Category Archives: Robert B. Parker

I’m in a Playground in My Mind*

Fictional Places that Seem RealI’m going to let you in on a little secret if I may. It’s not always easy to create an entirely fictional place when you write. On the one hand, creating a fictional setting means that you don’t have to verify street names, local landmarks and the like. You can locate buildings, parks, streets and so on anywhere you like. And there’s no end to the possibilities for the kinds of characters you create.

But on the other hand, a completely fictional setting still has to be credible. Even readers who live in the region where the fictional town or city is located have to believe the place could really exist. The climate, the kinds of businesses, the pastimes and the character types have to ring true or readers won’t be drawn into the story. And if you write a series set in that fictional place, it has to change and evolve as the series goes on. That happens to real-life places. Buildings go up and are torn down. People move in and out. Businesses open, close and change. A fictional setting has to reflect that evolution if it’s to be believed.

Some authors have created fictional settings that are so authentic that people have believed they actually exist. For example, Agatha Christie created St. Mary Mead, the home of Katherine Grey in The Mystery of the Blue Train and later of course the home of Miss Jane Marple. Interesting that in a village like that, the two women never meet. Still, St. Mary Mead is a very credible kind of English village with a cast of ‘regular’ characters who fit in there. There’s the vicar Leonard Clement and his wife Griselda, there’s Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly, and there are others too. St. Mary Mead also changes as time goes by, as you would expect. That’s one of the themes for instance in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In that novel, council housing and other social changes have come to the village, and some residents aren’t too happy about them. Miss Marple takes the changes in stride but it’s clear that the village is evolving as real places do.

K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic series takes place in fictional Rocksburg, Pennsylvania. It’s a mining town in the western part of Pennsylvania and most of the characters there fit right in. Chief of Police Balzic for instance reflects the Polish-American and Italian-American influences in that region and the town residents tend to be working-class ‘regular folks.’ It’s a fictional town but the series reflects the culture, economy, character types and climate of that area. Trust me. To my knowledge (but please, correct me if I’m mistaken), Rocksburg is completely fictional. But it might be a real place for its authenticity.

That’s also true of Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham. Fans of her Inspector Reg Wexford series will know that most of the novels in it take place in this fictional town. It isn’t a real place, but it’s certainly authentic. In novels such as Road Rage and Simisola, we see the town adapt (or not) to social and other changes. The cast of ‘regulars’ is authentic; so are details such as climate, kinds of businesses and physical setting. Fans of the series will tell you that to them, Kingsmarkham might very well be an actual place. In fact, it’s said that Rendell once had to remind a reader that she created the place when that reader questioned her about it. I don’t have all of the details but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were true. Kingsmarkham is very genuine.

So is Three Pines, the rural Québec creation of Louise Penny.  As fans of this series will know, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec spends his share of time there. Beginning with Still Life, readers have gotten to know many of the locals very well. Gamache doesn’t live there, but he’s become one of them in his way. The place is authentic. It fits in with the region and it develops and evolves as the series goes on. Buildings change hands, people come and go, and there’s a cast of recurring characters that adds much to the authenticity of this fictional place. The climate and culture are also realistic. I would guess that plenty of people have done an Internet search for Three Pines, thinking they would find it on an actual map. Here’s what Penny says about the place:

 

‘I love Three Pines. I created it because I would want to live there.’

 

It may not be on maps, but it’s a believable town.

We could also say that about Vigàta, the fictional home of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Vigàta is located in Sicily and is based on Camilleri’s home town of Porto Empedocle. It’s not a real place, but it’s quite authentic. The trattorias, the buildings, the local culture and the character types ring very true, and that’s not just because it’s inspired by a real place. Camilleri creates an authentic sense of setting with the subtle and not-so-subtle details that make a place genuine.

There are other series too that are set in fictional towns based on real places. For example, Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series is set in Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan. That town is based on a real place, Wakaw, Saskatchewan. Robert B. Parker’s Paradise, Massachusetts is the home of his Jesse Stone series. Paradise is loosely based on Swamscott, Massachusetts. And fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series will know that Durant, Wyoming, the setting for those novels, is based on an actual place, Buffalo, Wyoming.

