Category Archives: Carl Hiaasen

There Were Incidents and Accidents*

So-Called AccidentsSome deaths are quite obviously murders. In those cases, at least in crime fiction, the killer doesn’t try to hide the fact that it was murder. Rather, the murderer may work hard at an alibi, or may work hard to prove there was no motive. But really, it’s much easier to disguise the murder as an accident if it’s possible. And sometimes, that makes it awfully difficult to prove that a death was murder.

Examples of murders made to look like accidents run all through crime fiction, possibly because it’s really credible that someone would want to cover up a murder that way. Whatever the reason, there are a lot of examples – many more than I could list in one post. But here are a few.

Agatha Christie uses the so-called accident in several of her stories. To take just one example, in Cards on the Table, Hercule Poirot is invited to a very unusual dinner. The enigmatic Mr. Shaitana gathers four sleuths (including Poirot) and four people that he hints have gotten away with murder. After the meal, everyone settles in to play bridge. During the evening, someone stabs Mr. Shaitana. The only possible suspects are the four people who were in the room at the time – the very four people Shaitana more or less accused of murder. Now the four sleuths are faced with the task of figuring out which of these equally-plausible suspects is guilty. One of them is Anne Meredith. At one point, she’d served as companion to a Mrs. Benson, who died tragically of poisoning by hat paint. Apparently, she confused the hat paint with her medicine, a very plausible accident. Or was it?

In Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), a young boy Isaiah Christiansen tragically dies after a fall from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment building where he lives. Isaiah had befriended fellow Greenlander Smilla Jasperson, and she is upset at his death. She’s drawn to the scene of the accident, and when she gets there, she sees signs in the snow that lead her to believe that the boy’s death was not accidental. She begins to ask questions and soon discovers that some dangerous people are determined to hide the truth. She persists though, and her search for answers takes her back to her homeland, where she finds the connection between Isaiah’s death and some secrets hidden in Greenland.

Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House introduces Arthur Bryant and John May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). The novel actually tells two stories, one of which is a recounting of the PCU’s first case. In 1940, the Palace Theatre is set to do a production of Orpheus. Then one of the dancers Tanya Capistrania dies in what some say is a freak accident. The police are investigating that death when Charles Senechal, who was to play the role of Jupiter in the production, is killed by a piece of scenery. Again it’s regarded as a terrible accident, but an accident nonetheless. Still, it’s beginning to look very much as though someone is determined to stop the production. When another death occurs, and then a disappearance, Bryant and May and their team come under intense pressure to solve the case before there are any more tragedies.

Louise Penny’s Still Life is our introduction to the small rural Québec town of Three Pines. One of its residents Jane Neal is killed during the Thanksgiving holiday in what looks like a hunting accident. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is called to the scene, and he soon finds that this death was actually a murder. The question though is who would have had a motive. The victim was a beloved former teacher whom everyone seemed to respect. Gamache and the team get to know the town, though, and some of its history. And it’s in the past that they find the motive and therefore, the killer.

In Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone thinks he’s found a great new way to make money. He’s a marine biologist (well, in name at least) who’s hired by agribusiness owner Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. Hammernut’s company has been accused of pouring toxic waste into Florida’s Everglades, and Hammernut needs proof that his company doesn’t pollute. Perrone offers that in the form of a way he’s developed to fake the results of water testing so the water looks clean. The two begin to do business and all goes well enough at first. Then, Perrone’s wife Joey begins to suspect what’s going on, and threatens to report it. Now he needs to get rid of her, so he tells her they’re going on an anniversary cruise of the Everglades. While they’re on the trip, he pushes Joey overboard, thinking that’s the end of his problems. At first everyone, including the police, thinks it’s a terrible accident and there’s much sympathy for Perrone. What he doesn’t know though is that Joey didn’t drown, and she’s made her own plans for revenge…

