Category Archives: Åsa Larsson

Picking Up the Pieces of My Sweet Shattered Dream*

Post-WarWorld War II ended in 1945. But the world was not magically made right again after the war. There were many scattered pieces, if I may put it that way, to be picked up, and millions of shattered lives to be put back together. And that’s to say nothing of the myriad unanswered questions and difficult challenges the war left behind. Let’s take a quick look today at the way that uncertain time is addressed in crime fiction. As you can imagine, I’ve only space to mention a few examples here. I’m sure you’ll be able to fill in the gaps far better than I could anyway.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) was published in 1948. In it, Lynn Marchmont has recently been demobbed from wartime service in the Wrens. She comes home to the village of Warmsley Vale to pick up her life and instead, gets mixed up in a case of murder. Her family has always depended on patriarch Gordon Cloade for financial support but that all changes when Cloade marries Rosaleen Underhay, a widow he’s met on a ship. Tragically, Cloade is killed in a bomb blast before he can change his will so at his death, Rosaleen is set to inherit everything. Then a stranger comes to Warmsley Vale with possible information that Rosaleen’s first husband is actually still alive. If so, she can’t inherit Cloade’s fortune. When two different members of the Cloade family visit Hercule Poirot, asking for his help in the case, he takes an interest. Then, the stranger is suddenly killed; now Poirot gets involved in the murder investigation. Throughout the novel, we see the financial havoc the war has wrought. People are scraping by at best and some are not even doing that well. We also see how difficult the war has been on those who were a part of it. Lynn Marchmont for instance has had to make a sudden and very abrupt change from the danger and excitement of war to the quiet and impoverished life Warmsley Vale offers. It’s a very difficult transition, even for those who didn’t participate in combat. For those who did, it’s even more challenging.

Just ask Charlie Berlin, the Melbourne cop we meet in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947. Berlin’s recently back from service in Europe, where he also spent some time in a POW camp. Although he’s not the stereotypical demon-haunted, alcoholic detective, he does have what would later be called PTSD. He deals with nightmares and terrible memories. Berlin is seconded to Wodonga to help the local police track down a motorcycle gang that’s been responsible for a series of robberies. Since the latest incident has resulted in severe injuries, the police and the public are eager to see the gang stopped. Berlin’s just starting to find some answers when the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first it’s thought that her death is related to the robberies. It’s not though, and soon Berlin has two cases on his hands. Along with the actual investigation, we get a look in this novel at the lingering resentment against people who’ve been The Enemy for years. That enmity didn’t just vanish when the war ended and McGeachin addresses that.

McGeachin also touches on life for Jews who left Germany either just before the war or as a result of being displaced by the war. Jews were not warmly welcomed everywhere, even by people who abhorred the Holocaust. We also see that theme in Sara Paretsky’s Total Recall. In that novel, Dr. Charlotte ‘Lotty’ Herschel asks her friend Chicago PI V.I. Warshawski to do a personal sort of investigation. Herschel has recently heard from Paul Rabudka, who claims to be a Holocaust survivor looking for as many members of his family as he can find. Herschel’s own family escaped Austria just ahead of the Nazis and ended up in the United States, but it was a harrowing journey and Herschel wants to forget as much of it as she can. Still, she doesn’t want to ignore Rabudka’s contact. Warshawski agrees to investigate and finds some very dark secrets buried in the past.

Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past highlights the enmity that lingered between Swedes who collaborated with the Nazis and those who resisted them. In that novel, two young people, Wilma Persson  and Simon Kyrö, go on a diving exploration of a World-War II-era plane that went down in Lake Vittangijärvi. Someone traps the young people under the ice, killing both of them. Several months later Wilma’s body surfaces and police inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate the murders. One of the important threads running through this case is the reality that the end of World War II did not erase the hatreds that had developed because of it. We also see this theme in Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast.

