Category Archives: Marshall Karp

Davy Crockett, Peter Pan, Elvis Presley, Disneyland*

Pop CultureWhether it’s ‘franchise’ movies, fashion magazines, reality TV, video games or something else, pop culture is a big part of a lot of people’s lives. So it shouldn’t at all be surprising that we would see pop culture in crime fiction too. After all, why shouldn’t fictional characters read a gossip magazine or go to a theme park or an ‘action figure’ film? It makes sense when you think of how pervasive pop culture is in our lives.

And it’s been around for a long time, too. For example, we see pop culture in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In that novel, famous movie star Marina Gregg and her husband have purchased Gossington Hall, which Christie fans will remember was the home of Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly (The Body in the Library). It’s soon announced that the remodeled home will be open to the public at a charity fête and lots of the locals are excited to see the house and perhaps meet a famous movie star. Especially excited is Heather Badcock, who is very much a fan of Marina Gregg. In fact, Heather gets the chance to meet her idol, but is sickened and dies soon afterwards. At first, it’s thought that the drink that poisoned her was originally intended for the movie star. But soon enough, Miss Marple and Dolly Bantry figure out that Heather was the intended victim the whole time. Film celebrities and the pop culture that surrounds them are an important part of this novel.

The first Walt Disney film was made in 1928 and since that time, Disney films, television shows and networks, and theme parks have become integral parts of pop culture. I’ve even used a few Disney song lyrics as titles for posts.** So it shouldn’t be surprising that Disney shows up in crime fiction too. Robert Crais’ Elivs Cole for instance has a Mickey Mouse clock on the wall of his office, and in Lullaby Town, he wears a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. And that’s not the only story in which he wears pop-culture franchised clothes.

We see pop culture in Marshall Karp’s The Rabbit Factory, which features his LAPD cops Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs. Eddie Elkins is an actor who portrays Rambunctious Rabbit, the ‘star’ of popular theme park Familyland. When Elkins is found strangled, Lomax and Biggs investigate the murder. They’re shocked to find that the victim was really convicted child molester Edward Ellison. So at first, it looks as though this murder was revenge for a horrendous crime. But soon enough it turns out to be more complex than that. Ellison’s death is actually the first in a series of deaths intended to ruin the network that created Familyland. Throughout this novel we see how pervasive theme-park and television culture can be.

Malls are another important part of pop culture. With their franchised store brands and ‘food court’ restaurants, they’ve been woven into pop culture life for several decades. There’s a stark and sometimes darkly funny look at the mall culture in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. When Green Oaks shopping center opens in 1984, ten-year-old Kate Meaney is sure that it’s going to be a magnet for all sorts of criminals and that suits her just fine. She’s a budding detective who’s opened her own agency Falcon Investigations, and she spends a lot of time at the mall watching for suspicious activity. When her grandmother insists that Kate sit the exams at the exclusive Redspoon school, she reluctantly takes the bus there with her friend twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer. She never returns though, and everyone thinks that Palmer is responsible for her disappearance. In fact his life is made so unbearable that he leaves town. Twenty years later, the real truth about what happened to Kate is slowly revealed when Palmer’s sister Lisa strikes up an unlikely friendship with Kurt, a security guard at the mall. Kurt’s been seeing some strange images on the security cameras – a young girl who seems to look just like Kate. Each in a different way, he and Lisa Palmer re-visit Kate’s disappearance and in the end, we find out what happened to the girl.

One of the most powerful purveyors of pop culture is television. And of course the TV culture is woven throughout crime fiction. I’ll just give a few examples. In Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious, The Cooking Channel’s restaurant critic Rebecca Adrian is visiting Memphis to choose Memphis’ best barbecue restaurant. One of the top contenders is Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, which has been owned by the Taylor family for years. When Adrian is poisoned a few hours after eating at Aunt Pat’s, talk begins to go around that Aunt Pat’s food is to blame. So family matriarch Lulu Taylor investigates the murder to save her restaurant’s reputation and clear her family’s name. Oh, and three of the characters in this novel are docents at Graceland, the Memphis home of Elvis Presley. If that’s not pop culture….

In Liza Marklund’s Prime Time, journalist Annika Bengtzon is assigned to cover the story of the shooting death of Michelle Carlsson, a major TV celebrity. She was in the process of filming a TV series Summer Frolic at the Castle when she was found murdered in one of the television station’s control rooms. As Bengtzon investigates, we see the ‘pop culture power’ of television celebrities and it’s really not surprising because of that that this is deemed to be a major story.