And then there’s Dawn Harris’ Letter From a Dead Man. In the late 18th-Century Lady Drusilla Davenish lives on the Isle of Wight with her Aunt Thirza and Thirza’s daughter Lucie. The family is excited about Lucie’s upcoming wedding to Giles Saxborough. Everything changes though, when Giles’ father (and Lady Drusilla’s godfather) Cuthbert Saxborough dies in what looks like a tragic riding accident. But things don’t quite add up for Lady Drusilla. Her godfather was an expert horseman. It’s highly unlikely that he’d have died in that way. So she starts to ask questions. Not long afterwards, Giles’ older brother Thomas and his son Tom are both killed in what’s put down as a horrible yachting accident. But Lady Drusilla is convinced that it’s more than that. And there’s more than one possible explanation. It might be connected to a smuggling operation she’s recently discovered. Or it might be someone with a vendetta against the Saxborough family. Or it might be something else…

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney is hired by Jim Delbeck to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. She was a volunteer at the New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya when she fell from the roof of the building where she was living. The police report suggests it might have been suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t think so. It could also have very well been an accident. Whatever the cause, Delbeck wants to know the truth about his daughter’s death. Keeney takes the case and travels to Pattaya. As a part of her investigations, she decides to learn more about at New Life, going undercover as a volunteer. As she gets closer to the truth about Maryanne’s life and death, she finds out that some people do not want their secrets revealed…

At least in fiction, murders designed to look like accidents can serve a lot of purposes. They can give murderers effective ways to hide their crimes. They can also give the author a way to build suspense and interest. And they can allow the author the chance to lead the reader up the proverbial garden path. After all, sometimes an accident is just an accident. There are so many other examples of this plot point in crime fiction – many more than I could name. So…what gaps have I left?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al.

11 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Carl Hiaasen, Christopher Fowler, Dawn Harris, Louise Penny, Peter Høeg

We Can Change the World*

Change the WorldLet’s face it; we don’t live in a perfect world. And I’m sure all of us see particular things (e.g. poverty, the state of the environment, bigotry, etc.) that we would especially like to change. That’s often why people become volunteers, engage in protests, make donations and the like. That desire to change the world can be a very strong motivator and like all driving forces, can get us into trouble. And yet, most of us would agree that somebody has to be out there working for change. There are plenty of characters in crime fiction who are driven by the desire to make the world better. Some, we might argue, are at the very least misguided. Others are people we might even call noble. Either way, they make for interesting characters in crime novels. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), we meet Howard Raikes. He’s a young political activist who wants badly to overthrow the current British government and economic system and start over with a new world order. It’s his belief that the cautious government and banking system hold back positive change and progress. In one sub-plot of the novel, he’s struck up a friendship with Jane Olivera, the American niece of wealthy and powerful banker Alistair Blunt. To Raikes, Blunt is the epitome of everything that needs to be swept away, and he wants Jane to leave her home with Blunt and join him in his effort to change everything. She likes Raikes and agrees with some of his beliefs. But at the same time, she’s not nearly as militant and she is fond of her uncle. One day, Blunt’s dentist Henry Morley is shot in his surgery, and it’s not long before the police begin to wonder whether the original target was actually Blunt, since he’s made his share of enemies. It turns out that Raikes was there that morning, so he becomes one of the suspects in the murder. Hercule Poirot was also at the surgery that morning, so Chief Inspector Japp asks his help in finding out who really killed the dentist and why. Throughout the novel we can see how committed Raikes is to making a better world, even if we don’t agree on his methods or all of his ideas.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly has as most of its context Venice’s glass-blowing industry. It’s a very old and very lucrative business, and Giovanni de Cal has made plenty of money from his glass-blowing factory. But there is evidence that those factories are major polluters and are very bad for the environment. So a group of activists stages protests of de Cal’s factory. One of the leaders of that group is his own son-in-law Marco Ribetti. When Ribetti is arrested during a protest, he asks his friend Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello for help. Vianello agrees to see what he can do, and he and his boss Comissario Guido Brunetti arrange for Ribetti’s release. But that’s far from the end of the story. One of de Cal’s employees is night watchman Giorgio Tassini, who is convinced that the company is dumping toxic waste, and who tells his story to anyone who will listen. One night Tassini is killed in what looks like a terrible accident. But Brunetti isn’t sure his death is accidental. So he and Vianello look into the matter. In the characters of both Ribetti and Tassini, we see that strong desire to change the world and make it better.

