Category Archives: Deborah Crombie

I’m Totally Formidable When I’m With You*

Detective DuosOne of the really interesting crime fiction sleuth traditions is the husband-and-wife detective team. There are many, many such teams in the genre; in fact you could argue that it’s a deeply ingrained crime novel context. Space is only going to allow me to mention a few of them, but I’m sure you could think of many more than I could anyway.

One of the better-known husband-and-wife teams is Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Prudence ‘Tuppence’ Beresford. When we first meet them in The Secret Adversary, World War I has recently ended and the very young Beresfords find themselves with little money and no real career plans. So they decide to form Young Adventurers, Ltd. and hire themselves out, with ‘no unreasonable offer refused.’ To their surprise, they are indeed hired and soon find themselves involved in a web of international intrigue, missing secret papers, and murder. Unlike some of Christie’s other work, this series follows the Beresfords more or less chronologically and in real time. Throughout the series, we see that these two really do function as a team. They bring different strengths to their cases and they depend on each other.

That’s also true of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn and his wife, artist Agatha Troy. It’s true that Troy isn’t a professional detective. But she is a keen and intelligent observer, and of course, she’s well-connected within the fine arts community. In several novels (e.g. A Clutch of Constables, Spinsters in Jeopardy and Tied up in Tinsel) the two combine forces to solve cases. Troy relies on her husband’s detective skills and his official status. But she’s no ‘clinging vine.’ Alleyn depends on his wife’s social skills, her observation and intelligence, and her creativity.

There are some similarities between Marsh’s Alleyn/Troy team and Patricia Moyes’ Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy. Like Alleyn, Tibbett works with Scotland Yard, and like Troy, Emmy is not a professional sleuth. Beginning with Dead Men Don’t Ski, the two work together on Tibbett’s cases. In that novel, they’re taking a ski holiday to Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. For Tibbett it’s a working holiday, as he’s doing a bit of secret investigating. The couple soon gets mixed up in a case of murder and smuggling, and it’s obvious even in this first story that they work well together. Emmy has a great deal of insight and her husband depends on what she learns just from simple conversations with others. They map out their strategies almost as though they were police partners.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series is another powerful example of a husband-and-wife detecting team. Wimsey and mystery novelist Harret Vane meet for the first time in Strong Poison, in which Wimsey helps to clear Vane of murder charges. He falls in love with her and at the end of Gaudy Night, finally persuades her to marry him. The two aren’t married until the last novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, but they are a couple throughout several novels and it’s obvious that they work very well as a team. Wimsey appreciates Vane’s intelligence and her deductive abilities (she is a crime writer after all. ;-) ). And Vane appreciates Wimsey’s experience at detection and his way of solving cases.

There’s also of course Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles. Hammett only wrote one novel The Thin Man that features this couple. But there’ve been several Nick and Nora films. In the novel, Nick Charles is hired to find out what happened to wealthy businessman Clyde Wynant, who seems to have disappeared. Nick isn’t really interested in taking on this case, but he’s drawn into it anyway when the next morning, Wynant’s former secretary Julia Wolf is murdered. Nora Charles certainly plays much more than a supporting role in the novel. But the real teamwork in this couple is more evident in the ‘Thin Man’ films, where they form a strong ‘detective duo.’

Some husband-and-wife sleuthing teams are also police partners for at least some of the series. That’s the case with Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. When the series begins, in A Share in Death, Met Superintendent Duncan Kincaid works with then-Sergeant Gemma James to solve the murder of Sebastian Wade, whose body is found floating in a whirlpool at the holiday retreat of Followdale House. As the series evolves, the two become friends and then lovers. Later they marry. Both are cops and although James moves on to her own police career, they continue to work together and pool their knowledge. In this series too, we see the way that detective couples’ home lives and work lives interact.

