Category Archives: Carola Dunn

See What You’ve Made and See Who You Are*

Patterned ReadingPeople often get into patterns of doing things. Sometimes a new pattern creeps up on us so subtly that we’re not even aware we’ve developed one. Sometimes we’re more deliberate about it. Patterns can weave themselves into any aspect of our lives, and for the book lover, that includes reading. If you’ve ever found yourself suddenly realising that the last several books you’ve read have been about the same topic, or take place in the same region, or treat the same theme, you know what I mean. Of course, everyone’s different about reading patterns, but it’s interesting to see how they affect our choices, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Some reading patterns start almost accidentally if I can put it that way. For instance, suppose a friend lends you a novel such as Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier, which introduces Trafalgar, British Columbia Constable Molly Smith. Now, suppose you enjoy that novel, so you pay a little more attention when you notice a review of Gail Bowen’s The Endless Knot, which also takes place in Canada. It’s in a very different province, but you liked the Delany, so…why not? Then you notice yourself reading other books with Canadian settings (e.g. Giles Blunt, Louise Penny or Anthony Bidulka). Before you really now what’s happened, you’ve developed a pattern of reading more Canadian crime fiction than you thought you had.

The same kind of thing happens sometimes when people read crime fiction that takes place in a given era. For example, you might read one of Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple novels that take place in the 1920’s. The era is absolutely fascinating, so perhaps that tempts you to read one of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels or perhaps Jeffrey Stone’s Play Him Again. Those novels also take place in the 1920’s. Before you’re even aware of it, you’ve started on a pattern of reading novels that take place in a particular time period.

We all have different sub-genres of crime fiction that particularly appeal to us and sometimes, we find that we’ve developed a pattern of mostly reading within one sub-genre. If you’ve ever tried one of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels and loved it or one of Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi novels and loved it, you may slowly find yourself reading more and more police procedurals. And because you haven’t thought about it or planned it, you’re not even really aware you’ve been reading a lot from that sub-genre.

After a while, most of us do notice that we’ve been reading a lot about one issue, or about one place/time, or in one sub-genre. Some people don’t mind that at all and there’s nothing wrong with that. Other people though decide to change their patterns or at least add in new ones.

That’s one reason why some patterns in reading are quite deliberate. Sometimes people deliberately develop patterns by choosing a reading challenge. There are dozens out there too, and a lot of them are not difficult to meet. I’ll just mention two. One is the Vintage Mystery Challenge, hosted by Bev at My Reader’s Block . Readers who notice that they haven’t read a lot of classic, Golden Age or other vintage crime fiction may want to check out that challenge; there are lots of interesting categories and lots of possibilities for books. Another challenge is the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge. You may decide for instance that you’d like to be more familiar with all sorts of fiction being written by the terrific ladies from Down Under. This challenge gives you the chance to try some of their work. The great thing about challenges is that they give the reader a focus for breaking out of patterns or trying new ones.

Some readers deliberately try a new pattern through reading blogs that focus on particular places, times, etc.  For example, a look at Glenn Harper’s International Noir Fiction may convince you to add some noir to your reading diet. You may read Barbara Fister’s Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog and find some titles there that pique your interest. I know that terrific blogs like that have gotten me to take a look at my reading patterns and think about adjusting them.

There are plenty of readers too who keep notes on what they read and take a look at them periodically. Charts and graphs on what they read help them reflect and decide what they’re going to do about their patterns. You know who you are and I really respect that self-reflection.

Writers of course have another way of focusing deliberately on their reading patterns. The best writers are also voracious readers and are well aware of what other people in their sub-genre are doing. They keep up with the major authors and series in their sub-genre to help them improve what they do. I know that reading other authors’ work helps me.

These are just a few things I’ve discovered about reading patterns. What are your views? Do you notice yourself developing patterns without being aware of it? Do you plan your patterns? What gets you in the reading patterns you’ve developed? If you’re a writer, how do your reading and writing patterns affect each other?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don McLean’s The Pattern is Broken.

