Category Archives: Andrea Camilleri

You Ought to be in Pictures*

TV and Film AdaptationsIt’s not surprising that a lot of crime fiction fans also watch film and TV adaptations of series and novels they like. Film allows for all sorts of visual impact that’s harder to communicate in print. Even something as simple as a facial expression can mean a great deal, and it can be very powerful to communicate that meaning through the visual media.

But books often have background information, psychological details and so on that aren’t so easily portrayed on screen. And print and film are simply different media for communicating stories. So those who adapt novels and stories for the screen often have to make some changes.

And there, as the Shakespeare quote goes, is the rub. Film makers (whether for the big or small screen) have a few options. For instance, they can be completely faithful to the printed story in all ways. But that may mean a film that moves too slowly in some parts, or in other ways is a bit clumsy (because of the differences in media). They can make some changes, so as to make the story a better fit for film. That, of course, means that the adaptation is no longer as true to the book. A third option is that film makers can create an entirely new story, but using the original characters. This frees them from the confines of the original story, but can upset dedicated fans of the novel or series. Or, they can make some big changes, but keep some elements of the original story. For instance, one big difference between Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series and the television adaptation of it is its location. The book series takes place in Saskatchewan, but the TV films take place in Ontario. What’s more, in the book series, Kilbourn is a political scientist and academician. In the TV series, she’s a former cop. All of these options have both negative and positive consequences.

Speaking as a card-carrying, cranky, fussy purist dedicated reader, my preference is for adaptations that stay more or less true to the original story. That’s why, for instance, I very much liked Granada Television’s adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, with Jeremy Brett in the lead role. Some details of those stories were changed for film, but the basic plots, characters and so on reflect the original adventures. And to me, at least, Brett was Holmes.

There’ve been many, many adaptations of Agatha Christie’s work; some are more faithful than others to the original. And it’s interesting to think about the kinds of changes that have been made. For instance, Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (Albert Finney takes the role of Hercule Poirot here) was well-received. Even Christie herself, who in general didn’t care much for adaptations of her work, gave her rather reluctant appreciation for this one. And yet, there are some (to me, anyway) important differences between this film and the novel. To give just a few examples, in the novel, one of the passengers on this fabled train ride is a rather frumpy, middle-aged American matron named Mrs. Hubbard. In the film, her character (Lauren Bacall had this role) is much more sophisticated and stylish; other elements of her backstory are changed as well. And some of the other characters’ names and even elements of their personalities have been changed from the original story. As fellow passenger Mary Debenham, for instance, Vanessa Redgrave is more flirtatious and less aloof than the character is in the novel. And the murder victim’s valet (played in the film by Sir John Gielgud) is called Masterman in the novel, but Beddoes in the film. Did those changes make the film better than it would have been if it were exactly faithful to the novel? That’s a matter of taste, of course.

W.S. Van Dyke’s 1934 film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, which features PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora, is in some ways quite true to the original novel. A lot of the elements of the plot are the same, and most of the characters as well. But the film has a much lighter touch than the novel does. And interestingly enough, the film was so well-received that several more Thin Man films followed, although Hammett himself only wrote one novel about Nick and Nora Charles. Many people feel that the comedic elements in the film were positive changes; certainly they were popular with filmgoers.

One possible reason for which the Thin Man franchise has been so well-liked is that Hammett himself played a key role in the films’ production. I don’t have research data to support myself here, but I think there’s an argument that film and TV adaptations of novels benefit greatly from the original author’s input. When the original author is heavily involved in decisions such as screenplay, cast choices, and the like, the adaptation is more likely to reflect that author’s intent. So even if there are some differences between the screen version of a story and the print version, the soul of the story is there.

For instance, Kerry Greenwood insisted on being deeply involved in the production of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a series based on her Phryne Fisher novels. Here’s what she says:

 

‘So when I was asked to SELL her [Phryne Fisher] to the film people, I was firm. I had to choose the Phryne, I had to vet all the scripts, otherwise, no deal.’