And then there’s Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, in which Delhi investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri investigates the murder of Dr. Suresh Jha. At the same time, his wife Rumpi and his mother Mummy-ji end up involved in their own mystery. They attend a ‘kitty party’ where all of the guests add some money to a kitty. Later, one woman’s name is drawn and she wins the money in the kitty. This party turns out differently though when a thief takes the money. Mummy-ji scratches the robber, hoping that there will be enough DNA evidence from that to catch the person. Later she and Rumpi go to the local forensics laboratory where a good friend of Mummy-ji’s works as a lab technician. Despite their friendship, here’s what he says:

 

‘Auntie-ji, I think you’ve been watching too much of CSI on Star TV, isn’t it?’

 

Needless to say, Mummy-ji is not pleased at this dismissal and in the end she insists on and gets her answer. But it does show how pervasive television pop culture is, even in crime fiction.

 

What about you? Do you indulge in pop culture? It’s OK, you can tell me. I won’t tell. ;-)….

If you do love pop culture, go visit Pop Culture Nerd, a great source for all things pop culture.

 

 

** Bonus bragging rights question:  In which Disney film does Billy Joel have a major role? No fair Googling!

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.

16 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Liza Marklund, Marshall Karp, Riley Adams, Robert Crais, Tarquin Hall

Los Angelenos All Come From Somewhere*

If you’ve ever been to Los Angeles then you know that it’s vibrant, beautiful (in some places), and has one of the most inviting climates anywhere. It’s physically gorgeous, it’s home to some of the wealthiest people in the U.S., it’s got world-class restaurants and fashion houses and of course, it’s home to the U.S. television and film industries. The music industry is a giant there, too. It’s also got desperate poverty, and the terrible economic and racial divisions that continue to plague the nation have played themselves out there. And with the city’s incredible wealth has also come some really deep-seated corruption, exploitation and more. With those factors, it’s not surprising at all that Los Angeles is the setting for an awful lot of crime fiction. One post doesn’t give nearly enough space to talk about all of the Los Angeles-based crime fiction out there, so here are just a few examples.

Beginning with The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler’s iconic Philip Marlowe showed readers the seamier side of the wealthy and powerful of Los Angeles. In that novel, Marlowe is hired by General Guy Sternwood to stop a blackmail attempt. It seems that bookseller Arthur Geiger is blackmailing Sternwood’s daughter Carmen; this isn’t the first time Carmen’s been blackmailed either as she’s not exactly a demure young woman. What starts as a simple investigation of a blackmail scheme ends up dragging Marlowe into a very complicated web of backstabbing, a pornography scandal and exploitation. Chandler’s work helped shape the modern “hard-boiled” novel and the wealth, self-entitlement and shallowness of several of the characters in this novel are a good match for the setting and the sub-genre.

Attempted blackmail is the starting point for The Case of the Velvet Claws which features another Los Angeles sleuth, Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason. Mason is a Los Angeles attorney who is absolutely and completely committed to his clients. He finds that commitment hard to keep though when he is hired by Eva Griffin. Griffin tells Mason that Hollywood tabloid reporter Fank Locke has proof that she’s having an affair with up-and-coming politician Hamilton Burke. If Griffin doesn’t pay up, Locke will publish the story in his tabloid Spicy Bits. Mason agrees to take this case and tries to get Locke to stop blackmailing his client. Things get complicated though when Mason finds out that Locke’s boss – and Griffin’s husband – is George Belter, owner of Spicy Bits. Now Mason realises that Griffin hasn’t been telling him everything, not even her real name. Then one night George Belter is shot. His widow is of course a prime suspect, and Mason continues to represent her interests even though he doesn’t trust anything she says. He’ll have to find out the truth about Belter’s murder, despite his client, if he’s going to clear her of murder.

Several of Ellery Queen’s novels are set in Los Angeles too. In fact, The Devil to Pay, The Four of Hearts and The Origin of Evil are sometimes called The Hollywood Murders because of their setting. The storyline for these novels is that Queen has been hired to work as a screenwriter for Hollywood “wonder boy” Jacques Butcher. He’s not given anything to do though and is bored, restless and increasingly frustrated with Butcher. So he’s willing to help out when in The Devil to Pay, Walter Spaeth asks him to serve as proxy at an auction of the personal property of Rhys Jardin. Jardin is the father of Spaeth’s love interest Valerie Jardin, and Spaeth wants to do what he can to take care of her without embarrassing her.  When Spaeth’s successful father and Jardin’s business partner Solly Spaeth is murdered, the Jardin family is under suspicion and so is Spaeth’s mistress Winnie Moon. In the end, Queen figures out who the murderer is, while still waiting to start work as a screenwriter. He gets his chance in The Four of Hearts, and gets involved once again in murder when the two lead actors of the film he’s screenwriting are murdered. In The Origin of Evil, Queen’s no longer working as a screenwriter; he’s taken a house and some quiet time to write. That’s how he gets involved in the death of Leander Hill, co-owner of a successful jewel business. Hill’s daughter Lauren believes that her father was murdered and that his business partner Roger Priam may be the next victim. Queen finds out this case has everything to do with the business partners’ history.

