Category Archives: Camilla Läckberg

Can’t Know the Fears That Your Elders Grew By*

Parents' SecretsLots of people think they know their parents very well. After all, people who grew up with their parents have been around them for a long time. And in some ways, children really do have a better sense of their parents than we sometimes think.

But children rarely know everything about their parents. And sometimes they learn the most surprising – even shocking – things about people they always thought they knew intimately. Crime fiction uses this plot point quite frequently, so I’ll just mention a few examples.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Hidden Child, biographer and crime writer Erica Falck is sorting through her parents’ things after their deaths. Along with the clothing and other things she’d expected, she is shocked to discover a Nazi medal. Certainly no-one in her family had ever hinted that there was Nazi sympathy among the members. Falck wants to find out more about this possible connection, so she visits local historian Erik Frankel, who may be able to shed light on those years. Two days after her visit, Frankel is killed. Falck’s husband, police officer Patrik Hedström, investigates officially; in her own way Falck investigates too. In the end, they find out the connection between the town’s history and Frankel’s murder.

Steve Hamilton’s Ice Run begins with the death of Simon Grant, an elderly man who seems to have died of exposure not far from the Ojibway Hotel in Sault Ste. Marie (Soo), Michigan. Former police officer Alex McKnight is at the hotel with his new love interest, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Constable Natalie Reynaud when the death happens. Oddly enough, they had a strange encounter with Grant before he died, and Grant left them an odd message: a homburg hat filled with ice and snow and a note that says I know who you are. All of this makes McKnight very curious, so when he gets news of Grant’s death, he starts to ask questions. It turns out that Simon Grant had a history with the Reynaud family, and that that history still plays an important role in people’s lives. In the end we find that there are things about Natalie’s family that have been kept secret for a long time…

In Jane Casey’s How to Fall, eighteen-year-old Jess Tennant travels with her mother Molly from London to the small town of Port Sentinel, where Molly grew up. The plan is to spend the summer there as both Molly and Jess deal with Molly’s bitter divorce from Jess’ father. Also in the offing is a reunion with Molly’s twin sister Tilly and her family. A year ago, Tilly’s daughter (and Jess’ cousin) Freya died in a terrible fall from a cliff, and everyone is still adjusting to life without her. Jess never met her cousin, so she’s curious about her. And the more she learns, the more she suspects that Freya might not have died by accident. Determined to find out the truth, Jess uncovers more than it’s safe for her to know. She also learns some very surprising things about her mother’s past – things she hadn’t suspected.

That’s also the case with Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford, whom we meet in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. Kat’s a TV presenter who’s had more than her share of media invasion of her privacy. So she decides she’s had enough of the TV life, and plans to go into the antiques business with her mother Iris. Iris seems open to the idea as a way to move on after the death of her beloved husband Frank. Then one day Kat gets a surprising call from her mother. Iris has purchased the carriage house on the property of Honeychurch Hall in Little Dipperton, Devon, hundreds of miles from London. Kat’s shocked at this news and concerned about her mother, so she goes immediately to Devon. When she arrives, she finds that the carriage house is in sad need of repair and that Iris has broken her hand in a car accident. So she decides to stay on for a bit to help her mother. That’s how she gets drawn into the mystery of a strange series of events. There’s sabotage, a disappearance, theft, and finally the murder of Verga Pugsley, housekeeper at Honeychurch Hall. It turns out that all of these events are related. And all of them have to do with the Honeychurch family history. As Kat uncovers the truth, she also finds out important things about her mother – things she’d never imagined.

There’s also Scott Turow’s Innocent, which concerns the death of Barbara Bernstein. Her husband, Kindle County chief appellate judge Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich, wakes up one morning to find her dead of what looks like natural causes. But before long, questions begin to arise about the case. For one thing, Sabich waited 24 hours after her death before contacting the authorities or his son Nat. For another, the toxicology report on her body shows a large dose of an anti-depressant. And then there’s the fact that Kindle County Prosecutor Tommy Molto suspects that Sabich might have been guilty of another murder twenty years earlier. This and other evidence suggests that Sabich might have killed his wife, so he is arrested and charged with murder. He asks Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern to defend him and the case moves to trial.The story is told in part from the perspective of Nat Sabich, who is an attorney himself. As the novel goes on, we see that Nat knows his father well. On the other hand, there are things about his father’s life that he never knew…

