Category Archives: Lilian Jackson Braun

Here I’m in the Library*

LibrariesIn Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are discussing the ideal sort of crime. They quickly agree that the crime would be murder, and here’s what Hastings says about the scene of the crime:

 

‘Scene of the crime – well, what’s wrong with the good old library? Nothing like it for atmosphere.’

 

He may have a point. One of the mainstays of older homes of the well-off was always a library. It may not be as common today but the home library has left its mark on crime fiction. I’m only going to mention a few examples; I know you can think of many more than I can.

Christie herself makes effective use of a library in The Body in the Library. One morning, Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly awake to learn that the body of an unknown young woman has been found in the library of their home Gossington Hall. Neither claims to know the victim, although the police are not completely satisfied about that. Nonetheless, they investigate other possibilities too. The first thing of course is to identify the dead woman. A search of missing person’s records turns up a match with Ruby Keene, an eighteen-year-old professional dancer. There are several suspects, so the police and Miss Marple begin to sift through the possibilities. Then another body is found in a charred car belonging to the last person known to see Ruby alive. Now Miss Marple has to work to find out how the two crimes are related and who could have wanted to kill both victims.

Michael Innes introduces his Inspector Appleby in Death at the President’s Lodging. That story features the murder of Josiah Umpleby, President of St. Andrews College. When Umpleby is shot in his study (another classic setting!), Appleby is called in and begins to unravel the network of relationships among Umpleby and the other members of the college faculty. It turns out that as you might expect, those relationships were both complicated and at times tense. So more than one person might have had a motive for murder. One of the steps Appleby takes is a thorough search of the victim’s private residence, which includes a personal library. And sure enough, Appleby finds an important clue there. It doesn’t immediately solve the mystery of who killed Umpleby, but it provides some vital information.

Patricia Wentworth’s The Watersplash follows the story of Edward Random, who’s recently returned to the supposedly-peaceful village of Greenings after a family quarrel cut him out of the family fortune. The Random family has a complicated history with its share of infighting, and there’ve always been whispers that Uncle James’ will, which doesn’t mention Edward at all, was superseded by a later will in which Edward does inherit. But that will has never been found.  What’s more, Edward’s cousin Arthur has inherited under the official will, and is not willing to give up the family fortune. Then, William Jackson, who serves as one of the family under-gardeners and claims to have witnessed that new will, is found dead, apparently of an accidental drowning. Then there’s another death. Now Edward Random falls under suspicion of murder. Maude Silver had already been aware of the case (no spoilers as to how) and decides to find out the truth about the will and the murders. And the family library, which is currently being re-catalogued, is the scene of some very important action in the story. It also hides an important clue.

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil sees Queen spending some time in Hollywood. He’s taken a house there so he can get some peace and quiet for writing. But that’s not what happens. Instead, nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill asks Queen’s help. Her father Leander Hill has recently died of a heart attack. Laurel is convinced that the heart attack was deliberately brought on by a series of macabre ‘gifts’ her father had received. He never told her what frightened him so much about them, but she does know that his business partner Roger Priam has also gotten unpleasant ‘gifts.’ Queen is reluctantly drawn into the case because the intellectual puzzle presented by those ‘gifts’ fascinates him. So he begins to get to know the people in Leander Hill’s and Roger Priam’s lives. Very slowly he makes sense of the packages they’ve received. Then one night, Priam’s library is broken into and one of the books burned. That provides an important clue, and the library itself shows an interesting aspect of Priam’s personality. Not very long after, Roger Priam is nearly killed. Although he’s been unwilling to give Queen any information up to that point, he does talk to Queen after the attempt on his life. Queen finally establishes that Leander Hill was murdered and Roger Priam nearly murdered because of a secret from their pasts.

Lilian Jackson Braun uses personal libraries in a few of her Cat Who… stories. One of them is The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal. The local community theatre group has been doing a production of Henry VIII under the direction of local high-school principal Hilary VanBrook. On the night of the final performance, his body is found in his car after an impromptu cast party at the home of journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. Qwill and local police chief Andrew Brodie look into the case and soon find that Van Brook had made more than his share of enemies. So there are several suspects. One of the important clues in the case comes from VanBrook’s personal library, and there’s an interesting scene in the novel as Qwill is looking through VanBrook’s collection. For a bibliophile like Qwill, the chance to explore a library is irresistible.