We get quite another view of Los Angeles through the eyes of Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. Rawlins was laid off from his wartime job at an airplane manufacturing plant. With no source of income, he accepts an offer in Devil in a Blue Dress to help find Daphne Monet, the missing girlfriend of DeWitt Albright. Albright knows that he’ll stand out too much as a white man in the black community of Watts, where Rawlins lives. But Rawlins knows everyone in that community and agrees to start asking questions. That’s how he gets involved in his new career of “doing favours for friends.” This series gives readers a vivid portrait of life in Watts during the postwar years and a look at Los Angeles from a different cultural perspective.

Megan Abbott’s Die A Little, which takes place at about the same time, shows us what life was like in the Los Angeles/Hollywood suburbs of the early 1950’s. In that novel, Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King begins to worry when her brother Bill falls in love with and then marries former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant Alice Steele. For Bill’s sake Lora tries to get along with her new sister-in-law. As she does so, she finds herself both put off by and drawn to Alice’s life.  And the more drawn to Alice she is, the more King learns about the seamier side of Hollywood, including drugs, prostitution and physical abuse. Then there’s a death that could very well have involved Alice. Now, King decides to go even more deeply into Alice’s enigmatic life to find out what really happened, telling herself that she wants to protect her brother.

So what’s today’s Los Angeles like? Just ask Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller. Bosch is a cop who’s been with the L.A.P.D. on and off for a long time. Bosch’s half-brother Haller’s a defense attorney who’s been known to use his car as a “traveling office.” In the novels that feature these sleuths we see all of the sides of this complex city. We also see some of the trends and changes that have affected people’s lives. The two sleuths investigate mortgage fraud, poverty, racism, child pornography, police and civil corruption, drug trafficking, gang activity, and of course, the film industry among many other things. Neither sleuth would really be happy anywhere else, but neither is blind to the city’s many problems. Oh, and these novels also include natural disasters that Los Angelenos have to cope with such as earthquakes, wildfires and mudslides.

You can also ask Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole and Joe Pike what today’s Los Angeles is like. Together they’ve investigated spoiled Hollywood directors, “behind the scenes” television and film power brokers, the drug and prostitution scenes, Japanese mafiosos and police corruption among other things. Pike owns a gun shop where he’s seen more than his share of gun trafficking and gang activity. Cole’s been hired by all sorts of clients so he too has seen all sides of Los Angeles. And let’s face it; only in L.A. would a detective who has a Mickey Mouse clock in his office be taken seriously.  ;-)

There are other authors such as Stephen J. Cannell, Daniel Depp (yes, Johnny Depp’s brother), Marshall Karp and Pamela DuMond who’ve shown us the ups and downs, the funny and tragic, the beautiful and the ugly sides of Los Angeles. It’s far too big, complex and diverse a city for one author to tell it all.

 

City of Angels? Um…..not really ;-)

 

ps. The top ‘photo is of just one street in just one part of Los Angeles. The other ‘photo was taken on Hollywood Boulevard, on the Walk of Fame. Oh, now come on! Do you have to wonder whose star I would actually make the effort to find and photograph? ;-)

 

 
 

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

15 Comments

Filed under Daniel Depp, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Marshall Karp, Megan Abbott, Michael Connelly, Pamela DuMond, Raymond Chandler, Robert Crais, Stephen J. Cannell, Walter Mosley

>I Really Dig Those Styles They Wear*

>One of the reasons that crime fiction is such a popular genre is arguably that it’s also a very diverse genre. This means that just about anyone can find something enjoyable within it. One thing that adds to that variety is the different writing styles that we see. Writing style is an important part of a novel, too; if the style fits the context, characters and story, it can add a great deal to the novel. Otherwise, it can be jarring. But the thing is, lots of different writing styles can work very effectively.