Plenty of cosy mystery series are also set in fictional places that feel quite real. Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series is like that. It’s set mostly in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ And Elizabeth Spann Craig’s got two series set in fictional towns in North Carolina. But those places seem genuine. They’re populated with believable characters, the places evolve as the series goes on, and the culture and climate reflect the region.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the Tilton Sentinel’s newest edition is out and I want to catch up on the news. :wink:  While I’m gone, feel free to share the fictional places that seem very real to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss’ Playground in My Mind.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Craig Johnson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, K.C. Constantine, Lilian Jackson Braun, Louise Penny, Nelson Brunanski, Robert B. Parker, Ruth Rendell

My Eyes Can Dimly See the Pattern of My Life*

PatternsDid you ever catch yourself in a pattern you hadn’t even been aware you had? We often have a patterned reaction to life because it’s easy, or it’s comfortable and familiar, or perhaps because it’s served an important purpose. And we get so accustomed to our patterns that we often aren’t even conscious that we have them. But sometimes our comfortable patterns don’t work any more. When that happens we have to learn to deal with life in new ways. And that can help us grow. It can also add some interest to fictional characters as they see that the same way they’ve always dealt with life doesn’t always work.

Sometimes of course, patterns of dealing with life can be dangerous. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia we meet Louise Leidner. She’s the wife of prominent archaeologist Eric Leidner and she’s accompanied him on an important dig a few hours from Baghdad. The team hasn’t been at the site long when Louise begins to have what many people call irrational fears. She says that she hears hands tapping on windows and sees grotesque faces looking in at her. Her husband hires a nurse Amy Leatheran to look after his wife and she learns that Louise fears for her life. She’s been receiving threatening letters that seem to come from her first husband, who she thought was dead. Then one afternoon Louise is bludgeoned to death. Hercule Poirot is in the area and is persuaded to investigate. He’s soon faced with several questions about the murder. Was the victim really killed by her former husband? If not, were the letters a blind? Did she write them herself in order to create drama? As Poirot sorts the case out we learn that there were several patterns to Louise Leidner’s life. Her interactions with people followed those particular patterns and in part that’s what led to her death.

Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone has had his share of damage in his life. And one of the patterns he’s used to cope with it is that he stays at least somewhat withdrawn in relationships. In some ways that’s been a successful strategy for him. His way of distancing himself makes it easier to do the hard things that cops have to do. For instance, in Night Passage, the first in Parker’s Jesse Stone series, Stone is hired as the new police chief in Paradise, Massachusetts. He thinks it will be a good chance to start life over. Having lost both his job with the L.A.P.D. and his marriage, Stone is looking for a new beginning. But he soon finds that being a cop in Paradise is anything but an easy job. It turns out that Stone was hired because the town’s leaders thought he’d be easy to manipulate. When Stone uncovers what’s going on, he needs his ability to ‘step back’ and not trust anyone as he finds out the truth. On the other hand, that pattern isn’t so useful in his personal life. It’s part of the reason for the breakup of his marriage and as the series goes on, we see how more than once, Stone’s pattern of withdrawal gets in the way of really sustaining a strong relationship.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman has a negative relationship with her parents for several good reasons. While she’s not obsessive about it, she also has no interest whatsoever in any contact with them. As she sees it, she has a good life (she has her own bakery, a good relationship with her lover Daniel Cohen, and a good circle of friends). But it’s all no thanks to her parents. Then, in Devil’s Food, Chapman’s mother suddenly shows up in her life. Chapman’s father has disappeared and her mother wants Chapman’s help finding him. Chapman’s first reaction is to follow the pattern that has so far served her well: avoidance. But she soon learns that avoidance isn’t going to work this time as her mother intends to stay in the area until her father is found. What’s more, one of the other residents of the building where Chapman lives and works offers to take her mother in for the time being. With few other options Chapman grudgingly begins to help in the search for her father. Bit by bit she develops a sort of détente with her mother. She also learns what’s happened to her father. At the end of the story, Chapman isn’t exactly ‘best buddies’ with her mother but she’s been able to re-think the pattern of simply avoiding any contact at all cost.