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls introduces us to Jane and Rob Tait and their daughter Jess. One day Jess attends a talk given by journalist Erin Fury, who’s working on a story about families who’ve survived the murder of one of their members. Jess knows that hers is one of those families; in 1978, her mother’s cousin Angela Buchanan was killed and her body discovered with a silk scarf round her neck. At first the police investigated the family, but then, another young girl Kelly McIvor was killed, and her body also found with a scarf round the neck. Since then everyone has assumed that the deaths were the work of a killer the press dubbed ‘The Sydney Strangler.’ No-one was ever arrested for the crimes, and although Jess knows the story, she doesn’t really know the details. Through her, Erin Fury gets contact information for Jane and Rob and prepares to talk to the family. As she meets with the Taits and with Jane’s brother Mick, we learn about what really happened to Angela and Kelly. And Jess finds things out about her parents that she didn’t know.

And that’s the thing about parents. Everyone has a history, including parents. It’s sometimes really surprising what we find out about them. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs). Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Teach Your Children.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Hannah Dennison, Jane Casey, Scott Turow, Steve Hamilton, Wendy James

Hello Old Friend*

Renewing RelationshipsHave you ever renewed a relationship with someone you hadn’t seen in years? In some cases it seems as though no time at all has gone by, and people pick up the relationship just where it left off. But we all change over time, and we all have life experiences that affect us, sometimes deeply. So sometimes those reunions can be awkward. And it doesn’t make it any easier that we often have mental images, left over from the past, of how the people in our lives ‘should’ act, speak and think. It can be difficult to accept it when someone doesn’t fit that image. Whether they’re easy, even joyful, or awkward, those reunions are full of history, character and so on. And that means that they’re also interesting plot points for stories. There are plenty of them in crime fiction too; let me just give you a few examples. I know you’ll be able to think of many more than I could.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we meet Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He and his wife Gerda are invited for a weekend visit to The Hollow, the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. During their visit, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and gets involved in the case. In one of the related sub-plots, we learn that fifteen years earlier, Christow had been involved with now-famous actress Veronica Cray. Their romance ended with Christow getting a broken heart, and he’s never really been able to leave it all completely in the past. When he and Gerda get to The Hollow, he’s shocked to learn that Veronica has taken a cottage in the area, and is eager to renew their relationship. When the two reunite, Christow has a sudden awareness that they’ve both changed and that he has moved on. Here’s what he says to Veronica:

 

‘I’m a man fifteen years older. A man you don’t even know – and whom, I daresay, you wouldn’t like much if you did know.’

 

Veronica has her heart set on Christow though, and her rage at his rejection makes her a suspect in his murder.

There’s an interesting case of reunion in Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town. Famous Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson hires PI Elvis Cole for a delicate domestic case. Years ago Nelson was married to Karen Shipley and they had a son Toby. The marriage fell apart and Karen disappeared, taking Toby with her. Now, Nelson wants to begin to be a father to his son, so he engages Cole to trace Toby and his mother. At first Cole is reluctant. After all, a lot of people disappear precisely because they don’t want to be found, especially in cases like this one. But eventually Cole is persuaded to look into the matter and he and his partner Joe Pike start the investigation. It doesn’t take long to find Karen and Toby; they’ve moved to a small town in Connecticut. But it turns out that a reunion with her ex is the last thing on Karen’s mind. She’s got major problems of her own, including trying to get free of a Mob trap into which she’s fallen. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that there is a reunion, and Crais shows how awkward such experiences can be. Nelson has a mental image of the wife he knew and of his son as a baby. The reality of course is quite different. For her part, Karen has an image of the self-involved man she left, and has to adjust to the fact that perhaps her ex really wants to try to be a father.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, we are introduced to biographer (later crime writer) Erica Falck. She’s returned to her parents’ home in Fjällbacka to sort through their things after their deaths. Then she learns of the sudden death of her former friend Alexandra ‘Alex’ Wijkner. The two were best friends during their childhoods, but hadn’t really been close for twenty-five years. Erica wants to know the sort of person Alex became, so she decides to write a biography of her former friend. In the process, she learns that the adult Alex is quite different to the friend she knew as a girl, and that a lot happened in the meantime. She also begins to get a sense of who might have wanted to kill Alex. At the same time, police officer Patrik Hedström and his team are officially investigating the death. It’s been made to look like suicide, but of course, it isn’t. In one plot thread of this novel, Erica discovers that the friend she remembers from childhood turned out to be a different person in adulthood. In another, Erica and Patrik, who knew each other years ago, re-discover each other. And that becomes the basis for the relationship that develops between them.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has more than one reunion with the love of his life Eleanor Wish. Early in the Bosch series, she’s an FBI agent. For several reasons, she leaves her position and becomes a professional poker player. When Bosch reunites with her in Trunk Music, they decide to marry. As fans of Angels Flight will know, the marriage doesn’t last and you might say that Eleanor disappears. A few years later the two meet up again in another case, and Bosch learns that he is the father of (then) four-year-old Maddie. Eleanor figures again in 9 Dragons. In all of these reunions, we see how both people have to re-adjust their images of each other. We also see how Bosch has to adjust his mental image of Maddie as she grows up, since she doesn’t live with him until 9 Dragons.

