Category Archives: Sue Grafton

But Try at Least to Pick a Selling Title*

BookTitlesWhen it comes to getting readers’ attention, a well-chosen book title can be at least as important as the cover is. So I thought it might be interesting to take a bit of a closer look at the titles of crime novels. After all, when we read a review and put a book on the TBR or wish list, it’s the title and/or author we try to remember.

Most authors know that a good title has something to do with the the story, and sometimes that’s done very cleverly. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s title The Adventure of the Dancing Men is attention-getting on the surface. It also has everything to do with the story. This adventure is about a woman Elsie Cubitt, who starts to get mysterious cryptic messages in the form of stick figures posed in various positions, as though they were dancing. The messages clearly frighten her, but she won’t tell her husband Hilton what they mean or why they’re being sent. So Cubitt asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate. The solution involves decrypting the messages, so the title turns out to be very much related to the story.

Sometimes titles are a little (or even very) unusual. For instance, Christopher Brookmyre’s title Quite Ugly One Morning isn’t your typical title. It has to do with an investigative journalist Jack Parlabane, who returns from Los Angeles to his native Edinburgh. He locks himself out of his flat one morning and ends up stumbling onto a brutal crime scene. That gets him drawn into the crime’s investigation and deeper into a web of greed and coverup than he imagined. What’s interesting is that although the title is unusual, it’s also closely related to the story itself. Admittedly, there are titles that are a lot more unusual than that one, but it should serve to show you what I mean.

Some authors ‘brand’ their series (or their publishers do) through the titles. I’m thinking for instance of Sue Grafton’s ‘alphabet series’ and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, which uses a different colour in each title. There there’s ‘Nicci French’s’ series in which each title includes a day of the week. I’m sure you know of other examples of this sort of ‘branding.’ That can make it easy for a reader to look for the next title in a series, and keep track of a longer series.

Authors are often advised to keep their titles short and fairly easy to remember, and that’s logical when you think about it.
Shorter titles can often look much neater and less ‘cluttered’ on a cover, and it’s easier for readers to keep them in mind. For a similar reason, authors are usually advised not to use subtitles, although of course, they’re out there.

As I thought about that, I wondered how long titles of crime novels actually are. So I decided to look more closely at that question. I looked at the titles of 215 crime novels – books that I’ve used for my ‘spotlight’ feature. So as you read on, do keep in mind that this is a limited data set. The total population of crime novels might show something different. I divided the books into three categories: books with two or fewer words in the title; books with three to five words in the title; and books with titles longer than five words. Here’s what I found.

 

Length of Book Title
 

As you can see, the great majority (131, or 69%) have titles of between three and five words. That includes words such as at, of, and the. And 70 (32.5%) have one- or two-word titles. Of my data set, only 14 (6.5%) had titles longer than five words. It makes sense to have short, crisp titles, so that finding didn’t particularly surprise me.

Crime novels of course deal with, well, crime, at least most of the time. And very often that crime is murder. So you’d think that most of the titles in the genre would reflect that, and that there’d be a lot of titles with crime-related words in them. So I decided to look into that question. I looked at the titles of 215 books that I’ve used for my ‘Spotlight’ feature to see what kinds, if any, of ‘murder-related’ words there were in the title. Here’s what I found.

 
Words in Titles

 

You can see clearly that most of the titles actually don’t mention murder, killing, bodies or weapons. In fact, 79% of them (169 books) don’t say anything about crime. Some of the titles (19/9%) do mention death, die, dying or another variant of that word. But as you’ll notice, comparatively few mention crime-related words such as blood, murder, knife, and so on. I wonder if that’s so that crime writers and readers can be a bit less obvious about our interest in these devious doings… ;-)

What’s your view about titles? Do you find yourself attracted to very unusual titles? Do you notice when a title is really short or long? Does that affect your interest? If you’re a writer, how do you decide what title you’ll choose for your work?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Concretes’ Fiction.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christopher Brookmyre, John D. MacDonald, Nicci French, Sue Grafton

Take Out Some Insurance, Insurance Today*

InsuranceInsurance companies are very much like other businesses in one sense: they want to make money. And they don’t earn money by paying out claims. So most insurance companies want to make very sure that any claim against them is legitimate. The stakes can be very high, too, since some insurance policies include high payouts. So it shouldn’t be surprising that insurance companies and insurance investigators play a role in crime fiction. My guess is that you can already think of several examples of insurance carriers and investigators in crime fiction; here are a few that have occurred to me.