For example, one writing style that can be both evocative and tension-building is the descriptive, almost literary style of crime fiction authors like James Lee Burke. Burke’s writing style is sometimes almost poetic, and it evokes the Louisiana setting of most of his novels. Here’s a snippet from Black Cherry Blues:

“I drove back to New Iberia through St. Martinsville. The sun was above the oaks on Bayou Teche now, but in the deep early-morning shadows the mist still hung like clouds of smoke among the cattails and damp tree trunks. It was only March, but spring was roaring into Southern Louisiana as it always does after the long gray rains of February.”

P.D. James also uses a literary style of writing in her Adam Dalgliesh novels, and it can add quite a lot to the tension in the story. Here, for instance, is a bit from her A Taste for Death:

“Some premonition alerted her subconscious: earlier disquiets and a vague sense of unease came together and focussed into unease. A faint smell, alien yet horribly familiar; the sense of a recent presence; the possible significance of that unlocked outer door; the dark passageway. Suddenly she knew that something was dreadfully wrong…

There were two of them, and she knew instantly, and with absolute certainly, that they were dead.”


Of course, that literary style isn’t the only really effective way to tell a crime story. Some authors choose a style that reflects a particular place or culture. That’s what Adrian Hyland does, and it’s very successful. This kind of style places the reader and sweeps the reader into the story. Here’s an example from Hyland’s Moonlight Downs (AKA Diamond Dove):

“Still, I reflected as I relaxed at the wheel of my ute, knees on the dash, fag hanging off my mouth, they can’t be doing too badly if they can enjoy themselves this much.

Bindi’s clutch had packed it in, as a result of which he couldn’t change out of first gear. Nor could he stop since he wouldn’t be able to start again so he circled slowly a round us like a great clanking buzzard, cracking jokes and occasionally flushing the old boys out of the bushes.”

Alexander McCall Smith’s writing style also has a unique sense of place. In his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, for instance, his style is very evocative of the Botswana locale of the series. Here’s a bit from Tears of the Giraffe:

“Smoke from the morning fires, the fine wood smoke that sharpens the appetite, and he would hear the sound of people on the paths that criss-crossed the bush near his house; shouts of children on their way to school; men going sleepy-eyed to their work in the town; women calling out to one another; Africa waking up and starting the day.”

This sort of writing style adds a lot of local colour and authenticity to a story. The only risk is that the author might use terms that readers may not understand. For that reason, some writers (Hyland is one) provide a glossary, so readers can understand better.

Some crime fiction fans prefer a very spare, almost terse writing style. That’s got its benefits, too. Authors of novels with an edge of bleakness often find that the spare writing style suits the mood of the book. Here’s an example, for instance, from Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers:

“He [Wallander] was feeling uneasy. Being confronted with the old woman with the noose around her neck had shaken him. The cruelty of it was unthinkable. Who would do something like that?”

Ian Rankin also sometimes uses that spare kind of writing style. Here, for instance, is a snippet from his Mortal Causes:

“’It’s hell out there,’ one constable had already commented as he paused for rest in the canteen. Rebus believed him all too readily. The cells were filling nicely along with the CID in-trays.”

This writing style features short, almost staccato sentences and outlines rather than long descriptions to tell the story. Some readers would like more details, but crime fiction fans who like this style swear by it as a way to convey a story.

Another style that’s sometimes used to tell a good crime fiction story is what I’ll call the dialogue-driven style. We learn what’s going on through what people say to each other rather than through long descriptions. This style is an effective for authors to “show not tell,” and many readers like the way it moves the action along. Agatha Christie’s novels, for instance, often feature a dialogue-driven story. Here, for instance, is a snippet from Christie’s Hallowe’en Party:

“A murder. After the snapdragon, everyone went home,’ said Mrs. Oliver. “That, you see, was when they couldn’t find her.’

‘Find whom?’

‘A girl. A girl called Joyce. Everyone called her name and looked around and asked if she’d gone home with anyone else, and her mother got rather annoyed and said that Joyce must have felt tired or ill or something and gone off by herself, and that it was very thoughtless of her not to leave word. All the sort of things that mothers say when things like that happen. But anyway, we couldn’t find Joyce.’

‘And had she gone home by herself?/

‘No,’ said Mrs. Oliver, ‘she hadn’t gone home…’ Her voice faltered. ‘We found her in the end – in the library-…’”

Dialogue-driven stories can carry the reader along without interrupting the story. However, they don’t always allow for strong character development unless the author is talented at conveying character through dialogue.

