Category Archives: Agatha Christie

But This is Where I Start*

Many people might like (or even prefer) to read a series in order. But there are plenty of good reasons one might not do that. For example, the first novel(s) in a series might be out of print. Or, might not be translated into a language a reader speaks. Or, a reader might have been gifted a book that falls later in a series. Or, a reader might try a later book because it’s conveniently available in a library, and the reader wants to sample the author before buying a book. There’s also the issue of geography and publishers’ decisions about where to make books available.

There are lots of other reasons, too, for which readers don’t follow a series in strict order. So, if an author wants to win (and keep) fans, it’s wise to be aware of this, and try to welcome readers wherever in a series they start.

One way to do that is not to include information later in a series that spoils an earlier novel. Much as I am a fan of Agatha Christie (and anyone who knows me, knows that’s true!), I must admit she’s done that a couple of times. I try to warn people, for instance, not to start their explorations of Christie with Dumb Witness or Cards on the Table. Both contain spoilers to other novels. Now, to be fair, Christie doesn’t specifically, say, refer to someone as a killer (e.g. ‘X, who killed Y.’). But at the same time, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to join the dots, especially if you happen to remember those two books later when you read the earlier ones. Avoiding spoilers can be a challenge if one writes story arcs. But it is worth the effort.

It’s also worth the effort to remind readers of the major characters’ backstories. For instance, fans of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee know that his boat, The Busted Flush got its name because he won the boat in a card game. Those who’ve followed the series don’t need the full-length version of that game. But new readers who start later in the series might not know anything about The Busted Flush’s history. MacDonald addresses this by mentioning the card game in later novels. But it’s said more or less in passing, without going into all of the details. In this way, new readers are told about it, but those who’ve followed the series aren’t told the same story again and again.

We see that in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourne Shreve series, too. She is an academician and political scientist (in later novels, she has retired from her university work). She’s also the mother of four children. The youngest, Taylor, is adopted, and Bowen tells the story of her adoption in Murder at the Mendel. The story is referred to in later novels, so that new readers can ‘meet’ Taylor properly and can understand some of the things that happen in those later novels. But Bowen doesn’t go into full details in each book. That series provides a balance between welcoming new readers, wherever they start a series, and keeping existing fans interested.

If I may say it, I’ve done a similar thing. In my first novel, Publish or Perish, my sleuth, Joel Williams, works with the police to solve the murder of a promising graduate student. At the end of the novel, Williams inherits the victim’s dog, Oscar. And Oscar makes appearances in my other Joel Williams novels, too. From time to time I mention that Williams adopted Oscar after the dog’s prior owner was killed. But I don’t go into the details about who the person was, how he was murdered, and so on.

Sometimes, it only takes a few words to welcome new readers. For instance, fans of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels and of his Mickey Haller novels will know that those two men are half-brothers. Their father was a prominent attorney, and they had different mothers. Later in life they meet, and occasionally work together. The Black Ice tells the story of how Bosch discovered his father’s identity, and about his meeting with his father, and a few other details. Later novels refer to the fact that Bosch and Haller are half-brothers, but Connelly doesn’t go into long descriptions in each novel about how the two men met, what their father was like, and so on. Fans already know that information, and new readers get enough background to engage themselves in the story and, perhaps, go back to an earlier novel if they wish.

 

Programming Note

All of this thinking about the structure of a series came about because of something that happened to me quite recently. If you’re kind enough to follow my ‘In The Spotlight’ series, you’ll know that I had planned to spotlight Paul Thomas’ Inside Dope tomorrow (Monday, 13 August). It’s the second of Thomas’ Tito Ikaha series, and it’s one that I didn’t have myself, so I ordered it (it’s not as easy to get as you’d think!). Without going into the details of it, it was hard to find the title, and it proved far more complicated to get than I thought it would. I didn’t receive it until far, far too late to go over it properly and spotlight it. But….I still wanted to share Paul Thomas’ work with you. So… I decided to spotlight Thomas’ Death on Demand, which I already had, instead. It’s the fourth in the series. My apologies in advance for any annoyance and/or inconvenience. Fortunately, Thomas welcomes new readers to his series wherever they start, so I suppose all’s well that ends well. But it just goes to show that there might be any number of reasons that a reader might start a series with a later novel. And readers appreciate it when the author welcomes them wherever they start.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, John D. MacDonald, Michael Connelly, Paul Thomas

Find Out the Truth*

As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, most criminals aren’t eager to be caught. And there’s not always enough evidence to bring charges against someone. So, at least in crime fiction, the sleuth sometimes has to use some creativity to get the criminal to confess.