Carl Hiaasen’s Lucky You introduces us to JoLayne Lucks, a lover of the environment who gets her chance to do some real good when she wins a lottery worth US$14 million. She plans to do her bit to change the world by purchasing a piece of land in Florida and turning it into a nature preserve to keep it out of the hands of developers. But then her ticket is stolen by a group of neo-Nazis who want the money to fund a militia. Features writer Tom Krone of The Register is assigned to do an in-depth story on JoLayne, but instead finds himself drawn into her plot to get the ticket back. This brings Krone up against the thieves, some land developers and their thugs, and a religious scam.

In Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, Emma le Roux hires professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to escort her from Cape Town to the Lowveld. Emma has discovered that her brother Jacobus, who was thought dead for years, may actually be alive. If he is alive, she wants to find him. If not, she wants to know that too, and the trail has led to his last known whereabouts in the Lowveld.  One possible lead is at the Heuningklip Wildlife Preserve, so the two visit the place. It’s run by Stef Moller, a true lover of the environment who’s not keen on tourists visiting. He’s far more interested in the animals and other wildlife and not interested in making money from the tourist trade. And in fact that passion for the environment and for changing the world through preserving it plays an important role in this novel.

And then there’s Riel Delorme, whom we meet in Gail Bowen’s series featuring academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. In Kaleidoscope, we learn thatDelorme is a Métis activist who is one of the leaders of the Warriors, a group that’s dead-set against development. He also happens to be one of Joanne’s former graduate students. He and the other activists oppose the creation of a new community designed to improve the economically depressed North Central area of Regina. Their claim is that the new planned community will only put money into developer Leland Hunter’s pocket. When one of Hunter’s employees is killed, it’s quite possible that Delorme had something to do with it, but matters aren’t that simple. What’s more, it turns out that Joanne’s daughter Mieka is romantically involved with Riel, so the case is quite complicated on a personal level as well as on the larger level. And this novel addresses the whole issue of how to make the world, or at least that small part of it, a better place. There are conflicting views about how to address issues such as the disenfranchisement of the poor, racism and other social problems.

Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer takes place in an apocalyptic world in which climate change has wreaked havoc and life is descending little by little into complete anarchy. Only people with a great deal of money feel any sort of safety and that’s because they can afford the services of private security companies. It’s a dangerous and bleak world, and many people have given up on it. Against this backdrop, poet Tapani Lehtinen risks his life to find his wife Johanna, a journalist who has disappeared. Lehtinen learns that she was pursuing a story about a man calling himself the Healer. He’s claimed responsibility for the deaths of several corporate executives he holds responsible for the destruction of the planet. The murders have been committed, says the Healer, to call attention to the ruin of the planet and to avenge those whose lives have been destroyed because of it. Lehtinen follows the story, hoping that the trail will lead him to his wife. As he gets close to the truth about the Healer, he also gets closer to the truth about Johanna. Among other things, this novel addresses the whole issue of trying to make the world better. We may be against the Healer’s methods, but the more Lehtinen learns about the Healer, the more we can see where the motivation comes from.

And that’s the thing about some of those who try to change the world. Sometimes their methods are at the least misguided. Sometimes they do incredible amounts of good. And sometimes there’s a razor-thin line between the two…

 

 
 

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

21 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Antti Tuomainen, Carl Hiaasen, Deon Meyer, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen

Golden Words and Silver Tongue*

Silver TongueHave you ever known someone with the kind of glib persuasiveness that could make you believe black was white? Not all people with a so-called ‘silver tongue’ have unpleasant ulterior motives, but they can certainly get people to do whatever they want. And very often you do find that confidence tricksters and other scam artists are persuasive like that. The savvy person knows that nothing comes without a price, and things that look too good to be real probably are. But even they can sometimes be moved to do things they might not ordinarily do, and all because of the so-called ‘silver tongue.’