 

That decision has proved to be a wise one. The television series, with Essie Davis in the title role, has been very successful (a third series is about to start soon!).

Fans of Colin Dexter’s work will know that he was very much involved in the adaptation of his Inspector Morse series for television. In fact, he based one of his novels (The Jewel That Was Ours) on an episode of the series, rather than the other way round, as is more usual. And Dexter has it written into his will that no actor other than the late John Thaw will be permitted to take the role of Morse. The only reason he’s consented to having Shaun Evans as Morse in the Endeavor series is that that character doesn’t compete with Morse as he (Dexter) wrote the character – older and (hopefully) more mature. Take it if you will as just my opinion, but that’s part of the reason that the Inspector Morse series was so well-made. John Thaw really was Inspector Morse, at least to me.

Ann Cleeves is less involved with Vera, the television series that features her DCI Vera Stanhope. But she is involved with the script writers, and,

 

‘I take the production team out to all the sites in Northumberland so they can see it for themselves.’

 

She also says that she has a good relationship with Brenda Blethyn, who has the title role.

And then there’s RAI’s Montalbano, based on Andrea Camilleri’s work, and starring Luca Zingaretti in the title role. Camilleri actually worked for RAI for several years, and has writing credits for 18 of the television episodes. And in an interesting twist, in Dance of the Seagull, Montalbano and his long-time lover Livia have a disagreement about where to go for a getaway trip. Montalbano doesn’t fall in with Livia’s ideas because,

 

‘‘They film them around there, you know….And what if I find myself face to face with the actor who plays me?…What’s his name – Zingarelli.’
‘His name’s Zingaretti, stop pretending you don’t know.’’

 

Again, this is just my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do. But I think the series benefits a lot from Camilleri’s close involvement.

Space only allows me to mention a few of these adaptations (I know, I know, fans of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton as, respectively, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin). There are a lot of others.

What do you think of all of this? Is it important to you that the series be very faithful to the original? Are you willing to ‘buy’ certain differences? If you’re a writer, which aspects of your story would you hold out for if it were filmed? Which would you be willing to give up?
 

ps. Want to read more about film and TV adaptations? Do visit Tipping My Fedora. It’s an excellent blog, and Sergio knows more than I ever possibly could about crime fiction on film. Also visit Book vs Adaptations, a regular feature at Reactions to Reading, which is one of the finest book review blogs there is. You need these blogs on your roll if they’re not there already.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Dana Suesse and Edward Heyman.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Ann Cleeves, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Gail Bowen, Kerry Greenwood, Rex Stout

Meet the New Boss*

BossesUnless you’re self-employed, chances are you’ve got a boss. If you’re fortunate, you have a supportive boss who looks out for you and helps you to develop and use your skills. That makes sense when you think about it. After all, if you look good, your boss looks good. Of course, you may be unlucky enough to have a boss who’s not supportive at all, and that can make your work life horrible. Either way, bosses play an important role in the way we feel about our work.

Bosses also play important roles in crime fiction. Some crime fictional sleuths are independent PIs; except for laws and policies that govern what they’re allowed to do, they don’t have bosses in the usual sense of the word. But a lot of fictional detectives have bosses (some are also bosses themselves). Here are just a few examples.

Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is sometimes unorthodox in his approach to solving cases. Just as one example, the alternate title of The Bushman Who Came Back is Bony Buys a Woman. No, it’s not exactly the way it sounds; it’s more complicated than that. And no, Bony isn’t a human trafficker. But he does have different ways of going about things. In that particular novel, he has a rather unusual way of helping one of the other characters as he solves the mysterious shooting of a housekeeper. Sometimes his approach gets him into trouble with the ‘higher ups’ in the Queensland Police. But Bony is fortunate enough to have a boss who understands both his value to the police and his not-always-by-the-book ways. So although they do ‘butt heads’ from time to time, Bony knows that his supervisor supports him and wants him to use his skills.