There are limits to what fictional police sleuths can do. For instance, entrapment – enticing someone to commit a crime she or he would not otherwise commit – is not allowed. And there’s a very fine line between a ‘sting’ operation (which is permissible) and entrapment. And even if the sleuth is not a cop, there’s still the credibility factor. Still, sleuths can be innovative, and sometimes have to be.

In Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat mystery, for instance, Inspector Richard Queen investigates the poisoning death of an attorney, Monte Field, who was also a blackmailer. He was killed in a theatre, so it’s hard a first to narrow down the list of people who could have committed the crime. And, even when the Queens do work out who was responsible, they don’t have the sort of evidence needed to pursue the case. So, they devise a ruse that, today, might be considered entrapment. They entice the killer into attempting another murder in the same way, using the same poison.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that, more than once, her sleuths find creative ways to catch killers, even without a lot of evidence. For instance, in The Moving Finger, Miss Marple helps to solve the mystery of who’s been writing a series of vicious anonymous letters to the residents of the small town of Lymstock. Several of the villagers take those letters very seriously; there’s even a suicide (or was it a suicide?) associated with one of them. Then, there’s an obvious murder. Miss Marple works out who the killer is, but there’s not a lot of proof. So, she sets up what you might call a trap, and ‘baits’ it with another character, to flush the killer out. Fans of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series will know that Beck and his team use a rather similar sort of ‘trap’ in Roseanna. They know who the killer of twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw is, but they don’t have the proof they need. So, they lure the killer into trying for another victim. And it works.

Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes introduces readers to John ‘Duke’ Anderson. He’s recently been released from prison, and has a legitimate job working in a print factory. But, then, he gets a chance to visit an exclusive Manhattan apartment building. Impressed by the luxury he sees, Anderson can’t resist the opportunity to set up a heist – and not just of one apartment, either. His scheme is to rob the whole building. For that, he’s going to need some help. So, he contacts several people he knows to get supplies, a getaway truck, and so on. What he doesn’t know is that the FBI and various other agencies have been interested in several of Anderson’s contacts for some time. And they know full well that those criminals are not going to be easy to catch. In order to get the proof they need, these agencies have gotten clearance for wiretapping and other surveillance. They’re hoping this will get the evidence they need to convince the people they’ve targeted. So, much of what Anderson says to these people is recorded. The question is: will they learn of Anderson’s scheme before he and his team have the chance to pull it off?

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Precious Ramotswe gets a new client, Happy Bapetse. Like other members of her culture, Happy has been taught that caring for elderly relatives, especially parents, is her responsibility. So, when a man shows up at her home claiming to be her father, Happy welcomes him and starts to take care of him. But she slowly begins to suspect that the man is not her father at all, but someone who wants to take advantage of the fact that she’s done well in life. So, she goes to Mma Ramotswe to get some help. Mma Ramotswe soon sees that she isn’t going to get this man to admit his scam. So, she sets up a ruse that forces his hand, as the saying goes. And it works.

And then there’s Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands. In it, twelve-year-old Steven Lamb takes a very risky decision. His family has been devastated for a long time by the loss of his uncle, Billy Peters, who went missing nineteen years earlier. Steven wants his family to heal, and he believes that finding his uncle’s body, assuming he’s dead, will at least allow his family to start that process. It was always assumed that a man named Arnold Avery, who’s currently in prison for another child murder, killed Billy. So, Steven decides to write to Avery, and try to find out from him whether he killed Uncle Billy, and if so, where the body is buried. It’s a very daring ploy, since Avery has never admitted to that murder. And it begins a dangerous game of ‘cat and mouse’ between the two. And the stakes get higher as time goes on.

It can be very risky to try to get a criminal to admit wrongdoing, especially if it’s a serious crime like murder. But, few criminals are eager to tell what they’ve done. So, sometimes, a fictional sleuth has to come up with a different approach to getting the truth.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Love and Money’s Axis of Love.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Belinda Bauer, Ellery Queen, Lawrence Sanders

The Children, They Know*

A few days ago, I did a post on fictional interrogations, and the leaven that they can add to a story. When the subject is an adult, there are all sorts of possibilities, depending on what the author wants to achieve, and on the circumstances in the story. An interrogation can be gentle, verbally rough, or more.

