Category Archives: Andrea Camilleri

Have Myself a Home Life*

HomeLifeAbout a week ago, we had a really interesting discussion about domestic scenes and home life in crime fiction. At the time, I asked you what your preference is regarding those scenes. Do you prefer books that have them? Books that don’t? Does it matter?

With warm thanks to those of you who voted, here’s what I found.

 

Home Life Preferences

 

One of the interesting things about these findings is that those of you who expressed a preference were more or less evenly split between those who prefer a lot of domestic scenes, and those who prefer few, if any. Four of you (22%) prefer crime novels with such plot layers; three of you (17%) prefer crime novels that have few, if any, of them.

To me, this means that there isn’t really a mandate one way or the other. That inference gets support from the major finding here. Eleven of you (61%) told me you have no preference with regards to scenes of domestic life, so long as the focus of a story is on the plot.

I admit these findings don’t really surprise me. Today’s crime fiction readers want a solid plot that makes sense and keeps them engaged. In fact, the findings are similar to what you told me not long ago about books that you don’t finish. Of the reasons you might not finish a book, about 30 of the 76 votes (some 39%) were plot problems (plodding story and too much suspension of disbelief). So it makes sense to me that, for the majority of you, a plot that’s interesting and keeps you engaged is more important than other factors.

And yet, let’s not forget that 15 of you (83%) in this poll told me that you either don’t mind domestic scenes (so long as the focus is on the plot), or outright prefer them. To me, this means that character development (of which domestic life is a part, I’d argue) is important to you.

The key to all this, as it so often is) seems to be the way the author handles it. If the author weaves those scenes in, so that the plot is still the focus, then home life can add layers of character development and even sub-plots to a story.

Everyone has a different definition of how that’s accomplished, and who (among authors) does it well. But here are a few examples you’ve mentioned: Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series; Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe series; Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series; and Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series. There are many others, too, of course.

What’s your take on this? Got any final thoughts about the topic? If you’re a writer, I’d really be interested in your thought process on how much domesticity to include.

Thanks again to all of you who participated. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go do the dishes and some laundry. Then I have a family dinner to plan…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mayer’s Home Life.

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Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, Reginald Hill

(More) Things You’ll Never Hear These Sleuths Say… ;-)

Things Sleuths Don't SayA few years ago, I did a post on things you would never hear certain fictional sleuths say. And if you think about it, you can learn as much from what sleuths wouldn’t say as you can from what they would say, especially when it comes to character development. Of course, one post never allows enough space to mention all the sleuths out there, so I thought it might be fun to take a look at a few more sleuths. Now, if you’ll be kind enough to park your disbelief in front of the TV for a bit, here are…

 

(More) Things You’ll Never Hear These Sleuths Say

 

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple

Really? He did? I hadn’t noticed.
Bugger the garden! There’s a great football match on.
I’m so tired of this boring village. I’ve been thinking of getting a place in Camden Town.

 

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe

Fine, but it’s going to cost you. Five grand and I never saw anything, never met you.
God, you’re beautiful! Of course you’re innocent.
Oh, no, thanks. Never touch the stuff.

 

Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel

None for me, thanks. Watchin’ the blood pressure.
Sorry, did that upset you?
(To Pascoe) Go on, then. Aren’t you and Ellie going to that book signing tonight? This’ll wait.

 

Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano

No, thanks. I just don’t feel like eating.
You know what, Livia? Let’s set a wedding date.
What a beautiful morning! The sun’s shining, the birds are singing. It’s going to be a great day!

 

Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher

Oh, I couldn’t! Ladies don’t do that.
I’ll need to check with Inspector Robinson first. He’s in charge of the case.
Not another dinner dance invitation! I hate those things!

 

Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti

So what? Everybody takes a cut, don’t they? Why shouldn’t I?
Signorina Elettra? She’s just a glorified secretary. Who cares what she says?
I have so much respect for Vice-Questore Patta. He’s my role model.
Bonus: Brunetti’s wife, Paola Falier (In a very meek tone of voice):  Yes, dear. 

 

And there you have it. Things you will never hear these sleuths say. What about you? What things do you think your top sleuths would never say? If you’re a writer, what would your sleuth never say?

 

And Now For a Few Things You Will Never Hear Margot Say

Oh, no, thanks. I can’t stand the taste of coffee.
I couldn’t care less who wrote that stupid book.
Billy who?

 

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Donna Leon, Kerry Greenwood, Raymond Chandler, Reginald Hill

It’s All Part of the Job*

NuisancesWe all have to deal with irritants in our jobs. They take time away from what we’d really like to be doing (or should be doing), and they can be time-consuming. Even when they’re not, they can certainly be frustrating. But they are part of the job, and as the saying goes, they come with the territory.

