Category Archives: Anthony Bidulka

There’s a Storm Front Coming*

ForeshadowingOne of the things that just about all crime novels have in common is that something bad happens in the novel. Often it’s murder. So crime fiction fans know before they even begin to read a novel that it’s probably going to involve something terrible.

In that sense, you wouldn’t think that foreshadowing – giving the reader a hint about bad things to come – would be a useful device for a crime writer. But the fact is, even in crime novels, foreshadowing can build suspense and tension, and can get the reader caught up in the story.

Some authors are quite straightforward. They don’t hint at danger; they let you know about it. Here for instance is the first line of Liza Marklund’s The Bomber:
 

‘The woman who was soon to die stepped cautiously out of the door and glanced around.’
 

While Marklund doesn’t tell us who the woman is or how she will die, that’s a very clear sign of what’s to come. The woman, in fact, turns out to be civic/business leader Christine Furhage, who’s played a major role in bringing the Olympic Games to Stockholm. When her body is found after a bomb blast at Olympic Village, it’s thought at first to be the work of terrorists. Crime reporter Annika Bengtzon and her team know that this is major story, so they begin to look into it. What they find is that this death has nothing to do with extremists or terrorists.

In Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, we meet superstar enertainer Gaia Lafayette:
 
‘Gaia Lafayette was unaware of the man out in the dark, in the station wagon, who had come to kill her. And she was unaware of the email he had sent. She got hate mail all the time…’
 

It turns out that the danger to the star is real. She’s just taken the leading role in an historical drama, to be filmed on her ‘home turf’ of Brighton and Hove. So she travels there with her son Roan and her entourage. Superintendent Roy Grace, who’s already involved in a difficult and brutal murder case, is told that protecting Gaia Lafayette is a priority, since no-one is interested in the bad publicity that would come to the area if anything happens to one of its most famous citizens. Grace agrees to do his best to provide protection. But he finds himself caught in a much more complicated situation than he’d imagined, where it’s not really clear what the source of the danger to his charge is. And James alerts us clearly to that danger.

Some authors foreshadow by contrasting the beginning of a story with a hint that things are about to change. That’s what Wendy James does in The Mistake.
 
‘Later, when she looks back on that time – the time before it all began to change – Jodie will see that it was more than good, more than happy enough. It was idyllic.’
 

And it is, too. Jodie Evans Garrow is the wife of successful attorney Angus Garrow, who’s being mentioned as the possible next mayor of their New South Wales town of Arding. She’s the mother of two healthy children who’ve been doing well, and life really is content. It all changes when her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child. No-one knows about that other child, whom Jodie named Elsa Mary – not even Angus. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the over-curious nurse looks into the matter, she can find no record of adoption. Now questions begin to be raised. What happened to the baby? If she was adopted, where is she? If not, is she alive? If she died, did Jodie have something to do with it? Now the Garrow family become pariahs, and as we slowly learn the truth about Elsa Mary, we see what happens as a family starts to come apart at the seams, so to speak.

Some crime writers use foreshadowing that’s a little more subtle. In Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas for instance, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is hired by business magnate Charity Wiser to find out who is trying to kill her. To that end, he’s invited to join the members of her family for a cruise on her ship The Dorothy. That way, so the plan goes, he can ‘vet’ them and figure out which one of them is the would-be murderer. Here are Quant’s thoughts about the cruise:
 

‘I’m not convinced my decision would have been different otherwise, but I found myself answering in the affirmative before I’d thought the whole thing through. But really. A free Mediterranean cruise? Come on!’
 

We know, because this is a crime novel, that something bad is going to happen. In fact, several bad things, including murder, happen. Quant knows the cruise is risky too. Rather than go on and on about the possible danger, Bidulka hints at it and invites the reader to board the ship and find out what happens next.

In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, Boston art historian/expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call from an acquaintance Simeon Pawlovsky, who owns a pawn shop in the area. Pawlovsky thinks that he may have gotten his hands on a valuable painting and he wants Revere’s judgement about its worth. Revere agrees and visits the pawn shop. To his shock, he discovers that Pawlovsky is probably right. This looks to be a very valuable Velázquez that was ‘borrowed’ by the Nazis ‘for safekeeping.’ Revere wants to do more research on the painting before he can be absolutely sure, so he asks Pawlovsky to lend him the painting, saying that it’s not safe to keep something so valuable in a pawn shop. Pawlovsky refuses, which is the first hint that something is about to go very wrong. Revere agrees to be gone no more than two hours. When he returns,
 

‘I saw that Simeon hadn’t come back out front to pull the metal shutters closed, although five o’clock had come and gone.’
 