Things are quite different when the subject is a child. For one thing, children don’t have an adult’s perspective or knowledge. So, they may have seen something without understanding what it all means. And, they may think they’ll get deeply in trouble for something if they tell what they know, even if they had nothing to do with the crime at hand. There’s also the issue of betrayal. Children may feel that, by telling what they know, they’re betraying a friend or an important adult. And that’s to say nothing of the trauma a child might feel after witnessing a crime. All of this means that interviewing or interrogating a child can be an extremely delicate, and tricky, matter.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, for instance, Hercule Poirot works with the police to find out who strangled famous actress Arlena Marshall. She was taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel, with her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, and her stepdaughter, Linda Marshall, when she was killed. And, as it turns out, more than one person at the hotel could have murdered her. As a matter of course, the police and Poirot talk to sixteen-year-old Linda. Like most teens, she’s awkward and not comfortable in her own skin, as the saying goes. At first, she says she liked her stepmother, and that Arlena was quite kind. But that’s not exactly how she really feels, and it’s not long before Poirot works out that there are things Linda’s not saying. It’s interesting to see how both he and Colonel Weston (who’s investigating for the police) handle questioning Linda.

Peter Robinson’s first Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks novel is Gallows View. In it, we learn that Banks has recently moved with his family from London to the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. And it’s not long before he’s enmeshed in a few cases. One of them is a voyeur who’s been making the lives of Eastvale women miserable. There’s also a series of home invasions. Then, there’s a murder. Mixed up in some of this is Trevor Sharp, a teenager who doesn’t quite fit in. When he starts spending a lot of time with local hoodlum Mick Webster, you can imagine the consequences aren’t going to be exactly happy. Banks and his team talk to Trevor, and it’s interesting to see how he uses a very teenaged mix of bluster and lies to try to stay out of trouble.

Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness introduces Scotland Yard Inspector John Madden. He is called to the small village of Highfield when Colonel Charles Fletcher, his wife, Lucy, their maid, Sally Pepper, and the nanny, Alice Crookes, are found murdered. The only survivor is the Fletchers’ daughter, Sophy. But it’s nearly impossible to talk to her. For one thing, she’s only four years old. For another, she was hiding under a bed at the time of the murder and is coping with a great deal of trauma. In fact, local GP Dr. Helen Blackwell doesn’t want the police talking to Sophy at all. She and Madden clash a bit about this, but he finally accedes to Blackwell’s request that Sophy go away to visit relatives for a time. That doesn’t mean that the child isn’t of any help, though. She communicates in her own way, through art, and it’s interesting to see how the police and Blackwell use what they learn from her.

Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road takes place in the rural South Australia town of Tiverton. Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen has been transferred there from Adelaide, mostly as a punishment. He’s seen as a ‘whistleblower’ in an internal investigation, so to say the least, he is not popular among his new colleagues. Still, he does the best he can when the body of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan is found by Bitter Wash Road. As Hirsch tries to trace the victim’s last days and weeks, he learns about her best friend, Gemma Pitcher, who works at the local convenience store. If anyone knows what Melia might have been doing, and with whom, it’ll be Gemma. At first, Gemma does everything she can to avoid Hirsch. But he finally manages to talk to her. It’s not easy, as Gemma doesn’t want to be disloyal, or get herself in trouble. But she eventually tells him what she knows, and it proves to be useful information.

And then there’s Donna Malane’s My Brother’s Keeper. Wellington missing person expert Diane Rowe gets a new client, Karen Mackie. Karen’s recently been released from prison after serving time for the murder of her son, Falcon, and attempted murder of her daughter, Sunny. Now, she wants Diane to find Sunny (who’s now fourteen), whom she hasn’t seen for the seven years she was in prison. Diane makes no promises and warns Karen that she won’t reveal where Sunny is without the girl’s approval. Karen agrees to those terms, and Diane gets to work. Finding Sunny (who’s living with her father, Justin) turns out to be quite straightforward. But then, there’s a not-so-straightforward murder. And it turns out there is much more to this case than it seems on the surface. At one point, there’s an interesting bit, told from Sunny’s perspective, that takes place immediately after the incident in which her brother was killed. She’s seven at this time, and a police officer is asking her about what happened. What’s particularly interesting about this is that we see how a seven-year-old thinks and responds, and how the police adapt their interview/interrogation strategies when the subject is a child.

It’s not an easy thing to do. But it is important if the police are going to get information from child witnesses. These are jus a few examples. I know you’ll think of many more.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chuck Mangione’s Look to the Children.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Malane, Garry Disher, Peter Robinson, Rennie Airth

Give Me the Simple Life*

As this is posted, it’s 164 years since the publication of Henry David Thoroeau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. As you’ll know, one of the important messages in this book is the value of simplicity. Thoreau advocated for living close to nature and rejecting consumerism and materialism. And there’s something to be said for that perspective. If you’ve ever moved house, then you know how having a lot of ‘stuff’ can make everything all the more complicated.

