Category Archives: Dicey Deere

Another Pleasant Valley Sunday*

Village MurdersOne of the more enduring traditions in crime fiction is the ‘English village murder.’  That sort of novel features a seemingly sleepy village where everyone knows everyone’s business, and where people are (at least on the surface) shocked when murder strikes. Over time, of course, the context has been extended to include villages in many different countries. And there are lots of fictional villages that many crime fiction readers have come to love. I’ve only space to mention a few ‘village series’ here; I’m sure you’ll be able to fill in the gaps though.

Perhaps the most famous fictional village is Agatha Christie’s St. Mary Mead, the home of Miss Jane Marple. Miss Marple claims that she’s learned quite a lot about human nature, just from observing her fellow villagers. And several of the Miss Marple stories focus on life in St. Mary Mead, and on the people who live there. Beginning with The Murder at the Vicarage, readers have come to know the vicar Leonard Clement and his wife Griselda, Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly, and lots of other villages too. Interestingly, St. Mary Mead also features in Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, which is not a Miss Marple novel. In that story, we meet Katherine Grey, who’s lived in St. Mary Mead as a paid companion for ten years. Her life changes completely when she inherits a great deal of money and decides to travel. That’s how she gets mixed up in a case of theft and murder. What’s particularly of interest is that Katherine Grey and Miss Marple never meet. It’s not surprising though, since Miss Marple didn’t make her fictional debut until after the publication of The Mystery of the Blue Train.

M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth is the local bobby in the Highlands village of Lochdubh. He’s quite happy with his quiet village life, and has no burning desire to live and work anywhere else. In the course of that series, we get to know the village and its eccentric inhabitants. For instance, there’s occasional poacher Angus Macgregor, there’s village GP Dr. Brodie, and there are the Reverend and Mrs. Wellington. There’s also local news reporter Elspeth Grant, and the ‘well-born’ Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, both of whom are also love interests for Macbeth.

Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen has created the fictional Yorkshire village of Knavesborough. Her sleuth Rhapsody Gershwin is the daughter of Knavesborough’s vicar, and the fiancée of its local bobby Archie Penrose. In stories such as The Cosy Knave and Green Acres, we meet some of Knavesborough’s eccentric residents. For example there’s local mushroom enthusiast Arthur Kickinbottom and his grumpy wife Mildred; there’s Penrose’s boss and football enthusiast DI Mars-Wrigley; and there are Rhapsody’s sisters Psalmonella and Harmonia. This series features plenty of ‘village spite’ and of course, crime, but it’s also got quite a lot of wit.

Both Dicey Deere and Ian Sansom have written series that feature Irish villages. Deere’s sleuth is Torrey Tunet, an American-born translator/interpreter. She travels quite a bit for her job, but always enjoys time at her European ‘home base,’ the Irish village of Ballynagh. The local law is enforced by Inspector O’Hare, who does not appreciate Tunet’s involvement in any investigation. But although Tunet wasn’t born in Ballynagh, she’s been accepted by the locals, and finds it hard to leave matters alone when one of the friends she’s made is threatened. Readers who would rather not catch up on a long series will appreciate that this one only consists of four entries.

Sansom’s series, the Mobile Library Series, features Israel Armstrong, a ‘blow-in’ from London who’s been hired as the librarian for the Tumdrum and District Mobile Library. As we first learn in The Case of the Missing Books, his job is, on the surface, of it, hardly a dream job for a librarian. He drives the area’s rattletrap mobile library bus, which is kept stocked and running only because the law requires that a library be accessible to the locals. But the residents of Tumdrum and the surrounding area love having books available, and as the series goes on, Armstrong slowly gets to know them and vice versa. This series has a slightly more cynical edge to it, if I may put it that way, than some ‘village’ series do. It’s a funny and wry look at village life through the eyes of someone who’s very accustomed to London life.

There’s also Martin Walker’s series featuring Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges. This series takes place mostly in the French village of St. Denis, in the Périgord. Bruno is very much ‘one of us,’ as far as the other villagers are concerned. He does his job not just because it’s what he’s paid to do, but also because he knows and cares about the other people who live in St. Denis. This series often links past events and crimes to present-day mysteries. It also features, as do most ‘village’ series, a look at the lifestyle and culture of the area. This series isn’t as light as some ‘village’ series are; there are sometimes ugly crimes and motivations. But it shows the real appeal of life in a village in that part of France.

