Joan Fleming Essay - Critical Essays

Joan Margaret Gibson


Writers are advised always to write about that which they know and with which they are familiar. Joan Fleming knew about many things; she wrote competently in her mysteries about subjects as varied as rare antique books, ancient Chinese porcelain, modern art dealers, receivers of stolen goods, drug addiction, Oxford’s academic community, and life and values in exotic places, to name only a few. One senses that Fleming was intent on giving herself as much pleasure in the writing as she hoped her readers would find in her work, and that it was toward such an end that she put new characters in new settings in almost every one of her novels. Even Nuri Iskirlak, as the principal, has a different set of characters to play against in each of the two mysteries in which he appears (When I Grow Rich and Nothing Is the Number When You Die, 1965).

Emphasis in Fleming’s work is on character. Her protagonists are often forced into positions or situations for which they have had little or no preparation, but in which they handle themselves gracefully. The best example of this is Nuri Iskirlak, the Turk who, seeking to help his friends and to see justice done, forfeits his own goals to put a stop to the link that the ancient Miasma has provided in the flow of opium-based drugs between his country and Europe.

Nothing Is the Number When You Die

Another well-defined character is the English aunt of Tamara, the woman Nuri loves in Nothing Is the Number When You Die. Nuri meets the eighty-two-year-old eccentric while he is in England to search for Tamara’s missing son. Lady Mossop first appears pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with horse manure with which she intends to dose her magnolia tree. Lady Mossop is described as “an enormously tall old woman wearing brown corduroy slacks, tied with twine at the knee.” Nuri says that her face is “by no means handsome,” but he likes the fact that she smiles at him, something Turks seldom do for foreigners. When Nuri reveals to Lady Mossop his fear that Tamara’s son, like some of his acquaintances at Oxford, may have become addicted to drugs, she assures him that the longing for affection is stronger than the longing for drugs can ever be. One is sure that Lady Mossop would have never been exposed to the world of drugs, nor would she have had any knowledge of it, had she not felt affection for the young man whom Nuri seeks. Lady Mossop is not happy about the situation, but with good grace she determines to participate in bringing about the reunion of Tamara and her son, meanwhile protecting him from his father’s murderer.

How to Live Dangerously

Another appealing Fleming character is Martin Pendle Hill (How to Live Dangerously, 1974). For thirty-five years he has lived comfortably in an eleven-room maisonette above the flat of elderly Miss Smite, who owns...

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