And that’s the thing about libraries. They are such atmospheric settings for murder. And even when the deed itself doesn’t take place in the library, there aren’t much better hiding places for clues. Little wonder so many mystery novels have an old family library in them. What do you think? Professor Plum, in the library, with the revolver?  ;-)

Now I’ve given a few examples, it’s your turn…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mike + the Mechanics’ A House of Many Rooms.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Michael Innes, Patricia Wentworth

When the Sun Burst Through the Sky*

SunriseIt may be because of human biorhythms, the benefits of sleep, or our instinctive feeling of greater safety during daylight, but very often, things just seem better when the morning comes. I’ll bet you’ve thought or been told that ‘It’ll all look different in the morning.’ And quite often it does. Now admittedly, not everyone is a ‘morning person.’ Still, there is often greater optimism in the morning whether you’re a ‘morning person’ or a ‘night owl.’ That sense that things will be better in the morning has seeped into crime fiction too.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League, pawnbroker Jabez Wilson has brought a very odd mystery to Sherlock Holmes. He was offered an easy but unusual job by a group calling itself the Red-Headed League. All Wilson had to do was copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica. So long as he didn’t leave the office during his work hours he was promised decent pay for what seemed like little effort. At first all went well. Wilson was able to leave his pawn business to his assistant for a few hours each day and earn extra income. What puzzles and worries him though is that The Red Headed-League suddenly disbanded, leaving no-one in its offices. Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate, and Holmes discovers that the whole thing was a plot to get Wilson out of his pawn shop so that it could be used to tunnel into a nearby bank. Once that discovery is made, Holmes, Watson and the bank manager spend a long and uncomfortable night waiting for the bank robbers to make their move. They do, and the ringleader is duly caught. It all looks better though as the morning comes and Holmes explains to Watson what his thinking was.

It all looks better in the morning in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, too. In that novel, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to Merlinville-sur-Mer at the request of Paul Renauld. Renauld has claimed that his life is in danger because of a secret he possesses, and he wants Poirot to come to his assistance. By the time that happens though, it’s too late: Renauld has been stabbed on the grounds of his own property. Bit by bit, Poirot uncovers Renauld’s past history as well as several possible motives for his murder. Eventually Poirot finds out who the killer is, and he and Hastings set up an all-night vigil at the Renauld home to catch that person. With important help from a rather enigmatic young acrobat who calls herself Cinderella, the killer is stopped. It’s all quite traumatic and exhausting though, and no-one is willing to answer Hastings’ questions about what really happened. But it all looks better in the morning when Hastings wakes up.

 

‘I awoke to find the sun pouring in through the open windows and Poirot, neat and smiling, sitting beside the bed.’

 

Among other good things, Hastings gets an explanation for everything that went on the night before.

Scott Young’s Murder in a Cold Climate introduces readers to Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak of the RCMP. He’s planning to travel from Inuvik back to Ottawa where he lives when he gets a call that drastically changes his plans. Three men believed to be involved in drugs trafficking have disappeared along with the Cessna they had chartered. Matteesie’s boss thinks that it’s possible the men have deliberately lost themselves. It’s also of course possible that their Cessna went down and they’ve been injured or killed. Either way, the Cessna’s owner wants to know what happened to his plane, and of course, the RCMP wants to know about any drugs trafficking in the Northwest Territories. Matteesie agrees to see what he can find out. He’s soon caught up in a murder investigation though, when he takes the same flight from Inuvik as Native activist Morton Cavendish, who’s on his way to Edmonton for emergency medical care. When the plane makes a stop at Norman Wells, a gunman forces his way onto the plane and shoots Cavendish. Matteesie begins to investigate the murder while he’s still trying to look into the downed Cessna. It turns out that the two cases are related and it all comes together during an overnight snowmobile trip that Matteesie takes into the Arctic bush. He gets his answers, but the night is long, dangerous and cold and even though Matteesie is experienced, he’s still at risk. It all looks better when daylight comes the next day though. Some friends he’s made along the way come looking for him and in the end, he returns safely to Fort Norman.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s journalist sleuth James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran travels to Breakfast Island (AKA Providence Island, Grand Island and Pear Island) in The Cat Who Came to Breakfast. A friend who owns a B & B on the island has asked Qwill to look into some odd incidents of what look like sabotage. Qwill is persuaded to go and soon takes up residence at the Domino Inn. He discovers that there’s a long-standing feud between the island’s natives and developers who are building upmarket hotels and shops. There’s also a group of wealthy summer visitors who have their own island culture. In the midst of this tension, some upsetting things begin to happen. There’s a food poisoning, a drowning, a boat explosion, and a shooting. Qwill puts the pieces of the puzzle together, but in the meantime, new trouble comes in the form of a terrible storm that strikes the island. It’s an awful night when the storm hits, and everyone is badly shaken. They are especially glad when morning finally comes and the sun shines.

In Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit, Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who’s been blackmailing him. Guest is a successful business executive who’s been married for several years. But he’s also had some trysts with other men, and someone’s found out about his secret life. Quant would rather see Guest come out as gay, but Guest isn’t willing to do that. So Quant looks into the matter. Someone doesn’t want any interference though. Soon enough, there’s a murder. Quant’s investigating that when he and his friend Jared Lowe are ambushed and abandoned in the middle of nowhere, as the saying goes. This is Saskatchewan just before Christmas, so the danger of death by exposure is immediate and real. Still, the two men manage to find some shelter and get through the night alive. Everything starts to look better the next morning though. The two men even find a shack where they can keep warm. Still, Lowe’s been wounded and Quant’s not in exactly perfect shape himself. So both men are glad when Saskatoon Police Service (SPS) Officer Darren Kirsch arrives:

 

‘Despite our history of congenial dislike, I was never so glad to see someone as I was that Christmas Eve morning to see Darren Kirsch, coming through the door of that shack with two RCMP officers at his heels.’

 

There are still one or two ‘loose ends’ in the case, but the coming of that particular morning makes it all seem better.

Some dangerous, scary things happen during the night in crime novels. Little wonder that even those who aren’t ‘morning people’ can be very happy to see the sun come up.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Lilian Jackson Braun, Scott Young

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

But I Got Cat Class and I Got Cat Style*

zenasstedaureliocolumn1Ciao, my Bellas!

I am Aurelio Zen, Assistant Editor at It’s a Crime! (Or a Mystery…). Now, before I go any further, let me encourage you to pay a visit to my home blog, where She Who (thinks she) is in Charge and I always provide top-quality crime fiction information and reviews.

I’m here today on special assignment because Margot Kinberg is not intelligent enough to be worthy of being owned by a cat. Therefore there was no choice but to have me come in to discuss the vital role that cats play in crime fiction. You don’t believe me? You must certainly have been listening to a dog lately then. Let me put you right on how very important cats are in the genre.

Let’s start with Agatha Christie’s The Clocks. British Intelligence operative Colin Lamb happens to be in the town of Crowdean on his own business one afternoon when he’s quite literally run into by Sheila Webb. She’s a secretary who was sent to a house in the same neighbourhood for what she thought was a typing job. What she’s found instead is the body of an unknown man. Lamb summons the police in the form of Inspector Richard Hardcastle, and the hunt for the killer is on. There are some odd aspects of this murder, so Lamb thinks the case may be of interest to his father’s friend Hercule Poirot. It turns out he’s right and Poirot guides the investigation. Next door to the house where the body was found lives Mrs. Hemming, a widow who is servant to a houseful of cats. She is, quite naturally, far more interested in her masters’ well-being than she is in a murder, but she says something that proves to be very useful to the investigation.

Robert Crais’ PI sleuth Elvis Cole is owned by a cat. The cat, of course, chooses to remain more or less feral, but Cole sees that it’s fed and cared for and he is, in his own way, comforted by the cat’s presence. Interestingly enough, the only human who seems intelligent enough to interact properly with Cole’s cat is his partner Joe Pike. Pike is a tough guy with an interest in weapons and a background that includes military duty. He’s really not intimidated by anyone. But he also knows the proper way to relate to us feline rulers. So Cole’s cat gets along with him.

Åsa Larsson’s series includes police detective Sven-Erik Stålnacke, who is owned for a time by a cat he calls Manne. That relationship doesn’t last, but in The Black Path, he meets a widow named Airi Bylund who is very much a cat person. In that novel, Stålnacke and his partner Anna-Maria Mella are investigating the murder of Inna Wattrang, Head of Information for Kellis Mining. The trail leads to some very nasty business at the top of the corporate ladder, to say nothing of some international intrigue. But none of that matters. What does matter is that Stålnacke and Bylund are able to bond because of – that’s right – cats. Before cats, Stålnacke lives by himself, lonelier than he cares to admit. After cats? Of course – a relationship. That’s feline power.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is owned by three cats. One, Horatio, shares her home and later, does his share of monopolising her lover Daniel Cohen. Chapman knows the real truth about cats: if they approve of a person, that person is probably worthy. Chapman also keeps two Rodent Control Officers Heckle and Jekyll. They ensure that mice and rats pose no threat to Chapman’s bakery and despite concerns from Health Department officials, the fact is, the Mouse Police are a much safer and more environmentally-friendly deterrent to such vermin than are traps or poison. And the Mouse Police do their jobs well. When their shift ends early in the morning, Chapman feeds them and then lets them out to get dessert from the nearby restaurant. It all works very well for them.

Fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series will know that she is owned by Flint. Now, Flint doesn’t stoop so low as to actually act like a human and solve mysteries. But Flint provides good company for Galloway and her daughter Kate. And to be honest, Galloway prefers Flint to most humans. As she herself puts it at the end of A Dying Fall,

 

‘My life is just me and Kate and Flint.’

 

Wise woman.

One of the most interesting crime-fictional cats is without a doubt Snowball, who runs Commissaire Adamsberg’s office in Fred Vargas’ series. Snowball’s favourite human among those on Adamsberg’s team is Violette Retancourt, and that makes sense. Retancourt is gifted with animals and she and Snowball have an understanding. In This Night’s Foul Work, the team is faced with some odd cases that could be connected. Two drug dealers have been found with their throats cut, and it looks like it could be the work of serial killer Claire Langevin, who’s recently escaped from custody. These murders could also be related to the bizarre killings of some Normandy stags. In the midst of all of this, Retancourt goes missing. At first, only Snowball seems aware of her absence (humans!!). But gradually some of the other members of the team notice that she’s gone. Finally, when she doesn’t return, the decision is taken to let Snowball track her. It turns out to be the right decision, as Snowball is able to lead the team to Retancourt. We also find out why she disappeared and how that is related to the other plot threads in the novel. Snowball soon puts paid to all of the nasty remarks made about cats’ lack of intelligence. I mean, really!

There are also several series such as Lorna Barrett’s Booktown series and Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series where the human sleuths are accompanied by feline partners. In the Booktown series, which takes place in Stoneham, Massachusetts, Tricia Miles owns Haven’t Got a Clue, a bookshop specialising in crime fiction and mystery. In turn, Miles is owned by her feline overseer Miss Marple. That’s almost as good a name for a cat as mine. And fans of the Cat Who… series will know that in those novels, journalist Jim ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is owned by Koko and Yum Yum, two elegant seal-point Siamese.  And of course there’s Carol Nelson Douglas’ Midnight Louie series. Fans of those novels will know that Midnight Louie owns PR freelancer Temple Barr.

There are other series and novels too of course that feature fearless felines. How could they not? Which ones do you like best?

Now, then, time for me to return to She Who (thinks she) is in Charge. What would she do without me? Ciao!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Stray Cats’ Stray Cat Strut.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Carole Nelson Douglas, Elly Griffiths, Fred Vargas, Kerry Greenwood, Lilian Jackson Braun, Lorna Barrett, Robert Crais

I’m in a Playground in My Mind*

Fictional Places that Seem RealI’m going to let you in on a little secret if I may. It’s not always easy to create an entirely fictional place when you write. On the one hand, creating a fictional setting means that you don’t have to verify street names, local landmarks and the like. You can locate buildings, parks, streets and so on anywhere you like. And there’s no end to the possibilities for the kinds of characters you create.

But on the other hand, a completely fictional setting still has to be credible. Even readers who live in the region where the fictional town or city is located have to believe the place could really exist. The climate, the kinds of businesses, the pastimes and the character types have to ring true or readers won’t be drawn into the story. And if you write a series set in that fictional place, it has to change and evolve as the series goes on. That happens to real-life places. Buildings go up and are torn down. People move in and out. Businesses open, close and change. A fictional setting has to reflect that evolution if it’s to be believed.

Some authors have created fictional settings that are so authentic that people have believed they actually exist. For example, Agatha Christie created St. Mary Mead, the home of Katherine Grey in The Mystery of the Blue Train and later of course the home of Miss Jane Marple. Interesting that in a village like that, the two women never meet. Still, St. Mary Mead is a very credible kind of English village with a cast of ‘regular’ characters who fit in there. There’s the vicar Leonard Clement and his wife Griselda, there’s Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly, and there are others too. St. Mary Mead also changes as time goes by, as you would expect. That’s one of the themes for instance in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In that novel, council housing and other social changes have come to the village, and some residents aren’t too happy about them. Miss Marple takes the changes in stride but it’s clear that the village is evolving as real places do.

K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic series takes place in fictional Rocksburg, Pennsylvania. It’s a mining town in the western part of Pennsylvania and most of the characters there fit right in. Chief of Police Balzic for instance reflects the Polish-American and Italian-American influences in that region and the town residents tend to be working-class ‘regular folks.’ It’s a fictional town but the series reflects the culture, economy, character types and climate of that area. Trust me. To my knowledge (but please, correct me if I’m mistaken), Rocksburg is completely fictional. But it might be a real place for its authenticity.

That’s also true of Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham. Fans of her Inspector Reg Wexford series will know that most of the novels in it take place in this fictional town. It isn’t a real place, but it’s certainly authentic. In novels such as Road Rage and Simisola, we see the town adapt (or not) to social and other changes. The cast of ‘regulars’ is authentic; so are details such as climate, kinds of businesses and physical setting. Fans of the series will tell you that to them, Kingsmarkham might very well be an actual place. In fact, it’s said that Rendell once had to remind a reader that she created the place when that reader questioned her about it. I don’t have all of the details but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were true. Kingsmarkham is very genuine.

So is Three Pines, the rural Québec creation of Louise Penny.  As fans of this series will know, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec spends his share of time there. Beginning with Still Life, readers have gotten to know many of the locals very well. Gamache doesn’t live there, but he’s become one of them in his way. The place is authentic. It fits in with the region and it develops and evolves as the series goes on. Buildings change hands, people come and go, and there’s a cast of recurring characters that adds much to the authenticity of this fictional place. The climate and culture are also realistic. I would guess that plenty of people have done an Internet search for Three Pines, thinking they would find it on an actual map. Here’s what Penny says about the place:

 

‘I love Three Pines. I created it because I would want to live there.’

 

It may not be on maps, but it’s a believable town.

We could also say that about Vigàta, the fictional home of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Vigàta is located in Sicily and is based on Camilleri’s home town of Porto Empedocle. It’s not a real place, but it’s quite authentic. The trattorias, the buildings, the local culture and the character types ring very true, and that’s not just because it’s inspired by a real place. Camilleri creates an authentic sense of setting with the subtle and not-so-subtle details that make a place genuine.

There are other series too that are set in fictional towns based on real places. For example, Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series is set in Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan. That town is based on a real place, Wakaw, Saskatchewan. Robert B. Parker’s Paradise, Massachusetts is the home of his Jesse Stone series. Paradise is loosely based on Swamscott, Massachusetts. And fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series will know that Durant, Wyoming, the setting for those novels, is based on an actual place, Buffalo, Wyoming.

Plenty of cosy mystery series are also set in fictional places that feel quite real. Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series is like that. It’s set mostly in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ And Elizabeth Spann Craig’s got two series set in fictional towns in North Carolina. But those places seem genuine. They’re populated with believable characters, the places evolve as the series goes on, and the culture and climate reflect the region.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the Tilton Sentinel’s newest edition is out and I want to catch up on the news. :wink:  While I’m gone, feel free to share the fictional places that seem very real to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss’ Playground in My Mind.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Craig Johnson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, K.C. Constantine, Lilian Jackson Braun, Louise Penny, Nelson Brunanski, Robert B. Parker, Ruth Rendell