An interesting post by Patti Abbott at Pattinase has got me thinking about the tools authors use for driving a plot forward. Many authors use either narrative or dialogue. But sometime sauthors use other ways of telling a story, such as letters, emails, text messages or case files. Those approaches can add some real interest to a novel and they certainly can be innovative if they’re used well. They can also of course pull a reader out of a story if they interrupt its continuity. So, like anything else in a crime novel, they have to be used deftly and with care.
Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes know that those stories are presented as memoirs and case notes of Holmes’ associate Dr. Watson. That’s mentioned here and there throughout the 56 short stories and 4 novels that feature those characters. But plots themselves are driven by narrative and dialogue so to the reader, the stories have the “feel” of a short story or a novel.
The same is true of Agatha Christie’s stories that feature Captain Arthur Hastings. And yet, Christie also used other approaches to telling stories too. For instance in Cat Among the Pigeons games mistress Grace Springer is shot one night in the new Sports Pavilion at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. The police are investigating that matter when there’s a kidnapping. Shortly after that there’s another murder. One of the pupils Julia Upjohn slowly starts to figure out what might be going on at the school. She pays a visit to Hercule Poirot, who is what you might call a friend of a friend. Poirot returns with her to Meadowbank and looks into the case. He finds that the murders and the kidnapping are all related to a revolution in a Middle East country and a cache of stolen jewels. One of the chapters in this novel is told completely through letters that various pupils and staff members send, and it’s interesting to see the way Christie fleshes out characters and offers clues that way.
Ngaio Marsh’s A Clutch of Constables is also told in great part through a series of letters. In that novel Superintendent Roderick Alleyn learns of a case through letters from his wife painter Agatha Troy. Tired and stressed from a busy summer, she impulsively decides to take a river cruise on the Zodiac. The cruise doesn’t have a particularly auspicious beginning as one of the passengers is left behind and later found murdered. Then another passenger is drowned. All of this could very well be related to the fact that there may be aboard the ship an international art forger known as the Jampot. No-one knows exactly what the Jampot looks like or who this person really is. So finding the murderer is also going to entail discovering which of the passengers is the Jampot. Alleyn uses the letters his wife sends him to help solve the case and later, as a tool in a class that he teaches.
Although it’s not crime fiction, one of the most powerful stories told through letters that I’ve read is Katherine Kressmann Taylor’s Addressat Unbekannt (Addressee Unknown). This short story is a series of letters between Max Eisenstein, an American who lives in San Francisco, and his art-gallery business partner Max Schulse, who lives in Munich. Through the letters, which are sent between 1932 and 1934, we read of the rise of the Third Reich and its terrible effects on what had been a deep friendship between the two men. The letters also tell of a tragic event in the lives of both and how each reacts to it. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoiling the impact of the story; I do recommend it though.
In C.J. Box’s Below Zero, Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett is on the trail of the Mad Archer, a poacher who shoots animals and leaves them to die. He rushes home though when his daughter Sheridan receives a disturbing series of text messages from the Pickett’s foster daughter April Keeley. What’s eerie about this is that everyone believed April had been tragically killed six years earlier. Pickett decides to use the clues in the text messages to see if April is still alive and find her if she is. If she isn’t, Pickett wants to know who would want to impersonate April and why. While this story is not completely told through text messages, they do drive the plot.
Some stories are partly told through case notes and other official files. That’s what we see in Minette Walter’s The Breaker. The body of thirty-two-old Kate Sumner is discovered on the beach near Chapman’s Pool in Dorsetshire. Shortly afterward, her nearly-three-year-old daughter Hannah is found wandering around unsupervised in nearby Poole. PC Nick Ingram works with WPC Sandra Griffiths, DI John Galbraith and Superintendent Carpenter to tie these two threads together and discover what happened to Kate Sumner. The three most viable suspects are Kate’s husband William Sumner, actor Stephen Harding and school teacher Tony Bridges. All three men had logical motives for murder so the focus of most of this investigation is on them. Several parts of this story are told through official notes and files. For instance there’s the post-mortem report on Kate Sumner, the psychologist’s report on Hannah Sumner and interview records with several people that Kate knew. It’s an interesting perspective that gives readers insight into the victim and into the process of police investigation.
Case notes also help to drive the plot in Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace. Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman is putting together the pieces of her life after the tragic death of her husband Stefan. She’s not doing well but she can function most of the time. Then one day she receives a letter that makes it clear she’s being stalked. Other eerie incidents follow, each of them intended to frighten and discredit her. Then one of Bergman’s clients Sara Matteus is murdered and her body is left on Bergman’s property. Soon it becomes apparent that whoever is stalking Bergman wants to kill her. And the stalker seems to know her well enough that it could be nearly anyone in Bergman’s circle of friends and colleagues. Among the suspects are Bergman’s other clients, so part of this story is told through Bergman’s case notes about them. It’s an innovative way to give backstory on those clients and add to their characters and to the suspense.
Texts, emails (I’ve used those in some of my own writing), letters and official files add a level of authenticity to a crime fiction novel. We communicate that way in real life, so it does make sense that there would be such communication in crime fiction too. And when it’s done effectively such tools give an interesting perspective on characters and events. Of course like any other tool an author uses, these tools need to be used carefully so they don’t appear “shoehorned in.” What’s your view? Do you find that tools such as letters, texts and case files add to stories for you? Or do they pull you out? If you’re a writer do you use them?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Box Tops’ The Letter.