Ian Vasquez’ Lonesome Point also features a reunion of sorts. Brothers Leo and Patrick Varela were born and raised in Belize, but have since moved to Miami. Now, Leo is a poet and a mental health care worker. Patrick has gotten involved in politics and is poised for real success that could lead to a career on the national level. Everything changes when they get a visit from an old friend Freddy Robinson. Robinson grew up in Belize with the Varela brothers and he knows all about their former lives. In fact, he tries to use something he knows about them as leverage when he asks Leo for something. Robinson is working for some very dubious ‘employers’ who want information on Patrick Varela’s political strategy. One person who may know the truth is in the care of the facility where Leo works, and Robinson wants Leo to arrange for that patient’s release. When Leo refuses, Robinson threatens to tell what he knows. Seeing no other option, Leo agrees. And that’s when the real trouble starts. In this novel, it’s interesting to see how Robinson has a mental image of the Varela brothers from their years in Belize, and how different that is to the reality of the brothers’ lives in Miami.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Mistake. During their girlhoods, Jodie Evans Garrow and Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan became close friends. Then Bridie moved away and each girl went on with her life. Jodie married successful attorney Angus Garrow and is now the contented mother of two children. Her life seems just about perfect on the surface. Then, 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 Elsa Mary. Jodie never told anyone, not even Angus, about this baby, but a nurse at the hospital remembers her and asks about the child. Jodie tells the nurse that she gave the baby up for adoption but the overcurious nurse can find no formal records. Now the questions begin. What happened to Elsa Mary? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? The gossip evolves into an all-out attack on Jodie, who becomes a social pariah. Then, unexpectedly, she has a reunion with Bridie. Both women have changed over the years of course. And at first, there’s a little awkwardness. But gradually, they renew their friendship and we can see how they get past the mental images they had of each other and re-establish their relationship.

When people who haven’t seen each other in years try to pick up the pieces, there’s often that kind of awkwardness when the mental image they had doesn’t fit the person they see in front of them. But sometimes those relationships can be re-established, and that can provide a welcome continuity in life. Or they can be very dangerous. I’m thinking for instance of Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel. When academic and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn finds out that a former friend Sally Love is having an exhibition of her art at the Mendel Gallery, she decides to attend, and try to re-establish the friendship. That decision has drastic consequences and ends up getting Kilbourn involved in a very sad murder investigation.

These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Eric Clapton.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Gail Bowen, Ian Vasquez, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Wendy James

So Shed Those Dowdy Feathers and Fly a Little Bit*

New LooksAn interesting guest post at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about what happens when people who generally don’t pay much attention to their appearance are transformed by a new look. We get very, very accustomed to the way people in our lives look and dress, and when that changes, we see them in a whole new way. There are plenty of examples of this sort of thing in crime fiction; let me just share a few.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey. She’s spent the last ten years as a paid companion, and people got quite accustomed to her wearing ‘sensible’ shoes and clothes. Then Katherine’s employer dies, leaving her considerable fortune to her former companion. When she learns how much money she’s going to inherit, Katherine decides to do two things. One is to have some good clothes.