You can imagine that things take a very bad turn, as Revere discovers that Pawlovsky has been killed. Revere feels guilty about having left the man alone with such a valuable painting, and determines to find out who the killer is. It occurs to him that if he can trace what happened to the painting after the Nazis ‘secured it for safekeeping,’ he can find the killer. This he sets out to do, and it ends up bringing him danger he hadn’t imagined.

And then there’s Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, which begins in the village of Malton-under-Wode. There, we are witness to a conversation between Mr. Burnaby, the landlord of the Three Crowns, and a friend. They’re discussing Linnet Ridgeway, who’s just purchased nearby Wode Hall. Here’s what Mr. Burnaby’s friend says about Linnet:
 

‘It seems all wrong to me – her looking like that. Money and looks – it’s too much. If a girl’s as rich as that, she’s no right to be a good-looker too. And she is a good-looker…got everything, that girl has. Doesn’t seem fair.’
 

It turns out that Mr. Burnaby’s friend is right about Linnet Ridgeway. She’s beautiful, wealthy and smart, so it’s understandable that she’d turn the head of Simon Doyle, fiance of her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. When she and Simon marry, they take a cruise of the Nile as part of their honeymoon. On the second night of that cruise, Linnet is shot. Jackie’s the primary suspect, since she had a very good motive and since she’s along on the cruise. But it’s soon proved that she could not have killed the victim. So Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race, who are also aboard, have to look elsewhere for the murderer. Christie hints from the beginning that all will not go well for Linnet and although the foreshadowing is faint at first, crime fiction fans know that something is going to go very, very wrong.

And that’s the thing about foreshadowing. It can be subtle or obvious; it can happen right at the beginning of a novel or a bit further on. But however it’s used, it can build suspense and tension. Which ‘foreshadowing moments’ have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Storm Front.

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Liza Marklund, Peter James, Wendy James

Heard it From a Friend Who Heard it From a Friend Who…

WordofMouthvery interesting post on Elizabeth Spann Craig’s excellent blog has got me thinking about how we learn about authors and new books coming out. She makes the point (and she’s right) that the way we talk to each other about books has changed.

It used to be that book lovers would share their finds at book clubs, perhaps in bookshops themselves or sometimes with friends and family members. Those things do still happen. But today, there are more ways to share books than ever before. So the meaning of ‘word of mouth’ has changed.

I’ll just offer two examples; I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could. The Internet has made it possible for readers to find out about new books both from large online companies (you know the one I mean) and from publishers themselves. This means that smaller publishers can get a sense of what readers want. And it means that readers can discover books they might not have noticed in brick-and-mortar bookshops.

There’s also social media. Speaking strictly for myself, I’ve discovered some truly fine crime fiction through book blogs I trust – crime fiction I would never have heard of had it not been for blogging. For instance, I’ve become a fan of the work of Angela Savage, Geoffrey McGeachin, Anthony Bidulka and of course Elizabeth Spann Craig. I could give a long list of other examples too. And I would never have ‘met’ these particular authors if it weren’t for blogs.

But ‘word of mouth’ is much more than blogs. It’s also in places such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social networks. Dozens and dozens of posts and tweets mention this or that author, this or that release and this or that great new book. In a lot of ways, this new kind of ‘word of mouth’ has made it more possible than ever for authors who aren’t exactly household names to get their work out there. That is, if the author is comfortable with social media and is willing to make the time and do the work to use it as the powerful tool it can be. And it makes it more possible than ever for readers to discover a deep and rich treasure trove of authors and books. All of this is very good for the genre. The more good books out there, the better for the genre. The more readers interested in those books, the better for the genre. And it keeps busy crime writers everywhere very happy. ;-)

But here’s the thing. That much word of mouth can also have drawbacks. One of them is ‘noise.’ Let me explain what I mean. In her post, Spann Craig mentions 50 Shades of…well, you know what I mean, as an example of a book that got a huge amount of attention. As the saying goes, it went viral. That also happened with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. I’m not going to debate the merits of that particular series, other than to suggest that once something like that does ‘go viral,’ there’s a great deal of pressure – call it peer pressure if you want to – to read, review and even enjoy the newest sensation. It’s everywhere in bookstores, it’s everywhere on reviews and so on. Are those ‘sensations’ good books? Some are. Some aren’t. But what happens is that that huge flurry of attention could well mean that other excellent books don’t get any.

