Category Archives: Phillip Margolin

In The Spotlight: Phillip Margolin’s Executive Privilege

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Today is Guy Fawkes Day, the anniversary of Robert Catesby’s failed plot to assassinate England’s King James I. And tomorrow is the U.S. presidential election. What better time to turn the spotlight on a political/legal thriller? So let’s do that today. Phillip Margolin’s legal and political thrillers have gained him a wide readership and well-deserved acclaim, and it’s about time I included one of them in this feature. Let’s turn today’s spotlight on Executive Privilege.

Executive Privilege begins when former cop turned PI Dana Cutler gets a new assignment. Wealthy and well-connected attorney Dale Perry wants Cutler to follow nineteen-year-old Charlotte Walsh and report where Walsh goes, whom she sees and what she does. At first Cutler can’t understand why Walsh would be of any interest to Washington’s power-brokers. But she takes the job and the generous pay and starts her surveillance. At first, not much happens. Then one night, Walsh leaves her car in a mall parking lot and is driven to a secluded safe house. To Cutler’s shock, it turns out that Walsh is meeting with U.S. President Christopher Farrington. Then Cutler is spotted and only barely gets away. With Walsh apparently mixed up in something much bigger than it seemed, Cutler is only too glad to call in to her employer and quit the job.

It doesn’t turn out to be that easy. The next morning Cutler learns that Walsh was murdered after she got back to her car. What’s worse, Cutler’s been identified as the person who took surveillance ‘photos of Walsh’s meeting with Farrington. Now, some very powerful people are after not just the ‘photos and any related files, but Cutler herself.

In the meantime, we meet fledgling attorney Brad Miller, who’s been hired by a large and powerful Portland, Oregon law firm. Although he’s working far too many hours, Miller’s hoping to get a strong start to his career. Then he gets an assignment from one of the firm’s top attorneys Susan Tuchman. She wants Miller to work on a pro bono assignment for convicted killer Clarence Little. Little is scheduled to be executed for a series of horrendous killings, one of which is the murder of Laurie Erickson. Erickson was the daughter of the woman who served as President Farrington’s secretary when he was governor of Oregon and Little is claiming that he didn’t kill her. He wants Miller’s firm to help him in his appeal. The more Miller finds out about Laurie Erickson’s murder, the more he comes to believe that Little didn’t kill her.

These two story lines come together when Dana Cutler learns of some similarities between Charlotte Walsh’s death and Laurie Erickson’s death. With help from FBI Agent Keith Evans, who’s investigating the Walsh murder, Cutler and Miller put their stories together and the picture emerges of a frightening conspiracy (I know, I know, it sounds cliché, but it’s true in this case) that goes all the way to the White House. As it turns out, the murders of Charlotte Walsh and Laurie Erickson have everything to do with a common experience in their pasts.

This is a thriller, so the pacing and action level are what you’d expect for the sub-genre. There are narrow escapes, injuries, high-level enemies, threats and more. Cutler and Miller even end up having to be taken to a safe house. Readers who prefer novels with slow buildup of tension will be disappointed. But that said, the action is credible and so are the protagonists. They use their wits as much as any weapons, and neither has what you’d call superpowers.

It’s also worth noting that this isn’t a thriller full of gruesome brutality. There’s gunplay and some violence. There is some detailed forensic discussion, and Miller’s meetings with convicted killer Clarence Little include frank (and to me, creepy) conversations about Little’s crimes. But the violence isn’t gratuitous or extended.

Thrillers sometimes get a reputation for not having rounded and well-drawn characters, but that’s not the case here. The characters of Dana Cutler and Brad Miller are important elements in this story. Cutler is a former cop who left the force after a traumatic experience that left her psychologically wounded enough to need hospital care for a time. We learn what that experience was, but again, not in harrowing detail. And her reaction to what happened is both human and credible. So is the person she’s become. She’s tough, resourceful, and smart. But at the same time, she’s vulnerable and plenty frightened when she learns just whom she’s up against in this case. Through her readers get a sense of what life on the run can be like.

For his part, Miller’s a former law school ‘whiz kid.’ He’s a skilled researcher and fairly longheaded as the saying goes. Through him we get a sense of what life is like for the hard-working young legal associate; it’s not easy. Miller feels very much out of his element when he has to interview a serial killer and later use a gun, and he has a believable fear of being involved as deeply as he is in this set of mysteries. These two protagonists complement each other’s skills and they are credible as co-sleuths. Oh, and one other note: I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Margolin avoids the all-too-common trap of having co-sleuths end up as lovers. These two develop a liking and respect for each other, but they don’t start a relationship.