And then there are authors who choose a dry, sarcastic or comic style of writing. Fans of this style like the way that it allows the author to tell a sometimes very bleak, sad story without leaving the reader depressed. The “light touch” can also move a story along at a quick pace. Marshall Karp uses this style; here, for instance, is a bit from his Bloodthirsty:

“If you’re looking to get rich, being a cop is not the way to go. Especially the honest variety.

Last year, I made ninety-three grand working homicide for LAPD. My partner, Terry Biggs, who is one pay grade lower, managed to make eighty-eight with overtime. Not bad money. Except that my plumber cleared one-fifty. And he didn’t get shot at. Of course, I don’t have to snake toilets. Life is full of trade-offs.”

Carl Hiaasen’s writing style also uses humour to carry the story along. It’s a slightly different kind of humour, but it’s nonetheless very effective at keeping readers engaged. Here’s a peek at Skinny Dip:

“…Joey had found herself looking forward to visiting the ship’s ‘private unspoiled island,’ as it had been touted in the brochure. Yet this, too, proved dispiriting. The cruise line had mendaciously renamed the place Rapture Key while making only a minimal effort at restoration. Roosters, goats and feral hogs were the predominant fauna, having outlasted the smuggler who had been raising them for banquet fare. The island’s sugar-dough flats were pocked with hulks of sunken drug planes, and the only shells to be found along the tree-shorn beach were of the 45-caliber variety.”


Of course, there are other writing styles that are very effective at drawing readers into a story, keeping them engaged, and adding layers of interest. I’ve only had space to mention a few. And some authors use what you might call a combination of styles. Which writing styles appeal most to you? Is there a writing style that puts you off? If you’re a writer, what kind of writing style do you find most comfortable?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beach Boys’ California Girls.

18 Comments

Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Carl Hiaasen, Henning Mankell, Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke, Marshall Karp, P.D. James

>Oh, But Ain’t That America*

>Today (or tomorrow, depending on where you live), the U.S. is celebrating Independence Day. It’s traditional to celebrate with cookouts, fireworks and parades, but that all sounds a bit tame for the crime fiction fan. So I thought it might be fun to take a look at some of the rich variety there is in American crime fiction. American crime fiction includes cosy mysteries, “hard-boiled” novels, thrillers, police procedurals, and historical crime fiction. There are amateur sleuths, private investigators, police detectives and FBI operatives. There’s so much diversity that it’s hard to know exactly where to start. So, here, from “sea to shining sea” is a snapshot of the range of crime fiction that comes from the United States.

East Coast

When many people think of the East Coast, they think of large metropolitan areas like New York City. Plenty of crime fiction takes place there, too, which I’ll mention in a moment. But there’s plenty of crime fiction that takes place in smaller areas. For instance, Philip R. Craig’s J.W. Jackson series takes place on the New England island of Martha’s Vineyard. Jackson is a fisherman and part-time investigator who’s focused on his wife and his children. He’s got strongly-held, admittedly old-fashioned views, and Craig gives us a fascinating look at the land and culture of Martha’s Vineyard in these novels.

And then there’s the town of Paradise, Massachusetts, which is featured in Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone novels. Stone, a former minor league baseball player, has had to start his life over in Paradise after leaving the L.A.P.D. in disgrace. He’s got several personal demons, including alcoholism and a complicated relationship with his ex-wife. Through Stone’s eyes, we get to see that small New England towns aren’t at all the peaceful havens they seem to be in real estate and travel brochures.

John Lindermuth’s Sticks Hetrick series takes place in Swatara Creek, Pennyslvania, near the state capital in Harrisburg. Hetrick is the retired police chief of the town, and also serves as mentor for the town’s new police chief, Aaron Brubaker. Rural Pennsylvania is also the setting for K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic series. Balzic’s the police chief of Rockford, in Western Pennsylvania. In both these series, we get to see East-Coast small-town life that’s not nearly as placid as it seems.

As I mentioned a moment ago, it’s impossible to think of the East Coast of the United States without thinking of large cities like New York. Lawrence Block’s sleuth, private investigator Matthew Scudder, shows us the seamy side of this metropolis in the Scudder series. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series also shows us how dangerous life in New York can be. And of course, no mention of New York-based crime fiction could be complete without bringing up Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. Hammer’s adventures take us through all levels of New York society, and are a fascinating look at the city of his day. There’s so much other fine crime fiction based in New York that I could devote a whole post (or more!) to it, and perhaps sometime I will. But for now, suffice it to say that New York crime fiction has certainly made its mark.

From Trenton, New Jersey comes Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. She’s a bounty hunter who works for her cousin’s bail bond agency. Crime cuts across all levels of society, so Plum gets to meet people from all walks of life. But her background is working-class Trenton, and through her eyes, we see what life in New Jersey is like for “ordinary people.”