There are plenty of these irritants in crime fiction, and they can serve some useful purposes. They can add to character development, context, and sometimes, even the plot. Like anything else, they’re best used in moderation, so as not to distract from the plot. But when handled deftly, they can add to a story.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we are introduced to Dr. John Christow, a successful Harley Street specialist. As the story begins, he’s finishing up his last bit of work for the week before taking a weekend trip to the country home of some friends, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. It’s not that he doesn’t want to help people who are genuinely ill, but he’s tired, a bit fed up, and eager to get on with the weekend:
 

‘It took him a quarter of an hour to deal with Mrs. Forrester. Once again it was easy money. Once again he listened, asked questions, reassured, sympathized, infused something of his own healing energy. Once more he wrote out a prescription for an expensive proprietary.’
 

His patient leaves, satisfied that all will be well. But she’s only been an irritant to Christow, who is eager to get away. I can say without spoiling the story that this particular annoying patient isn’t the reason for Christow’s murder two days later. But it does give a glimpse of his perspective on his patients.

Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring features academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. The main plot of the novel concerns the murder of a colleague, Reed Gallagher. Kilbourn gets involved in the investigation from the beginning, since she knows Gallagher’s widow. At the same time, she is concerned about a student, Kellee Savage, who is emotionally fragile to begin with, and who’s been making accusations against another student. Then, Kellee disappears. Kilbourn learns that she was last seen in a bar, and asks several of the students about what happened. It turns out Kellee made a recording of what was said there, and that one of Kilbourn’s students expressed some vehement opinions:
 

‘‘If I’d known Kilbourn was such a bitch about not letting people express their own opinions, I wouldn’t have taken her…course. You know what she gave me on my last paper? Fifty-eight percent! Just because I didn’t use secondary sources! I showed that paper to my boyfriend and a lot of other people. Everybody says I should’ve got an A.’’
 

Anyone who’s had a student like this will be familiar with the sort of trouble and annoyance such a person can create.

Kathryn Fox’s Anya Crichton is a New South Wales-based pathologist and forensic physician. When we first meet her in Malicious Intent, she works with her friend, DS Kate Farrer, to link a series of deaths. All of the victims turn out to have had traces of asbestos in their lungs; so, besides finding out the truth about the deaths, Crichton also sees the urgent need to track down the source of asbestos. In the meantime, she has to get on with the rest of her life. And part of what she does is give university lectures and work with students. Here’s a scene from one of her lectures:
 

‘Put the word ‘forensic’ in a lecture’s title and it pretty much guaranteed a full house. Anya introduced the day’s topic and a croaky voice from the back row interrupted.
‘Excuse me, but will this be in the exams?’
The most predictable question had taken all but thirty seconds to be asked.’
 

Again, anyone who’s ever worked with students will be familiar with this sort of person…

Police, of course, have their nuisances, too. There are plenty of people who will claim to see things they haven’t seen, or confess to crimes they didn’t commit, for any number of reasons. There are also those who take up police time with what most people would call trivial things that aren’t really the business of the police. There are other annoyances, too. Of course, the police have to follow up on these leads, because one of them could be valuable. And it’s not good for the police’s public image to be seen as ignoring citizens. It’s a difficult balance to strike.

We see a bit of this in Andrea Camilleri’s Wings of the Sphinx. The central plot of the novel concerns a young woman whose body is found near a landfill not far from Vigàta. It’s a complicated case, and Inspector Salvo Montalbano is trying to focus his energies on solving it. But in the meantime, he’s been assigned another case. Wealthy businessman Arturo Picarella has disappeared in what his wife, Ciccina, says was an abduction. At first, that’s what the case looked like, and Montalbano and his team took it seriously. But it turns out to have been quite different. The only problem is that Signora Picarella, who carries weight with the Commissioner, won’t let the matter rest, and creates a fair amount of annoyance for Montalbano.

Among other things they do to solve cases, the police often have to give press briefings. The members of the top brass use them for their own political purposes, and journalists use them to do their jobs. Sometimes those public updates and calls for information can be extremely useful. We all know stories of people who’ve contacted police with vital information after they saw a news story. And the police know that avoiding the press can create more problems than it solves. But for a lot of police investigators, dealing with press briefings is a real nuisance. Briefings take up their time, are often fraught with politics, and tend to result in a lot of extra ‘sightings of criminals’ and strong public sentiment. All of those can complicate police work. Still, they’re a necessary part of solving a major crime. We see this in a lot of crime fiction. I’m thinking, for instance, of several of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander stories, and of Jørn Lier Horst’s William Wisting novels. In both series (and lots of others, too numerous to mention), there are plenty of scenes where the investigator has to make time for press briefings. Neither Wallander nor Wisting really likes them. But each knows it comes with the job.

And that’s the thing about those irritations. They’re part of the job, and they come with the proverbial territory. We may not like them, but they can add a layer of realism to a crime novel.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Masketta Man’s Flying Good.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Gail Bowen, Henning Mankell, Jørn Lier Horst, Kathryn Fox

When I Want to Run Away*

Books as EscapismLet’s face it: the world is sometimes not very much fun at all. Whether it’s your personal or professional life, or the larger world in general, there are times when you just need to take a break. And book lovers know that there’s nothing like the right book to help you escape.

We all have our own ‘escape routes,’ too. Some readers like to turn to light crime fiction. You know, the kind that takes place in small towns, with a minimum of violence, quirky characters, and maybe even some romance. There are many examples of this kind of cosy mystery, of course. Lorna Barrett’s Booktown mysteries, which feature mystery bookshop owner Tricia Miles fall into this category. So do Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting mysteries, which ‘star’ retired folk art curator Beatrice Coleman. If you enjoy cosy series, I’ll bet you’ve got several to add to this list.

These series, when they’re done well, can create for the reader a world where things work out, and where it’s all going to be all right. It’s a little tricky to do such a series well, though, without it getting too ‘frothy.’ The best cosy series have enough realism and solid characters that they’re not too full of ‘sugar content.’

Those kinds of series aren’t for everyone, though. For some people, ‘escape’ means a ‘high-octane’ sort of thriller, complete with narrow escapes, undercover operatives, and shadowy groups. Robet Ludlum’s Jason Bourne novels come to my mind as an example of this. So does Lindy Cameron’s Redback, which features a crack team of Australian retrieval/rescue specialists who go up against a mysterious and very dangerous terrorist group. By the way, Ms.Cameron, if you happen to be reading this, I think Redback would make a terrific film.

Some thriller fans don’t mind suspending quite a lot of disbelief, and it’s easy to see why. It’s escapism, and doesn’t necessarily reflect real life. Other thriller fans like their ‘wild rides’ to be more realistic. So, for the thriller author, there’s always the question of just how much to stretch credibility. But even so, there are plenty of readers for whom ‘escape’ means the ways in which Ian Fleming’s James Bond gets himself out of trouble.

‘Escape’ can have another meaning too: travel. For some readers, the novels they read when they need to ‘get away from it all’ are set in exotic places. I see you out there, fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series. It’s not hard to appreciate the allure of gorgeous weather, delicious food and white, sandy beaches. Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh series is also set in what for many people is an exotic location: Singapore. Inspector Singh travels quite a lot in the series, to places such as Mumbai, Beijing, Cambodia and Bali. So the novels really give the reader a chance to ‘visit’ all sorts of different locations.

A series set in an exciting, different sort of place can’t just trade on its setting, of course. The story and characters do matter, and readers don’t want their crime novels to start resembling a travelogue. But sometimes, when the world gets a bit much, a virtual trip to Greece, or Malaysia, or Ibiza, or perhaps Botswana, can be very enticing indeed.

There are also plenty of crime fiction fans who like to escape using a virtual time machine. Life might not have been better during the Victorian Era, or Ancient Rome, or the early 1950s. In fact, in some ways, it was very much harder. But it can be really interesting to learn about life in a very different time. And isn’t it nice to contemplate a life without spam email and ‘robo-calls?’ C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels, for instance, are set in Tudor England. Life at that time, and in that place, wasn’t very easy, even if you had money. But there’s plenty of court intrigue and insights on the customs of the times to invite readers to forget their modern-day worries, at least for a time. Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series is set in the 1950’s mostly in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. It’s not completely idyllic; there’s post-war financial difficulty, for instance. But Bradley does evoke a quieter time.

Of course, readers only enjoy literary escapes if their destinations are well-written. It’s not enough to have a cosy premise, or an exciting ‘thrill ride,’ or a solid historical context. Character development and story content really do matter. But that said, there are just some novels and series that are perfect ‘getaway vehicles.’ I’ve mentioned a few. Now it’s your turn. When you’re looking for a book simply to escape, what sort of series do you choose? If you’re a writer, do you write escapist novels? I know, that’s not an easy question as we all define that term differently. What’s your take on this?