 

‘Her first action was to visit the establishment of a famous dressmaker.
A slim, elderly Frenchwoman, rather like a dreaming duchess, received her, and Katherine spoke with a certain naiveté.
‘I want, if I may, to put myself in your hands. I have been very poor all my life and know nothing about clothes, but now I have come into some money and want to look really well dressed.’’

 

Needless to say, the dressmaker is delighted and helps her client to choose a becoming wardrobe. Shortly afterwards, Katherine takes the famous Blue Train to Nice to stay with a distant cousin Lady Rosalie Tamplin and her family. On the way she gets mixed up in a murder case when a fellow passenger Ruth Van Aldin Kettering is strangled.

A new look proves to be more sinister in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. The family settles in and at first all goes well. Then, Joanna and her friend Bobbie Markowe begin to suspect that something frightening is going on in Stepford. There isn’t much to go on at first; it’s a quiet town with good schools and low taxes. But something is definitely not normal (if there is such a thing) about the people who live there, especially the women. After a certain amount of time, they seem to change drastically. Here’s a description of one of the women before that change:

 

‘She was short and heavy-bottomed, in a blue Snoopy sweatshirt and jeans and sandals. Her mouth was big, with unusually white teeth, and she had blue take-in-everything eyes and short dark tufty hair. And small hands and dirty toes.’ 

 

And here’s the ‘after’ description:

 

‘She looked the way she had on Sunday-beautiful, her hair done, her face made  up. And she was wearing some kind of padded high-uplift bra under her green sweater, and a hip-whittling girdle under the brown pleated skirt.’ 

 

The closer Joanna gets to the truth about what’s really going on in Stepford, the more danger there is for her.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, writer Erica Falck has returned to her home town of Fjällbacka after her parents’ deaths so she can go through their things and sort them all out. While she’s there, a former friend Alexandra ‘Alex’ Wijkner is found dead in what looks at first like a suicide. But very soon it’s proved that she was murdered. In part to deal with her grief at the loss of a friend she hadn’t really seen in twenty-five years, Erica decides to write Alex’s biography. In that way she begins to ask questions about how and why she was killed. In the meantime the police, mostly in the form of Patrik Hedström, investigate the death officially. Patrik and Erica are drawn to each other and we learn that they’ve always liked one another; it’s just that the timing was never really right for either to pursue a relationship. One night Erica invites Patrik over for a home-cooked meal. Usually, she is a very casual dresser who doesn’t take a lot of pains with her appearance. But not tonight:

 

‘The first dilemma had arisen…when, like her favorite literary heroine Bridget Jones, she was faced with the decision of which panties to choose. Should she wear a beautiful, lace-trimmed thong, for the slim eventuality that she and Patrik ended up in bed? Or should she put on the substantial and terribly ugly panties with the extra support for tummy and backside, which would increase her chances that they might end up in bed at all? A hard choice, but…she decided after much deliberation on the support variety. Over them she would wear pantyhose with a tummy-flattening panel. In other words, the heavy artillery…

After another look at the pile on the bed, she pulled out from the bottom the first outfit she had tried on. Black was slimming, and the classic, knee-length dress in a Jackie Kennedy style was flattering to the figure. A pair of pearl earrings and a wristwatch would be her only jewelry, and she let her hair fall loosely over her shoulders.

 

Erica’s change in appearance makes quite an impression on Patrik and I don’t think it’s spoiling the novel to say that the two of them begin a relationship.

Kerry Greenwood’s accountant-turned-baker Corinna Chapman isn’t usually one to take a lot of pains with her appearance either. But in Earthly Delights, she makes an exception. In one of the plot threads, there’ve been several deaths of heroin junkies in the area of Melbourne where Chapman has her bakery. In fact, there’s a near-death practically on her doorstep. Together with her lover Daniel Cohen, Chapman looks into what’s been happening. The clues lead to a Goth club called Blood Lines, and Chapman and Cohen decide to attend. They’ll need to be dressed appropriately though or they won’t be admitted, so Chapman turns to her friend Pat, who goes by the professional name of Mistress Dread. Normally, Chapman doesn’t go to a lot of effort in dressing. For her, it’s usually trackies and sweatshirt for baking, and a blouse and trousers for dealing with the bakery’s customers. Here’s how she transforms herself for the visit to Blood Lines:

 

‘She [Mistress Dread] flung it over my head with a practised hand and it settled on me…The dress was a full-skirted number with built-in black petticoats, slashed sleeves and a neckline which could be mistaken for a waist it was so deep. It was a gorgeous shade between venous and arterial blood and as I moved I rustled in the most entrancing fashion. Then she slipped a black leather corset over the dress and began lacing it at the front…’

 

With a few final touches, Chapman’s transformation is complete and she feels gorgeous with her new look. She also finds that it gets her and Cohen easily admitted into Blood Lines, where they find out the truth about the heroin deaths.