And I couldn’t imagine a post about ‘village’ murders without a mention of Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. This series’ focus is the village of Three Pines, which we first ‘visit’ in Still Life. This isn’t what you’d call a cosy ‘village series,’ although there are plenty of light moments. In some ways, it does have quite an edge. But it’s clear that life in Three Pines can be very good indeed, and the series offers readers an authentic look at its culture and lifestyle. The series includes some beloved characters too, such as bistro/B&B owners Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau. There are also for instance artists Peter and Clara Morrow and poet Ruth Kemp Zardo. Among other things, this series is almost as much about those characters and the ways their lives intersect.

And that’s the thing about ‘village’ mystery series. They tell stories of crime of course. But they also show what it’s like to live in a village, and they depict the ways in which the residents’ lives are woven together. There are only a very few crime-fictional villages. Which ones do you like to ‘visit?’

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Pleasant Valley Sunday, made famous by the Monkees.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dicey Deere, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, Ian Sansom, Louise Penny, M.C. Beaton, Martin Walker

A Plot Begins to Take Shape*

Story ShapeNot long ago, graphic designer Maya Eilam suggested a fascinating way to look at the shape of a story – through a graphic pattern. She based her ideas on Kurt Vonnegut’s theories about archetypal story patterns (e.g. ‘boy meets girl,’ and ‘creation stories,’ among others).

I got to thinking about story patterns for certain kinds of crime fiction novels and thought it might be interesting to see what those patterns look like pictorially. Now of course, each story is a little bit different. Still, let’s take a look at some basic story patterns.

Keep in mind as you read that a) I am not a graphic designer, so the graphics are not professional; b) this is all just my take on story shapes; c) there’s only space on this post for a few examples. I’m sure that you’ll be able to think of a lot more than I could.

 

The Classic/Golden Age Novel

GA

In many (‘though certainly not all!) classic/Golden Age crime novels, we meet the characters. Then something untoward happens and then, there’s a murder. The sleuth begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together, only to have to deal with a second murder or other setback. Then the sleuth puts more pieces of the puzzle together, to arrive at a resolution. There’s very often a hint of romance in such novels too (although again, certainly not always).

That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow. The story starts as we get to know the various members of the Angkatell family. They’re preparing for a weekend gathering that will also include Harley Street specialist John Christow and his wife Gerda. The weekend begins and we see the tensions among the characters rise. Then, John Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot is staying at a nearby cottage he’s taken, and he and Inspector Grange work to find out who the killer is. At first Poirot gets to some of the truth about the murder but of course, there are setbacks. Then, Poirot finds the other pieces of the puzzle. There’s a bit of a romance angle too for two of the characters. Of course, the novel has other depths too, but you can see how it’s consistent with this pattern.

There’s also John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook. That’s the story of the murder of Martin Starberth. The Starberth family were Governors of Chatterham Prison for several generations, and it’s still the family custom for each Starberth heir to spend the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the Governor’s Room at the now-ruined prison as a sort of initiation rite. When Martin Starberth takes his turn, he’s found dead the next morning. The story is told through the eyes of Tad Rampole, an American who’s visiting Dr. Gideon Fell, who lives not far from the prison. First, we meet the characters. The tension rises as we learn the story of the Starberth family, and then Martin Starberth is killed. There are some clues to the puzzle, but there are setbacks as this seems to be one of those ‘impossible crimes.’ It isn’t of course, and Fell finds that the key to the mystery is a cryptic poem. Again, parts of the story don’t strictly follow this story shape, but in general, it fits. Oh, and there’s a romance in this novel too.

 

The Police Procedural

PP

There are of course a lot of variations on the police procedural theme. But in general, the real action in them starts when a body is discovered. Then the police interview witnesses and those who were involved with the victim. Sometimes the detective gets a clue or even several pieces of the puzzle. Then there’s often a setback as clues don’t pan out, more victims are killed, or the police detective is warned off a case for whatever reason. Then comes the break in the case. There’s also sometimes a confrontation between the detective and the criminal. Then, even if the criminal isn’t always led away in handcuffs, we know the truth about the case.