 

On Another Note…

 

Thanks very much to all of you who voted on which of my stories you’d like to see continued. It means a lot to me that you liked them that well. Interestingly, A Bite to Eat and Giving All Your Clothes to Charity were tied. So the matter was settled by a coin toss. The winner? A Bite to Eat.  Look for the next instalment very soon!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes.

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Filed under Alan Bradley, Andrea Camilleri, C.J. Sansom, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ian Fleming, Lindy Cameron, Lorna Barrett, Robert Ludlum, Shamini Flint

Feet of Clay*

Feet of ClayThe passing of Harper Lee (yesterday, as I write and post this) has got me thinking about her iconic character, small-town attorney Atticus Finch.  Finch was first introduced to readers in To Kill a Mockingbird, and, of course, brought to life by Gregory Peck in the film adaptation.

To many people, Finch embodied the notions of doing the right thing and standing up for justice. He also embodied the principles of being a skilled attorney – so much so that the University of Alabama’s School of Law created the Harper Lee Prize for best legal fiction. He loomed larger than life, if I may use that expression.

And that’s why plenty of people didn’t want to read (or were disappointed when they read) Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. In that novel, which takes place twenty years after the events in To Kill a Mockingbird, we learn that Finch is much more complex than the noble role model that his daughter Jean Louise ‘Scout’ envisions. I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t read it and plan to do so. But I will say that what we learn about Finch in this novel was extremely difficult for a lot of readers to accept. There’ve been other criticisms of Go Set a Watchman, too. But the revelations about Finch’s character have certainly caused a lot of discussion and disillusionment.

That sort of thing has happened with other fictional characters, too. For example, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that Conan Doyle originally planned to end the Holmes stories with The Final Problem. In that story, Holmes goes up against his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Things get so dangerous that Holmes and Watson end up leaving England for the European Continent. Moriarty tracks them down, though, and there’s a climactic scene at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls. Readers were upset, of course, at losing Sherlock Holmes. But they were also upset that their hero had actually succumbed – had not been able to best his opponent. The outcry against that fate played a major role in Conan Doyle’s decision to bring Holmes back.

Some readers have become a bit disillusioned with Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. It’s not his commitment to his work, nor his skill, that’s the problem. It’s his personal life. Although he has a caring relationship with his longtime lover, Livia Burlando, Montalbano does allow himself to be distracted by other women. He sometimes acts in immature ways, too. And there are readers who feel a little let down by that. Others see it as evidence that Montalbano is a complex character who is a flawed human, as we all are.

Sometimes, fictional characters become disillusioned with the main character. That’s what happens to Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin more than once. His boss, Nero Wolfe, is a brilliant detective, and Goodwin knows and respects that. But at the same time, Wolfe has plenty of faults, as his fans know. As Goodwin sees this, he does feel let down at times, and a few times, actually parts ways with Wolfe. But in the end, he sees Wolfe for what he is: a flawed human being with a real talent for detection.

Agatha Christie’s Captain Arthur Hastings becomes a little disillusioned with Hercule Poirot at times. In Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), for instance, Poirot and Hastings investigate the death of wealthy Emily Arundell. Poirot had gotten a letter from her asking for his assistance. But she didn’t mention exactly what the problem was. By the time he got the letter, though, it was too late. She was already dead. Still, Poirot feels an obligation to his would-be client. And he and Hastings soon discover that more than one person had a motive for wanting her dead. At one point, they’re visiting Miss Arundell’s niece, Theresa. During their visit, Theresa’s brother Charles also stops by her home. Poirot and Hastings take their leave, but Poirot insists on turning back and listening at the door to see what the two Arundells say to each other. Hastings is not at all happy at this, feeling that Poirot has let him down by not ‘playing the game.’ And of course, Hastings is all too aware of Poirot’s – er – sense of self-empowerment. Flawed Poirot certainly is, but Hastings knows he’s a brilliant detective.

And that’s the thing about those fictional characters who’ve had a real impact (I’ve only mentioned a few here. I know you could list many more!). On some level, we want them to always make the right choices, and win out in the end. Perhaps it’s idealism. On the other hand, we also want our fictional characters to be human beings. And that means that they have flaws. Sometimes they let us down.

What do you think about all of this? Have you felt really disillusioned by one of your top fictional sleuths? Does that stop you reading about that person? If you’re a writer, do you deliberately make way for your characters to let readers down?

 

In Memoriam

 

Harper Lee
 

This post is dedicated to the memory of Harper Lee. She created some of American literature’s iconic and memorable characters. Whatever Atticus Finch might have been like if he’d been real, we’ll always remember what we want to think he was.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Alex C. Kramer, Hy Zaret, and Joan Whitney.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Conan Doyle, Harper Lee, Rex Stout