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Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Carola Dunn, Giles Blunt, Jeffrey Stone, Katherine Howell, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, Reginald Hill, Vicki Delany

Why Keep the Brakes On? Let’s Misbehave!*

1920'sWhat do you think of when you think of the 1920’s? Do you think of ‘flappers?’ Of Babe Ruth? Prohibition?  The growth of Hollywood? It was an action-packed decade, and so many things happened at that time that it’s no wonder it’s got such an appeal. There’s a certain mystique about art-deco and 1920’s style extravagance among other things. So it’s no wonder that the 1920’s is also a big part of crime fiction.

For one thing, many people argue that the Golden Age of crime fiction began to hit its stride in the 1920’s. And I’m sure that those of you who are Golden Age fans could list a large number of authors and books from that time – many more than I could. Let me just mention a few. Dorothy Sayers’ series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey debuted in 1923 with Whose Body?, in which Wimsey investigates the murder of an unknown man whose body is found in a bathtub. This plot thread ties in with embezzlement and another man who seems to have disappeared. In this novel, we see one of the hallmarks of the 1920’s – the class differences that still remained quite strong. Wimsey and his family are wealthy and privileged. They have access to all sorts of means that ‘ordinary’ people do not. And the theme of class differences is woven into more than one of Sayers’ novels. phryne-fisher-200x0

We also see those stark class differences in historical series. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series features Fisher, who was born to the working class but inherited a title and fortune. So she mixes and mingles in the highest social circles. And yet, we also see that not everyone has that sort of prosperity. In Cocaine Blues for instance, Fisher gets involved in cracking an illegal (and dangerous) abortion clinic for working-class girls and young women whose families don’t have the means to make it all quietly ‘go away’ safely.

The 1920’s were also a time of great waves of immigration, and not just to the United States. Travel was becoming easier and the Great War had uprooted millions of people. The resulting diversity was one of the major social changes of the era. But that immigration also resulted in quite a lot of ethnic and racial prejudice. We see that reflected in crime fiction of the era too. In Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley for instance, a group of friends is gathered at Black Dudley, the home of academician Wyatt Petrie. During the course of this house party, Petrie’s uncle Gordon Crombie dies, and it looks very much as though his death is suspicious. One of the guests Albert Campion takes a hand in finding out the truth about the death and about a mysterious ritual that’s supposedly associated with the family living there. In the course of the novel, there are several ‘isms’ and offensive references to members of different groups. You’ll find those in lots of other crime fiction of that decade too.

For several reasons, the roles of women changed fundamentally during the 1920’s. Just as one example, between 1920 and 1929, voting rights were extended to include women in the Czech Republic, Sweden, the U.K., the U.S. and Belgium among other countries (Australia granted federal voting rights to women in 1902, but some states granted it earlier for state elections. Canadian women had full federal voting rights in 1918. Women had had full suffrage in New Zealand since 1893).  We see the changing status of women in a lot of crime fiction from and about that era. Certainly we see it in Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series. Fisher is single and in no hurry to marry. She’s independent, liberated and although she certainly depends on her circle of friends, I’d say the word ‘demure’ hardly describes her.

We see that also in the work of Agatha Christie. Several of her female characters are independent, strong women. There’s Anne Beddingfeld from The Man in the Brown Suit; there’s Katherine Grey from The Mystery of the Blue Train; and there’s ‘Cinderella’ (giving away her real name would be giving away too much of the plot) from The Murder on the Links, just to name three. All of these women think for themselves. They’re not averse to falling in love, and they’re not ‘man haters.’ But all of them reflect the reality of that time that women were coming into their own, so to speak.

A lot of people associate the 1920’s with extravagant parties and hedonism and it was certainly there. We see a hint of that in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). Hercule Poiriot and Captain Hastings investigate the death of Miss Emily Arundell, who supposedly died of liver failure, but has a group of relations desperate for her fortune. One of them is Theresa Arundell, a young ‘jet-setter’ who goes with a ‘party crowd,’ drinks heavily and so on. She’s not painted unsympathetically, but she is reckless.