That sort of ‘noise’ also means that there’s a great deal of pressure on other crime writers to ‘do what’s worked.’ If you’re a publisher or agent, that makes sense. A certain book happened to catch on (whether it’s a good book or not) and made a lot of money. Why wouldn’t a publisher or agent want to repeat that success? So it’s not surprising that what sometimes happens is that these folks begin to look for the same kind of thing from other writers. Of course this doesn’t happen in every case. But I wonder whether the success – the ‘going viral’ – of one or another book or series contributes to what can end up being ‘cookie cutter’ plots, characters and so on. After all, if this or that or the other kind of protagonist, sort of plot or kind of killer made a big hit for one author, why wouldn’t it be for another? Again, I’m absolutely not saying this happens in every case. I do think it may put a lot of pressure on authors though, unless they already have had some success of their own.

Another drawback of this new ‘word of mouth’ is that it creates an awful lot of stimulus for readers. We all make jokes about our TBR lists (no, I’m not telling you how many books are on mine!). But it’s no joke when one’s trying to sift through the myriad blogs, online reviews, e-zines and postings to choose something to read. No-one has the time to read all of the excerpts and reviews and make a fully informed choice. So we find ways to streamline the process. We go to only a small number of trusted blogs. Or we stick with a small number of authors we’ve discovered. Or we only read books that are on award shortlists. Or…or… This means there are a lot of talented authors out there whose work we may never read.

It’s at least as big a challenge if you’re a crime writer. No matter how talented you are, it’s harder than ever to stand out from the crowd, as the saying goes, unless by some fluke you’ve written something that gets a lot of attention. Publishers know how hard it is to get people to read an ‘unknown’s’ work, so lots of them don’t accept such manuscripts. And they have very high expectations (for very logical reasons) for sales. Those expectations are hard to meet no matter how skilled a writer one is when there are so many other choices. And independent publishers, who may have more options when it comes to choosing authors, have to work all the harder to get ‘their’ authors’ work in people’s hands. What’s more, even if a crime writer does get a contract from a publisher, there’s no guarantee of any kind of long-term relationship. A lot of authors of my acquaintance don’t get more than 2- or 3-book contracts, even if they’ve had solid sales.

Does this mean I think that the new ‘word of mouth’ is a bad thing? Absolutely not! I think having more choices out there is very, very good for the genre. As a reader, I may be bewildered by the sheer number of new novels available, and I may sometimes be disheartened by the long list of books I’ll never have the time to read. I may occasionally have to repair dents in my wall made by throwing a book that was a waste of my time and money. But I want all of those choices. I’m glad of the array of books available to me, both in paper and electronic form. I’d hate my reading options to be limited.

As a crime writer, I get more than disheartened (Please. Don’t ask.) when I think about how difficult it is to get people to read my novels and to get a publisher interested in publishing the ones that aren’t out yet. It’s sometimes very hard to make the time and expend the energy to keep up an online presence that will (hopefully) get people’s attention in a non-obnoxious way. And all of these things happen in part because there are a lot of other crime writers out there, some of them far more talented than I will ever be. So readers have a lot of options to choose from, and that means I have to work very, very hard to be heard. But that’s not a bad thing. Hard work makes me a better writer (I hope!). And the new ‘word of mouth’ means that I learn from what successful folks are doing. I’m getting better because of what I’ve seen and read. And that’s good for me and good for my writing.

In the end, the new ‘word of mouth’ is like a lot of other new things. It’s neither all good nor all bad. It takes adjustment, it brings on a lot of different challenges, and it’s got different potential payoffs. And whether we like it not, as readers and as writers, it’s something that seems to be here.

What do you think about all of this? How do you as a reader sort through all of today’s ‘word of mouth’ to find authors and books to love? If you’re a writer, how do you make today’s ‘word of mouth’ work for you?

Thanks, Elizabeth, for the inspiration!
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REO Speedwagon’s Take it on the Run.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Geoffrey McGeachin

If Not For You*

Strong Secondary CharactersMany crime novels feature one or perhaps two main protagonists. The stories focus on those people, and in high quality novels, they’re well developed and interesting. But sometimes, one of the secondary characters is at least as interesting – maybe even more so. Sometimes it’s because that character has an air of mystery about her or him. Sometimes it’s because of that character’s strong or unusual kind of personality. Sometimes it’s for other reasons. Either way, those secondary characters may not have leading roles, but they still stand out in the memory. Here are just a few examples; I’m quite certain you can think of more than I could anyway.

