Category Archives: Sara Paretsky

I’m Gonna Let it Shine*

This Little Light of MineThere are people who try to do good, sometimes against very difficult odds. They know they’re taking real risks at times to do what most of us would agree is the right thing, but they do it anyway. Certainly those people exist in real life, and the world is better because of them. But they also exist in crime fiction. The trouble with writing such characters is that if they seem too perfect, it’s hard to accept them as authentic. So it’s important that they be realistic. But when they’re well-drawn, those characters give us hope. They add to a story or series too.

You’ll notice that I’m not going to mention sleuths or other protagonists who are like that. They’re out there of course, but the examples in this post will be characters who aren’t protagonists.

Admittedly that line between protagonist and ‘not the protagonist’ can be a little blurry at times. For example, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, we meet attorney Atticus Finch. He lives and works in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama at a time when racism was both institutionalised and rigidly enforced. When Tom Robinson, who is Black, is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, who is White, there’s a lot of pressure to assume that he’s guilty and turn to ‘vigilante justice.’ But Finch is unwilling to do that. For one thing, he’s not entirely certain that Robinson is guilty. For another, even if he is, Robinson deserves a fair trial, like every other citizen. So Finch takes the case despite the fact that the town will likely turn against him. He knows that his choice to defend Robinson may have terrible consequences, but he also knows that it’s the right thing to do. So he goes ahead with his preparations, and in the end, he finds out the truth about the Robinson/Ewell case.

One of the recurring characters in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series is Sister Mary. Among her other projects, she is in charge of the Soup Run, a mobile soup kitchen that delivers food, non-alcoholic drinks, blankets, clothes and medicine to Melbourne’s street people. She is a tireless advocate for those who’ve been forgotten or at least not served by the system, and she persuades, cajoles and bullies for donations, for volunteers and for the necessary legal permits to undertake her work. She’s got a strong enough personality that no-one dares to disobey her if I can put it that way. Sister Mary is down-to-earth and practical. She’s neither smug nor self-righteous, and she doesn’t expect that anyone will subscribe to her religious beliefs. That doesn’t matter to her as much as does helping those in need in Melbourne, and everyone respects her for what she accomplishes.

Sara Paretsky’s Dr. Charlotte ‘Lotty’ Herschel is another example of those who are forces for good despite the odds. She and her family escaped the Nazis and she ended up in the US. Since then she’s moved to Chicago and is now the close friend of Paretsky’s sleuth V.I. Warshawski. Herschel works with those who are least well served by the medical care system and is always willing to lend her medical expertise where it’s needed, whether or not the patient can pay.  She’s an advocate for children’s health, especially those children from low socioeconomic groups. She has a strong personality, but she’s not self-important about what she does. Lotty Herschel does what needs to be done, as she sees it.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack takes place in 1979 Argentina, at a time when the government was controlled by a military junta. Anyone suspected of disagreeing with the government is liable to ‘disappear,’ and very little attention is paid to these abuses of power. Against this backdrop, Buenos Aires police officer Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano gets a new case. He’s called out one morning to a riverbank where there are reports of two bodies left there overnight. The bodies bear the hallmarks of an Army ‘hit,’ and Lescano is well aware of the consequences if he questions those murders. But to his surprise there is also a third body. This one doesn’t have the same hallmarks and it’s soon clear that someone is using ‘disappearances’ to cover up a murder. The victim is successful pawnbroker and moneylender Elías Biterman and Lescano begins to investigate to find out who the killer is. There is a great deal of pressure on Lescano to ‘rubber stamp’ the case and leave it alone, but he’s unwilling to do that. In the end, he does find out the truth. And there are people who risk terrible consequences to do the right thing and help him. One is forensic expert Dr. Fuseli. He provides Lescano very helpful and important information about the murder at great risk to himself.

And then there’s Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari. Emma la Roux hires professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to accompany her on a trip from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out what happened to her brother Jacobus. Then a member of the South African Army’s Nature and Environmental Conservation Unit, he disappeared twenty years earlier after a skirmish with poachers at Kruger National Park. Everyone thought he was killed in that incident, but Emma has good reason to believe he may still be alive. If that’s true, she wants to know where he’s been and what he’s been doing. Lemmer takes the job and goes with Emma to the Lowveld, where they start asking questions. Those questions stir up matters that some very nasty and powerful people would rather not discuss, so both Lemmer and Emma find themselves in terrible danger. In the end though, Lemmer discovers what really happened to Jacobus le Roux. One of the people who figures in that true story is Vincent ‘Pego’ Mashego, who worked with Jacobus and who knows what happened when he disappeared. It turns out that Pego took incredible risks to do the right thing, and has demonstrated quite a lot of courage.

In Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second, we meet Jason Barnes, a teenager who happens to be riding a bus when he observes a terrible incident of bullying. Three other teenagers have boarded the same bus and are harassing fellow passenger Luke Murray. Despite the danger to him, Jason intervenes and the bullying stops for the moment. Then Luke gets off the bus and so do his harassers. So does Jason. The bullying starts again and Jason steps in once more to stop it. This starts the fight anew and it lasts all the way to Jason’s yard, where Luke is gravely wounded and Jason fatally stabbed. One of the questions his parents have to wrestle with is why he stepped in instead of protecting his own life. At the same time, they respect the fact that he did the right thing in a situation where others didn’t.

People who take truly grave risks to do good remind the rest of us of what is possible. When those characters are written as human beings, they can add much to a story. I’ve only had space here to mention a few; I’m sure you can think of lots more. Which do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Henry Dixon Loes’ This Little Light of Mine.

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Filed under Cath Staincliffe, Deon Meyer, Ernesto Mallo, Harper Lee, Kerry Greenwood, Sara Paretsky

Picking Up the Pieces of My Sweet Shattered Dream*

Post-WarWorld War II ended in 1945. But the world was not magically made right again after the war. There were many scattered pieces, if I may put it that way, to be picked up, and millions of shattered lives to be put back together. And that’s to say nothing of the myriad unanswered questions and difficult challenges the war left behind. Let’s take a quick look today at the way that uncertain time is addressed in crime fiction. As you can imagine, I’ve only space to mention a few examples here. I’m sure you’ll be able to fill in the gaps far better than I could anyway.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) was published in 1948. In it, Lynn Marchmont has recently been demobbed from wartime service in the Wrens. She comes home to the village of Warmsley Vale to pick up her life and instead, gets mixed up in a case of murder. Her family has always depended on patriarch Gordon Cloade for financial support but that all changes when Cloade marries Rosaleen Underhay, a widow he’s met on a ship. Tragically, Cloade is killed in a bomb blast before he can change his will so at his death, Rosaleen is set to inherit everything. Then a stranger comes to Warmsley Vale with possible information that Rosaleen’s first husband is actually still alive. If so, she can’t inherit Cloade’s fortune. When two different members of the Cloade family visit Hercule Poirot, asking for his help in the case, he takes an interest. Then, the stranger is suddenly killed; now Poirot gets involved in the murder investigation. Throughout the novel, we see the financial havoc the war has wrought. People are scraping by at best and some are not even doing that well. We also see how difficult the war has been on those who were a part of it. Lynn Marchmont for instance has had to make a sudden and very abrupt change from the danger and excitement of war to the quiet and impoverished life Warmsley Vale offers. It’s a very difficult transition, even for those who didn’t participate in combat. For those who did, it’s even more challenging.

Just ask Charlie Berlin, the Melbourne cop we meet in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947. Berlin’s recently back from service in Europe, where he also spent some time in a POW camp. Although he’s not the stereotypical demon-haunted, alcoholic detective, he does have what would later be called PTSD. He deals with nightmares and terrible memories. Berlin is seconded to Wodonga to help the local police track down a motorcycle gang that’s been responsible for a series of robberies. Since the latest incident has resulted in severe injuries, the police and the public are eager to see the gang stopped. Berlin’s just starting to find some answers when the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first it’s thought that her death is related to the robberies. It’s not though, and soon Berlin has two cases on his hands. Along with the actual investigation, we get a look in this novel at the lingering resentment against people who’ve been The Enemy for years. That enmity didn’t just vanish when the war ended and McGeachin addresses that.

McGeachin also touches on life for Jews who left Germany either just before the war or as a result of being displaced by the war. Jews were not warmly welcomed everywhere, even by people who abhorred the Holocaust. We also see that theme in Sara Paretsky’s Total Recall. In that novel, Dr. Charlotte ‘Lotty’ Herschel asks her friend Chicago PI V.I. Warshawski to do a personal sort of investigation. Herschel has recently heard from Paul Rabudka, who claims to be a Holocaust survivor looking for as many members of his family as he can find. Herschel’s own family escaped Austria just ahead of the Nazis and ended up in the United States, but it was a harrowing journey and Herschel wants to forget as much of it as she can. Still, she doesn’t want to ignore Rabudka’s contact. Warshawski agrees to investigate and finds some very dark secrets buried in the past.

Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past highlights the enmity that lingered between Swedes who collaborated with the Nazis and those who resisted them. In that novel, two young people, Wilma Persson  and Simon Kyrö, go on a diving exploration of a World-War II-era plane that went down in Lake Vittangijärvi. Someone traps the young people under the ice, killing both of them. Several months later Wilma’s body surfaces and police inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate the murders. One of the important threads running through this case is the reality that the end of World War II did not erase the hatreds that had developed because of it. We also see this theme in Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast.

One of the many other challenges that arose after World War II was the status of people whose roles had changed because of the war. For instance, millions of women worked in factories to support the war effort. When the war ended, many were not so eager to return to the proverbial kitchen. Women began to see other roles for themselves. We see that in the character of Rebecca Green, whom we meet in The Digger’s Rest Hotel (See above). She’s a journalist/photographer for the Argus, and wants very much to make her way in what is still a man’s world. She isn’t interested at the moment in the ‘hearth and home’ role assigned to women. In her determination to be taken seriously as a professional, we see the challenge that women faced in a post-war world that wasn’t sure how to see them.

The end of the war meant that a lot of people faced job challenges. Factories that had geared up for the war effort had to either close or change their focus. Soldiers came home and needed jobs. All of this had profound effects on work life. We see this in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, the first of his Ezekial ‘Easy’ Rawlins novels. Rawlins has recently lost his job working in a warplane factory. Since he is African-American there are few job opportunities open to him, but he has the same financial obligations as anyone else. This motivates him to accept the offer when DeWitt Albright hires him as an unofficial private investigator. Albright is looking for Daphne Monet, who’s been known to frequent bars in the Black community. The idea is that since Rawlins knows Watts (Los Angeles) very well, he’ll know where to look for her. This turns out to be much more complicated and dangerous a case than a simple search for a missing woman, and it shows how an entire community was affected by the financial upheavals of the war.

There was also the serious question of war criminals. In Stuart Neville’s Ratlines, Gordon Ferris’ Glasgow novels featuring Douglas Brodie, and Philip Kerr’s more recent novels featuring Bernie Gunther, we get a look at the way Nazi criminals escaped (or tried to escape) after the war. We also learn the stories of those who risked their lives to find them. There are other novels too, some that fall into the category of crime fiction and some that are more espionage thrillers, in which the protagonist goes after Nazi criminals and those who support them.

And Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case explores the legal ramifications of German law that related to war criminals. Fabrizio Collini, who emigrated to Germany decades ago, is arrested for murder in the shooting death of Jean-Baptiste Meyer. Caspar Leinen is ‘on duty’ as a legal aid and is assigned to represent Collini. It seems like a very solid case, as Collini offers no alibi and says nothing to defend himself. In fact, he says nearly nothing at all. But Leinen wants to do his best by his client, so he delves more deeply into the incident and the lives of both men.  What he finds is an obscure but vital point of German law that’s had a profound impact. As Leinen investigates, we also see how deep wartime wounds have really gone.

There are other novels too that address the post-war world and the way people tried to pick up their lives again; this is just a smattering. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s Carefree Highway.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Ferdinand von Schirach, Geoffrey McGeachin, Gordon Ferris, Jo Nesbø, Philip Kerr, Sara Paretsky, Stuart Neville, Walter Mosley

Come On, Come On, Let’s Work Together*

Cops and PIsMost PI’s, whether real or fictional, find their jobs easier if they develop some sort of relationship with the police in their area. The PI/police relationship is mutually beneficial in a lot of obvious ways, so you would think it’d fall out naturally. But that’s not always the case. If you look at crime fiction, you see that while PIs and police do co-operate – sometimes very well – they are also sometimes at odds with each other. Sometimes it’s a matter of ‘patch wars,’ sometimes it’s a personal dislike, and sometimes it’s a perception of one side or the other as incompetent or worse. And sometimes it’s simply the friction you get with two different perspectives on the same case. But amicable, bitter or somewhere in between, the relations between PIs and cops make for an interesting layer in crime novels.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes doesn’t dislike the cops because they are police officers. As a matter of fact, he knows the police are important. But he has absolutely no patience with lack of deduction and logic. And all too often, the police, from Holmes’ perspective, allow themselves to be led astray by superficial clues. In fact he’s not above calling them ‘imbeciles.’ There are a few cops, such as Tobias Gregson, with whom Holmes works reasonably well. But he has no patience with the glory-grabbing arrogance and narrow-mindedness that he all too often sees in the police. For their part, the police often see Holmes as meddlesome and conceited about his own ability. It’s an interesting dynamic that runs through the Holmes stories.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has a different kind of relationship with the police. Poirot fans will know that he is a former cop himself, so he understands the job as an ‘outsider’ couldn’t. And in general, he does have a positive relationship with the police. He and Chief Inspector Japp have had many adventures together and although Japp makes more than one remark about Poirot’s conceit and his ‘tortuous’ mind, he knows Poirot is brilliant and usually right. For his part, Poirot respects Japp. He knows Japp’s a skilled detective and an ethical one who can’t be ‘bought.’ In fact, when he’s working with Japp he doesn’t worry about following up certain kinds of leads, because he knows Japp has the resources and skills to do it. It’s not just Japp either. As we learn in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Poirot respects other cops too if they are skilled and do their jobs well. In that novel, Superintendent Spence asks Poirot to re-open a case he himself investigated. Poirot agrees partly because he knows that Spence is a good cop. If Spence thinks there’s something more to the case than it seems on the surface, then there is. Of course, Poirot isn’t always on good terms with the police. In The Murder on the Links, he finds Sûreté Inspector Giraud so insufferable, conceited and arrogant that he dislikes him heartily and actually enjoys besting him when the two make a bet as to who can solve a murder case first.

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe has a very interesting and complex relationship with the police. On the one hand, he has been known to enter homes and offices in a not-exactly-legal way. More than once, too, he lets people believe he’s with the police, although of course he’s not. And he is not afraid to expose cops who are unethical or who cover for those who are. So in that sense you could say he can be a proverbial thorn in the side of the police force. But Marlowe is pragmatic and so are the cops. Each knows that the other can be very helpful and in the long run, Marlow works in the interest of justice. As John Paul Athanasourelis has said,

 

‘..his ultimate goals are congruent with those of good cops…’

 

One might argue that when Marlowe is in conflict with the police, it’s not because they are police. It’s because they are in the way of the justice system working as it should.

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a former Saskatoon cop. So he knows what it’s like to do police work. What’s more, he still knows people on the force. For example, Darren Kirsch is one of the people on the Saskatoon Police Service who still return his calls. Here’s what Quant says about the police/PI relationship in Amuse Bouche:

 

‘Most cops, and I know because I used to be one, think private investigators are unprofessional moneygrubbers that will suck information out of you and give nothing back in return. And sometimes this is true. But I knew if I wanted to make a go of being a private detective, I’d need some friends in the police department. And a smart cop would know that being friendly with a detective who wasn’t employed by the city and was out there on the streets was not altogether a bad idea either.’ 

 

And that basically describes Quant’s relationship with Kirsch and the rest of the police. They help each other and they do share information. And he and Kirsch have a history, so they have a kind of friendship. It’s not really what you’d call a full-on partnership, but there is I think mutual respect.

Jill Edmondson’s Toronto-based PI Sasha Jackson also knows that it’s to her benefit to work with the police. She isn’t a former cop, so she doesn’t have the ‘in’ that Quant does. But she has a friend Mark Houghton who is a member of the Toronto Police Service. The two dated very briefly years earlier but now their co-operation is professional. As Sasha puts it in Dead Light District,

 

‘Although Mark and I weren’t close enough to be friends, we certainly were solid acquaintances and had a healthy respect for each other professionally.’

 

That respect means that the two of them do share information and help each other. Not that they never disagree or get on each other’s nerves, but it’s not the stereotypical mutual feeling of contempt.

The same might be said of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. Her father was a police officer, so she has a lot of contacts among Chicago’s police. And Warshawski has respect for ethical cops who do their jobs well.  In fact, one of them, Bobby Mallory, still looks out for her in his way. Here’s what he says to Warshawski in Indemnity Only.

 

‘I think you’re a pain in the butt…But you’re not a fool.’

 

And then later in that conversation,

 

‘You’ve made a career out of something which no nice girl would touch, but you’re no dummy.’

 

As the series moves on, Warshawski and Mallory work together more than once and although he does feel sometimes overly protective of her, he also learns that she is both capable and competent.

There’s also of course Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, who was a cop for two years before she left the force. One regular contact she has is Detective Cheney Phillips. Over the years the two have come to respect each other and work well together. Fans of the series will know that they have an intimate relationship for a time, too. But even though that’s over, they’ve learned that each can be helpful to each other. Interestingly enough, they also know that neither tells the other everything about a given investigation. In Phillips’ case it’s often because of policy. In Millhone’s case it’s because she doesn’t always do things – ahem – by the book.

Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney knows all too well that the Thai police are not always, shall we say, fearless fighters of crime and corruption. In fact in Behind the Night Bazaar, she has to work hard to get beyond the official police explanation of the death of her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. There are other examples too in this series of instances where the police would very much rather Keeney left a case alone. But Keeney also knows that it’s quite dangerous to go up against the cops. She also knows that the police are extremely pragmatic. If they see it as working to their benefit to give Keeney information or to use information she gives them, they will. So instead of getting into an outright conflict, Keeney finds ways to make interactions with the police work for both parties. Keeney’s relationship with the cops is much more quid pro quo than it is mutual respect, admiration or friendship. That dynamic makes for an interesting thread of tension in the series.

There are a lot of other good examples of PI/police relations in crime fiction. It’s a fascinating dynamic. Which do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Wilbert Harrison’s Let’s Work Together. I like Canned Heat’s version of this one too.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jill Edmondson, Raymond Chandler, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton

So Just Let Me Be Myself*

Author's VoiceA very interesting post on Elizabeth Spann Craig’s terrific writer’s blog has got me thinking about author voice. Elizabeth makes the well-taken point that it’s important for an author to find her or his own natural voice and use it. She’s right. Readers can tell when authors are using their own natural voices; the work reads more authentically and the story flows more smoothly. And that makes sense. Think for instance about how much more comfortable and less ‘forced’ you sound when you’re just speaking naturally than you do when you’re, say, in front of an audience or a piece of recording equipment. It takes time and confidence for an author to find that voice, but when it comes through, it can add immeasurably to the quality of a book.

Agatha Christie fans will know that she began publishing in the early 1920’s. And some people argue that her earliest works don’t all show her at her best. But as time went on, her voice became more and more confident and authentic, and we see that in several of her best works. For instance, many people (‘though certainly not all readers) think of Ten Little Indians (AKA And Then There Were None) as one of Christie’s finest novels. Part of the reason for its high quality is arguably that she had really found her ‘author’s voice.’ In that novel, ten people receive invitations to spend some time on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts the invitation and everyone travels to the island. On the first evening at the island, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night another person dies. Then there’s another death. It’s soon very clear that someone has lured these people to the island and seems to be killing them off one by one. As the surviving guests come to realise this, they also see that they’ll have to find out who the killer is if they’re to stay alive themselves. The language in this novel isn’t stilted, the characters interact in believable ways, and we get a very clear sense of setting and context. In other words, the novel isn’t self-conscious, and it reflects Christie’s own voice effectively. It’s not the only example of the way her voice comes through in her work, but hopefully it suffices to show you what I mean.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy (Garnethill, Exile, Resolution) is also arguably a strong example of an author’s voice coming through effectively. The trilogy follows the life of Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell, a Glasgow ticket-taker (at first) who in Garnethill gets involved in a murder case when her former lover Douglas Brady is found murdered in her home. In Exile and Resolution, we see what happens to Mauri as she finds out who killed Brady and later, gets involved in other cases as she moves along in her own life. Throughout this trilogy, the style is clear and confident, and it’s very authentically Glasgow. Mina’s voice comes through without being stilted. These novels are stronger (well, to me anyway, so feel free to differ if you do) because Mina wrote these novels in her own voice, not by writing ‘the way you’re supposed to.’

Carl Hiassen’s writing also features a strong author voice. He has a background in journalism and a necessarily cynical outlook on a lot of what large corporations and powerful politicians do. He also has a strong sense of humour. We see all of that come through in his novels. Books such as Lucky You and Skinny Dip feature the South Florida ecological and environmental issues he is concerned about, the skewering of corrupt and greedy stakeholders and real wit too. And the novels are not at all self-conscious. Hiaasen’s voice is confident and clear throughout the stories, and his approach to storytelling makes it clear that he’s not writing the way someone’s told him ‘people ought to write.’ He has a unique voice and it’s evident in his work.

I’ve only recently (well, this year) been reading Nelson Brunanski’s rural Saskatchewan novels, and at least for me, part of the appeal of them is that Brunanski’s authentic voice comes through. The protagonist in this series is fishing lodge owner John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He’s a ‘regular guy’ with a wife, two children and a home to keep up as well as his lodge. There’s nothing superhuman or ‘official’ about his investigations. In Crooked Lake for instance, he gets drawn into a case of murder when his friend Nick Taylor is accused of killing Harvey Kristoff, a board member at the golf course where Taylor works. Taylor claims he’s innocent and asks Bart to help clear his name. Throughout this and the other novels in this series, it’s easy to ‘hear’ Brunanski’s strong Saskatchewan voice coming through. The dialogue isn’t forced, the characters are authentic and the mysteries unfold naturally. And part of the reason for that is that Brunanski uses his own voice.

That’s also the case with Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels. As Paretsky fans know, Warshawski is a Chicago PI who has a special attachment to cases involving the disenfranchised. She’s lived and worked in Chicago all of her life and it’s easy to see both her and her creator’s attachment to the city. We also see Paretsky’s voice coming through in this series in terms of the cases that Warshawki investigates. They reflect Paretsky’s views about several human rights and other political and social issues. But it’s more than just the themes of the novels in this series. Paretsky’s voice also comes through in the real-life dialogue, the distinctive Chicago atmosphere and culture, and the true-to-life characters. And Paretsky started this series at a time when ‘everybody knew’ that PI’s were ‘supposed to be’ tough-guy males. She used her own voice though and didn’t write ‘what everybody thought she should write.’ The result has been one of the more popular and enduring modern crime fiction series.

Deon Meyer’s novels also reflect a very strong author’s voice. His standalones feature different protagonists (although some, like bodyguard Martin Lemmer, appear more than once), but all of them are distinctive South African characters with distinctive South African voices. Rather than following a ‘prescription’ for what a thriller ‘ought to’ be like, Meyer uses his own voice to tell the characters’ stories. Or rather, his voice comes through as they tell their own stories. And that, to me anyway, allows for deep character development, solid plots and a uniquely South African atmosphere. Oh, and in Meyer’s case, it’s hard to overestimate the value of K.L. Seeger’s translation. It’s challenging enough for a translator to convey a story’s elements, let alone the author’s unique voice. Seeger does so very effectively.

Of course, there are a lot of other superb examples of novels and series where the author’s voice comes through loudly, clearly and confidently. And that can add immeasurably to one’s reading experience. I’ve only mentioned a few; which are your favourites? If you’re a writer, how do you focus on telling stories in your own voice? Thanks, Elizabeth, for the inspiration.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Madera and David White’s You Don’t Own Me, made famous by Lesley Gore.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, Denise Mina, Deon Meyer, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Nelson Brunanski, Sara Paretsky

We Are Detective, Come to Collect*

PIsOne of the ways in which crime fiction has evolved in the last sixty or seventy years has arguably been the increasing variety of PI sleuths. And perhaps this is just my opinion (so do feel free to differ with me if you do) but I think it’s a good thing. In real life, private investigators take all kinds of cases, from spouses who suspect their partners of cheating to pre-hiring background checks to investigators who work with attorneys on their cases. And it hardly need be said that today’s PIs come from all kinds of backgrounds.

‘Gentleman detectives’ such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes paved the way for the modern PI novel, which today ranges from the light (e.g. Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe series) to the noir (e.g.  Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series). One post is hardly enough to do the modern PI novel justice, but let’s just take a quick look at the sub-genre.

Authors such as Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Mickey Spillane were at the forefront of the ‘hard boiled’ PI novel. In Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool for instance, Maude Slocum hires PI Lew Archer to find out who sent a slanderous letter to her husband James. The letter alleges that Maude’s been having an affair, and she is afraid that if James finds out, the marriage will end in divorce. Archer takes the case and begins his investigation. Right from the beginning he learns of the dysfunction in the Slocum family. James’ mother Olivia is quite wealthy and uses her financial power to manipulate the family. Maude and her mother-in-law have never been exactly friends, and Maude resents the fact that James is somewhat of a ‘mother’s boy.’ So when Olivia is found dead one day in her swimming pool, there’s every chance one of the family could be responsible. But then again, oil magnate Walter Kilbourne wanted to drill on the Slocum estate and Olivia was firmly set against the idea. So the murder could be the work of Kilbourne or one of his paid ‘associates.’ As Archer investigates, we get to see the seamier side of the way the wealthy live.