On the surface of it, you might not think that Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel would make a particularly good boss. After all, as fans will know, he’s demanding, sometimes quite rude, and certainly not one to care much about the finer sensibilities of his staff. And as the saying goes, he does not suffer fools gladly. But he is in many ways a very supportive boss. He’s not at all one to gush, but he is well aware that he’s got a good team of people working for him. And he looks after them, too. For example, in Child’s Play, the team is investigating the case of a man who’s found murdered not long after claiming to be the son (and only heir) of a wealthy woman who’s recently died. In the meantime, Sgt. Wield faces a difficult personal matter. He’s gotten involved in a relationship with a young drifter who has his own agenda. Now Wieldy has to decide what to do about coming out as gay. When internal police politics threaten Wieldy’s career, Dalziel finds a very clever way to protect his sergeant. He takes care of the rest of his team too, even when it doesn’t seem so.

Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg supervises a very unusual team of detectives. At first glance, it seems as though they’d be any boss’ nightmare. One’s a narcoleptic, one has an uncomfortably close relationship with the bottle, and one works better with animals than with people. But Adamsberg is a supportive boss. For one thing, he knows he’s not perfect either. For another, he knows that he has a team of skilled detectives who are good at their jobs. So he looks out for them and listens to them. They may be misfits in a lot of people’s estimation, but Adamsberg gets the best out of them.

The same is true of the team at Andrea Camilleri’s fictional Vigàta constabulary. Inspector Salvo Montalbano can be short-tempered and brusque with people, including those he supervises. And anyone who works for him knows better than to interrupt him when he’s eating. But they also know they can count on him. For one thing, he’s a fine detective. For another, he’s loyal to them and cares about them. As an example, in one plot thread of Dance of the Seagull, one of Montalbano’s team members, Giuseppe Fazio, goes missing. Montalbano immediately puts together a plan to find him. At the time of his disappearance, Fazio was following up some leads on a dangerous smuggling ring, and pursuing that case seems to be the best chance to find him. So Montalbano and the team do exactly that. They find Fazio too, wounded but alive. Throughout the novel, we see how Montalbano’s leadership and his loyalty to his team play roles in what happens.

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett has to learn leadership skills as she takes over and heads up the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. At first it’s seen as a demotion – a punishment for a case that went wrong. But Scarlett is determined to do the best job she can. And she loves her work. So she buckles down and develops the skills she needs to get the best from her team members. Along the way, she has to deal with some very complicated relationships and with the inevitable performance evaluations and other paperwork involved in being a boss. In this series, we get a look at what it’s like to learn how to be a supervisor and lead a team.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman may not head up a large team, but she cares about the people who work for her. Chapman is a Melbourne baker with two shop assistants, Kylie Manners and Gossamer ‘Goss’ Judge. She also has an apprentice baker, Jason Wallace. All three employees are young, and sometimes need some adult guidance. For example, Kylie and Goss have a potentially very dangerous encounter with some weight-loss tea in Devil’s Food. When Chapman learns what’s happened, she does what’s needed to help take care of them and ensure that they’ll be all right. For his part, Jason is learning to live on his own, without the use of drugs. He makes his share of mistakes, but Chapman supports him as he starts to grow up. In turn, all three of the young people are just as loyal to their boss. They step in when needed, they work to make sure that customers are happy, and they are trustworthy.

Those relationships are possibly the best thing about being (or having) a good boss. If you are a good boss, you get your subordinates’ loyalty and best work. If you have a good boss, you get the chance to develop your skills, and you grow professionally. You also forge really positive relationships. Of course, not all of us are lucky enough to have a good boss; that’s the stuff of another post…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again.