We certainly see plenty of characters like that in crime fiction. In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for example, detective story author Ariadne Oliver has come to the village of Broadhinny to collaborate on the adaptation of one of her novels for the stage. Her partner in the project is budding playwright Robin Upward, who lives in the village with his mother. He’s got talent, and a vision of what he wants the play to be, and one of the sub-plots of the novel concerns his attempts to convince Mrs. Oliver that he’s right. For her part, Mrs. Oliver doesn’t care at all for Upward’s ideas about the play. The result he has in mind is nothing like her book, and that infuriates her. So he doesn’t succeed at winning her over, but it’s not for want of a ‘silver tongue’ and a real effort to persuade her. The play loses its interest for Mrs. Oliver when Hercule Poirot arrives in the village. He’s been asked to investigate the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger. Superintendent Spence thinks the man’s innocent though, and Poirot sets out to find the truth.

John Grant’s (AKA Jonathan Gash) Lovejoy also has a glib and persuasive way about him. He is an antiques dealer who is absolutely passionate about getting hold of the pieces he wants. In fact, that’s his main interest in life. And when he has his eye on a particular object, or when an opportunity comes his way, he can be highly charming and persuasive. He will say whatever it takes to get what he wants at the best prices possible. He admits it himself in The Judas Pair:

 

‘We dealers are pretty slick. Some are all right but some are not…Cleverer than any artist, better than any actor. They’ll pick your house clean in any way they can and brag about it in the pub afterwards.’

 

In that novel, Lovejoy works to track down a pair of mythical dueling pistols, one of which was likely used to commit murder. He finds himself involved even more deeply when there’s another murder.

In Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, we meet Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone, a marine biologist (mostly in name) who works for a large agribusiness firm owned by Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. Hammernut is ‘in the sights’ of government authorities who believe his company is pouring toxic waste into the Florida Everglades. In order to prevent a media disaster and government prosecution, Hammernut engages Perrone to prove that the water near his firm is not polluted. Perrone is happy to oblige. For one thing, that proof is worth a lot of money to Hammernut. For another, Perrone has come upon a way to alter water tests so that it looks as though the water is safe. All goes well for a time. Perrone has a very glib tongue and has talked his way out of all sorts of difficult situations and into all sorts of women’s beds. Even his wife Joey trusts him, and she’s basically a smart person. That intelligence becomes a problem when she finds out what her husband’s been doing. Seeing no other option, he takes her on a cruise, allegedly to celebrate their anniversary, and pushes her overboard. Joey survives though, and finds her own way to strike back. In the meantime, Perrone has to use his glibness again when the police begin to suspect him.

Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) introduces us to C.C. de Poitiers. She’s a celebrated ‘life coach’ who’s founded a company Be Calm to sell her image, her lifestyle suggestions and the inevitable related products and services. She’s got a best-selling book in print, too, with the same name. She’s quite good at selling herself and her message, and lots of people take her at her word. But the reality of her life is quite different. When she and her family move to the small Québec town of Three Pines, everyone soon sees that she is hard-edged, malicious and verbally cruel. On Boxing Day, everyone gathers for the traditional curling match that takes place in the area. During the match, de Poitiers is electrocuted. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team investigate the murder and they have plenty of suspects.

One of the funnier examples of the ‘silver tongue’ is in Teresa Solana’s series featuring Barcelona PI brothers Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez. Of the two of them, Borja is the one with the persuasive ability. He has the gift of being able to charm just about anyone into anything, and talk his way out of nearly every dicey situation. In fact, he even persuades his brother to get involved in more then one risky plan in A Not So Perfect Crime, when they investigate their first murder. And he juggles two mistresses, one of whom is wealthy enough that Borja can easily wear the designer clothes he prefers, and indulge in expensive haircuts and meals.

And he’s not the only PI who can be glib and persuasive. Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon-based PI Russell Quant would much rather talk his way out of a situation than throw punches or use a weapon. He can get people to do what he wants too, when he puts his mind to it. In Flight of Aquavit for instance, he is hired to find out who’s been blackmailing successful accountant Daniel Guest. The trail leads to a local repertory theatre company, but Quant knows that they won’t just volunteer personal information to a stranger, so he’ll have to be at his most charming and persuasive. So he adopts another name and ‘cover story’ and turns on the proverbial charm. He manages to convince the receptionist to get the information he wants, and uses it to get closer to the answers he needs. There are plenty of other PIs too who have that ability to be glib (I know, I know, fans of Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin).

