Category Archives: Ian Rankin

Today I Do What Must be Done*

DisciplineIf you think about the qualities that detectives need to have, you might not list ‘self-discipline’ as one of them. And yet it’s an awfully important quality. Even the most brilliant detective isn’t going to have a lot of success without a certain amount of self-discipline. For instance, a police detective may know exactly who committed a crime, but that doesn’t guarantee a conviction. The detective needs to ‘go by the book’ and interview people appropriately, handle the evidence carefully and so on. Otherwise there is no case. There are all kinds of examples of the way fictional detectives have to exercise self-discipline. Here are just a few.

In one sense, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes doesn’t appear to be what you’d call self-disciplined. After all, he’s a drug user, he doesn’t keep regular habits, and so on. But when it comes to solving his cases, he is quite self-disciplined. His focus is entirely on the case, and he starts early and works late if I may put it that way. More than that, he has a real intellectual self-discipline. He reads and writes extensively on topics that help him do a better job of detection, and continuously adds to his store of knowledge anything that he thinks he’ll find useful. He isn’t the type either to take a holiday and just relax.

Another kind of self-discipline that sleuths need has to do with the way they work with witnesses and suspects. It can be overwhelmingly tempting to lash out at a suspect or threaten a witness. But it’s often not successful. Instead, it takes patience (sometimes a lot of that) and self-restraint to get people to open up. We see a bit of that in Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle. Inspector Konrad Sejer of the Oslo police is working on a missing person’s case. Andreas Winther hasn’t been seen for several days, and his mother Runi is worried about him. At first Sejer isn’t overly concerned, but as more time goes by, he begins to pursue the case more actively. The one person who may be able to help him most is Andreas’ best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe, so Sejer works hard to try to establish a relationship with the young man. But Zipp’s not willing to talk. It’s soon clear that Zipp knows more than he’s saying, and it takes all of Sejer’s patience and self-discipline to find out the truth.

Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh is not a particularly patient person. He’s not what you’d call reckless, but he likes his cases to move along in a certain way. That’s not what happens in A Calamitous Chinese Killing though. In that novel, he’s seconded to Beijing to help find out the truth about the killing of Justin Tan. Justin was the son of Susan Tan, First Secretary at the Singapore Embassy in Beijing, so his murder is not going to be investigated in the usual way. The police are inclined to think that he was killed in a mugging gone wrong, but Susan Tan doesn’t think so. And as Singh begins to talk with some people and get a feel for the case, he starts to think she’s right. Singh works with former police detective Li Jun to find out what really happened and that process takes self-discipline. Li Jun is not difficult to work with, but Singh is unaccustomed to the Chinese way of doing things. So it requires a great deal of self-discipline on his part to work with witnesses, to let his counterpart take the lead in certain interviews, and to have a sense of the politics involved in what he’s doing.

It’s not just witnesses and suspects either. It takes a lot of self-discipline to work with certain colleagues, too. For instance, Catherine Aird’s Inspector Sloan is a smart, intuitive detective. However, those skills don’t seem to rub off too easily on his assistant Constable William Crosby. Constable Crosby isn’t a bad person, and he does try. But he doesn’t seem to learn very quickly and he isn’t exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier as the saying goes. It takes every bit of Sloan’s patience and self-discipline to work with Crosby and that dynamic plays an interesting role in the series.

Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus finds out how important that kind of self-discipline is in Resurrection Men. He and his team are all frustrated by the lack of progress in the murder of Edinburgh art dealer Edward Marber. During one particularly tense team meeting, Rebus lets go of his self-discipline and throws a mug of cold tea towards his supervisor Gill Templar. Needless to say, the incident isn’t let go. Rebus is remanded to Tulliallan Police College for an opportunity to learn to work better with a team of people. He and other police detectives who have difficulty working in groups are assigned to investigate the ‘cold case’ murder of gangster Rico Lomax. As it turns out, that murder is tied in with Marber’s murder, so in the end, Rebus finds out the truth about both cases.

