Category Archives: Anthony Bidulka

Turn the Choral Music Higher, Pile More Wood Upon the Fire*

Preparing For GatheringsIt’s the time of year when people make plans for office parties, family gatherings and holiday travel. There are often all sorts of preparations to be made for everything from clothing to cleaning to food and travel tickets. And that’s to say nothing of gifts (but that’s for another post). It all can add up to an awful lot of stress. Part of the reason for that is arguably that people often picture an ‘ideal, perfect holiday’ as they plan, and hold themselves to that ideal. And of course, all sorts of disasters can happen, and people want to avoid them.

Certainly the stress of those preparations is a fact of real life, and of course, it’s there in crime fiction, too. That sort of stress is seldom the reason for a murder, but it does ratchet up the pace and sometimes the suspense. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder), wealthy family patriarch Simeon Lee decides to invite the members of his family to Gorston Hall for Christmas. Lee is an unpleasant tyrant, but he is very wealthy, so no-one dares refuse the invitation. Lee’s son Alfred and Alfred’s wife Lydia share the home, so most of the preparations fall on them. And it’s not going to be pleasant, either. For one thing, Alfred finds out that his brother Harry, whom he’s disliked for years, will be there. So will his niece Pilar, whom he’s never met. For another, there will be extra bedrooms, more food and so on that will need to be planned. None of the other family members are any more keen to prepare for this holiday, but everyone duly gathers. On Christmas Eve, Simeon Lee is murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area with a friend, and he agrees to work with the local police to investigate. As it turns out, the murder has everything to do with a past that came back to haunt the victim (I know, I know, fans of The Hollow…)

Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel begins just before Christmas. The Mendel Gallery is planning an exhibition of the artwork of Sally Love. As it happens, she was a friend of academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, so Kilbourn decides to go to the gallery and see the exhibit. She’d like if possible to see if the friendship could be renewed. But that doesn’t work out as planned; in fact, it’s awkward. Then, when gallery owner Clea Poole is murdered, Sally becomes a likely suspect. Then, there’s another murder. Kilbourn has to juggle getting involved in the murders with final preparations for Christmas and for a week of skiing that she’d planned for herself and her children. And the lead-up to the holiday is a little frantic. Here, for instance, is a snippet of a scene featuring Kilbourn’s daughter Mieka, who’s come home from university for the holidays:
 

‘…my daughter Mieka was sitting at the dining-room table behind piles of boxes and wrapping paper and ribbons…
‘Help,’ she said. ‘I’m three days behind in my everything.’
I sat down beside her and picked up a box. ‘For whom? From whom?’ I asked.
‘For you. From me. No peeking. Now choose some nice motherly paper. Something sedate.”
 

There’s nothing like the glittery clutter and frantic pace of gift-wrapping…

In Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit, successful accountant Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who’s been blackmailing him. Guest is married and firmly ‘in the closet,’ but he has had some trysts with men. And someone’s found out about it. Quant agrees to see what he can do, although he thinks it would be more logical for his client to simply come out as gay. This Guest refuses to do, so Quant gets to work on the case. The search for the truth takes Quant to New York, where he finds out some surprising truths. When he returns, there’s a murder. And an attempt on his own life. Meanwhile, Quant’s mother Kay has come to stay for the Christmas holidays. He loves his mother, but it’s awkward living at close quarters with her now that he’s an adult. But Kay does come in handy as Quant gets ready for his annual Christmas come ‘n’ go. He’s not really a particularly high-strung person, as the saying goes, but he does want things to look nice and turn out well. And with Kay’s help, they do.

There’s a lot at stake in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious. The Cooking Channel’s Rebecca Adrian has come to Memphis to choose the restaurant that will win the coveted Best Barbecue award. The award will mean lots of recognition and more business for the winning restaurant, so everyone at Aunt Pat’s Barbecue is eager to show the place off to best effect. Aunt Pat’s has been in Lulu Taylor’s family for generations, and as current owner, she oversees everything that goes on there. When Adrian arrives, Taylor’s as anxious as anyone else for the visit to go well:
 

Got to be the Cooking Channel scout,’ Lulu hissed. She scurried to the mirror. ‘I knew I should have worn my power suit today!”
 