Not surprisingly, much Washington, D.C. crime fiction has to do with the law and national and international politics. Vince Flynn’s and Margaret Truman’s novels are good examples of this kind of crime fiction. Warren Adler’s Fiona Fitzgerald novels touch a little more on the personal lives of the Washington elite, but they still often deal with politics. Not all D.C-area crime fiction is political, though. For instance, Alan Orloff’s Diamonds for the Dead, which takes place in Northern Virginia, is the story of Abe Handelman, whose sudden death from a fall down the stairs leads to the discovery that he was much wealthier than anyone thought – and that a fortune in diamonds that he had has disappeared.

The South

Southern crime fiction is just as varied as East Coast crime fiction is. Authors such as Rita Mae Brown and Elizabeth Spann Craig show us the culture of the small Southern town. Brown’s sleuth, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen is the former postmistress of the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. She’s insatiably curious, and so, frequently gets mixed up in crimes she would have been better off leaving alone. Harry shows us the network off relationships and the old-fashioned Southern courtesy you can find in small Southern towns. Craig’s Myrtle Clover is a former schoolteacher in Bradley, North Carolina. Her son, Bradley’s police chief, would much rather his mother not get involved in sleuthing, but in a way, that’s precisely why she does get involved. Under the name Riley Adams, Craig’s also got a new series featuring Memphis restaurant owner Lulu Taylor. Ann George’s Southern Sisters mysteries feature Birmingham, Alabama sisters Mary Alice and Patricia Anne, elderly matrons of their extended family. This series blends comedy, Alabama culture and murder as the sisters investigate.

J.D. Rhoades’ Jack Keller series is more “hardboiled” and so, is harder-edged than the other Southern authors I’ve mentioned here. Keller is a bounty hunter in Fayetteville, North Carolina. In his line of work, he gets into all sorts of highly dangerous situations. He’s caught between warring crime gangs, chased, kidnapped and targeted for murder. This series has what you might even call a pulp fiction character to it.

James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels also sometimes have a hard edge to them. Robicheaux is a New Iberia, Louisiana police detective who breaks at least as many rules as he enforces. Through Robicheaux’s eyes, Burke shows us how beautiful – and how dangerous – Louisiana is.

The Midwest

Many people associate the Midwest with Chicago, and of course, there’s lots of crime fiction that takes place there. Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels are full of the unique flavor of Chicago. Mark Richard Zubro’s Paul Turner/Buck Fenwick series is also rich with Chicago culture and scenery.

Scott Turow’s legal thrillers are also based in the Midwest, in fictional Kindle County. While Turow doesn’t have just one protagonist, several of his characters appear in more than one of his novels. For instance, Rusty Sabich, the deputy prosecutor at the center of Presumed Innocent, appears again as a district court judge in Innocent. John Sandford’s Prey series takes place in Minneapolis, and features maverick police detective Lucas Davenport. Davenport isn’t exactly a “by the book” sort of police detective, but he’s achieved a certain amount of celebrity because of his record of getting criminals off the streets.

The Midwest, of course, is also full of smaller cities and small towns. For example, Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder series takes place in the small town of Painter’s Mill, Ohio. In that series, we get a strong sense of the rural Midwest town, surrounded by farmland. We also get a real sense of the distinctive Amish culture.

The West and Southwest

Even though this area of the United States isn’t as populous as some other areas, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any crime there. Just ask Boulder, Colorado psychologist Alan Gregory, Stephen White’s sleuth. Gregory frequently gets mixed up in crime through his patients and former patients. But he also gets involved in investigating crimes when they seem to be the work of serial killers or other psychologically unstable murderers.

C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series features Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, who has to be prepared for just about anything, since he’s often out on patrol by himself. Sam Hilliard’s sleuth, Mike Brody, also has to be prepared. He’s a former Special Forces operative, now owner of an extreme adventure company. Both of these sleuths face just as much danger from the land as they do from the criminals they catch.

Perhaps no author has called more attention to or evoked a clearer picture of the American Southwest than Tony Hillerman. His sleuths, Navajo Tribal Police Officers Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, are two of the best-known sleuths in American crime fiction. They patrol a huge area of land that can be just as threatening as any criminal, and they both seem to be a part of that land. In Hillerman’s novels, we get a real sense of the Navajo culture, too.

The West Coast

West Coast crime fiction isn’t just about Los Angeles, but Los Angeles is the setting for some of the best-known West Coast mysteries. Raymond Chanler used it as the setting for his Philip Marlowe novels, and through those novels, we see a portrait of all sides of Los Angeles, from the wealthiest to the grittiest.

