Category Archives: Anthony Bidulka

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

Don’t They Know It’s the End of the World*

RebuildingFor obvious reasons, a lot of crime novels include characters who are dealing with a great loss or trauma in their lives. Sometimes those characters are protagonists; sometimes they’re not. Either way, the author has to choose how to depict that coping process. And it is a process. On the one hand, most people understand that it takes time to pick up the pieces of life when something awful happens. On the other, there’s also pressure to move on and start living again. Sometimes that pressure is internal (e.g. ‘I really shouldn’t feel this way. I need to get on with my life.’). Other times, the pressure comes from well-meaning family members, friends, co-workers, etc. (e.g. ‘Come on, you really should start dating again/get back to work/etc.’). That process and the tension that comes with it can add much to character development in a novel, and it does reflect reality. Here are just a few examples. I’m quite certain you can think of many more than I could.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder is a former member of the NYPD. His career with the police ended after he targeted two armed thieves who murdered a bartender. In the process of going after them, he accidentally shot a young girl Estrellita Rivera. The shot was ‘clean,’ and no-one really blames Scudder. Even the victim’s family members understand that it was a terrible accident, but an accident. Still, that incident has permanently altered Scudder’s view of himself and of life. Despite pressure to move on and see the shooting for what it really was, Scudder has his own way of dealing with it, and it’s not a quick, easy process.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve has had to endure her share of life’s blows. As the series featuring her begins, she’s living with the loss of her husband Ian, who was murdered one night when he stopped to help two young people whose car had broken down. In the course of the series she continues to pick up the pieces and work out a new kind of life for herself and her family. It’s not always easy, either, particularly as she forms new intimate relationships. But that process adds to her development as a character.

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish is a Melbourne PI/sometimes-lawyer with his own share of sorrow to bear. He was a full-time attorney when a disturbed client shot his wife Isabel. Irish knows he wasn’t at fault for the murder, but it left him devastated all the same. At first he drowned his sorrows in far, far too much drink. But in Bad Debts,as the series begins, he’s begun to climb out of the proverbial bottle and get back to being alive. As the series moves on, we see that on the one hand, the process of living with what happened to Isabel is not easy. Irish grieves in his own way, and people have sympathy for him. On the other hand, life has not stopped. There are people in Irish’s life who care about him and who don’t want to see him completely disintegrate. They don’t pressure him with comments such as ‘You really ought to start dating again,’ or ‘Snap out of it!’ But they do encourage him to be a part of the human race again if I may put it that way. It’s interesting to see how they influence Irish.

In Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm), we first meet Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson. She’s originally from Kiruna and although she had her own reasons for leaving, she puts them aside and returns for the sake of an old friend Sanna Stråndgard. Sanna’s brother Viktor has been murdered, and it isn’t long before the police begin to suspect that Sanna might be the killer. She claims she’s innocent, and asks Martinsson to act for her. In the course of the investigation, Martinsson goes through a traumatic incident that continues to affect her after the end of the novel. As the series goes on, she slowly starts living again. On the one hand, the people around her do have sympathy for her, and their first response is concern for her well-being. On the other, there is pressure for her to return to work and pick up her life again. There’s even awkwardness because she’s not ‘back to normal,’ whatever that means. Martinsson knows that coping is not going to be that simple, if it’s even possible, and it’s interesting to see how she slowly builds a new life in her own way.

Anthony Bidulka’s PI sleuth Russell Quant lives and works in Saskatoon, although he also travels quite a lot. On two levels, Quant deals with personal loss and tragedy as this series goes on. First, of course, there’s the fact that his cases bring him, and sometimes those he cares about, up against real danger. Quant is not superhuman, and some of his experiences leave him with real emotional trauma. Then there’s the matter of his personal life. On that level, Quant has to cope, as we all do, with the ups and downs of relationships and the deep sadness when they end. In some ways, he’d like very much just to pick his life up and move on. But as he learns, life’s not that simple and it can leave lasting scars. In this series, Quant’s friends and family members find ways to help him pick himself up and go on. So in that sense they do put what you might call pressure on him. But it’s not the uncaring, ‘Get it together!’ sort of pressure that often just makes things worse. Instead, they remind him that life is generally a very good thing, and rely on him to take their cue.

In Split Second, Cath Staincliffe explores the way families move on after tragedy strikes. One day, Luke Murray is riding a bus when three fellow passengers begin to bully him. Jason Barnes, who’s also on the bus, intervenes and for a time the harassment stops. Then Luke gets off the bus, and so do the bullies. Jason does, too, and the bullying starts again. Jason continues to stay involved and the fight escalates all the way to Jason’s front yard. When it’s all over, Luke’s been gravely injured and Jason is dead of a stab wound. As the police work to find out who the bullies were and what the story is behind the incident, Jason’s parents Andrew and Val have to cope with the worst thing that can ever happen to any caring parent. Everyone is sympathetic, but as time goes by, we can see how they begin to feel pressure to pick up their lives. It’s not overt pressure and you could argue that they bring most of it to bear on themselves. But there is tension as they struggle to find a way to re-build themselves. In the meantime, Luke’s mother Louise faces that sort of pressure too. Her son is in a coma from which he may not recover, and everyone understands her deep sense of sorrow. At the same time, her daughter Ruby has a life ahead of her, and Louise still has to be there for her. That tension between accepting that dealing with grief is a process, and the pull to pick up the pieces, certainly plays a role in this novel.

It does in real life too. Life doesn’t stop just because a horrible thing has happened. And sometimes balancing that with the very normal and healthy need to grieve is difficult. OK, over to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this song is a line from Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee’s The End of the World, made popular by Skeeter Davis.

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Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Åsa Larsson, Cath Staincliffe, Gail Bowen, Lawrence Block, Peter Temple