Willam Ryan’s Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka usually doesn’t worry too much about the way she looks. She wears her police uniform when on duty, and when off duty she wears utilitarian clothes. But as The Twelfth Department begins, she needs to change her look. She and her boss Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev are on the trail of a criminal and have tracked him to a park. In order not to reveal that she’s a cop, Slivka dresses up a bit:

 

‘Slivka was…wearing a pretty white dress, her short blond hair looking almost golden in the dappled sunshine. Her lips might be a little thin and her expression grave, but she was a good-looking woman and he [Korolev] watched men’s heads turn one after the other to follow her procession through the park. He wondered if they’d be so keen if they knew the hand resting nonchalantly inside her open purse was wrapped around the butt of a service-issue revolver.’

 

The new look works perfectly too as their target is taken completely by surprise. 

Of course sometimes, a transformation can work the other way too. Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Cherry Hayes usually wears rather flamboyant clothes, especially considering that she’s – erm – no longer twenty. But she goes for a different look in Hickory Smoked Homicide. Cherry’s friend Lulu Taylor is investigating the murder of Tristan Pembroke. One of the suspects is Lulu’s own daughter-in-law Sara. Lulu’s sure Sara isn’t guilty so she determines to clear her name. That’s where Cherry comes in. Lulu’s fairly certain that the owner of her ‘regular’ dress shop may know more than she’s saying about the murder. So she and Cherry visit the shop under the guise of finding a new look for Cherry. Here’s what Cherry uses as a ‘cover story.’

 

‘I’m done with shopping at the Hipster Honey, with all their trashy clothing. With my newfound need to spend my spare time in church, I really need a whole new wardrobe – of floral dresses. Just like Lulu.’

 

This is especially funny because usually, Cherry makes fun of Lulu’s wardrobe.

It is interesting what a big difference a change in appearance can make. Thanks to Colm Redmond for the inspiration. And now, may I suggest you pay a visit to Clothes in Books? It’s the place to shop for interesting discussions about fashion and culture in books of all kinds.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Springfield and Jim Dale’s Georgy Girl, made popular by the Seekers.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ira Levin, Kerry Greenwood, Riley Adams, William Ryan

Early in the Morning, Risin’ to the Street*

EarlyMorningAre you a morning person? Many cops find that they have to get used to the early morning, even if they aren’t fond of it. It’s interesting (although I don’t think surprising) how many fictional calls-to-the-scene take place early in the morning. Little wonder fictional sleuths don’t always get a lot of sleep…

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson may be accustomed to odd hours, being a doctor, but his schedule is quite normal compared to that of his friend Sherlock Holmes. And Watson gets roused awfully early more than once. In The Adventure of the Abbey Grange for instance, Watson is awakened early on a winter morning with a very famous crime-fictional line:

 

‘‘Come, Watson, come!’ he cried. ‘The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!’’

 

The reason for Holmes’ urgency is that he’s received word (at not long after 3:30 am, no less!) that Sir Eustace Brackenstall has been killed. It looks very much as though this is a case of a burglary gone wrong and that the notorious Randall gang is responsible. But Holmes doesn’t think so. And when it’s found that the Randall gang was nowhere near the Brackenstall home at the time of the murder, Holmes is proven right.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot, Chief Inspector Japp and several groups of local police get involved in a case that looks very much like the work of a serial killer. First, Alice Ascher is found murdered in the newsagent’s shop she keeps. Then, coffee shop waitress Betty Barnard is found strangled with her own belt on the beach one morning. A man’s up early walking his dog when the dog discovers her body. Now the case begins to get a lot of attention, and when the body of Sir Carmichael Clarke is found, everyone’s sure that there’s a deranged murderer on the loose. Poirot discovers that the case is neither as simple nor as complicated as that, but for a time, there’s a real fear that

 

‘He may be in YOUR town.’