But times have changed since Marlowe, and so has Los Angeles. Michael Connelly captures modern Los Angeles brilliantly in his Harry Bosch series. Bosch investigates all sorts of Los Angeles crime, among the very rich and powerful, the poorest of the poor and in between. Marshall Karp’s Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs series also takes readers through all levels of Los Angeles society, and Hollywood-based writers such as Stephen J. Cannell and Daniel Depp show us the dark side of filmdom. And Walter Mosley shows us postwar Los Angeles through his Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins series.

Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delware is also Los Angeles-based. He’s a retired psychologist who’s persuaded to go back into practice by his police-detective friend. He’s got a special interest in children, so quite often he helps to investigate crimes against children, or involving children.

West Coast crime, of course, also includes Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, whose “turf” is San Francisco. And then there’s Ross McDonald’s private investigator Lew Archer, who works throughout Southern California.

Today’s West Coast crime also features Jeffrey Deaver’s Kathryn Dance, top interrogator for the California Bureau of Investigations, and of course, Sue Grafton’s sleuth, private investigator Kinsey Millhone.

As if this wasn’t a varied enough set of American sleuths, there are also sleuths like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee and Patricia Stoltey’s Sylvia Thorn, who solve crime in different parts of the country.

So there you have it: a necessarily very, very brief peek at the diversity in American crime fiction. I know I’ve left out plenty of American authors. Which are your favorites?

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mellencamp’s Little Pink Houses.

Happy Fourth of July to my fellow Americans!

19 Comments

Filed under Alan Orloff, Elizabeth Spann Craig, John Lindermuth, Lawrence Block, Margaret Truman, Marshall Karp, Michael Connelly, Mickey Spillane, Patricia Stoltey, Sam Hilliard, Scott Turow, Tony Hillerman

>You and Me Were Meant to be For Each Other*

>The bond between humans and their animal companions can be a particularly strong one. Whether one’s a “dog person,” a “cat person,” or has another kind of pet, relationships with pets are a very important factor in human life. What’s interesting is that research shows several benefits to pet ownership. For instance, owning a pet is associated in some studies with longer life, lower stress levels and reduced anxiety. Little wonder that so many people are devoted to their animal friends. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we find a lot of examples of pets in crime fiction.

Animal companions figure in more than one Agatha Christie novel. For example, in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), we meet Bob the terrier. He lives in Littlegreen House in the town of Market Basing with Miss Emily Arundell. Miss Arundell is a wealthy elderly woman with several financially-strapped relatives. Over Easter Bank Holiday, her nieces and nephew come to stay, and Miss Arundell knows very well that they want to ingratiate themselves with her, and she’s having none of it. One night, Miss Arundell takes a dangerous fall down a flight of stairs, injuring herself. At first, her accident is blamed on Bob, who has the habit of leaving his favorite ball at the top of the stairs. Soon enough, though, Miss Arundell thinks matters through, and it occurs to her that Bob couldn’t be guilty; he’d been let outdoors, and wasn’t in the house at the time of the accident. So she writes to Hercule Poirot, asking him to come and investigate. However, Poirot doesn’t get the letter until two months later, and by the time he and Hastings come to Market Basing, it’s too late; Miss Arundell has died. Her death is put down to liver failure at first, but it’s not long before poison is suspected. In the end, Poirot and Hastings find out who murdered Miss Arundell, and Bob actually provides some assistance to them.

In Christie’s The Clocks, Poirot helps Colin Lamb, a member of the Secret Service, discover the truth behind a mysterious dead man found in a house in quiet Wilbraham Crescent in the town of Crowdean. Lamb’s in that neighborhood on a mission of his own when a young woman comes out of one of the houses screaming that there’s a dead man in it. Lamb goes into the house and sees that the young woman’s right. So he calls the police, and Inspector Richard “Dick” Hardcastle begins to investigate. In the course of questioning the neighbors, Hardcastle and Lamb meet Mrs. Hemming, who lives next door to the house where the man was found. She shares her home with a large family of cats whom she adores, and around whom she centers her life. In fact, Mrs. Hemming is so besotted with her cats that she’s hardly noticed what happened next door. Mrs. Hemming may be more than a little eccentric, especially about her cats. But she has interesting insights, and she actually gives Hardcastle and Lamb a very important clue about the murder, almost without being aware of it. And in her character, we can really see the bond between people and their animal companions.