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Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Upfield, Fred Vargas, Kerry Greenwood, Martin Edwards, Reginald Hill

In the Beginning I Misunderstood*

Strange and Misleading TitlesAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about book titles. And while I’m mentioning that excellent blog, let me encourage you to pay it a visit. Moira’s blog is the source for all kinds of interesting discussion of fashion and culture in fiction, and what it all says about us. In the post, Moira shared some interesting book titles that are misleading in the sense that they don’t have much to do with the actual subject of the book. There are plenty of other titles too that are enigmatic, so that it’s hard to tell exactly what the book is about, really.

On the one hand, a title that tells the reader something important about the book can be a really useful marketing tool, especially if it’s not overlong or difficult to remember. On the other hand, sometimes, enigmatic or odd titles can generate interest too, and get the reader wondering what’s in the book. There are certainly titles like that in crime fiction; here are just a few.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) has, as fans will know, nothing to do with floods, tides or water. Rather, it’s the story of the Cloade family, and what happens when wealthy patriarch Gordon Cloade marries without making a will – and then is tragically killed in a bomb blast. His young widow Rosaleen is now set to inherit his fortune, and his other family members are understandably not pleased about that. Then a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints that Rosaleen may not have been a widow, as she claimed, at the time of her marriage to Cloade. If her first husband is still alive, her second marriage is of course null and she cannot inherit. So there’s a lot of interest in whether ‘Enoch Arden’ is telling the truth. One night he’s killed. Hercule Poirot has already heard the story of the Cloade family, and his interest is piqued in the case. There is a connection between that quote from Shakespeare that serves as the title and the novel itself. But it’s not a direct connection that would give away the premise (as opposed, say, to Christie’s The ABC Murders).

If you picked up Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, knowing nothing about it, you might assume it’s about people who make clothes. The reality is that the novel has nothing to do with the making of clothing. Rather, it’s the story of an ill-fated trip that Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter take through East Anglia. They have a car accident near Fenchurch St. Paul, and Rector Theodore Venables comes to their aid, even inviting them to stay at the Rectory until their car is fixed. They agree with gratitude and settle in. As it turns out, Lord Peter is soon able to repay the kindness. The local change-ringers are getting ready for their New Year’s Eve ringing when one of them, Will Thoday, becomes ill. Wimsey takes his place and the ringing goes on as planned. On the same day, word comes that Lady Thorpe, wife of the local squire Sir Henry, has died of the same illness. So Wimsey and Bunter stay on for her funeral. A few months later, Wimsey gets a letter from Venables. Sir Henry has died, and the gravediggers preparing for his burial have discovered to their shock that there’s another body in the Thorpe grave. Venables wants Wimsey to return to Fenchurch St. Paul and investigate. When he does so, Wimsey finds that it’s all connected to a long-ago robbery. So where does the title come in? It’s the number of times (nine) that the church bells ring when a man dies (ringing the nine tailors). It’s connected to the story, but you need to know that change-ringing term to see that link immediately.

Philip Kerr’s March Violets is the first in his historical series featuring cop-turned-PI Bernie Gunther. The story’s focus is a stolen diamond necklace. Wealthy and powerful Hermann Six hires Gunther to track down the necklace after it’s taken from the safe in his daughter’s bedroom. As he explains to Gunther, his daughter and her husband were shot that same night, but he is relying on the police to investigate those murders. His motivation for hiring Gunther to find the necklace is that he doesn’t want it to fall into the hands of the increasingly powerful Third Reich. Gunther agrees, and begins to ask questions. As he does so, he comes to the unwelcome attention of some of Berlin’s criminal class, who do not want him to find out the truth. And when Gunther finds a link between those people and the newly-emerging Nazi leadership, the Nazis too are motivated to shut him up. As you can see, this novel isn’t about horticulture. The title comes from the derogatory term used for those who supported the Nazis, but only after they had taken power in 1933. Those were people who, as the explanation went, waited to see which way the wind blew before aligning themselves.

Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water isn’t about water, or even about mysterious shapes. In that novel, Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate the death of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. He was found in a very compromising position in a car at a notorious place called The Pasture, where prostitutes meet their clients and small-time drug deals are conducted. There seems on the surface of it no reason to believe that this is murder. Luparello seems to have died of natural causes (a heart attack) at a very inopportune time, but there’s no reason to think he was murdered. Still, Montalbano has a feeling that there’s more to this case, and he’s given two days to follow up. Sure enough, there is plenty beneath the proverbial surface, and Montalbano finds out what it is. This title refers to a story that Luparello’s widow tells Montalbano. The key point of that story is that water doesn’t have a shape; it takes the shape you give it. This case has the shape, in other words, that it’s been given.

There’s also Alan Bradley’s series featuring Flavia de Luce. Much of the series takes place in the 1950s in and around the fictional English village of Bishop’s Lacey. The titles of these novels are (at least in my opinion) inventive. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie; The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag; and I am Half-Sick of Shadows are just three examples. They are all connected with the stories in some way. Still, these titles don’t really directly reflect the main plot.

And I hope I may be forgiven for mentioning a non-crime-fictional example. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye isn’t about grains or a position on a baseball or cricket team. As you’ll no doubt know, it’s about the coming of age of Holden Caulfield, and the experiences he has after he leaves the prestigious school he’s attending. It’s got plenty of other themes as well, of course. The title comes from a misquoting of Robert Burns’ Comin’ Through the Rye, and from Caulfield’s desire to preserve the innocence of childhood (and his own particular world view).

Those enigmatic or even misleading titles can be intriguing and they can certainly set a book apart. What do you think? Does it bother you when a title doesn’t directly tell you about the novel? If you’re a writer, do you opt for a more straightforward title, or do you choose something less obvious?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ The Word.

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Filed under Alan Bradley, Andrea Camilleri, Angela Savage, Dorothy Sayers, J.D. Salinger, Philip Kerr

You Had to Have the Last Word Last Night*

WisecracksThere’s a great deal of sadness in a lot of crime novels, even those that don’t count as ‘bleak’ or noir. And that makes sense, since there’s nothing amusing about murder. So it can come as a welcome lift when one of the characters has enough of a sense of wit to make wisecracks. Those ‘wiseacre remarks’ have to be handled well, or they can be off-putting. But when they are deftly done, they can add a ‘lift’ to a story. Here are just a few examples to show what I mean. Oh, and you’ll notice that I haven’t included ‘screwball’ novels: too easy…

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), wealthy Emily Arundell knows very well that her relatives would love to get their hands on her fortune. She tells them that they’ll have to be content to wait for her death, and a frightening fall down a flight of stairs convinces her that someone is willing to hurry her along, as the saying goes. That’s when she writes to Hercule Poirot. She doesn’t specify exactly what she wants from him, but Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing to investigate. By the time they get there though, it’s too late: Emily Arundell has died of what seems to be liver failure. When it becomes clear that she was poisoned, Poirot looks among her relatives and employees to find out who the murderer is. One source of information on the history of the Arundell family and their home Littlegreen House is Caroline Peabody, who’s known the family for years. Miss Peabody may be elderly, but she’s alert and intelligent, and not afraid to speak her mind. Here is a bit of a conversation she has with Hastings:
 

‘‘You are his secretary, I suppose?’
‘Er – yes,’ I said doubtfully.
‘Can you write decent English?’
‘I hope so.’
 ‘H’m – where did you go to school?’
‘Eton.’
‘Then you can’t.’’
 

Hastings can’t really come up with the right rejoinder to that.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s work will know that it’s infused with wisecracks. Those remarks lighten up what are sometimes very sad stories. And those quips come from several of the characters. For instance, in The Wings of the Sphinx, Inspector Montalbano and his team investigate the murder of an unknown young woman whose body is found near a local landfill. Here’s a bit of the conversation Montalbano has with his second-in-command Mimì Augello shortly after he’s roused early in the morning when the body is found:
 

‘‘Mimì, couldn’t you have scratched your balls by yourself?’
‘Salvo, I’m not going to play your game anymore.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that if I hadn’t had you come here, later you’d be driving me crazy saying, ‘Why didn’t you tell me this, why didn’t you tell me that…’’
‘What’s the corpse like?
‘Dead,’ said Augello.’
 

There’s not much Montalbano can say in response to that…

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series features DCI Hannah Scarlett, who heads up the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. That’s not of course the only team at the constabulary, and Scarlett’s made friends with Fern Larter, who heads a team of her own. In The Serpent Pool, the two work together to connect a six-year-old drowning death that Scarlett’s investigating with two recent murders that Larter’s investigating. One of those is the killing of book collector George Saffell. At one point, they’re discussing the Saffell case, in particular the Saffell family background:
 

‘‘For good measure, there’s a villa in Spain, but so far I haven’t managed to wangle a trip out there to hunt for clues.’ [Larter]
‘You’re slipping.’ Fern’s ability to persuade the top brass that trips overseas were vital to her latest investigation were the stuff of legend. ‘How about a trip to New Zealand, for a word with the daughter? They say it’s a beautiful country.’
‘Lynsey came back to England for the funeral,’ Fern pouted.’
 

Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series takes place mostly in Absaroka County, Wyoming, where Longmire is sheriff. Some of these stories are very sad, but there’s also a dose of wit. And some of that wit comes from exchanges between Longmire and his deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti. In Death Without Company for instance, Longmire has assigned her to wait outside a local supermarket to ‘collect’ a group of shoppers to serve as talis jurors, so they can fill out the local jury pool. Here’s a bit of their exchange about that:
 

‘I watched as my…deputy accosted a middle-aged man…copied down information from his driver’s license and informed him that he needed to get over to the courthouse pronto or be faced with contempt of court. ‘Well, there’s another notch on my Glock.’
…‘Hey, there are worse places for stakeouts. At least we’ve got plenty of supplies.’’
 

Then, Moretti asks what a talis juror is.
 

‘‘It’s from the Latin. Meaning bystander. You’re Italian, you should understand these things.’
‘I’m from Philadelphia, where we vote early and often, and everybody on the jury has a vowel on the end of his name.’’
 

Fans of this series will also know that there are plenty of wisecracks between Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear, who runs the Red Pony Inn.

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish is a sometimes-lawyer who also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found, and for finding out secrets people would rather keep. As a way of keeping his sanity, he’s informally apprenticed himself to master cabinetmaker Charlie Taub. Irish richly enjoys working with the wood and creating new things. He also enjoys the interactions he has with Taub. For his part, Taub is absolutely not one to gush. But he does like having Irish around. Here’s a bit of an exchange they have in Bad Debts, when Irish pays a visit after not having been there for a bit:
 

‘‘So,’ he said without looking at me. ‘Man who finds the scum of the earth. Man who breaks his parents’ hearts. Horses and criminals. That’s his life.’…
‘I gather you missed me a lot then?’
Another snort ‘What I miss, I miss someone finishes little jobs I give him. Like little tables. Day’s work for a man who actually works.’’

 

There’s not much Irish can say to that…

There’s also Donna Malane’s Surrender, in which missing persons expert Diane Rowe gets involved in the murder of James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson. A year earlier, Rowe’s sister Niki was murdered, and Snow admitted being hired to do the job. But he never gave the name of the person who hired him. Now he’s been killed in exactly the same way. Rowe believes that if she can find out who killed Snow, she’ll find out who killed her sister. So she looks into the case. Niki was an exotic dancer at a club, so Diane starts there to find out what her sister’s connections were, and who might have wanted her dead. One possibility is club regular Richard Brownlee, who paid quite a lot of attention to Niki. Brownlee’s crude, arrogant sexism does not exactly endear him to Diane. Here’s a bit of the conversation they have:
 

‘One of the girls at the club told me you had a bit of a thing for my sister.’…
‘What kind of a thing would that be, babe? No offence, but she was a whore.’
I was determined not to let him get to me. ‘She said you didn’t like other guys spending time with Niki. That you liked to have her all to yourself. I heard you were jealous.’
Richard barked a laugh. ‘Now that would be pretty stupid, wouldn’t it?’
‘Yep,’ I agreed pleasantly. ‘But then, you see, that would fit nicely with my assessment of you so far.’
 

Needless to say, everyone has a good laugh at Brownlee’s expense.

And, at the risk of making this post go on too long, here is my top wisecrack, from Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate the murder of Eva Ringmar, whose body is found in her bathtub. Her husband, Janek Mitter, discovers the body when he wakes up hung over after a long night of drinking. As you can imagine, he becomes the chief suspect and in fact, is arrested for the crime. He claims he’s innocent, and at his trial, an officious prosecutor asks how he knows he didn’t kill his wife, since he was so drunk at the time of the murder. Here’s Mitter’s reply:
 

‘I know I didn’t kill her; because I didn’t kill her. Just as I’m sure that you know you are not wearing frilly knickers today, because you aren’t. Not today.’ 
 

That, to me, is priceless. And it helps to spur Van Veeteren on to investigate the murder more thoroughly.

There are of course a lot of other great wisecracks in crime fiction, even in very sad stories (I know, I know fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series). Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Craig Johnson, Donna Malane, Håkan Nesser, Martin Edwards, Rex Stout

Pass the Biscuits, Please*

Food DescriptionsAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about the way food descriptions and meals fit into crime fiction. By the way, if Clothes in Books isn’t on your blog roll, you’re missing out. It’s the place for great discussions on clothes, popular culture, and what it all says about us in fiction. On the one hand, the kind of food we eat, the amount, and so on says a lot about us. So food can be used as a very effective way to develop characters. And because food is so culturally contextual, a meal can also provide cultural background too.

On the other hand, too much description of anything, food or otherwise, can overburden a story and take away from the main plot. In this, as in just about anything else in a novel, it seems that there needs to be a balance.

There are plenty of meals described in Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories. I’ll just mention one example. In Cards on the Table, the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana invites eight people to a dinner party. Four are sleuths; four are people Shaitana believes have gotten away with murder. Here’s a bit of the description of the dinner:
 

‘Poirot’s prognostication was amply justified. The dinner was delicious and its serving perfection. Subdued light, polished wood, the blue gleam of Irish glass.’
 

Interestingly enough, there’s no real discussion of the actual food. In this case, the conversation is more important. During the meal, Mr. Shaitana throws out hints about getting away with murder. One of his guests takes what he says too much to heart, and during after-dinner bridge, Mr. Shaitana is stabbed. There are only four suspects: the four people playing bridge in the room in which he was killed. So the four sleuths look into their backgrounds to find out who the killer is.  Of course, Poirot being the gourmand that he is, there are also mentions of food in the stories that feature him. But they tend not to be particularly descriptive.  In Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Poirot travels to London on the famous Orient Express train. At one point, he and M. Bouc, who is a director of the Compagnie Internationale des  Wagon Lits, are having lunch:
 

‘Poirot sat down and soon found himself in the favoured position of being at the table which was served first and with the choicest morsels. The food, too, was unusually good.
It was not till they were eating a delicate cream cheese that M. Bouc allowed his attention to wander to matters other than nourishment.’
 

Those matters soon turn deadly when fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed.