There’s an early example of a murder mystery involving insurance investigation in ‘Charles Felix’s’ The Notting Hill Mystery. Through a series of letters, testimonials and other documents, we learn that Ralph Henderson is an insurance investigator. He’s been assigned to look into the death of Madame R**, who died after drinking a bottle of acid during an episode of sleepwalking. Henderson begins to get some information on the case, and discovers that the victim’s husband Baron R** had taken out several life insurance policies on his wife. That immediately raises Henderson’s suspicions, but he can’t get any evidence of how the murder was committed. Still, it’s clear from early in the novel that the baron is guilty of the crime. Henderson’s even surer of that when he turns up evidence of three other murders. In this story, the ‘howdunit’ is more the focus than the ‘whodunit.’

In Agatha Christie’s short story The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor, the Northern Union Insurance Company carries the policy on the life of Mr. Maltravers. When he dies, company representative Alfred Wright asks his friend Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. A great deal of course is riding on whether Maltravers died of sudden illness, was murdered, or committed suicide. So Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to Marsdon Manor, where Mr. Maltravers lived with his wife, to find out exactly what caused the victim’s death. Poirot deduces the truth about Maltravers’ death, but at first he doesn’t have any proof. Then he works out a very unusual and ingenious way to get the proof that he needs.

One of the more famous stories featuring insurance companies is James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. In that novel, we meet Walter Huff, an insurance agent for General Fidelity of California. That company underwrites the automobile policy on a car owned by a certain Mr. Nirdlinger. When Huff visits Nirdlinger’s house to talk to him about renewing his policy, he meets Nirdlinger’s wife Phyllis. It’s not long before she begins flirting with him and he finds himself attracted to her too. Still, he has no illusions about her. She wants to take out a double-indemnity accident policy on her husband’s life and then arrange an ‘accident’ for him so that she can collect the insurance money. Huff’s been wanting to find a quick way to ‘beat the system’ himself, so he falls in with her plans, and the two work out a plan for insurance fraud. At first it seems that the plan will work well. But then, something goes wrong and before long, things quickly spiral out of control…

There are of course plenty of other novels and stories that feature plots involving insurance investigators and insurance money. There are also several sleuths who are or have been insurance investigators. One of them is Peter Corris’ Sydney-based PI Cliff Hardy. As we learn in The Dying Trade, Hardy once worked for an insurance company:
 

‘… – long hours, high mileage and pathetic incendiarists. The work had coated my fingers with nicotine, scuttled my marriage and put fat around my waistline and wits. The deals and hush-money made divorce work seem clean as riding a wave and bodyguarding noble and manly.’
 

Corris has long since parted company with his insurance employer. But he still occasionally uses his company business card when he thinks it’ll give him access to people who’d be reluctant to talk to a private investigator. He’s kept his share of contacts too, from those days, and taps them as a resource when necessary.

In many novels of Sue Grafton’s ‘alphabet series,’ her PI sleuth Kinsey Millhone does occasional insurance investigation work for California Fidelity Insurance. The arrangement is that the company allows Millhone office space on their premises so that she can meet her private clients and carry on her business. In return, Millhone looks into cases of possible arson, wrongful death and other cases where the company may have to pay a big claim. That relationship isn’t always a smooth one (saying more would give away a story arc that I don’t want to spoil). But several of Millhone’s California Fidelity cases come up as sub-plots in this series. And even though she’s not an ‘official’ full-time employee, we get to see how insurance companies went about investigating claims before there was the Internet and the ‘smart ‘phone.’

And then there’s Susan Slater’s Rollover. That’s the story of a bank robbery, a valuable haul, and insurance investigator Dan Mahoney. Mahoney works for United Life and Casualty, the company that insured a Tiffany necklace stolen from one of the safety deposit boxes at the First Community Bank of Wagon Mound (New Mexico). Needless to say, the robbers do not want Mahoney to catch them or to find the necklace… I’ll admit I’ve not (yet) read this one. But it was the review of this at Kittling: Books that got me thinking about insurance companies and insurance investigators. So…. thanks to Cathy at Kittling: Books for the inspiration. While you’re checking out her post, do look around the site. Among other things, you’ll find terrific reviews of all sorts of crime fiction.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to pay on my policies…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from J.J. Cale’s Take Out Some Insurance.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Felix, James M. Cain, Peter Corris, Sue Grafton, Susan Slater

Baby, Look at You Now*

BabyLookatYouNow

Yesterday I posted some pictures of famous crime writers when they were young, and invited you to guess who they are. As promised, here are the answers  :-)
 
 
 
Young and Adult Ngaio Marsh

Why, look! That adorable child became the one and only Ngaio Marsh!
 
 
Young and Adult Colin Dexter

And that fine young man grew into…..Colin Dexter!
 
 
Young and Adult Val McDermid

This little lassie could only be…Val McDermid!
 
 
Young and Adult Arthur Conan Doyle

This little boy is none other than…Arthur Conan Doyle! Elementary ;-)
 
 
Young and Adult Patricia Highsmith

This cheerful young lady blossomed into…Patricia Highsmith! Smiles on the outside, but what a skill at inner noir.
 
 
Young and adult Michael Connelly

And this serious young man? Well, when you’re Michael Connelly, you have a lot to think about! All those great plots and characters…
 
 
Young and Adult Agatha Christie

The devious mind behind that innocent face could only belong to…the ‘Queen of Crime,’ Agatha Christie!
 
Young and Adult Ian Rankin

Isn’t that a great ensemble? It’s being modeled for us by…Ian Rankin! Wonder if Rebus ever wore somthing like that…
 
 
Young and Adult Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton got an early start at reading. Doesn’t seem to have done her any harm…
 
 

And finally…
 
Young and Adult Arthur Upfield

That adventurous young man made the most of his travels in his books. Yes, it’s Arthur Upfield!
 

So… how did you do? Did you recognise that greatness for what it is? Thanks for playing! Happy Weekend!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer’s You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Highsmith, Sue Grafton, Val McDermid

While the Roadies Rig the Video Surveillance Van*

SurveillanceDetectives know that it’s not enough to just ask questions of witnesses and suspects. After all, people lie, or they don’t remember things accurately, or they find it convenient not to mention certain things. So detectives sometimes engage in surveillance. That might involve watching a certain place to see who comes and goes. Or it might involve following a certain person or people. Surveillance is time-consuming and it can be tedious, especially if there are a long periods of inactivity. But it’s a part of many real-life investigations. And it’s a part of crime fiction too. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that he frequently does surveillance. That’s part of the reason for which he keeps somewhat odd hours. Dr. Watson does his share of surveillance too. In one instance, The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, Violet Smith hires Holmes to help her solve an odd mystery. She is employed as a piano teacher at Chiltern Grange and lives there during the week. On Fridays she goes to London to visit her mother and on Monday mornings she returns to Chiltern Grange. All goes well enough until one Friday when Violet notices that a man is following her as she rides her bicycle to the train station. On Monday when she returns, the same man follows her from the station towards Chiltern Grange. The man doesn’t get close enough to be physically threatening but Violet is understandably worried. Watson travels to the Chiltern Grange area and takes up a stakeout near the part of the road where Violet has reported seeing this strange man. Sure enough, she is telling the truth. He and Holmes look more closely into the matter and find out that Violet is in a great deal more danger than she might have thought. Surveillance plays a key role in this story.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot generally eschews surveillance, preferring to use his ‘little grey cells’ to solve cases. Besides, as he will admit, he doesn’t have the resources to be everywhere at once. So as a rule, he leaves surveillance to others. Yet it still crops up in Christie’s work. For instance in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Marie Morisot, who does business as Madame Giselle, is on a flight from Paris to London. During the flight she suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the flight, one of whom is Hercule Poirot. He works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who killed Madame Giselle and why. One of the other passengers is London hair stylist’s assistant Jane Grey. She’s not a very likely suspect but of course, being mixed up in a murder case does impact her. One evening she and another passenger Norman Gale are having dinner when they notice that yet another passenger is at the same restaurant. He is detective novelist Mr. Clancy, whom the police already suspect (after all, we know that mystery novelists are quite suspicious ;-) ). On impulse Grey and Gale decide to follow Mr. Clancy and see where he goes after he finishes his meal. It’s a funny set of scenes as they practice the art of discreetly following someone. And Mr. Clancy certainly acts suspiciously…

Sue Grafton’s PI Kinsey Millhone occasionally does investigative work for California Fidelity Insurance Company, in exchange for which she has the use of office space in their suite. One of the sub-plots of A is for Alibi concerns a California Fidelity case that Millhone takes on. Marcia Threadgill is claiming disability related to a fall, and the insurance company wants Millhone to follow up on that claim. The idea is that Millhone will ‘rubber stamp’ the insurance company’s approval of the payout. So Millhone follows Threadgill, takes ‘photos and observes her carefully. What she finds is that Threadgill is committing insurance fraud. The original claim was credible enough for the company to be prepared to pay; it takes surveillance to prove that it was fraudulent.

Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series features Mma. Precious Ramotswe, a private detective who does her share of surveillance in her way. But in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive it’s her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni who does the surveillance. Much as he loves his work as the owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, he’s been looking for something a little different to do from time to time. He gets his chance when a new client Faith Botumile wants to hire Mma. Ramotswe’s agency. She believes that her husband has been unfaithful and wants to know who the other woman is. Mma. Ramotswe happens to be out when Mma. Botumile arrives, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni takes down the information. Since he is the one who had the first contact with the client, Mma. Ramotswe thinks it makes sense for him to follow up on the case. Mma. Botumile is rude, harshly critical and unpleasant, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni can well understand how the husband of a woman like her might stray. But she is a client so he takes up working on the case. Part of his task is following Mr. Botumile to find out what he does after work. So Mr. J.L.B. Matakoni does that, and turns up some surprising results.

It isn’t just private investigators who conduct surveillance. The police do their share of it too. Let me just give two examples. In one plot thread of Jane Casey’s The Burning, DC Maeve Kerrigan and her colleagues at the Met are on the trail of a killer whom the press has dubbed the Burning Man because he tries to destroy his victims’ bodies with fire. At one point the police catch a man they think is the murderer, but then another body is discovered. So they have to start over again. After more time goes by with no real leads, it’s decided to set up a surveillance operation in a local park – the sort of place that has so far appealed to the killer. Kerrigan joins one of the surveillance teams and everyone settles in for a long night. With one of the cops serving as ‘bait,’ everyone watches and waits. It’s a really interesting depiction of how cold, uncomfortable and frustrating surveillance can be. And how dangerous it can be. It’s little wonder that the cops don’t generally set up large-scale surveillance operations on a whim.

In Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear, New South Wales Police Detective Ella Marconi and her team investigate the murder of Paul Fowler. He’s tossing a football around with a few friends one afternoon when he’s shot. Part of the process of finding out who killed Fowler is talking to everyone in his life, including his ex-wife Trina. The police duly interview her, but although she talks to them, it’s soon clear that she’s hiding something. It could be something relatively innocent, but the police can’t risk the chance. And Trina is good at keeping her own counsel. So it’s decided to follow her, to find out where she goes and whom she sees, and to follow up on any of her ‘phone calls. That surveillance proves to be very useful in solving the Fowler case.

And that’s the thing about surveillance. It can be frustrating and time-consuming, even with modern CCTV cameras. But it can also yield important information. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin, Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather). Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from They Might Be Giants’ Working Undercover For the Man.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Casey, Katherine Howell, Rex Stout, Sue Grafton

Sometimes You Want to Go Where Everybody Knows Your Name*

Local RestaurantsJust about every town seems to have places where the local people gather. And in cities, different neighbourhoods have their own little cafés or restaurants that attract ‘regulars.’ If you have one of those places near you, then you know how they can add to the richness of an area. They can be good places to catch up on the gossip and meet up with friends. In crime fiction, they’re useful in a number of other ways too. They’re good places to show not tell something about the sleuth’s personal life. They’re also good places for the sleuth to hear things that can be helpful in a given investigation. And for the author, they can be very useful for bringing characters together without it seeming too contrived.

One of best-known of these crime-fictional cafés is Rosie’s, which is a regular haunt for Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. The food at Rosie’s would never be confused with gourmet cooking. But for one thing, Millhone is not really particular about her food, and she’d rather eat out than cook. And the atmosphere at Rosie’s is informal and relaxed, which also suits Millhone. Here’s what she says about the place in A is for Alibi:

 

‘The place appeals to me for a couple of reasons. Not only is it close to my home but it is never attractive to tourists, which means that most of the time it’s half-empty and perfect for private conversations. Then, too, Rosie’s cooking is inventive, a sort of devil-may-care cuisine with a Hungarian twist.’

