Some crime novels don’t put a very heavy emphasis on the crime(s) that the sleuth is investigating. Instead, they’re as much as anything else ‘slices of life.’ In that kind of novel, the crime is there, and it’s given some attention – even solved. But really, the appeal of the story is in the lives and lifestyles of the characters. The setting and atmosphere are also often big parts of this kind of story. These stories can have a lot of appeal. But the risk of a ‘slice of life’ sort of novel (for the author, at least) is that it can be easy to lose the thread of the crime plot. And readers vary greatly; not all readers are interested in ‘slices of life.’ But the ‘slice of life’ novel can be really effective at drawing the reader in to a fictional world.
For example, Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest draws the reader into the lives of an Irish family headed by a tyrannical matriarch known only as Mam. Mam’s family is preparing for the return from a convent of Mam’s daughter Bridget ‘Bridie’ after ten years. The convent she’s been living in has closed for economic reasons, and Bridie needs a place to stay while she decides what to do next. Bridie’s brother Patrick and his wife Carmel have a large family and little room, and her sister Veronica lives with Mam, which is a full-time occupation in itself. So with little other choice, Bridie moves in with her brother Kevin and his wife Eleanor. Then, unexpectedly, Bridie’s other sister DeeDee also returns to the family home. She’s been an outcast since her divorce from her husband Terence, whom Mam still considers her lawful husband. As if that tension weren’t enough, DeeDee has brought along a guest: her new fiancé James. One night, the family is gathered at Mam’s house when tragedy strikes. James and Terence get into a violent argument and everyone rushes upstairs to see what it’s about. Then DeeDee falls, or is pushed, down the stairs to her death. The only person who suspects that her death wasn’t an accident is James, but at first, no-one wants to believe him. The questions about DeeDee’s death do have an important place in the novel, but as much as anything else, it’s a look at the life of a large Irish family including its history, the interactions among its members, and the effects on it of religion and economics.
Alexander McCall Smith’s series are also ‘slices of life’ as much as anything else. His The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series tells about the life of Mma. Precious Ramotswe, who owns the detective agency. It also tells about the lives of her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, her associate detective Grace Makutsi, and the other ‘regular’ characters in the series. There are of course cases to solve. For example, in The Kalahari Typing School For Men, Mr. Molofelo hires Mma. Ramotswe to find his former landlady and former girlfriend. He feels he has wronged them both and a near-death experience has made him decide to put things right with them. But there is also a focus on the lives of the characters. At the same time as Mma. Ramotswe is on her case, she is also coping with some problems that her adopted children are having in school. And Mma. Makutsi is dealing with her sick brother. There are other ‘slice of life’ events in this story as well. The cases are folded into the lives of the characters rather than being the central focus of these novels.
That’s also arguably true of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series. Those novels feature newspaper columnist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, who has moved to Pickax, Moose County ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The stories focus on a murder or series of murders, but as much as anything else, they follow the lives of the people who live in Pickax and towns nearby. For instance, in The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal, the Theatre Club has been doing Henry VIII under the direction of local high school principal Hilary VanBrook. On the night of the last performance, they gather at Qwilleran’s new home – a converted apple barn – for a surprise house warming/cast party. By the end of the evening, VanBrook has been murdered. And as Qwilleran soon finds out, there are a lot of suspects. The novel follows that investigation, and we find out who killed Van Brook (and another victim who’s killed later). But at the same time, we follow the developments in the lives of the people who live in the area. The Riding and Hunt Club is preparing for an important dinner and then hunt breakfast, and various people in the town are involved in that. And the county is preparing for a contest to find the cat that most closely resembles Tipsy, a legendary cat from long ago for whom Tipsy’s Tavern is named. As the series goes on, there are other developments too in the lives of the characters, and fans follow them as much as they follow the criminal investigations.
Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter depicts the lives of the residents of Chabot, Mississippi. Twenty-five years after leaving Chabot, Silas Jones returns as its constable. Not long after he assumes his duties, he’s faced with investigating the disappearance of Tina Rutherford. Everyone assumes that the town ‘oddball’ Larry Ott is responsible. In fact, Ott’s attacked by a vigilante and badly wounded. Ott’s the most likely suspect for most people because years earlier, he took Cindy Walker out on a date, and she never returned. No-one could ever prove that he had anything to do with what happened to her, but everyone’s always believed he killed her. So now, Jones has to find out not only what happened to Tina Rutherford, but also who attacked Ott. Complicating matters is the fact that Ott and Jones were once close friends until there was a serious rupture between them. Although this story does follow the investigations, it also shares the lives of the people who live in Chabot. It’s a real ‘slice of life’ in that small Southern town and for many readers that has as much appeal as does the mystery itself.
In Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are, we follow the life of TV presenter Frank Allcroft. He’s doing well enough as a regional presenter and he’s happily married. Still, he’s hit a crossroads in his life. So as the story begins, he’s trying to work out the direction he wants his life to take. He’s also coping with the loss of his architect father, his complicated relationship with his mother, and his grief over the loss of his legendary mentor and predecessor Phil Smedway. Smedway was out jogging one day when he was killed in what everyone has always thought was a tragic hit-and-run accident. At first Allcroft believed that too, but when he’s drawn to the place where the incident happened, he begins to wonder. The road there is straight and wide, so it would have been hard, even for a drunken driver, not to see and avoid Smedway. What’s more, the weather was dry and clear at the time of the accident. So Allcroft gets interested in the case and begins to ask questions. The novel tells the story of that investigation, but more than anything, it’s a ‘slice of life’ in the modern Midlands. We follow the lives of the people in the novel, we see what it’s like to work at a regional television network, and we follow along on Allcroft’s personal journey.
And then there’s Jean-Pierre Alaux and Nöel Balen’s Treachery in Bordeaux, which depicts the life of wine makers and vintners in the French countryside. Denis Maissepain, who currently owns the Château Les Moniales Haut-Brion, is devastated when four barrels of wine are found to be contaminated. He asks noted oenologist Benjamin Cooker and his new assistant Virgile Lanssien to look into the case. Since Massepain himself is meticulous, it’s not long before the sleuths realise that this is a case of sabotage. So they look among the members of the wine community as well as the members of Massepain’s own family and staff, to see who would have wanted to ruin the vineyard. This novel shares the investigation, but as much as that, it’s a look at life in Bordeaux. It’s also a look at the science and art of making wine, and the life of the vintner.
‘Slices of life’ are admittedly not for everyone. But they can draw the reader in as they show the lives of realistic characters and the situations that they face. What about you? Do you enjoy ‘slice of life’ crime fiction? If you’re a crime writer, how prominent a place do your characters’ lifestyles have in your stories?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie’s Tumble and Twirl.