Hooray For Hollywood*

Hollywood SetsThere’s something about Hollywood. Perhaps it’s the magic of how films are made, or perhaps it’s the behind-the-scenes drama that often goes on. Whatever it is, stories set in Hollywood just seem to have a certain mystique about them for many people.

It’s a natural setting for a crime novel or series, too. Behind the glitter and celebrity hype, there’s a lot of personal drama, and sometimes, an awful lot of money. So it’s no wonder there’s plenty of crime fiction set in Hollywood and its counterpart, the world of Bollywood.

Three of Ellery Queen’s adventures take place in Hollywood. The one that (at least for my money) most explores the world of Hollywood filmdom is The Four of Hearts. In that novel, Queen is temporarily under contract with Magna Studios, which is planning a biopic of famous actors Blythe Stuart and John Royle. The two had an extremely stormy but passionate love affair that ended years ago. They’ve not spoken since then, and each married someone else and had a child. Now Magna wants the two to star in the film, and, to everyone’s surprise, they agree. Then, even more shocking, the two re-kindle their love affair and actually plan to marry. So the studio decides to milk the event for all of the publicity it’s worth, and stage a Hollywood-style public wedding, after which the couple will take off in a private plane for their honeymoon. Accompanying them will be their adult children. All goes as planned and the flight takes off. By the time it lands, though, both film stars are dead of what turns out to be poison. Now Queen looks into their pasts and into their dealings with the studio to find out who would have wanted to kill the victims.

Stuart Kaminsky’s Bullet For a Star introduces his sleuth, PI Toby Peters. The novel is set in 1940, during the ‘glory years’ of the major studios and their ‘stables of stars.’ When it’s discovered that Errol Flynn is being blackmailed, Warner Brothers producer Sid Adelman decides that the best thing to do is pay the blackmailer. Apparently, the blackmailer has a very compromising ‘photo of Flynn with a very young girl. Whether or not the ‘photo is real, there’s a lot riding on Flynn’s reputation, and Adelman doesn’t want to risk anything. So he hires Peters to make the exchange of money for the ‘photo. Peters agrees; but, as he’s making the exchange, someone attacks him, takes his gun, shoots the blackmailer, and escapes with the negative and print. Now, Peters has to get the ‘photo and negative back, as that was his original assignment. He also has to find out who the killer really was, since his gun was used for the crime. This novel is peopled with several of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Judy Garland. And readers get a look at the world of film making.

B.C. Stone has written a series of novels featuring Kay Francis. Set in the 1930s, the novels follow Francis as she lives the ‘Hollywood life.’ The third one, Peril in Paradise, especially, captures the world of Hollywood in those years. In that novel, Francis is busy filming a production for Paramount Pictures. Some strange things have been going on at the set, which is enough of a problem. But then, there’s a murder. The victim is Margaret O’Halloran, who was Kay Francis’ understudy. Then, Francis receives a threatening note. Now it looks as though she may be the real victim. And even if she’s not, she needs to finish the picture, not to mention keep out of harm’s way. So she works to find out who the murderer is. Oh, and William Powell features in this novel. And no, he’s not the killer.

Hollywood has changed a lot in the last decades. But it’s still got plenty of sparkle, glitter, and underlying steaminess and drama. And outsized egos. Just ask Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole, who has to deal with exactly that sort of ego in Lullaby Town. Cole gets a call from casting director and former client Pat Kyle, asking for his help. Kyle is casting a film for superstar director Peter Alan Nelson, who wants Cole to look into a case for him. Cole is not fond of being summoned in this way, particularly not by a spoiled, self-involved director. But Kyle persuades him to at least listen to what Nelson has to say. It turns out that Nelson was married to Karen Shipley, and they had a son, Toby. After they divorced, Nelson didn’t have much to do with either his ex-wife or his son. Now, though, he’s decided that he wants to be a part of his son’s life. The only problem is, Karen and Toby have disappeared. Cole tries to explain that very often, people disappear because they want to disappear, so Nelson may not be welcome in Toby’s life. But Nelson insists, and a fee is a fee. So Cole agrees to see what he can do. It’s not long before he tracks Karen and Toby down to a small Connecticut town, where she works in a bank. And that’s when the trouble begins. It turns out that Karen’s been working for some very dangerous people who don’t want her to stop being their ‘bank connection.’ If he’s going to help his client, and save Karen and Toby, Cole is going to need help from his partner, Joe Pike…

