Category Archives: Denise Mina

How on Earth Did I Get so Jaded*

HurriedChildhoodDuring the 1980’s, Tufts University Professor David Elkind wrote a groundbreaking book The Hurried Child. In it, he made the powerful argument that many of today’s children are put under an untenable amount of pressure to grow up too quickly. One example of this pressure (and we’ve all seen this I think) is media hype that presents children as ‘little adults’ and sometimes even sexualises them. Another is the tendency (although this certainly isn’t the case all the time) for parents, especially single parents, to treat their children more as confidants than as children. All of this, Elkind argues, can do real damage to children, and serves to rob them of those crucial years of childhood development. The book’s been through several editions and is still widely read, which suggests among other things that these problems haven’t gone away.

It’s not always easy to clearly define the boundary between responsibility that helps a child develop important skills, and responsibility and pressure that isn’t appropriate for children. I think we’d all agree that it’s beneficial for young people to learn to, say, be responsible for their schoolwork or their spending money. But, Elkind argues, pre-teens aren’t ready for adult pressure such as sexual attention, and they’re not served well by the enormous pressure that’s sometimes put on them to ‘be the best,’ such as you sometimes see at sport events. There are plenty of children too who are expected to help provide family income and this, Elkind argues, also hurries children.

This issue crosses socioeconomic lines too. Whether or not you agree with each of Elkind’s arguments (and I do recommend the book), it really does seem that many children in all social classes are pressured to grow up quickly. It’s true in real life, and we see that plot thread in crime fiction too.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes relies on a group of such children: the Baker Street Irregulars. Led by a boy named Wiggins, they’re a group of street children who help him with his investigations. They know London very, very well, and can often observe and get information without calling attention to themselves, so they’re quite useful to Holmes. Conan Doyle doesn’t portray them as living very unhappy lives, but it’s interesting to see how even in this more ‘clean scrubbed’ picture of pressured childhood, the boys respond very positively to Holmes’ leadership and interest in them.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of London bargeman William Thornhill. In 1806, when he’s caught stealing a load of wood, he, his wife Sal and their children are transported to Australia. There, they do their best to make lives for themselves. Thornhill comes to love the land he’s moved to, and therein lies the problem. Other people of course have been living on that land for millennia, and there are real cultural and other conflicts between the new arrivals and the people who’ve always been there. Thornhill would like to resolve matters peacefully, but that view is by no means uninanimous, so some terrible crimes are committed. The first part of this novel tells of Thornhill’s early life in London. Born to a very poor family, he soon learns that the family will not survive if the children don’t do as much as they can, as early as they can, to earn money. In that society, it’s taken in a matter-of-fact way, and allowing children to actually be children is a luxury that the poor simply cannot afford.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, DCI Tom Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look into the murder of financial advisor Dennis Brinkman. At first Brinkman’s death was thought to be a terrible accident, as his body was found under one of the ancient machines he collected. But his friend Benny Frayle is sure that he was killed, and won’t rest until his death is investigated. At first Barnaby and Troy aren’t convinced that this is a murder, but then there’s another death. Self-styled medium Ava Garrett dies of poison after a séance in which she saiid things about Brinkman’s murder that only the killer would be likely to know. Now Barnaby and Troy are faced with two murder cases. In one of the sub-plots of this story, we meet Ava Garrett’s pre-teen daughter Karen, who has had to grow up far too fast. They live in a not-too-well-kept council house along with Ava’s lodger Roy Priest, who’s also seen too much for his nineteen years. Ava is not a physically abusive parent, but she is self-absorbed and irresponsible. So it’s left to Karen and, when he can help out, Roy, to do the ‘adult work’ of managing the household. That’s not the reason for the murders, but it’s a clear example of a hurried child.