That’s what happens in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, the first of their Martin Beck series. The action in the story begins when the body of an unknown woman is pulled from a Swedish lake. After a lot of effort she is identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was touring Sweden when she was killed. Martin Beck and his team talk to people who might be witnesses, and there’s a parallel investigation in the victim’s hometown in Nebraska. But there are setbacks as the detectives really can’t find a viable suspect. Then there’s a major breakthrough in the case and the killer is identified. There’s a confrontation with that person and the case is solved. Of course there’s more to the novel than that, but you can see how it’s consistent with this pattern.

We also see this pattern in Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear. New South Wales police detective Ella Marconi and her team are called in when Paul Fowler is killed. He was with a group of friends tossing a football around when he suddenly collapsed. When it’s found that he was shot, the team begins to talk with the people on the scene as well as with other people in Fowler’s life. There are setbacks as several people involved in the case keep things back. There are other deaths, too. But then there’s a breakthrough, and Marconi and her team find out the truth. Again, there are other layers to this novel and there are subplots. But in many ways it’s consistent with the basic story structure.

 

The Cosy Mystery

CM

The characters in a cosy mystery are often very important. So lots of cosies start with an introduction to the characters. Then something happens that raises the tension level. Then there’s a murder. The sleuth (who’s usually an amateur, ‘though of course, not always) is drawn into the case. She or he often has a love interest or something else that brings some hope (cosies tend to be optimistic). But there are setbacks. Either the sleuth is suspected of the crime, or there’s another murder – sometimes both. However, there is support from the sleuth’s real friends and sometimes from the sleuth’s love interest. The sleuth puts the pieces of the puzzle together, sometimes having a confrontation with the killer. Then the story comes together when the case is solved. 

Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal is like that. In that novel, a local theatre group has been doing a production of Henry V under the direction of local high school principal Hilary VanBrook. On the night of the last performance, VanBrook is murdered. Since the murder was on his property, and the suspects are people he knows, Qwill investigates the case. As he does so, he gets support from his friends in town and of course there’s his love interest Polly Duncan. There are also setbacks as there is another murder. Some of the clues don’t pan out either. But in the end, Qwill finds out who killed VanBrook and why.

We also see that sort of pattern in Dicey Deere’s The Irish Village Murder. Professional translator/interpreter Torrey Tunet has just returned to her European ‘home base’ in the Irish village of Ballynagh. She’s soon drawn into a murder case when her friend Megan O’Faolain is accused of shooting noted history writer John Gwathney. Tunet doesn’t believe her friend is guilty, so she begins to ask questions. As she does so, we get to know the various characters and we also learn about Gwathney’s personal and professional lives. In the end, and with help from her lover Jaspar Shaw, Tunet finds out who really killed the victim and why. In one sense, this novel varies just a little from the overall story structure I’ve depicted; we get to know the characters after Gwathney’s body is discovered. But in most ways it’s quite consistent.

 

The Noir Novel

Noir

Noir stories are, by their nature, not happy stories about well-adjusted people, and you can see that reflected in the story structure. In many of these stories, the main character is not overly happy to begin with. Then, something happens that propels that character on a downward spiral. The character gets involved in a murder investigation in one way or another and things don’t get much better. There are setbacks that draw the main character further down. There may sometimes be some sort of possibility for optimism as the main character finds out the truth. But in the end, solving the case doesn’t make for a happy ending, and the protagonist doesn’t come out of things ahead of the proverbial game.

That’s the case with Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which takes place in 1950’s Southern California. Lora King is a Pasadena schoolteacher whose brother Bill has just become married Alice Steele. Lora’s not happy about this. For one thing, she doesn’t know much about Alice, and something about her is disturbing. Still, she tries to make the best of things for Bill’s sake. But as Lora slowly learns out more about Alice, she sees that her new sister-in-law has a very murky past and is hiding a lot of her life. The more Lora finds out though, the more drawn into Alice’s life she becomes. Then there’s a death that turns out to be murder. Is Alice involved? If so, Bill could be in real danger. So Lora begins to investigate and finds out that she’s pulled more and more into the case. She risks everything to try to find out the truth and save Bill, and I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that knowing what really happened doesn’t make life any better.

Ken Bruen’s The Guards is also fairly consistent with this sort of story shape. Jack Taylor has recently been separated from the Garda, mostly for drinking that led to a very unprofessional encounter with a speeder. Now he’s hung out his PI shingle in Galway, and Ann Henderson hires him. Her daughter Sarah recently died in what police say was an incident of suicide. But Ann doesn’t believe that. Taylor agrees to take the case and starts asking questions. He soon finds out that he’s not going to get much help from his former Garda colleagues. And it doesn’t help matters that Sarah’s death may be connected to the deaths of some other young girls – killings that some highly placed people do not want solved. But Taylor has begun to care very much for Ann Henderson. Besides, he doesn’t much like it when obstacles are put in his way. So he persists. He even stops drinking for a time and starts to put his life together. He finds out the truth about Sarah Henderson, but it doesn’t change the sadness of this case. And it doesn’t really make life better for Taylor.

One thing about well-written novels is that there’s much more to them than just their overall shape. There is a richness of character, plot and so on that keeps the reader engaged. So a story map only goes so far in describing a given novel. What’s more, each author has an individual way of approaching story shapes and structures, and many authors play with the structure deliberately. So not every novel falls neatly within one or another structure. Still, I think it’s an interesting way to think about crime novels. Thanks to  Maya Eilam for the inspiration and to author and fellow blogger Rob Kitchin for sharing the article.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Belle and Sebastian’s Storytelling.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dicey Deere, John Dickson Carr, Katherine Howell, Ken Bruen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Maj Sjöwall, Megan Abbott, Per Wahlöö

We Know Where We’re Going, We Know Where We’re From*

Among other things, crime fiction allows us to experience other cultures, or to look at our own through different eyes. And one way authors do that is through creating expatriate (ex-pat) characters. When someone from one culture lives and works in another, there’s a fascinating ‘meeting of minds’ if you want to call it that, and that can add a very interesting perspective to a novel. Well-drawn ex-pat characters don’t necessarily give up their own culture or language, but they do learn the ways of the new culture and that adds to their perspective and to the reader’s.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is an ex-pat Belgian. One could argue that because he left Belgium as a refugee he is, strictly speaking, not an ex-pat as he didn’t leave his country voluntarily. But I include him here because he provides an interesting look at what it’s like to be from one country but live and work in another. In many ways he is quite distinct from the English people among whom he lives. Besides the language difference (he’s had to learn English and sometimes needs to learn a new idiom or two), there are also cultural differences. Just as an example, although Poriot is familiar with the custom of tea, he’s never really made it his own habit. There are other English customs too, such as shaking hands rather than embracing, that he’s had to get used to and he’s never really lost his own Belgian way of life. In a way, you could argue that Poirot allowed Christie to hold up a mirror to her own culture.

In Walter Mosley’s A Red Death, we meet ex-pat Chaim Wenzler, a former member of the Polish Resistance who’s since moved to the United States. Wenzler has become the object of FBI interest because he is believed to be a communist. At the time this novel takes place (the early 1950’s), being a communist in the United States is a very serious matter so if the allegations about Wenzler are true, then FBI Agent Darryl Craxton wants to bring him down. Craxton gets the opportunity to get close to Wenzler through then-amateur private investigator Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. Rawlins is in deep tax trouble, so Craxton offers him a deal: if he agrees to get close to Wenzler, Craxton will make his tax problems go away. Rawlins agrees and starts volunteering at the First African Baptist Church, where Wenzler too has been volunteering. The two men get to know each other and before long Rawlins finds himself liking Wenzler and increasingly reluctant to give him up to the FBI. Then there’s a series of murders for which Rawlins is framed and it looks as though someone has begun to target him. Now he has to clear his name by solving the murders and walk a very thin line between giving enough information about Wenzler to the FBI without giving too much away.

