Please Don’t Leave Me*

returning-to-authorsAbout a week ago, I did a post on what happens when an author disappoints readers. That can happen for any number of reasons. For one thing, authors aren’t perfect. For another, there’s the matter of personal taste. An author may write a book that just isn’t to a reader’s taste, and that may disappoint. There are other things, too, that can leave a reader unhappy about a book.

At the time of that post, I asked you to let me know what you do when that happens. Do you come back to the author? Do you return if you’re a fan of that author’s work? If the disappointment wasn’t too serious? Or do you choose not to return to authors who’ve disappointed you?
 

Here’s what you had to say, and many thanks for responding.

 

returningtoauthors

 

As you can see, you’re a forgiving group of readers. Of the 22 of you who responded, 20 (91%) are willing to return to an author who’s disappointed you. Eight (36%) of you are usually open to returning in just about any case. Twelve (55%) will do so if you’re a fan of the author, and/or if the disappointment isn’t too upsetting. Two (9%) don’t return to authors who’ve disappointed you.

Why this willingness to return when an author’s let you down? After all, there’s only so much time available for reading. And there are many, many more good books available than anyone can read in a lifetime. Based on the comments you offered, and on what I’ve heard elsewhere, here are my thoughts (with which, of course, feel free to disagree)

One reason may be that you’ve seen that a given author is capable of writing excellent books. This gives you at least some confidence that a disappointing book is just one book, not a pattern. So you’re willing to return, because you’re fairly certain the payoff will be worth it. Of course, your patience probably has its limits (that’s a topic for another blog post, I think). But in general, you believe in authors whose work you really admire.

Of course, that explanation only accounts for those cases where you’re let down by an author whose work you love. What else might be going on? A few of you mentioned an extra willingness to try an author again if the disappointment came from a debut novel. Many authors need a novel or two to find their voices. Even Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was rejected numerous times before she finally found a publisher. And lots of Christie experts think her best novels came later. So you might be more willing to give a debut author another chance, with the hope that the second novel will be better.

There are personal factors involved, too. As one of you mentioned, you might have read that disappointing book at a time that just wasn’t right for it. Or when you were in the wrong mood for it. There’s the ‘personal taste’ factor, too. A book might tackle a subject that doesn’t interest you. And yet, you liked the writing style, characters, or something else about it. So, when the author has a new release (on a different topic), you’re willing to try it.

A few of you choose not to return to authors who’ve disappointed you, and that’s understandable. After all, no-one has the time to read everything. And we’ve all experienced the frustration of spending our time on a book that lets us down. Why set yourself up for that? In the main, though, you’re willing to try an author again, especially if it’s an author whose work you love, and/or the disappointment wasn’t too severe.

In looking at this and reflecting on the question, I wonder whether there’s a difference between writers and people in other professions when it comes to trying an author more than once. Are writers more willing to forgive (because writers understand as few people can how difficult it is to write a book)? Or, are they harsher critics (because they see ways in which the book could have been improved that non-writers may not)? What do you folks think about that? If you’re a writer, does that fact make you more forgiving?  Less forgiving? Or doesn’t your writing impact your willingness to give an author another chance?

Thanks again for your help with this question!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Norman Whitfield and Edward Holland, Jr.’s Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.

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Use Your Freedom of Choice*

banned-books-week-2016In a recent post about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I mentioned that it could be thought of as a crime novel. Certainly there’s an argument that it has several of the elements we often see in crime fiction, especially in noir stories. Whether you agree that it’s a crime novel or not, I think it’s safe to say that the book has earned its place as a classic of literature.

So, we could argue, has Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In one sense, it’s a coming-of-age story as Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch learns about friendship and about the consequences of judging people and events by appearances. She also learns important lessons about ethics and about justice from her father, attorney Atticus Finch. This could also be seen as a crime novel. After all, a main plot thread concerns Tom Robinson, a black man who’s been accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Robinson claims he’s innocent, and Atticus Finch defends his case. Because of the time and place that form the book’s setting, the proverbial dice are very much loaded against Robinson. The case, the trial and its outcome have become iconic, and you could certainly classify the novel on that score as crime fiction.

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood counts as crime fiction as well. This novel is the fictional account of the 1959 murders of Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife, Bonnie Mae, and his children, Nancy Mae and Kenyon. Richard Hickok and Perry Smith were arrested, tried and convicted of the crime, and it turns out that their motive was money. The killers had heard during an earlier prison stint that Clutter had a lot of money buried on his farm. That wasn’t true, but Hickok and Smith believed that it was, and that was enough to seal the Clutters’ fate. This story explores the histories of the two killers, their relationships, and the impact on a small Kansas community of the Clutter murders. This novel has become iconic among what I think of as ‘untrue crime’ – fictional retellings of real murder stories.

There’s no debating whether John Grisham’s A Time to Kill is crime fiction. In this novel (Grisham’s debut), Clanton, Mississippi attorney Jake Brigance gets an extremely important and difficult case. Carl Lee Hailey has been arrested for shooting Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard, as well as for wounding a police officer. There’s no doubt about whether he did the shooting; there were witnesses. And it doesn’t help his case that he’s black and the victims are white. But the case is not at all simple. Cobb and Wilson had recently attacked, beaten, and raped Hailey’s ten-year-old daughter, Tonya. There’s a great deal of sympathy for Hailey, and many people say privately that they’d have done the same. At the same time, vigilantism can’t be condoned. Hailey knows Brigance, and asks for him specifically when he is arrested. Brigance likes Hailey, and certainly understands why he did what he did. And Brigance knows that this case will generate a lot of media attention – the kind that propels attorneys into very well-paying positions. So he agrees to defend Hailey. This novel proved to be the beginning of an extremely highly-regarded writing career for Grisham. And the story itself has gotten all sorts of praise.

So has David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. That novel’s focus is the murder trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, a Puget Sound fisher. He’s alleged to have murdered another fisher, Carl Heine, Jr. Alvin Hooks prosecutes the case; Miyamoto is defended by Nels Gudmundsson. As the trial proceeds, we learn that the histories of the two families involved goes back to the time before World War II. Miyamoto’s father had made a deal with Heine’s father to, in essence, protect his family’s land, since Japanese immigrants weren’t allowed to own land. The idea was that the Heine family would ‘officially’ own the land, but would return it to Kabuo Miyamoto (who was born in the US, and is therefore a citizen) when he turned 20, and could take possession of it. Things haven’t turned out that way, and there’s a great deal of anger, resentment, and prejudice involved in this case. This novel has won prizes and been adapted both for film and for stage.

All of these novels are well-regarded as literature, and as crime novels, too. But they have something else in common. They’ve all been banned or challenged. There’ve been different reasons for banning/challenging in each case, but the end result has been an attempt to keep those books from being circulated in libraries and in classrooms.

These are just a few of the many, many novels that have faced banning/challenging. Sometimes the challenge comes from individuals or local/regional groups. Sometimes it comes from governments. Here’s the thing about banning, though. It doesn’t just restrict access to a particular book, author, or topic. It’s an attempt to restrict thinking and critical reasoning. What’s more, it can prevent people from reading truly fine novels.

But banning doesn’t really stop people getting ideas. It doesn’t prevent curiosity, reflection on the human condition, or interest in certain topics. So banning doesn’t work in terms of keeping people from thinking.  It can, though, prevent open discussion and debate about what’s in a book. And that in turn keeps us from dealing with issues we need to face.

This week (25 September – 1 October) is Banned Books Week in the US. It’s intended to call attention to efforts to ban books, and to remind us to preserve our freedom to read what we wish, and our freedom to write what we wish. I, for one, cherish this right. That’s how ideas are created, shared, debated, and refined. And that’s what moves us forward. Yes, writers are responsible for what they write, with all of its consequences. But they should not be prevented from telling their stories. And readers should not be prevented from experiencing them.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Devo’s Freedom of Choice.

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Science Lab ;-)

science-in-crime-fiction-quizEveryone’s back in school for the autumn or spring term. It’s time to tackle those chemistry labs and biology experiments! All of this has put me in mind of…

 
 
 
 

…a quiz! Oh, stop it! Did I force you to come to this blog today? I don’t think so!😉
 

Detectives couldn’t solve cases without good science. And as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know all of your crime-fictional scientists, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question to the correct answer and see how well you do.

Ready? Go into the lab to begin…if you dare!😉

 

sciencelab

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In The Spotlight: Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels don’t fit neatly into the conventional ‘crime novel’ structure. And that can be good for the genre, as it makes it more flexible and inclusive. That’s the sort of novel Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that story today.

Wealthy and successful São Paolo businessman Olavo Bettencourt has a life many people would envy. He has a beautiful home in an exclusive, well-guarded part of the city; he has a beautiful ‘trophy wife,’ Mara, and a healthy young son, Olavinho.

Olavo is an advertising executive, so he’s very much in demand by people who want their businesses to do well. And with Brazil’s government getting more open, political candidates are using advertising more and more. All of this draws Olavo into a web of corrupt deals and dirty business. He likes the money and power, and he certainly likes the ‘perks.’ But he’s really much more trapped in that web than he thinks. And his world is not nearly as perfect as he’d like to think it is.

Olavo’s vulnerability becomes all too clear when a gang decides to kidnap Olavinho. It’s a logical choice, since Olavo has a great deal of money, and would likely do anything he’s told in order to get his son back. The plans are made, and the gang sets everything in motion. On the appointed morning, the kidnappers wait near the Bettencourt home, where they’ll abduct Olavinho as he’s being transported to the private school he attends. But they end up kidnapping the wrong boy.

Instead of Olavinho, they’ve abducted the mute son of the Bettencourt’s housekeeper.  Now, the gang has to decide what to do with the boy they took, and what to do about their plans to kidnap the real Bettencourt son. For his part, Olavo has to decide what to tell the media and the police. After all, the more that’s known about him, the more vulnerable he is to criminal investigation.

As frantic efforts are made on both sides, the story follows the various people involved, and readers learn a great deal about how business is done in contemporary Brazil.

In one sense, this is a thriller. As the action plays out, there are various twists and turns in the plot. There’s violence, too. And the pacing is fairly swift. That said, though, (at least for me), the story doesn’t require the number of suspensions of disbelief that are sometimes seen in thrillers.

As the story unfolds, we get to know the characters, and we see beneath the public masks they wear. Olavo Bettencourt, for instance, is a much-disliked person. He is venal and corrupt, and thinks he’s a lot more important than it turns out that he is. He’s usually dismissive of his wife, treating her more as an ‘arm decoration’ for parties and a ready bed partner than an actual person. And he can be verbally cruel to her, too.

For her part, Mara is also deeply flawed. She’s clawed her way up from being a poor girl from the proverbial backstreets, and has done a lot of questionable things to get there. She likes having security and comfort, but she loathes her husband. And as the book goes on, she gets more and more disgusted with playing the role of his beautiful mannequin. To say the least, this isn’t what you’d call a functional family.

There are some sympathetic characters in the novel. For example, it’s easy to feel for Irene, the family housekeeper and mother of the boy who has actually been abducted. She sees everything that goes on in the family, and does what she has to do to survive in a country that offers few opportunities if you don’t have money.

And the country – contemporary Brazil – is an important element in the story. As we learn about Olavo’s many deals and the people behind them, we learn how politics, corporate money and wealth work together there. We also see some of the stark differences among the social classes. While it’s hard to have sympathy for the kidnappers, it’s not hard to see how one might take advantage of an opportunity for quick, easy money, where nobody’s supposed to get hurt.

The story is told from several different perspectives. There’s Mara’s, there’s Olavo’s, there’s Irene’s, and there’s the point of view of one of the kidnappers. There are also other characters whom we meet. Readers who prefer one point of view will notice this.

It’s also worth noting that this novel isn’t told in a linear, chronological fashion. It begins with the kidnapping and its fallout, and then slowly tells the story of what led to it. Then the story continues with the aftermath, approaching it from a variety of perspectives. Readers who prefer a story to be told chronologically will notice this. Each section is identified by the date and time, so it’s a straightforward business to work out when the events happen. But it does ask for attentiveness.

This isn’t a light novel with a happy ending. But there are signs that life will go on. Some of the characters make choices that suggest that things will get better; and we can see how some things will be all right again. The ending leaves the door open, as the saying goes.

Happiness is Easy takes a look at modern Brazilian society through the means of a high-profile kidnapping and its aftermath. It features some not-very pleasant characters (and some sympathetic ones), and raises some important questions about corruption, wealth and what really ‘counts’ as valuable. But what’s your view? Have you read Happiness is Easy? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 3 October/Tuesday, 4 October – The Good Boy – Teresa Schwegel

Monday, 10 October/Tuesday, 11 October – Inside the Black Horse – Ray Berard

Monday, 17 October/Tuesday, 18 October – The Gentlemen’s Club – Jen Shieff

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They’re Tearing it Down Now, But it’s Just as Well*

changesChange is often difficult, even if the change is a good one. It upsets the status quo and it means that we have to get used to something new. And that can be very hard. Yet, as we all know, change is inevitable. It’s how we grow as a society and individually. So it’s really not a question of whether there’ll be change, but how we respond to it.

That feeling of tension as things change can add a great deal to a crime novel (or any novel, really). For one thing, showing the way people respond to change can add a layer of character development. And change in general can add an interesting layer of tension and even conflict to a story.

For example, one of the plot threads in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d) has to do with the coming of council housing to the village of St. Mary Mead. It’s something quite new for the people who live there, and not everyone is happy about it. Many people liked the village just as it was. But Miss Marple knows that change is inevitable, so fighting it probably won’t do much good. In fact, she’s curious about what the new housing is like. So one day, she takes a walk in the new part of town. Unfortunately, she twists her ankle and ends up with a mild, but painful, injury. She’s rescued by Heather Badcock, who lives in one of the new houses. As they talk, she learns that Heather is a major fan of famous actress Marina Gregg, and is excited that her idol has bought a house in the area. On the day the re-done house is opened to the public, Heather finally gets the chance to meet Marina Gregg. Shortly afterwards, she dies of what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. Since the cocktail was originally meant for the actress, the first theory is that she was the intended victim. But soon, Miss Marple sees that Heather was meant to be the victim all along. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Heather isn’t killed because she lives in a council house. But it does make for an interesting thread of tension in the story.

So does the coming of the mall and the mall culture in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. Before the advent of the mall, people did their shopping in downtown areas. When malls arrived, this made major changes in people’s shopping habits, their social lives, and the structure of many, many towns. This major change is the backdrop for this novel, in which we meet ten-year-old Kate Meaney. The story begins in 1984, when the Green Oaks Shopping Center opens in Kate’s small Midlands town. Kate’s a budding detective with her own business, Falcon Investigations. She thinks that there’s sure to be crime to investigate at the mall, so she spends a great deal of time there. Then one day she goes missing. Despite a massive search, she’s never found. Twenty years later, a mall security guard named Kurt starts to see a strange image on his security camera – a girl who looks a lot like Kate. By chance, he meets Lisa Palmer, Assistant Manager at the mall’s music store, and the two form an awkward sort of friendship. Each in their own way, they go back to the past, and we learn what happened to Kate. Throughout the novel, we see the impact of the change from the ‘High Street’ concept of shopping to the ‘mall’ concept. A lot of people like it; many people hate and fear it. But everyone’s impacted by it.

Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond introduces to Superintendent Peter Diamond of the Avon and Somerset Police. He’s old-fashioned in a lot of ways, and one of them is his view of what detection really is. When the body of former television star Geraldine ‘Gerry’ Jackman is discovered in Chew Valley Lake, Diamond and his assistant, John Wigfull, investigate. Diamond is firmly convinced that cases are best solved through ‘legwork,’ talking to witnesses, and getting evidence. He has little patience for computer reports and other technology, as he feels that nothing beats old-fashioned sleuthing. One of the sub-plots in this novel is the tension between Diamond and those who feel that computers are a critical part of modern police work. Among other things, this novel shows the inexorable advance of computer technology and modern forensics techniques. It makes Diamond uneasy, but that change has transformed the way the police find answers.

A great deal of Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses take place in 1966 South East London. It’s a time of great social upheaval, including changes in the roles of women, experimentation with drugs and sex, and of course, all sorts of new forms of music. Caught up in this time of change are teenage sisters Bridget ‘Bridie’ and Madeline ‘Midge’ Dolan. They’ve been raised as ‘good girls’ from the working class; Bridie in particular is devoted to her Roman Catholic beliefs, and has an old-fashioned approach to life. But the two girls are fascinated by the music and the fashions of the times. So they wangle their mother’s permission to go dancing one Friday night at the Palais Royale. That evening ends in tragedy, and has a permanent impact on everyone involved. Throughout the novel, we see how unsettling some of the social changes are. While some people are excited about the new fashions, lifestyles, and social roles, there are others who want to keep the status quo.

There’s an interesting look at major social change in Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series. He’s a police detective in Madras (today’s Chennai) in the early 1920’s, the last years of the British Raj. There are many people who are pushing for Indian Home Rule, with all of the political and social changes that would bring. But there are plenty of people who like the status quo. Sometimes, it’s because they benefit from it. Other times it’s because they’re comfortable with it. Either way, that tension adds a great deal to the series. Le Fanu himself accepts that Home Rule will come at some point soon, and he’s ready to adjust to it. On the other hand, Arthur Jepson, Madras Commissioner of Police, is against Home Rule, and sees nothing but anarchy coming from it. It makes for an interesting difference (among many) between the men.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s 12 Rose Street. Political scientist and former academic Joanne Kilbourn Shreve gets involved in a major controversy over the Racette-Hunter Centre. Located in Regina’s impoverished North-Central district, Racette-Hunter is intended to benefit the community, but there are plenty of people who don’t want that change. Joanne’s husband, Zack Shreve, is running for mayor of Regina, and he’s the one who spearheaded Racette-Hunter. So both Joanne and Zack are affected when it seems that someone is trying to sabotage both his campaign and the project.

And that’s the thing about change. It makes a lot of people uneasy. But change is inevitable, and a lot of changes can be good. That tension can make for a very interesting thread in a mystery plot.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Catherine O'Flynn, Gail Bowen, Peter Lovesey, Steph Avery