One such character, Mr. Robinson, appears in several Christie stories, including Cat Among the Pigeons (in which Hercule Poirot ‘stars’), Postern of Fate (A Tommy and Tuppence Beresford Novel) and Passenger to Frankfurt (a standalone). We never learn a great deal about Mr. Robinson, and that adds to the mystery of his character. We do know that he’s financier who counts among his friends people in high and sensitive government positions. He also does business with all sorts of international clients as well. We know nearly nothing about his background, nor do we know exactly where he lives. He’s quite honest about his interest in the adventures he’s involved in: money. But at the same time, he’s not a cruelly greedy person. Here is how he describes himself and his fellow financiers in Cat Among the Pigeons,
 

‘It is a very old trade… And a lucrative one…We work in with one another and remember this: we keep faith. Our profits are large, but we are honest.’
 

Mr. Robinson might or might not be a good choice for a ‘lead’ character, but he adds an interesting layer to Christie’s work as a secondary one.

We could say the same thing of Eleanor Wish, who appears in several of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels. When we meet her in The Black Echo, she’s an FBI agent works with Bosch on a complicated case involving a major carefully-planned bank robbery, the murder of Vietnam veteran, and a group of Vietnamese families who live in Orange County (south of Los Angeles). Wish leaves the FBI and takes up a new career as a professional poker player. She’s still helpful to Bosch in some of his cases (see Trunk Music), and the two develop a relationship. Eventually they marry. The marriage doesn’t last, but they have a daughter Madeleine ‘Maddie’ together. And there are suggestions that Bosch never really stops loving Wish. She is an interesting person with a bit of a mysterious background. She’s also very much her own person with her own way of thinking. Like Mr. Robinson, Eleanor Wish might or might not have been successful as the ‘lead’ character in a novel or series, but as a secondary character, she adds much to the Bosch novels.

Elly Griffiths’ series features Ruth Galloway, Head of Forensic Archaeology at North Norfolk University. It also features DCI Harry Nelson, who benefits greatly from Galloway’s help on his cases. They are the two protagonists, and both are very interesting characters. But one of the most interesting characters in this series doesn’t really get ‘top billing.’ He is Michael Malone, who goes by his Druid name of Cathbad. He and Galloway met years ago on a dig, and have now become friends. We don’t know an awful lot about Cathbad’s past, and that adds a bit of mystery to his character. But he’s interesting for more reasons than that. Cathbad is an unconventional person, even eccentric. But he is extremely knowledgeable about ancient customs in Romano-Britain, and he’s well versed in even older lore. He has a different way of looking at life to the way a lot of other people do, but that doesn’t really bother him. He is loyal to his friends (including Galloway), and he’s quite good with her young daughter Kate. He adds a layer of interest to this series.

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a Saskatoon former cop-turned-PI who encounters all sorts of interesting people in his cases. He’s the protagonist of the series, and is a well-developed character in his own right. But some of the secondary characters who figure in the series are at least as engaging. For example, as the series begins, Quant’s neighbour is Sereena Orion Smith. She’s had all sorts of experiences, including plenty with drugs, alcohol and more than one wild party. Now she’s settled into a quieter life, and seems to be content with that. She’s got plenty of money, and as the series evolves we get to learn just a few things about her. But she is still somewhat of a mystery. She pops up in unexpected places and seems to know the most unexpected people. And although he’s curious at times, Quant never really does find out a great deal about her. What he does know though is that she’s a plain-spoken, loyal and supportive friend. She’s the kind of friend who likes Quant enough to tell him the truth, whether or not he wants to hear it. And she proves to be helpful to him in more than one of his cases.

Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series takes place mostly in Bangkok and features Rafferty, who is an ex-pat American and a travel writer by trade. But he has also proven himself rather good at finding people who don’t want to be found. He’s also well-enough versed in Bangkok life that he can be very helpful to English-speaking foreigners who visit. He is the protagonist of the series, but he’s by no means the only strong and interesting character in it. His wife Rose is also compelling. Rose is a former bar girl who originally came from one of Thailand’s more remote villages. She has since left the bar life and now owns her own apartment cleaning company staffed by other former bar girls and prostitutes who want to leave that life. Rose is a deeper character than it may sometimes seem on the surface. She is Thai, so she sees life from that cultural point of view. In her way, she is also spiritual, and that adds to the richness of her character. Rose may not be the central character of this series, but she contributes a great deal to it.

