come to hang the sheep thief, who the characters have sympathy for. He was driven to steal out of desperation.
Stranger number three
The door was gently opened, and another man stood upon the mat. He, like those who had preceded him, was a stranger. This time it was a short, small personage, of fair complexion, and dressed in a decent suit of dark clothes.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE THREE STRANGERS”
Told by a narrator long after the supposed event, this is a story in the tall tale tradition. This is not an omniscient narrator, but a local personality. So we can deduce that parts of it have been made up for colour. For instance, the scene in which criminal and executioner share stolen cake and mead together, one failing to recognise the other. It adds colour to the story to think this happens, but who was there to witness it? The room was empty, which is precisely why the men went in.
I’ve noticed lots of people say this story is narrated omnisciently. The story is narrated in omniscient style, as if the narrator can know everything.
The shortcoming of this little party is that they are overly influenced by appearance. They are unable to correctly guess at who the strangers are. They’re looking closely at shoes and body language, reading intention into body language when we can’t possibly know someone’s inner thoughts just from their demeanour.
The Battle is not when they find the third man — he goes happily with them (probably happy to have some shelter for the night, knowing he’ll be revealed as not the culprit, and that his brother is currently on his way out of the area.)
The big struggle is when the men get back to the cottage and have the conversation with the authorities.