She and her family members do their best to make their guest welcome, and she’s confident that the food will be delicious. But only a few hours later, Adrian dies of what turns out to be poison. Then the gossip starts to spread that the victim was killed by the food at Aunt Pat’s. Taylor wants to salvage the restaurant’s reputation and keep the business going, so she decides to investigate. And she soon learns that more than one person had a good reason to want Rebecca Adrian dead.

Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool begins on New Year’s Eve. Cumbria Constabulary DCI Hannah Scarlett and her partner Marc Amos are planning to go to a New Year’s Eve party at the home of successful attorney Stuart Wagg. It’s more upmarket than Scarlett likes, but she’s persuaded to go. She doesn’t lack confidence in herself most of the time, but there is of course the question of what to wear:
 

‘…her mind drifted back to the wardrobe challenge. Leather trousers were a safe bet. They were the colour of chocolate fudge cake – if she daren’t eat it, at least she could wear something that reminded her of it. That halter neck top with copper sequins, maybe, plus the brown boots for tramping outside to watch the firework display.’
 

The two go to the party and at first Scarlett’s pleased with her clothing choice, even getting compliments. But then then things go downhill. First, there’s a loud argument and one of the guests, after too much to drink, throws a glass of red wine at another and storms out. Not many days later, the host is murdered. Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team are already looking into a six-year-old murder, and they find that this recent one (and another killing as well) is connected.

As crime fiction shows us, it doesn’t matter how frantically and carefully we prepare for gatherings. Anything can happen, and sometimes does…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Right On Time.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Martin Edwards, Riley Adams

Happy Ever After in the Market Place*

OutdoorMarketsHave you ever been to an outdoor market or bazaar? They can be great places to find all sorts of things from clothes to music to art, and a lot more besides. There are often food stalls, too (OK, perhaps not the most nutritious food, but still…). If you’ve been to this kind of market than you know that they can be a lot of fun, and sometimes there are some real finds.

Bazaars and outdoor markets also can make very effective backdrops for scenes in crime novels. They’re full of activity and because they’re open-air, a lot of different things can happen in them and still seem credible. They also offer really interesting ways for the author to introduce local culture, local food and so on. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s short story Jane in Search of a Job, we are introduced to Jane Cleveland, a young woman who thinks she’s found the answer to her financial troubles when she responds to an unusual employment advertisement. After a thorough ‘vetting,’ Jane is hired as a ‘double’ for Her Highness, the Grand Duchess Pauline of Ostrova. The duchess is afraid that revolutionaries from her home country will try to kidnap her, so it’s been agreed that the best thing to do is to hire an impersonator for a few weeks to take her place at certain public events. The arrangement works out well enough at first. Then comes the bazaar at Orion House, which is in aid of Ostrovan refugees. The duchess must appear there herself, since its sponsor knows her personally. But the team looking out for her safety concocts a plan to keep her as well-protected as possible. It’s successful enough at first, but then Jane finds herself in quite a lot more danger than she imagined…

Charlotte Jay’s Arms For Adonis is the story of Sarah Lane, a young English woman who’s living in a village near Beirut with her French lover Marcel. She decides to leave him and packs her things. Then she goes into Beirut where she visits an outdoor market. She’s enjoying looking through the stalls when a bomb goes off. This changes everything for Sarah. Before she really knows what’s happened, she’s rescued – or is it abducted? – and is whisked away to a house she doesn’t know. Her plan had originally been to return to London, but little by little, she finds herself enmeshed in a web of intrigue, revolution and murder.

In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call from a friend Simeon Pawlovsky, who owns a pawn shop. Pawlovsky’s just gotten hold of a painting he suspects might be valuable, and he wants Revere’s opinion of it. Revere agrees and goes to the pawn shop. There he discovers to his shock that the painting is very likely a genuine Velázquez. He wants to do a little more background reading on the painting, and he’s worried about Pawlovsky keeping such a valuable piece of art in his shop. But Pawlovsky insists it’ll be safe there for the few hours it will take for Revere to do his research. Reluctantly, Revere agrees and goes to the library to read up on the painting. It turns out that this particular painting was one of a group that was ‘taken for safekeeping’ by the Nazis and then disappeared. This adds a layer of real historical interest to the painting too. Excited about the possibilities, Revere returns to the pawn shop only to find that Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Feeling guilty for abandoning his friend and putting him in that much danger, Revere wants to find out who is responsible. He believes that if he can track the painting’s journey from its last known place among Nazi ‘borrowed’ art to the pawn shop, he can find out who the murderer is. The trail leads Revere to Budapest where it seems that a crime boss named Szarvas has claimed ownership of the painting. Szarvas is, to say the least, not a pleasant or generous person, and there’s a very suspenseful scene in an outdoor market during which Revere tracks Szarvas down and tries to ask him about the painting – and then risks Szarvas’ displeasure.

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series takes place mostly in the small French town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. Bruno is Chief of Police there, and has gotten to know the people he serves very well. One thing he knows (and values!) about them is their love of good food and good cooking. And like the other local residents, he enjoys St. Denis’ weekly market. Unfortunately for the townspeople, health inspectors from the EU Ministry of Health in Brussels have also taken an interest in the market. The people of the Périgord are no more eager to spread contamination than anyone else is, but they’ve had their own ways of preserving food safety for generations. They have no interest in ‘outsiders’ coming in and telling them how they must prepare, cook, serve and store food. Secretly, Bruno agrees with the locals, but as a police officer, he also has to do his job. As we find out in Bruno, Chief of Police, he has a creative way of striking that very delicate balance. While the ‘market raids’ of the EU inspectors aren’t really the main plot of this novel, they do give readers a look at the outdoor market culture of that area.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy features Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell. To put it mildly, O’Donnell hasn’t had an easy time of it. She comes from a severely dysfunctional family and has her share of scars from that experience. She’s also had to deal with other ‘bad breaks’ and in some ways, she’s emotionally quite fragile. But she’s a strong character who’s working out who she’ll be and where she’ll fit in. In Resolution, the third novel in this series, O’Donnell works at a market stall, where she and a friend sell cleaning products. One day, Ella McGee, who sells bootlegged music at another stall, is viciously attacked. O’Donnell is facing her own troubles as she prepares to testify against the person who murdered her former lover. Her family problems haven’t gone away either. But she is willing to pitch in when McGee asks her for help in filling out a complaint form after the attack. To O’Donnell’s surprise, the alleged attacker is McGee’s own son. Soon O’Donnell finds herself getting involved in that case at the same time as she’s trying to work out the rest of her life.

And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s Date With a Sheesha. In that novel, Pranav Gupta hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out the truth about the murder of his son Nayan ‘Neil.’ Neil was on a visit to the Middle East, where he was giving guest lectures on antique carpets, and also choosing some valuable samples for the University of Saskatoon’s permanent display. He’d been visiting various homes, markets and so on to find what he wanted. According to the police, he and some friends were in an open-air market in Dubai having an impromptu party when some local thugs attacked and killed him. But his father doesn’t think it was a random murder. He believes that Neil was killed in a hate crime incident because he was gay. Quant isn’t sure that he’ll be able to find out anything that the police couldn’t, but he travels to Dubai to learn what he can. He soon discovers that Neil’s murder wasn’t in the least bit random. Oh, and fans will know that Quant is also involved in a case of open-air-market danger in Tapas on the Ramblas.

Bazaars and open-air markets really can be exciting, and you can find some terrific bargains and unexpected treasures. But as you can see from these few examples (I know, I know, fans of Timothy Hallinan’s and Angela Savage’s work), they can also be dangerous. So do be careful if you find yourself in one of them…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Charlotte Jay, Denise Mina, Martin Walker, Timothy Hallinan

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