We can all think of examples (Roderic Jeffries’ Inspector Alvarez comes to my mind) of fictional detectives who don’t seem particularly disciplined. But the reality is that it takes a lot of self-control and discipline to be a good sleuth. And characters who can do that (or who learn to do it) are more believable because of that. These are only a few examples. Your turn.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Until the Night.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Catherine Aird, Ian Rankin, Karin Fossum, Roderic Jeffries, Shamini Flint

How Long Has This Been Going On?*

Long BooksI think most people would agree that there is such a thing as a book that’s too long. And if you’ve ever stopped reading a very long book halfway through, wondering why you’d even bothered with it, you know that some such books could do with a good editing. Both in my reading and in my writing, I tend to like books that aren’t overly long.

At the same time, some stories take longer to tell than others do. And some highly regarded books are longer than you might think. They may not be to everyone’s taste, but there are some longer books that really don’t seem too long when you’re reading them. Let me offer just a few examples. Keep in mind, everyone’s taste is a bit different. Still, I think you’ll get my point.

On Monday, I spotlighted Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, which is the story of a protracted lawsuit, a suspicious death, and a murder. Those aspects of the novel are woven into a larger picture of social class, the legal system and family dynamics in Victorian England. It’s a long book. And yet, fans will tell you that the story moves along, the characters are well-developed, the plot threads mesh together and the novel unfolds beautifully. In other words, the length isn’t a problem because the story keeps the reader absorbed. It’s a novel that needs extra time to evolve, if I may express it that way. It’s also worth noting that this novel (and plenty of others too) started life as a set of monthly instalments. The story unfolded over a period of time.

But there are plenty of long novels that didn’t start out as instlaments that have gotten a great deal of praise. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is one of them. It is the fictionalised account of the rise of Thomas Cromwell to power in the court of King Henry VIII. Wolf Hall isn’t a typical crime novel (is there such a thing?) complete with detective, suspects and an investigation. Yet it is a crime novel in the sense that there is plenty of court intrigue as well as plotting and untimely deaths. But it’s also the story of an era, of Cromwell’s background and the events that led to his coming into power and a lot more too. The novel is long and there are a lot of characters in it. It begins in Cromwell’s adolescence and moves through the next thirty years. There are a lot of events in the novel. But the story is woven together into a cohesive whole, so that a lot of people feel it isn’t ponderous at all. The story needs extra time.

Ian Rankin’s Exit Music has as its focal point the murder of Alexander Todorov, a dissident Russian poet whose death looks like a mugging gone horribly wrong. But as Inspector Rebus and DS Siobhan Clarke get deeper into the investigation and trace Todorov’s movements, they begin to believe there’s more to this case than a mugging. That’s even more likely when local recording engineer Charles Riordan dies and his studio goes up in flames. Todorov had done some recording of his work at that studio not long before, so Rebus and Clarke suspect the deaths might be related. Matters become more complex when it’s discovered that a group of wealthy Russian business executives were not happy about Todorov’s political stance. And when Rebus finds out that his nemesis ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty might have been involved with this group – might even have arranged for the murders – he thinks he’s found his man. Of course, this is Ian Rankin, so things aren’t quite what they seem. This is a long book; my paperback edition comes out at just over 520 pages. But Rankin draws the story threads together and the plot and action move along, so that fans of the novel don’t see the length as being burdensome.

