Heard it From a Friend Who Heard it From a Friend Who…

WordofMouthvery interesting post on Elizabeth Spann Craig’s excellent blog has got me thinking about how we learn about authors and new books coming out. She makes the point (and she’s right) that the way we talk to each other about books has changed.

It used to be that book lovers would share their finds at book clubs, perhaps in bookshops themselves or sometimes with friends and family members. Those things do still happen. But today, there are more ways to share books than ever before. So the meaning of ‘word of mouth’ has changed.

I’ll just offer two examples; I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could. The Internet has made it possible for readers to find out about new books both from large online companies (you know the one I mean) and from publishers themselves. This means that smaller publishers can get a sense of what readers want. And it means that readers can discover books they might not have noticed in brick-and-mortar bookshops.

There’s also social media. Speaking strictly for myself, I’ve discovered some truly fine crime fiction through book blogs I trust – crime fiction I would never have heard of had it not been for blogging. For instance, I’ve become a fan of the work of Angela Savage, Geoffrey McGeachin, Anthony Bidulka and of course Elizabeth Spann Craig. I could give a long list of other examples too. And I would never have ‘met’ these particular authors if it weren’t for blogs.

But ‘word of mouth’ is much more than blogs. It’s also in places such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social networks. Dozens and dozens of posts and tweets mention this or that author, this or that release and this or that great new book. In a lot of ways, this new kind of ‘word of mouth’ has made it more possible than ever for authors who aren’t exactly household names to get their work out there. That is, if the author is comfortable with social media and is willing to make the time and do the work to use it as the powerful tool it can be. And it makes it more possible than ever for readers to discover a deep and rich treasure trove of authors and books. All of this is very good for the genre. The more good books out there, the better for the genre. The more readers interested in those books, the better for the genre. And it keeps busy crime writers everywhere very happy. ;-)

But here’s the thing. That much word of mouth can also have drawbacks. One of them is ‘noise.’ Let me explain what I mean. In her post, Spann Craig mentions 50 Shades of…well, you know what I mean, as an example of a book that got a huge amount of attention. As the saying goes, it went viral. That also happened with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. I’m not going to debate the merits of that particular series, other than to suggest that once something like that does ‘go viral,’ there’s a great deal of pressure – call it peer pressure if you want to – to read, review and even enjoy the newest sensation. It’s everywhere in bookstores, it’s everywhere on reviews and so on. Are those ‘sensations’ good books? Some are. Some aren’t. But what happens is that that huge flurry of attention could well mean that other excellent books don’t get any.

That sort of ‘noise’ also means that there’s a great deal of pressure on other crime writers to ‘do what’s worked.’ If you’re a publisher or agent, that makes sense. A certain book happened to catch on (whether it’s a good book or not) and made a lot of money. Why wouldn’t a publisher or agent want to repeat that success? So it’s not surprising that what sometimes happens is that these folks begin to look for the same kind of thing from other writers. Of course this doesn’t happen in every case. But I wonder whether the success – the ‘going viral’ – of one or another book or series contributes to what can end up being ‘cookie cutter’ plots, characters and so on. After all, if this or that or the other kind of protagonist, sort of plot or kind of killer made a big hit for one author, why wouldn’t it be for another? Again, I’m absolutely not saying this happens in every case. I do think it may put a lot of pressure on authors though, unless they already have had some success of their own.

Another drawback of this new ‘word of mouth’ is that it creates an awful lot of stimulus for readers. We all make jokes about our TBR lists (no, I’m not telling you how many books are on mine!). But it’s no joke when one’s trying to sift through the myriad blogs, online reviews, e-zines and postings to choose something to read. No-one has the time to read all of the excerpts and reviews and make a fully informed choice. So we find ways to streamline the process. We go to only a small number of trusted blogs. Or we stick with a small number of authors we’ve discovered. Or we only read books that are on award shortlists. Or…or… This means there are a lot of talented authors out there whose work we may never read.

It’s at least as big a challenge if you’re a crime writer. No matter how talented you are, it’s harder than ever to stand out from the crowd, as the saying goes, unless by some fluke you’ve written something that gets a lot of attention. Publishers know how hard it is to get people to read an ‘unknown’s’ work, so lots of them don’t accept such manuscripts. And they have very high expectations (for very logical reasons) for sales. Those expectations are hard to meet no matter how skilled a writer one is when there are so many other choices. And independent publishers, who may have more options when it comes to choosing authors, have to work all the harder to get ‘their’ authors’ work in people’s hands. What’s more, even if a crime writer does get a contract from a publisher, there’s no guarantee of any kind of long-term relationship. A lot of authors of my acquaintance don’t get more than 2- or 3-book contracts, even if they’ve had solid sales.

Does this mean I think that the new ‘word of mouth’ is a bad thing? Absolutely not! I think having more choices out there is very, very good for the genre. As a reader, I may be bewildered by the sheer number of new novels available, and I may sometimes be disheartened by the long list of books I’ll never have the time to read. I may occasionally have to repair dents in my wall made by throwing a book that was a waste of my time and money. But I want all of those choices. I’m glad of the array of books available to me, both in paper and electronic form. I’d hate my reading options to be limited.

As a crime writer, I get more than disheartened (Please. Don’t ask.) when I think about how difficult it is to get people to read my novels and to get a publisher interested in publishing the ones that aren’t out yet. It’s sometimes very hard to make the time and expend the energy to keep up an online presence that will (hopefully) get people’s attention in a non-obnoxious way. And all of these things happen in part because there are a lot of other crime writers out there, some of them far more talented than I will ever be. So readers have a lot of options to choose from, and that means I have to work very, very hard to be heard. But that’s not a bad thing. Hard work makes me a better writer (I hope!). And the new ‘word of mouth’ means that I learn from what successful folks are doing. I’m getting better because of what I’ve seen and read. And that’s good for me and good for my writing.

In the end, the new ‘word of mouth’ is like a lot of other new things. It’s neither all good nor all bad. It takes adjustment, it brings on a lot of different challenges, and it’s got different potential payoffs. And whether we like it not, as readers and as writers, it’s something that seems to be here.

What do you think about all of this? How do you as a reader sort through all of today’s ‘word of mouth’ to find authors and books to love? If you’re a writer, how do you make today’s ‘word of mouth’ work for you?

Thanks, Elizabeth, for the inspiration!
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REO Speedwagon’s Take it on the Run.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Geoffrey McGeachin

So Dance in the Light of the Land That They Call Cape Town*

cape-town-photoFor a lot of people, Cape Town has a sort of exotic mystique about it. Possibly because it’s been an important port for hundreds of years, it’s been influenced by many cultures, food traditions, language backgrounds and so on. As you’ll no doubt know, Cape Town has been the home of indigenous African people; Dutch, French and English settlers; Afrikaners; and people from India and other parts of Asia.

The Cape region of South Africa is visually beautiful, too, and there’s a lot to love about it. There’s good food, world class wine (trust me), fine music, rugby and more. And when I was there, I met plenty of courteous, helpful people from all sorts of different ethnic groups. But that doesn’t mean it’s a idyllic place. Cape Town has a high population, a great deal of diversity, and socioeconomic divisions. Like the rest of South Africa, it’s also facing the challenge of forming a new kind of post-apartheid society. All of these factors, plus the challenges that all modern countries face, can make for tension and conflict. So it’s no surprise at all that there’s plenty of crime fiction set there.

Agatha Christie mentions Cape Town in a few of her stories. In one of them, The Man in the Brown Suit, we meet Anne Bedingfield. She’s recently lost her father and is now alone in the world as the saying goes. She’s got very little money, but a strong sense of adventure. One day, she happens to be in an underground station when she witnesses a man fall to his death from the train platform. In the chaos that follows the recovery of the dead man’s body, Anne happens to get hold of a piece of paper the man had. When she first reads it, it doesn’t make much sense to her but it’s not long before she deduces that it refers to an upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. With nothing much to keep her in London, Anne buys passage on the ship and soon gets involved in a web of intrigue, jewel theft, and fraud. Cape Town may not be exactly a peaceful place, but for Anne, there’s as much excitement as there is real danger.

While Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series isn’t really set in Cape Town, it gives a solid sense of life in South Africa during the first decades of apartheid. It was a time when every aspect of life (professional, personal, spiritual, medical, etc…) was segregated by ethnic group, and when the non-White majority population were disenfranchised. Apartheid as an institution ended twenty years ago. Still, South Africa is coming to terms with what those policies really meant, what removing them means for a new society, and how to move on. We see that uncertainty in several crime fiction novels and series.

One of them is Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. In that novel, journalist Robert Dell, his wife Rosie and their two children are taking a drive one afternoon when their car is ambushed and goes over an embankment. Dell survives, but the other members of his family are killed. It’s not long before the police go after Dell, accusing him of murdering his wife and children. He claims he’s innocent, but it’s soon clear that someone has set him up. Before he knows it, he’s been imprisoned. He has an unlikely rescuer in the form of his estranged father Bobby Goodbread. Goodbread and his son fell out over, among other things, their different views about apartheid. Goodbread was pro-apartheid and fought against the government’s dismantling of those policies. Dell on the other hand feels quite differently. In fact, one of the major sources of contention between the two men is that Rosie was non-White. Despite their differences, the two men have one thing in common. Each wants to go after the man who ambushed Dell’s car: Inja Mazibuko. He’s a native of Zulluland who’s on his way there to get married. As Goodbread and Dell go in search of Mazibuko, we get a look at some of the difficult issues that South Africa is facing as the country works towards a new social order.

Like most of South Africa, Cape Town and the Cape region are home to hundreds of species of rare animals and plants. Protecting that ecosystem means that South Africa has to balance the needs of those species with the realities of economics, valuable tourism and the demand for development. It’s not an easy balance to achieve and it’s taken up in, among other books, Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari. Jacobus le Roux was an avid conservationist who worked on a project at Kruger National Park. When he disappeared twenty-five years earlier, everyone assumed he’d been killed in a skirmish with poachers. But one day, his sister Emma sees a television show about a wanted man named Cobie de Villiers – a man who looks exactly like her brother. Could the two men be the same person? If so, why hasn’t Jacobus ever contacted her? Emma wants answers, so she hires Cape Town professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to accompany her to the Lowveld and find out the truth. It turns out that the real truth about Jacobus le Roux is tied up in greed, corruption and ugly environmental and sociopolitical realities. Throughout the novel, one of the topics of debate is how South Africa should preserve the ecosystem, and whether that can be done without sacrificing the economy.

And then there’s Margie Orford’s Gallows Hill, the fourth in her Clare Hart series. Hart is an investigative profiler who’s called in when a dog makes a grisly discovery: a large group of bones in the area where Cape Town’s gibbets used to be. Most of the bones are upwards of 200 years old, and could be slaves or condemned prisoners. But there’s one set of bones that’s quite different. These bones, the remains of an unidentified woman, are only about 20 years old. The finding of the bones causes a lot of controversy, since the area had been set aside for a big development project. And there’s the important question of who the woman was and how her body ended up among the much older remains. SAPS Captain Riedwaan Faizal, who is Hart’s partner as well as her professional colleague, works with her to find out the truth about this murder. Among other things, this novel brings Hart and Faizal up against corporate greed, the politicians who benefit from that greed, and corrupt police who help make sure that nothing changes.

Cape Town is of course only one part of a varied country. It’s beautiful, vibrant, energetic, sometimes violent, and full of history. These are just a few novels that take place there. Which have you enjoyed?
 

ps. The ‘photos I took there during my trip weren’t particularly good. So….thanks, African Outposts, for this beautiful one.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fourplay’s Cape Town.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Deon Meyer, Malla Nunn, Margie Orford, Roger Smith

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

Crime Fiction News Break


 
 

Links You’ll Want

 

Agatha Raisin and the Blood of an Englishman

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death on Sky TV

Elena Forbes

2014 Ngaio Marsh Award Winner

2014 Ned Kelly Award Winners

CWA 

Left Coast Crime

Crime Book Club

Rebecca Bradley

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In The Spotlight: Peter James’ Dead Simple

>In the Spotlight: Mary Higgins Clark's While My Pretty One SleepsHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. In real life, most murder cases aren’t solved by one or even two people. They are solved by a team of people with sets of skills who work together. That ‘ensemble effort’ can add much to a novel or a series. Let’s take a look at how it works in a police procedural series; let’s turn the spotlight today on Peter James’ Dead Simple, the first in his Superintendent Roy Grace series.

As the novel begins, four young men are out on a ‘stag night.’ The groom-to-be Michael Harrison has been known to play practical jokes, so his friends have arranged a ‘payback’ for him. They bury him in a coffin with a breathing tube, intending to rescue him in an hour or two, just to teach him a lesson. But then tragedy strikes. The vehicle Harrison’s friends have borrowed for the occasion is struck in a terrible accident, killing all of them but one, who’s comatose, and leaving Harrison stranded.

When Harrison doesn’t return after the accident, his fiancée Ashley Harper panics and contacts the police. DS Glenn Branson agrees to look into the matter and asks his friend Superintendent Roy Grace to come along. At first the two wonder whether Harrison decided to back out of the upcoming wedding and just disappear. But there’s no evidence of that. And once they meet beautiful, smart and accomplished Ashley Harper, it’s hard to see why he would have left her. All evidence is that they were a loving couple and he was eager for the wedding.

Ashley tells Branson and Grace that she doesn’t know what her husband-to-be’s friends had planned for him. She suspected they’d probably play a trick, but according to her, they never told her what it was. The only person who might know is Mark Warren, the groom’s best friend/best man and business partner. But Warren was out of town, and unable to join the stag party because of a delayed flight. So now Grace and Branson will have to start from the very beginning to find Michael Harrison, if he’s still alive.

Bit by bit, the two put together the story of what happened on that night, and slowly establish where Harrison went, with whom, and therefore, where he might be. They also do a little digging into Harrison’s background. And as they get closer to the truth, they discover that nothing is really as it seems. Was Harrison’s disappearance carefully pre-planned? Was it really an accident? The more the detectives learn about the case, the more clearly they see that this is much more than just a stupid stag prank gone tragically wrong. It’s a case of serious crime.

This is an ‘ensemble’ police procedural. So readers get to ‘meet’ a great number of professionals who figure into the search for a missing/perhaps dead person. There are uniformed officers, Traffic authorities, forensics people, and civil authorities too. James makes it clear that cases such as this require the co-operation of a number of people. Because it’s a police procedural, we also see how the detectives go about interviewing witnesses, gathering evidence, making sense of laboratory tests and the like.

Another element in this novel is the sense of urgency, which adds to the suspense. Grace and Branson know that if Harrison is alive, he may be in very grave danger. If so, they have to find him as quickly as possible. Contributing to this tension is the fact that the story is told from a variety of viewpoints, including Harrison’s own. As it slowly dawns on him that his friends may not be coming back for him, he gets more and more desperate. Readers who dislike alternating and variant points of view in a novel will notice this. That said though, James makes it clear throughout the story whose point of view is being shared.

Another element in the novels is the set of sub-plots and story arcs. In one of them, Branson is having difficulty in his marriage to his wife Ari. He loves their children very much, and he enjoys his ‘family time.’ But he is deeply devoted to his job, which of course doesn’t exactly thrill Ari. And then there’s the matter of Grace’s personal life. Eight years before the events in this novel, his wife Sandy disappeared. No trace of her was ever found, and she’s never contacted him. He’s been urged to move on, and has even dated once or twice, but hasn’t met anyone who interests him. But this isn’t a stereotypical case of the heavy-drinking, demon-haunted detective. Grace misses Sandy deeply, but it doesn’t debilitate him. And I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that there’s a funny story thread in which he experiences the modern online dating scene…

There’s also a story thread that concerns the employment of mediums and psychics to solve police cases. Grace has actually used a medium he knows a few times, and doesn’t really regret it. He doesn’t believe blindly in the man’s ‘powers,’ and he’s quite willing to say that his contact has been wrong sometimes. But his view is that the most important thing is to solve the case. If someone can be of genuine assistance, he’s glad to have the help. Grace is neither gullible nor naïve. He knows that his superiors don’t approve of such measures, and of course the media can’t resist making much of it when then the police engage the services of such people. But privately, he does think it’s sometimes worth consulting them. Lest you begin worrying that the solution to this mystery comes from ‘psychic flashes’ or the supernatural, though, fear not. The solution comes from hard police work and a little luck.

And it’s not a really happy solution. Readers who like mysteries where the case is neatly solved and the culprit led away in handcuffs will notice this. The story isn’t unbearably bleak, but those involved do not live ‘happily ever after.’ The mystery itself – the real truth about what happened to Michael Harrison – isn’t happy either. But readers who are tired of deranged psychotic serial killers need not fear. This isn’t about a serial killer. There is violence though, and some of it is unpleasant.

The novel is set largely in the area round Brighton and Hove, and James makes that clear. As the police search frantically for Harrison, readers get a look at that region:

 

‘Ashley Harper’s address was a tiny, Victorian terraced house close to a railway line in an area that had once been a working-class area of Hove, but now was an increasingly trendy – and expensive – enclave singles and first-time buyers.’

 

The local culture and the rainy weather are also depicted.

Dead Simple is a police procedural featuring an ensemble group of professionals, all of whom contribute in their ways to the solution. It introduces a dedicated Superintendent and his immediate team, and shows how the desperate search for a missing person affects everyone involved. But what’s your view? Have you read Dead Simple? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday 15 September/Tuesday 16 September – A Beautiful Place to Die – Malla Nunn\

Monday 22 September/Tuesday 23 September – Bangkok 8 – John Burdett

Monday 30 September/Tuesday 1 October – Murder at Honeychurch Hall – Hannah Dennison

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Filed under Dead Simple, Peter James