There are of course also lots of cases (I’m thinking for instance of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series) in which couples may not be exactly detective teams, but still rely a great deal on each other. The husband-and-wife detecting team scenario allows the author to explore not just crimes and their investigations, but also relationships and other kinds of story arcs. There’s also lots of opportunity for character development. Little wonder this is such a popular premise.

Thanks very much to Moira at Clothes in Books for the inspiration for this post. Now that you’ve been kind enough to read it, be kind to yourself and check out Moira’s excellent blog. It’s a fantastic resource for information about clothes, popular culture and what it all says about us in fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from UB40’s Nothing Without You.

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Filed under Dashiell Hammett, Deborah Crombie, Dorothy Sayers, Louise Penny, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Moyes

God Only Knows What I’d be Without You*

WF3It’s been…well…an interesting couple of days here at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…. Since Tuesday, the area where I live has had record heat for the time of year (95°F/ 35°C) and high winds. With the ongoing lack of rain, it’s been the perfect recipe for wildfires, and we’ve had them. The ‘photos you see are of smoke and ash from one of the fires. Those ‘photos were taken from the balcony of my home, so although it’s not nearly as close as it looks, the fires have made their presence felt, to say the least. And even today, with the air calm and the temperature down, there’s still ash on people’s cars and particulates in the air. There’s still an acrid, oily smell of smoke in the air too.

But lest you worry for me, thanks for caring, but my WF2family and I are fine. We are safe and comfortable. Know why? A little bit of it is luck or whatever you want to call it. The winds didn’t blow the fires close enough to where I live for an evac order. But the big reason I am safe and comfortable is the tireless work of the brave and skilled members of the San Diego County Fire Department. Those people are heroes to me. They’ve been out on the line without food, sleep, showers and family time for three days now. And so have the dispatchers and others who keep everything connected and running smoothly. And all so that the rest of us would be safe. I know that’s their job, but if that’s not heroic, tell me please, what is?

WF1

I’ll bet most of us would agree that firefighters deserve our support, praise, thanks, whatever. They do work that most of couldn’t imagine doing. And there’s an argument that that generally positive (and well-deserved!!!) view of firefighters is a big part of the reason they’re usually depicted in positive ways in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples.

In Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House, we meet Rose Kearny, one of a group of London firefighters who are called to the scene of a warehouse fire. All fires are serious matters, but this one is also very tricky in other ways. For one thing, the warehouse’s owner is MP Michael Yarwood, an outspoken member of the Labour party. That makes his ownership of the warehouse a delicate business. What’s more, the body of an unidentified woman is found in the remains of the building. Scotland Yard’s Duncan Kincaid and his lover Gemma James begin the work of finding out who the woman was and who killed her. Meanwhile, there’s another fire. And another. Kearny sees a link between them and despite pressure not to do so, reports what she has found to Kincaid. As it turns out, she’s exactly right about that connection. Those fires have everything to do with the past.

Nevada Barr’s Firestorm takes a look at the lives of firefighters in US National Parks. National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon has been working in Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. A wildfire – the Jackville Fire – has broken out and Pigeon is serving as a medic at a spike camp, a temporary camp located as close as safely possible to the fire. A drop in temperature and calming winds mean the team may be able to leave the area. But then a freak thunderstorm whips up winds and sends a firestorm sweeping through. Everyone dives for cover in individual shelters, and when the storm has passed, the group tries to assess the damage. That’s when Pigeon discovers that firefighter Len Nims has been murdered. As Pigeon works to find out who killed him and why, we get a look at what firefighters really have to deal with on a regular basis.

For another look at the firefighter’s life, you’ll want to read Adrian Hyland’s Kinglake-350. Admittedly it’s not crime fiction. It’s the story of Black Saturday, 7 February 2009. On that day, a terrible firestorm swept through the Australian state of Victoria, and Kinglake-350 is the story of the people who fought that fire and of those who lived through it. It’s a powerful read.