The story is told from several different perspectives, so readers who prefer only one point of view will be disappointed. It’s through these multiple perspectives though that we get to know Cutler, Miller, FBI Agent Keith Evans and the Farringtons, as well as some of the other characters in the novel. The main storylines alternate between Cutler’s experiences and Miller’s so the reader follows along as each slowly puts the pieces of the larger puzzle together and eventually meet.

Executive Privilege is fast-paced and has more than one twist to it. It features credible co-sleuths, a believable mystery (all the eerier for actually being possible) and solid Washington, DC and Oregon settings. But what’s your view? Have you read Executive Privilege? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 12 November/Tuesday 13 November – The Paris Lawyer – Sylvie Granotier

Monday 19 November/Tuesday 20 November – Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery – Anthony Berkeley

Monday 26 November/Tuesday 27 November – Desert Wives – Betty Webb

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Filed under Executive Privilege, Phillip Margolin

You Never Know Until You Try*

One of the appeals of crime fiction is that it’s a varied genre with many different authors represented in it. What that means for the reader is that there’s an embarrassment of riches as far as choosing authors and types of books. There are too many well-written crime fiction novels for anyone to read all of them so most crime fiction fans find a group of authors whose work they particularly like and follow those authors. I know I certainly have my “favourites” list. But no-one likes to feel stuck in a proverbial rut, especially when it comes to reading, which is supposed to be engaging and absorbing. So lots of crime fiction fans like to “stretch themselves,” step outside their comfort zones and try new authors and new sub-genres. And there’s no better way (at least in my opinion) to get a full sense of the genre than experimenting with a new-to-you author or a sub-genre you don’t usually read. Of course, as with anything else, there are advantages and disadvantages. This is just my view, so of course, feel free to differ if you do:

 

Advantages of Trying New Authors or Sub-Genres

 

You might find a real gem.

I’ll bet we’ve all had the experience of trying a new author or sub-genre and being happily surprised. Earlier this year, for instance, I was introduced to William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series, which takes place in the Soviet Union of Stalin just before World War II. Now admittedly I happen to like historical mysteries, so I was probably predisposed to like the series. But that aside, it turned out to be a good reading experience for me. It’s a well-written series with a very strong sense of context. And Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev is a well-drawn protagonist with some solid layers.

The same thing can happen when you step outside your usual sub-genre. For example, if you’re most comfortable reading cosy mysteries, you could discover a well-written police procedural series such as Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss series. Or you might find you really enjoy Andrea Camilleri’s Commissario Salvo Montalbano series. Now admittedly, those series tend to include more violence (‘though it’s not generally gratuitous) and rougher language than a lot of cosies have, but you could find yourself becoming a fan.

 

You can come back to your usual reading with more zest.

It’s true. When you read an author whose work is new to you, one of a few things will happen. One possibility is that you’ll really like the author’s work. That’s what happened a few years ago when I first read Adrian Hyland’s excellent Emily Tempest novels (A-hem, Mr. Hyland – waiting for Emily Tempest #3….. ). In those novels, there’s a strong sense of place and culture, a set of solid and believable mysteries and some well-drawn characters. That’s enough to get a reader optimistic about the genre in general, and that optimism stays with you when you return to authors whose work you’ve already found you liked.

Another possibility is that you don’t like the author you’ve sampled. How’s that an advantage? How does that give you “reading energy?” Perhaps I’m being idealistic here, but when that happens, it can give the reader a greater appreciation for the good books that are out there. And a good lesson not to read that particular author’s work again.

 

More authors get their work “out there.”

When crime fiction fans are willing to experiment and try new authors and sub-genres, that makes it possible for more authors to have their work read. For many authors who aren’t exactly “household names” that’s awfully important. And for a talented but little-known author, an open-minded audience who’s willing to take a chance on an “unknown” can make all the difference in the world.

 

Disadvantages of Trying New Authors or Sub-Genres

 

You could be badly “burned.”

You know what I mean here if you’ve ever taken a chance on an author only to send that book directly to the DNF pile. No-one likes to feel that sense of having wasted time on a bad book. I know I don’t.  And if you’ve bought the book (rather than borrowed it from the library, for instance) it’s even more frustrating because you’ve spent money on a bad experience. And when you try a new author, even after getting a recommendation from a trusted source, there’s no guarantee you’ll like that author’s work. It’s a risk you take and sometimes it doesn’t pay off.

 

One bad experience could put you off an entire sub-genre.

Suppose you read a legal thriller that you dislike heartily. You might then decide never to read another legal mystery or thriller again. The trouble with that is that you’d miss some entries into that sub-genre that are truly well-written, such as Scott Turow’s work or that of Philip Margolin. There are other fine authors of legal thrillers and mysteries too whose work you wouldn’t experience. The same is true of any other sub-genre, and missing out on a good reading experience is a loss.

 

You can’t read everything – even if you only read well-written books.

That means that if you make a habit of trying new-to-you authors and sub-genres, you may not have the time to keep up with the authors and series you like best. Some readers face this challenge by having one book on the bedstand, one in the audio or MP3 player and one on the e-reader. But even so, adding new authors and sub-genres also adds to the time needed to read. And let’s not even discuss one’s book budget…

But on balance, there are, at least in my opinion, a lot more reasons to take a chance on a new-to-you author than not to do so. That’s especially true if that author comes recommended by a trusted source. But what’s your view? Are you generally a person who likes to try new authors? Have you been “burned” enough that you shy away? How do you balance trying a new author with keeping up with your favourites?

 

 

On Another Note….

 

Want a great way to encourage yourself to try a new author?? Why not join the 2012 Crime Fiction Alphabet meme? Thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, this year’s Crime Fiction Alphabet journey leaves the station on Monday, 21 May. I’ve found this particular meme to be great fun and it does push me to read authors whose work is new to me and to re-visit stories I’ve loved. What’s not to like??

Want to join the fun? Want to stretch yourself as a reader? You know you do!!

Check out the announcement and get your ticket!

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from America’s Lonely People.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Andrea Camilleri, Helene Tursten, Phillip Margolin, Scott Turow, William Ryan

>People, You’ve Got the Power Over What We Do*

>As any crime fiction fan can tell you, there isn’t just one kind of crime fiction. There are lots of sub-genres, and in many ways, that’s a good thing. There’s something for just about anyone’s taste within the genre, so readers will probably find something they’ll like, and writers will probably find an audience for the kind of crime fiction they want to write. Because there’s such a variety in crime fiction, readers, publishers and agents rely on subcategories such as cosy, noir, and police procedural. Those categories are really useful in helping readers to choose the kind of book they want – a book that will match their tastes. They’re also useful for publishers, booksellers and agents; categories help in marketing. In a very interesting blog post, Alan Orloff makes the point that authors also need to pay attention to the sub-genre they’ve chosen; they need to know the audience for that sub-genre and they need to know what the conventions are for that sub-genre. He’s got a well-taken point. If you’ve ever chosen a book by a thriller writer and discovered that this particular book was really a cosy, you know what I mean. If you’ve ever looked for a book by a cosy author and found that the book was really a dark, bleak police procedural, you also know what I mean. Does this mean that crime fiction authors can’t try different kinds of novels? No. As a matter of fact, sometimes it adds a refreshing dose of innovation to a series if the author tries something a little different. It does mean, though, that it’s important for an author to be aware of what the audience expects from a cosy, a police procedural, a psychological thriller or whatever other sub-genre the author chooses.

Here are just a few examples of what I mean. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of more than I could.

The Cosy

People who prefer cosy mysteries are, in general, most interested in characters and settings. Although they know that murder is tragic, sometimes gory and always horrible, they aren’t as interested in the graphic details of a murder. Although they’re not necessarily prudes, cosy readers aren’t interested in a lot of obscene language or explicit sex. Instead, they like the interplay of characters, an interesting setting and of course, a good mystery to solve.

For instance, the Memphis Barbecue series by Riley Adams (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) features interesting, even quirky characters. There’s Lulu Taylor, who owns Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, one of Memphis’ most popular barbecue restaurants. She herself is an interesting character. The members of her family, and the “regulars” at the restaurant are also interesting and lively. For example, in Delicious and Suspicious, we meet a group of volunteers at Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. Nicknamed The Graces, they’re varied, quirky and lively. The Taylor family and the “regulars” get caught up in a murder investigation when Rebecca Adrian, a scout for the Cooking Channel, is poisoned after eating a meal at Aunt Pat’s. Lulu Taylor wants to salvage her restaurant’s (and her family’s) reputation, so she decides to find out who killed Adrian. Besides the mystery, the characters and the Beale Street, Memphis setting are also strong elements in this novel.

The Police Procedural

Police procedural fans enjoy the details of a police investigation. They don’t mind grit and gore as long as it’s not gratuitous, and they generally like complex characters. They prefer real-life, authentic portraits of police work and they are not impressed with “magical” solutions to the case that’s the focus of the novel. They prefer the pieces to come together in a realistic way.

There are a lot of well-regarded police procedural series, so I’m not being fair at all by using just a few as examples. However, Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series and Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series demonstrate the kind of focus on complex characters and the details of an investigation that police procedural fans like. What’s interesting about these two particular series is that they’re quite different. Mankell and Camilleri have different writing styles and focus on different things. However, in both series, we follow the police as they make their investigations. We see how cases are solved by police teamwork and not by one person’s brilliant deductions. Fans of those series see the characters evolve, and both series have a sense of realism about them.

It’s not doing real justice to the sub-genre to include the forensics procedural in this category, but in some ways, it’s quite similar to the police procedural. Fans of forensics procedurals also like the details of an investigation. They like their characters complex, their cases solved in realistic ways by hard work and team effort, and like fans of police procedurals, they don’t mind grit if it is important to the plot.

The Thriller

There are several different kinds of thrillers, of course. There are psychological thrillers such as those written by Ruth Rendell and her alter ego Barbara Vine. There are legal thrillers such as those of Phillip Margolin. There are spy thrillers, too, such as those by John le Carré. And I’ve only mentioned a few. Thriller fans like lots of twists, turns and surprises. They like a fast pace and action to the plot. This doesn’t mean that there has to be a gun battle or car chase on every page; in fact, that quickly becomes clichéd. But thriller fans like things to move along. Like fans of some other sub-genres, they don’t mind gore, sex or grit if it serves the plot well, but the best thrillers don’t rely on those devices to get readers to turn pages.

The Detective Novel

In a sense, most crime fiction novels are detective novels. After all, most crime fiction novels involve a crime, a person or people who committed the crime, and the detective who solves the crime. I’m referring here, though, to crime fiction where the focus is on one detective (as opposed to, say, a police precinct) and the way she or he solves crimes.

Detective novel fans often come to love a series because of the personality of the detective. They like to see the detective evolve over time, and they like the focus of the novel to be on the way the detective goes about his or her work. Detective novel fans like the characters they read about to have some depth. That said, though, it’s just as important that the mystery the detective is solving be an interesting, plausible story.

The detective novel has a very long history and there is a rich variety in this sub-genre, so there’s no way that I could possibly mention all of the successful detective series. Let me just refer to two examples. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford novels are all considered great detective novel series. Christie is better known for her genius at plotting than at real depth of character. That said though, millions of fans have become devotees of her sleuths and the ways in which they go about solving crimes.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series has won millions of fans as much because of Bosch’s character as anything else. Of course, fans of this series wouldn’t stay around of the plots and mysteries weren’t interesting and had no twists and turns. But Bosch’s complex character is an important focus of this series.

There are a lot of other sub-genres, such as noir and comic/caper crime novels that I haven’t had space to discuss. Fans of those sub-genres, too, have certain expectations of what they read. And there’s not enough space for me to detail everything that draws fans to cosies, thrillers, and so on. Does this mean that, say, there can’t be a car chase in a cosy novel? Or that a psychological thriller can’t have any quiet moments? I don’t think so. I can think of a lot of novels with what you might call “crossover” elements, and that’s one drawback of having categories; they can be limiting. But in general, crime fiction fans want certain things from the sub-genres they love. What about you? Do you choose novels by sub-genre? Or do you choose your novels by author? Does it put you off to choose a novel by sub-genre, only to find it to be quite different? If you’re a writer, how do you find out what your particular audience wants? How do you frame your work to fit what your audience wants?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jackson Browne’s The Load-Out/Stay

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Orloff, Andrea Camilleri, Barbara Vine, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Henning Mankell, John le Carré, Michael Connelly, Phillip Margolin, Riley Adams, Ruth Rendell