And then there’s Jack Hardy, whom we meet in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. That’s the fictional account of the life of Maggie Heffernan, who was imprisoned in Melbourne in 1900 for the drowning of her baby son. James shows us how it all began when Maggie meets Jack. He’s not only attractive, but he’s persuasive and glib. It’s not long before she’s in love with him and he seems to reciprocate. He leads her to believe that they’ll be married as soon as they can, but that they have to keep their engagement secret until he gets himself set up in a good job. Shortly afterwards, he leaves to find work in New South Wales. When Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, she writes to him repeatedly but gets no answer. Knowing that her parents won’t accept her back in their home, she travels to Melbourne and finds a job in a Guest House. Once baby Jacky is born, she moves to a home for unwed mothers and their infants. That’s where she hears that Jack has gone to Melbourne. When she finally tracks him down, he rejects her utterly and she finally understands that she was taken in by his ‘silver tongue.’ She and baby Jacky are turned away from six lodging places that night, and that’s when the tragedy happens.

A lot of people associate a ‘silver tongue’ with lawyers because they have to be as persuasive as they can in the courtroom. Their job is to make their case as effectively as possible, so the art of persuasion is important. I’ll bet you could come up with lots of examples of legal novels where the attorneys have to depend on that quality.

Whether it’s a sales rep, a con artist, an attorney or someone else, the ‘silver tongue’ can be a valuable asset when you want to have your way. Which examples of this have you enjoyed in crime fiction?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Deep Purple’s Lady Luck.

24 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Carl Hiaasen, John Grant, Jonathan Gash, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Teresa Solana, Wendy James

I Am an Innocent Man*

Web - InnocentsAll sorts of people are affected when there’s a crime, especially a crime like murder. And sometimes the people caught up in the investigation are completely innocent. Perhaps they were at a certain place at a certain time. Or perhaps they had the bad fortune to be friends with/married to/doing business with a murder victim or a suspect. In those kinds of cases, even people who are innocent may be drawn into a case of murder. They may be questioned by the police, have their things searched or worse. That can happen in real life, and if it’s done believably, it can add an interesting thread of suspense and tension to a crime story.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Hilton Cubitt, a respectable ‘country squire’ type who’s very concerned about his wife Elsie. Elsie is originally from Chicago, where she made some very dubious associations. But as she tells her husband, she has nothing of which she need be personally ashamed. Now it seems as though one of those associates has found her. She’s been receiving cryptic messages and won’t tell her husband what they mean. Whatever else they mean, they seem to present danger to her, and Cubitt wants to help his wife if he can. Then one night there’s a tragedy. Cubitt is murdered and his wife left badly wounded. Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate and discover the connection between that night and the cryptic clues. Throughout this adventure readers can sense that Cubitt is an innocent person caught up in something dangerous. That fact adds suspense to the story.

The focus of Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death) is a hostel for students. It’s managed by Mrs. Hubbard, the sister of Hercule Poirot’s super-efficient secretary Felicity Lemon. Lately Mrs. Hubbard has been concerned about some odd events that have taken place at the hostel, including some strange petty thefts. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and goes to the hostel for dinner and to get the proverbial lay of the land. While he’s there, one of the residents Celia Austin admits to being responsible for several of the thefts. The matter then seems to be settled until two nights later when Celia is murdered. Now Poirot and Inspector Sharpe do a thorough investigation to find out who wanted to kill Celia and why. They discover  the truth, but not before there are two other murders. Throughout this novel, we learn that some of the residents are hiding things. Others though are perfectly innocent and are shocked at what’s happening. That sense of being innocently drawn into something horrible adds real tension to this story.

We also see this in Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. Martin Canning is a mystery novelist who’s always led a more or less safe life. Even his novels avoid gore and a lot of violence. His literary agent convinces him to participate in an upcoming Arts Festival in Edinburgh and Canning makes preparations. He’s waiting to buy tickets to an afternoon show when he witnesses a car accident. A blue Honda hits a silver Peugeot being driven by Paul Bradley. The Honda driver gets out of his vehicle and he and Bradley quarrel. Then the Honda driver brandishes a bat. Now Bradley’s life is in danger and without thinking about it, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver. The case knocks the driver down and saves Bradley’s life. Canning insists on accompanying Bradley to a local hospital to be sure he’s all right and that’s when the real trouble begins. It turns out Canning has innocently gotten himself mixed up in a case of fraud, theft and multiple murders. Part of the suspense in this novel comes as we see how Canning gets ever more deeply drawn into a case he had little to do with at first.

