How You Gonna See Me Now*

ViewsoftheSleuthThere are several ways in which authors can help readers get to know their sleuths’ personalities. One of them is by manipulating point of view. Some crime novels are narrated by someone who isn’t the sleuth. That strategy allows for a really interesting perspective on the sleuth. We see the sleuth through another pair of eyes and that can be quite revealing, depending on who the narrator is. Other crime novels are told from the sleuth’s point of view, either in the first or the third person. This choice gives the reader real insight into the sleuth’s personality and way of thinking.

Both ways of telling a story have their advantages and disadvantages. And for the crime writer, both ways allow for the kind of misdirection, unreliable narration and so on that can make for a thoroughly engaging mystery. Let me just give a very few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

One of the best known examples of narrators other than the sleuth comes from Arthur Conan Doyle. His stories are by and large told from the point of view of Dr. Watson, whom Sherlock Holmes refers to as ‘my biographer.’ That choice allowed Conan Doyle to easily share an ‘outsider’s’ impression of Holmes’ physical appearance, as when Watson first meets Holmes in A Study in Scarlet. It also allowed Conan Doyle to keep the reader guessing, since Holmes often doesn’t reveal his deductions until nearly the end of the story. Conan created an interesting narrator in Watson, too. Watson is an intelligent and educated man and that’s the way he thinks. So in some ways his perceptions of the cases he and Holmes investigate are quite accurate. So are his perceptions of Holmes, whose faults he details honestly. But at the same time, he doesn’t deduce in the same way that Holmes does, so the choice of Watson as narrator allows for misdirection.

Interestingly enough, we see a very similar pattern in stories that feature Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Some stories are told from the point of view of Poirot’s friend Captain Arthur Hastings. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is told from the point of view of a village physician Dr. James Shepphard. And Murder in Mesopotamia is told from the point of view of a professional nurse Amy Leatheran. In those cases, we see Poirot from the outside.  Although we are often privy to the same information Poirot gets, we don’t really see the cases from his point of view until the end. This strategy allowed Christie to do a masterful job of misdirection. Hastings, for instance, is reasonably intelligent. He thinks the way a lot of us might. In fact, as Poirot puts it in Lord Edgware Dies,

 

‘In you, Hastings, I find the normal mind almost perfectly illustrated.’

 

Using other perspectives also allowed Christie to give readers a more or less candid look at her sleuth. After all, we’re none of us truly objective about ourselves, and Poirot is no different when it comes to that.  We see his brilliance as a detective, but we also see the eccentric, sometimes very unusual way in which he goes about solving cases. And we see his faults and flaws.

Rex Stout made the same choice – an ‘outside’ narrator – for his Nero Wolfe stories. Fans will know that these stories are told by Wolfe’s partner Archie Goodwin. Technically speaking, Goodwin is Wolfe’s employee. But although he won’t really admit it, Wolfe needs Goodwin as much as Goodwin depends on Wolfe. And that’s what makes Goodwin’s perspective on Wolfe so interesting. He is absolutely candid about his boss’ many quirks and faults. Through Goodwin’s eyes we see that as brilliant as Wolfe is (and he is!) he is also very much a human being. And that honesty comes partly from Goodwin’s knowledge that he’s a fine detective in his own right. It also comes from Goodwin’s savvy, wise-cracking sort of personality. At the same time though, Goodwin does respect Wolfe’s ability as a sleuth. And in stories such as Champagne For One, he depends greatly on that ability. It’s a very interesting way to show what Wolfe is like.

Of course, there are also many series and novels that are narrated from the sleuth’s point of view. Those too can give the reader real insights into the sleuth’s personality and character. And when they’re done well, they can provide plenty of misdirection and surprises. For instance, Anthony Bidulka’s PI series is narrated from the point of view of his sleuth Russell Quant. Quant is based in Saskatoon, although he does travel quite a lot in the course of his work. We learn a great deal about Quant through the way that he thinks, the choices he makes and the way he approaches cases. And as he interacts with other characters, we learn how they treat him and what they say to him; that too gives us insight into his character. That’s also one of Bidulka’s strategies for providing suspense and misdirection. Quant is human. Therefore he’s wrong sometimes. He has weaknesses, biases and immaturity as we all do. So although the reader knows what Quant knows, that certainly doesn’t mean that the reader knows everything about a case too early in the story.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels are, for the most part, told in the third person. But they are told from Bosch’s point of view. As we follow his thought patterns and see the way he treats others and vice versa, we get real insight into the kind of person he is. We know his rationales for doing things, and we how developments in his cases and in his personal life affect him. This all gives us a solid perspective on his character. Connelly also uses Bosch’s point of view to add tension and to misdirect the reader. Bosch is a good cop and a dogged one, but he’s not perfect. He’s wrong sometimes, he’s distracted sometimes, and he can’t be everywhere at once. So even though we know what Bosch knows, there’s still plenty of opportunity for surprise and suspense.

Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series is also told from the points of view of her sleuths Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson. This allows Griffiths to give readers deep insight into what these characters are like. And that’s just what also provides Griffiths with tools for building suspense, for adding misdirection and other plot twists, and for creating story arcs. Galloway and Nelson are human and therefore, fallible. And even though there are two of them, meaning a broader perspective on a given case, this doesn’t mean they know everything. So there’s still plenty of opportunity for twists and turns in the series.

There are just a very few examples of the way authors show what sleuths are like. Do you have a preference when it comes to point of view? If you’re a writer, how did you choose the point of view your stories take?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Alice Cooper, Bernie Taupin and Dick Wagner.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elly Griffiths, Michael Connelly, Rex Stout

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle ;-)

EarthDayAs I write this, it’s Earth Day. It’s a time to think about ways we can promote good stewardship of the planet. It’s also a good time for…

…a quiz!  Oh, stop it! No-one forced you to come here today, right? Right? I thought not! ;-)

 

We all know that it’s important to take care of the environment. And as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know all of the crime novels where environmentalists play a role, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question to the correct answer. When you’ve finished, just leave me your email address and I’ll get your score back to you right away.

 

Ready? Use the Recycleables bin to get started – if you dare… ;-)

 

Recycle

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I Lead a Life of Crime*

CrimeFictionLove…well, of crime fiction, anyway. Talented poet, bibliophile and online friend Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write has invited me to come clean about how I got addicted to crime fiction. I’m honoured and excited!

Please come pay me a visit at Finding Time to Write, where I talk about how I got hooked on crime fiction. And while you’re there, be sure to have a look around and check out Marina Sofia’s stories, poetry, book reviews and lovely ‘photos. It’s a blog well worth a place on your blog roll.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.

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In The Spotlight: Archer Mayor’s Paradise City

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Authors who write series (as opposed to standalones) face the challenge of welcoming new readers no matter where they start. On the one hand, new readers won’t feel they can fully enjoy a story if there are too many story arc developments, ‘inside jokes’ and so on. On the other, fans of the series will be put off if everything is explained in every novel. It’s a tricky balance. Let’s take a look today at how authors strike that balance. Let’s turn the spotlight on Archer Mayor’s Paradise City, the 23rd in his Joe Gunther series.

For Gunther, who is with the Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VBI), the novel begins with a break-in and arson at an expensive mountaintop home. Because of the nature of the crime and the value of what’s been stolen, the local police have called in state authorities, and Gunther and his team get to work.

In the meantime, there’s another case in Boston’s exclusive Beacon Hill area. Wealthy Wilhelmina ‘Billie’ Hawthorn is awakened one night by burglars. When she confronts them, they attack her and I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that the attack ends up being fatal. Boston Police Detective Jimmy McAuliffe investigates the case, which puts him in contact with the victim’s granddaughter Mina Carson. Carson is determined to find out who killed her grandmother and begins to ask questions on her own.

Then there’s another break-in in Burlington, Vermont. And this incident has one important thing in common with the others. In most break-ins, thieves steal things that are easy to fence (e.g. flat-screen TVs and other electronics). But in this case, the loot is mostly antiques and jewelry. Those items are much harder to fence because it’s too easy to identify them and therefore, too easy to prove that they were stolen.

Little by little, leads from the break-ins and from Mina Carson show a connection to Northampton, Massachusetts. It’s an ‘arty’ sort of town in many ways, and it’s soon clear that someone there is buying up jewelry and antiques. With help from Northampton’s Police Chief Dan Siegel, Gunther and his team develop a plan to set up a base of operations in that town and begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together.  Meanwhile two more murders occur and the team has to figure out where they fit in with the rest of the case.

Mina Carson has also come to Northampton. She isn’t convinced that the Boston police are doing everything they can to find out who killed her grandmother, and is following the trail on her own. Each from a different angle, Gunther and his team and Mina Carson find out who is responsible for the break-ins, thefts and murder. It turns out that this is a much larger and more dangerous operation than anyone had thought it would be at first.

One of the very important elements in this novel is the teamwork among different branches of law enforcement. Once it’s clear that this case involves more than one jurisdiction, the Boston Police, the Northampton Police and the VBI work together to solve it. There is sharing of information and resources and we don’t see the vicious ‘patch wars’ that can crop up in large investigations. Readers also go ‘behind the scenes’ as the police gather information, set up operations and pursue leads.

The various New England settings are also elements in the novel. To take just three examples, there’s the ‘old wealth’ Beacon Hill setting, the ‘arty,’ diverse, offbeat community of Northampton, and there’s rural Vermont. It’s clear from the story that New England is a diverse region.

The characters in the story are also important elements. Joe Gunther is a widower with no children, so he dedicates a lot of time to the job. As he puts it:

 

‘Over the decades, he’d made a few adjustments – accommodating a couple of girlfriends and even a wife, who’d been taken by cancer in her twenties – but the fundamentals had remained.
As a cop, Joe was one of the lifers.’

 

There are some mentions of story arcs in Gunther’s personal life. For instance, there are some scenes with his former lover Gail Zigman, who is now Governor of Vermont. They’ve remained trusting friends and she has insight into his character. There are also several references to a deep personal loss Gunther has suffered. But those mentions and references are informative enough to welcome new readers without taking away from the story for fans.

The same is true of the characters on Gunther’s team. As an example, in one sub-plot, Gunther’s second-in-command Samantha ‘Sammie’ Martens and her partner Willy Kunkle (also on Gunther’s team) are going through a stressful time. They’ve recently had a baby, and of course, that changes everything for a couple. Mayor provides background on these characters so that new readers understand them a bit. But the main focus in the novel is the current plot.

Along with the members of Gunther’s team, there’s also the character of Mina Carson. She is tough, independent and determined to find out who killed her grandmother, to whom she was devoted. In her character we see the personal havoc that’s wrought when a loved one dies. She isn’t convinced that the police will do everything they can to solve the case, and she is too restless to sit by while they do the work. Readers who dislike it when civilians do what’s usually thought of as ‘police work’ will notice that Carson follows her own leads and takes her own lines of questioning. And there are consequences for her in doing this. That said though, it’s easy to see how someone would be devastated at the loss of a loved one and vengeful about it too.

Paradise City shows how different police forces work together when it’s necessary. It features a disparate but loyal group of cops led by a dedicated ‘lifer.’ And it takes place in a distinctive New England setting. But what’s your view? Have you read Paradise City? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlighti
 

Monday 28 April/Tuesday 29 April – The Red Queen Dies – Frankie Y. Bailey

Monday 5 May/Tuesday 6 May – A Nail Through the Heart – Timothy Hallinan

Monday 12 May/Tuesday 13 May – River Deep – Priscilla Masters

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Filed under Archer Mayor, Paradise City

It Was Committed Discreetly, It Was Handled so Neatly*

Good Places for a MurderSome places are especially good choices if you’re going to commit a murder. Not of course that I’m condoning that, but it is a lot easier to cover up a murder in some places than it is in others. For instance, in Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Inspector Fox investigate the death of Home Secretary Sir Derek O’Callaghan, who was giving a speech when he collapsed of a ruptured appendix. He’s rushed to a nearby nursing home run by his longtime physician Sir John Phillips, where he’s operated on immediately. He survives the operation only to die shortly thereafter of an overdose of hyoscine. Alleyn and Fox soon establish that the victim was murdered, and sift through all of the events of the operation to find the killer.  It doesn’t help matters that just about everyone who was involved with O’Callaghan, including his wife, had a motive for murder. What makes everything even more difficult is that, as Alleyn puts it, an operating theatre is a very good place for a murder. Everything is routinely disinfected, replaced, put away and so on, so critical evidence is lost. Alleyn and Fox do figure out who the killer is, but he’s right about how easy it is to cover one’s tracks, so to speak, in an operating theatre.

We also see that in Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger. Postman Joseph Higgins is taken to Heron Park Hospital with a broken femur and is scheduled for what’s supposed to be a routine operation. It doesn’t turn out that way though and Higgins dies during the procedure. Inspector Cockrill comes to the hospital to make what’s supposed to be a cursory inspection and fill out some paperwork. But Higgins’ widow insists that this is a case of murder. Then one of the nurses, Sister Marion Bates, says the same thing after having too much to drink at a party. She even says that she knows how the murder was accomplished. When she herself is found dead soon afterwards, it’s clear that Cockrill has a full-scale investigation on his hands. Part of his challenge is that the operating theatre is kept scrupulously clean and therefore, free of direct evidence. Everything is carefully stowed away after a procedure, too, so it’s very difficult to tell if anything was out of place or misused.

Of course, operating theatres aren’t the only good places to commit a murder. As Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun begins, a group of people on holiday is enjoying the sun at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Hercule Poirot is among the guests and he’s been asked whether he’s there on a case. He says that he isn’t and one of the guests then says,

 

‘This isn’t the sort of place you’d get a body.’

 

Here’s Poirot’s response:

 

‘Let us say, you have an enemy. If you seek him out in his flat, in his office, in the street – eh bien, you must have a reason – you must account for yourself. But here at the seaside it is necessary for no one to account for himself. You are at Leathercombe Bay, why? Parbleu! it is August – one goes to the seaside in August – one is on one’s holiday. It is quite natural, you see, for you to be here and for Mr. Lane to be here and for Major Barry to be here and for Mrs. Redfern and her husband to be here. Because it is the custom in England to go to the seaside in August.’

 

Poirot has a point. A tourist destination is an effective place for murder. Not only can a person be at a resort without having to explain why, but also, the victim may very well be more easily accessible. And we see exactly that when Arlena Stuart Marshall is strangled. It’s hard for the police to even work out where everyone was at the time she was killed. And what’s more, it’s very difficult to prove that the killer was deliberately there to commit murder. Poirot manages it, but it’s not an easy case.

Even when one’s not on holiday, the sea is an effective place for a murder. It can be hard to prove whether a drowning death was an accident, a suicide or a murder. And even if one can prove it was murder, evidence that points to the killer is hard to get. For example, in Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore, the body of local fisherman Justo Castelo has washed up on the shore near the small Galician town of Panxón. Vigo Inspector Leo Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez look into the case and soon find that this was not an accident. And yet, it is very unclear whether Castelo’s drowning was suicide or murder. It’s even less clear when it comes up that his death may be related to another death several years earlier. Castelo and two other men, Marcos Valverde and José Arias, were on a fishing boat with their captain Antonio Sousa. A sudden storm came up and Sousa drowned. None of the men has really said much about that night. It’s hard to say whether Sousa was murdered, drowned accidentally, or was killed through the other men’s negligence. So it’s very hard to tell whether Castelo committed suicide out of guilt or was murdered to keep him quiet. The case is made much more challenging because the water has washed away a lot of evidence.

We also see how effective a murder spot the sea is in Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel are taking a much-needed getaway break at Krabi, on the Thai coast. While they are there, they take a tour that’s led by a young woman nicknamed Pla. When Pla’s body is later found washed up in a cave, both Keeney and Patel are very upset about it. They work out an agreement to stay in Krabi for a few extra days to find out what happened to her. The official report is that she drowned accidentally or perhaps committed suicide by drowning. Keeney doesn’t think this was an accident, since the victim was an expert swimmer. Suicide can’t be ruled out, but it’s not long before Keeney suspects that this was murder. There’s not much to go on though, because the physical evidence isn’t conclusive, and the water has done its job washing away anything that could lead directly to the killer. In this case, the waterway has been a very wise choice for the murderer. That doesn’t stop Keeney investigating though…

M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Cad shows us another kind of very effective place for a murder: a hunting setting. Colonel and Mrs. Haiburton-Smythe have invited several guests for a week-end in honour of a visit by up-and-coming playwright Henry Withering. The Halburton-Smythes are hoping for the news of an engagement between Withering and their daughter Priscilla, so they want this to be a successful event. One of their guests is Captain Peter Bartlett of the Highland Dragoons. Bartlett is a boor who drinks too much, can’t leave women alone and treats the women who do get involved with him horribly. Bartlett makes a bet with another guest Jeremy Pomfret that he can shoot a brace of grouse before Pomfret can, and the two men agree to meet the following morning for the competition. But Bartlett leaves long before the agreed-upon time. Later his body is discovered, and it looks as though he’s been killed in a tragic shooting accident. There are other hunters about (both legitimate and poachers), so there’s nothing to say that this couldn’t have been an accident. And nothing specific links the death with anyone staying at the Halburton-Smythe home. So Superintendent Blair is inclined to call this a terrible accident and leave it at that. But Constable Hamish Macbeth isn’t so sure. And in the end, he is proven to be right.

It’s not easy though, and that’s the thing about really well-chosen places for murder. They make it very hard to prove that a death was anything other than accidental or suicide. And even when it’s clear that the death is a murder, it can be almost impossible to link that killing to a particular person. I’ve only mentioned a few examples here; I’m sure you can think of lots more than I can.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Surprises.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Christianna Brand, Domingo Villar, M.C. Beaton, Ngaio Marsh