Category Archives: Megan Abbott

I Can Show You the World*

Rose ReadsResearch shows fairly conclusively (at least to me) that early exposure to a lot of reading supports children’s literacy development. But the research doesn’t always convey the way love of reading and appreciation of the magic of a book can be passed along. It can though, and it is.

If you remember being read to as a child, you know what I mean. If you’ve experienced what it’s like to read to children or grandchildren, you know what I mean. Passing the magic along is a very special experience. And it gets even better when your child/grand-child reads to you. Trust me. There’s nothing like it.

If you look at the world of crime fiction, you can see clearly how one generation’s love of books and writing can be passed on. For instance, fans of Dick Francis’ work will tell you that he created some memorable mystery standalones and series. The ones I like best are the Sid Halley novels, but that’s just my opinion. Fans will also tell you that his son Felix also became a writer. He co-authored some work with his father, and has continued the tradition of sport/racecourse mysteries under his own name.

Patti Abbott is a highly skilled writer. Her short story collection Monkey Justice is well-written, compelling and with a nice touch of noir. And her novel Home Invasion takes a fascinating look at a family over the course of fifty years. It’s told in a series of stories, all related by the overall family history. She is also the author of a number of fine short stories that have been published in lots of different contexts. Abbott is also the mother of Megan Abbott. Yes, the Megan Abbott, author of Die a Little, Bury Me Deep, The End of Everything and, well, you get the idea. Certainly the love of reading and writing and the magic of a good story have been passed along in that family.

There’s also James Lee Burke, author of the highly-regarded Dave Robicheaux series. Fans will know that Robicheaux is a cop with the New Iberia, Louisiana Police. Burke has also written the Billy Bob Holland series. Holland is a former Texas Ranger who has become an attorney. There’s also Burke’s Hackberry ‘Hack’ Holland series about a Korean War veteran who’s also been in politics and is now a Texas sheriff. He’s written other novels and short story collections as well. Besides all of this, Burke is the father of crime writer Alafair Burke. Her series include the well-regarded Ellie Hatcher novels (there’s a new one coming out in late June/early July!) and the Samantha Kincaid series. Fans will know that Kincaid is a deputy District Attorney, while Hatcher is an NYPD cop. These two authors have different styles, but it’s clear that the love of books, reading and writing has been passed along.

Jonathan and Faye Kellerman are both highly regarded authors. Readers of their series will know that Jonathan Kellerman is the author of, among other things, the Alex Delaware/Milo Sturgis series. Faye Kellerman is the author of the Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series, along with other work she’s done. They’ve also passed along the love of reading, writing and books. They are the parents of thriller author and playwright Jesse Kellerman, whose work includes Potboiler, Trouble, and The Executor.

And you don’t have to confine yourself to crime fiction to see how the magic can be given to the next generation. Laura Ingalls Wilder is famous as the author of the Little House series. Those novels ‘hooked’ generations of young people on books. Wilder was also the mother of Rose Wilder Lane, who became a journalist, novelist and travel writer in her own right. She also wrote biographies and other books as well. Even in a place and time when it wasn’t as easy to get books as it is now, the love of reading and writing was passed along in the Wilder family too.

‘That’s all very well,’ you may be thinking, ‘but I’m not a famous writer.’ Doesn’t matter. You can still pass the Lelah Readsmagic along. On this World Book Day, let’s remember that one of the finest gifts you can give the next generation is literacy and love of reading. Read with your children and grand-children and you’re leaving a priceless legacy. It doesn’t take an awful lot of time, and passing on the love of reading is free, healthy, and enriching for everyone. Talk about making memories! Don’t have children or grand-children? Don’t have nieces or nephews? Doesn’t matter. Lots of local schools, libraries and other groups would love to have your help in bringing reading to children who might not otherwise be exposed to it. Find out what’s happening in your area to bring the magic of books to children and be a part of it. You never know which young person might end up writing about the next school for wizards…

On top of everything else, writers everywhere will appreciate your assistance in creating the next generation of book junkies. ;-)

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tim Rice and Alan Menken’s Whole New World.

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Filed under Alafair Burke, Dick Francis, Faye Kellerman, Felix Francis, James Lee Burke, Jesse Kellerman, Jonathan Kellerman, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Megan Abbott, Patti Abbott, Rose Wilder Lane

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

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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

Now I Act Like I Don’t Remember*

Painful MemoriesNot very long ago, I did a post on nostalgia and the role that it plays in the way we think and in crime fiction too of course. One of the things that came up in the discussion about that post (thanks, folks!!) is that some memories have exactly the opposite effect to nostalgia. We all have sadness and pain in our past – it’s unavoidable really – and those are often memories we don’t want raked up. I’m sure we could all give examples from real life, and it’s quite true in crime fiction as well.

Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect) is all about terrible memories that people want to avoid. Famous artist Amyas Crale has been working on a new painting. He’s invited the subject, his mistress Elsa Greer, to his home Alderbury to take advantage of what he thinks will be the perfect setting. Needless to say, Crale’s wife Caroline is not best pleased about it and she’s even overheard threatening her husband. One afternoon, Crale is poisoned. His widow is the most likely suspect for a number of reasons and in fact she is arrested, tried and convicted. She dies a year later in prison and life goes on for the people in the Crales’ lives. Sixteen years later, Amyas and Caroline’s daughter Carla visits Hercule Poirot. She is convinced that her mother was innocent and now that she’s on the point of getting married, she wants her mother’s name cleared. Poirot agrees and contacts the five people who were ‘on the scene’ when the murder occurred. He also gets written accounts from each one, and talks to some other, less directly involved people. In the end that information gives him the truth about the case. One of the interesting things that keep coming up in this novel is that many people ask why Poirot is raking up the whole painful business again. Only a few people are willing, right from the start, to tell their stories. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is not exactly nostalgic about his past either. As we learn in The Last Coyote, Bosch is the son of Marjorie Lowes, a prostitute who was murdered when her son was eleven years old. The case wasn’t exactly high-priority, so the killer was never found. Thirty years later, Bosch is suspended from duty because of a violent encounter with a supervisor. He’s ordered to undergo psychological treatment and is asked to work with Dr. Carmen Hinojos. While he’s ‘sidelined,’ Bosch begins to look into the case and to face some of his own past. One of the things we learn for instance is that Bosch was placed in the McLaren Youth Facility.  It wasn’t exactly the kind of place one looks back to with nostalgia. Bosch has survived all of these things along with a stint in Vietnam, but that doesn’t mean he enjoys taking the time to savour the memories.

School memories aren’t very nostalgic for Ann Cleeves’ Jimmy Perez either. He was born and raised in Fair Isle in the Shetlands, and went to school in Lerwick. The weather and the difficulty of getting back and forth between his home and the school forced Perez to stay at the school during the week. He visited his family home on weekends when the weather co-operated, and on holidays. For several reasons school in Lerwick was not an enjoyable experience for Perez. He was homesick and couldn’t accustom himself easily to life on Lerwick. What’s more, there were two bullies who made his life miserable. Everything changed when he met and befriended Duncan Hunter. Hunter made his life bearable and that’s part of what makes it so awkward in Raven Black when Hunter becomes a suspect in the murder of seventeen-year-old Catherine Ross. As it is, Perez does not want to be reminded of his awful school days. For another, he feels a gulf between him and Hunter now that several years have gone by. That unpleasant past adds an interesting layer to this story.

In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, the Davies family has to face some terrible memories from the past. Twenty years before the events in the story, two-year-old Sonia Davies was drowned. Her nanny Katja Wolff was arrested in connection with the death. She’s recently been released from prison and that alone rakes up the past. Then one night, Sonia’s mother Eugenie is killed in what looks at first like an accidental hit-and-run incident. Then her son twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies faces a different kind of crisis. He is a world-class violinist who suddenly finds himself unable to play. He decides to seek psychological help to find out what is at the root of his block. Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigate Eugenie Davies’ death and find that all of these plot threads are related, and all are tied to the Davies’ family’s traumatic past.

Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything deals with painful memories too. Thirteen-year-old Lizzie Hood and her best friend Evie Verver are inseparable. They share all of their secrets and Lizzie can’t really imagine life without Evie. Then one terrible day, Evie doesn’t come home from school. No-one is overly worried at first, but as the evening wears on and she doesn’t come home, her family becomes concerned. They, and later the police, ask Lizzie to tell them anything she may know that will help them find Evie. Lizzie doesn’t know very much about what happened to Evie though, and she can’t be of much assistance. But she does want to know what happened to her best friend. So in her own way, Lizzie starts to ask questions and investigate. She finds that the memories she thought she had of her and Evie might not be accurate. She also learns that she’d built up a lot of assumptions about herself, Evie, and life that covered up some extremely painful truths. Interestingly, Abbott addresses the issue of painful memories in a few ways. At one level, Lizzie has to confront memories that are not as pleasant as she had though. At another, the story begins as the adult Lizzie looks back on the terrible time of Evie’s disappearance.

Most of us have fond memories that we think about with great pleasure. But there are usually some sad ones, too, that we’d just as soon forget. There are far too man examples of this in crime fiction for me to list them all, but I’ve no doubt you already get my point…

 

 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s The River.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Elizabeth George, Megan Abbott, Michael Connelly

Eisenhower, Vaccine, England’s Got a New Queen*

1950sIf you watch television shows (especially US television shows) from the 1950s, you might get the impression that it was a peaceful decade with an emphasis on a happy suburban life and economic prosperity. Certainly there was an increase in consumerism. But the reality was of course quite different from that serene surface. The 1950s brought a lot of major changes and they were hardly peaceful years. And since crime fiction reflects the times in which it was written (or about which it’s written), we see a lot of the major developments of the 1950s in the crime fiction from and about that era.

Agatha Christie wrote several novels during that time period, and her work shows some of the major changes going on at the time. Life for many was transformed after World War II and that included the loss of many of the great old homes and estates. We see commentary about this in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) and in Dead Man’s Folly. In the former, Enderby House, the home of the Abernethie family, is being sold after the death of the last real family patriarch Richard Abernethie. In the latter, Nasse House, which had been in the Folliat family for generations, is now the property of Sir George Stubbs and his wife Hattie, and is one of the few homes that hasn’t been turned into a guest house or hostel. In fact, the next home over has been turned into a hostel, and that plays a role in the novel.

So does a new generation of young people, and we see this in Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death). The residents of a student hostel become the focus of an investigation when one of them seems to commit suicide after admitting to a series of petty thefts. Of course, things aren’t as they seem…  Several of the main characters of this novel are young people who have a different outlook on life to the outlook their parents had. Christie also uses this novel to comment on some of the other major issues of the 1950s, one of which is the Cold War between the UK, the US and their allies and the Soviet Union and its allies. There’s more than one remark about communists and communist sympathy in this novel.

That theme also plays an important role in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death, which takes place during the same time. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins has been separated from the airplane manufacturing company where he worked, and now earns his living ‘doing favours for friends.’ And that’s just what gets him into trouble. He gets a letter from an IRS agent threatening him with jail time for not paying taxes on income that he earned solving a case. The only way out seems to be to help the FBI take down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler. Rawlins has been told his tax problems will go away if he helps the FBI so, not seeing much choice, he agrees. In the process, he becomes a target for someone who tries to frame him for two murders. There’s a lot of talk in this novel about patriotism, communism and one’s civic duty. But what’s interesting is that this novel is told from the perspective of a Black American and more than once Rawlins reflects on why he should be such a patriot when his country hasn’t done much for him. It’s a compelling commentary on the segregation and racism of the era. It’s also an interesting peek at the nascent civil rights movement that began in earnest later in the decade (Christie by the way comments on race issues too in Hickory Dickory Dock).

There’s also a fascinating look at Cold War thinking and politics in Geoffrey McGeachin’s Blackwattle Creek, which takes place in 1957. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin is a World War II veteran who is still trying to deal with the scars from the war. But he’s more or less managed to put his life together. He’s got a stable marriage and two healthy children and life is going on for him. Then, his wife Rebecca asks him to help a friend of hers look into an oddity about the death of her husband. Berlin agrees and before he knows it, he’s drawn into a case involving high-level cover-ups and some odd events at local funeral homes. The Cold War theme is woven through this novel quite effectively, as is the reality of life for many of those returning from World War II. The armed hostilities had ended, but for many of those service people the 1950s was a time of real difficulty as they had to adjust to a peacetime life and do their best to deal with their emotional and physical scars.

There was a deepening interest in and emphasis on psychology, especially what used to be called ‘abnormal psychology’ as the 1950s got underway, and we see that in the psychological kinds of thrillers/crime novels of that era. For instance, Patricial Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train is the story of a chance encounter between Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, who are fellow passengers on a cross-country train journey. What starts out as a friendly conversation evolves into a discussion about each man’s problems: Haines is unhappy in his marriage, and Bruno has a bad relationship with his father. When Bruno suggests that each man kill the other man’s ‘choice victim,’ Haines brushes it off as almost a joke. It becomes all too real though when Bruno actually fulfills what he sees as his side of the bargain and insists that Haines do the same. Highsmith’s exploration of psychology reflects the growing interest in the topic of that decade, as does the work of other writers such as Jim Thompson.

We also see a fascinating look at psychology in Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which takes place in 1950’s California. Lora King is a Pasadena schoolteacher who gets drawn into a completely alien, seamy world when her brother Bill marries Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. Lora tries for her brother’s sake to be friendly with her new sister-in-law, but Alice has a hidden past and a lot of secrets, and a big part of Lora doesn’t trust her. And yet at the same time as she is repulsed by Allice’s world, she also finds it alluring. And when Alice seems to be implicated in a murder that occurs, Lora finds herself more and more pulled into Alice’s life. Besides the psychology we see in this novel, we also see some of the sociological phenomena of the era. There’s the surface-level conformity that was expected at the time which hides some ugly truths. There’s also an interesting look at the way women were viewed. The women’s movement that’s been called ‘Women’s Lib’ among other things was still some time off, but already women were beginning to be dissatisfied with society’s limited expectations of them. At the same time as many conformed in terms of dress, household roles and so on, they also wondered if this was all there was, so to speak. And some did more than wonder. Die a Little also reflects something else about the era: the beginnings of more open discussions about sexuality (anyone read Peyton Place???).

We also see that in novels of the day such as Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, in which some of the characters are prostitutes and in which there is more obvious innuendo than we see in earlier novels. Cop Hater also shows the blurred lines between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ that is characteristic of a lot of more modern crime fiction. 

On the surface of it, the 1950s was a time of social conformity and neat categorisation, where ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ the two sexes, different racial groups and different social classes still occupied different worlds. That meant there was some ugly racism, blatant sexism and other social issues that weren’t addressed. But at the same time the proverbial lid was being lifted off that box, and a lot of what went on beneath the surface is explored in the crime fiction of and about the era. And that’s to say nothing of the music of the era… And with new tools such as psychology, we see how writers were exploring the ‘why’ and ‘what started it all’ of crime as well as its actual investigation.

What do you think of ‘50s crime fiction and historical crime fiction? What do you think it reflects about the era? If you’re a writer who explores that era, what draws you to it?

 

ps. The ‘photo is of holiday shopping in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1951. Among other things I think it shows the rising consumerism of the era.

 

 

 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Geoffrey McGeachin, Jim Thompson, Megan Abbott, Patricia Highsmith, Walter Mosley

Tension Mounts in the City Tonight*

Suspense and TensionYesterday I had the honour of having lunch with the terrific Rob Kitchin, who blogs at The View From the Blue House. Kitchin’s blog has great reviews of crime fiction novels, and is well worth a place on your blog roll if you’re a crime fiction fan. But Kitchin isn’t just a blogger – not by any means. Like me, he’s an academic. He’s also the author of The Rule Book and The White Gallows, both featuring his sleuth Detective Superintendent Colm McEvoy. Oh, and he’s the author of Killer Reels, a linked collection of short stories featuring the very creepy film buff Jimmy Kiley. And his standalone Stiffed, which he’s called ‘screwball noir,’ is due to be released this year. Check out The View From the Blue House for details about all of those books and about Kitchin’s many short stories and 100-word Drabbles. Rob Kitchin

One of the things we talked about was the way that authors use suspense and tension in their novels to engage the reader and to keep the reader turning pages. Some authors start their novels with lower levels of suspense, but gradually add it in as the novel goes on. For instance, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians) is like that. The story starts, if you will, innocently enough. Ten people have been invited to Indian Island, off the Devon coast and for different reasons, each accepts. The story begins as they all travel to the island and although there are little hints of what’s to come, the tension hasn’t really set in yet. Then, when they arrive on the island and discover that their host hasn’t yet made an appearance, the tension begins. It builds after dinner that night, when each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Then, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Then there’s another death that night. One by one, the other guests also begin to die and it’s soon clear that they’ve been lured to the island and that one of them is the killer. The suspense continues to build as the survivors try to find out who the murderer is and avoid getting killed themselves.

Suspense builds gradually in Louise Penny’s A Rule Against Murder too. In that novel, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec goes on an annual wedding anniversary trip with his wife Reine-Marie. They’re staying at Manoir Bellechasse and hoping for a relaxing getaway. Soon they meet several members of the Finney family, who are also staying at the lodge. There are Thomas and Sandra Finney, Thomas’ elderly parents, and his sisters Julia and Marianna and Marianna’s child. At first all seems to be going smoothly enough although it’s clear that the Finneys are not exactly a happy family. The suspense begins to build though when it becomes clear just how dysfunctional the family really is. Then there’s a murder. Of course the tension increases then, and even more so as more revelations come out about the family and as Gamache uncovers an unexpected connection to a character fans of this series already know.

Of course, not all authors choose to build the suspense in their stories slowly. Some choose to start with a high level of tension and more or less keep up the same pacing and tension throughout the novel. That’s the case with Megan Abbott’s Die a Little. The tension in that story is built early when Bill King marries Alice Steele. Alice is a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant who seems to settle quickly into life as a suburban housewife. But Bill’s sister Lora doesn’t care much for Alice. She tells herself it’s because there’s just something about Alice that doesn’t seem quite right. And indeed, she finds out things about Alice that suggest that Alice isn’t telling the truth about a lot of her life. But Lora has always had a close relationship with Bill and although she doesn’t admit it to herself at first, she’s also jealous of this new woman’s presence in her brother’s life. The suspense and pacing continue as Lora gradually gets drawn more and more into Alice’s world at the same time as she feels repelled by it. Then there’s a murder. What’s more, Alice may have had something to do with it. As Lora starts asking questions, she learns more than she wanted to admit about Alice and about herself.

T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton also starts with a strong dose of suspense and keeps that level steady throughout the novel. An enigmatic young woman Sarena Gunasekera has been found dead at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head near Eastbourne. Evidence shows that she was stabbed and possibly raped, and then thrown over the cliff. The evidence also strongly suggests that Elton Spears is the murderer. Spears is a troubled young man with mental problems and deficiencies, so he can’t really participate in his own defence. And yet some things he says hint that he may not be guilty. And there is also the principle of British law that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty. Solicitor Jim Harwood has worked with Spears before and takes his case now, working with barrister Harry Douglas, who will defend the case in court. As the novel goes on, we learn bit by bit what Sarena’s history  was, how her story is tied up with that of crime boss Sammy Todd, and what really happened on the night she was murdered. The story is told from Harwood’s point of view, and through his narrative we learn that in this case, little is as it seems.

There are also crime novels and series where tension and suspense are not really strongly featured. The interest in those novels comes instead from character development and sometimes atmosphere and setting. Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series featuring Mma. Precious Ramotswe is like that. In each of the novels, Mma. Ramotswe and her associate Mma. Grace Makutsi are hired to solve several cases. For instance, one client hires Mma. Ramotswe to find out whether his teenage daughter is secretly seeing a boyfriend. Another wants to know which of several young women would be the best candidate to win Botswana’s Miss Beauty and Integrity pageant. Other cases involve finding long-lost people and uncovering shady practices at a health clinic. In all of these cases, there is real interest as we follow the way Mma. Ramotswe and Mma. Makutsi go about finding answers. And as the series goes on, their characters and the characters of the people in their lives develop and evolve. There’s also a strong sense of the Botswana setting. Those are the features that hold the reader’s interest rather than a high level of action and suspense.

That’s also true in M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series. Fans of this series know that Macbeth is the constable in the small Scottish town of Lochdubh. He’s got little ambition and would rather fish than do a lot of detecting. But he’s good at what he does, and he has a deep knowledge of the Highlands and its people and culture, having lived there all his life. These novels do feature murders, some of them not exactly pretty. But the real interest in the novels isn’t the suspense and tension of the cases, although of course, they are important. Rather, it’s the setting, the quirky characters and of course Macbeth himself.

Everyone’s different about the way they like their suspense. Some like it to start high and stay that way. Others prefer a different focus in their novels. And still others like the suspense to build gradually. What about you? How do you like your suspense? If you’re a writer, how do you use suspense to keep readers engaged?

 

Thanks, Rob, for a real treat of a meeting and conversation. Hey folks, do read Rob’s work. You won’t regret it.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from King Prawn’s No Peace.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Louise Penny, M.C. Beaton, Megan Abbott, Rob Kitchin, T.J. Cooke