 

Of course, one has to feel for the Colonel whose dog discovers Betty Barnard’s body. All he wanted to do was take a morning walk…

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn gets a disturbing early-morning call. Her daughter Mieka has just discovered the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin in a trash bin outside her catering shop. Mieka is understandably badly shaken, especially since Bernice was one of her employees. The police assume that this murder is the work of the same person who’s committed other murders in the area – a group of killings the police call the Little Flower murders. So this death is investigated at first in that way. Meanwhile, Kilbourn is busy with other matters, especially Mieka’s upcoming wedding. Still, she finds it hard to forget this victim. Then, her son Peter’s ex-girlfriend Christy Sinclair comes back into their lives, even saying she and Peter are back together. When Christy tragically drowns in what looks like a suicide, Kilbourn begins to believe that something more is going on. In the end, these events are all tied up with Christy’s past and some secrets that she was keeping.

Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess introduces us to writer Erica Falck. In this, the first novel of the series, she’s just returned from Stockholm to her family home in Fjällbacka. Her parents have died and she’s planning to sort out their things and arrange for what will happen with their house. Early one morning, she’s taking a walk to clear her head when she’s stopped by a neighbour Eilert Berg. He, too, was out for a walk when he stopped at the weekend home of Alexandra ‘Alex’ Wijkner to check on it in her absence. To his terrible shock he’s found Alex’s body in the bathtub. At first it looks as though she has committed suicide. But the death is soon proven to be murder, so police officer Patrik Hedström begins to investigate it that way. As he’s interviewing the victim’s friends, family members and the like, Erica is doing her own investigation. She and Alex were best friends when they were girls, but hadn’t seen each other for twenty-five years. Erica decides to write a biography of Alex as a way of getting to know the woman that her girlhood friend had become. Slowly, each in a different way, the two sleuths get to the truth about what really happened to Alex Wijkner and why.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri will know that his novels always begin in the morning. Inspector Salvo Montalbano isn’t a fan of being called to a case early, but it happens often enough. For instance, in The Wings of the Sphinx, he’s just finished showering when he’s interrupted by a call from Sergeant Catarella.

 

‘‘Chief, whadd I do, wake y’up?’
‘No, Cat, I was awake.’
‘You sure sure ‘bout that, Chief? Yer not jess sayin’ ‘at to be nice?’
‘No, you needn’t worry. What is it?’
‘Chief, what else would it be if I’m callin’ you foist ting in the morning?’
‘Cat, do you realize that you never call to give me any good news?’’

 

And this morning is no exception. Catarella tells his boss that the body of an unknown young woman has been found near a landfill. The only way of identifying her is that she has a tattoo on her shoulder. Her death turns out to be connected to a group of Eastern European women who’d come to Sicily to look for work. It’s also linked to corruption in a social services agency.

Even sleuths who aren’t fond of early mornings end up having to get used to that time of day. As crime fiction shows us, it’s a busy time for discovering bodies…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sublime’s What I Got.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Conan Doyle, Camilla Läckberg, Gail Bowen

Perhaps We Don’t Fulfill Each Other’s Fantasies*

ExpectationsAn interesting comment exchange with Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling has got me to thinking about the sets of expectations we have when we read work by a familiar author. Often those expectations help us to feel comfortable with that that author’s books and I think that’s in part because we know the kind of story to expect. Often, there’s also a group of ‘regular’ characters we get to know and enjoy.  Before I go on, I’ll give you a chance to check out Carol’s interesting blog.

Right. Back to expectations. On the one hand, that kind of familiarity can be a good thing. For the author, it means a loyal base of readers. For the reader, it means a certain confidence that what one’s about to read is probably not going to disappoint. On the other hand that kind of familiarity can be limiting. It’s treacherously easy for the author to fall into a pattern of what become ‘cookie-cutter’ plots; I’m sure we all can think of series like that. What’s more, when an author changes a character’s personality, or a plot style, or writing style, or something else important in the series, fans can be really put off. You can think of it if you like as ‘reader ownership’ – readers are attached to certain characters, a certain writing style and so on and when that changes it can feel like a personal affront. Like just about everything else, there are positives and negatives about the sort of ‘track record’ some authors build.

One of the more famous examples of this set of expectations is the story of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. From the time they first came on the scene, the Holmes stories were popular and Conan Doyle’s fan base grew and became intensely loyal (as we all know, there are still many clubs, societies and so on that are dedicated to Holmes). Readers knew what to expect from a story and eagerly consumed each instalment. And then Conan Doyle had Holmes go over Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls in The Adventure of the Final Problem. As Holmes fans know, this outraged readers. They had developed a set of expectations about these stories and had a sense of ownership of the character as you might say. In fact, readers were so upset that Conan Doyle felt obliged to bring Holmes back, which he did in The Adventure of the Empty House.

At the time that Agatha Christie wrote The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, readers of detective stories had certain assumptions about what to expect, not just from Christie but from the genre in general. For instance there would be a murder, there would be a group of likely suspects and there would be a sleuth who would unmask the killer. Christie had followed that pattern in The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Murder on the Links so readers had a set of expectations about what would happen in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But in this case Christie didn’t meet those expectations. She did something completely different and that choice upset a lot of readers. She was accused of ‘not playing fair’ and of breaking the rules of crime fiction if I can put it that way. In hindsight her decision has turned out to be a wise one. Today The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is considered by many to be one of her best works. But that’s not how her readers felt at the time.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series won her millions of devoted fans. Her sleuth, journalist Jim ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, his love interest Polly Duncan and the other regular characters in the series became favourites for a lot of readers who felt they had a certain amount of ownership. Readers came to expect certain kinds of plots, certain kinds of events and so on. But towards the end of the series many people saw some changes in the novels and they didn’t like it. For instance, Braun’s last novel The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers got quite a lot of negative press. In fact several reviews suggested that she hadn’t written the book herself. To be honest, I read that kind of thing about the last few of her novels. I don’t know whether it’s true, but I do know that even her devoted fans felt put off by what they saw as changes to the style, the focus and so on.

Sue Grafton’s ‘alphabet series’ featuring PI Kinsey Millhone also has a very devoted group of readers. Fans from all over the world have eagerly followed Millhone’s adventures since 1982 when A is for Alibi was published. And 22 books later, Millhone still has a huge following. And yet, not all of her fans have been happy about all of the developments in the stories. And this is what got Carol and me ‘talking’ about reader expectations. Readers have come to expect a certain writing style, a certain kind of plot, certain behaviours and so on from this series. Graftotn has experimented with different points of view, different kinds of pacing in the stories and other changes that haven’t always been well-received, and part of the reason for that may be that readers’ expectations have run up against the author’s choices. Despite some reader disappointment, I know that millions of readers (I’m one of them) are going to be interested in what Grafton does with Kinsey Millhone #23. W is for When….? ;-)

Camilla Läckberg created a very popular series featuring biographer Ericka Falck and her husband police detective Patrik Hedström. Beginning with The Ice Princess, this series has followed Falck and Hedström through several different criminal investigations, as well as developments in their personal lives. Many people (and I’m one of them) love the fishing-village setting, the mystery plots and the pacing and action. But as time has gone by, some readers have felt that the series has gotten away from what they saw as its initial ‘edginess.’ After The Ice Princess, readers had certain expectations for the kinds of plots that future novels would have, and the focus of those novels. And those readers have been a bit put off by what they see as the increasing focus on the domestic sides of these characters’ lives. That of course is a matter of taste; there are readers who really enjoy that aspect of the series. That’s why it’s such a good example I think of the way readers feel a sense of investment in a series and have very personal reactions when they feel that their expectations aren’t being met.

The whole question of readers’ expectations raises the issue of just exactly what authors owe their readers. The author/reader relationship is a complicated one really. Should authors write in the style and with the patterns that their fans have come to expect (and keep loyal readers but risk ‘sameyness’)? Should they innovate (and stay fresh, but  risk making readers cranky and creating books that simply aren’t good)? What about readers? Do readers really have a stake in series they love? To what extent? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. If you’re a reader how do you react when you sense a change in what an author is doing? If you’re a writer, what role do reader expectations play in what you write?

Thanks, Carol, for the inspiration and the great conversation.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Summer, Highland Falls. C’mon now, didn’t you expect a Billy Joel lyric from me?  ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Camilla Läckberg, Lilian Jackson Braun, Sue Grafton