And reckless is I think a good way to describe some aspects of that era. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know for sure why the 1920’s was such a time of reckless abandon for a lot of people but here’s my guess. World War I changed everything for everyone. The real threat of mortality (especially with the influenza pandemic that followed that war) made a lot of people decide to enjoy life while they could You see that in writing from the era (e.g. F. Scott Fitzgerald) and you see that theme of deep wounds from the Great War in some terrific historical mystery series too. May I suggest Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, ‘Charles Todd’s’ Inspector Ian Rutledge series, and Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series. You can also see it in Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In all of those novels and series, we get a sense of the privations of the war and the ‘flu pandemic. People wanted to forget it, to plunge into life and have fun while they could.

Of course there was plenty of violence during the 1920’s too. There was a lot of union unrest and the backlash from that. There was plenty of ugly, ugly racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration and political corruption and that too led to a lot of violence. And there was organized crime. There’s a trace of that rise in organized crime in Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, in which Charles Moray returns to England after some time away only to find that his home has been taken over by a criminal gang and that the woman who broke his heart may be mixed up with it. And then there’s Jeffrey Stone’s Play Him Again. In that historical mystery, Matt ‘Hud’ Hudson is a ‘rum-runner’ – a smuggler of then-illegal alcohol who supplies Hollywood’s luminaries with ‘liquid fuel’ for their parties. When a friend of his is murdered, Hud goes after those responsible, including a very nasty crime gang that’s moved into the area. That novel also explores what Prohibition was like in the U.S. (and makes it clear why the law enforcing Prohibition was never going to be really successful).

I could go on and on about the 1920’s (Jazz, anyone? The Harlem Renaissance? The fashions!) Moira at Clothes in Books has done some great posts on the clothes and fashions of the era. Here’s just one example. But this one post doesn’t give me nearly enough space to talk about it all. The 1920’s was too influential a decade for that. So now it’s your turn. Does that era appeal to you? Which books and series from and about that era do you like? Help me please to fill the gaps I left.

 

ps. The pearls on the left in the top ‘photo are part of a long double strand of pearls that belonged to my grandmother. On the right is a double-strand necklace that belonged to my grandmother-in-law. Both are genuine vintage…   The other ‘photo is of the terrific Essie Davis, who portrayed Phryne Fisher in the very well-done (in my opinion, anyway) Australian series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. These episodes are adaptations of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels and if you get the chance, I can recommend them. They aren’t of course 100% true to the novels, but very nicely done I think.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cole Porter’s Let’s Misbehave.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Carola Dunn, Charles Todd, Dorothy Sayers, Jacqueline Winspear, Jeffrey Stone, Kerry Greenwood, Margery Allingham, Patricia Wentworth

I’m Just Like You, Baby, I’m on the Hunt*

One of the things I love about the blogging community I’m privileged to be among is that I’m always getting inspired by things others say. For instance, an interesting comment from Sarah Ward at Crimepieces has got me thinking about the way crime fictional victims’ bodies are discovered. That can be a tricky business actually because in real life, most of us go about our daily business without poking into empty abandoned places where bodies might be discovered. So the crime fiction author has to create a scenario where the body (bodies) would be found in a believable way. One of the ways that happens (and this is where Sarah’s comment inspired me) is when pets do the discovering. Just a quick look at crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean.

As anyone who’s ever been owned by a dog knows, dogs need regular opportunities to go for walks. And most dogs can’t resist the opportunity to follow an interesting scent. Trust me. Some dogs are diggers and burrowers, too. So it makes sense that fictional dogs would play a big role in finding bodies. That’s what happens, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. In that novel, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings work with Scotland Yard and the local police to solve a set of murders that looks like the work of a serial killer. The second victim is twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth “Betty” Barnard, whose body is found on a beach near her home in Bexhill-on-Sea. Her body is discovered when Colonel Jerome takes his dog for an early morning walk. As you can guess, the dog follows an interesting scent that leads Jerome to the body. The only apparent links between Betty Bernard and the other victims are cryptic warnings that Poirot receives before each murder and the fact that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. Bit by bit, Poirot and Hastings discover who the murderer is and what the motive is, and no; it isn’t a case of a psychopathic killer. In a way that makes the murders even more chilling.