In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, beginning psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson has to re-think several patterns in her life. When she was fourteen, her younger sister Gemma was abducted. No trace of the child was ever found despite a massive hunt. Gemma’s loss devastated the family and is partly responsible for Anderson’s pattern of withdrawing from people – of not allowing herself to get close to them. In a lot of ways she’s aware of that pattern but for her it’s been a useful coping technique. She’s able to work with her patients because she doesn’t allow herself to get close. She can’t really face her own pain and sense of loss at Gemma’s disappearance so withdrawing helps her get through life without hurting too much or drowning herself in alcohol. For Anderson it’s not a bad pattern although it has cost her at least one serious relationship. Then she begins to work with a new patient Elizabeth Clark. Clark is still suffering the trauma of losing her own younger sister Gracie, who was, like Anderson’s sister, abducted. When Anderson hears Clark’s story she decides to lay her old ghosts to rest and find out who was responsible for both abductions. To do that she has to take several emotional risks and face the difficulty of getting close to some of the members of her family again as well as getting closer to Clark than professional ethics would normally dictate. But Anderson has found that her pattern of staying removed from people simply won’t work any more. As she slowly finds out the truth about what happened to her sister, she also learns some new ways of dealing with life.

Håkan Nesser’s Intendant Münster has a pattern of relying on his boss Inspector Van Veeteren. That pattern makes sense for a lot of reasons. After all, Van Veeteren is the boss. Besides, he has real intuition for detection and an awful lot of skill. Münster is neither stupid nor lacking in insight. But he’s fallen into a pattern of discussing cases with his boss, getting Van Veeteren’s views, insights and so on and going from there. But then Münster has to re-think his patterns, at least to some extent. Van Veeteren leaves the police force and becomes an owner of a bookshop, which is something he’s wanted to do for a long time. So in The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Fall/ Münster’s Case), Münster has to take on the murder of Waldemar Leverkuhn himself. He certainly works with a team, and as I say, he’s no mental slouch. But it’s obvious that he has gotten used to depending on Van Veeteren. And what’s interesting is that Van Veeteren has gotten used to it and to detection too. A few times during this novel he and Münster discuss the case, and he gives Münster some valuable perspective.

And then there’s Julie Smith’s Louisiana Bighot which features New Orleans PI Talba Wallis. Wallis works for E.V. Anthony Investigations when she’s not writing poetry and doing readings. When Wallis is hired to find out whether her friend Babalu Maya’s fiancé Jason is cheating, Wallis has no idea that this case is going to lead to murder, corruption and more. When Wallis doesn’t want to deal with something difficult, even she admits that she ‘turtles,’ or goes into her proverbial shell. She avoids unpleasant confrontations if she can and drags her feet as the saying goes. And she tends to freeze up emotionally when she can’t avoid a confrontation. We see that for instance when she has to tell Babalu that Jason has been unfaithful. We see it again when Babalu is murdered and Jason is accused of the crime. It’s a lot more complicated though than a case of an angry fiancé who kills the woman he’s supposedly going to marry. Throughout the novel, as Wallis deals with the various threads of this case, she has to force herself not to rely on ‘turtling’ to get her through. But as we learn a little about her backstory, we also see why she has that pattern. It’s not an irrational way to deal with life, but it doesn’t work in this case.

And that’s the thing about a lot of the patterns we develop. It’s not that they’re necessarily bad or wrong. They may in fact be very useful. But sometimes, our comfortable familiar patterns don’t serve our purpose. And that’s when we find out what we’re capable of learning.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Patterns.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Julie Smith, Kerry Greenwood, Paddy Richardson, Robert B. Parker

I’m Gonna Reach*

I haven’t tried it yet (‘though I may at some point in the future) but I know of several crime fiction authors who have more than one series. Sometimes the protagonists in those series aren’t very similar at all. Other times they’re more similar. Sometimes the settings are similar and sometimes less so. It’s an interesting question really (at least to me): how much should an author “branch out” and create very different protagonists and settings. Doing so can risk losing readers who are loyal to a particular series. But not doing so can mean that readers miss out on a terrific new series and character. It’s not an easy question and it involves among other things the way authors brand themselves.

For example, in some ways, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple novels are similar, but in many ways they’re quite different. And of course Poirot and Miss Marple are very different characters. Where Poirot is a professional detective, Miss Marple is an amateur. Poirot travels among the highest social circles whereas Miss Marple doesn’t spend as much time among the “upper crust.” Miss Marple rarely leaves her village of St. Mary Mead for long, whereas Poirot travels frequently. There are stark differences in their personalities too as well as other differences in terms of plots, regular characters and so on. One could add here too that both of those series are different to Christie’s series featuring Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Christie kept all three series going throughout her writing life and her fans have strong loyalties to one or another of her sleuths.

Even more different are Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie and Mma. Precious Ramotswe. Dalhousie is an Edinburgh philosopher and editor of the Journal of Applied Ethics. Mma. Ramotswe lives and works in Botswana, where she owns the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. In some ways these two series have some similarities; both give the reader a strong sense of place and context, and both are slower-moving series. While the Isabel Dalhousie series is a bit more so, both series are almost philosophical in nature rather than action-oriented. And yet the two protagonists are very, very different people. They’ve had quite different life experiences and interact with people in different ways.

You could say the same thing about M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth series. Raisin is the owner of a Cotswolds private detective agency. Macbeth is the constable of Lochdubh, Scotland. Both series offer a strong sense of place and some interesting and quirky characters. But the two protagonists are quite different. Where Raisin wants to solve mysteries, Macbeth would rather go fishing. Macbeth fits in very comfortably in his surroundings and often uses his depth of knowledge about the locals to help solve cases. It’s not that Raisin has no friends but, well, she tends to be cranky and not easy to get on with so she doesn’t have a comfortable fit with as many people as Macbeth does. There are other differences between the series too so that Beaton fans often have a preferences for one or the other.

And then there’s Martin Edwards’ Harry Devlin and Daniel Kind/Hannah Scarlett series. These two series feature very different settings and kinds of people. Harry Devlin is a Liverpool attorney whose cases often take him into some of the not-so-nice areas of the city. He’s a bit of a ‘down and outer’ himself, so he can sympathise with some of the people he encounters. On the other hand Daniel Kind is an Oxford historian who’s enjoyed some professional success, and Scarlett is a DCI with the Cumbria Constabulary. In background, temperament and outlook these sleuths are quite different. But the differences between the series don’t end there. The Kind/Scarlett series takes place in the Lakes District, a very different setting to Liverpool. And the cases the sleuths investigate are therefore also quite different. Moreover, since Scarlett heads the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review team, the cases in the Lake District series are more closely linked to cases from the past than are the cases in the Liverpool series.

There are other authors too, such as Margaret Maron, Ann Cleeves and Val McDermid, who’ve written different kinds of series with very different kinds of protagonists. Branching out like that can win an author new fans and can allow the author to experiment.

Many authors choose to create multiple series that are a little more similar. And that makes sense. Fans of one series have a good sense of what sort of series the new one will be, so they’re more likely to stay loyal to the author. The author has an easier time of branding too. For instance, Elizabeth Spann Craig is the author of not one, not two, but three cosy series. Under her own name she writes the Myrtle Clover series that takes place in Bradley, North Carolina and the Southern Quilting Mystery series featuring former art dealer Beatrice Coleman that takes place in Dappled Hills, North Carolina. As Riley Adams she writes the Memphis Barbecue series featuring restaurateur Lulu Taylor. In some ways, these series are different. For instance the Memphis Barbecue series takes place in a large city while the others do not. And the protagonists have different sorts of personalities, job histories and backstories. But all three protagonists are educated Southern women who’ve finished raising their children and are in the second halves of their lives. They’re all amateur sleuths, and each of them is in her own way very family-oriented.

James Lee Burke is perhaps best-known for his Dave Robicheaux series and rightly so. But he’s also written a series featuring former attorney and now Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland. Fans of the Robicheaux series know that Robicheaux is a Louisiana cop, so in the sense of setting, the two series are different. There are also differences in the kinds of cases Robicheaux and Holland investigate.  But there are some real similarities between them too. Both protagonists deal with the trauma and stress of having seen combat during war. They are both widowers as well and have to cope with that loss. Both series feature not just the solving of crimes but, if I might put it this way, a search for redemption. Both Robicheaux and Hackberry are very flawed characters and in doing their jobs, they’re trying to live with themselves. And then there’s of course Burke’s memorable writing style…

What’s your take on multiple series? What about series such as Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Jesse Stone series, or Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher and Corinna Chapman series, where there are some real differences but also some underlying similarities? Do you prefer an author’s multiple series to have a lot of similarities? If an author whose work you like branches out into something completely different, are you disposed to like that change? If you’re a writer, how far out are you willing to branch?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Gorka’s Branching Out.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Ann Cleeves, Elzabeth Spann Craig, James Lee Burke, Kerry Greenwood, M.C. Beaton, Margaret Maron, Martin Edwards, Riley Adams, Robert B. Parker, Val McDermid

I Know That It’s Time For a Cool Change*

Did you ever have the urge to make a major change in your life? Sometimes people make those big changes because they’re not happy with the way their lives are going (a job one dislikes for instance). Sometimes a tragedy or setback such as a death or job loss can force a major change. Either way, making a major change can be just as challenging as it can be positive.  Even if it’s a change for the better, and a change one’s chosen, it’s never easy to leave a familiar way of living life. And that’s part of what can make that kind of major change an interesting backdrop or plot point for a crime fiction novel. The anxiety of a major change (and sometimes the reasons for it) can add an interesting thread of suspense to a story.

For example, Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia begins with a major change in the life of Amy Leatheran, who works at Miss Bendix’s Nursing Home. One of her maternity patients, a Mrs. Kelsey, is moving with her husband and brand-new baby to Iraq, and Leatheran accompanies her to look after the baby. Once they arrive in Baghdad, the family no longer needs Leatheran’s services so she plans at first to return to England. Then she gets an interesting proposition. Dr. Giles Reilly, whom she meets in Baghdad, is acquainted with a noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, who’s leading a dig team about four hours from Baghdad. Leidner is in need of a nurse/companion for his wife Louise, who’s been troubled by what some people call fancies: hands tapping at windows, faces looking into windows and so on. Reilly thinks that Leatheran may be the right choice for this position, so he puts the idea to her. After a bit of thought she agrees to make this change. And it is a major change. Leatheran’s used to living in England and it’s hard to get accustomed to the different lifestyle and culture she encounters in Iraq. But she’s not the fearful kind, so she plunges into her new work. Then one afternoon Louise Leidner is killed by a blow to the head. Hercule Poirot is travelling in the area on his way back to London. He’s persuaded to take a little time and investigate the murder. He finds that Louise Leidner’s fears were based on her past, and that her past has a lot to do with the murder.

Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone finds he has to make some major changes in Night Passage. He and his wife Jenn have ended their marriage, and although they both knew the marriage wasn’t healthy, they both have to deal with their feelings for each other. Stone deals with his by drinking. A lot. In fact he drinks his way out of his job as an L.A.P.D. homicide cop. He gets a chance for a fresh start when he is interviewed for the job as chief of police of Paradise, Massachusetts. It’s a small town on the other side of the continent and it’s about as different from his L.A. life as one can get. Even though he shows up drunk for the interview, Stone is surprisingly offered the job and takes it. He starts over in Paradise only to find that he’s plunged into something very ugly. First he gets into a feud with local thug JoJo Genest. Then, the body of a young woman is discovered. In the meantime, Stone finds proof of what he’s suspected: he wasn’t exactly hired to perform high-quality police service. He was hired because the town council thought he would be easily manipulated. They’re wrong though and in the end, Stone uncovers what’s really going on in Paradise and how that is connected with the death and with the reason the town needed a new police chief in the first place.

In Rebecca Tope’s A Cotswold Killing, Thea Osborne has to face another kind of change. A year ago her husband Carl was killed by a careless driver and she’s been grieving since that time. As she slowly starts to deal with the loss, Thea decides to make a major change and take up a job as a professional house-sitter. Her first clients are Clive and Jennifer Reynolds, who live in the Cotswold village of Duntisbourne Abbots. They’re going on a three-week cruise and are very anxious that everything should run smoothly at the house. Thea takes the job but it’s soon clear that this isn’t an ordinary house-sitting job. Clive Reynolds has given her a long list of exhaustively detailed instructions for just about everything in the house, garden, yard and fields. Thea’s a little put off by the long and particular “to-do” list but she gets started. On the first afternoon, she gets a visit from a neighbour Joel Jennison, who says that he’s stopped by to let her know where they are if she needs anything. Sometime late that night, Jennison is murdered and his body left in the pond at the Reynolds’ home. Thea knows nothing about detection but she is curious and besides, Joel Jennison was the only villager who’d taken the time to welcome her. So she begins to ask questions. Thea soon finds that Jennison’s brother Paul was killed only six months earlier. Now it seems as though something strange and very, very dangerous is going on in this village and that one of the reasons the locals are cold to her is that they know more than they’re saying.

A family death also brings great change for Alan Orloff’s Josh Handleman in Diamonds for the Dead. Handleman lives in San Francisco where his life is at a crossroads. His marriage has ended and so has his job. Then he gets word that his father Abe has died after a fall down the stairs at the family home in Virginia. So Handleman goes to Virginia to plan his father’s funeral and settle his estate. That’s when one of Abe Handleman’s friends tells Josh that his father’s death was not an accident – he was murdered. What’s more, Josh discovers that his father had a cache of very valuable jewels, and they’ve disappeared. Now he’s anxious about his future, dealing with his feelings about his father’s death and trying to find out who killed his father.

In Martin Edwards’ The Coffin Trail, we meet Oxford historian Daniel Kind. He’s become very successful not only as a scholar but also as a television personality. Then his girlfriend Aimee commits suicide and Kind has to entirely re-think his life. He meets a new woman Miranda and they begin a relationship. Kind needs a major change in his life so he and Miranda take Tarn Cottage in the Lakes District, hoping to settle into a quieter life away from the stress and frantic pace of life in London. In the meantime, DCI Hannah Scarlett is facing a major change of her own. She’s been named to head the newly-created Cold Case Review team. Although it’s seen as a demotion, Scarlett is a dedicated cop and wants to do her best. She and her team take up the case of the murder of Gabrielle Anders, whose body was found on an old sacrificial stone near the village of Brackdale. At the time of Anders’ death, everyone thought she was killed by Barrie Gilpin, who himself was killed in a tragic fall not long afterwards. Scarlett has never thought Gilpin killed Anders. So she and her team look into both deaths. As it turns out, Tarn Cottage used to belong to Barrie Gilpin and Kind even knew Gilpin. So in his own way, Kind gets involved in this murder investigation too. The anxiety both Scarlett and Kind feel about the changes in their lives add a thread of interest and suspense to this novel.

Simon Beckett’s forensic anthropologist David Hunter has to face that same anxiety at change in Whispers of the Dead. Hunter feels strongly the need to get out of his native London for a time. His relationship with his girlfriend Jenny has ended although he still has feelings for her. And because of the events in Written in Bone, the previous entry in this series, Hunter has the need to heal both physically and psychologically. So he decides to do some research at Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory. He’s settling in for his stay there when a decomposed body is found near a remote cabin not far from the laboratory. Then another body is found. Now Hunter finds himself involved in a complicated investigation that will use all of his forensics skills.

And…speaking of major changes and things new, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s new series has just been launched! Today is the release date for Quilt or Innocence, the first in her Beatrice Coleman series. In that novel, Beatrice Coleman has just retired from her career in Atlanta. She takes the opportunity that major change brings and moves to Dappled Hills, North Carolina, to be near her daughter Piper. Her plans to settle into a more relaxed lifestyle and enjoy retirement soon get scuttled when she is “volunteered” for the local quilting guild. It’s not long before Coleman finds out that the members of this guild do as much mean-spirited gossiping and backstabbing as they do quilting. Then one day she finds the body of one of the guild members. As if that’s not enough she herself begins to get threatening notes. It seems that someone is targeting the guild members, so Coleman has to find out who the guild’s enemy is before she becomes the next victim. Congratulations, Elizabeth, on your release and I wish you much success. Folks, if Elizabeth’s other two series, her Myrtle Clover series and her Memphis Barbecue series (which she writes as Riley Adams) are any indication, this is going to be a fine cosy series!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Little River Band’s Cool Change.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Orloff, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Martin Edwards, Rebecca Tope, Riley Adams, Robert B. Parker, Simon Beckett

In The Spotlight: Robert B. Parker’s Night Passage

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Robert B. Parker was one of the most influential of modern-day crime fiction authors. His Spenser, Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall series won him (still do) millions of fans and this series can only be enhanced by a look at his work. So today, let’s take a closer look at the first of Parker’s Jesse Stone series, Night Passage.

Night Passage begins with a major change in Jesse Stone’s life. He’s an L.A.P.D. Homicide cop who’s succeeded in drinking himself out of a job. Part of the reason for that is the breakup of his marriage, and his divorce is another impetus to make a complete break with the life he’s known. Stone gets an interview for the position of Chief of Police in the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts. Even though he’s drunk at the interview, Stone is surprisingly offered the job and he accepts it. He moves across the country hoping for a chance to put his life back together.

What Stone expects to be an easy job soon turns out to be anything but a “cake walk.” For one thing, he soon earns the enmity of local thug JoJo Genest when Genest’s wife Carole calls the police with a complaint that Genest violated a restraining order. When Stone puts Genest in his place, so to speak, in front of Carole, Genest considers this a personal affront. So he’s only too happy to make Stone’s life as miserable as possible and it’s not long before he starts to do just that.

As if that weren’t enough, Stone soon learns that the Paradise town council, led by selectman Hastings “Hasty” Hathaway, didn’t exactly hire him to provide quality police service. They wanted to hire someone who would be easy to manipulate. Stone knows that the town leaders were aware of his drinking problem when they hired him, but it’s not until he gets settled in that he begins to learn why he was chosen. What Hathaway and the other leaders of the town learn that Stone is no patsy, things begin to get more uncomfortable for Stone. He slowly begins to dig into the truth about some things going on in town and as he gets closer to what’s really going on, he also finds things getting more dangerous for him.

Then there’s a murder. Stone and his team look into the killing and it’s not long before Stone connects it to another death and to some other things that town leaders have been hiding, as well as to the reason the town needed a new police chief in the first place. In the end, Stone uncovers the truth about the deaths and at the same time, finds himself settling in to his new role.

One element that runs through this novel is a sense of irony. The very job and setting that Stone thought would help him find some peace turn out to be exactly the opposite. But the irony goes even deeper. The very qualities that make Stone an excellent cop and a formidable opponent are damaging to his personal life. Stone trusts absolutely no-one, not even himself entirely. He keeps himself psychologically and emotionally distant from everyone. On one hand, that protects him as he goes up against the town leaders and JoJo Genest. On the other, he’s unable to reach out easily. There are other examples of irony in the novel too.

Stone’s character is also an important element in the novel. He is too heavy a drinker and he carries quite a lot of emotional baggage. So does his ex-wife Jenn. But Stone is refreshingly free of the wallowing and self-destructive behaviour that we see in so many novels. He is reflective and intelligent so he can see what his life has become. He admits his weaknesses and in the end, simply does the best that he can. On a personal level he fumbles his way through the rawness and pain of a recent divorce, as well as a “rebound” sort of relationship with Abby Taylor, the town’s legal advisor. And yet those difficulties don’t keep Stone mired; he gets on with his life.

Professionally, Stone is organised, methodical but not slow, and intuitive. The town leaders don’t expect him to be as perceptive as he turns out to be, either. Stone’s approach to solving the cases gives the novel a hint of the police procedural, but unlike some police procedurals, we know who the “bad guys” are fairly early on. The suspense in the novel doesn’t come from trying to find out whodunit or even whydunit. The reader is privy to those things. Rather, the suspense comes from the “cat and mouse” game between Stone and his enemies. And it’s not hard to cheer for Stone as he unravels the mystery. We can see, too, how he inspires loyalty in many of the people who work for him, and that loyalty pays off handsomely.

Although the novel isn’t what you’d call light, there is a thread of humour running through it, too. At one point, for instance, Stone and Abby are discussing Stone’s feud with JoJo Genest:

 

“‘Jenn said I was very fierce.’ [Stone]
Abby nodded. ‘Something like that. I suppose you need to be that way if you’re a policeman.’
‘Maybe I’m a policeman because I’m that way,’ Jesse said.
‘And that’s why you’re not scared of JoJo.’
Jesse smiled.
‘It is prudent to be scared of JoJo. It would also be prudent of JoJo to be scared of me.’”

 

That passage also gives a taste of Parker’s spare, efficient style. Like his sleuth, Parker doesn’t waste words, and that’s part of what keeps the pace and flow of the story moving.

Oh, and one final point is worth making. What’s not to like about a novel that includes lyrics from a Billy Joel song? Really.  Here’s Stone’s thought early in the novel as he’s contemplating leaving Los Angeles:

 

“Say goodbye to Hollywood, say goodbye my baby.”

 

That’s from Billy Joel’s Say Goodbye to Hollywood. See what I mean? :-)

Night Passage features a damaged protagonist who makes no excuses, asks for no pity and simply tries his best to put his life together. The mystery makes sense and the plot doesn’t ask us to stretch our sense of disbelief. There’s also a solid sense of place and a touch of humour. But what’s your view? Have you read Night Passage? What elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 14 May/Tuesday 15 May – Ripley Under Ground – Patricia Highsmith

Monday 21 May/Tuesday 22 May – Never Apologise, Never Explain – James Craig

Monday 28 May/Tuesday 29 May – The Ice Princess – Camilla Läckberg

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