That’s also true of Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Case). In that novel, Intendant Münster and his team investigate the stabbing death of Waldemar Leverkuhn, who’s murdered after a night out with friends to celebrate a lottery winning. Münster’s team begins of course with Leverkuhn’s family members. There’s also interest in what Leverkuhn’s neighbours were doing at the time of the murder. And when it’s discovered that Leverkuhn and his friends had gone in together on a lottery ticket and won, the investigating team also takes a look at those friends’ backgrounds. Their alibis become especially important when one of them goes missing and is later found dead. It takes time for the team to trace the Leverkuhn family background and follow up on all of the evidence from Leverkuhn’s neighbours and friends. And there are some sub-plots in the novel too. So it’s not a short novel. And yet, fans will tell you that the story is absorbing, the pace solid and the character development rich.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine introduces readers to Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police. He and his assistant Detective Yu Guangming get involved in a very delicate case with far-reaching implications when the body of a young woman is discovered in Baili Canal. The woman is soon identified as national model worker Guan Hongying. Because the victim was a celebrity and a national role model, this investigation will have to be handled very delicately and very carefully. The first theory is that she was raped and murdered by a taxi driver, since she was known to have taken a taxi on the night of her death. But Chen and Yu soon find other possibilities. And as the trail begins to lead to some highly-placed people, the need for care and delicate handling becomes even more urgent. This novel is long by a lot of people’s standards – over 400 pages. But those who’ve loved it say that it includes solid sub-plots, interesting characters and a realistic look at 1990’s Shanghai. In this case, the book doesn’t feel too long, if I may put it that way.

Of course, everyone has a different idea of what counts as ‘long.’ What’s more, plots that feel too long to one person may not to another. So what’s your view? Are there any novels you’ve read that are long but that you’ve really enjoyed?  Do you have a cutoff point for novels (i.e. you won’t read novels longer than __ pages)? If you’re a writer, do you have a mental page limit as you write?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Carrack’s How Long, made famous by Ace.


Filed under Charles Dickens, Håkan Nesser, Hilary Mantel, Ian Rankin, Qiu Xiaolong

As the Torch is Passed From Hand to Hand*

PassingtheTorchRight now my third Joel Williams novel is in the hands of a publisher, and I’m waiting to hear whether it’ll be a go. In the meantime, I’m thinking about the direction that the series might eventually take. At some point (and I don’t yet know when that point will be), Williams will realistically retire, both from his professional position and from the series. Or at the very least, his role in the series will change if he’s to age in something like real time. And that’s fine; to me that’s realistic. The question is: how would that process affect the series? 

One possibility (and it’s got real appeal for me actually) is to ‘bring up’ another character who will eventually take the lead. I already actually have one in mind. That, to me, is realistic too. Younger detectives learn their job, become good at it and then lead investigations in real life. Why shouldn’t they in crime fiction too? And there’s no reason that can’t happen with amateur sleuths as well. 

But what does that do to a series? Obviously the series has to change as the characters evolve and develop. That’s all to the good. And there are some series where this kind of change has been successful. For instance, as Håkan Nesser’s Maardam series begins, Inspector Van Veeteren leads the investigation team. The other characters certainly play important roles, but he’s the one in charge. As the series has gone on though, Van Veeteren has left the police force and now has a different life of his own. In the most recent novels, he’s hasn’t supervised the investigation. Instead, other police detectives have started to take the lead. Both Intendant Münster and DI Ewa Moreno have had the opportunity to take charge of investigations and the results have been successful. Of course, Van Veeteren is still a part of the series, but it’s clear that the torch is being passed if I can put it that way. 

We see a similar transition in Arnaldur Indriðason’s series. Many of the novels feature Inspector Erlendur in the lead, and those stories have been both highly regarded and successful. But recent books have featured other team-mates more or less heading up investigations. Both Detective Elinborg and Detective Sigurdur Óli have taken ‘starring roles,’ and that’s been very successful too. It will be very interesting to see whether there will be any new novels featuring those detectives again, even if Erlendur doesn’t appear in them. 

