Category Archives: Vanda Symon

You’re in My Mind All the Time*

AnzacDayToday (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this) is Anzac Day. It’s a day set aside to thank and commemorate the men and women of Australia and New Zealand’s armed forces. They have served, and continue to serve, with distinction and bravery.

I’m neither an Australian nor a New Zealander. So why am I setting time aside for Anzac Day? One reason is that I am a world citizen. I know (at least a little) about the role the ANZAC forces have played in world history since WWI. Their bravery and sacrifice has helped keep me and my countrymen and women safe. There is no way to properly express gratitude for that. But you can at least learn a bit about it.

You can learn about the ANZAC forces here and here.


There’s another reason for which I set time aside for Anzac Day. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to both NZcountries. During my travels I’ve met some truly fine people. They’ve hosted me generously and treated me kindly, and I’ve made some good friends. I’ve had some memorable conversations about everything from politics to sport to film to education to social issues. And books. Of course, books. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve seen some amazing things. I’ve petted kangaroos, ‘toured’ Auckland from 328m up in the air, and seen some spectacular scenery. And that’s just the start!   All of this has been courtesy of people who wouldn’t want a fuss made about how kind they’ve been. But I remember.

AusRoosI’ve made some good online Australian and New Zealand friends too – friends I’ve not yet met in person. I hope that will change. We’ve had wonderful conversations about writing, books, and lots of other topics, too, and I’ve learned an awful lot. To all of you, thanks for reaching out.

So yes, I take some time on Anzac Day. I owe a lot, on many levels, to the good people of Australia and New Zealand. Here’s to you all!



Have you read these Australian authors?


Y.A. Erskine

Sulari Gentill 

Robert Gott

Katherine Howell

Adrian Hyland

Wendy James

Geoffrey McGeachin

Andrew Nette

Michael Robotham

Angela Savage

Peter Temple

David Whish-Wilson

Felicity Young


Australian Blogs You’ll Want to Follow



Australian Women Writers Challenge

The Crayon Files

Fair Dinkum Crime

Mysteries in Paradise

Reactions to Reading

Reading, Writing and Riesling


Have you read these New Zealand authors?


Cat Connor

Neil Cross

Donna Malane

Ngaio Marsh

Paddy Richardson

Bev Robitai

Grant Shanks (Andrew Grant)

Vanda Symon

Paul Thomas


New Zealand Blogs You’ll Want to Follow


Beattie’s Book Blog

Booksellers New Zealand

Crime Watch

The Crayon Files

NZ Book Lovers  


Give a little back. Support an Australian author. Support a New Zealand author. And let’s all of us be grateful for the way the Anzac forces have supported us.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Snapper’s Gentle Hour, also recorded by The Clean. Later, Yo La Tengo recorded a version of it too. Listen to all of the versions and see which you like best.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Andrew Grant, Andrew Nette, Angela Savage, Bev Robitai, Cat Connor, David Whish-Wilson, Donna Malane, Felicity Young, Geoffrey McGeachin, Grant Shanks, Katherine Howell, Michael Robotham, Neil Cross, Ngaio Marsh, Paddy Richardson, Peter Temple, Robert Gott, Sulari Gentill, Vanda Symon, Wendy James, Y.A. Erskine

You Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover…*

Covers…Or can you? It’s a fact of life for the book-lover that there are far more good books to read than there is budget or time to read them. That means that most of us have to pick and choose among the many offerings. In some cases the choice is easy. We all have a list of authors whose work we look for and buy eagerly. And sometimes we get recommendations from people we trust. That makes it fairly easy to choose a book too. But what about the rest of the great books out there? What makes a reader pick up and flip through Book A as opposed to Book B? One answer is…the book’s cover. Covers aren’t the only basis of course on which we decide whether to read something or not, but they can really influence our decision.