We also see one in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory. Gideon Davies has always had a rare musical ability and has become a world class violinist. One terrifying day though, he finds that he can’t play note. So he begins to work with a psychotherapist to get to the bottom of his musical block. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night in what looks like a hit-and-run accident. But as Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers soon learn, this was no accident. As the novel goes on, we see how that death is related to Gideon’s inability to play, and how both are related to a long-ago family tragedy. Part of the novel shows what the Davies family has been like, and how Gideon was pressured from a very early age to grow up because of his musical ability. And that pressure has a lot to do with the kind of person Gideon is now.

Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series, which takes place mostly in Bangkok, features American ex-pat Rafferty, a travel writer who is also fairly good at finding people who don’t want to be found. He’s married to Rose, a former bar girl, now the owner of an aparment cleaning company, who herself had to grow up too fast. He’s also in the process of adopting Miaow, a former street child who’s seen more during her childhood than anyone should have to see in a lifetime. Being forced to grow up too fast has had a profound effect on Rose and on Miaow and through them, on Rafferty. Although he does his best to provide a good life for both, there’s a hardness to them, especially Miaow, that comes from not having had the chance to be a child.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. She is academically gifted, and her dreams go far beyond the limits of her home in Alexandria, on New Zealand’s South Island. Her teacher, Ilsa Klein, has high hopes for her as well, and considers her a very promising student. Then everything begins to fall apart. Serena stops coming to class regularly, and when she is there, she doesn’t participate. It’s clear that something is wrong, and Ilsa wants to help, so she alerts the social welfare authorities. That turns out to be a mistake, as Serena’s mother is deeply resentful of that ‘interference.’ Then Serena disappears. Her sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington, where she lives, back to Alexandria to help in the search. To her it’s shocking that three weeks have gone by and nothing has been done to find Serena. As the story moves along, we see that Serena has had to grow up too fast, and so have her siblings. In part it’s because of the family’s dysfunction; in part it’s because of the family’s socioeconomic situation. There are other factors too. And they play a role in the events that happen in the novel.

There are a lot of other crime novels in which we meet children who are forced to grow up before they’re ready. It’s very hard on them, and certainly doesn’t aid in helping them to become fulfilled, productive adults. There’s an eloquent commentary on it in Denise Mina’s Garnethill, which takes place in Glasgow. In this scene, protagonist Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell is visiting her friend Leslie. Here’s what Leslie has to say about a neighbour’s child:
 

‘‘That’s wee Magsie,’ said Leslie. ‘She’s three and a half. Aren’t ye, wee teuchie?’
Wee Magsie kept her skirt over her face and giggled shyly, rocking from side to side.
‘Yes,’ said the biggest girl, who could only have been seven. ‘I’m her big sister and I’ve to look after her today.’…
‘See that?’ said Leslie. ‘They’re wee mammies before they stop being kids.’’

 

Which novels with hurried children have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, Denise Mina, Elizabeth George, Kate Grenville, Paddy Richardson, Timothy Hallinan

Give it All to Charity*

CharitiesThis is the time of year when all sorts of charitable groups and causes make major appeals for donations. And that makes an awful lot of sense, as giving to others is (supposed to be, anyway) a part of the seasonal ethos. And we all have our particular favourite causes and charities that we support. Charitable groups are so much a part of our lives that it makes sense that we’d see them in crime fiction. After all, people in fictional worlds need a helping hand too sometimes…

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), we meet Mabelle Sainsbury Seale. She’s recently returned to England from India, and one day, visits a local dentist Henry Morley. That’s where she encounters Hercule Poirot, who’s having his teeth cleaned. Poirot doesn’t think too much more about their encounter until Chief Inspector Japp informs him that Morley’s been shot. As a matter of course, all of the patients who came to the office that day need to be interviewed and Miss Sainsbury Seale is no exception. In talking with her and looking into her background, Japp and Poirot find that she’s an actress who works with Zenana Mission in India. Everything about her seems above board as the saying goes, until she disappears.  At almost the same time, they find that another patient has died of an overdose of anaesthetic. Now they’ve got two suspicious deaths and a disappearance to solve. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that the Zenana Mission isn’t the reason for Morley’s death. But it adds an interesting layer to Miss Sainsbury Seale’s character.

In Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, sometime-attorney Jack Irish investigates when a former client Danny McKillop is murdered. The trail leads to a man named Ronnie Bishop, who may know more about this case than he says. But the only problem is that Ronnie disappears. So Irish tries to find him. It turns out that Ronny once worked for the Safe Hands Foundation, a charity group that supports homeless children. In fact, he called the foundation’s head Father Gorman. So Irish goes to Safe Hands to try to track Ronnie down. Safe Hands isn’t the reason Danny McKillop was killed, but it turns out to play a role in the novel, and Irish finds out some useful information about Ronnie there. It’s a good example too of the way a charity group operates.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy features Mareen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell, who lives and works in Glasgow. In Exile, the second novel in the trilogy, Mauri works at Place of Safety, a shelter for battered women. While she’s there, she meets Ann Harris, one of the shelter’s residents. Soon enough, Ann disappears. That in itself isn’t that strange, as residents are not obliged to tell anyone where they go. But it does make the staff uncomfortable as it often means women are returning to abusive situations. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Ann though. But when she turns up dead in London two weeks later, it’s clear that something went horribly wrong. Everyone thinks that Ann’s husband Jimmy murdered her, but his cousin Louise, who runs the shelter, thinks he’s innocent. So she and Mauri start to ask questions. This novel is interesting in that many of the scenes take place at the shelter, so we get to go behind the scenes of a charitable organisation.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a volunteer for a Melbourne charity called the Soup Run. Its purpose is to deliver food, non-alcoholic drinks, medicine and clothes/blankets to Melbourne’s street people. Chapman is a baker, so she contributes to the Soup Run in two ways. She donates extra loaves of bread, rolls and other baked goods to the Soup Run’s collection. She also takes her turn riding with the Soup Run and helping to distribute the donations. The Soup Run may not be quite as formally organised as some other charities are, but it does a lot of good. There are other Melbourne charities too that we learn about in this series. In Devil’s Food, for instance, Chapman gets an unexpected visit from her mother, a back-to-nature hippie who goes by the name of Starshine. Starshine is worried because Chapman’s father, who goes by the name of Sunlight, has disappeared. Chapman agrees to see what she can do to find her father. She knows her father isn’t familiar with the city and doesn’t have money to get a hotel room. That leaves Melbourne’s various charities and missions including the Sunshine Sisterhood, Mission to the Miserable – the Sunnies. When Chapman goes there looking for her father, we see how a charity group works. Chapman encounters other charity groups too in the course of this novel, and it’s interesting to see how each operates.

In Andrea Camilleri’s The Wings of the Sphinx, Vigatà Inspector Salvo Montalbano is called to a local landfill, where the body of an unknown young woman has just been discovered. She has no identification other than a tattoo on one of her shoulders, so Montalbano has to start there. With help from his friend television journalist Nicolò Zito, Montalbano discovers that the victim was one of a group of Eastern European girls who came to Sicily hoping to find jobs. All of them had been helped by a charity called Benevolence, founded and now run by Monsignor Pisicchio. On the surface of it, the charity does a lot of good, and it’s supported by some important people. But Montalbano comes to suspect that it’s not as benevolent as the name would suggest…

And then there’s the New Life Children’s Centre, which we encounter in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney gets an inside look at this charity when Jim Delbeck hires her to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. Maryanne was a volunteer at New Life when she jumped (or fell, or was pushed) from the roof of the apartment building where she lived. Keeney travels to Pattaya, where the charity is based, to do some investigating and goes undercover as a volunteer there. She learns that this charity, run by Frank Harding, prepares Thai babies for international adoption. It’s a charity, so it’s partly supported by donations. But it’s also supported by the Thai government. So any hint of irregularity in the organisation could be most embarrassing and politically very difficult. Keeney will have to be very careful as she investigates, especially since it’s possible that Maryanne might have found out something about New Life that could create problems for the organisation.  Among other things, this story shows the sometimes very complex relationship between charity groups and governments.

