Category Archives: Dell Shannon

Don’t You Know About the New Fashion, Honey*

For a genre to be successful, it’s got to evolve with the times. Readers change, their tastes change and our knowledge changes. A genre that doesn’t take account of that isn’t going to last very long. And it’s interesting to see how crime fiction has changed and continues to do so as times and readers change. One could look at a lot of different ways in which crime fiction has changed and continues to change; here are just a few ideas that I have.

 

The Sleuth as a Whole Person

In the early days of crime fiction, we didn’t get to learn much about the sleuth other than what we needed to follow the story line. For example, in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, we meet Sergeant Cuff, who’s assigned to investigate the theft of a valuable diamond known as the Moonstone from the Verinder family. The stone was left to Rachel Verinder, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday, but on the night she receives it, it disappears. Then, second housemaid Roseanna Spearman disappears and is later found to have committed suicide. Cuff follows leads, interviews the family members and eventually traces the whereabouts of the stone and how its disappearance is related to Spearman’s suicide (and no, it’s not the obvious relationship). In this novel, we learn nearly nothing about Cuff. We don’t learn about his background, his family or much of anything else about him.

During the Golden Age, we begin to see just a little more of the sleuth’s family life and background. For instance, in John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, we are introduced to his sleuth Dr. Gideon Fell when Tad Rampole visits Fell during a trip to England. The two get involved in a case of murder and murky family history when Martin Starberth dies on the night of his twenty-fifth birthday. Rampole has fallen in love with Martin’s sister Dorothy, and so is interested in the case. For his part, Fell is fascinated by the Starberth family history and by the cryptic instructions each Starberth heir is given when he turns twenty-five – instructions that seem to have led to Starberth’s death. In this novel, we meet Fell’s wife and we learn just a bit about him.

We also get a more complete look at a sleuth in Ellery Queen’s series. In The Roman Hat Mystery, we see plenty of home scenes, so to speak, as Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, get involved in the mystery of the poisoning death of shady attorney Monte Field. There are also domestic scenes in The King is Dead and some other Queen novels, and in the later novels in the series, we see Queen develop romantic interests.

By the 1960’s it was quite common for sleuths to have families and family concerns. For instance, we learn about Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck’s family life in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s groundbreaking series. Golden Age authors such as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh who were still writing in the 1950’s and 1960’s also made their sleuths a little more “fleshed out” as time went on. Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn marries and has a son Ricky as that series goes on, and we see plenty of their lives together. Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford also marry and have children and as the novels featuring them go on we do see domestic scenes and get a little more sense of the whole characters.

Today’s crime fiction often features sleuths with families, home lives, backstories and lots of complications in their lives that have nothing to do with the mystery at hand. For instance, Åsa Larsson’s Anna-Maria Mella investigates mysteries, of course. But she’s married with four children, and we see plenty of her life with them. Helen Tursten’s Irene Huss is the same way; she’s married with twin teenagers, and we’ve gotten to know her backstory, too. There are many, many other examples, too of today’s trend towards a sleuth who is a whole person. Readers want their sleuths to be “real,” so I suspect this trend will continue.

 

Multitasking

For many years, crime fiction novels would focus on just one case. We see that in just about all of Agatha Christie’s novels, for instance. Poirot, or Miss Marple, or the Beresfords, would have one goal – one case – that was their focus. There might be more than one murder or crime, but all were related to the central mystery. Christie’s standalones tend to be that way, too (although there are exceptions).  We also see that focus on one murder or set of murders in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Those stories too, including the novels, are focused on one case, even when there is more than one murder or crime.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, we began to see some series such as Dell Shannon’s Luis Mendoza series and Ed McBain’s 87th precinct series, with a group of people handling more than one case at a time. That kind of multi-tasking, to put it that way, is realistic and as series have gotten more realistic (another trend we’ve seen), we see more of this “several cases at a time” approach, especially in series that feature cops.