That’s also what happens in Carl Hiaasen’s Lucky You. Features writer Tom Krone is assigned to do an in-depth story on JoLayne Lucks, who has just won US$14 million. Her plan is to use her winnings to buy a piece of Florida land and keep it as a reserve – safe from the hands of some greedy developers who’ve had their eyes on it. It’s a terrific human interest story and it’s supposed to be a straightforward one too. But everything changes when a group of neo-Nazis steals JoLayne’s winning ticket. Their plan is to use the money to fund an armed militia. Krone just wants to get his story, but he’s soon drawn into JoLayne’s plot to get the ticket back. And then there are the developers who are also very much interested in the fate of that ticket. It’s an example to show that you never know where a story will lead.

Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure is the story of the murder of Suzanne Crawford. Paramedics Carly Martens and Aidan Simpson are called to the Crawford home in a case of what seems to be domestic violence. Suzanne doesn’t want to press charges against her husband Connor though, and she insists that she’s going to be fine. The paramedics can’t really compel her to take any other action so they leave. The next day Suzanne is murdered. New South Wales Police detectives Ella Marconi and Dennis Orchard are assigned to the case. As you would imagine, they want to talk to Connor Crawford, but he’s gone missing. One possibility for getting information is a local volunteer organisation called Streetlights. This group works with at-risk young people, helping them to find work, set goals and stay out of trouble. A few of the young people involved in Streetlights worked in the nursery that the Crawfords owned. So Marconi and Orchard hope that one of those young people will be able to give them some information about the couple. One of these young people is Emil Page. Just as the cops start to focus on him though, Emil disappears too. As it turns out, Emil has been more or less innocently drawn into this case of murder, He may not be exactly ‘the boy next door,’ but he’s gotten involved in this case unwittingly.

And then there’s Stewart Macintosh, whom we meet in Malcolm Mackay’s  The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. He’s at a club called Heavenly one night when he meets an attractive young woman Zara Cope. She came to the club with her partner Lewis Winter. As the evening goes on, Winter gets more and more drunk and Stewart and Zara get more and more friendly. He sees no reason to object when Zara invites him back to her house ‘for drinks,’ and helps her steer Winter into a cab, into the house and upstairs to bed. Then he and Zara get on with their own plans for the night. That’s when the door bursts open and two professional hit men burst in. One goes upstairs and shoots Winter; the other guards Stewart and Zara. When they’re done their work they leave. Now panicked, Stewart sees that he’s gotten himself into something very much more than he’d imagined. But he’s attracted to Zara and when she asks him to keep something for her for a short while, he finds it impossible to refuse her. That’s how he gets drawn into a case of gangland ‘patch wars,’ drug dealing and murder-for-hire. He may not be exactly a ‘choir boy,’ but Stewart is a basically innocent guy who’s gotten himself into a serious mess.

And that’s how it often happens. A basically innocent person meets someone at a club, or works with someone, or sees something and before you know it, is drawn into a deadly situation. It’s hard to write such characters credibly. There has to be an authentic reason for the character to be pulled into the case. But when it’s done well it can add a really interesting layer of suspense to a story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man.

35 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Carl Hiaasen, Kate Atkinson, Katherine Howell, Malcolm Mackay

You Picked a Real Bad Time*

Bad TimingReading and reading experiences are often very subjective. Of course, no matter who’s doing the reading, ‘flat’ characters, stilted dialogue and cumbersome detail are signs that a book isn’t well-written. But the fact is, our impressions of a book are also affected by things such as personal taste and preference. What we think of a book is also arguably affected by when we read that book. Let me just offer a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean about the way timing can impact our impression of a book.