Colin Dexter’s series featuring Inspector Morse ended with The Remorseful Day. As of that novel, Morse’s second-in-command Sergeant Lewis was still that: second in command. But Dexter fans will know that on television anyway, Lewis became the lead character in his own series. He was promoted, he got his own team and they pursued new investigations. That’s realistic. Lewis is smart and skilled and it makes sense that he’d move along in the ranks so to speak. I wonder what it would be like if Dexter wrote some Lewis novels… 

Fans of Louise Penny’s Three Pines novels have become accustomed to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache as the leader of the investigations in that series. I don’t want to give away spoilers for those who haven’t read these novels, but I can say that Penny has laid the groundwork for a new direction in the series It will be very interesting to see what happens as some of the other team members who’ve figured in the series continue to develop and as Gamache makes some choices too. 

Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man is, so far as I know (so correct me if I’m wrong please), the last of his Kurt Wallander series. But what if that torch were passed to Wallander’s daughter Linda? What sort of series might that make? What about a series featuring Ian Rankin’s Siobhan Clarke, whom fans will know as Inspector John Rebus’ second-in-command. What if she featured in her own series? What about Karin Fossum’s Jacob Skarre?  In one way, it would be very realistic to have those characters assume leadership roles. They’ve evolved and developed and matured over time so it’s only natural that they’d feature in their own series. 

On the other hand, part of all of this is the author’s vision. That’s the ‘spark’ behind many series and without it characters can become flat and dull. If the author’s vision of a series doesn’t include passing the proverbial torch, then the series may not have its original appeal.  It’s also a matter of the characters themselves. They may be excellent characters in certain roles, but not as effective if they’re protagonists. So building a new series around one of them is a risk. 

What do you think? Does it make sense for a second-in-command or other character to take the lead in a new series? Or should a series end when the original protagonist stops investigating? If you’re a writer, what’s your vision for your work? Have you thought about where you’ll take your series when your protagonist no longer investigates? 

As for me, I’m thinking about it, but it’s not something I have to decide today. Joel Williams still has some good years ahead of him. ;-)



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dan Fogelberg’s Forefathers.


Filed under Arnaldur Indriðason, Colin Dexter, Håkan Nesser, Henning Mankell, Ian Rankin, Karin Fossum, Louise Penny

Get On Back to School*

Professional DevelopmentNo matter what profession one’s in, it doesn’t usually stay static. Because of that, professionals often have to update their skills and knowledge. Sometimes it’s called ‘training,’ sometimes it’s called, ‘seminar’ and sometimes ‘professional development.’ Whatever it’s called, it’s a fact of life for a lot of people.

Sometimes those sessions are very useful, and they can give one the chance to get together with colleagues and other people in the field. Other times…it’s exactly the opposite. If you’you’ve ever been to a really dreadful one, you know exactly what I mean.

Police (and private detectives too) are no different when it comes to professional development. They’re expected to go to training classes, update their skills and so on. But at least in crime fiction, a lot of them aren’t that happy about it. Sometimes it’s because they think those sessions are a waste of time. Other times it’s because they’d rather do things their way, if I can put it like that. Those sessions may not always be productive, but they’re woven into a lot of crime fiction.

In Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo for instance, Harry Bosch investigates the suspicious death of a former Vietnam War comrade Billy Meadows, whose body is found stuffed into a large municipal drainpipe. At first the death looks like a case of a junkie who overdosed, but Bosch doesn’t believe it. So he investigates more deeply. It turns out that Meadows’ death is connected with plans for a major bank robbery. At one point, he and FBI agent Eleanor Wish are interrogating someone who may know more than he’s saying. Bosch wants to use some police training he got in, of all things, hypnosis. By this time the LAPD isn’t using that tactic any more, and Bosch mentions that he was in the last class of cops who took it. You never know what skills you can learn at a professional development seminar.

Ian Rankin’s John Rebus is not much of a one for departmental-level training sessions or professional development. He’s a rather independent thinker (to say the least) and doesn’t like to conform to what the top brass says. But that doesn’t mean he can escape professional development. In Resurrection Men, for instance, Rebus is required to attend a ‘last chance’ course at Tulliallan Police College along with a group of other cops who have trouble working with others, especially authority figures. The team is assigned to investigate a ‘cold case,’ the murder of gangster Rico Lomax. The idea of this training is that the men will learn to work together and solve the case. Needless to say, Rebus isn’t’t happy about this, especially since he and Sergeant Siobhan Clarke were in the middle of investigating the murder of Edinburgh art dealer Edward Marber. But he goes along with the decision. His time in this special program proves useful once he and Clarke find that the two cases are related.