And those series don’t even need to feature cops. Donna Malane’s Surrender features missing person’s expert Diane Rowe. Rowe takes a very personal interest in the murder of James Patrick “Snow” Wilson, since he murdered her younger sister Niki. When it becomes clear that he was paid to do so, Rowe wants to know who paid Snow and why. At the same time (and in an unrelated case), she’s trying to find out the identity of headless skeleton found in the Rimutaka State Forest. As the novel goes on, Rowe pursues both cases and we see how both stories evolve.

There’s also a related trend that we see in work such as Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels and Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn novels. In those novels, we often see cases that seem to be unrelated and that are investigated that way at first. But then, the cases turn out to be tied together. When the sleuth finds the common denominator, she or he finds the solution. This is just my view, so feel free to differ with me if you do, but I see this trend as continuing. Many readers want books that don’t always have linear plots.

 

Stories and Series With an Agenda

In early and Golden Age crime fiction, and even until the 1960’s, it’s probably fair to say that most crime fiction novels were written to tell a story. Of course, we sometimes see the author’s personal views coming through. For instance, an anti-Communist, pro-“underdog” view is obvious in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer stories.

It’s still true today that the very best crime fiction is written to tell a story, not to accomplish a socio-political goal. But since Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series, we’ve seen an increase in novels and series that also include messages about various social and political messages and goals. The Beck series has a distinctive anti-capitalist flavour. So does Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series.

Novels such as Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage, Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series and C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series explore environmental and species-protection issues. Rendell and Michael Connelly have explored issues such as child trafficking and race relations, too. And many authors (there’s no space in this post to list them all) explore issues such as political corruption, racism and social inequities. As authors see how their very skilled colleagues can explore larger social issues without preaching, I see this trend continuing, too. The issues may change as readers’ concerns change. But I don’t think the concept of the “crime-novel-with-an-agenda” will go away soon.

These are just a very few things that I see happening in the world of crime fiction. What do you think?  Where do you see the genre heading? What do you think we’ll see more of or less of?

Thanks to Mack Lundy for the inspiration for this post. You’ve given me much food for thought, Mack.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Dell Shannon, Donna Malane, Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, Helene Tursten, Ian Rankin, John Dickson Carr, Maj Sjöwall, Michael Connelly, Mickey Spillane, Ngaio Marsh, Per Wahlöö, Ruth Rendell, Stieg Larsson, Tony Hillerman, Wilkie Collins

>The Regular Crowd Shuffles In*

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One of the strongest appeals of any crime fiction series is the cast of “regular” characters. When they’re well-drawn characters, we look forward to reading about them as we would to hearing about how our friends are doing. And it’s realistic, too, to have a cast of “regular” characters who work with the detective. As I’ve often said on this blog, detectives almost never solve crimes on their own. Not in real life and not in realistic crime fiction. That said, though, having too many “regulars” can be confusing. Even if the author is doing an effective job of drawing the characters so that they’re memorable, it can still take away from a series to have too big of a crowd, so to speak.

In fact, some authors don’t use many “regulars” in their series at all. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels feature Poirot of course. Several of them also feature Captain Arthur Hastings. A few other “regulars” are Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp of Scotland Yard and Christie’s fictional detective author Ariadne Oliver. There’s also Mr. Goby, the somewhat enigmatic purveyor of information who never looks directly at the person he’s speaking with, and Mr. Satterthwaite, who mixes among the “best” circles and seems to know everyone. There are one or two other “occasional” characters, too. But what’s interesting about the way these characters are used in the Poirot novels is that Christie doesn’t use more than a few of them at a time. They all have distinct personalities, too, so it’s not hard to keep track of them.