One of the many other challenges that arose after World War II was the status of people whose roles had changed because of the war. For instance, millions of women worked in factories to support the war effort. When the war ended, many were not so eager to return to the proverbial kitchen. Women began to see other roles for themselves. We see that in the character of Rebecca Green, whom we meet in The Digger’s Rest Hotel (See above). She’s a journalist/photographer for the Argus, and wants very much to make her way in what is still a man’s world. She isn’t interested at the moment in the ‘hearth and home’ role assigned to women. In her determination to be taken seriously as a professional, we see the challenge that women faced in a post-war world that wasn’t sure how to see them.

The end of the war meant that a lot of people faced job challenges. Factories that had geared up for the war effort had to either close or change their focus. Soldiers came home and needed jobs. All of this had profound effects on work life. We see this in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, the first of his Ezekial ‘Easy’ Rawlins novels. Rawlins has recently lost his job working in a warplane factory. Since he is African-American there are few job opportunities open to him, but he has the same financial obligations as anyone else. This motivates him to accept the offer when DeWitt Albright hires him as an unofficial private investigator. Albright is looking for Daphne Monet, who’s been known to frequent bars in the Black community. The idea is that since Rawlins knows Watts (Los Angeles) very well, he’ll know where to look for her. This turns out to be much more complicated and dangerous a case than a simple search for a missing woman, and it shows how an entire community was affected by the financial upheavals of the war.

There was also the serious question of war criminals. In Stuart Neville’s Ratlines, Gordon Ferris’ Glasgow novels featuring Douglas Brodie, and Philip Kerr’s more recent novels featuring Bernie Gunther, we get a look at the way Nazi criminals escaped (or tried to escape) after the war. We also learn the stories of those who risked their lives to find them. There are other novels too, some that fall into the category of crime fiction and some that are more espionage thrillers, in which the protagonist goes after Nazi criminals and those who support them.

And Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case explores the legal ramifications of German law that related to war criminals. Fabrizio Collini, who emigrated to Germany decades ago, is arrested for murder in the shooting death of Jean-Baptiste Meyer. Caspar Leinen is ‘on duty’ as a legal aid and is assigned to represent Collini. It seems like a very solid case, as Collini offers no alibi and says nothing to defend himself. In fact, he says nearly nothing at all. But Leinen wants to do his best by his client, so he delves more deeply into the incident and the lives of both men.  What he finds is an obscure but vital point of German law that’s had a profound impact. As Leinen investigates, we also see how deep wartime wounds have really gone.

There are other novels too that address the post-war world and the way people tried to pick up their lives again; this is just a smattering. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s Carefree Highway.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Ferdinand von Schirach, Geoffrey McGeachin, Gordon Ferris, Jo Nesbø, Philip Kerr, Sara Paretsky, Stuart Neville, Walter Mosley

She Climbs a Tree and Scrapes Her Knee*

Gender RolesFrom birth, boys and girls are placed into different social categories. Much of the way we dress, behave, and even speak has a lot to do with gender. Of course, gender’s by no means the only factor that affects us, but it has a significant impact, and it’s one of the first things people notice about us. Each culture has its own views of the way males and females are ‘supposed to’ behave, and it can be a little disconcerting when someone doesn’t follow those prescribed roles. But there are a lot of girls who’d rather play baseball or go fishing than play with dolls. There are a lot of boys who care about cooking or fashion and nearly nothing at all about sport. They’re a part of real life and we certainly see them in fiction too.

I’m not talking here about gay and lesbian characters. Sexual orientation is a different topic. Rather, I’m talking about characters who don’t fill traditional gender role expectations. There are plenty of them in crime fiction; I just have space for a few here, and I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could anyway.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder) is the story of the Lee family. Simeon Lee is an unpleasant tyrant who decides that he wants to gather his family round him for Christmas. None of his children really wants to accept the invitation, but each one sees little alternative. So plans are made to go to the family home Gorston Hall. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying with a friend in the area and he works with Superintendent Sugden to find out who the murderer is. One of the suspects is Lee’s son David. David Lee has always been a disappointment to his father, as he is sensitive artist and not at all his father’s idea of what a man ‘should be.’ Matters between them aren’t made any better by the fact that David blames his father for his mother’s death. It’s an interesting character study of a man who doesn’t fit the image of what people of the time might have thought a man ‘ought to be.’