Charity groups do an awful lot of good. I’ll bet you have your own particular favourites that you support. That’s a good thing; there’s too much need out there for any one of us to fill it alone.

 

 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Angela Savage, Denise Mina, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Temple

I Write About What’s Real to Me*

Authentic Writing Phil Northern DEOne of the many things to love about reading is the sense of place one gets in a well-written novel. Some books give us a new perspective on places we know well; others show us places we’ve never been. But either way, a solid and authentic sense of place and therefore culture adds much to a story. Some would say it’s an essential ingredient.

Giving readers a sense of place and culture is partly a matter of scenery, locations and so on. But it’s more than that. It’s also giving readers a sense of the way the people who live in that place speak, act and interact. Subtle nuances such as eating customs, idioms and so on can give a novel a real richness. They can also add real authenticity to a novel and have readers thinking, ‘I felt like I was there.’

What’s interesting about that authenticity is that we may not pay close attention to it unless it’s not there. That’s when many readers get cranky.  For instance, I read a blog review recently of a novel that takes place in the US, but where the characters didn’t ‘feel American.’ I understand the point. However one defines ‘being American,’ or ‘being Australian,’ or ‘being English, ‘ or ‘being Russian,’ (or any other culture for the matter of that), one wants fictional characters to seem authentic.

As with most things in writing though, it’s a proverbial double-edged sword. On the one hand, people do notice a lack of authenticity and sense of place. And they often get ill-tempered about it. On the other hand, if the characters aren’t interesting in and of themselves (apart from their cultures), then what the author intends as authenticity can come off as stereotyped. If the plot isn’t interesting, then the setting can’t always save a story. And there is such a thing as ‘dumping’ information about a culture or setting. That makes readers cranky too. Nonetheless, a skilled author shows what a place is like in all sorts of obvious and not-so-obvious ways.

Some authors (I’m thinking for instance of Deon Meyer, Nelson Brunanski, Denise Mina and Domingo Villar) are members of the cultures depicted in their stories. They write authentically because they know from growing up in those cultures what they’re like. I’m sure you have your own list of favourite authors like that – authors who are skilled at sharing their own ‘home’ settings, cultures, speech patterns and the like. It takes a special ability to balance writing about one’s own culture while at the same time including and welcoming readers who may not know about it. And a word of praise is due too I think to those who translate these authors’ stories. It takes a great deal of skill to capture that authenticity in another language. Trust me. So kudos to people such as Stephen Sartarelli, Anne Trager, Marlaine Delargy and Martin Schifino.

Other authors write truly authentic novels because they’ve lived in an area for a long time and really gotten to know the culture. That’s true for instance of Peter Temple. Born in South Africa, he moved to Australia in 1980 and he’s set his novels there. His stories and characters are distinctly Australian. In fact, his novel Truth won Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award, which is given to a novel

 

‘…which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.’

 

You can’t get much more Australian than that.

The same sort of thing might be said of Tony Hillerman. Born in Oklahoma, he moved to the American Southwest and became thoroughly familiar with the Navajo Nation. Hillerman fans know that his Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series portrays life among the Dineh (the Navajo) in a respectful and authentic way. In fact it’s easy to forget (or perhaps it’s just me) that Hillerman was not a member of the Navajo Nation. He spent years among the Navajos and got to know the culture, the language and the subtle nuances of life and interaction before he really wrote about them. And he did so in such an authentic way that the Navajo Nation gave him their Special Friend of the Dineh Award – a mark of true respect.

As an interesting (well, I hope so) side note, Hillerman is said to have been much inspired by the work of Arthur Upfield, Upfield was originally from the UK, but moved to Australia in 1910. Most of his novels are about half-Aboriginal police detective Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte. Upfield was neither born in Australia nor a member of any of Australia’s Aboriginal cultures. And yet his depictions of the land and the people ring very true.