That’s also true of attorney Zack Shreve, whom we meet in Gail Bowen’s series featuring Joanne Kilbourn (later Shreve). Joanne is the main character in this series; she’s a political scientist and academic who’s also the proud mother of three grown children and one teenager. Joanne first meets Zack in The Last Good Day, when one of his firm’s law partners dies in what looks like a suicide. The two begin a relationship and as the series progresses, they fall in love and marry. Zack proves to be a very strong character although he’s not really the main protagonist. He’s got a distinctive personality and brings his own background and viewpoint to the series. What’s more, since he’s an attorney, he also brings professional expertise (and several plot points!) to the novels.

Strong secondary characters like these can be a bit tricky to write. After all, they’re not protagonists, and perhaps they wouldn’t do well in series of their own (‘though some might). But they do add much to a series, and many readers follow them almost as avidly as they do the protagonists. Which strong secondary characters do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bob Dylan song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, Michael Connelly, Timothy Hallinan

I’m Old-Fashioned*

Old FashionedIn many ways it’s good – very good – to live in modern times. There’s better technology, better medical care and lots of other societal improvements. And while there is still bigotry and that may always be, there are fewer ‘-isms’ that limit people now than there were. But some of those things we may think of as ‘old-fashioned’ can actually be pleasant. Here are just a few examples from crime fiction to show you some things that may be old-fashioned but that perhaps people actually miss…

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Captain Hastings is on his way back to London by train. Sitting in the same coach is a young woman who is in many ways very modern in her outlook. They strike up a conversation, and she pokes a little fun at him for his old-fashioned ways. But on a more serious note, she says,

 

‘You’ve been dug out of the backwoods, you have. Not that I mind that. We could do with a few more of your sort.

 

Hastings and the young woman, who calls herself ‘Cinderella,’ part company and at first it looks as though they won’t meet again. But when Hastings and Hercule Poirot travel to France to investigate the murder of Paul Renauld, Hastings and Cinderella have what you might call a reunion. Although she is a modern young woman, she appreciates Hastings’ somewhat traditional outlook on life.

Isaac Asimov is perhaps best known as an author of science fiction, but he also wrote detective stories, including a trilogy featuring New York City police officer Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley. In The Caves of Steel, Baley and his new partner R. Daneel Olivaw are assigned to investigate the murder of noted scientist Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton. This isn’t going to be an easy case though. For one thing, life is difficult in the futuristic New York that Asimov depicts. Earth has become overcrowded and most humans have little better than a subsistence lifestyle. For another, there is an ongoing feud, which sometimes flares, between Earthmen (descendants of those who never left the planet) and Spacers (descendants of those who have explored outside the planet). Baley is an Earthman and the victim was a Spacer. What’s worse, R. Daneel Olivaw is a positronic robot. If there’s anything that Earthman dislike more than Spacers, it’s robots. That’s because they are perceived as a threat to humans. Despite these challenges though, Baley and Olivaw work together to solve the murder. In one plot thread in this story, there is a real mistrust among humans of old-fashioned, traditional things such as spectacles (instead of contact lenses). In fact, the interest in such things is known as Medievalism and is regarded as holding people back. And yet, there is a secret group of people who think fondly of what even Baley admits were simpler times. The question of preserving these things forms an interesting layer in the story.

In some ways, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is old-fashioned. There are several examples of this in the series featuring him; we see one in The Daughters of Cain. In that novel, Morse and Sergeant Lewis are on the trail of the person who killed a former don Felix McClure. At first it seems that the murderer was McClure’s former scout Ted Brooks. But when he disappears and is later found dead, things aren’t quite that simple. In the course of the investigation, Morse meets Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Smith, a prostitute who may be connected with the case. The two develop an interest in each other despite the fact that she’s a suspect in a murder investigation. Smith is a very modern young woman. She wears nose rings, uses language that Morse would prefer a woman not use and so on. But at one point, he gets the chance to see her dressed more traditionally and without her nose rings and he admits he likes her better that way. For her part, Smith is attracted to Morse’s view of the world, even though she doesn’t really envision herself settling down, marrying and so on in the traditional way. Even Morse’s insistence on standard English doesn’t bother her…