In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Smelled a Rat, everyone in Moose County (‘400 miles north of nowhere’) is eager for the first major snowstorm of the year. It’s been a hot, dry summer and autumn, and the risk of wildfire is getting greater and greater. And the heat has been hard on everyone’s nerves. Then, a series of fires breaks out in the area. At first it’s put down to the weather conditions, which are tailor-made for fires. But then, the bookshop belonging to local dealer Eddington ‘Edd’ Smith is burned. What’s more, Smith himself is found dead. Now it’s clear that this is much more than a series of wildfires. Newspaper columnist James ‘Qwill’ Qiwilleran works with Police Chief Andrew Brodie to find out who’s been setting the fires and why, and who killed Edd Smith.

And then there’s Shelly Rueben’s The Boys of Sabbath Street. Artemus Ackerman, mayor of the small town of Calendar, wants to turn the Baldwin Theater into a museum of magic. To do that he’ll need the project to be bankrolled. So he’s hoping to put the most positive spin on his idea. But then there’s a fire on Sabbath Street, the same street where the building is located. Ackerman wants to know everything he can about the fire, because he doesn’t want it to lessen his chances of getting the museum of magic funded. So he sends his assistant and publicist Maggie Wakeling to get the facts. For that, she turns to Fire Marshal George Copeland. Then there’s another fire. And another. Now she and Copeland face the frightening reality that there’s an arsonist in their town. And Ackerman has to face the fact that the museum of magic may very well not materialise. As Wakeling and Copeland work to find out who’s behind the sabotage, readers get to see what the threat of fire does to an area and to people’s sense of stability.

There are lots of other novels too that focus on firefighters. By and large they present firefighters in a positive way, and that’s exactly as it should be. The ones who live in my area are heroic. My thanks to each of them.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Deborah Crombie, Lilian Jackson Braun, Nevada Barr, Shelly Reuben

When We’re Together, My Co-Star and Me*

Two ProtagonistsA lot of crime novels feature one sleuth. Of course, if that one sleuth is at all believable, she or he gets information and sometimes help from other people, but really, there’s one main protagonist. Some authors though have chosen to develop two protagonists. I’m not talking here of pairings such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Rather, I’m talking of dual protagonists whose stories develop almost independently even though the characters are working on the same case or set of cases. It’s not easy to create that kind of partnership without confusing the reader or belabouring the story. But when it’s done well, a plot or series that involves two protagonists with separate but related stories can add a layer of depth and interest and can make for some interesting story arcs too.

Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series is like that. There are several instances in the series where the two pursue different lines of investigation. In Recalled to Life for instance, Cissy Kohler has recently been released from prison after serving time for involvement in the 1963 murder of Pamela Westrop. At the time of her arrest, Ralph Mickledore was also arrested, tried and imprisoned for the murder. Now there are suggestions that Cissy Kohler was innocent and that Dalziel’s old mentor Wally Tallentire, who pursued the case, knew about it and hid that knowledge. Deputy Chief Constable Geoff Hiller is leading an investigation into those allegations, much to Dalziel’s anger. Dalziel doesn’t believe that Tallentire did anything wrong and he resents the questions about his mentor’s character. So he takes another look at the case, mostly to prove that his mentor was ‘clean.’ His new investigation takes him to the US to follow up with an important witness. Meanwhile, Pascoe stays behind and serves as a liaison between Hiller’s team and the CID. In that way, the two sleuths work more or less on the same case, but they do so separately, and we get their two different perspectives.

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series also features two separate protagonists. One is DCI Hannah Scarlett, who heads the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. The other is Oxford historian Daniel Kind. Although their two stories are related to the same cases, they often investigate different angles of the case in different ways. For instance, in The Serpent Pool, Scarlett and her team are re-investigating the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. They find that it’s connected to two more recent murders, so Scarlett’s angle on this case is the police business of finding out who the murderer is and how the three murders are connected. Meanwhile Kind is doing research into the life and work of Thomas De Quincy. He’s interested in De Quincey and has been invited to give a presentation at a festival to be held in honour of De Quincey. Although Kind doesn’t investigate the murders, not even unofficially, his research proves to be crucial to solving the case.

Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden and Father John O’Malley are also dual protagonists in the same series. They both work on the Arapaho people’s Wind River Reservation; Holden is a lawyer and a member of the Arapaho Nation. O’Malley is a Jesuit priest attached to the local St. Francis Mission. They know each other of course, and develop a deep friendship, but they don’t really work cases together in the way that, say, cop partners do. In The Eagle Catcher for instance, Arapaho tribal chair Harvey Castle is murdered at a powwow. His nephew Anthony is arrested for the crime, and with good reason. But O’Malley doesn’t think that he’s guilty. His angle on this case is to look into the history of the Arapaho people – a history that he knew Castle was compiling and that could provide a key to the murder. For Holden’s part, she agrees to defend Anthony Castle and starts putting together his case. She and O’Malley share information, but they have different perspectives and the story is told from their two different perspectives.

The same thing is true of Martha Grimes’ Richard Jurly/Melrose Plant series. They compare notes and are friends, but they often work separately. For instance, in The Anodyne Necklace, Inspector Jury is called to the village of Littlebourne when a human finger and later a body are discovered. Both turn out to belong to Cora Binns, a temporary secretary who’d come to Littlebourne for an interview. Jury puts the machinery of the law into motion and begins to interview the villagers as well as Cora’s family and neighbours. At the same time Melrose Plant goes to Littlebourne in the guise of wanting to buy some property there. He talks to several of the locals and learns that there was a robbery in the village about a year before Cora was killed. He and Jury also learn that another resident Katie O’Brien was attacked in a London underground station and is now in a coma. Although each man works on his own angle, Jury and Plant share what they learn and little by little, they find out that the murder of Cora Binns is related to the robbery and to the attack on Katie O’Brien.

And then there’s Elly Griffiths’ series featuring North Norfolk University archaeologist Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson. On the one hand, they share information; they’ve even had a romantic relationship. But they often go their separate ways when they’re investigating. For example, in The Janus Stone, Galloway is called in when a headless child’s skeleton is discovered beneath the ruins of the Sacred Heart Children’s Home when a new posh apartment building is put up on the same site. Galloway’s expertise is needed to determine how old the bones are. When it turns out that they are not ancient, the police begin to investigate. Nelson discovers that two children disappeared from the children’s home at about the time that the bones would have been buried. To find out the truth about the missing children and whether that case is related to the remains that have been found, Nelson interviews retired priest Father Hennessey, who was in charge of the children’s home at the time of the disappearances. Meanwhile Galloway is on a team that’s excavating Roman ruins in the area. Her team’s finds turn out to have an important connection to the case that Nelson’s investigating. They work together in that sense, but each of them pursues leads separately and the story is told from both of their perspectives.

Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs also includes two protagonists who work separately even though they co-operate and share information. In that novel, Chief Inspector William Wisting and his team investigate the bizarre appearance of a group of feet that wash up near the Norwegian town of Stavern.  The rest of the bodies can’t be found though, so there’s a lot of speculation about what has happened. There’s even talk that a particularly crazed serial killer may be responsible. Wisting and his team begin their search for answers with a look at missing person cases. They find that several of the people reported missing have either lived in or worked at the same old-age care home. That home and the long-time association among some of the residents prove to be important clues. In the meantime, Wisting’s daughter Line is also in Stavern. She’s a journalist working on a story about former prison inmates who’ve now been released. The point she wants to make is that prison does more harm than good. As she meets with her interviewees, she too finds out important information that turns out to be related to the case her father is working. The two stories are told separately and from both perspectives. And yet, they relate to the same case.

