Category Archives: Maj Sjöwall

They Paved the Way For Generations*

Briding the GapThe Golden Age of detective fiction is usually thought to have come to an end during the 1940s, although people do disagree on exactly how long the era lasted. And we can all think of authors who represent that era and novels that reflect it.

Of course, the Golden Age didn’t end all of a sudden, and there are still highly-regarded novels being written today that maintain some of the Golden Age traditions. And, beginning in about the middle of the 20th Century, there was a group of authors who took some of those traditions and brought them into the modern age. There are several authors whose work falls into this category; I’ll just mention a few.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series is one example. As fans will know, these novels are mainly ‘whodunits’ in the Golden Age tradition. There’s a primary sleuth and his sidekick, and there’s a set of suspects. These are in many ways intellectual mysteries too. That said though, these really aren’t ‘pure’ Golden Age novels. For one thing, Dexter used more modern police procedure and the novels acknowledge then-contemporary social attitudes. So they have a more modern ‘feel’ to them. What’s more, there’s more character depth in this series than there is in some Golden Age series. To put it another way, one could argue that this series bridged the gap between the Golden Age and modern crime fiction.

So did Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series. Beginning in 1965 with Roseanna, the ten-novel series offered intellectual puzzles and ‘whodunits,’ just as Goden Age series did. So in that sense, the novels preserve a bit of the Golden Age tradition. At the same time, the authors arguably bridged several gaps between Golden Age crime fiction and modern crime fiction. For example, the Martin Beck series includes story arcs that depict the police officers’ private lives as well as the cases they investigate. So instead of seeing just the ‘cop side’ of a detective (e.g. Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp), readers get a more complete perspective on the investigators as people. There’s also the fact that the authors use the series in part to discuss their own political agenda. Certainly one can spot political points of view in Golden Age crime fiction, but it’s made much clearer in this series.

Ruth Rendell’s work also bridges the gap between Golden Age crime fiction and contemporary crime fiction. Like Golden Age novels, the stories in her Inspector Wexford series focus a lot on the ‘whodunit’ of crime. And in other ways too, the mysteries have some aspects of the traditional sort of crime novel. And yet, this series also has the hallmarks of more modern crime fiction as well. There’s a great deal of emphasis on character development, and an interest in psychological as well as other kinds of motives for murder. There’s also a rich set of story arcs involving Wexford’s private life as well as his life as a detective. This series arguably has elements of both Golden Age crime fiction and contemporary crime fiction.

So does Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. In one sense, this police procedural series reflects the Golden Age ‘hardboiled’ novel. The endings of the stories aren’t always happy, and there is some blunt violence. Some of them do have a real ‘hardboiled noir‘ feel about them. But this series also reflects more contemporary crime fiction as well. We see more modern-style story arcs and attention paid to the personal lives of the members of the 87th. There are also more contemporary themes and underlying motives, which makes sense when you consider that the series continued into the early 21st Century. Among other things, this series arguably moved ‘hardboiled’ crime fiction into the modern age and more importantly, helped carve out the role that the police procedural would play in it.

These are of course just a few examples of series that bridged the gap between Golden Age crime novels and modern crime novels. I know you’ll have at hand many others. They’ve been responsible for a lot of innovation in the genre.

pdjames

One name that belongs on that list is P.D. James. She wrote many novels; I’ll just focus on her Adam Dalgliesh series. In one sense, we see Golden Age crime fiction reflected in her work. Dalgliesh for instance has sometimes been called ‘the last of the gentleman detectives.’ Beginning with Cover Her Face, this series has included many ‘whodunits,’ and a few mysteries that are reminiscent of the ‘impossible-but-not-really’ sort of crime. In other ways too we see the impact of the Golden Age. But James also helped give the crime novel a modern identity as well. We see that in the character development, the story arcs, the use of more modern police procedure and technology, the exploration of social issues and other factors.

Along with her Dalgliesh novels and other crime fiction, James was a strong force ‘behind the scenes’ as well. And her non-fiction book Talking About Detective Fiction is just one sample of her wealth of knowledge and experience. James passed away yesterday, 27 November 2014. Her loss is deeply felt. Her impact on crime fiction has been enormous, and her influence on other crime writers considerable. She will be sorely missed. This post is dedicated to her memory.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chaka Khan, Arif Mardin, Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Paparelli’s And the Melody Still Lingers On (Night in Tunisia).