In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is assigned to search for a missing teenager Margaret Billy Sosi, who has disappeared from the residential school she attends. Of course Chee wants the girl found and safely returned, but at the moment, he’s working on another case: the murder of transplanted Los Angeles Navajo Albert Gorman. Still, he begins asking questions about the girl. Then it’s discovered that Margaret Billy Sosi and the dead man are distantly related. Now Chee comes to believe that the two cases are connected, and so they turn out to be. The trail leads Chee to Los Angeles, where he finds out some important information about why Gorman might have been killed. He also finds the missing girl – that is, until she disappears again. In the end, Chee finds out who killed Gorman and why, and he discovers how Margaret Billy Sosi figures into the case. One of the interesting elements in this novel is the teen’s character. She certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype of the ‘girly girl.’ She is unmistakeably female, yet she doesn’t fit a lot of preconceived notions of how a girl ‘ought to’ behave. And that adds to her character.

Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers tells the story of Wendy Hanniford. When she is murdered in her own apartment, the most likely suspect is her room-mate Richard Vanderpoel. He had the victim’s blood on him, and he can’t account for himself during the time the crime was committed. Wendy’s father Cale Hanniford wants to know what led to her death. More to the point, he wants to know what kind of a person she’d become and how that resulted in her murder. He’s been estranged from his daughter for some time, and this is his way of trying to connect with her. So he approaches former NYPD cop Matthew Scudder. Scudder isn’t sure what he can do to help, but he does agree to ask some questions and find out what he can. He soon discovers that Vanderpoel won’t be of much assistance, as he’s committed suicide in prison. Bit by bit though, Scudder pieces together both young people’s lives, and comes to the conclusion that Vanderpoel might have been innocent. As Scudder learns more about Richard Vanderpoel, he discovers that the young man wasn’t a ‘typical boy,’ if there is such a thing. Certainly he wasn’t the sport-loving, active, assertive type that’s very often associated with the stereotypical conception of what a ‘boy’ is. As Scudder gets to the truth about Wendy Hanniford’s life and death, he discovers that for both young people, the past has played an important part in their characters and the lives they chose.

Gideon Davies, whom we meet in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory isn’t the ‘all boy’ type either. He is a world-class violinist who’s always been more passionate about his music than about anything else. That’s why it’s so frightening to Davies when one night, he finds himself unable to play. He decides to get some psychiatric help to find out what’s blocking him mentally and why he can’t play. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night in what looks at first like a hit-and-run car accident. It turns out though that there was nothing accidental about her death. Now Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers dig into the Davies family background. As they do, we learn how this death is related to Gideon’s inability to play the violin, and how both are related to the long-ago drowning death of Gideon’s younger sister Sonia.

Alan Bradley’s sleuth is eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, who lives in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia is not at all what you’d think of as a ‘typical’ girl. She’s passionately interested in chemistry – much more so than in dresses, dolls, or other ‘girly’ things. In fact, she has nothing but contempt for her older sisters’ interest in such things. She’s not much of a one to worry about her looks or about what boys might think of her when she’s older. She’s most definitely female, but she certainly isn’t stereotypical.

Neither is Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson. Martinsson is an attorney who, as the series featuring her begins, works in Stockholm. She’s originally from Kiruna though, and moves back there as the series goes on. Martinsson is unmistakeably feminine. At the same time though, she’s hardly ‘girly.’ She lives close to nature, she catches her own food, and she certainly isn’t preoccupied with wondering whether her clothes are fashionable.

Just from these examples, it’s easy to see that strict interpretations of what males or females ‘should’ be like or ‘should’ care about is really limiting. Some of the most interesting characters in crime fiction, anyway, aren’t ‘all boy’ or ‘girly girl.’ They’re individuals. I’ve only had space to mention a few here; which ones do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Maria.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Åsa Larsson, Elizabeth George, Lawrence Block, Tony Hillerman

But I Got Cat Class and I Got Cat Style*

zenasstedaureliocolumn1Ciao, my Bellas!

I am Aurelio Zen, Assistant Editor at It’s a Crime! (Or a Mystery…). Now, before I go any further, let me encourage you to pay a visit to my home blog, where She Who (thinks she) is in Charge and I always provide top-quality crime fiction information and reviews.

I’m here today on special assignment because Margot Kinberg is not intelligent enough to be worthy of being owned by a cat. Therefore there was no choice but to have me come in to discuss the vital role that cats play in crime fiction. You don’t believe me? You must certainly have been listening to a dog lately then. Let me put you right on how very important cats are in the genre.

Let’s start with Agatha Christie’s The Clocks. British Intelligence operative Colin Lamb happens to be in the town of Crowdean on his own business one afternoon when he’s quite literally run into by Sheila Webb. She’s a secretary who was sent to a house in the same neighbourhood for what she thought was a typing job. What she’s found instead is the body of an unknown man. Lamb summons the police in the form of Inspector Richard Hardcastle, and the hunt for the killer is on. There are some odd aspects of this murder, so Lamb thinks the case may be of interest to his father’s friend Hercule Poirot. It turns out he’s right and Poirot guides the investigation. Next door to the house where the body was found lives Mrs. Hemming, a widow who is servant to a houseful of cats. She is, quite naturally, far more interested in her masters’ well-being than she is in a murder, but she says something that proves to be very useful to the investigation.

Robert Crais’ PI sleuth Elvis Cole is owned by a cat. The cat, of course, chooses to remain more or less feral, but Cole sees that it’s fed and cared for and he is, in his own way, comforted by the cat’s presence. Interestingly enough, the only human who seems intelligent enough to interact properly with Cole’s cat is his partner Joe Pike. Pike is a tough guy with an interest in weapons and a background that includes military duty. He’s really not intimidated by anyone. But he also knows the proper way to relate to us feline rulers. So Cole’s cat gets along with him.

Åsa Larsson’s series includes police detective Sven-Erik Stålnacke, who is owned for a time by a cat he calls Manne. That relationship doesn’t last, but in The Black Path, he meets a widow named Airi Bylund who is very much a cat person. In that novel, Stålnacke and his partner Anna-Maria Mella are investigating the murder of Inna Wattrang, Head of Information for Kellis Mining. The trail leads to some very nasty business at the top of the corporate ladder, to say nothing of some international intrigue. But none of that matters. What does matter is that Stålnacke and Bylund are able to bond because of – that’s right – cats. Before cats, Stålnacke lives by himself, lonelier than he cares to admit. After cats? Of course – a relationship. That’s feline power.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is owned by three cats. One, Horatio, shares her home and later, does his share of monopolising her lover Daniel Cohen. Chapman knows the real truth about cats: if they approve of a person, that person is probably worthy. Chapman also keeps two Rodent Control Officers Heckle and Jekyll. They ensure that mice and rats pose no threat to Chapman’s bakery and despite concerns from Health Department officials, the fact is, the Mouse Police are a much safer and more environmentally-friendly deterrent to such vermin than are traps or poison. And the Mouse Police do their jobs well. When their shift ends early in the morning, Chapman feeds them and then lets them out to get dessert from the nearby restaurant. It all works very well for them.

Fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series will know that she is owned by Flint. Now, Flint doesn’t stoop so low as to actually act like a human and solve mysteries. But Flint provides good company for Galloway and her daughter Kate. And to be honest, Galloway prefers Flint to most humans. As she herself puts it at the end of A Dying Fall,

 

‘My life is just me and Kate and Flint.’

 

Wise woman.

One of the most interesting crime-fictional cats is without a doubt Snowball, who runs Commissaire Adamsberg’s office in Fred Vargas’ series. Snowball’s favourite human among those on Adamsberg’s team is Violette Retancourt, and that makes sense. Retancourt is gifted with animals and she and Snowball have an understanding. In This Night’s Foul Work, the team is faced with some odd cases that could be connected. Two drug dealers have been found with their throats cut, and it looks like it could be the work of serial killer Claire Langevin, who’s recently escaped from custody. These murders could also be related to the bizarre killings of some Normandy stags. In the midst of all of this, Retancourt goes missing. At first, only Snowball seems aware of her absence (humans!!). But gradually some of the other members of the team notice that she’s gone. Finally, when she doesn’t return, the decision is taken to let Snowball track her. It turns out to be the right decision, as Snowball is able to lead the team to Retancourt. We also find out why she disappeared and how that is related to the other plot threads in the novel. Snowball soon puts paid to all of the nasty remarks made about cats’ lack of intelligence. I mean, really!

There are also several series such as Lorna Barrett’s Booktown series and Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series where the human sleuths are accompanied by feline partners. In the Booktown series, which takes place in Stoneham, Massachusetts, Tricia Miles owns Haven’t Got a Clue, a bookshop specialising in crime fiction and mystery. In turn, Miles is owned by her feline overseer Miss Marple. That’s almost as good a name for a cat as mine. And fans of the Cat Who… series will know that in those novels, journalist Jim ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is owned by Koko and Yum Yum, two elegant seal-point Siamese.  And of course there’s Carol Nelson Douglas’ Midnight Louie series. Fans of those novels will know that Midnight Louie owns PR freelancer Temple Barr.

There are other series and novels too of course that feature fearless felines. How could they not? Which ones do you like best?

Now, then, time for me to return to She Who (thinks she) is in Charge. What would she do without me? Ciao!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Stray Cats’ Stray Cat Strut.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Carole Nelson Douglas, Elly Griffiths, Fred Vargas, Kerry Greenwood, Lilian Jackson Braun, Lorna Barrett, Robert Crais

Those Were the Best Days of My Life*

NostalgiaDo you ever feel nostalgic about a certain period of your life? For a lot of people, there’s a certain time in life that we look back to with special fondness. It might be childhood, university days, or something else. In fiction, nostalgia can give us real insight into characters and what’s important to them. It can also be an effective way for the author to ‘show not tell’ about a character’s history. And sometimes, in crime fiction, personal history plays an important role in present-day murders and their investigation. So nostalgia can shed some light on characters’ motivations too.

Nostalgia plays an important role in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). John Christow is a Harley Street specialist who on the surface of it has, as the saying goes, everything going for him. He has a stable marriage, two healthy children and a successful career. And yet, he’s restless. As the story begins, he and his wife Gerda are preparing to visit Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell for a weekend in the country. Christow is hit with an attack of nostalgia for a place called San Miguel, where, fifteen years earlier, he’d had a relationship with up-and-coming actress Veronica Cray. In fact, he even gets the feeling that

 

‘I want to go home.’

 

He and Gerda go to the Angkatell’s home and the weekend gets underway. Then, on the Saturday night, Veronica Cray makes a dramatic appearance at the house. Christow is surprised, as he didn’t know she was in the area. It turns out she’s taken a nearby cottage and her unexpected visit takes Christow right back in time. When he is murdered the next afternoon, their history makes Veronica Cray a suspect. Interestingly enough, Christie addresses nostalgia in another way too in this novel. One of the house guests Edward Angkatell lives at Ainswick, Lady Lucy’s family home. Several of the other guests spent holidays there as young people, and in different ways, each is nostalgic for that time. It’s an interesting undercurrent in the story.

We also see nostalgia in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Mystery novelist Harriet Vane is an alumna of Shrewsbury College, and she fondly remembers those days and the strong friendships she made. In part it’s that nostalgia that leads her to go back to Shrewsbury for its annual Gaudy dinner and festivities. At first, Vane is reluctant to go; she’s acquired some notoriety (see Strong Poison for the details) and isn’t sure that she’d be welcomed back. But an old friend specially asks her to make the trip and Vane decides to do so. To Vane’s happy surprise, she is welcomed warmly and takes great pleasure in renewing old acquaintances and re-living happy times. A few months later, she receives a letter from Shrewsbury’s Dean. Some disturbing vandalism and other occurrences have taken place and the Dean wants Vane to find out who is responsible. The idea is that this will be done quietly and without the need to get the police involved. Vane agrees and goes back to Shrewsbury under the pretext of doing research for a novel. She does find out who is responsible for the events at the college, but not before getting into real danger herself.

Alexander McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency introduces us to Mma. Precious Ramotswe. She runs the only female-owned detective agency in Botswana and as the series evolves, we see how she makes a success of her business. She has a stable home life, too, with a solid husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (whom I have to confess I like very much as a character) and two adopted children. But she is also nostalgic for her childhood days with her father Obed Ramotswe. In fact, he is one of her heroes. She is often reminded of him, and she has taken much of his wisdom to heart. It’s not trivial either that it was an inheritance from him that allowed Mma. Ramotswe to buy the detective agency and set up shop.

Even Colin Dexter’s most emphatically unsentimental Inspector Morse can get nostalgic at times. In The Riddle of the Third Mile, we learn that Morse had been studying at St. John’s College, Oxford before he joined the police force. In the novel, he and Sergeant Lewis investigate the disappearance of his former Oxford mentor Oliver Browne-Smith, as well as the murder of an unknown man wearing Browne-Smith’s clothes. At first, it looks as though the body turning up answers the question of what happened to Browne-Smith. But it’s not so simple as that, as Morse and Lewis learn. As the novel evolves, we learn that Morse fell in love with Wendy Spencer, who was studying for her Ph.D. at St. Hilda’s College. Morse was deeply hurt when she ended the relationship, but it’s clear in this novel that he has a certain amount of nostalgia for those days as a student.

In Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm), Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson returns to her home town of Kiruna when her former friend Sanna Stråndgard asks for her help. Sanna’s brother Viktor has been found murdered in the Church of the Source of All Our Strength, and she wants Martinsson to help her through this difficult time. Martinsson has her own reasons for not wanting to return to Kiruna, but she reluctantly agrees. Police detectives Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate the murder and discover that Sanna is the prime suspect. In fact, she is arrested for the crime. She begs Martinsson to defend her, and, mostly for the sake of Sanna’s two children, Martinsson agrees. Not all of Martinsson’s memories of Kiruna are good ones. In fact, events there are exactly the reason she left in the first place. But while she is in town, she stays at her grandparents’ home near the town and that experience is nostalgic. Martinsson spent happy times as a child staying with her grandparents, and those memories give her comfort as she faces the rest of her past as well as the difficulties of this particular case.

A lot of us get nostalgic about one or another part of our lives. Nostalgia can make us smile even when things aren’t going well, and in fiction, it can add depth to a character. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to look through some old ‘photos…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance’s  Summer of ’69.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Åsa Larsson, Colin Dexter, Dorothy Sayers

How You Gonna Tell Your Story?*

Structures and DisplayingMost authors work very hard ‘behind the scenes’ to organise the characters and events in a story so that the reader can make sense of them. The better organised and ‘displayed’ the story line is, the more inviting it is to readers to get drawn into the story. There are a lot of ways this can be done, just as there are a lot ways to organise and display merchandise in a shop. But the best crime fiction stories ‘hang together’ in a structured way, so that moving among events and, sometimes, points of view feels seamless.

One of the classic ways this is done is of course the chronological structure. Many of Agatha Christie’s novels are written like that. For example, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is told more or less chronologically. It begins with the death of Mrs. Ferrars of the village of Kings Abbot. Then, Dr. James Sheppard, the local doctor and the narrator of the story, pauses for a bit to tell about some of the people who live in the village. Then the story goes on to tell about Sheppard’s introduction to his new neighbour, Hercule Poirot, who has retired to Kings Abbot. After that the story moves on to the stabbing death of Roger Ackroyd, a retired manufacturing magnate who also lives in the village. Captain Ralph Paton is suspected of the murder, but his fiancée Flora Ackroyd is sure that he’s innocent and asks Poirot to clear his name. The investigation, the clues and so on come up in a chronological way, and the very famous dénouement is the climax of the story.

A lot of other whodunits, whether police procedural, PI novel or amateur-detective novel are structured in the same way. For example, Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People  is more or less like that. Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin is pleasantly surprised when he gets an unexpected visit from his estranged wife Liz. He’s hoping this means that she wants to reconcile, but that’s not her reason for coming. She tells Devlin that she’s run away from her lover Mick Coghlan because she’s afraid of him. She needs a place to stay for a few days, and she wants Devlin’s help. Devlin reluctantly agrees. He doesn’t really trust Liz but he’s still hoping they’ll get back together. The next night, Liz is stabbed and her body left in an alley. Devlin wants very much to find out who killed the woman he loved – still does, really. And he becomes even more motivated when he becomes a suspect.