Other authors such as Deborah Crombie have done a similar thing. Katherine Howell’s got a particularly interesting approach to the dual-protagonist motif. Her series features Detective Ella Marconi of the New South Wales police. But her novels also feature other protagonists, usually paramedics and each novel focuses on a different one. It’s an innovative way to integrate other protagonists into a series.

What do you think? Do you find that having two separate protagonists with two different points of view confusing? Does it add to your enjoyment of a novel?  If you’re a writer, have you experimented with two protagonists?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Tears’ Co-Star.

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Filed under Deborah Crombie, Elly Griffiths, Jørn Lier Horst, Katherine Howell, Margaret Coel, Martha Grimes, Reginald Hill

Lean on Me When You’re Not Strong*

Millions of people volunteer their time and energy to help those in need. And the best kinds of volunteers are the ones who don’t make a big fuss about it. They see a need and without judging or asking anything in return, they try to meet that need. I won’t go on and on about the different causes for which they work. There is far too long a list of urgent needs out there for me to do that. Suffice it to say though that volunteers have a huge impact. Certainly they do in real life; I’ll bet you volunteer yourself and if you do, you know what a difference the work you do makes. That’s why you do it. There are many, many volunteer and volunteer groups in crime fiction too.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles for example, Captain Hastings is recovering from a wartime injury. He accepts an invitation to visit an old friend John Cavendish while he heals up, and is looking forward to a pleasant stay. Instead, Hastings is drawn into a case of murder when Cavendish’s stepmother Emily Inglethorp is poisoned. By chance Hastings discovers that another old friend Hercule Poirot is staying in the nearby village and asks him to investigate. Poirot agrees, not least because Emily Inglethorp was his benefactor.  As the novel goes along we learn that several members of the family do their share of volunteering, mostly in aid of the war effort. Cavendish, for instance drills with the local volunteer militia. His wife Mary volunteers as what would later be known as a Land Girl. And Emily Inglethorp plays quite a key role in all sorts of local charity groups. Although this fact of their lives isn’t the motive for the murder, it’s an interesting perspective on their lives.

Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House introduces us to Helping Hands, a group dedicated to helping abused women and their children find safe places to go and make plans for their lives once they get there. One night, a warehouse fire in Southwark is reported by a resident at Helping Hands, and Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his lover DI Gemma James go to the shelter to interview the person who called in the fire.  There they meet Kath Warren, the director. What makes this fire of special interest is that the body of an unidentified woman was found in the remains. It seems that the shelter may be more than casually related when it turns out that Laura Novak, a member of its board of directors, has disappeared and could be the fire victim. There are three other equally strong possibilities though and Kincaid and James investigate all of them as they work to figure out who set the fire and who the dead woman is. I don’t think it’s spoiling this novel to say that the Helping Hands group didn’t engineer the fire or Novak’s disappearance. But we do get some interesting insight into the workings of a volunteer group, its leadership and the way such groups are viewed.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman volunteers with the Melbourne Soup Run, a mobile soup kitchen that serves Melbourne’s street people. She’s a baker so she provides bread; she also takes her turn going on the run with other volunteers who travel from one part of the city to another. At each stop the Soup Run gives out coffee and tea, food, some medicines and other supplies like blankets and clothes. Chapman is quite matter-of-fact about her volunteer work. She doesn’t talk much about it; she just rolls up her sleeves as the saying goes and does what needs to be done. The Soup Run is overseen by the indefatigable Sister Mary, one of Melbourne’s strongest advocates for those in need. Sister Mary has a remarkable skill at getting people to part with their time, their money, their donations, their official permission, whatever is necessary to get the job done. And she’s one of the few people Chapman co-operates with nearly automatically. The Soup Run proves useful to Chapman too, in a few mysteries. For instance, in Devil’s Food, Chapman’s father seems to have disappeared. Through the Soup Run she makes contact with other Melbourne volunteer groups and services and is able to find out what happened to him. The Soup Run is also a source of clues in Earthy Delights, in which she helps to solve the mystery of a series of junkie overdose deaths.