There are a lot of crime-fictional characters who like to live very simply. And it’s interesting to get their perspectives, especially as they contrast with what a lot of people value. It’s just as interesting to see how they’ve been viewed in different places and at different times.

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), for instance, we are introduced to Julia and Isabel Tripp. They live in the small town of Market Basing where they are friends with Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Lawson. When Miss Lawson’s wealthy employer, Miss Emily Arundell, suddenly dies, it’s put down to liver failure. But Hercule Poirot thinks differently. He had gotten a letter from Miss Lawson, asking him to investigate a ‘delicate matter’ that she didn’t detail. He and Captain Hastings didn’t follow up until Miss Arundell was already dead, but he still feels an obligation to his client. So, he begins to look into the matter to find out who would want to kill the victim. There’s no lack of suspects, as she had a large fortune and financially strapped relatives. Surprisingly, though, it’s Miss Lawson who inherits the bulk of the money. So, she also could have had a motive. Since the Tripps are friends of Miss Lawson’s, Poirot and Hastings naturally want to talk to them. They find that the Tripps are dedicated to living a very simple life, with few possessions and very much ‘back to nature’ food. After their conversation, they invite their guests for lunch:
 

‘…some shredded raw vegetables, brown bread and butter, fruit.’
 

Needless to say, Poirot quickly finds an excuse for the two men to leave. The Tripps’ lifestyle is not the reason for Miss Arundell’s murder. But it’s an interesting look at then-contemporary perspectives on the ‘back to nature’ lifestyle.

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil begins as Queen is trying to get some writing done. He’s taken a house in the Hollywood Hills to do just that, and he’s hoping for some peace and quiet. Such is not to be, though. Laurel Hill finds out that he’s there and wants him to investigate the death of her father, Leander. It seems he died of a massive heart attack, which his daughter says was deliberately brought on by a series of macabre ‘gifts’ left for him. What’s more, his business partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving bizarre ‘gifts.’ Against his better judgement, Queen finds himself intrigued, and starts to ask questions. Along the way, he meets Priam’s wife, Delia, and his stepson, Crowe ‘Mac’ McGowan. Mac is convinced that the world is on the brink of destruction from nuclear weapons, and he wants to be prepared to survive. So, he lives in a treehouse he’s built, and wears as little as possible – often nothing at all. His aim is to be able to make his way in a world where all of the things we take for granted are gone. Mac’s commitment to a ‘back to nature’ life isn’t the reason for the strange packages, nor Leander Hill’s death. But it adds leaven to the story and a layer to his character.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation. He is also a member of the Navajo Tribal (now the Navajo Nation) Police. In many ways, Chee is a traditional Navajo. He’s very much attuned to nature. More to the point, he’s not particularly interested in material things like a big house or a new car. He has the things he needs, but they’re quite simple. For instance, he lives in a trailer, and he doesn’t have a large wardrobe or the latest in sound systems. His wants are few, and he’s basically content with that.

Fans of Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson novels will know that, at the beginning of that series, she is a Stockholm lawyer. She’s not greedy, or even overly ambitious. But she wants to get ahead. Circumstances return her to her hometown of Kiruna, and she ends up staying there. As time goes on, she becomes more and more attuned to nature, and lives more and more simply. She does almost everything on her own, too, and isn’t really interested in the trappings of modern consumerism. In fact, as time goes on, her simple lifestyle brings her more contentment, in its way, than would a very high salary and a plush lifestyle.

John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitplecheep also lives a very simple life. He is a member of the Royal Thai Police, and mostly works in and near Bangkok. He is also an observant Buddhist. As such, he tries to live by the Buddhist tradition of putting aside cravings. That includes wanting things like a fine house, a good car, and so on. So, he has very little. He lives in one room and keeps only what he needs. He eats simply, too. For Sonchai, though, it’s not important to have a lot. In fact, one’s better off with less. So, he’s not, in general, discontent with his lifestyle.

Not everyone is content to live very simply. But, for those who are, it’s interesting to see how their choices and lifestyles contrast with the focus a lot of people have on consumerism. These are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Rube Bloom and Harry Ruby.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Ellery Queen, Henry David Thoreau, John Burdett, Tony Hillerman

Jump*

One way authors invite readers to engage in a story is to begin that story at a climactic moment. In other words, authors invite the reader to ‘jump right in’ to the action. This climactic plot structure has the advantage of ‘hooking’ readers immediately. Then, as the story goes on, the author adds in details about the characters, about what led to the story’s climax, and so on. It’s got some disadvantages, too. Readers don’t really get to know the characters well before a major incident happens. So, it can be hard to identify (or choose not to identify) with a character. It can also be tricky to keep the story moving if it’s started with a major plot event. Still, it can work well.