Alexander McCall Smith introduces us to American ex-pat Andrea Curtin in Tears of the Giraffe. Curtin and her husband lived in Botswana for a few years as a part of her husband’s job. Their son Michael fell in love with Botswana while the family was there and decided to remain when his parents returned to the United States. He joined an eco-commune and all seemed well enough until he disappeared. The official explanation for his disappearance is an attack by wild animals. But his mother Andrea has never quite believed that and wants closure. She’s moved back to Botswana where she’s decided to remain. She hires Mma. Precious Ramotswe to help her find out the truth about her son’s disappearance so she can move on with her life. Mma. Ramotswe takes the case and goes to the eco-commune where the young man lived. Bit by bit she finds out what
happened to him and is able to give his mother the answers she needs.

Dicey Deere created a four-novel series featuring American ex-pat Torrey Tunet, who now lives in Ballynagh Ireland when she’s not ‘on the road’ as part of her job. Tunet is a language specialist and interpreter who often travels, but she always returns to her ‘base’ in Ballynagh. Through her
eyes we get to see the interesting, sometimes quirky local characters and the unique customs and culture of the area. Tunet has respect for the local ways, too; it’s obvious that Deere doesn’t fall into the trap of the ‘fish-out-of-water who annoys everyone’ kind of character.

P.D. Martin’s Sophie Anderson is an ex-pat Australian who now lives and works in the U.S. as an FBI agent. She started her career with the Victoria police force but fell in love with the idea of being an FBI profiler after she took a course offered by the agency. She makes an excellent profiler too; not only does she have the training and skills, but she also has an added ‘plus.’ Anderson has psychic dreams – visions, if you want to call them that – that allow her to ‘get into the heads’ of the killers she pursues. Although she isn’t always comfortable with that ability, she does learn to channel it and make use of it as she investigates.

Vicki Delany’s Constable Moonlight ‘Molly” Smith is purely Canadian. But her parents aren’t. Lucy ‘Lucky’ and Andy Smith are former hippies and ex-pat Americans who moved to Canada when Andy was drafted for service in the Vietnam War. Andy had real doubts about leaving the U.S. at the time they moved but Lucky strongly believed that the war was wrong, so they made the move. Since then they’ve settled there comfortably and now run an adventure tour company and store. Although neither is ashamed of having come from the U.S., they’ve more or less embraced the local way of doing things.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney. She’s an ex-pat Australian PI who now lives and works in Bangkok. Although in many ways she’s purely Aussie (if there is one way to be purely Aussie), but she has also learned quite a lot about the different culture, language and way of life in her new home. She speaks fluent Thai, understands and follows the local customs and has begun to appreciate the complexity of life there. In Behind the Night Bazaar and The Half-Child, Keeney’s ability to move between her own culture and her adopted culture proves to be very useful as she solves cases.

And that’s the interesting thing about ex-pat characters. We get to see, through their eyes, what a different culture is like. There’s also a terrific opportunity for a complex, ‘fleshed out’ character if she or he is from one culture but has had to get accustomed to living and working in a different one. I’ve only had space here to mention a few examples; which ones do you like?

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s Exodus.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Dicey Deere, P.D. Martin, Vicki Delany, Walter Mosley

Like a Worn-Out Recording of a Favorite Song*

All series – even truly great series – end. Sometimes they end with the author’s passing. Sometimes they end because the author has moved on to other projects. They can also end when there’s no longer enough interest (or sales of the series) to continue it.  When it comes to ending a series, there’s always a dilemma. If the series is well-regarded, continues to stay well-written and generates lots of sales, it’s quite hard to walk away. That’s especially true if the author’s got a lot of fans and has created a niche for her or himself. On the other hand, we all know of series that have gone on for too long. Such series become tired, pale imitations of their former selves. That’s not good for an author’s reputation, and it’s certainly not fair to readers, who at the very least deserve well-written, interesting novels. One effective way to resolve this dilemma is to plan the number of novels in a series from the beginning.

There are some real benefits to a planned series. One is that the author can develop characters, plots, stories-across-stories and so on so that the series remains interesting throughout. At the end, the author can move on to another series. This can make the prospect of writing a series much less daunting to an author. Readers know the series is limited, and this may make the series that much more appealing, especially for those who start the series later and don’t want to have to “play catch up” with twenty or more books.  And if readers become fans of the author through that series, they’re likely to at least give the author’s next series a try. There’s a sense of closure, too, to a series that’s purposefully limited. Quandaries are resolved, truths are discovered, and so on.

That said, though, planned series have their drawbacks. Suppose the series really becomes very popular, and readers want more, even knowing there will only be, say, four or five books in that series? This means that publishers risk losing the sales they’d have made if the series had continued. Authors risk losing fans and royalties. Limited series can restrict the author’s creativity, too. Even if it’s the author’s idea to write, say, only five or six books, if her or his ideas change, it’s hard to act on that creativity if one’s committed to a limited number of novels.

Even with those shortcomings, limited series can be an effective way to make and keep a series fresh and interesting, so readers will truly enjoy them. They can also free the author for other projects and free readers to enjoy other books by the same author (or other authors). One of the best-known limited series is Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s ten-novel Martin Beck series. Beck is a Stocholm homicide detective whom we first meet in Roseanna and whose last case is The Terrorists. Throughout the series, we see the evolution of the characters, the changes in their personal lives and other stories-across-stories. We also see the sociopolitical themes that Sjöwall and Wahlöö explored throughout the novels. There are also, of course, the individual cases that are the focus of each novel. All of these (and this is just my opinion, so feel free to differ if you do) come into sharper focus because the series is limited.

Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson series is also a limited series (of six books). In these novels, we follow the lives of Stockholm tax attorney Rebecka Martinsson and police investigator Anna-Maria Mella. They’re first drawn together in Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar) when Martinsson returns to her hometown of Kiruna to help a friend who’s accused of murder. Mella is the head investigator on this murder and each in her own way the two sleuths get to the truth of the matter. As the novels go on, we learn Martinsson’s backstory and we see her character evolve and develop. We also follow Mella’s personal and professional life. Several of the secondary characters develop throughout the series, too, and Larsson ties events in the stories together. Each novel in the series is focused on one particular case or set of related cases, but the series has stories-across-stories as well. Four of the novels (Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar), The Blood Spilt, The Black Path and Until Thy Wrath be Passed) have been translated into English. I’m eagerly awaiting the translation of the fifth, Till offer åt Molok, and the publication of the sixth.

George Pelecanos has written more than one limited series. One is his three-novel Nick Stefanos series. When we first meet Stefanos in A Firing Offense, he’s the advertising director for Nutty Nathan’s, a Baltimore chain of electrical-goods stores. One day, Stefanos gets a strange call from James Pence, a Nutty Nathan’s customer. Pence’s grand-son Jimmy Broda works at Nutty Nathan’s warehouse, but he’s disappeared. Pence has asked around and been told by a salesman at his local Nutty Nathan’s that Stefanos is good at finding people. So Pence wants Stefanos to find his grand-son.  Stefanos is reluctant to get involved, but agrees to at least meet with Pence. That meeting leads Stefanos into a major East Coast drug operation – and ultimately to a career switch into the world of private detection. The other two novels that focus on Stefanos are Nick’s Trip and Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go. However, he also makes appearances in other Pelecanos novels.

There’s also Dicey Deere’s four-book series featuring American ex-pat Torrey Tunet. Tunet is originally from Boston, but has relocated to the Irish village of Ballynagh. She travels extensively for her work as a translator and uses Ballynagh as a “home base.” Throughout the series, we get to know Tunet and bit by bit, we also get to know the other villagers. We see how their lives intersect, and we see the ongoing friction between Tunet and Inspector O’Hare, who resents what he sees as Tunet’s “meddling” in investigations. This series, which includes The Irish Cottage Murder, The Irish Manor House Murder, The Irish Cairn Murder and The Irish Village Murder works very well as a limited series. We see how some stories-across-stories evolve, but the series isn’t overly long. That’s effective because the setting is a small village, where it wouldn’t be realistic to have a long run of murders.

There are other examples, too, of authors who’ve planned a limited series of books. Ann Cleeves has done this with her Shetland Quartet, for instance. Other authors such as Agatha Christie may not have specifically planned the length of their series, but instead, plan their end. Christie wrote the last novels in her Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple series during World War II and stored them safely so that no-one else would be able to continue the series if she were killed in the war. Limited series do have their advantages and despite the drawbacks to that kind of finite planning, they can work well. But what’s your view? As a reader, do you enjoy limited series or do you prefer not to have your series end after a set number of books? If you’re a writer, have you planned the length of your series? What are your thoughts on this?

 

 

Now…we all have read series that should have been more limited than they are. Wondering if you’re reading a series that has gone on too long? Check out these…

 

Signs That A Series Has Gone On For Too Long

 

You know exactly on which pages the first, second and third bodies will be discovered… before you’ve even started reading the newest release.

 

The series, which started out as a “village cosy” series, now features aliens, vampires and evil “Dr. No” – type characters because the author has used every other possible plotline.

 

The sleuth has now gone through four marriages, innumerable lovers, half a dozen hospital stays and a series of stints at rehabilitation clinics… and you couldn’t care less any more.

 

You’re on page 32 of the newest release when you suddenly realise this is exactly the same story the author told in the fifth novel of the series… and the tenth.

 

Every one of the sleuth’s friends, colleagues and relations has at one point or another been trapped, abducted, caught in a gunfight or otherwise put at grave risk.

 

Ordering the series back catalogue, even if you wanted to, would cost you half a year’s salary.

 

While I remove my tongue from my cheek, do you have any signs you’d like to add? ;-)

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rupert Holmes’ Escape (The Piña Colada Song).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Åsa Larsson, Dicey Deere, George Pelecanos, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

“Unofficial Partnerships”

No detective knows everything and can fit in everywhere. Not in real life and not in crime fiction. It would be very unrealistic if a detective could do everything for him or herself. So sometimes, when sleuths are on a case, they work with unofficial partners. I don’t mean partnerships such as Colin Dexter’s Morse and Lewis or Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe, or even “amateur partnerships” such as Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Some partnerships are much more informal than that, but nonetheless valuable to the sleuth. Those kinds of partnerships can also be interesting to the reader, as they let the reader get to know different characters. Those sorts of partnerships also make a book or series much more realistic.

For instance, there’s an extremely unusual and interesting partnership in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Hercule Poirot has decided to retire to the village of King’s Abbott to grow vegetable marrows – or so he thinks. Shortly after Poirot’s arrival in the village, retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed to death in his study. There are several suspects, since Ackroyd had a large fortune. But the most likely one is his stepson Captain Ralph Paton. Paton was in serious financial difficulties and had even quarreled with his stepfather about money. What’s worse, he’s discovered to have been at Ackroyd’s home on the night of the murder, and has since disappeared. Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd doesn’t believe he’s guilty, and asks Poirot to investigate. Poirot knows that as a newcomer and a foreigner, he may not easily be trusted and he doesn’t really know the people involved in the case. But he finds an unofficial partner who can help. Dr. James Sheppard, who lives next door to Poirot, is a villager who’s known the Ackroyd family for a long time, and who was, in fact, a friend of Roger Ackroyd’s. Poirot works with Sheppard to find out who killed Ackroyd.