In Peg Brantley’s Red Tide we meet volunteer guide dog handler Jamie Taylor. By day she’s a Colorado bank loan professional. She also trains and handles Gretchen, Socrates ‘Socks’ and McKenzie, who are search-and-rescue dogs. When the need arises Taylor and her dogs go on search and rescue missions. That’s how they get involved in an eerie discovery. Convicted serial killer Leopold Bonzer has told the FBI where he buried his victims and Taylor and her dogs are sent to that remote field. They find the bodies but they also find bodies that Bonzer could not have buried there. Now it looks as though a ‘copycat killer’ is using the same field. Each in a different way, Taylor, her sister Jacqueline ‘Jax’ and FBI Agent Nick Grant investigate to find out who this new killer is and how that relates to a tragedy in Taylor’s own past. Among other things, this is an interesting look at the way search-and-rescue operations are carried out and how dogs are used in the process.

And then there’s Nina Borg, whom we first meet in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase. Nina is a nurse at Ellen’s Place, a shelter and service provider for refugees. She’s also volunteered in several different world ‘danger zones’ and takes her work in service to others very seriously. But one day she gets a very unusual case. Her friend Karin asks her to go to the Copenhagen train station and pick up a suitcase. She does so only to discover that it contains a little boy. He’s dazed and drugged, but he is alive. So she tries as best she can to find out who he is. Her first call is to Karin, but Karen seems to have disappeared. Now Nina has to find out for herself who the boy is and get him to safety. In doing so she finds herself up against some ruthless people who want that child. Meanwhile, we meet Sigita Ramoskiene, the Lithuanian mother of three-year-old Mikas, who has been abducted. As she frantically searches for her son, we learn that he is the child Nina found. Each in her own way the two women work to find out why Mikas was abducted and return him safely.

Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer features Catherine Monsigny, who’s recently become an attorney. She has a full-time job at the law office of Maître Renaud, but she also volunteers her time to an association that works with undocumented immigrants who get into legal trouble. Her purpose in doing the volunteer work is mostly to get experience. That’s how she learns of the case of Myriam Villetreix, originally from Gabon, who’s been arrested and charged with the murder of her wealthy husband Gaston. The case has been getting a lot of media attention and if Catherine gets her boss’ permission to defend Myriam, it could launch her career. She gets that permission and begins to look into the case only to find that it’s more complicated than it seems on the surface. There is evidence against her client and there is motive. What’s more, this trial takes place not far from where Catherine’s mother was murdered when she was a tiny child. No-one was ever arrested for the crime and the memory of that day has haunted her since then. Being in the area spurs Catherine to try to find out who killed her mother while she is also searching for the truth about the murder of Gaston Villetreix.

There are of course many other crime fiction novels that feature volunteers, and quite frankly, I’m glad they get ‘air time.’ It’s easy enough to click a link and donate money. It’s not so easy to give up your time and your mental and physical energy. But volunteers do it all the time in a million different ways, and without going on about it. They deserve our respect and gratitude. Mostly, they deserve to have us join their company.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Withers’ Lean on Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Deborah Crombie, Kerry Greenwood, Lene Kaaberbøl, Peg Brantley, Sylvie Granotier

‘Cause These Words Are My Diary Screaming Out Loud*

Writers have to keep a certain amount of detachment from their work. There are a few good reasons for that. First, not everyone is going to like what one writes. That can be hard enough to deal with when one doesn’t feel a personal attachment to one’s work. Add to that too much attachment, and rejection and criticism cut even more deeply.  And sometimes writers have to cut out scenes, characters, plot points and more simply to make the story better. A writer who is too attached may find it too hard to make the kinds of changes that sometimes need to be made to improve a story. So I’m saying that writers are best off not being attached to what they write, right?