A lot of people prefer lighter reading during holidays. Somehow, lighter, cosy mysteries such as Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series or comic caper novels such as Carl Hiaasen’s just seem to ‘fit’ when you’re beach reading or curled up by the fire. There are many, many examples of this kind of lighter reading, and of course, personal taste is going to figure into which novels one chooses. But there’s something about holidays and vacations that seems to invite one to read a lighter novel.

What’s interesting is what happens when you pick up that kind of novel at another time, say, when you’ve just been reading about an important social issue and you want to mull it over. Suddenly, the Bev Robitai or Simon Brett theatre-based novel that seemed so absolutely perfect…doesn’t seem that way anymore. Nothing at all has happened to the quality of those novels (I recommend both authors, by the way). They’re still interesting stories with appealing characters. What’s happened is that the timing isn’t right for them.

The same kind of thing happens with novels such as Unity Dow’s The Screaming of the Innocent or Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Those are both difficult novels to read in that they deal with important but harrowing social issues. And there are times when one’s open to those more challenging stories. You might just have read an article about a certain topic, or you might have just come back from a holiday and be ready for a challenge. At those times, books like these can feel like the perfect choice. You can appreciate the message and you’re willing to invest yourself in the harder parts of the story.

But suppose you decide to try something such as Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second when you’re off on a fun trip. The same book that you might have thought of as difficult, even harrowing, but exceptionally well-written and worth reading, now becomes far too difficult to read. Now this kind of book is unutterably depressing and hard to finish. The fact is (and you already know this of course) nothing’s happened to the book’s quality at all. It’s still an excellent story with a lot of ‘food for thought’ and some compelling characters. The timing’s just wrong for the book.

Did you ever notice that when you’re planning to travel somewhere, you get quite interested in reading books that take place in your destination? I know that’s happened to me. So if you’re planning a trip to Spain you might be especially interested in Teresa Solana’s, Antonio Hill’s or Domingo Villar’s work. I’ve only mentioned a very few examples of Spanish crime fiction but you get my point. As you read those books you try to get every nuance of culture and geography you can, since you’re attuned to it.

But what if you choose a book like Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X when you’re having ‘one of those weeks’ and you’ve only got small amounts of reading time? Then, the very nuances of culture and geography that you love at other times can seem burdensome, or you might not pay attention to them and really appreciate them. That feeling might not have much to do with the quality of a given book. Rather, it’s the timing of your reading.

There are times when the action and suspense of thrillers such as Lindy Cameron’s Redback are exactly right. Thrillers like that can be the perfect accompaniment to a quiet evening when it’s fun to imagine what it would be like to be up against international terrorists. But maybe it isn’t the best choice if you’re not feeling well and not ready to deal with edge-of-the-seat ‘roller coaster rides.’

A ‘quieter’ sort of mystery such as you find in Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series might be really appealing for those times when you have a few days to follow along and appreciate the subtler approach and more slowly-evolving story line. At those times, you can see the real appeal of character development and nuance. But pick that sort of book up when you’re waiting in an office or when you’re anxiously awaiting word on whether you got that job, and you could easily find such a novel too slow. Those details of character development that so draw you in at other times now just seem irritating. The series hasn’t changed (by the way, I recommend Brunanski’s series – I really like Bart’s character a lot). The fact is, it’s the kind of series that’s best enjoyed when you’ve got the time to ‘slow the pace down’ a bit.

And I think we’d all agree that mood plays a role too in what we think of a book. Grumpy or feeling crotchety? Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice might be the perfect fit. Need a good, irreverent laugh? Christopher Brookmyre has done some very funny novels. You get the idea.

So as we all start to plan what we’re going to read in 2014, do you think about this timing issue? Do you plan your reading so that you’ll take the lighter stuff with you on holiday for instance? Or do you adapt yourself to the book you’re reading?  What about when you start a book and then realise it’s the wrong time for that novel? Do you give up or pick it up at another time?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.

30 Comments

Filed under Antonio Hill, Bev Robitai, Carl Hiaasen, Cath Staincliffe, Christopher Brookmyre, Domingo Villar, Keigo Hagishino, Kishwar Desai, Lindy Cameron, Nelson Brunanski, Simon Brett, Susan Wittig Albert, Teresa Solana, Unity Dow, Virginia Duigan