The chronological approach to ‘displaying’ the pieces of a story is only one option of course. There’s also the point of view approach. Some authors tell the same story through two or more different perspectives. So even when the chronology of events is a little fuzzy, it’s still easy for the reader to be drawn into what happens and to make sense of the events. For instance A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife tells the story of Jodi Brett, a successful Chicago psychologist, and her partner Todd Gilbert, an also-successful developer. The two have been together for twenty years when Todd begins a relationship with Natasha Kovacs, the daughter of his good friend Dean Kovacs. Todd’s strayed before, but this time it’s different. When Natasha tells him she’s pregnant, Todd decides to leave Jodi and marry Natasha. Then, Jodi gets another shock. She is served with eviction papers which require her to vacate the home she and Todd have shared. With nowhere to go, and already having to deal with the humiliation of Todd’s leaving her, Jodi tries to at least keep her home. But the lawyer she contacts tells her that she has no legal right to stay, since she and Todd were never married. Then everything changes when Todd is shot in a drive-by incident. This story is told from alternating points of view (Jodi’s and Todd’s), with each section clearly indicated. So even though there are several flashbacks, ‘side thoughts’ and reflections as well as the actual chronology of events, it’s easy for the reader to follow the story and it’s an effective way to ‘display’ what happens.

That strategy is also used in Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack. Superintendent Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano of the Buenos Aires police is trying to do the best job he can as a good cop in the dangerous and violent world of 1979 Argentina. The military junta in control of the country has taken extreme measures to get and keep power, and all sorts of people are disappearing. Everyone knows that asking questions can be fatal, so most people do their best to stay ‘under the radar.’ One morning, Lascano is called to investigate a report of two dead bodies dumped at a riverbank. But when Lescano gets there, there’s a third body. Two of the killings bear all the hallmarks of an Army ‘hit,’ and Lascano knows the risks of asking any questions about them. The third though is a different kind of murder. This one looks like a more personal murder so despite all of the danger, Lascano determines to solve it. This story is told from several points of view, including those of Lescano, Fusili the medical examiner, Elías Biterman the victim, and the other people involved in the case. Through each person’s eyes we see the sequence of events that led to the murder, and Mallo makes it clear whose perspective is being shared. The narrative itself sometimes weaves back and forth between past and present as the characters’ backstories are told. But the story itself is ‘displayed’ and organised through the use of different points of view.

Mallo also uses another strategy for ‘displaying’ the story: the use of past and present tense. The story of Biterman’s murder and its investigation and consequences is told in present tense. Backstories and past histories are told in the past tense. This helps to invite the reader to follow the story of the crime without getting distracted by the histories of the various characters. Interestingly enough, Åsa Larsson chose the opposite way to organise The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm). In that novel, Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson returns to her home in Kiruna when a former friend Sanna Stråndgard is accused of murdering her brother Viktor. Martinsson, who also knew Viktor, is reluctant to go to Kiruna but she agrees. She begins to look into the killing and soon finds that more than one person had a good motive for murder. The story of that investigation and its consequences is mostly told in the past tense (although that does change in the climactic scene). But the flashbacks in which we learn why Martinsson left Kiruna in the first place are told in the present tense. Although the use of different tenses might seem counterintuitive, Larsson uses this strategy effectively to organise the story and ‘display’ the events in it.

There are lots of other ways too to organise and present a story. We all have our preferences of course, but there isn’t one ‘right’ way to go about it, just as there isn’t one ‘right’ way to make merchandise in a shop appealing. What’s your preference? Do you like chronological approaches? Point-of-view? Use of tense? Something else? If you’re a writer, how do you ‘display your wares?’ What draws you to that approach?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Call’s With or Without Reason.

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Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Ernesto Mallo, Martin Edwards