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost is in part the story of what happens to a traditional English town when a new mall comes in. The story begins in 1984, when the Green Oaks Shopping Center opens. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney is a fledgling detective, and she’s sure that there’s lots of crime to investigate at the mall, so she spends a lot of time there. One day she goes missing and despite a thorough search, is never found. Her friend Adrian Palmer is blamed for her disappearance, although he claims innocence. He’s treated so badly though that he leaves town, vowing not to return. Twenty years later, his sister Lisa is working at a dead-end job at Green Oaks when she meets Kurt, a security guard who’s employed there. The two strike up an unlikely friendship and each in a different way, look back into the past to find out what really happened to Kate. One of the themes in this novel is what happened to traditional English ‘High Street’ shopping with the coming of the mall culture. And the mall that replaces those shops turns out to be somewhat ‘plastic’ as opposed to the more genuine shops. As we learn in the novel, the mall culture hasn’t really made life in the area better.

In one of Anthony Bidulka’s series, we get to know Russell Quant, a Saskatoon PI. One of Quant’s haunts is Colourful Mary’s, a local restaurant that serves ‘down home’ cooking. In fact, Quant describes it this way:

 

‘Marushka cooks like everyone’s mother, most notably her own. In addition to some rather standard fare for the less adventurous, Marushka always adds one or two Ukrainian delicacies to the daily menu…I like Colourful Mary’s…You feel cared for but not smothered. I’m also addicted to Marushka’s cooking.’

 

It’s not a formal restaurant, but it serves traditional, old-fashioned (i.e. not pre-packaged) food. Little wonder it’s so popular with customers.

Most people don’t think of millinery shops as exactly modern and up-to-date. But there’s nothing quite like the feeling of having a hat custom-designed for you. And that’s exactly the business that D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington has been in for years. He’s very skilled at knowing exactly what kind of hat would best suit each client, and delights in making them. In Hats Off to Murder, One For the Rook, and soon Model For Murder, Heatherington puts those old-fashioned skills to use to when murder strikes first his shop and then his allotment. In some ways Heatherington is old-fashioned, but that’s precisely what makes his character appealing.

The ‘good old days’ certainly had many serious problems. I doubt most of us would want to go back. But if you’ve stayed at an old-fashioned hotel with old-fashioned customer service, you know how pleasant it can be. If you’ve been to a restaurant or shop with old-fashioned service, you know how pleasant that can be too. And old-fashioned courtesy on anyone’s part is a refreshing thing. Perhaps not all modern changes have been for the better…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Catherine O'Flynn, Colin Dexter, D.S. Nelson, Isaac Asimov

Come See About Me*

Character DetailsI’m very honoured and excited that Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…  has been awarded the Very Inspiring Blog Award by Moira at Clothes in Books and by Rebecca Bradley. This means a lot to me, especially since those two blogs are a rich source of inspiration for me. Do please visit them and have a look round. They are both worthy of prominent places on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

7-things

One of the things that come with this award is the request to share seven things about yourself. I’m not going to do that, as I’ve already overloaded this blog with things about me. And besides, this is a blog about crime fiction, not about me. But these generous awards have got me thinking about fictional characters, and how much we learn about them.

It’s a delicate balance for an author, deciding how much to share about the characters in a novel. On the one hand, characters who are too ‘flat’ simply aren’t interesting. They don’t ‘feel’ like real people and that’s off-putting. On the other hand, is it really important that a given character once slipped and fell in mud during a rainstorm? Depending on the story, probably not.

And that’s what’s arguably the most important factor in sharing information about characters: relevance to the story. Character information that matters to the story is important. So is information that makes a character distinctive and human. If it’s not as relevant, perhaps it doesn’t need to be there. Let me if I may give you a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie is not generally as well known for depth of character as she is for other aspects of writing. But in some of her novels, she does provide some rounded, ‘fleshed-out’ characters. Five Little Pigs is one of them. In that novel, famous painter Amyas Crale is poisoned one afternoon. The most likely suspect, and for very good reason, is his wife Caroline. She is duly arrested, tried and convicted, and dies a year later in prison. Sixteen years later, the Crales’ daughter Carla asks Poirot to re-investigate the case. Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants her name cleared. Poirot takes up the challenge and interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ on the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each of them. From that information he figures out who really killed Crale and why. One of those people is Cecilia Williams, who was governess to Caroline Crale’s half-sister Angela Warren at the time of the murder. One fact about Miss Williams is that she is an ardent feminist. Her feminism and resentment of most men comes through in quite a lot of what she says and the way she behaves. It’s important to the story, too, as it gives her a possible motive for murder. Crale was having an affair when he was murdered, and didn’t do much to hide the fact, and Miss Williams thought that her employer was deeply wronged. Christie doesn’t tell us everything about Miss Williams. We don’t know for instance whether she has a good head for heights; it doesn’t matter to the story. But her feminism is important, so we learn about it.