Forensic anthropologist David Hunter decides to update his skills and see if he still ‘has it in him’ in Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead. Hunter is healing both physically and emotionally from the events in Written in Bone, and wants some time away from London anyway, So he goes to Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory, otherwise known as ‘The Body Farm,’ to get away for a bit and to hone his skills. He did his training there and is looking forward to re-connecting with his mentor Tom Liebermann. Shortly after Hunter’s arrival in Tennessee, a decomposed body is discovered at a deserted cabin not far from the lab. Then another body is discovered. Hunter is soon drawn into a difficult and dangerous investigation that’s quite different to his plan for skill development.

Not all professional are that eager for professional development. Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) introduces Copenhangen homicide detective Carl Mørck. He’s recovering from a traumatic line-of-duty shooting and is just getting back to work. But going back to work doesn’t mean he’s back to his old self. In fact, he’s so hard to work with that he’s ‘promoted’ to Department Q, a newly-formed department devoted to investigating cases ‘of special interest.’ The first case he and his assistant Hafez al-Assad look into is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. Everyone thought she’d drowned in a tragic ferry accident, but Mørck and Assad soon suspect she may still be alive. If she is, they may have very little time in which to find her. In the meantime, Mørck’s boss informs him that his promotion will mean he has to take a qualification course. Mørck refuses to do so, and there’s an interesting thread running through this story of their running battle about it.

And then there’s Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine, in which we are introduced to Shanghai Chief Inspector Chen Cao. Chen and his assistant Yu Guangming investigate the rape and murder of an unknown woman whose body is found in Baili Canal. It turns out that the woman was Guan Hongying, a National Model Worker and a Party member, so the authorities want this case handled very delicately. Chen, on the other hand, wants to find out who killed the victim and why. He and Yu begin work on the investigation but at first no leads turn up. Then there’s an added complication. Chen is invited to attend and present at the Central Party Institute’s annual seminar. It’s an important honour and it indicates that Chen is well regarded. To refuse the invitation is out of the question, but it means that Chen has to prepare his presentation at the same time as he’s working on this difficult case.

And that’s the way it is with most professional development. It’s not that it’s always bad. Some professional development is actually very useful. But it always seems to come when the sleuth least wants to take the time…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jimmy Buffett’s Domino College.


Filed under Ian Rankin, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Connelly, Qiu Xiaolong, Simon Beckett

Got a Job With a Company Drillin’ For Oil*

OilEver since the automobile became a commercially viable form of transportation (and really, even before then) oil has been a valuable commodity. As I know I don’t have to tell you, oil has made incredible fortunes for people. And as we’ll see, it’s become pretty much a necessity for modern infrastructures, at least until other forms of energy become feasible. With oil being such a critical part of life, it’s not surprising that it’s also the source of a great deal of conflict. So of course, it’s a natural as a theme for crime fiction.  Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In James Lee Burke’s Black Cherry Blues, former blues singer Dixie Lee Pugh finds himself in a serious situation. His music career ended in a haze of drugs and alcohol, and a prison sentence didn’t help matters. Now he earns a legal living as a leaseman. One of his jobs takes him to Montana’s Blackfoot Reservation, where a deal is underway to lease some of the land for oil drilling. One night Pugh happens to overhear two men discussing two murders they’ve committed. Pugh doesn’t want to call attention to himself because of his past history. So he asks his old college friend Dave Robicheaux, who’s now a police officer in New Iberia, Louisiana, for help. Robicheaux is reluctant to get involved but when Pugh finds himself arrested on a major drugs charge, Robicheaux gets involved. He soon finds that the murders were all too real and that he’s gotten drawn into a major case involving greed and corruption around the oil drilling.