And then there’s Hannibal, the terrier who owns Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. He’s an opinionated, but loving and protective pet who’s not afraid to rush to his family’s defense. In fact, that’s just what he does in Postern of Fate, the last of Christie’s Beresford novels. In that novel, the Beresfords have just moved to the small town of Hollowquay, where they hope to retire. No sooner do they move into their home than Tuppence finds a cryptic message in an old book. The message mentions a name, Mary Jordan, and says that she did not die naturally. Tuppence can’t help being curious and it’s not long before she and Tommy are investigating the mysterious death of a German maid who lived in Hollowquay years before. The Beresfords discover the truth behind the death, but not without risk to themselves. In fact, it’s through Hannibal’s intervention that Tuppence is saved from a very dangerous situation.

Of course, lots of other sleuths have animal companions as well. For instance, Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole shares his home with a black cat who’s only really comfortable with him and his partner, Joe Pike. In fact, the cat’s devoted to Pike. That in itself is interesting, because Pike’s not exactly someone you’d peg as the pet-owning “type,” if there is such a thing. He’s an ex-Marine who works part time as a mercenary. He owns a gun shop and frequently travels with more than one weapon. Pike’s not what you’d call the warm, loving “type,” but he and Cole’s cat have established a bond.

Marshall Karp’s Mike Lomax is an L.A.P.D. detective who partners with Terry Biggs. Lomax and Biggs have formed not only a police partnership but a friendship as well. We see clearly the way they work as a strong team in novels such as The Rabbit Factory and Blood Thirsty. In The Rabbit Factory, we meet Andre, Lomax’s black Standard Poodle who’s a great source of comfort and solace to Lomax after the death of his wife, Joanie. When Lomax ‘s strange (and often long) hours make it hard for him to spend the kind of time he wants with his companion, Andre moves in with Lomax’ father, Big Jim, where he still gets to be a part of Lomax’s life, even though they don’t see each other as often.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s sleuth, Jim Qwilleran, is a former investigative news reporter who’s relocated to the small town of Pickax in Moose County, “four hundred miles north of nowhere,” where he writes a twice-weekly column for the Moose County Something, and still has the reporter’s “nose for a story,” especially when he’s investigating a crime. Qwilleran’s had to battle with personal demons, including a failed marriage and a bout with alcoholism, but his life has become more or less stable. Qwilleran shares his home and his life with two seal-point Siamese cats: a large male named Kao K’o Kung (Koko) and a smaller female named Yum Yum. His companions not only enrich his life, but also help him on his cases. In fact, Qwilleran is convinced that Koko knows more than he’s saying, so to speak, about the cases Qwilleran investigates.

Rita Mae Braun’s Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, the sleuth in her Mrs. Murphy series, is the postmistress (in several novels) of tiny Crozet, Virginia. She also runs a farm. Harry’s animal companions are Mrs. Murphy, a tiger cat, Tee Tucker, a Corgi and Pewter, a grey cat who’s more interested in food than in just about anything else. Harry’s got a habit of curiosity, which is one way in which she gets herself into more than one dangerous situation as she investigates cases. Very often, her animal friends travel with her and have come to the rescue more than once.

In my own Joel Williams series, Williams and his wife, Laura, share their home with Oscar, a friendly brown mutt that Williams “inherited” after the sudden death of Oscar’s former human companion.

There are also many cosy (that’s for you, Bernadette ; ) ) series that feature animal companions. For instance, there’s Melissa Cleary’s Jackie Walsh series that features Jake, the German Shepherd. There’s also Laurien Berenson’s Melanie Travis series featuring Travis’ family of black Standard Poodles. Lorna Barrett’s Book Town series is focused on bookstore owner Tricia Miles and her cat, Miss Marple (an irresistible name!). There are plenty of others, as well.

The strong and deep bond that we can form with our animal companions can enrich our lives immensely. That bond can also add to the depth of a character, create an interesting twist in a story, and add welcome humor. Even crime fiction that isn’t what you’d call “cosy” can be made more interesting. After all, how many times in crime fiction has someone been walking a dog and found the body that’s the focus of the story? Do you enjoy that added feature of animal companions in crime fiction? Which novels have you liked?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Martha, My Dear.

In memoriam… This post is dedicated to the memory of Angel (She’s the black Tibetan Terrier in the center of the ‘photo), devoted friend and companion, who left us this past weekend at the age of 14 ½. She will be sorely missed.

23 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Laurien Berenson, Lilian Jackson Braun, Lorna Barrett, Marshall Karp, Melissa Cleary, Rita Mae Brown, Robert Crais