We don’t know every detail about the childhood of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano. We don’t know for instance which teachers he liked best and which ones he really disliked. That isn’t really important to understanding his character and motivations. But we do know that one of his school friends was Gegè Gullatto. This is important because it explains the relationship the two men have now. Gullatto is a local crime boss and drug dealer who has several ‘business operations.’ Since they’re on opposite sides of the law, you’d think that he and Montalbano would regularly come into conflict. But that’s not what happens. They have a long history, and each respects the other. Besides, co-operating from time to time is helpful to both. For Gullatto’s part, he knows that as long as he keeps his ‘enterprises’ more or less under control, the police won’t give him a hard time. And Montalbano knows that he can depend on Gullatto to make sure that his employees don’t cause real trouble, and Gullatto is often a source of helpful information about what’s happening in the underworld.

You could say a similar sort of thing about Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti. We don’t know all of the details of his childhood. We don’t know which toys he liked best or who his very first girlfriend was. But we do know that his father was in the glass-blowing industry. That information helps us understand the way Brunetti goes about investigating the death of a glass-blowing factory night watchman in Through a Glass, Darkly. Giorgio Tassini dies one night while he’s on duty at the factory that employs him. At first it looks like a terrible accident, but there’s soon reason to believe that he was murdered. And that’s not far-fetched, since he’d been very vocal about toxic waste dumping on the part of the glass blowing industry. As Brunetti and his team investigate, we see how he uses what he knows about the industry, and how his memories of his father’s work play a role in his thinking.

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is preparing for her daughter Mieka’s engagement party. The party will be a weekend-long affair, hosted by Lorraine Harris, the mother of Mieka’s fiancé Greg. Matters get complicated when Christy Sinclair, the ex-girlfriend of Kilbourn’s son Peter, comes back in the family’s life and travels to the Harris home with the family. Christy has several issues to deal with, and Kilbourn had thought that Peter was well rid of her. But that doesn’t seem to be the case; in fact, she even says that she and Peter will be getting back together. Then one night during the party, Christy dies in a boating incident. At first the death looks like suicide. But it turns out that this was a case of murder, and that it’s connected with other recent deaths. We don’t learn every detail about Christy Sinclair. We don’t know which bands she likes best or what size shoe she wears. Those details aren’t really key to this mystery. But we do know that her home town is Blue Heron Point, and that matters a great deal. Bowen tells us the things we need to know about this character without ‘overload.’

Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas begins when wealthy heiress and business executive Charity Wiser hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who is trying to kill her. She suspects that it’s one of her family members, but she doesn’t know which one. Quant agrees to take the case and joins the family for a cruise. The idea is that he’ll ‘vet’ the various members of the family and then tell his client who’s guilty. The cruise turns out to be disastrous, with more than one death. In the end though, Quant finds out the truth about what’s been going on. As the novel goes on, we get to know several of the members of the Wiser family. We don’t know every detail about each one; that would be ‘information overload.’ But what does matter is that as Charity’s grand-daughter Flora puts it, the family is not, ‘physically adventurous.’ That’s important because it plays a role in the resentment the family feels towards Charity, who’s spent years putting together family holidays designed not to appeal to them (e.g. white-water rafting, cattle-herding at a dude ranch, and Formula One driving). The members of the family have only gone along with these plans because they’re all desperate for their share of the Wiser fortune. That piece of information about the family, and the fact that Charity takes advantage of it, matter to this plot.

And in the end, that’s arguably the key to what the author decides to share with readers. Some details about characters matter if they’re important to the plot – if they move it along or add to it. Others help make a character distinctive, and that adds to a story too. Sometimes it’s hard to choose which details serve those purposes and which don’t, but when an author gets it right, it makes for memorable characters.

 

Thanks, Moira and Rebecca.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland, made popular by the Supremes.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anthony Bidulka, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen