Category Archives: Maj Sjöwall

But Times Have Changed and Things are Not the Same, Baby*

TimesHaveChangedToday’s savvy crime fiction fans want stories that reflect real life. I don’t just mean characters who behave in believable ways, although that’s important of course. I’m really referring here to other kinds of credibility. Here’s just one example. Suppose for instance that a character travels. It would be very difficult to do that, especially internationally, without that travel being documented. And if a character is a suspect in a crime, the police will at some point have access to those records. So a plot in which the police couldn’t find that information wouldn’t be credible. To take just one more example, consider the process of obtaining and showing identification. Of course it’s possible, if one has the right connections, to get forged documents. False documents are also given to certain top-secret government operatives and to people who participate in witness protection programs. And there’s the whole issue of identity theft, especially online identity. But for most of us, it would be difficult, perhaps even impossible, to go through our daily lives pretending to be someone else.

In some ways, this adds to the challenge of modern crime writing. In Sherlock Holmes’ A Scandal in Bohemia, for instance, Sherlock Holmes is approached by the King of Bohemia, who is about to be married. He’s concerned because his former lover Irene Adler has a compromising ‘photo of them. If it comes to light, the marriage plans will be scuttled. Holmes finds out where Irene Adler is and although she ends up, if you will, with all of the proverbial cards, the king is able to go ahead with the wedding. This story arguably couldn’t really happen today. For one thing, the king is only worried about getting that one ‘photo. With today’s online digital photography and online social media, the king would have no hope of keeping that ‘photo secret.

The major premise of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians) is that a group of people is visiting Indian Island off the Devon coast, stranded by a storm. They’ve each been invited under a different pretext but as they soon find out, they were brought there deliberately. And when, one by one, they begin to die, it’s clear that there’s a murderer among them. As it’s written, it’s a very suspenseful story in part because there seems no escape from the danger; the people on the island really are cut off. Today’s crime writer would have some challenges writing a story with that scenario. After all, almost everyone has mobile ‘phones. It’s harder to be completely stranded than it was. It’s certainly possible, but today’s author would have to work to make it plausible.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna concerns the murder of Roseanna Mcgraw, a young woman from the US state of Nebraska. She is murdered during a cruise of Swedish cities, and one of the first challenges the police face is identifying her. It takes quite some time to connect the dead woman with the woman who was reported missing in Nebraska and then more time to establish the victim’s itinerary. After several months, Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team get their answers and are able to focus on the right suspect. Today’s crime writer would have to account for a few things in order to sustain a story like this. For example, today, there’s instant communication among police forces, even internationally. What’s more, computer databases give police easy access to the kind of information that Martin Beck and his team need. And then of course there’s the reality of email, texting and the like. A crime writer would have to explain a disappearance like Roseanna’s in more depth.

It might seem then that today’s crime writers have a much harder task in terms of making stories realistic than did crime writers of the past. But I’m not sure it’s that easy. Here are just a few examples of what I mean. In Karin Fossum’s The Water’s Edge, Oslo homicide detective Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the death of seven-year-old Jonas August Løwe. When a couple out for a Sunday walk discover Jonas’ body, they call the police and an investigation is started immediately. Modern technology means that the police are notified quickly, the body is identified very soon thereafter, and Sejer and Skarre can begin the process of finding out who killed the boy. What it also means is that Fossum can focus on the investigation and on the characters involved rather than take a lot of time to explain how the boy is identified and so on.

Today’s realities can also add to a story’s interest. For example, in one plot thread of Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure, New South Wales Police detective Ella Marconi and her team investigate when Suzanne Crawford is murdered. In part because of a previous incident of possible domestic violence, her husband Connor is the obvious suspect. But he seems to have disappeared. What’s more (and this is adds to the story’s suspense), when the police look into his background, it turns out that they can’t find anything. There are no records that he ever existed. Given today’s documentation, that doesn’t make much sense. But that’s just what makes the case more interesting and for Marconi and the team, more challenging. In the end though, we find out the truth about both mysteries. In this case, Howell takes advantage of the realities of today’s world to add to the storyline.

There’s also Anthony Bidulka’s When the Saints Come Marching In, which introduces us to CDRA (Canadian Disaster Relief Agency) agent Adam Saint. Saint is a part of a top-secret agency that provides assistance anywhere in the world when wars or other disasters affect Canadians or Canadian interests. Saint travels to Magadan, in the Russian Federation, when his boss is killed during the investigation of a plane crash. There’s more to it of course than that, but Saint drops the investigation and returns home to Saskatchewan when a personal emergency ends his career with the CDRA. As you can imagine, though, the story doesn’t end there. This novel and others like it depend on modern realities. Saint travels on very little notice, something that couldn’t happen without today’s realities. He has access to the very latest in modern technology too. And there are other aspects of the plot that wouldn’t be credible at all without modern realities.

Developments such as DNA testing, modern identification documents and procedures, and global communication mean that some kinds of stories that we used to take for granted wouldn’t be credible today. So in some ways, today’s writers have more considerations than ever if they’re to sustain credibility. At the same time though, new realities have made possible all sorts of new kinds of storylines.

What about you? Are you bothered by lapses in credibility (e.g. ‘You know she had a mobile; why didn’t she call for help?’). If you’re a writer, how do you address the issue?

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Karin Fossum, Katherine Howell, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

Watcha Gonna Do When They Come For You*

PoliceProceduralsFor many people, there’s something fascinating about what police do, and how they go about their jobs. Perhaps it’s the huge number of cop shows on TV, or perhaps it’s the image of the cop making things safe and putting the ‘bad guys’ away, so to speak. Or it could be the chance to get a look ‘behind the scenes’ of a unique setting. Perhaps it’s something else. Whatever it is, police procedurals have become a popular staple in crime fiction.

Interestingly enough, the police procedural as we think about it now is newer than some of the other sub-genres in crime fiction. For example, the private detective novel has been around since the days of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. But that makes sense. Modern police forces weren’t really put together until the 19th Century and it took even longer for them to become the kinds of police forces we think of today. If you want to know more about 19th Century police forces, check out K.B. Owen’s terrific blog/website. She’s an expert on the era.

Certainly there’ve been police officers mentioned in many classic/Golden Age novels. There Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp, there’s Stuart Palmer’s Oscar Piper and there’s Josephine Tey’s Alan Grant, to name just three. There’s also of course Ellery Queen’s Inspector Richard Queen, and Rex Stout’s Inspector Cramer. But the police procedural novel as we think of it now really started a bit later.

There isn’t universal agreement about which book counts as the first police procedural, but Lawrence Treat’s 1945 novel V as in Victim is often brought up. This is just my opinion, so feel free to differ if you do, but for my money, the series that that really established the police procedural as a sub-genre was Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. Beginning with 1956’s Cop Hater, the series went on for decades, almost until Hunter’s death. In that series, we see quite a lot more of life at a police station/precinct than we’d seen in previous kinds of crime novels. What’s more, this series doesn’t just follow one cop going after one criminal or criminal gang. There’s an ensemble cast in this series, and we follow not just the individual cases they investigate, but also their personal lives. The 87th Precinct series has had a profound influence on the genre in general and of course on the police procedural.

Another set of groundbreaking police procedurals is Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s ten-book Martin Beck series. Those novels follow Stockholm-based Martin Beck and his police colleagues as they investigate murders, robberies, and more. They also highlight a variety of social issues such as unequal distribution of wealth, corruption and other issues. Like the 87th Precinct series, this one also addresses the personal lives of the characters. For many people, the Martin Beck series is the quintessential police procedural series.

In the last few decades, the police procedural as a sub-genre has gotten very diverse as it’s been taken in new directions. For instance, some police procedurals still feature an ensemble cast of characters. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Inspector Adamsberg series and Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series, for instance, will know that those novels follow the lives of several of the characters, both in and outside working hours. So does Frédérique Molay’s Nico Sirksy series (I hope more of them will be translated into English soon).

Other series focus more on one or a few cops. For instance, in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, the spotlight is mostly on Bosch. We certainly learn about other characters, and there are several story arcs involving them. But the primary emphasis is on Bosch. You could say the same thing about Karin Fossum’s Konrad Sejer series. We do learn about other characters, but the focus in that series is on Sejer’s professional and personal life. Another example of this is Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series. While there are story arcs and scenes involving other characters, it’s Rebus who’s the ‘star of the show.’

One major development in the police procedural series is that it’s gone worldwide. And that means that the different series have taken on the distinctive atmosphere of their settings. I’m thinking for instance of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip’s David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, which takes place in Botswana and which they write as Michael Stanley. There’s also Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao series, and Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. And that’s just to name three of the many police procedural series that are seasoned by their cultures.

Another development is the diversity in the kinds of people who feature in police procedural series. Women, for instance, are quite frequently police protagonists now. That’s what we see in Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series, Martin Edwards’ Lake District series and Anya Lipska’s Natalie Kershaw/Janusz Kiszka series. Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series is another example. That increasing diversity shows up in other ways too. There are gay cops, disabled cops and cops with all sorts of eccentricities.

Despite all of this variety, though, you could argue that there are still some basic things that define a police procedural series. One is that it focuses on police stations, bases or precincts and the people who work there. There are often sub-plots and story arcs that show us the cop’s off-duty life, but there is an emphasis on the investigation and on life as a police officer. Another, at least to me, is that the police procedural features a certain kind of investigation style that involves interpreting evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects and so on. In that sense it’s quite different to the amateur sleuth, who doesn’t have the power of the law, or the PI sleuth, who goes about investigations in yet another way. Police culture, policies and the like have a strong impact on the way cops go about their jobs, and that makes their investigations distinctive.

What do you think? If you read police procedurals, what is their appeal to you? Which ones do you like the best (I know I’ve only mentioned a few of them) What, to you, makes a police procedural series a good one? If they put you off, why? If you write police procedurals, what made you choose that sub-genre?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Inner Circle’s Bad Boys.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ed McBain, Edgar Allan Poe, Ellery Queen, Evan Hunter, Frédérique Molay, Fred Vargas, Ian Rankin, Jane Casey, Josephine Tey, K.B. Owen, Karin Fossum, Katherine Howell, Lawrence Treat, Louise Penny, Maj Sjöwall, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Per Wahlöö, Qiu Xiaolong, Stanley Trollip, Stuart Palmer

Bus Stop, Bus Goes*

BusesLike many people, I like the idea of using public transit. Take buses for instance. Besides the benefits to the environment of having fewer cars on the road, it’s nice to be able to read, work or just rest instead of actually driving. And it can be convenient to take a bus. For a writer, buses are also terrific places for people-watching and therefore, inspiration.  Here’s what Agatha Christie’s Ariadne Oliver says about that in Hallowe’en Party:

 

‘I did sit across from someone in a bus just before I left London, and here it is all working out beautifully inside my head. I shall have the whole story soon. The whole sequence, what she’s going back to say, whether it’ll run her into danger or somebody else into danger. I think I even know her name.
Her name’s Constance. Constance Carnaby.’

 

And that’s not just something Christie made up for this particular novel. Writers really do get inspired sometimes in just that way. Trust me.

A lot of people also think it’s safer to take the bus as it cuts down on the number of traffic accidents. But as crime fiction shows us, it’s not always safe. Not at all.

For example, in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman, Stockholm police detective Martin Beck and his team are stretched very thin, as the saying goes. The American Embassy in Stockholm has been the target of a harassment campaign in the form of protests, letters and the like because of the Vietnam War, and extra police are needed to protect it. Then word comes of a terrible tragedy. A gunman has murdered eight people on a bus; one of the victims is Åke Stenström, a fellow police officer. At first the murders look like a terrorist attack, but it’s shown that the gunman ‘hid’ Stenström’s murder among the others. He was the real target. The team looks into his personal life and the cases he was investigating. One of them was the murder of a Portuguese woman Teresa Camarão, whose murder hadn’t been solved. That case proves crucial to finding Stenström’s killer.

Colin Dexter’s Last Bus to Woodstock is the story of the murder of Sylvia Kaye. She and another young woman are waiting at a bust stop one night when it becomes clear that they’ve got the times wrong and aren’t going to be able to catch a bus. Sylvia decides to take the risk of hitchhiking and goes off. Later that night, her body is found outside a pub. Now Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis have two jobs really. One is to find out as much as they can about the victim, so as to discover who might have had a motive to murder her. The other is to trace her last movements. And those last interactions and movements turn out to be very important to the solution of the mystery.

Dona Laureta Ribeiro finds out how dangerous buses and bus stops can be in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd. One day she goes to Rio de Janeiro’s Twelfth Precinct and asks to speak to Inspector Espinosa. When told that he’s in a long meeting, she says that she’ll come back later. Shortly afterwards, she’s with a group of other people waiting at a bus stop when she falls, or is pushed, under an oncoming bus. When Espinosa finds out that the bus accident victim is the same woman who’d come to see him earlier, he begins to wonder whether this was an accident. As he traces Dona Laureta’s movements on the day of her death, Espinosa slowly puts the pieces of her life together. Then, there’s another death that seems to be related to the first. Espinosa finds that these two deaths are linked to his own past.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, a bus mysteriously swallows up ten-year-old Kate Meaney. Or at least that’s how it seems. She’s a budding detective with her own agency Falcon Investigations. Kate’s content with her life, but her grandmother Ivy thinks she’d be better off away at school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. At first Kate refuses. But her friend Adrian Palmer talks her into going, promising that he’ll go along with her for moral support. The two board the bus for Redspoon, but Kate never returns. Palmer claims he doesn’t know what happened to Kate, but the police don’t believe him. They don’t have enough evidence for an arrest though. Still everyone is so convinced that he’s responsible for her disappearance that Palmer leaves town, planning never to return. Twenty years later, Palmer’s sister Lisa has a dead-end job at a local mall. One night she happens to encounter Kurt, who is a security guard at the mall. They form an unlikely kind of friendship, and Kurt tells Lisa that he’s been seeing something odd on his security cameras: a young girl who looks a lot like Kate, carrying a stuffed monkey who looks a lot like Kate’s companion Mickey the Monkey. Bit by bit, as Kurt and Lisa figuratively return to the past, we find out what really happened to Kate.

And then there’s Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second. One afternoon, Emma Curtis is taking a bus home from work when she is witness to a tragedy in the making. Three young people board the bus and begin to bully another passenger Luke Murray. Everyone’s upset about the bullying, but only one person does anything to stop it: Jason Barnes. When he intervenes, the harassment stops temporarily. Then, Luke and Jason get off the bus at the same stop. So do the bullies though, and the bullying starts all over again. It continues all the way to Jason’s front yard. When it’s all over, Jason has been fatally stabbed and Luke is gravely injured. The police investigate, and it turns out that Luke may not have been a random victim. As the police go after the young people involved, Staincliffe addresses questions of bullying, responsibility and the effect of being in a crowd. She also looks at the devastating impact of sudden death and terrible injury on families.

See what I mean? Buses have a lot going for them. Really, they do. But they can also be very dangerous. Now if you’ll excuse me, here’s my bus – don’t want to miss it!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Graham Gouldman’s Bus Stop, made famous by the Hollies.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Catherine O'Flynn, Colin Dexter, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

It’s Going to Take Some Time This Time*

Long Term CasesAs I mentioned yesterday, there is something to be said for the urgency of a compressed timeline in a crime novel. It can add tension to a story and it’s realistic to want as much done as possible within the first few days of an investigation. That’s when the most evidence is likely to be available, and that’s when people’s memories are likely to be freshest.

But in real life, many murder investigations take a long time. A body may be unidentified. It can take time for DNA and other forensic evidence to be processed. Witnesses and other people of interest may be hard to find or may decide to disappear. And the police may get leads that just don’t pan out. And that’s not to mention the time it takes to get background reports, financial statements, telephone records and other information. So there are plenty of murders that aren’t solved quickly. That’s just as true of crime fiction as it is of real-life murder investigations. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

Oh, and you’ll notice I’m more or less avoiding ‘cold cases,’ where an investigation was called off. That’s a different sort of case in my view anyway. To me it’s the stuff of a separate post.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot receives a cryptic note warning him of a crime that will take place in Andover on a certain date. The note seems like a crank letter until the body of shopkeeper Alice Ascher is discovered on the day mentioned in the note. That investigation has gotten underway when Poirot receives another note, this one a warning of a crime to take place in Bexhill. Sure enough, the body of twenty-three-year old Betty Barnard is discovered there early on the morning mentioned in that note. Then there’s another murder. One of the only things the murders seem to have in common is that before each one, Poirot receives a warning note. The other is that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. That’s not much to go on, and this particular murderer is skilled at not leaving evidence. So it takes several months for Poirot, Captain Hastings and the police to establish who the killer is.

Arthur Upfield’s The Bone is Pointed also features an investigation that takes time. Jeff Anderson goes out to work on the Karwir Ranch one morning, but only his horse returns. At first, everyone thinks his horse threw him, and that’s not a crazy idea as the horse was known to be difficult. The police are notified, but no evidence turns up of where Anderson might be. And truth be told, Anderson is not exactly the most popular person, so there’s not a lot of hue and cry raised about his absence. Still, his disappearance is a mystery and something could have happened to him. So five months later, Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte of the Queensland Police is called in to find out what happened to Anderson. In the end, as he would put it, Bony reads ‘the Book of the Bush’ and follows the evidence to find out why Anderson never came back and who is responsible for his disappearance.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna begins in July when the body of an unknown young woman is dredged from Lake Vättern. The woman doesn’t match the description of any missing person, so this case isn’t going to be solved quickly. Stockholm homicide investigator Martin Beck and his team are assigned to find out who the woman was, who killed her and why. The first step is identifying her and that takes time because she’s not Swedish. Finally, though, she is identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was touring Sweden when she died. Once she’s identified, the police have the task of tracing her movements and relationships to find out who might have wanted to kill her. That takes a lot of time too, particularly since the investigation is taking place in two countries. What’s more, the cruise ship she was on has long since completed its trip, so the passengers and crew have scattered. After several months, the investigators finally find a clear piece of evidence. Now they have to zero in on the killer, and that takes time too. Finally the killer is caught after the investigating team sets a trap. But all of this takes time and it’s not until early January of the next year that the investigation ends.

Giles Blunt’s Forty Words for Sorrow is also the story of a long investigation. One September day, thirteen-year-old Katie Pine disappears after school. At first it’s believed that she’s run away, since she’s gone off to stay with relatives twice before. But when she doesn’t come home or contact her mother, the police are notified. Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police takes charge of the investigation, and he and his team do their jobs diligently. But no evidence of the girl turns up. Then, five months later, a body is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. The body could very likely be Katie’s so Cardinal is moved from burglaries and robberies, where he’s been working, back to homicide. When it’s established that the body is indeed Katie’s, Cardinal and Detective Lise Delorme return to the Pine case with renewed urgency and slowly find out what happened to the girl. They also discover that her death is linked to the deaths of some other young people. The pieces of the puzzle do come together, but not for several months after Katie’s disappearance.

And then there’s Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Journalist Mikael Blomqvist has recently lost a libel suit brought against him by powerful industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. With his publication Millennium in financial difficulty, Blomqvist is prepared to listen when Henrik Vanger hires him for an unusual case. Nearly forty years earlier, Vanger’s grand-niece Harriet disappeared. At first, everyone thought she drowned. But Vanger’s been receiving arrangements of dried flowers as anonymous birthday gifts. It’s exactly the kind of gift Harriet always sent him, so Vanger thinks it’s possible that she’s alive. And if she’s not, he wants to know who would send those arrangements and why. And he’s willing to trade evidence he has against Hans-Erik Wennerström, plus financial support, for whatever Blomqvist can find out. So Blomqvist moves onto the island where the Vanger family lives under the guise of writing a history of the family. Slowly, he and his research assistant Lisbeth Salander look into the family’s background to find out what might have happened to Harriet. They also look into company records and other archives. Bit by bit it becomes clear what happened to Harriet Vanger, but it doesn’t happen quickly. The events of the story take place over the course of a full year.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant , Delhi investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri gets a new client, successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal. The Kasliawal family had a servant Mary Murmu who went missing a few months earlier. At first, not much attention was paid to her disappearance. She was ‘just a servant,’ for one thing. For another, it isn’t crazy to believe that she might have returned to her village or run off for some other reason. Evidence has turned up though that she might have been killed. Now the police suspect Kasliwal of being responsible for raping and killing Mary and they want to make an example of him. Their not-so-hidden agenda is to prove that they are not ‘in the pockets’ of the rich and powerful. Kasliwal claims that he is innocent of any wrongdoing, and hires Puri to find out what happened to Mary and clear his name. Puri agrees and he and his team look into the case. By now, a few months have gone by, but the team slowly finds out the truth about Mary Murmu.

Sometimes it really does take quite a long time to find out the truth about a case. Gathering evidence, talking to those involved, following up on leads, all of this takes time and effort and doesn’t happen overnight. So it isn’t surprising that some fictional cases take time to solve too. I’ve only mentioned a few here; which ones do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carole King and Toni Stern’s It’s Going to Take Some Time. Some people prefer the Carole King recording of this song (I know I do). Others prefer the Carpenters’ recording. See what you think.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Giles Blunt, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Stieg Larsson, Tarquin Hall

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

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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