Wrong. Have you ever read a novel where the plot had a solid structure, the characters were believable and so on, but the novel just didn’t do much for you? So have I. Part of that is of course personal taste, mood and other factors like that. But sometimes it’s because there’s not a lot of ‘spark’ to the story. How did that happen? One reason may be that the author was a little too detached. If the author doesn’t care about the characters and what happens to them, why should the reader?  So there’s a lot to be said for caring – really caring – about what happens in the stories one writes. I don’t just mean caring in the sense of wanting to tell a good story in a professional way. I mean caring about the people in the story, and being invested in the outcome.

To give an example of what I mean, I had an email from a crime fiction author whose work I greatly admire. Among other things, she mentioned having very mixed feelings about the ending of one of her novels. She genuinely felt sympathy for the killer and found it difficult to let go of that. And you know what? That feeling came through in the novel and made it that much more effective. Yes, the reader cares very much for the victims and those left behind – I know that I did – but there’s also the sense that the killer is multi-dimensional too. Talk about your book with ‘spark!’

Of course, it’s one thing to say that a crime writer should balance caring about the characters and the outcome with enough detachment to improve the story as needed. It’s quite another to strike that balance. In one interview for instance, James Lee Burke said that for him, stories begin

 

‘…with a feeling of concern, of a dilemma of some kind.’

 

And in the same interview, Burke explains why he chooses to write his stories in the first person:

 

‘Using a first-person narrator is simply a matter of hearing the voice inside yourself. The character is already in the author, I think.’

 

Fans of Burke’s work will tell you that that personal investment in his stories comes through as we get to know the characters and follow the plots.

Ian Rankin has expressed a rather similar point of view. In one interview he explains why he likes the writing process.

 

‘I can’t think of anything better than that, and it keeps you well balanced because all the s*** inside your head goes on paper. I think we’d be troublesome individuals if we didn’t get all that s***t out our systems.’

 

I can’t say conclusively of course but my guess is that that personal connection between writer and work is part of what gives Rankin’s novels the level of interest that they have. The ‘spark’ that many people feel when they read Rankin’s work may be related to that connection.

Here’s how Ann Cleeves put it when she was asked about whether she personally identifies with the characters she created for Raven Black:

 

‘I identify with all my characters when I write them, even, or perhaps especially, the less attractive ones. Writing’s a bit like acting, I think. You have to believe you’re the person you’re writing, stand in their shoes and get inside their head.’

 

She’s got a well-taken point. And fans of Cleeves’ Shetland Quartet and Vera Stanhope series will tell you that those characters truly come alive in the series.

When Deborah Crombie was asked how she feels about her protagonists Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his partner Inspector Gemma James, here’s how she responded:

 

‘I miss them when I’m in between books doing research. I always want to be back with them, back in their lives.’

 

What’s even more interesting is her final comment in this interview:

 

‘About 95 percent of my e-mail is about Duncan and Gemma and what’s going to happen with them. Obviously something hits the reader about them as much as it does me.’ 

 

Crombie says it better than I could have.

Of course there is much to be said – and it’s very important – for a certain amount of detachment as a writer. One’s got to be open to revisions and edits, to others’ really good ideas and so on. And the quality of a story is closely related to the willingness of the author to work at making it better. But if the author doesn’t care about the characters and doesn’t get invested in the story at all, it shows. If you’ve ever read a ‘cookie cutter’ story you know precisely what I mean.

I find myself needing to strike that balance in my own writing and I’d love to hear what you think about it. Readers: can you sense it when a writer doesn’t seem to be invested in her or his work? Writers: how close do you get to your characters? How do you balance that need to invest yourself with the need to be detached enough to write a polished story?

Now if you’ll excuse me I need a drink and a good cry. Joel Williams just discovered the body of a very decent character in the latest chapter of what I’m writing and I am none too happy about that!

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Anna Nalick’s Breathe (2 AM).

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Filed under Ann Cleeves, Deborah Crombie, Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke