Category Archives: Ruth Rendell

Never Mind, I’ll Be Around*

Staying AroundAn interesting review from FictionFan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking about how we invest ourselves in fictional characters. The review itself isn’t precisely about that, but one of the (well-taken) points that FictionFan makes has to do with learning about things before they’ve actually happened. You’ll most definitely want to visit FictionFan’s great blog and see for yourself why it’s a must-have on your blog roll.

Right. Investing ourselves in fictional characters. If you know a fictional character is going to die, does that affect the way you think about that character, and how invested you are in the plot? Are you willing to stay around? It’s tricky to invite readers along for the ride, so to speak, if they already know a key piece of information such as, ‘X is going to be the (first) victim.’ When the author makes that choice, there need to be other aspects of the novel that keep the reader engaged and absorbed and wanting to know more.

Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress begins at the trial of Elinor Carlisle. She’s been charged with the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard. So we know right from the start that Mary is at least one victim in that novel. Then, the novel ‘flashes back’ to the beginning of the series of events that led up to this trial. We learn that Mary is the daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury, the home of the Welman family. Elinor’s aunt, wealthy Laura Welman, has taken a real interest in Mary and paid to have her educated. In fact, Elinor receives an anyonymous note warning her that Mary may be playing on the old lady’s feelings in order to benefit from her will. Elinor isn’t greedy, but she is very accustomed to a comfortable life. So she and her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman travel to Hunterbury to visit Aunt Laura and, if they’re being honest, to see how much truth there is to the note. They renew their acquaintance with Mary during their visit, and to Elinor’s chagrin, Roddy is soon besotted with her. In fact, Elinor and Roddy end their engagement. Then, Aunt Laura dies. Shortly afterwards, Mary is killed. There’s ample evidence against Elinor, but local GP Dr. Peter Lord wants her name cleared. So he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. In this novel, we don’t learn anything about Mary until after we know she is going to die. The suspense lies in what the outcome of the trial will be, and whether Elinor is or is not really guilty.

We know from the first sentence of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone that the members of the Coverdale family will be killed. We are even told who the killer is. It’s not until after learning this that we find out that George and Jacqueline Coverdale are well-off, well-educated people who are looking to hire a new housekeeper. Without doing much background research (quite different to today’s searches), they hire Eunice Parchman. She begins her duties and all seems to go well enough at first. But Eunice is hiding a secret – something she is desperate that the family not discover. When one of the family members accidentally finds out what Eunice is hiding, this spells disaster for everyone. In the end, it costs the lives of George, Jacqueline, George’s daughter Melinda and Jacqueline’s son Giles. In this novel, the suspense is built, and the reader is invited to stay around, as we learn about Eunice’s background, and as the Coverdale family gets unwittingly closer and closer to their fate.

In L.R. Wright’s The Suspect, we are told right from the beginning of the story that eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke is the murder victim. We know who the killer is too; he is eighty-year-old George Wilcox. One might ask the question, then: if we know Burke is the victim, why get invested? Why follow along? In this novel, Wright invites the reader to become invested by slowly revealing those two characters’ histories. As RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg and his team investigate, we learn bit by bit how the two elderly men know each other and what their relationship has been like. It’s that history that has ultimately led to the killing, and since Wright reveals it layer by layer, the reader is invited to get more and more engaged as the story goes on.

Liza Marklund’s The Bomber also informs the reader, right from the start, who is going to be killed. In that story, Stockholm is slated to host the Olympic Games and, as you can imagine, a lot’s at stake with the upcoming competition. So it’s an especially terrible shock when a bomb goes off in Olympic Village. It’s an even greater shock when the body of civic leader Christine Furhage is pulled from the wreckage. Terrorism is suspected at first, especially since the victim was instrumental in bringing the Olympics to Stockholm. Soon, though, other possibilities arise. Journalist Annika Bengtzon and her team follow the case and investigate to find out who killed Christine Furhage, and why. In this novel, we know from the beginning who the victim will be. But Marklund reveals her character and history more slowly, inviting the reader to stay around and become invested in her (or choose to dislike her) as the story goes on.

David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight is the story of the murder of brothel owner Ruby Devine. It’s the mid-1970s in Perth, and Superintendent Frank Swann has returned to town after some years away. He’s come back because he was friends with the victim although they were on opposite sides of the law. And it’s not long before he begins to suspect that the crime was the work of a corrupt group of police officers known as ‘the purple circle.’ It’s going to be hard to prove, though. For one thing, the ‘purple circle’ has a bad reputation for making life truly awful for anyone who gets in their way. For another, there’s an unwritten code that police protect each other. Swann has already called for a Royal Commission hearing on corruption in the ‘purple circle’ so as it is, he’s a ‘dead man walking.’ But he persists and in the end, he does find out who killed the victim and why. We know from the first page of the story that Ruby Devine is the victim. But as Swann talks to her friends, her partner and her business associates, we get a more complete picture of what she was like. And that invites readers to care about her (or choose to dislike her).

And then there’s T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton. Elton Spears is a young man with mental problems who’s had more than one brush with the law. So when evidence connects him to the murder of Sarena Gunasekera, everyone thinks he’s the murderer. But solicitor Jim Harwood has worked with Spears before and knows the young man. So he takes Spears’ case and works with barrister Harry Douglas to defend him at trial. In this story, we know from very early on – before we know anything about her – that Sarena Gunasekera is killed. So on the surface, it might seem that it would be difficult to become invested in her and care why she was murdered, much less stay around for the rest of the story. But Cooke invites the reader to do that by making her character just enigmatic enough to be interesting, and by revealing aspects of that character a little at a time.

So, does knowing a character is going to be a victim make one less invested in that character? It can. When that information isn’t well-managed, it can amount to spoiling the story. But if it’s handled effectively, authors can do several things to encourage readers to stay around and remain interested, even in characters they know are not long for this world.

Thanks, FictionFan, for the inspiration!
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The North’s Any Days Fine.

12 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wiilson, L.R. Wright, Liza Marklund, Ruth Rendell, T.J. Cooke

They Paved the Way For Generations*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pdjames

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

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

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

28 Comments

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

Don’t Go Around Tonight*

Scarey StoriesA really interesting post by Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about really frightening stories. You know, the ones you can’t put down, but at the same time, scare the wits out of you. Of course, each of us is frightened by different things, so the stories that have scared you probably won’t be the stories that have scared me.

That said though, and because it’s Hallowe’en, here are a few stories that I found really chilling:
 

The Fall of the House of Usher – Edgar Allan Poe

You’ll probably already know that this is the story of Roderick Usher and his sister Madeleine. Usher is suffering from several complications from anxiety disorders; Madeleine is also ill and seems to fall have catalyptic seizures. Usher writes to a friend – the narrator of the story – asking for his help. The narrator arrives and right away is sobered by the grim physical and psychical atmosphere of the home. But he settles in and tries to help his friend. Little by little, the house and grounds seem to take on an eerie life of their own, and although the narrator doesn’t quite want to believe Usher’s claim that the house is sentient, some strange things begin to happen. It all ends in tragedy, and to me, what’s creepiest about this story is how things we imagine can take on lives of their own. In this case, they turn out to be all too real, but even when they aren’t, the mind can conjure up some terrible things.
 

The Trial – Franz Kafka

This is the story of Josef K., an ordinary enough junior bank manager who is accused of a crime by two unidentified agents. They won’t detail the crime, nor will they tell him who employs them. K. isn’t imprisoned, but he is told to wait for further instructions from the Committee of Affairs. K. is summoned to a hearing, but every indication is that he will not really have a chance to make his case – that he has no idea what he might have done wrong, and that the court has made a mistake. Everything about the hearing seems engineered against him. He hires an Advocate who ends up doing no good, and as the story goes on, matters spin more and more out of control. As those who’ve read this story know, the more K. tries to make sense of it all and find out the truth, the more surreal things get, and the more obvious it is that there is only one fate for him. And that’s part of what’s very chilling about this story: that lack of control. There’s also a haunting question of what is and isn’t real, as well as the question of whether our fates are decided for us.
 

The Lottery – Shirley Jackson

This short story takes place in what seems like a normal small town. Everyone’s gathering for an annual lottery, a town tradition. The way the lottery works, each family chooses a member to draw from a black wooden box – the same box that has been used for the lottery since anyone can remember. The story follows the fortunes of one particular family that’s drawn this year’s ticket. It’s hard to say more without spoiling the story for those who haven’t read it. I can say this though: what’s chilling about the story is how normal everything seems.
 

Don’t Look Behind You – Fredric Brown

Brown involves the reader directly in this short story, and that adds considerably to its chill. It begins like this:
 

Just sit back and relax, now. Try to enjoy this; it’s going to be the last story you ever read, or nearly the last. After you finish it you can sit there and stall awhile, you can find excuses to hang around your house, or your room, or your office, wherever you’re reading this; but sooner or later you’re going to have to get up and go out. That’s where I’m waiting for you: outside. Or maybe closer than that. Maybe in this room.’
 

Then the narrator goes on to tell the story of a printer named Justin, a suave man named Harley, and what happens when they get involved with some dangerous people. The end in particular is very creepy – or was to me.
 

Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith

This story starts off normally enough. Guy Haines is on a cross-country train ride to visit his estranged wife Miriam. That’s when he meets Charles Anthony Bruno, who’s also on a journey. The two get to talking and begin to commiserate: Haines tells Bruno about his wife and Bruno tells Haines about his father, whom he hates. Then Bruno suggests that each one should commit the other’s murder. If Bruno kills Haines’ wife, and Haines kills Bruno’s father, there’s no motive to connect either murderer to either victim. Haines jokingly agrees, sure that Bruno isn’t serious. He is though, and as the story goes on, we see how Haines is drawn deeper and deeper into Bruno’s dysfunctional, mentally twisted world. And that’s what’s chilling about this story, at least to me. Oh, and I recommend Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 flim adaptation of the story. It’s a little different, but no less haunting…
 

A Judgement in Stone – Ruth Rendell

This novel has one of the most famous first sentences – and I think one of the most powerful – in the genre:
 

‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’
 

Right from there we know that the well-off and well-educated Coverdale family is doomed. The story tells how George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire Eunice Parchman to be their housekeeper. Tragically, they don’t find out much about her, but she seems to suit, and at first, all goes well. But the new housekeeper is hiding something that she is desperate not to reveal. As the story goes on, she gets more and more paranoid, and the Coverdale family gets closer and closer to danger, although they are eerily unaware of it. When one of the family members accidentally finds out the truth, this seals their fate. One of the truly frightening things about this story is how easily everything goes horribly wrong. The Coverdales aren’t stupid, but you could say they’re comfortably unaware of the danger that awaits them. They’re not too different really from a lot of everyday people, and that’s creepy too.

So there you have it – a few stories that I found really frightening. What about you? Do you dare to share?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Hey, folks, have a look at Moira’s list. And while you’re on the hunt for terrifying tales, you’ll also want to visit Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews every Tuesday for Tuesday Terror!! Lots of frightfully good suggestions! You may not want to be alone when you do, though….
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising.

26 Comments

Filed under Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Fredric Brown, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Shirley Jackson

I’ve Looked at Life From Both Sides Now*

DifferentPerspectivesOne of the best things about books and reading – and I include crime fiction in this – is that they give readers the chance to explore and learn about different places, different events and so on. What’s soon clear is that a lot of those events, social issues and so on are complex. So understanding them means reading both sides (or to be more precise, all sides) of an argument. It means reading about a place from a variety of different perspectives. It means reading about an event from the perspective of the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers.’ To put it simply, the more deeply we read about something or someone, the better we understand.

Let me just offer a few examples from crime fiction. Let’s start with the issue of immigration. Many different countries face the challenges that come with immigration. It’s very complex, with many aspects, perspectives and implications that have to be considered. There are plenty of novels and series such as Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Nina Borg stories that show some of the challenges immigrants face as they try to make a new life for themselves. There other novels, such as Elizabeth George’s Deception on His Mind, which depict some of the challenges that residents face when a new group of people with very different cultural beliefs comes in. There are issues of resources, bridging cultural gaps and and so on, and that’s only the beginning. Getting an informed perspective on immigration, what it means, what it entails and how best to meet everyone’s needs isn’t easy. It’s too big and complex an issue for it to be easy. But it starts with reading about it from different points of view.

Or what about the environment? Most people would agree that good stewardship is an important part of our lives on the planet. But we don’t agree on the best way to accomplish that. C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series often addresses environmental issues. So does Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage. There are lots of others too. Those authors show that not all environmentalists are wonderful people who want to help everyone live a better life. Not all developers are evil, greedy people. On the other hand, there are heroic environmentalists and contemptible developers. The task of balancing good stewardship with sustainable economic development is an enormous one. It’s not going to be accomplished without an understanding of all sides of the problem. It requires reading up on all of the issues and implications, and understanding many different perspectives.

And then there’s the whole question of prison and our prison systems. Crime fiction addresses this issue quite frequently and that makes sense. In novels such as Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs, Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage and Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos (and there are others), it’s clear that prison doesn’t necessarily reform criminals (and who counts as a ‘criminal’ anyway?). It doesn’t repair the damage they do. And sometimes, putting someone in prison does more harm than good. On the other hand, any crime fiction fan can tell you that there are numerous novels (I couldn’t even begin to list them here!) in which we see another point of view. We see that people’s lives can be saved when criminals are in custody. We see that victims of crime can start to get a sense of closure and perhaps start to heal when criminals have been convicted and are jailed. The questions of what to do about prison, prison reform and convicted criminals are extremely difficult to answer. They can’t be addressed just by reading one book or looking at one perspective. It may be that we can’t even approach any kind of solution until we understand all aspects of prison and what it means.

But…what if you couldn’t read all sorts of perspectives? What if you couldn’t find out what other people have done to face some of these difficult challenges? What if books that took certain points of view were banned? It’s not a fantasy, as anyone who’s ever lived in a place where books have been banned can tell you. It has happened and still does happen.

Among many other consequences of banning books, it means that people can’t sift through all sides of an argument – even sides they don’t agree with – to understand an issue better. It means that people can’t learn from what others do. It means that people can’t approach some kind of meaningful resolution to some of the big challenges that most societies face (poverty, class issues, inter-group relations, and the list goes on). In many ways and on many levels, it means that people cannot approach anything like the truth about an issue.

This week (in the US, at least) is Banned Books Week. I’m going to be looking at the topic from a variety of different angles as the week goes by (no worries; I promise I won’t spend the whole week ranting!).

For today, I invite you to pick a topic that really matters to you and where you have a very strong opinion. Doesn’t matter what it is; it could be race relations, the drugs trade, immigration, a particular group of people or political issue, or something else. Now, read something responsible written from ‘the other side’s’ point of view. Get an understanding of what that issue looks like from another angle. See what that does for your perspective. And be grateful there are books out there that let you do that.

To get a sense of what I mean about reading different perspectives, you’ll want to check out Marina Sofia’s excellent post on reading about the Middle East from two points of view. And while you’re there, do have a look round her superb blog. It’s a treasure trove of fine reviews, evocative poetry and lots more.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. Listen to her version and Judy Collins’ recording of it, and see which one you prefer.

40 Comments

Filed under Agnete Friis, Angela Savage, Elizabeth George, Gene Kerrigan, Jørn Lier Horst, Lene Kaaberbøl, Ruth Rendell

She’s Dead Serious About Her Family History*

Family SagasAn interesting book review at Cleopatra Loves Books has got me thinking about family sagas. Now, before I go any further, you’ll want to pay a visit to that fine blog. You’ll find all sorts of excellent, thoughtful reviews of crime fiction as well as some books from other genres too. It’s well worth a place on a bibliophile’s blog roll.

Right. Family sagas. Just about all families have their share of stories and ‘skeletons in the closet,’ and some of those stories have an effect for a very long time. Family sagas can be very effective contexts for crime fiction too, since some of those stories and ‘skeletons’ involve crime. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles concerns the ‘blueblood’ Baskerville family, which has had a home on Dartmoor for many generations. It’s said that the Baskerville family has been cursed since the 1600s, when Sir Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was infatuated. According to this tale, the family is haunted by a demon in the shape of a hound. In fact recently, the current head of the family, Sir Charles Baskerville, was found dead on the grounds of the Manor of Baskerville. Many people say the family curse was responsible, and now family friend Dr. James Mortimer is afraid for the new heir Sir Henry Baskerville. Sir Henry is due to come in from Canada soon, and Dr. Mortimer wants the matter settled before his arrival. Holmes is unable to leave London at the moment so he sends Dr. Watson in his stead. Between them they find that a curse had nothing to do with Sir Charles’ death…

Agatha Christie weaves in elements of the family saga in several of her novels. In Sad Cypress, for instance, Elinor Carlisle receives an anonymous note warning her that she could lose the inheritance she expects from her wealthy Aunt Laura Welman. Apparently someone’s been playing up to the elderly lady and the note hints that there’s an ulterior motive behind it all. Elinor isn’t particularly greedy, but she and her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy Welman travel to the family home at Hunterbury. There they renew their acquaintance with Mary Gerrard, daughter of Hunterbury’s lodgekeeper. They soon find out that Aunt Laura has become very much attached to Mary, and insists on altering her will to make a good provision for her; however, Aunt Laura dies before the will can be changed. Much to Elinor’s shock and dismay, Roddy becomes infatuated with Mary. In fact, Elinor breaks off her engagement with him. Then, not long afterwards, Mary dies of what turns out to be poison. Elinor is the most obvious suspect, and not just because of Roddy. There’s a fortune at stake as well. Hercule Poirot investigates and finds that Mary’s death has everything to do with a family saga. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow, Five Little Pigs and Crooked House

In A Dark-Adapted Eye, her first novel as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell shares the story of the Longley family. The Longleys have always been a very respectable family – not a hint of grist for the ‘gossip mill.’ But in this case, appearances are, as the saying goes, deceiving. Many years ago, Vera Longley Hilliard was hanged for murder. No-one discusses the matter, but it’s haunted the family ever since. Then, journalist Daniel Stewart digs up the story and decides to write a book about the family and the hanging. He approaches Faith Longley Severn to help him with the work, since she’s a family member. She agrees and together they look into what really was behind the murder for which Vera Hilliard was executed. This novel is about the crime, but it’s also about the family, its history and its relationships.

One of the more famous family sagas is the story of the Vanger family, whom we meet in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist has just lost an expensive libel lawsuit against well-insulated and powerful Swedish industrial magnate Hans-Erik Wennerström. With his publication Millennium in danger of folding, he’s open to an offer from Henrik Vanger. Forty years earlier, Vanger’s grand-niece Harriet disappeared. Everyone thought she drowned, but Vanger has a good reason not to think so. He’s been receiving anonymous birthday gifts of dried flowers, just as Harriet gave him all those years earlier. Vanger offers to support Millennium financially, and give Blomkvist the information he needs to bring down Wennerström if Blomkvist will find out what really happened to Harriet. Blomkvist agrees and he and his research assistant Lisbeth Salander start exploring the Vanger family’s history and finances. And it turns out that this is quite a family saga…

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn has been working to support the political life of her friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. He’s got a very bright future in the party, and everyone’s looking forward to an important speech he’s scheduled to make. To everyone’s shock, he collapses during the speech and dies of what turns out to be poison. Kilbourn is grief-stricken at the loss of her friend, and decides to deal with that grief by writing a biography of Boychuk. As she does so, she begins to get closer and closer to the truth about why and by whom he was killed. She also learns quite a lot about the Boychuk family’s history and how it affected him.

Martin Edwards deals with family sagas and stories in several of his Lake District mysteries. For example, in The Hanging Wood, DCI Hannah Scarlett gets a call from Orla Payne, who wants to find out what happened to her brother. Twenty years earlier, Callum Payne went missing and no-one has ever found a trace of him – not even a body. Orla wants Scarlett and her team to look into the case, but unfortunately, she’s mentally fragile and is drunk when she calls, so Scarlett doesn’t make much of the matter. Then, Orla dies of what looks like suicide. Now Scarlett feels guilty for not taking that call more seriously, and begins to look into both Orla’s death and the the disappearance of her brother. That investigation turns up quite a lot of family history and a family saga that’s been going on for several generations.

When it comes to crime fiction, family sagas have to be handled deftly. Otherwise, the history of the family can take away from the story of the crime(s) that’s supposed to be at the heart of the novel. But when they’re well-written, family sagas can add a lot to a crime novel. And they can provide all sorts of useful and realistic motivations for murder. I’ve only mentioned some examples here. Your turn.

Thanks, Cleo, for the inspiration!
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Lucksmiths’ English Murder Mystery. OK, this is really a fun song if you’re a crime fiction fan. :-)

26 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Gail Bowen, Martin Edwards, Ruth Rendell, Stieg Larsson