The real action in Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace begins when a stray dog who’s been mooching off the villagers of Littlebourne makes a grisly discovery: a human finger. When Augusta Craigie realises what the dog has, she contacts the police and it’s not long before Superintendent Richard Jury is sent to Littlebourne to find out where the rest of the body is and who the dead person is. As it turns out, the finger belongs to Cora Binns, who worked for a London temporary secretarial agency. Jury tells his friend amateur detective Melrose Plant about the case and Plant travels to Littlebourne to help find out why and by whom Cora Binns was murdered. Together, the two discover a connection between Binns’ death and a brutal attack on sixteen-year-old Katie O’Brien, also a resident of Littlebourne. They also discover that both of these incidences are related to a robbery that occurred in Littlebourne a year previously, and a death that followed that robbery.

In Margaret Truman’s Murder at the Kennedy Center, we meet Georgetown Law School professor Mackensie “Mac” Smith. He’s taking a late evening walk with his dog Rufus one night when Rufus discovers the body of Andrea Feldman, who’s been shot. He immediately calls the police, but it’s not long before Smith is a lot more deeply involved in the case then he thought he would be. Feldman was a staffer for U.S. Senator Ken Ewald, a very promising candidate for the U.S. presidency. The police soon discover that the gun used in the murder belonged to Ewald, so he becomes a suspect. So do the other members of his family, all of whom have motive. Smith has been a friend of the Ewald family for a long time, and when Ewald asks Smith for legal help, Smith agrees. Then, Ewald’s son Paul is charged with Feldman’s murder. Now, Smith has to unravel the complicated relationships between Feldman and the various members of the Ewald family. He also has to look into the rest of Feldman’s personal life and her professional life as well. When he does, Smith discovers that more than one person had a very good motive for wanting Feldman dead.

And then there’s the Snowball, the “office cat” in Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series (Thanks, Sarah, for reminding me of this :-)). In This Night’s Foul Work, Snowball shows that cats can be extremely effective trackers and can dig up things just as dogs can. Adamsberg and his team are faced with several cases that could be connected. Two drug dealers have been found with their throats cut. Their deaths bear the “calling card” of Claire Langevin, a district nurse who also happens to be a serial killer. Adamsberg had her put away two years earlier, but she’s recently escaped and might be mixed up with these deaths. And then there are the brutal killings of some Normandy stags, which might also be involved in this complex case. In the midst of all of this, Lieutenant Violette Retancourt goes off to follow some leads, and doesn’t return. At first, the Snowball seems to be the only one concerned about her, because she is the Snowball’s favourite human. After a while, the rest of the team also begins to wonder what’s happened to her and finally, the decision is made to let the Snowball track her. Sure enough, and in spite of some dire predications and comments about the Snowball’s lack of intelligence, the “office cat” leads the team to Retancourt, and we discover what’s happened to her and how that is connected to the other threads of this plot.

In Carola Dunn’s Black Ship, DCI Alec Fletcher and his wife, the Honourable Dasiy Dalrymple Fletcher, have inherited a house on the outskirts of 1925 London from Fletcher’s Great-Uncle William Walsall. The couple moves into the “fixer-upper” with their children and begin to settle in. Then, the family dog Nana discovers the half-buried body of an unknown man in the communal garden of their circle of homes. Daisy alerts the police, who begin an investigation. It turns out that the dead man is Michele Castellano, who, we learn, may have been involved in illegal smuggling of liquor to the United States where, during the 1920’s, the importation of alcohol was illegal. Things get very awkward when it also turns out that the Jessup family, with whom the Fletcher family has made friends, may be involved in the smuggling and may be connected with the murder. It’s not Daisy Dalrymple’s way to sit back while her husband does all the work of investigating, so she begins to ask questions and in the end, we find out who really killed Castellano and why.

There are other examples too of novels where the author lets dogs and cats do what they do naturally and discover things – including bodies. It’s only natural, I suppose ;-).

 

Ps. By the way, the ‘photo is of one of the dogs that owns me. That’s Mr. Metoo, our half-Bassett “detective,” discovering something in those bushes. It wasn’t a body, though, in case you were wondering… ;-)

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s On the Hunt.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Carola Dunn, Fred Vargas, Margaret Truman, Martha Grimes