Officially, Ellery Queen works with his father Inspector Richard Queen. But not always. In The Four of Hearts, Queen’s working at a Magna Studios in Hollywood on what’s turned out to be a very unproductive six-week contract. He’s about to leave Hollywood when he’s persuaded to help work on a new bio-picture. This film is to focus on the lives of Hollywood legends Blythe Stuart and John Royle. This couple had had a stormy romance which ended in a bitter and very public parting of ways. Each married someone else and each now has an adult child. Their feud has continued through the years, so everyone’s shocked when they consent to do the film. What’s even more surprising for everyone is that the two fall in love again and make plans to marry. The brass at Magna Studios use this to their advantage and plan a gala wedding full of Hollywood hype. Stuart and Royle are married on an airstrip and they and their children then board the plane and head off for their honeymoon. Tragically they never make it. By the time the plane lands, both are dead of poison, and their children blame each other. Queen gets involved in the investigation and discovers that neither of the young people is the murderer. As he looks into the lives of the victims, he partners unofficially with Hollywood gossip columnist Paula Paris. Paris knows everyone in Hollywood, and knows everything – however minor – that’s going on. What’s unusual about her is that she never leaves her home due to agoraphobia; everyone always comes to her because of “the power of the press.”  Queen and Paris work together to find out who would have wanted to kill Stuart and Royle and why.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti works officially with Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello. But more than once he works unofficially with his wife Paola Falier, who is not only a countess by birth, but also a professor. So she has literary, academic and social connections that her husband doesn’t have, and sometimes Brunetti makes use of them and works with her unofficially. For instance, in Blood From a Stone, Brunetti and Vianello are investigating the execution-style murder of an unidentified Senegalese man who was killed while he was working at an open-air market. There’s not much to go on in terms of who the man was or why he was killed but eventually, Brunetti and Vianello find out where he lived. They also find a cache of jewels that turn out to be “conflict diamonds” – diamonds that originate in an area where factions oppose the legitimate government and that are used to support armed uprisings against the government. But they still don’t know where the man was from or anything about him. Brunetti works unofficially with his wife, who uses her academic connections to find an expert in African cultures. She helps Brunetti track down the source of the diamonds and trace them to an arms-smuggling ring.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover is a retired teacher who lives in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. In Pretty Is As Pretty Dies, she decides to investigate the death of Parke Stockard, a beautiful but malicious and dangerous real-estate developer. When Stockard’s body is found in a local church, Myrtle Clover’s son, Chief of Police Red Clover, is determined that his mother stay out of the case and stay safe. She’s got other plans, though, and decides to show that she’s not ready yet to be “put out to pasture.” So she begins to look into the case. There are plenty of suspects, too; Parke Stockard was vindictive, mean, selfish and greedy and had alienated just about everyone in town. Myrtle Clover soon finds out, though, that sleuthing isn’t always safe. One night, she has a narrow escape with help from her new neighbour Miles Bradford. Bradford hadn’t planned on it, but his neighbour’s determination is too much for him and he’s soon drawn into working unofficially with her. After another death (and a calamitous dinner!) the two find out who killed Parke Stockard and why.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe works officially with her assistant (later associate) Grace Makutsi. But she sometimes partners unofficially with her fiancé (later husband) Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. He owns Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and knows just about all there is to know about cars. He also is very familiar with the area and the people who live there, as he’s lived there himself all his life. So his knowledge is sometimes very useful. In The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, for instance, Mma. Ramotswe gets a heartbreaking letter from Ernest Pakotati, a schoolteacher whose eleven-year-old son has gone missing. Mma. Ramotswe is determined to find the boy, and sets to work. It soon becomes clear that the boy’s disappearance may be connected to a witchcraft group, but Mma. Ramotswe doesn’t know how she’ll track down the witch doctor as such things are simply not discussed. But then, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni helps her think of a way. He’s called out when a car belonging to a local powerful figure named Charlie Gotso is pulled out of a ditch. As he’s working on the car, Matekoni finds a frightening piece of evidence that Gotso may be involved with witchcraft practitioners. So he works unofficially with Mma. Ramotswe to induce Gotso to let Mma. Ramotswe know who the local witchcraft practitioners are so she can trace the missing boy.

American ex-pat Torrey Tunet is Dicey Deere’s sleuth in her four-novel (so quite manageable ;-) ) series. Tunet is a translator who’s fluent in a wide variety of different languages. The Irish village of Ballynagh serves as her home base when she’s not away on business, and as the series develops, she’s accepted as “one of us” by the villagers. In this series, Tunet usually investigates on her own, much to the chagrin of Inspector O’Hare, whose patch Ballynagh is. But sometimes, she works unofficially with her lover Jasper Shaw. Shaw is a journalist who travels all over the world as he works on his stories. He’s got all sorts of contacts and resources that Tunet finds helpful. He’s also a gourmand and an expert cook – skills that Tunet also finds helpful.

“Unofficial partnerships” can be very helpful to the sleuth. They’re realistic, too, since sleuths can’t know everything. They can also add to the interest of a story, and provide readers with solid characters to “meet.” Which “unofficial partners” are your favourites? If you’re a writer, do you include these characters?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Dicey Deere, Donna Leon, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ellery Queen