Bartholomew Gill’s McGarr and the Sienese Conspiracy (AKA Death of an Irish Consul) also deals with oil drilling. In that novel, Chief Inspector Peter McGarr gets involved in a case with international implications. Former SIS agents Browne and Hitchcock are murdered and both of their bodies left in the same place. McGarr believes that someone is targeting the SIS, and that the next victim may be newly-appointed British ambassador to Italy Sir Colin Cummings. Hoping he can prevent Cummings’ death, McGarr accompanies him to Italy. But that’s not enough to keep Cummings safe from a sniper’s bullet. Slowly, McGarr works his way through the connections among the three men and finds out that the deaths are related to high-level corruption and a bitter fight over valuable North Sea drilling rights.

In one plot thread of Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue, we meet Allan Mitchison. He saw a video of a North Shore oil rig as a child and immediately knew what he wanted to do for a living. Now he’s an oilman out of Aberdeen and all’s well – until the night he’s brutally murdered. Evidence leads to Anthony Ellis Kane – Tony El – who most likely committed the murder on behalf of someone else. So DI John Rebus starts to investigate to find out who would have wanted to murder a seemingly inoffensive oil driller. For that he looks into the connections between the people who work on the oil rig and the kind of person who’d know about Tony El. It turns out that Mitchison found out more about something than was safe for him to know and as is so often the case, died because of it.

Sarah Andrews’ Em Hansen is a forensic geologist who in Tensleep starts her career as a mudlogger for an oil company. Her job is to collect and analyse mud samples, which isn’t glamourous as it is. But matters are made worse by the fact that most of her male colleagues do not think an oil rig is any place for a woman. Then, Hansen’s mentor Bi ll Kretzmer is killed in what looks like a car accident. At first Hansen is willing to accept that explanation. But then co-worker Willie Sewell is killed too, apparently crushed by a horse. Hansen no longer thinks either death was an accident and starts to ask questions. As she investigates, we learn what life is like in the oil-drilling life. It may pay well, but it’s not exactly easy and fun.

To get a real sense of why people are willing to steal, lie and kill over oil, it’s important to remember just how integral it is to modern life. Just imagine a world with no oil. Think about everything that depends on the energy that comes from it. Although your mileage may vary on this as the saying goes, in my opinion, Alex Scarrow’s Last Light describes that kind of life as well as any crime novel could. The world’s oil supply is suddenly and deliberately cut off. The people behind that act are fairly nasty and the main plot concerns the reason the oil has been stopped. But far more interesting (well, at least in my opinion) is the story of Andy and Jenny Sutherland and their family, who are caught up in the chaos that follows. Andy is an oil engineer who happens to be in Iraq when the crisis begins. Jenny is in Manchester where she’s had a job interview. Their daughter Leona is at university and their son Jake is at a London boarding school. When everything falls apart, the Sutherlands try desperately to re-unite. It’s that story that really keeps the reader (well, this one anyway) engaged.

We see more of the power of oil in Scarrow’s follow-up novel Afterlight, which takes place ten years after the events in Last Light. At this point, Jenny Sutherland is the leader of a small group of people who’ve survived the catastrophe and are making a life for themselves in an abandoned oil rig. Their more or less orderly world begins to fray when they rescue a badly wounded stranger who was found in a nearby town. Matters get even more complicated when it’s discovered that another group of survivors, who live in London’s Millennium Dome, may have oil. When Jenny’s son Jake decides to go with a group to see if they can get the oil, Jenny is against the idea. But the group goes anyway and this leads to tragic consequences.

At least at this point in history, we’re awfully dependent on oil. It’s important in a million different big and little ways that you probably don’t think about until you really reflect on it. No wonder it plays such a role in crime fiction. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to fuel up…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Dingoes’ Way Out West.


Filed under Alex Scarrow, Bartholomew Gill, Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke, Sarah Andrews