For example, covers can give the reader a lot of information about the sub-genre of a crime fiction novel. Cosy mysteries tend to have covers that are quite different to the covers you see on other kinds of crime fiction. Just take a peek at these two examples. On the left is the cover of Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Quilt or Innocence, which features retired art expert Beatrice Coleman. Just a quick look will tell a reader that this is a cosy novel. There’s no violence depicted on the cover and it’s got a ‘folksy’ look to it. Now take a look at the cover to the right, of Vanda Symon’s The Faceless. Without knowing anything about the plot or characters you can tell right away that it’s a darker novel and most likely not a cosy.

quilt or innocThe-Faceless-13108015-5

You’ll notice something else too I’ll bet about the cover of The Faceless. It’s done in attention-getting shades of black and red. Of course the purpose is to set it off from other novels. That’s part of the reason for which the covers of my two novels (Check my sidebar to see what I mean) have so much red in them. Same point.

One of thegarnethill-cover_custom-747c30ad0b7854591d77bb8ca99505d5dd280edd-s6-c10 other things a useful book cover does is tell the reader something about the story. In fact I know several book lovers who get very cranky if the book cover doesn’t reflect the story. Here for example is the cover of Denise Mina’s Garnethill. The real action in that story begins when Glasgow ticket-taker Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell wakes up after a long night of drinking only to find the body of her former boyfriend Douglas Brady in her living room. Brady’s body is tied to a chair, and although the cover isn’t ‘busy’ you can tell something about the story just by looking at it.

You see the same thing on this cover of Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town. There’ve actually been several covers for that particular novel, but what works for this one (at least in my opiniolullaby-town-robert-crais-cd-cover-artn, so do feel free to differ with me if you do) is that it gives a powerful message of what the story is about. In Lullaby Town, private investigator Elvis Cole is hired by powerful Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson. Nelson wants Crais to find his ex-wife Karen and their twelve-year-old son Toby, mostly because he wants to get to know Toby better and start really being a father to his son. Cole reluctantly agrees and he and his partner Joe Pike trace Karen and Toby to a small Connecticut town. What they don’t know at first is that finding Nelson’s ex-wife and son is going to lead them right into the path of the local Mob. If you take a look at this cover, you see the focus both on film and on the boy. It gives a strong clue about the story.

Some books, especially if they are part of a series, are ‘branded’ on the cover as being a part of that series. The books in the Lilian Jackson Braun’ Cat Who… series, for instance, have a very similar look and distinctive ‘paw marks’ on the cover to indicate that they’re part of this series. The-Cat-Who-Lived-High-9780613063784Here’s an example: it’s the cover of The Cat Who Lived High. In that novel, newspaper columnist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran investigates the murder of art dealer Diane Bessinger. He gets involved in this case when he agrees to save the Casablanca apartment building from being demolished. While he’s working to save the building Qwill says in the apartment Bessinger used to have and thereby gets drawn into the investigation of her murder. You can see by this cover not just that it’s a Cat Who… mystery (check out the ‘paw prints’) but also something about the story.

Some book covers take advantage of television or film adaptations and tie in with them. That’s got the advantage of recognition for readers who perhaps have seen an adaptation and may be interested in trying the series. To show you what I mean, here’s one of the covers for Colin Dexter’s The Way Through the Woods. The cover features the incomparable John Thaw, who of course starred in the Inspector Morse series and who was Morse (at least in my opinion).The Way Through the Woods

All of those things (shades and choice of colour, ‘brand markings’ tie-ins with adaptations and things and what’s depicted on the cover) are often very carefully chosen to get you to take notice. There are other strategies too that are used to attract your attention. Cover art is a big concern to a lot of publishers.

But does it work? What do you think? Do you choose to read or not read a book based on the cover? At the very least do you pay attention to what’s on the cover? If it matters to you, what do you look for? What puts you off? Fellow writers, what are your thoughts about the covers of your books and stories?

Want to read more? Check out this excellent post on covers from mystery novelist and superb blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig.


ps I know there are several aspects of this topic that I haven’t mentioned here (e.g. how covers have changed over time and the e-reader’s effect on covers). But there’s only room for so much in any one post…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Willie Dixon’s You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover, made popular by Bo Diddley.


Filed under Colin Dexter, Denise Mina, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Lilian Jackson Braun, Robert Crais, Vanda Symon

How Do You Measure, Measure a Year?*

Measuring the YearIt’s interesting how the end of the year often gets us into a reflective mood, whether or not we make and keep New Year’s resolutions. It’s often a time for taking stock of oneself – well, it is for me anyway. And no, I promise this isn’t going to be one of those ‘Best of 2012’s Reading’ posts. You’ll be reading enough of those as the next weeks go by. Besides, I don’t like to ‘stay within the lines’ like that. But here are a few things I’ve noticed about my crime fiction reading this year. If they help you make some reading choices, then I’m glad to have been of service.



Book That Has Caused Me to Re-Think My Assumptions


Angela Savage – Behind the Night Bazaar

Y.A. Erskine – The Brotherhood

Roger Smith – Dust Devils

Martin EdwardsAll the Lonely People


Most of us, myself included, have a set of assumptions about, well, everything. About people from other groups, about how to make the world better, about how to solve the world’s problems. But those assumptions can blind us to the fact that very few of life’s problems and inequities have an easy solution. All of these books present difficult issues (e.g. poverty, human trafficking, questions of racial equity) that do not have an easy solution. And these authors are all to be commended for not offering pat solutions. All of these novels have caused me to question what I always believed, and that’s a good thing. The book that has most caused me to really question myself though is Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar. In that novel, PI Jayne Keeney investigates the murders of her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse and his partner Nou. The trail leads Keeney to some ugly truths about child trafficking and the sex trade. I think we’d all agree that something has to be done to keep children safe and to stop human trafficking. But Savage shows us, without preaching, that there isn’t a simple solution. Not until we question what we assume to be true can we look at the source of these problems and try to solve them. This isn’t an easy, light book, but it stays with me in part because it has invited me to stop and re-think everything I always ‘knew’ about human trafficking.



Book I Am Very Annoyed at Myself For Not Reading Yet


Michael Connelly – The Black Box

Ben Winters – The Last Policeman

Deon Meyer – Seven Days

Vanda Symon – The Faceless 


Here’s the thing. There are only twenty-four hours in a day, and seven days in a week. And one has to eat and sleep and pay bills, etc…   So there simply isn’t enough time to read it all. I am a fan of all four of these highly talented authors, so it has nothing to do with my interest in their books. It really doesn’t.  I will read all of these books. However, I am most angry with myself for not yet reading Vanda Symon’s The Faceless. Symon is the highly talented author of the Sam Shephard series, and I was very much looking forward to this standalone release. I still am. I promise, Vanda, I will read it. Very soon. Folks, if you haven’t yet read it, give it a try. Symon will not disappoint you.



Pattern in My Reading That I Didn’t Even Notice


I Have Read More Canadian Crime Fiction This Year.

I Have Read More French Crime Fiction This Year.

I Have Read More Australian Crime Fiction This Year, Mostly Written by Women.

I Have Read More Thrillers This Year.


Did you ever catch yourself in a new pattern that you weren’t even aware of? Well, this year I found myself, and I promise it was unplanned, branching out in all sorts of different reading directions. I’m glad for that, as I am a better informed crime fiction fan for it. I’m all for ‘stretching oneself’ as a reader. And I am truly grateful for those who’ve helped me do that this year. The pattern that I’ve most noticed – that seems the strongest – without me even being aware of it is that I’ve read a whole lot more crime fiction by Australian women writers than I had before. This year I’ve read some terrific work by Sandy Curtis, Virginia Duigan, Y.A. Erskine,  Kerry Greenwood, Wendy James and Angela Savage, among others. I’m so glad I ‘met’ these wonderful ladies from down under. To all of you, thanks for sharing your work with us, and it is my great pleasure to mention it on my blog. Want to read some terrific crime fiction by Aussie women writers? Sure ya do! Check out Fair Dinkum Crime, which is the source for all Australian crime fiction. And check out the Australian Women Writers challenge. Go ‘head. You’re in for a real treat!



New Character I’ve Met This Year That I’d Love to Have a Drink With


Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant

Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney

Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe

Alan Orloff’s Channing Hayes


All of these sleuths are absolutely terrific characters whom I’m really happy that I met. They’re all smart, interesting and I’m sure they’d be a lot of fun to know in person. My vote, by a slim margin (‘cause they’re all great characters) is Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant. Quant’s smart, thoughtful, interesting, and knows lots of cool places to eat and drink. I could truly enjoy sharing a bottle of good wine and swapping stories with him. His would probably trump mine by a long shot. Check out all of these protagonists, folks – they’re all worth getting to know.



Author Whose Next Release I Am Most Eager For (Fingers are Drumming and I’m Waiting……Still Waiting…)


Paddy Richardson

Adrian Hyland

William Ryan

James Craig


All of these authors have wowed me with their novels. And now that I’ve gotten hooked it’s really very unfair to keep me waiting. Come on, you folks!! Next novel, please!!!!!!  There are a few other authors who’ve gotten me hooked (e.g. Elizabeth Spann Craig and Donna Malane), but I know when their next books are coming out, so I’ll be patient. But I am especially eager to read the next book by… Adrian Hyland. Hyland’s Emily Tempest series is one of the finest series I’ve read, and I really truly hope there’ll be a new one soon. A-a-a-hem, Mr. Hyland!!!

So there you have it. A few reflections on my own reading as we face the last few weeks of 2012. Now, please don’t ask me which book I’ve liked most of all I’ve read this year. First of all, the year isn’t over yet. Secondly, I couldn’t narrow it down.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jonathan Larson’s Seasons of Love.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Alan Orloff, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Ben Winters, Deon Meyer, Donna Malane, James Craig, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Paddy Richardson, Roger Smith, Vanda Symon, William Ryan, Y.A. Erskine

Hang On, Help Is On Its Way*

One of the characteristics of some great crime fiction sleuths is that they roll up their sleeves, get to work and do what’s necessary. They don’t do it for the glory (in fact, there’s plenty of crime fiction that includes criticism of glory-seekers). They don’t do it because it’s easy or fun either. It usually isn’t. And they don’t do it just to help out a family member or a mate. They do what they do because it’s the right thing to do and because it needs to be done. Sleuths like that aren’t perfect of course, but they’re refreshingly free of self-pity or angst. Let me show you what I mean.

Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest is like that. In Gunshot Road, she’s just started work as an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO). On her very first day on the job, she and her team are called to a murder scene at Green Swamp Well, where Albert “Doc” Ozolins has been murdered. At first his death looks like the tragic result of a drunken quarrel with John “Wireless” Petherbridge. In fact the case looks so clear-cut that Tempest’s boss Bruce Cockburn wants final reports written up quickly and the team to move on to other matters. But Tempest isn’t so sure it’s that simple. For one thing, she knows Wireless and isn’t convinced he’d have killed Ozolins just because they had a quarrel. For another, little clues she finds suggest that something else might be going on. Tempest doesn’t ruminate about it; she does what’s needed and starts searching for answers. They lead to a case that’s much more than it seems on the surface. In the course of her investigation Tempest uncovers some truths that some very powerful people want to keep hidden and that discovery gets her into terrible danger. In fact, she herself is attacked. And while the attack devastates her, she doesn’t give up or complain that “it’s too hard to do this.” Instead, she redoubles her efforts and in the end, gets to the truth of the matter.

That’s also what former attorney Jack Irish does in Peter Temple’s Bad Debts. When Irish gets a call from former client Danny McKillop, he’s inclined not to take it as an urgent matter at first. But then McKillop calls again, this time begging Irish to meet with him. By the time Irish follows up on McKillop’s calls it’s too late. Danny McKillop has been murdered. It’s not long before Irish connects this death to an earlier death. McKillop had served eight years in prison for the drink driving killing of Anne Jeppeson, an activist who’d been managing a protest against the closing of a Melbourne low-income housing estate. Irish represented McKillop in this case but didn’t handle the case well, which is one reason McKillop was in prison. After he gets word that McKillop’s been shot, Irish looks into both killings. He slowly uncovers connections between these two deaths, another death, and a great deal of greed and high-level corruption. He doesn’t do it because it’s easy. In fact, a couple of times he’s in real danger and at one point he almost gives up completely. And the case means he has to face his own personal “baggage.” Rather, Irish follows through on this case because he has to, because he feels he owes it to McKillop’s family, and because in the end, it’s the right thing to do.

That’s why Vanda Symon’s  DC Sam Shepherd does what she does, too. In Containment, for instance, Shepherd does her best to help restore order when a ship runs aground at the entrance to Otago Harbour. The ship’s cargo spills overboard and it’s not long before there’s looting and fighting over the contents of the containers. At one point in the mêlée, Shepherd is attacked when she tries to break up a fight between two of the looters. She’s not gravely injured but her attacker is hurt badly enough to need an ambulance. What really shows Shepherd’s character is that she goes with the attacker to the hospital and in fact saves his life when he nearly dies along the way. Meanwhile, Shepherd’s investigating another case – what looks like a diving accident. When it’s shown that the victim was murdered and stuffed into his wet suit after his death, Shepherd starts tracking down a killer. As it turns out, the two cases are related. Neither case is an easy one, but Sam Shepherd does what needs to be done. Although she’s by no means perfect, she also doesn’t whine and complain and give up because life gets very tough for her at times. She does what she does because it’s the right thing to do.

So does Andy Clark, whom we meet in Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. His daughter Elizabeth has had a mental breakdown and spends some time in hospital trying to recover. Elizabeth’s therapist is Stephanie Anderson, who’s just finishing her program in psychiatry in Dunedin. After some difficult work together, Anderson is able to help Clark begin to heal. Andy Clark is very grateful to Anderson, so when she takes a trip from Dunedin to her home in Wanaka, he offers her all of the hospitality of the Guest Home he runs. And he’s not the only one. Throughout Anderson’s trip, several people are helpful to her and many have never even met her before. They offer her hospitality and help because they decide to reach out. And Anderson can use all the help she can get. She’s taking the trip for a very special, very painful reason. Seventeen years earlier, her four-year-old sister Gemma was abducted and has never been found. Anderson found out that Elizabeth Clark’s younger sister Gracie was abducted in a similar way and now she wants to find the person responsible as well as lay her own ghosts to rest, so to speak. All through this novel we meet people who help even though they really don’t have to do so. And in the end Anderson is able to catch the person who devastated her family’s lives and begin to put the pieces of her own life back together.

Now, let me tell you about a group of people who’ve reached out, helped and done the right thing far more than any fictional detective: the proud members of the Anzac military forces. For nearly a hundred years, these brave men and women have sacrificed much, including their lives, to do the right thing and to help others. They’ve traveled far and fought honourably and well to defend people like me whom they’ll never meet.

On this Anzac Day (today or tomorrow, depending on when you read this), no words can really express the gratitude these people are owed. And honestly, I don’t know that a lot of gushing words would really be in order anyway. So I’ll just say this: I can post to this blog in part because of the Anzac forces who helped and still do help to ensure that I can. When you owe someone that much, what else can you say? But on my bucket list is attending a dawn Anzac Day service. I will do that some day.

And there are things you can do, too. For instance, you can support some wonderful Australian and New Zealand crime writers whose work deserves much wider readership than it gets. Don’t know where to start? I can help you there. Check out Fair Dinkum Crime for the latest and greatest on Australian crime fiction. There are terrific reviews there as well as news of what’s coming out. Check out Crime Watch, the best source I know of for what’s happening and what to read in the world of Kiwi crime fiction.

You can also give back in other ways. See that New Zealand flag on my sidebar? Mmhmm, that one. Click it. Go ahead. It’ll take you to the New Zealand government’s secure donation site for rebuilding Christchurch. Your donation goes directly towards the reconstruction of one of the world’s really beautiful cities.

Don’t want to donate there? That’s OK; find some other Kiwi or Australian charity with which you feel comfortable, like Australia’s Books in Homes or New Zealand’s Auckland Marathon. Or something else that suits you. Step up. Anzac does. Dare ya…

Kia Ora, Anzac.



ps. The ‘photo is of the New Zealand travel visa stamp on my passport. I’ve been there a few times and every time I’ve traveled there I’ve been treated not just professionally and courteously but kindly, warmly and helpfully. It’s a little nation with a very big heart.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Help Is On Its Way, by Melbourne’s own Little River Band.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Paddy Richardson, Peter Temple, Vanda Symon

Take it to the Limit One More Time*

Most people would agree that it can add interest to a crime fiction story or series if the sleuth or another major character has to deal with difficult or even traumatic situations. Those situations can raise the tension, give the sleuth more depths and add interesting layers to the story, too. And if the sleuth survives the situation and comes out stronger (or at least more evolved as a character) that can make her or him more interesting. But of course, there are limits, too. If the sleuth is put through too much and pushed too far, this can end up being gratuitous. And readers don’t like it if their favourite characters are pushed beyond their limits. So an author has to achieve a very tricky balance between adding some believable risk, loss, sadness and tragedy to a sleuth’s life (otherwise, the plot and the sleuth become flat) and putting the sleuth through unendurable and gratuitous horror (at which point readers rightfully rebel). The problem is that this line is subjective, and we all have different definitions of “gratuitous.” That said, though, it is also a very interesting balance and if it’s done well, achieving that balance can add much to a story or series.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury. Hunterbury is owned by wealthy Laura Welman, who’s taken quite a liking to Mary. In fact, Laura Welman’s niece Elinor Carlisle gets an anonymous letter one day saying that she and her fiancé Roderick “Roddy” Welman may be done out of their rightful inheritance if they aren’t careful. Although neither is greedy, both are accustomed to money and not interested in living without it. So, since Aunt Laura’s been ill lately anyway, they travel to Hunterbury. While they’re there, Roddy Welman sees Mary Gerrard for the first time in years and immediately becomes enamoured of her. This is a severe blow to Elinor, who’s very much in love with Roddy, more with him than he is with her.  Nonetheless, Roddy and Elinor manage to stay together and they leave Hunterbury once they see that all is well enough with Aunt Laura. Then, they get news that Aunt Laura has worsened and return to Hunterbury just before she dies. To Elinor’s grief, Roddy is even more smitten with Mary Gerrard.  Then one afternoon, Mary Gerrard is poisoned. The most likely suspect is Elinor, since she was jealous over Roddy’s feelings for the victim. There is also a financial motive, since there was every possibility that Aunt Laura would have changed her will in favour of Mary if she could have done so. And there’s physical evidence that links Elinor directly to Mary’s murder. So Elinor is arrested and tried, which adds more to her trauma. It doesn’t help matters that she’s Aunt Laura’s executrix and has to take on the responsibility of managing this large fortune. Local doctor Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor and sees how much she’s going through. So he asks Hercule Poirot to do whatever is necessary to clear Elinor’s name. Poirot agrees and investigates the case. He finds that Elinor Carlisle is by no means the only person with a motive for murder. In this case, the deaths of Laura Welman and Mary Gerrard have to do with a past secret. As the novel goes on, we can see how much Elinor Carlisle is going through and we feel sympathy for her even though she may be a murderer. In fact, her ordeal is so difficult that at the end of the novel, she is taken to a sanatorium to regain her mental health.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has gone through a lot, too. For one thing, he’s survived a very unpleasant childhood and lived through the murder of his mother. He’s also seen the horrors of the Vietnam War. Bosch gets put through a lot on the job, too. In The Concrete Blonde, for instance, he’s faced with a wrongful death lawsuit. He’d been tracking a serial killer known as The Dollmaker and strongly suspected that Norman Church was the man he wanted. Bosch ended up shooting Church and now, Church’s family is suing Bosch. As if that weren’t enough, during the trial, another body is discovered and this murder bears all the hallmarks of a “Dollmaker” killing. So Bosch has to deal not only with his own conduct in killing Norman Church, but also with the possibility that he may have killed the wrong man and that the real Dollmaker is still out there. And then in 9 Dragons, Bosch has to cope with every parent’s nightmare: he gets a frantic call from Hong Kong, where his daughter Maddie lives with her mother. Maddie’s been kidnapped and it looks as though her abduction might be related to a case Bosch is working. So he takes the first flight he can to Hong Kong and begins to search desperately for her, in the meantime trying to avoid getting killed himself. Bosch gets through this harrowing experience and all that comes with it, and although we get the feeling he’ll be back on his feet again, we also see the toll that it takes on him.

Vanda Symon’s DC Sam Shepherd has also been pushed to her limit in a few ways. In Overkill, she’s suspected of murder when Gabriella Knowes, the wife of Shepherd’s former lover, is found dead on the banks of the Maturana River. At first the death looks like a suicide, but when it comes out that the supposed suicide note she wrote was forged, it’s clear that she was murdered. Sam then has to deal with frustration, marginalisation and suspension. She is also the prime suspect and has a personal stake in the case. In Containment, Shepherd tries to help restore order when a ship runs aground near Dunedin and spills containers everywhere. Looting and fighting over the containers begins, and Shepherd tries to stop the chaos. She’s attacked by one of the looters, she has ongoing problems with her boss, and to make matters worse, things in her personal life aren’t very settled either. She’s having family problems and what’s more, her boyfriend tells her that he’s applied for a job that will move him to Dunedin – not something Shepherd is sure she wants. We get the strong feeling that Sam Shepherd is able to get through the things that happen to her, but that doesn’t make it any easier for her.

The same is true of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux. He carries several scars from his past, including the trauma associated with his service in Vietnam. In Black Cherry Blues, we learn that he still has nightmares about the murder of his wife Annie, which he couldn’t prevent even though he was present. And throughout the novels featuring him, he faces a continuing battle to stay sober. In A Morning for Flamingos, he’s shot and left for dead (neither the first nor the last time he’s injured), and he’s had more than one experience with being set up and betrayed. Robicheaux is a strong and complex character who’s sustained by that strength and by his love for his adopted daughter Alafair. Again, we have the sense that he will survive, but he is pushed to his limits.

So is Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson, a Stockholm tax attorney who’s originally from the far north town of Kiruna. In Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar), she returns to Kiruna when a former friend is arrested for the brutal murder of her brother and begs Martinsson to help clear her name. In the course of that investigation, Martinsson has a very traumatic experience which leaves her quite fragile. That doesn’t help in the next novel, The Blood Spilt, in which she gets involved in the investigation of the death of Mildred Nilsson, a priest whose body is found hung from a tree near the church she served. At the end of that novel, Martinsson has two terrible experiences that are so traumatic that she ends up being sent to a psychiatric facility so that she can begin to heal. She’s a very strong person although she is also vulnerable, so we get the feeling that she will survive. But she is pushed to the limits of her endurance.

And then there’s Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon. When the series featuring her begins, she’s recovering from the death of her husband and as a part of that healing, leaves New York City, where she’s been living. She becomes a park ranger for the National Park Service, where her job allows her to indulge her passion for the outdoors and for nature and its creatures. But life does not get any easier for Pigeon for that. She battles alcoholism and loneliness and her adventures frequently get her badly physically injured as well. There’s also plenty of psychological trauma in Pigeon’s life, as many of her cases cost her dearly. For instance, in Borderline, she faces the case of a young pregnant woman who’s running from a murderer, and in Burn, she has to cope with the reality of real brutality to children. Pigeon is a very sturdy character in her own way, so the reader knows she’ll probably heal. But her cases do take an incredible toll on her.

The question of how much to put major characters through is not an easy one. Too much trauma puts readers off. Too little difficulty and there’s a risk of a “flat” novel or series. What’s more, people have different definitions of what counts as “too much,” so striking that balance isn’t easy. But what do you think? Which authors do you think have struck a solid balance? What do you think counts as “too much?” If you’re a writer, is there a limit to what you’ll put your characters through? Do you find it hard to have things happen to them?




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles’ Take it to the Limit.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Nevada Barr, Vanda Symon