There are lots of examples of crime novels in which this happens. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress begins with the trial of Elinor Carlisle for the murder of Mary Gerrard. We don’t know who those two people really are at first, nor what, exactly, led to the murder. Soon enough, Christie fills in the gaps, starting with an anonymous letter in which someone alleges that Mary Gerrard is unduly influencing Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura Welman. The inference is, of course, that Elinor may want to look into the matter if she’s to be assured of her considerable inheritance. So, she and her fiancé, Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman do just that, and pay a visit to Aunt Laura. Unexpectedly, Roddy is smitten with Mary, to the point where he and Elinor break off their engagement. Not long afterwards, Mary is poisoned, and there is evidence that Elinor is responsible. But is she the killer? The local GP, Dr. Peter Lord, wants her name cleared, and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Then, the story leads up to the trial, and we learn the truth about what happened to Mary.

Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn begins as Paul Bradley is driving his silver Peugeot in Edinburgh. He brakes suddenly to avoid hitting a pedestrian and is hit from behind by a blue Honda. The Honda driver gets out and the men begin an argument. Then, the Honda driver brandishes a bat and attacks Bradley. Mystery novelist Martin Canning happens to be nearby, and instinctively throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. Out of a sense of obligation, Canning accompanies Bradley to a local hospital, and gets drawn into much more than he imagined. After detailing this climactic event, Atkinson begins to tell the different characters’ stories. We learn what they are like, how they happen to be at that place at that time, and what led to the crash. Then, we learn what happens after the crash, and how it impacts everyone involved.

There’s a sort of climactic plot structure in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). It starts as an unnamed character is involved in a desperate situation. We don’t yet know who that person is, nor how that person got into that situation. But the reader is invited right away to engage in the story and learn more. And very soon, Adler-Olsen starts to tell the rest of the story. Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck recently returned to work after a line-of-duty shooting incident in which he was badly injured. One of his colleagues was left with paralysis, and another was killed. So, he’s taken some time off for recovery. A lot of people think he’s not ready to come back, though. He’s even more difficult than usual to work with, to the point that his colleagues don’t want to work with him any more. So, he’s placed in charge of a new department, ‘Department Q,’ that’s dedicated to investigating cases of ‘special interest’ (unsolved cases). It’s a strategy to placate members of the press and public who think the police aren’t doing enough to solve difficult cases. The first case Mørck and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad, take on is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynnggard. She disappeared during a ferry ride, and it was always believed she went overboard in a terrible accident. But there are hints that she may still be alive. If she is, she may not have much time left. So Mørck and Assad will have to work quickly. As the story goes on, Adler-Olsen shares more about the characters, and fills in the blanks, as the saying goes.

Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons also begins with a climactic event. The narrator, whose name is also Finn Bell, is precariously perched on a cliff, with every chance of going over it. He’s in a wheelchair, so there’s very little he can do. Then, Bell goes on to tell the story of how he got to where he is. He reached a crossroads in his life and needed some change. His marriage was over, and a car crash had left him in a wheelchair. Wanting to start all over again, he took a cottage in the small town of Riverton, on New Zealand’s South Island. When he happened to learn about a mystery concerning the cottage’s former occupants, he got curious. Two people, a father and daughter, disappeared a year apart. Neither was found, and the mystery’s never been solved. Slowly, Bell tells the story of his interest in the mystery, the questions he starts asking, and the danger it all means for him. As he does, we learn more about his character and those of the other people involved in the story.

And then there’s Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket. As that novel begins, Darren Keefe is trussed up in the boot/trunk of a car. He doesn’t know where he’s being taken, but he is utterly convinced he is going to be killed. We don’t know anything, really, about him other than his predicament. But, soon enough, Serong starts to tell the story. Darren and his brother, Wally, have both always loved cricket. They played backyard cricket as children in the Melbourne suburb where they grew up, and both showed talent for the game. As time went on, they developed in different ways, mostly because of their very different personalities. Wally is very driven and disciplined. He is determined to be the best and works very hard to achieve that. Darren, who is two years younger, has rare, once-in-generation talent. But he is far less disciplined. When he is at his best, he is absolutely superb. But he is inconsistent. As the two boys grow into men, they enter the world of professional cricket, and they find that that world isn’t what they imagined. It takes its toll on both, in different ways, and ends up with Darren being trussed up in the car. The reader is invited right away to engage in the story, because it ‘jumps right in’ to the action.

And that’s the thing about climactic plot structures. They involve the reader immediately. What are your thoughts about structures like that? If you’re a writer, do you use them?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Van Halen song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Finn Bell, Jock Serong, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Kate Atkinson