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Filed under Colin Dexter, Ed McBain, Evan Hunter, Maj Sjöwall, P.D. James, Per Wahlöö, Ruth Rendell

Imagine There’s No Countries*

GLobalismIt’s no secret that modern technology has dramatically increased the contact we have with people from, quite literally, all over the world. This globalisation has meant that more and more, we’re aware of and influenced by other cultures and ways of doing things. The global nature of communication certainly presents its share of challenges. Different cultures have of course different values, priorities and ways of looking at the world. So negotiating meaning can be a challenge. So can the personal preferences, biases and so on that we all have. There are other challenges too such as language differences. But the payoff can mean that some major issues that affect everyone can be addressed as a wealth of expertise and innovative perspectives can be brought to bear.

It can work in real life, and it does in crime fiction too. There are lots of crime fiction novels and series where the investigation crosses geopolitical borders, and even when there are challenges, the end result is often more productive than it would be without that kind of co-operation.

In Agatha Cristie’s Death in the Clouds, for example, Hercule Poirot is on a flight from Paris to London when a fellow passenger Marie Morisot suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the flight, so Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp sift through the various possibilities to find out who would have wanted to murder the victim. She was a well-known moneylender who did business as Madame Giselle, and more than one of the suspects might have had good reason to want her dead. Madame Giselle was French, so British and French authorities will have to work together to solve the case. And in this particular instance they do. There are a few moments of awkwardness, but in the main, the investigation is successful. And it’s clear that without that co-operation, it might very well not be. Fans of Christie’s work will know that The Murder on the Links presents a slightly different view of a joint effort between French and British police. And such ‘team efforts’ don’t always work smoothly. But when they work well, they lead to better investigation.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna offers an interesting look at the way Swedish and American police work together to solve a case. When the body of a young woman is dredged up from Lake Vättern, it’s extremely difficult at first to find out who she is. But eventually she is identified as twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, a native of the US state of Nebraska. She was touring Sweden when she was killed, and at first there seems no motive for the murder. Little by little though, we get a more detailed portrait of her personal life and of those who interacted with her. And that leads slowly to the killer. In the end, Beck and his team find out who the murderer is. But it would arguably have been impossible without the information provided by Detective Lieutenant Elmer Kafka of the Lincoln, Nebraska police. At the time the novel was written, this kind of global approach to crime solving involved cables, sometimes-unreliable international telephone calls and letters. It’s a lot easier with modern communication.

In Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil, Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and her team investigate the murder of schoolteacher Jacob Schyttelius and his parents. At first, the murders seem to be the work of a Satanist group. That’s not a far-fetched theory, as Schyttelius’ father is a member of the clergy. But it’s not long before that theory is disproved. Now the possibility arises that someone is killing the members of the family for more personal reasons. If that’s the case, then Schyttelius’ sister Rebecka could very well be the murderer’s next target. She lives in London, so Huss and her team will have to work with UK authorities to protect Rebecka Schyttelius and solve the case. Huss travels to London and works with Inspector Glen Thompson of the Met. Although Huss speaks English, Thompson’s knowledge of the local scene and his connections are essential to solving the case. Huss’ knowledge of the family background and of the murders themselves is just as important.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch deals with a global sort of a case in 9 Dragons. When Los Angeles liquor store owner John Li is shot, Bosch and his partner Ignacio Ferras investigate. Evidence suggests that Li was making protection payoffs to one of Los Angeles’ triads, or ‘protection groups’ with connections to Hong Kong. Bosch is starting to follow up that lead when he gets a call from his daughter Maddie, who’s living there with her mother (and Bosch’s ex-wife) Eleanor Wish. Maddie says that she’s been kidnapped, so Bosch immediately travels to Hong Kong to find her. In the end, we find out what happened to Maddie; we also find out the truth about John Li’s murder. And throughout the novel, we see how the global nature of today’s world impacts these cases.

Ian Hamilton’s Toronto-based sleuth Ava Lee is a forensic accountant. She works for a Hong Kong-based company whose specialty is recovering large debts. In The Water Rat of Wanchai, The Disciple of Las Vegas and The Wild Beasts of Wuhan, Lee travels to many different parts of the world as she traces lost money. This series takes a very global perspective on the way money is earned, stolen, managed, transferred and hidden. Because today’s technology allows transactions to be global, financial investigation has to be global as well.

Crime fiction also shows us globalism on a small scale too. For instance, Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight series takes place in and around Paradise, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That part of Michigan is of course very close to the border with the Canadian province of Ontario. So in several of McKnight’s stories, there’s a lot of communication and interaction between Canadian and American people, and that includes police authorities. As Hamilton shows, globalism has several facets. On the one hand, there are sometimes-subtle but distinct differences between the Canadian way of doing things and the American way. They’re different cultures. They see life differently and that’s portrayed in the series. And yet, we also see the easy communication, the overall willing co-operation, and the recognition that each side benefits from the other’s knowledge. What’s even more interesting (at least to me) is that that area of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan has its own unique culture, distilled from the Indigenous cultures, the Candian culture and the American culture. It’s a global way of looking at life at a very local level.

In today’s world, easy travel and even easier communication have arguably resulted in a more global perspective on life. Certainly crime has ‘gone global.’ So it makes a lot of sense that perspectives on investigation would do the same. I’ve only touched on a few examples here. So now, it’s over to the rest of you folks in the global crime fiction community…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon’s Imagine. He would have been 74 today as this is posted. Imagine…

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Hamilton, Irene Tursten, Maj Sjöwall, Michael Connelly, Per Wahlöö, Steve Hamilton

There Doesn’t Seem to Be Anyone Around*

Remote LocationsCrime fiction fans like their stories to be believable. And in a real-life murder, one of the challenges the killer faces is what to do with the body of the victim. In some cases, the body can be left at the scene of the murder. But in other situations, doing so could point the proverbial finger right at the murderer. For example, if the victim is killed in the murderer’s home or office, suspicion usually falls fairly quickly on the culprit. So the body has to be moved. Modern police forensics testing can determine whether a body’s been moved, but even so, moving a body can make it more challenging in a lot of ways to catch a killer. So of course, fictional murderers take this into account too.

When it’s possible, a lot of killers (at least fictional ones) like remote and inaccessible places. Even if the body is discovered at some point, enough time usually has gone by to make the detection process very difficult. That’s what the killer counts on in Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow. In that novel, Algonquin Bay (Ontario) police detectives John Cardinal and Lise Delorme investigate when the body of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. She’s been missing for five months by that time, and as we learn in the novel, the trail has gotten cold. So Cardinal and Delorme face a difficult challenge in connecting her with her killer. In fact, it’s not until there’s another murder that they can really get some of the leads they need to find out the truth.

Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe is a Wellington-based missing persons expert. So she is consulted when the body of an unknown man is discovered in Rimutaka State Forest. The place where the body was found is in remote part of the forest, so it’s not surprising that it’s been there for a very long time. In fact, Rowe learns that the body has been there since the mid-1970s. At this point there’s vey little evidence to go on, but Rowe uses the little bits of information she does have to try to find out who the man was. The fact that the body was found in such an inacessible place certainly doesn’t make her task any easier, but Rowe eventually learns the truth about this ‘John Doe.’

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe Mma. Precious Ramotswe meets a new client, American ex-pat Andrea Curtin. Ten years ago, she and her husband were living in Botswana with their son Michael. When his parents returned to the US, Michael chose to remain behind and join an eco-commune. Not very long after joining that community he disappeared and was presumed killed by an animal. Now Andrea has returned to try to get some closure and find out what really happened to her son. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to find out what she can. Little by little, she traces Michael’s last months and weeks and in the end, she discovers the truth. Throughout the investigation though, her efforts are made all the more difficult by the fact that the community is in such a remote area that just about anything could have happened, and no-one would know.

Some fictional killers opt for bodies of water as places to leave bodies. The advantage of that is that lots of evidence gets washed away or at the very least considerably altered. That can often include evidence like time of death. That’s what happens for instance in Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Superintendant Peter Diamond. One evening, the body of an unknown woman is found at Chew Valley Lake, near Bristol. It’s difficult to discover who the victim is at first, in part because of having been submerged. After a few false starts, the woman is identified as TV personality Geraldine ‘Gerry’ Jackman. Because the body’s been left at the lake, it’s very difficult to trace the body back to the scene of the actual murder, and thus to the killer. Superintedant Peter Diamond and his assistant John Wigfull start of course with the victim’s husband. But there’s no clear evidence against him; nor is there an obvious motive. And there turn out to be other suspects too. As it turns out, the fact that the body was left in the lake add several complications to the case.

The first of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels, Roseanna, begins with the discovery of the body of an unknown woman in Sweden’s Lake Vattern. By the time the body is discovered, it’s been several months since the murder, and that’s one reason for which it’s very difficult to find out who the woman is. But after some time, she is identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was visiting Sweden when she was killed. The water has not just hidden the body, but also obliterated obvious evidence. So it takes a great deal of time and effort for Stockholm police inspector Martin Beck and his team to connect the victim with her killer. In the end though, and after a lot of perseverance, the team solves the case. There are of course lots of other examples too of fictional killers who use water as a place to leave a body (I know, I know, fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase and of Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach).

For a different and darkly funny take on moving bodies, you may want to check out Rob Kitchin’s Stiffed. When Tadgh Maguire wakes one more morning after a night of drinking, he has much bigger problems than just his hangover. The body of local gangster Tony Marino is next to him in his bead. Maguire knows how short his life span will become if it gets around that he killed Marino, so he decides that the only thing to do is move the body. And that’s when the real trouble begins…

The less evidence there is, the harder it is for the police to link a murder victim to a killer. And the harder it is to find a body, the more time goes by and the less evidence is available. So it’s little wonder there are so many fictional examples of bodies left in remote areas or iin water. Ther are dozens of examples in crime fiction; which ones stand out for you?

 

ps. The ‘photo is of the Mojave Desert of Eastern California and Western Nevada. Lots of likely places there…
 
 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ritchie Cordell’s I Think We’re Alone Now, made famous by Tommy James and the Shondells.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Donna Malane, Dorothy Sayers, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Peter Lovesey, Rob Kitchin

The Times, They Are a-Changin’*

1960sTo say that the 1960s was a decade of major change is an understatement. It was a time of so many social, political, economic and other changes that some people have called those years ‘revolutionary.’ And perhaps they have a point.

Crime fiction, like other genres, tells the story of those changes and we see them reflected in many different novels, both from and about the era. Space is only going to allow for a few examples, but I’m sure you already understand what I mean.

One of the major changes that took place during the 1960s was the role of students, especially university students. Certainly students had spoken out on campuses before, but in many countries, this decade saw the rise of student protests that really resounded in ways they hadn’t before. In John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Weschler, for instance, Hewes College Classics Professor Arnold Weschler is faced with a difficult dilemma. He’s not himself particulalry political, but his brother David is. One day, Weschler is called to the office of College President Winthrop Dohrn, who wants to discuss the recent activities of a radical student group that’s come to campus. Dohrn believes that David Weschler is one of the leaders of the group. He wants Arnold to contact his brother and stop the group from causing any more trouble. The Weschler brothers have been estranged for a long time, but Arnold knows that his job may depend on his response. So he reluctantly agrees. That’s how he gets drawn into the group and gets to know the members. He even develops some sympathy for some of their views. That is, until there’s a kidnapping and then a bombing that kills Dohrn. Now Weschler has to find the killer and clear his brother’s name before he’s arrested.

During the 1960s, there was also a deep and serious questioning of ‘Establishment’ politics and economics. Many people, even those who didn’t identify themselves as Communists per se questioned the socioeconomic status quo. And there were plenty who did identify themselves as Marxists. Perhaps the best look at the leftist point of view and goals of that era can be seen in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s series featuring Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team. This is only my opinion, so feel free to differ with it if you do. But for me, this series encapsulates a lot of what this set of politics embraced. Each of the ten novels in this series is about a self-contained murder mystery. But throughout the series, there’s a great deal of social critique too. There are critiques of police power, social class divisions, ‘Establishment’ corruption and other important issues with Swedish society.

Another major change in society was a change in the roles of women. Bit by bit, women had been seeking full citizenship for a long time, and had made solid strides (e.g. suffrage, working outside the home and so on). But in the US at least, women were still regarded as best-suited for ‘home and hearth.’ During the 1960s this began to be questioned more and more. And it wasn’t just a matter of wanting to work outside the home at financial parity with men (although that was certainly an issue). I’m also talking here of what you might call women’s sexual liberation. There was still very much a double standard when it came to what was expected of ‘ladies’ and what was expected of men. And women began to insist on being as much in charge of their own destinies as men were. You see that in the non-crime-fiction work of writers such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. But you also see it in crime fiction. In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, for instance, we meet noted fashion designer Sheila Grey. She’s a well-off and successful single woman who has no desire to get married and ‘settle down.’ She puts it this way:
 

‘In fact – I’m speaking only for myself – I reject the whole concept of marriage. I’m no more capable of being happy as a housewife, or a country club gal, or a young suburban matron than I am of renouncing the world and taking the veil.’
 

Certainly she doesn’t identify herself by her ability to cook, clean, sew or look after children. She’s independent both economically and sexually. One night, she’s murdered. Inspector Richard Queen is assigned to the case and his son Ellery of course takes part in the investigation. In the end, they find that the victim’s modern way of thinking about herself and the role love should play in her life had a part in her murder.

One of the other major changes of the 1960s was the move of drug use from certain bohemian, artistic and musical circles to the mainstream. Any crime fiction fan can tell you that drugs have been associated with crime fiction for a very long time. But during these years, ‘average’ everyday people had easier access to them and their use spread. There’s a mention of that in Agatha Christie’s The Third Girl (published in 1966), in which Norma Restarick and Hercule Poirot don’t exactly get off on the proverbial right footing. She wants to hire him until she actually meets him and concludes that he’s too old to help her. For his part, Poirot isn’t at all impressed with Norma’s appearance or manner. When she disappears, though, Poirot works with detective novelist Ariadne Oliver to find out what happened to her. The trail leads to fraud and murder and real danger for Mrs. Oliver. Drugs have their role to play in this novel, and it’s interesting to note that their use has gone beyond just the ‘artsy’ set by this time.

Questions of relations between the races had been simmering for a long time. But matters came to a head during the 1960s. We see this in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Admittedly it’s about an earlier time, but it raises issues that became a major point of conflict during the ’60s. In that novel, Tom Robinson is accused of (and quickly arrested for) the rape of Mayella Ewell. Robinson claims he’s innocent, but because he’s Black and Mayella Ewell is White, he’s assumed to be guilty. Prominent local attorney Atticus Finch takes this case and goes to what you could argue are heroic lengths to prove that his client is not a rapist. Although we could hardly say that race is no longer an issue, there were some major strides forward taken during these years. In fact, Walter Mosley discusses this in Little Green, which takes place in 1967. PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded by his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander to find a Black man named Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a hippie group, so Rawlins starts there. He discovers that a young White woman nicknamed Coco may know something about the group, so he contacts her. At one point, they meet in a local restaurant, where something happens that certainly makes Rawlins think:
 

‘…because you’re a young white woman and I’m a middle-aged black man and a waitress just took our order without even a second look.’
 

Admittedly this story takes place in Los Angeles. In a smaller town things might have been different. But the move forward in race relations was an important part of the 1960s.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s St. Kilda Blues (which takes place in 1967) also discusses many of the changes that took place during the 1960s. I’m just diving into that one, to be honest, so I’m not yet thoroughly enough versed to discuss it on this blog. But I can say this. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has to deal with the drug culture, the hippie movement, and other major social changes as he searches for what could be a serial killer.

There were of course many other dramatic changes in the 1960s – changes in technology, music, popular culture, cinematography and lots more. A decade that started out as looking very much like the 1950s ended up as something completely different. The times they definitely were ‘a-changin’. Which novels evoke this time for you?

ps. Just look at the two ‘photos of the Beatles and you’ll see the changes that took place during the 1960s. From ‘mop-tops’ in suits to hippies….
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bob Dylan song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Harper Lee, John Alexander Graham, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Walter Mosley

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