Things are a bit different in Christie’s Miss Marple novels. Miss Marple lives in the village of St. Mary Mead, so as you would expect, there’s an interesting cast of “regulars” who live there and whom we meet in more than one novel. For instance, there’s the vicar Leonard Clement and his wife Griselda, whom we first meet in The Murder at the Vicarage, when Miss Marple helps Inspector Slack find out who shot Colonel Protheroe in the vicar’s own kitchen. Then there’s Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly. They’re the owners of Gossington Hall, where the body of Ruby Keene is discovered in The Body in the Library. There’s also Cherry Baker, who serves as Miss Marple’s live-in companion/assistant in later novels. There are more “regular” characters in this series, but that makes some sense. Several of these novels take place in and around St. Mary Mead, so it’s logical that we’d see more “regulars” than we do in the Poirot novels, since Poirot tends to travel more.

Colin Dexter created a very effective series without using a great number of “regular” characters. There are, of course, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis. There’s also Superintendent Strange, whom we meet in several novels and has the thankless task of supervising Morse ;-). Mostly, though, we meet different characters in each of the Morse novels. And that makes some sense, too. Many people think of the Morse novels as police procedurals and you could certainly say they are. But they aren’t the sort of police procedurals that focus on the daily ins and outs and comings and goings of a police precinct or constabulary. Rather, they focus on one team’s investigation.

That’s not the case for Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti novels. Brunetti is the focus of those novels, as is Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello. It’s their investigations that get the attention. And yet, there is also quite a group of “regulars” whom we also get to know. For instance, there’s Vice-Questore Patta, Brunetti’s boss and “thorn in the side.” And there’s Patta’s assistant, Signorina Elettra Zorzi. And of course, there’s Brunetti’s family. His wife, Paola Falier and his children Chiara and Raffi are important characters in just about all of the novels. Then there are a few more minor characters such as Alvise, who’s famous for his incompetence, and the medical examiner Dr. Ettore Rizzardi. Despite the number of “regulars,” though, it’s not a problem (or perhaps that’s just my opinion) to keep them sorted out. One of the things that helps is that many of these “regulars” have roles in enough of the novels so that it’s possible to get to know them rather well.

Although the series is quite different in several ways, Andrea Camilleri’s Commissario Salvo Montalbano series has in common with Leon’s that there’s a cast of “regular” characters that goes far beyond just Montalbano. For one thing, there’s his assistant and nemesis Mimì Augello. There’s also Sergeant Catarella, an eccentric character whose way of speaking is welcome comic relief. Montalbano’s lover, Livia Burlando is another “regular” whom we get to know as the series goes on. There are other “regulars,” too. But as with Leon’s novels, the characters in these novels are distinct enough that it’s not a problem to keep track of them.

That’s also true of the “regulars” in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Apart from Mma. Precious Ramotswe, who is the main character in this series, there is quite a cast of other characters. For example, there’s her assistant/associate detective Mma. Grace Makutsi. There’s her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who owns Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, and there are his two assistants. There are also Mma. Ramotswe’s two adopted children Motholeli and Puso. Mma. Sylvia Potowkane, who runs a local orphanage, is also a “regular,” and there are several others. Again, although there are quite a number of “regular” characters in this series, it’s fairly easy (although this may be only my opinion) to keep them straight. McCall Smith has given each a distinct personality. And in the setting in which these novels take place, it’s easy to see how there would be a larger number of “regulars.”

That’s also true in police procedural series like Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, or Dell Shannon’s Luis Mendoza series. In those series, there’s a large number of “regular” characters because the series follow several police officers and their families. That makes sense. In real life, police precincts handle many cases at once, and lots of police detectives are “on the job.” Following so many characters isn’t for everyone, but at least in both of these cases, readers of the series can keep the characters straight.

Everyone’s different about “regular” characters, though. Some readers like a cast of them. Some prefer only a few. What’s your view? Do you find it distracting to try to keep track of several “regular” characters, or you do enjoy that aspect of a series? If you’re a writer, how do you manage including enough “regular” characters without overwhelming the reader?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Piano Man. I learned to waltz to that song…

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Andrea Camilleri, Colin Dexter, Dell Shannon, Donna Leon, Ed McBain

>Uncovering Some Crime Fiction Truths…

>There are a lot of beliefs about how, why and by whom a crime is committed. Some of those beliefs have been around for so long that they’re simply accepted. The thing is, though, that some of those beliefs are simply not true. Smart sleuths know which of those beliefs have some support, and which are simply myths, and they often use that knowledge when they’re developing their theories about who committed a crime. Still, those beliefs – myths, if you prefer – persist, and sometimes serve to “hide” a murderer, both in real life and in crime fiction. So let’s take a look at just a few of them.

The most risk comes from strangers.

This belief, that murders are often committed by strangers, is controversial. That’s because there are cases where people murder complete strangers, and those sad cases get a lot of media coverage. And of course, it’s always wise to teach children to be on their guard with people they don’t know. But the reality is that the vast majority of murders are committed by someone the victim knows. Possibly the reason this belief about strangers persists is that it’s hard to accept that someone we know – possibly even love – can be a murderer. But the truth is, there is almost always a connection between the victim and the murderer, and finding that connection is usually the way that the detective finds out who committed a murder. We see that in real life and in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot pays a visit to Nasse House, a country home owned by Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. He’s been invited to a fête, ostensibly to give away the prizes for a Murder Hunt (a kind of scavenger hunt) organized by detective story author Ariadne Oliver. In reality, Oliver thinks something more than just a fête may be going on, and has asked Poirot to investigate. Sure enough, on the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is strangled. There seems to be no reason she should have been killed; she wasn’t wealthy and hadn’t made any obvious enemies. So everyone thinks that a psychopathic killer must have gotten onto the grounds of Nasse House and killed her. Poirot suspects otherwise, though, and so does Inspector Bland, who’s investigating the case. As it turns out, they’re right; like most murder victims, Marlene was killed by someone she knew.

Money talks.

Do the wealthy and powerful really live in a different, safer world? In some ways, they do. Those with money can afford, for instance, the best, most expensive lawyers if they get involved in legal trouble. For instance, in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, we meet Hans-Erik Wennerström, a wealthy and powerful Swedish industrialist. At the beginning of the novel, Wennerström uses his wealth and power to win a libel lawsuit against Mikael Blomkvist, publisher of Millennium magazine. Blomkvist is now faced with financial ruin and the closing of his magazine, so he accepts a commission from Henrik Vanger to find out what happened to Vanger’s grand-niece, Harriet. In exchange, Vanger agrees to give Blomkvist financial support as well as the evidence he needs to bring down Wennerström. It’s a very interesting study of the difference that power and money can make.

That said, though, money doesn’t necessarily ensure safety. For example, in Jassy Mackenzie’s Random Violence, we’re introduced to Annette Botha, a wealthy South African accounts manager. When she’s murdered outside her gated home one night, it’s assumed at first that she was the victim of a robbery. But it’s soon clear that Annette Botha was killed for a different reason. Superintendent David Patel is under a great deal of pressure, from the public, from Annette’s widower, and from his superior, to solve the case. So he asks his former mentor’s daughter, Jade de Jong, for help. Jade is a private investigator who’s recently returned to Johannesburg after a ten-year absence. She’s got her own agenda, but she agrees to help David solve the case. As the investigation continues, we get the sense in this novel that sometimes, the wealthy are very vulnerable. There’s a proliferation of heavily gated fences, expensive (but sometimes futile) alarm systems and other protection. All of those efforts at security convey a sense of powerlessness that we don’t usually associate with the wealthy.

Crime is an urban problem.

One of the prevailing myths about murders is that most of them take place in cities. Of course there are murders in cities, both in real life and in crime fiction. For instance, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, and Dell Shannon’s Luis Mendoza series focus on crimes in urban areas. So do many of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels. There are lots of other examples, too. But the truth is, a murder can happen just about anywhere.

For example, many of M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth novels take place in and around rural Lochdubh, Scotland. In Death of a Maid, for instance, Constable Macbeth wins the cleaning services of Mavis Gillespie, a local maid, in a lottery. He’s not at all happy with her work, and when he finds out that she stole a letter of his, he prepares to fire her. But by the time he gets to that point, it’s too late. Mavis Gillespie’s been killed by a blow to the head. As Macbeth tries to sort out what happened, he finds out that several of the villagers had a reason to want to kill Mrs. Gillespie. She had a bad habit of finding out people’s personal secrets and blackmailing them. So now, Macbeth has to figure out whose secret was dangerous enough to make it worth murder.

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series takes place in and around local small towns and villages. In those novels, murders occur in mostly rural areas. For instance, in The Arsenic Labyrinth, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate the ten-year-old disappearance of Emma Bestwick. When Guy Koenig, a con man who’s recently been released from prison, offers information about where Emma’s body can be found, Scarlett and her team re-open the case. They search for the body in a series of tunnels known locally as the Arsenic Labyrinth and find not one, but two bodies: Emma’s and another body, fifty years older. With help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, Scarlett uncovers the reason for Emma’s murder, and finds the surprising connection between the two deaths.

There are many, many other murder mysteries that take place in villages and remote areas, too – far too many to list here. Suffice it to say that murder is not just an urban crime.

Murder will out.

There’s a persistent myth that murderers get caught and pay for their crimes. This one probably appeals to the side of us that wants the “bad guy” to pay. And in countless crime fiction novels (I won’t even attempt a list), the guilty person is caught and punished. But the truth is that in real life, and in crime fiction, murderers do sometimes get away with their crimes, for at least a time. There’s an Agatha Christie novel, for instance, in which Poirot’s sympathy, if you will, for the killer and his distaste for the victim lead him to let a murder go unpunished (No title here; I don’t want to give away spoilers).

In Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor, Dr. Calvin Doohan, who’s working for the World Health Organization, solves the mystery of a series of unexplained deaths from what looks like a virulent strain of influenza. Doohan finds out that the deaths were deliberately caused, and slowly (and at great risk) tracks down the killer. Doohan finds out who’s responsible, but because of the international political situation, and issues of power, he’s not able to see that the killer is arrested. The nightmare deaths end, but this murderer isn’t jailed for the crimes. The ending, in fact, leaves us in some doubt as to what will happen to the killer, but certainly the person behind the deaths isn’t really what you’d call caught and publicly exposed.

There are plenty of other myths and beliefs about murder that I haven’t had space to mention here. Which ones have you found are just not true?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dell Shannon, Ed McBain, Frank Robinson, Jassy Mackenzie, M.C. Beaton, Martin Edwards, Stieg Larsson, Thomas Scortia

>Lean On Me…*

>There’s a special relationship that develops between police detectives who work as partners. Very often, they spend at least as much time with each other as they do at home – sometimes more. And police partners come to know one another very, very well, even if they’re quite different in personality. They depend on one another, too, sometimes even having to trust one another with their lives. So it’s not surprising that the police partner bond is often a very strong one. That’s as much the case in crime fiction as it is in real life, and it’s interesting to see how those partnerships play out, especially over time in a series. Of course, there are many, many examples of fictional partnerships between pairs of sleuths who aren’t in law enforcement (e.g. Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings) and pairs where one’s in law enforcement and the other isn’t (e.g. Wimsey and Inspector Parker, Inspector Jury and Melrose Plant). But the bond between law enforcement partners is arguably unique.

We see this kind of partnership, for example, in Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series, which features her sleuth, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, postmistress for tiny Crozet, Virginia. Law enforcement in Crozet is supervised by Sheriff Rick Shaw and Deputy Sheriff Cynthia “Coop” Cooper. They’ve known each other for several years, and work together on a number of cases. When they’re interviewing witnesses and suspects, they support each other, and “behind the scenes,” they share ideas and give each other different perspectives on their cases. For Coop, it was a challenge to win Shaw’s respect; she was the first woman on the local force, and he wasn’t exactly hoping she would succeed. She’s earned his trust and respect through her perseverance, bravery and dogged determination. She also has solid flashes of intuition. Coop respects Shaw for his commitment and his sense of ethics. He has a strong sense of fair play, as well as a lot of intelligence and shrewdness about the cases they investigate. Their partnership is interesting, too, in that it doesn’t involve anything romantic. Shaw is happily married and, although Coop is single, she doesn’t have an interest in Shaw. In fact, he encourages her to date, and find someone special.

Another interesting police partnership is the one that develops between Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis. Morse is Lewis’ superior, so in that sense, it’s not, technically, a partnership. Yet, as the series progresses, we find that in all of the ways that really matter, the two are partners as much as they are boss and subordinate. Lewis admires Morse’s brilliance and his ability to solve even the most difficult of cases. For his part, Morse depends on Lewis quite a bit, more, in fact, than he cares to admit. Lewis is the one who keeps up on departmental policy, organizes the information they get on the cases they investigate, and often gives Morse important information and ideas. He also takes a very practical view of their cases, and this is also very helpful to Morse. In fact, Morse usually specifically requests that Lewis be assigned to work with him.

In Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series, we also see a strong police partnership develop between Rebus and Siobhan Clarke, especially in the later novels, when Clarke “comes into her own,” so to speak. Clarke admires Rebus for his ability to put together seemingly disparate pieces of a puzzle to solve cases. She’s also learned a lot of the “ins and outs” of the police system from Rebus. For his part, Rebus depends quite a bit, especially later in the series, on Clarke’s computer and technical skills. He also depends on Clarke to do a lot of the “legwork” in getting information on the cases they work together. It’s especially interesting to see the way Rebus and Clarke work as partners when Rebus is suspended (e.g. in Resurrection Men and Exit Music) and Clarke serves as his “eyes and ears” within the department. In those novels in particular, we can really see the ways in which they depend on each other.

Marshall Karp’s series featuring Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs is also a clear example of the unique bond that police partners form with each other. Lomax and Biggs are L.A.P.D. detectives who first work together in The Rabbit Factory. In some ways, they’re quite different; Biggs, a transplant from New York, is a would-be comedian. He’s a loyal and devoted father and husband, and more driven than his partner. Lomax often serves as Biggs’ foil, although he has plenty of wit himself. He’s more introspective and reflective than his partner is. Throughout the series, we see how these partners support each other and help each other, both on and off the job. For instance, in The Rabbit Factory, Lomax is coping with the death of his wife, Joanie. As Lomax mentions, his partner was there for him at the time of Joanie’s death, and Biggs is one of the few people who knows that Joanie left a set of letters for Lomax, one to be read each month for the first year after her death. Lomax and Biggs’ partnership is an authentic illustration of how police partners work together and support each other.

There’s also a very interesting police partnership in Mark Richard Zubro’s Paul Turner/Buck Fenwick mysteries. Turner and Fenwick are Chicago police detectives. They’re two of their precinct’s most experienced detectives, and are often given difficult cases and cases that are bound to attract a lot of media attention. In some ways, they’re quite different. Fenwick is far less diplomatic than Turner, and sometimes gets in trouble because of his lack of tact. Turner is more reflective than Fenwick is, but this doesn’t mean that Fenwick doesn’t think clearly or is unable to put the pieces of a puzzle together. Fenwick, who’s married, is what you might call a more “macho” type, while Turner is the gay father of two teenage sons. Turner is more detail-oriented than Fenwick, while Fenwick tends to be more casual in his approach. Still, Fenwick and Turner have a real liking and respect for each other, despite their differences. They cover for each other when one or the other has a home emergency, and they get along well with each other’s families. As interesting as the mysteries in this series is the way that Turner and Fenwick’s relationship develops over time, and the way that the two of them support one another.

There are, of course, lots of other examples of the strong development of police partnerships. Space doesn’t allow me to describe them all. There are also some interesting examples of groups of police officers who work together. For example, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct team members don’t always work with the same partners. Still, they all work together. Detective Steve Carella, who’s often (although not always) featured in the 87th Precinct novels, is partnered with a variety of colleagues. He works most often with Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling and and Cotton Hawkes, but really, all of the precinct detectives work together and support each other.

That’s also true of Dell Shannon’s Luis Mendoza series. Mendoza is captain of the L.A.P.D. Central precinct, and he and his team of detectives often investigate several murders at once. The detectives don’t always pair up with the same partners. Rather, they work as a team. It’s actually one of the first series where the author looks at a whole precinct, rather than just one detective or a pair of sleuths.

The bond that forms between police partners can add a strong layer of interest to a story. It’s even more interesting in a series, as we get to see this relationship develop over time. It’s realistic, too. Over time, detectives who are partnered really do often develop a strong relationship. On the other hand, the stereotype of the “cop buddies” can be clichéd and overdone. What’s your view? Do you enjoy “detective partner” novels? Which are your favorites?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bill Withers song.

P.S. If you’re kind enough to read Confessions of a Mystery Novelist on a regular basis, you know that I mention Agatha Christie’s work in every post. I didn’t reference her novels today, because she didn’t really focus on police partners and the bond that develops over time between police detectives. Rather, we meet several detectives in her novels, and they don’t always work with the same people. It is interesting that her work didn’t really focus on that aspect of police work. Still, in novels such as Dead Man’s Folly, we do see examples of detectives working as a team.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Dell Shannon, Ed McBain, Ian Rankin, Mark Richard Zubro, Marshall Karp, Rita Mae Brown

>I’m Aware of What You’ve Heard, Every Terrible Word*

>A quick look at any tabloid or television lineup is enough to remind us of how much people seem to enjoy gossip and gossiping. At the office water cooler, over dinner, on social networking sites and in the grocery store, we seem to love to talk about other people. Sometimes people gossip because they’re genuinely interested in other people. At other times, people gossip out of spite or malice. Schadenfreude, or getting enjoyment from others’ troubles, may also play a role in why people gossip. Whatever the reason, gossip’s an important part of social interaction and for many of us, a guilty pleasure. It also plays a very important role in crime fiction. Sometimes, authors use gossip to give the sleuth – and the reader – valuable cues (and “red herrings”). Gossip can also give readers background information on characters or on the murder that’s at the core of the story. Gossip can also be used to add to a story’s setting. When it’s used in a planful way (so as not to take away from the central focus of the story), gossip can add an interesting layer of authenticity to a story, as well as provide lots of clues and background.

Many of Agatha Christie’s novels make skillful use of gossip. I’ll just mention two of them. In The Murder at the Vicarage, Inspector Slack investigates the shooting death of the much-disliked local magistrate of St. Mary Mead, Colonel Protheroe. Chief among the suspects is Andrew Redding, an artist who’s recently arrived in town. Protheroe’s daughter, Lettice, has been posing for Redding even though Protheroe had forbidden it. What’s more, Protheroe’s much-younger wife, Annie, has been having an affair with Redding. So it seems quite clear that Redding’s the guilty party. All is not as it seems, though. Miss Jane Marple lives near the vicarage and is well aware of all of the village gossip. In fact, in this novel, she comes across as being quite “gossipy,” herself. That gossip turns out to be very useful, though as it offers important clues to the village’s history and background. That gives Slack very helpful information about who really killed Protheroe and why.

Gossip also figures heavily in Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd. The story is told from the point of view of Dr. James Sheppard, who lives next door to the small house that Poirot has taken in the village of King’s Abbott. Sheppard’s sister, Caroline, is proud of her ability to get and spread all sorts of gossip, often without having to leave the home. In fact, she claims that “people ought to know things.” When Roger Ackroyd’s niece, Flora, begs Poirot to find out who killed her uncle, Poirot makes considerable use of what Caroline Sheppard knows and is able to find out. That gossip gives Poirot very helpful information about the motive for Ackroyd’s murder. It also offers some tempting “red herrings.”

Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town also features an important role for gossip. In that novel, Queen visits Wrightsville, a small New England town, to get some peace and quiet and to do some writing. When he arrives, he’s advised to stay at the guesthouse belonging to the wealthy and powerful Wright family. In fact, it’s local gossip that lets Queen know the guesthouse is available. Queen finds out through the local “grapevine” that the guesthouse had originally been intended as a wedding present for the Wright’s second daughter, Nora, and her fiancé, Jim Haight. But just before the wedding, Haight disappeared, and for three years, the house has remained empty. Local gossip is that the house is “unlucky.” Queen takes the guesthouse anyway, and is soon embroiled in the Wrights’ family drama when Jim Haight suddenly returns and he and Nora rekindle their relationship. They marry, but shortly afterwards, Nora falls ill, and people begin to suspect that Haight is trying to kill his wife to get access to her inheritance. Nora and Jim aren’t the only subjects of gossip, either. Lola, the oldest Wright daughter, has been a target of quite a lot of spiteful gossip ever since she returned to town a disgraced divorcée. The gossip only gets more spiteful when Jim Haight’s sister, Rosemary, comes to stay with the Haights and is poisoned on New Year’s Eve. In fact, it’s local opinion that nearly gets Jim Haight convicted of murder. Still, Queen finds the local gossip useful, as it gives him important background information and clues as to who really killed Rosemary Haight.

Gossip is at the center of M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Gossip. Wealthy widow Lady Jane Winters, who’s a gossip columnist, joins a class at the Lochdubh School of Casting: Salmon and Trout Fishing, run by John and Heather Cartwright. Soon after the class begins, Lady Jane begins to indulge in her favorite occupation and drops strong hints that she knows damaging gossip about everyone else in the class. As if that’s not enough, Lady Jane has an obnoxious personality. So it’s not really a shock when she’s found strangled with a casting line. Inspector Blair is called in to investigate the murder, and he finds plenty of suspects, since just about everyone in the class has been hiding something. It’s Constable Hamish Macbeth, though (who makes his debut in this story), who knows enough of the town gossip already and finds out the rest. Macbeth isn’t what you’d call ambitious, but he doesn’t care much for Blair, and is motivated to solve the case before Blair does.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn often rely on local gossip as they investigate their cases. Hillerman uses gossip quite skillfully and authentically, too. Many members of the Navajo Nation, of which both Chee and Leaphorn are members, don’t have telephones. There isn’t much reliance, either, on television or newspapers. So, upcoming local events are often publicized by word of mouth. So is talk about local people and their doings. In fact, Chee and Leaphorn learn important information about suspects, witnesses and crimes through gossip that’s spread in restaurants, gas stations, stores and community events. They certainly learn more this way than they do in more “official” interviews.

Most of us associate gossip with villages and small towns, and certainly there’s plenty of gossip in those places. But it’s not confined to those settings. There’s also plenty of gossip spread in cities, too. For example, in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, Plum is a bounty hunter whose job is to find and bring back fugitives. Very often, she relies on the local “grapevine” of Trention, New Jersey, to help her do her job. In Two for the Dough, for instance, Plum’s looking for Kenny Mancuso, who’s been charged with shooting his friend. In order to find Mancuso, Plum uses what she knows about Mancuso from local gossip about him. Local gossip also gives Plum information about an arms smuggling ring, and she soon finds out what Mancuso’s involvement with that ring is, and how that relates to the shooting.

Many police procedurals – especially those with a great deal of focus on “station house” scenes, include gossip among the police officers That gossip, too, can be both authentic and helpful, both to the sleuth and the reader. Dell Shannon’s Luis Mendoza series, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series and K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic series are just three examples.

Gossip comes naturally in many human interactions, and it certainly plays an important role in crime fiction. It can be distracting, though, if it focuses the reader away from the central point of the novel – the crime under investigation. What do you think? Do you find that using gossip makes the characters more real, or do you find it too distracting?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Careless Talking.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dell Shannon, Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, K.C. Constantine, M.C. Beaton, Tony Hillerman