Bollywood is also home to lots of glitter, hype, and underlying drama. And that shouldn’t be surprising. Just in 2015 alone, a total of 204 Hindi-language films were released. That means a lot of money, stars, and so on. And that’s the backdrop for Shadaab Amjad Khan’s Murder in Bollywood. One night, leading director Nikhil Kapoor dies of electric shock. On that same night, his equally famous wife, Mllika Kapoor, dies of a drug overdose. At first it looks like a case of tragic accidents. But then it comes out that, two days before his death, Kapoor had attended a party where he told the other guests that he knew one of them was a killer – and would kill again. It’s soon clear that these deaths were murders, so Senior Inspector Hossein Sheriyar Khan is assigned to investigate. He finds that there’s more to this than just two people’s deaths; and, after several plot twists, finds out the truth behind what has happened.

See what I mean? Hollywood or Bollywood, there’s an atmosphere of opulence, hype, glitter, and lots of drama. Just perfect for a crime novel. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the cinema…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title a song by Richard A. Whiting, with lyrics from Johnny Mercer.

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Filed under B.C. Stone, Ellery Queen, Robert Crais, Shadaab Amjad Khan, Stuart Kaminsky

Crime Fiction News Break


 

Links You’ll Want

Clan Destine Press

And Then… The Great Big Book of Adventure Tales 

Brian Stoddart

A Straits Settlement 

Marshall Karp

Terminal 

Dean Street Press

Petrona Award

Arthur Ellis Awards

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It’s Just Apartment House Rules*

Apartment BuildingsFlats, apartments, whatever you call them, can be an attractive alternative to home ownership, especially if you don’t have a whole lot of money. Even if you are doing well financially, living in an apartment often means you don’t have chores such as house painting, grass cutting and the like. And, depending on where you live, you’re not responsible for most repairs, either.

Of course, the experience of living in an apartment can be miserable if your landlord/lady or the management company isn’t professional and responsible. And you live at close quarters with other people, not all of whom may be pleasant.

But apartment buildings can be very effective contexts for crime fiction. People get to know things about each other when they live in the same building. And some apartment communities are more transient, which makes for all sorts of possibilities for hidden pasts and other secrets. It’s little wonder, then, that we see apartment buildings going up all over the genre.

In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, we are introduced to Norma Restarick, a young woman who shares a London flat with Claudia Reece-Holland and Frances Cary. One day, she visits Hercule Poirot, telling him that she may have committed a murder. However, she leaves before she even gives him her name, since she says he’s ‘too old’ to be of help. Poirot finds out that his friend, detective story author Ariadne Oliver, knows the young woman; and, armed with her name, Poirot tries to find her to learn more about this possible murder. So does Mrs. Oliver. But before they can find out the truth about it, Norma disappears. Neither of her flat-mates knows where she is, and her family isn’t any more helpful. Eventually, though, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver learn the truth about the murder and Norma’s part in it. And it turns out that the apartment building in which she lives holds important clues.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow) introduces readers to Smilla Jaspersen, who lives in a Copenhagen apartment building. As the novel begins, she is attending the funeral of ten-year-old Isaac Christiansen, who, so the police say, tragically fell from the building’s roof. Like Smilla, Isaac was a Greenlander, so she felt a sort of bond with him, and is drawn to the roof where he fell. As she looks at the patterns in the snow, Smilla begins to wonder just how accidental the fall really was. So she starts to ask questions. Her search for the truth leads Smilla back to Greenland, and to something much bigger than just the death of one young boy.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlings owns three Los Angeles apartment buildings, including the Magnolia Street Apartments. Even though he’s the actual owner, he does the maintenance work in the building, and keeps a very low profile, letting someone else collect the rent. That way, he can have time for his other work, which we learn in A Red Death is
 

‘…the business of favors.’
 

He doesn’t have an official PI license, but he does have a good reputation for being able to solve problems and find people who don’t want to be found. And he knows everyone in the building, too. Most people there think of him as the handyman, and that’s how he likes it.

At the beginning of Val McDermid’s A Grave Tattoo, Wordsworth scholar and fledgling academic Jane Gresham is living in a London council flat – not a luxurious place to be. It’s what she can afford, though, and she’s doing her best to move on in her academic career. She’s made a sort of friend in thirteen-year-old Tenille Cole, who lives in the same building. That’s what living at close quarters can do. Tenille is extremely bright, and Jane sees in her true potential in literature and writing. But Tenille has a terrible home situation. The first part of this novel has a strong focus on life in council flats. Then, Jane hears that a body has surfaced in a bog in her native Lake District. It is possible that the body may be that of Fletcher Christian, of H.M.S. Bounty fame. If it is, then it’s possible that he didn’t die on Pitcairn Island as has always been believed. And if that’s true, he may have told his story to his good friend Wordsworth, which could mean there’s an unpublished manuscript out there somewhere. If it exists, that manuscript could be exactly what Jane needs to get her career going, so she goes to stay with her parents in their Lake District home to look into the matter. Meanwhile, one night after a tragic incident, Tenille leaves her home, too, and ends up in the Lake District. Her presence there plays an important role as Jane gets involved in a web of murder and false leads to try to find the manuscript she is convinced must exist.

There’s an interesting use of an apartment building in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. Waldemar Leverkuhn finds out that a lottery ticket he went in on with friends has come out the big winner. So he goes out with those friends to celebrate. Late that night, he is murdered in his own bed. Intendant Münster and his team investigate. Of course, the victim’s wife Marie-Louise comes in for her share of suspicion, but she claims she wasn’t home the night of the murder. The team members also speak to the other people who live in the same apartment building as the Leverkuhns, and it’s interesting to learn how much they know about each other. People know who’s been in and out, who does what, and so on. Despite that, though, the investigating team doesn’t get very far at first. Eventually, though, they link Leverkuhn’s death to the events that led to it.

Of course, no discussion of apartment buildings in crime fiction would really be complete without a mention of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. Chapman is a baker, who lives and has her shop in a large Melbourne apartment building called Insula. As the series goes on, we get to know the other people who live in the building. They each contribute to the atmosphere of the place, and they all care about each other. They may not be related to the other residents, but the people of Insula have formed a sort of family of their own.

Apartment buildings can have that sort of effect. Of course, they can also be eerie places. That’s why we see so many of them in crime fiction – much more than I can show in one post (I know, I know, fans of Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall). After all, do you really know what the person living next door, above you, or below you is really like?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Høeg, Robert Rotenberg, Val McDermid, Walter Mosley

Soon as I Get Home*

FamilyLifeOne of the major changes we seem to have seen in crime fiction, especially over the last few decades, is the crime novel in which we follow the protagonist’s home life as well as the criminal investigation. In fact, in some cases, the protagonist’s family is caught up in the web of crime.

I decided to take a closer look at this phenomenon and see whether there really are as many novels that detail the home life of protagonists as we think there are. To address this question, I chose 301 books from among those I’ve read. Then, I sorted them into two categories: those that feature home life scenes and sub-plots; and those that do not. This wasn’t as easy as you might think. Does a scene in which the sleuth has a cup of tea at home and then goes off to investigate ‘count’ as a home life scene? What’s more, the data was, as always, limited to books I’ve read. There are many thousands of crime novels I’ve not read. But that said, here’s what I found.

 

Protanoist Home Life

 

As you can see, there’s absolutely no question that the vast majority of novels (80%) in this data set are stories in which we learn more about the protagonist then, perhaps, whether she or he is married.

Why is this? One possibility is that readers all have home lives, too. It could be that authors and publishers have found that readers identify more closely with, and prefer, books in which the protagonist has a family and other home life obligations and interests. Or, it could be that that ‘home life’ dimension offers authors more possibilities for conflict, tension, story arcs and the like. The one thing we can say is that such books sell. Otherwise, I doubt that editors and publishers would go along with the ‘home life’ dimension.

Is this a recent phenomenon, or has it been going on all along, but we just haven’t noticed? I decided to look at my data a bit more closely to see if there might be some sort of answer there. I sorted the books in the data set into four categories, based on date of original publication. Here’s what I found.

 

Home Life Scenes Over Time

 

As you see, we’ve got a really interesting trend here. Of the 37 books published before 1950, 28 of them (76%) have either no information about the sleuth/protagonist’s home life, or very little. For instance, we know that Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is not married, and we do see some domestic scenes in those novels. But there aren’t really story arcs about her family, and we don’t really see her trying to juggle home life and her sleuthing. That seems to be the case with the majority of novels in this category.

As we move to the period between 1950 and 1980, things start to change. Of the 44 books in this category, 25 (57%) feature home life scenes. There are 19 (43%) that have no such scenes. Basically, it’s a more or less even match. Why the change? It might be the impact of developing interest in psychology. Or it might be growing reader interest in more fully rounded characters. And those aren’t the only possibilities. But we do see more books featuring protagonists’ home lives.

If this data is representative of what’s happening in the larger crime fiction world, there’s been a major shift since 1980. Among the 63 books in this set that were published between 1980 and 2000, 58 (92%) feature sub-plots or at least several scenes that involve the protagonist’s home life. That pattern is also quite obvious in the 157 books in this set that have been published since 2000. In that group, 149 (95%) feature such scenes and sub-plots.

Many readers enjoy stories where they feel they’re getting to know the main character beyond the criminal investigation. For the author, such scenes and sub-plots do offer some flexibility and lots of possibilities for conflict, tension, depth of story and the like. So it probably shouldn’t be surprising that publishers have seen this, have noticed what’s happened to sales of such books, and encourage authors to weave such scenes and sub-plots into their stories.

What do you think of all this? Do you enjoy books with domestic scenes and sub-plots? Do they annoy you? If you’re a writer, do you include such scenes? Why(not)? I’d love to hear from you about this. Please feel free to let your voice be heard in the poll below, too, and we’ll talk about this again in about a week.

 


 
 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Charlie Smalls, Timothy Graphenreed, Zachary Walzer, Harold Wheeler and Luther Vandross.

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In The Spotlight: Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings

>In The Spotlight: Walter Mosley's A Red DeathHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the challenges of creating an amateur sleuth is creating credible circumstances in which that person gets involved in investigating a crime. After all, amateur sleuths have no authority, and depending on their professional backgrounds, they don’t have experience at investigating. Still, there are plenty of credible amateur sleuths out there. Let’s take a look at one today, and turn the spotlight on Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings, the first of her Nell Forrest novels.

Forrest is a newspaper columnist who lives with the two youngest of her five daughters in the small town of Majic, Victoria (even she makes fun of the town name, and there’s a story behind it). One day, she gets a visit from two police constables, who inform her that there’s been a fire at her mother’s home not far away. Forrest’s mother Lillian ‘Yen’ was rescued and will be fine, but there’s been damage to the house. What’s more, the body of a man was found in the garage.

Soon enough, the victim is identified as Dustin Craig, who lived next door. At first, his death looks like some sort of terrible accident. But it doesn’t take long to establish that he was murdered – dead before the fire was started. Now, the police begin to investigate the death thoroughly.

Yen can’t stay in her own home until the repairs to it are complete. So it’s agreed that she’ll stay with Nell and her at-home daughters, Lucy and Quinn. Against this somewhat chaotic background, Nell starts to try to find out the truth about Craig’s murder. There’s even a whiteboard in her living room where she, her sister Petra, and the other family members start to jot down their ideas for suspects.

And there are plenty of suspects. For one thing, Craig was abusive to his much younger wife, Beth, and to their daughters. He had also had his share of altercations with other people on the street. Unfortunately for Nell Forrest, that group includes her mother. In fact, Craig and Yen had had a loud argument on the very evening of his death, so that makes her quite a viable suspect. In fact, Yen herself insists that her name be added to the whiteboard, although she claims to be innocent. And, after all, why would she kill someone, leave the body in her own garage, and then start a fire? Nobody in the family wants to believe that Yen’s a killer, but it isn’t outside the realm of possibility. Still, Nell isn’t convinced, so she wants to clear her mother’s name.

Little by little, and each in a different way, Nell and the police start to put the pieces of the puzzle together. To do this, they have to untangle a complicated series of relationships among the people who live on the same road as Yen. And in the end, that network has a lot to do with the murder.

Because Nell is an amateur sleuth, she doesn’t have the force of law behind her. But she does know a lot of the people involved. In some cases, she’s known them for years. So the various witnesses and suspects don’t find it unusual or inappropriate that she’s talking to them about the investigation. Besides, they all know that it’s her mother whose house has been damaged. So it makes sense to the other people involved that she would ask questions. That said, though, readers who prefer police or PIs as sleuths will note that Nell is neither.

One of the important elements in the novel is the set of interactions among the people who live on and near Small Dairy Lane, where the crime occurred. It’s one of those cases where people know each other. It’s not quite as insular as some very small communities are, but Majic, and in particular Small Dairy Road, is the sort of place where people do know each other’s business. Readers who enjoy ‘murder in a small community’ stories will appreciate this.

Another important element in the novel is the character of Nell Forrest, and the interactions she has with her family members. She’s recently divorced from her daughters’ father, and is just now getting ready to start life again. Although she has very mixed feelings, both about the divorce and about her ex, she doesn’t wallow. She’s far too busy for that. Nell’s entered middle age, and is getting more and more comfortable in her own skin, as the saying goes. She’s hardly perfect – just ask her children. But she’s bright, quick-thinking, and observant.

Nell also has solid relationships with her daughters. Readers who are tired of badly dysfunctional families will appreciate that aspect of the novel. They argue, forget things, are sometimes inconsiderate, bait each other, and so on. But there is a strong bond among them. There’s also a strong bond between Nell and her sister Petra. Both of them get quite exasperated with their mother, who in turn gets her fill of them. But again, there’s an underlying closeness among them.

There is wit in the novel. For instance, in one scene, Nell is preparing a meal. She and her daughter Lucy are in the kitchen, having a conversation about Lucy’s decision to leave university and work, instead of finishing her degree:
 

‘I was just taking time out, working out what I wanted to do. Trying to fi –’
I held up my hand to stop her, which worked because it was also the hand holding the knife. ‘If you say ‘find yourself,’ I swear to god I’m going to blindfold you, drop you in the middle of the desert, and then see how you really go about finding yourself.’’
 

There are other funny scenes, too.

That said though, this is not really what you’d call a light, cosy sort of mystery. The story behind the murders is an unhappy one. Knowing the truth doesn’t make that go away. And there are other ways, too, in which the novel takes an edgier tone than many cosies do. Readers who prefer ‘G-rated’ cosies will want to be aware that this isn’t one of them.

Nefarious Doings is the story of a murder and its impact on the people who live on a quiet street in a quiet town. It features a network of relationships among those people, and introduces a distinctly Australian sleuth who has a unique, sometimes witty, way of looking at life. But what’s your view? Have you read Nefarious Doings? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 9 May/Tuesday 10 May – Three Little Pigs – Apostolos Doxiadis

Monday 16 May/Tuesday 17 May – Terror in Taffeta – Marla Cooper

Monday 23 May/Tuesday 24 May – Burial of the Dead – Michael Hogan

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