Anthony Bidulka’s PI sleuth Russell Quant also sometimes sees the not-so-very-nice side of ‘the beautiful life.’ In Tapas on the Ramblas for instance, wealthy business executive Charity Wiser believes that someone in her family is trying to kill her. She hires Quant to find out who it is and invites him on a family cruise to get to know the other members of the Wiser clan so he can ‘scope them out.’ As he does so, he discovers that just about everyone in the family had a motive for murder. It’s not just a matter of greed, either. There’s a lot of dysfunction in this family and the better Quant gets to know the family members, the more he uncovers about the undercurrents of resentment. Then, there are two attempts at murder and later, a death. In the end, Quant puts the pieces of the puzzle together but not before he comes close to being a victim himself.

We get an interesting look ‘behind the scenes’ of a PI firm in Julie Smith’s Talba Wallis series. Wallis lives and works in New Orleans, where she’s employed by E.V. Anthony Investigations. The firm does background checks on potential employees and at the beginning of Louisiana Bigshot, we learn that Wallis also investigates cheating spouses. In fact that’s what her friend Clayton Robineau (who goes by the name Babalu Maya) hires her to do. Babalu thinks that her fiancé Jason Wheelock has been unfaithful and wants Wallis to find out whether it’s true. At first Wallis doesn’t want to take the case; she would rather Babalu simply break up with Wheelock than learn all of the sordid details of any affair he’s having. But Babalu insists, so Wallis begins to investigate. She finds out that her friend was right and breaks the bad news. Shortly after that, Babalu is found dead, apparently a successful suicide. Wallis doesn’t think it was a suicide though, and neither does Jason Wheelock. So Wallis starts to look into the case more closely. She finds that Babalu’s family history and someone’s desperate need to protect a reputation are the keys to the murder.

Jill Edmondson’s Toronto PI Sasha Jackson doesn’t work for a firm; she’s set up in business for herself. And one of the very effective elements in this series is that we get to see what it’s like to try to build up one’s client base, take care of the bills and so on. And in Dead Light District we get an interesting perspective on why some people hire private detectives instead of going to the police. Candace Curtis owns a brothel which she staffs with only the best employees. The client list is carefully vetted too. It’s an illegal business though, so when one of her employees Mary Carmen Santamaria goes missing, she can’t call the police about it. So she hires Jackson to find out what happened to Mary Carmen. Jackson is uncomfortable about the case. For one thing, she’s not comfortable with the thought of young women who, as she sees it, are being exploited. For another, Mary Carmen could simply not want to be found. If so, why shouldn’t she be left in peace? But Curtis is persuasive and a fee is a fee, so Jackson begins her investigation. But this turns out to be much more than a missing person case. First an alleged pimp is stabbed to death in a hotel and then there’s another murder. Then Curtis becomes a target. Jackson finds that what started out being a case of a prostitute who’s disappeared has led her to the underside of Toronto’s sex trade.

Some PIs don’t really think of themselves as PIs – at least not at first. Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins doesn’t. In the first few novels, before he gets his PI license, he thinks of it as ‘doing favours.’ So does Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder. In fact in The Sins of the Fathers, he says,

 

‘Sometimes I do favors for people. They give me gifts.’

 

And yet in both of these cases the sleuths learn that the PI business can be, if not exactly lucrative, at least a source of income.

Today’s PIs are a very diverse group. There’s the wisecracking ‘world’s greatest detective’ Elvis Cole (courtesy of Robert Crais), the not-domestically-inclined Kinsey Millhone (courtesy of Sue Grafton) and lots of others too. And that variety has added to the sub-genre.

Now, you may be wondering why I’ve not mentioned one of the best known PI sleuths, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. I was saving this mention because today is (or yesterday was, depending on when you read this) Sara Paretsky’s birthday. So this post is in honour of what Ms. Paretsky has contributed to the crime fiction genre. V.I. Warshawski is one of the most popular PI sleuths in crime fiction. She’s a unique character with a strong commitment to social justice, a deep love of her home town (Chicago) and a true-blue sense of loyalty to her friends. She was one of the groundbreaking fictional female PIs and the novels featuring her have gained Ms. Paretsky a worldwide audience.

Happy Birthday Sara Paretsky and many more.

 

 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from The Thompson Twins’ We Are Detective.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jill Edmondson, Julie Smith, Lawrence Block, Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Walter Mosley