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series takes place in the Périgord, a region that particularly prides itself on its gastronomic culture. Bruno is the Chief of Police in the small town of St. Denis, and although he cares about his job and takes it very seriously, he certainly doesn’t forget to eat. In Bruno, Chief of Police, for instance, he works with Isabelle Perrault of the Police Nationale to solve the murder of Hamid Mustafa al-Bakr. At one point, they have a dinner picnic:
 

‘The fish were just right…She saw thin slivers of garlic that he had placed inside the belly of the trout, and he handed her half a lemon to squeeze onto the pink-white flesh, and a small side plate with potato salad studded with tiny lardons of bacon.’
 

They also have baguettes with pâté, Champagne, and some rosé. In this series, that careful attention to food really reflects the culture of the Périgord and adds to the sense of place.

Food is also an important part of life for Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Fans of this series will know that the novels have lots of description of delicious food. Here, for instance, is just one snippet from The Snack Thief, in which, among other things, Montalbano investigates the murder of Aurelio Lapècora, who is stabbed to death in the elevator of his apartment building. At one point, he takes a lunch break. Here’s a description of the hake he orders:
 

‘Then, eight pieces of hake arrived, enough to feed four people. They were crying out their joy – the pieces of hake, that is – at having been cooked the way God had meant them to be. One whiff was enough to convey the dish’s perfection, achieved by the right amount of breadcrumbs and the delicate balance between the anchovies and the whisked egg.’
 

Although there is quite a lot of food discussed in this series, Camilleri doesn’t go on about it for any real length of time. In this case, the food descriptions add some depth to Montalbano’s food-loving character, and they give a sense of the local culture.

It’s the same thing with Tarquin Hall’s stories featuring Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Puri is sometimes nicknamed ‘Chubby,’ and part of the reason for that nickname is that he loves food. As he goes about his business, Hall gives readers an interesting look at the sort of food that’s popular in Delhi. Here, for instance, is a bit of a description of a meal that Puri’s wife Rumpi cooks (from The Case of the Missing Servant):
 

‘Rumpi was busy in the kitchen chopping onions and tomatoes for the bhindi. When the ingredients were ready, she added them to the already frying pods and stirred. Next, she started cooking the rotis on a round tava, expertly holding them over a naked flame so they puffed up with hot air like balloons and became nice and soft…
Presently Rumpi served him some kadi chawal, bhindi and a couple of rotis. He helped himself to the plate of sliced tomato, cucumber and red onion, over which a little chat masala had been sprinkled…’   
 

With less than a paragraph, really, Hall uses this meal to give some interesting cultural insights as well as set a homey scene. And for those who don’t know the terms, there’s a glossary in the back of the novel (at least in my edition). The real focus of these novels is the cases Puri and his team investigate; but Hall also manages to weave in some powerful food descriptions.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is half-Ukrainian. And although he identifies himself as Canadian, rather than Ukrainian, he enjoys traditional Ukrainian cooking. In A Flight of Aquavit, for instance, his mother Kay pays him a visit. They have their ups and downs and awkward moments, but he’s well-fed:
 

‘I comforted myself with the ultimate in Ukrainian comfort food – pierogies lightly fried in butter, garlic and onion and drowned in a rich, creamy sauce of mushrooms and dill.’  
 

Bidulka doesn’t take up page after page to describe food in this series; yet, the descriptions he does provide give character depth and an interesting cultural context to the stories.

And of course, no discussion of food descriptions in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. He is a dedicated devotee of fine food. He can be (and often is) brusque, even rude. But he knows the value of his chef Fritz Brenner, and he appreciates a properly done meal. There are many books, as Wolfe fans know, in which Fritz’ creations are mentioned, and others that include other delicious meals (Too Many Cooks comes immediately to my mind). And yet, despite the fact that Wolfe is a connoisseur of fine food, Stout keeps the focus in his stories on the plots and the characters.

And that’s the thing about descriptions of food and meals. They can provide a rich layer of character depth and cultural background. But they are best served in moderate portions. Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bobbie Genry’s Ode to Billie Joe.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anthony Bidulka, Martin Walker, Tarquin Hall