 

Millhone sometimes meets clients there, but even when she doesn’t, the scenes at Rosie’s show the reader an interesting side of Millhone’s character.

Also a relaxed and informal local watering hole is the Busy Bee Café, one of the haunts of Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire. The Bee, as it’s often called, is one of the social hubs of Durant, Wyoming, and Longmire often hears helpful gossip when he’s there. It’s also a good place to meet up with people. The Bee also provides the food for anyone who happens to be in the county jail. Here’s the way it’s described in Death Without Company:

 

‘The Busy Bee was in a small, concrete-block building that clung to the banks of Clear Creek through the tenacity of its owner and the strength of its biscuits and spiced gravy. Dorothy Caldwell had owned and operated the Bee since Christ had been a cowboy. I [Longmire] ate there frequently and, due to its proximity to the jail, so had our infrequent lodgers.’

 

The food at the Bee is ‘down home’ comfort food, and Dorothy Caldwell is very accommodating about putting takeaway meals together if Longmire is going out of town. Longmire also knows that if someone calls him while he’s eating there, Dorothy will put the call through. It’s that kind of place.

Another very appealing local gathering place (at least to me) is Colourful Mary’s, a regular stop for Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant. Quant is a Saskatoon PI who, because he’s not a cop, often relies on local networks to get information that he needs for his cases. And Colourful Mary’s draws many of Saskatoon’s local residents. Here’s how it’s described in Amuse Bouche:

 

‘Colourful Mary’s is Saskatoon’s only publicly admitted gay-run restaurant, but over the years it has developed a wide range of loyal clientele…Marushka cooks like everyone’s mother, most notably her own. In addition to some rather standard fare for the less adventurous, Marushka always adds one or two Ukrainian delicacies to the daily menu…I like Colourful Mary’s…You feel cared for but not smothered. I’m also addicted to Marushka’s cooking.’

 

Colourful Mary’s may be a little more upmarket than the Busy Bee is, but it’s a comfortable, welcoming place. And Quant gets very useful information there at times.

Many of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novels take place in the small Québec town of Three Pines. Three Pines may be small, but it’s got Olivier’s Bistro. In Still Life the bistro is referred to as

 

‘…the Central Station of Three Pines,’

 

and that’s an accurate description. The Bistro/ B & B is owned by Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau, and as Gamache learns early in this series, it is in many ways the heart, soul and social hub of Three Pines. Gamache and his team certainly learn as much from the time they spend there as they do interviewing witnesses. And of course, the food is delicious.

One of Kerry Greenwood’s series features Corinna Chapman, a baker who lives and works in a large Melbourne building called Insula. One of the businesses in the same building is Café Delicious, run by the Pandamus family. It’s a comfortable sort of place that’s popular with several of the building’s regulars. For instance, Chapman’s assistant Jason Wallace frequently does justice to the food there. Here’s what Chapman says about it in Heavenly Pleasures:

 

‘There is always good money to be made at Café Delicious by betting how long it is going to take my thin scrap of a Jason to eat his way through three eggs (fried), three sausages, three rashers of bacon, two grilled tomatoes, a stack of toast and two hash browns or potato pancakes, depending on whether Grandma Pandamus or the Hungarian relief cook Kristina is dishing out the food. His record is three minutes…’

 

Of course, Jason is a teenager. But still…

And then there’s Rusterman’s Restaurant, which Rex Stout fans will know is one of the few restaurants Nero Wolfe visits, and just about the only one he visits with any regularity. And even then it’s only for an occasional meal. And with a chef like Fritz Brenner in his employ, why should Wolfe go out to eat? His willingness to eat at Rusterman’s should tell readers something about the quality of the food there.

There are also several series, including Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series, that are based around local haunts. In those cafés and restaurants, we get to meet the ‘regulars’ in the series, and the settings are effective ways for the authors to get the sleuth involved in cases.

 

Now if you’ll excuse me, all of this talk about local haunts and places to eat have got me feeling a bit hungry. Think I’ll go down the street and see who’s at the café…

Happy Weekend, everyone!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo’s Where Everybody Knows Your Name.

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Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Craig Johnson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Riley Adams, Sue Grafton