Authors can also do a lot careful research to make sure their stories are authentic in terms of characters, language, interactions, setting and the like. Of course, it’s a good idea for any author to ‘do the homework’ as a part of writing a story. Otherwise the story is not only inauthentic, it’s inaccurate. And that’s another thing that can make readers quite grouchy. And authors such as Shona (S.G.) MacLean and William Ryan have to rely quite a bit on that careful work because they write historical series. So they have the added challenge of giving readers a realistic sense of a different time with different technology, assumptions, lifestyles, and lots more.

What about you? Do you find yourself irritated if the characters and setting you’re reading about don’t feel authentic to you? Or are you more plot-driven, so if the story is a good one, that’s what matters? If you’re a writer, what do you tap to make the story authentic? Your own experience? Research? Something else?

 

ps. The ‘photo is of winter in Southeastern Pennsylvania/Northern Delaware. I write about that area in part because it’s my home. I know the place.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Hands Like Houses’ Weight.

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Filed under Anne Trager, Arthur Upfield, Denise Mina, Deon Meyer, Domingo Villar, Marlaine Delargy, Martin Schifino, Nelson Brunanski, Peter Temple, Shona MacLean, Stephen Sartarelli, Tony Hillerman, William Ryan

So Just Let Me Be Myself*

Author's VoiceA very interesting post on Elizabeth Spann Craig’s terrific writer’s blog has got me thinking about author voice. Elizabeth makes the well-taken point that it’s important for an author to find her or his own natural voice and use it. She’s right. Readers can tell when authors are using their own natural voices; the work reads more authentically and the story flows more smoothly. And that makes sense. Think for instance about how much more comfortable and less ‘forced’ you sound when you’re just speaking naturally than you do when you’re, say, in front of an audience or a piece of recording equipment. It takes time and confidence for an author to find that voice, but when it comes through, it can add immeasurably to the quality of a book.

Agatha Christie fans will know that she began publishing in the early 1920’s. And some people argue that her earliest works don’t all show her at her best. But as time went on, her voice became more and more confident and authentic, and we see that in several of her best works. For instance, many people (‘though certainly not all readers) think of Ten Little Indians (AKA And Then There Were None) as one of Christie’s finest novels. Part of the reason for its high quality is arguably that she had really found her ‘author’s voice.’ In that novel, ten people receive invitations to spend some time on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts the invitation and everyone travels to the island. On the first evening at the island, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night another person dies. Then there’s another death. It’s soon very clear that someone has lured these people to the island and seems to be killing them off one by one. As the surviving guests come to realise this, they also see that they’ll have to find out who the killer is if they’re to stay alive themselves. The language in this novel isn’t stilted, the characters interact in believable ways, and we get a very clear sense of setting and context. In other words, the novel isn’t self-conscious, and it reflects Christie’s own voice effectively. It’s not the only example of the way her voice comes through in her work, but hopefully it suffices to show you what I mean.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy (Garnethill, Exile, Resolution) is also arguably a strong example of an author’s voice coming through effectively. The trilogy follows the life of Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell, a Glasgow ticket-taker (at first) who in Garnethill gets involved in a murder case when her former lover Douglas Brady is found murdered in her home. In Exile and Resolution, we see what happens to Mauri as she finds out who killed Brady and later, gets involved in other cases as she moves along in her own life. Throughout this trilogy, the style is clear and confident, and it’s very authentically Glasgow. Mina’s voice comes through without being stilted. These novels are stronger (well, to me anyway, so feel free to differ if you do) because Mina wrote these novels in her own voice, not by writing ‘the way you’re supposed to.’

Carl Hiassen’s writing also features a strong author voice. He has a background in journalism and a necessarily cynical outlook on a lot of what large corporations and powerful politicians do. He also has a strong sense of humour. We see all of that come through in his novels. Books such as Lucky You and Skinny Dip feature the South Florida ecological and environmental issues he is concerned about, the skewering of corrupt and greedy stakeholders and real wit too. And the novels are not at all self-conscious. Hiaasen’s voice is confident and clear throughout the stories, and his approach to storytelling makes it clear that he’s not writing the way someone’s told him ‘people ought to write.’ He has a unique voice and it’s evident in his work.

I’ve only recently (well, this year) been reading Nelson Brunanski’s rural Saskatchewan novels, and at least for me, part of the appeal of them is that Brunanski’s authentic voice comes through. The protagonist in this series is fishing lodge owner John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He’s a ‘regular guy’ with a wife, two children and a home to keep up as well as his lodge. There’s nothing superhuman or ‘official’ about his investigations. In Crooked Lake for instance, he gets drawn into a case of murder when his friend Nick Taylor is accused of killing Harvey Kristoff, a board member at the golf course where Taylor works. Taylor claims he’s innocent and asks Bart to help clear his name. Throughout this and the other novels in this series, it’s easy to ‘hear’ Brunanski’s strong Saskatchewan voice coming through. The dialogue isn’t forced, the characters are authentic and the mysteries unfold naturally. And part of the reason for that is that Brunanski uses his own voice.

That’s also the case with Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels. As Paretsky fans know, Warshawski is a Chicago PI who has a special attachment to cases involving the disenfranchised. She’s lived and worked in Chicago all of her life and it’s easy to see both her and her creator’s attachment to the city. We also see Paretsky’s voice coming through in this series in terms of the cases that Warshawki investigates. They reflect Paretsky’s views about several human rights and other political and social issues. But it’s more than just the themes of the novels in this series. Paretsky’s voice also comes through in the real-life dialogue, the distinctive Chicago atmosphere and culture, and the true-to-life characters. And Paretsky started this series at a time when ‘everybody knew’ that PI’s were ‘supposed to be’ tough-guy males. She used her own voice though and didn’t write ‘what everybody thought she should write.’ The result has been one of the more popular and enduring modern crime fiction series.

Deon Meyer’s novels also reflect a very strong author’s voice. His standalones feature different protagonists (although some, like bodyguard Martin Lemmer, appear more than once), but all of them are distinctive South African characters with distinctive South African voices. Rather than following a ‘prescription’ for what a thriller ‘ought to’ be like, Meyer uses his own voice to tell the characters’ stories. Or rather, his voice comes through as they tell their own stories. And that, to me anyway, allows for deep character development, solid plots and a uniquely South African atmosphere. Oh, and in Meyer’s case, it’s hard to overestimate the value of K.L. Seeger’s translation. It’s challenging enough for a translator to convey a story’s elements, let alone the author’s unique voice. Seeger does so very effectively.

Of course, there are a lot of other superb examples of novels and series where the author’s voice comes through loudly, clearly and confidently. And that can add immeasurably to one’s reading experience. I’ve only mentioned a few; which are your favourites? If you’re a writer, how do you focus on telling stories in your own voice? Thanks, Elizabeth, for the inspiration.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Madera and David White’s You Don’t Own Me, made famous by Lesley Gore.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, Denise Mina, Deon Meyer, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Nelson Brunanski, Sara Paretsky

You Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover…*

Covers…Or can you? It’s a fact of life for the book-lover that there are far more good books to read than there is budget or time to read them. That means that most of us have to pick and choose among the many offerings. In some cases the choice is easy. We all have a list of authors whose work we look for and buy eagerly. And sometimes we get recommendations from people we trust. That makes it fairly easy to choose a book too. But what about the rest of the great books out there? What makes a reader pick up and flip through Book A as opposed to Book B? One answer is…the book’s cover. Covers aren’t the only basis of course on which we decide whether to read something or not, but they can really influence our decision.

For example, covers can give the reader a lot of information about the sub-genre of a crime fiction novel. Cosy mysteries tend to have covers that are quite different to the covers you see on other kinds of crime fiction. Just take a peek at these two examples. On the left is the cover of Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Quilt or Innocence, which features retired art expert Beatrice Coleman. Just a quick look will tell a reader that this is a cosy novel. There’s no violence depicted on the cover and it’s got a ‘folksy’ look to it. Now take a look at the cover to the right, of Vanda Symon’s The Faceless. Without knowing anything about the plot or characters you can tell right away that it’s a darker novel and most likely not a cosy.

quilt or innocThe-Faceless-13108015-5
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

You’ll notice something else too I’ll bet about the cover of The Faceless. It’s done in attention-getting shades of black and red. Of course the purpose is to set it off from other novels. That’s part of the reason for which the covers of my two novels (Check my sidebar to see what I mean) have so much red in them. Same point.

One of thegarnethill-cover_custom-747c30ad0b7854591d77bb8ca99505d5dd280edd-s6-c10 other things a useful book cover does is tell the reader something about the story. In fact I know several book lovers who get very cranky if the book cover doesn’t reflect the story. Here for example is the cover of Denise Mina’s Garnethill. The real action in that story begins when Glasgow ticket-taker Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell wakes up after a long night of drinking only to find the body of her former boyfriend Douglas Brady in her living room. Brady’s body is tied to a chair, and although the cover isn’t ‘busy’ you can tell something about the story just by looking at it.

You see the same thing on this cover of Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town. There’ve actually been several covers for that particular novel, but what works for this one (at least in my opiniolullaby-town-robert-crais-cd-cover-artn, so do feel free to differ with me if you do) is that it gives a powerful message of what the story is about. In Lullaby Town, private investigator Elvis Cole is hired by powerful Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson. Nelson wants Crais to find his ex-wife Karen and their twelve-year-old son Toby, mostly because he wants to get to know Toby better and start really being a father to his son. Cole reluctantly agrees and he and his partner Joe Pike trace Karen and Toby to a small Connecticut town. What they don’t know at first is that finding Nelson’s ex-wife and son is going to lead them right into the path of the local Mob. If you take a look at this cover, you see the focus both on film and on the boy. It gives a strong clue about the story.

Some books, especially if they are part of a series, are ‘branded’ on the cover as being a part of that series. The books in the Lilian Jackson Braun’ Cat Who… series, for instance, have a very similar look and distinctive ‘paw marks’ on the cover to indicate that they’re part of this series. The-Cat-Who-Lived-High-9780613063784Here’s an example: it’s the cover of The Cat Who Lived High. In that novel, newspaper columnist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran investigates the murder of art dealer Diane Bessinger. He gets involved in this case when he agrees to save the Casablanca apartment building from being demolished. While he’s working to save the building Qwill says in the apartment Bessinger used to have and thereby gets drawn into the investigation of her murder. You can see by this cover not just that it’s a Cat Who… mystery (check out the ‘paw prints’) but also something about the story.

Some book covers take advantage of television or film adaptations and tie in with them. That’s got the advantage of recognition for readers who perhaps have seen an adaptation and may be interested in trying the series. To show you what I mean, here’s one of the covers for Colin Dexter’s The Way Through the Woods. The cover features the incomparable John Thaw, who of course starred in the Inspector Morse series and who was Morse (at least in my opinion).The Way Through the Woods

All of those things (shades and choice of colour, ‘brand markings’ tie-ins with adaptations and things and what’s depicted on the cover) are often very carefully chosen to get you to take notice. There are other strategies too that are used to attract your attention. Cover art is a big concern to a lot of publishers.

But does it work? What do you think? Do you choose to read or not read a book based on the cover? At the very least do you pay attention to what’s on the cover? If it matters to you, what do you look for? What puts you off? Fellow writers, what are your thoughts about the covers of your books and stories?

Want to read more? Check out this excellent post on covers from mystery novelist and superb blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig.

 

ps I know there are several aspects of this topic that I haven’t mentioned here (e.g. how covers have changed over time and the e-reader’s effect on covers). But there’s only room for so much in any one post…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Willie Dixon’s You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover, made popular by Bo Diddley.

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Filed under Colin Dexter, Denise Mina, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Lilian Jackson Braun, Robert Crais, Vanda Symon