Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

I Know You Don’t Know Who I Am*

Making IdentificationOne of the first things police do when a body is discovered is try to identify the dead person. There are, of course, lots of reasons to make identification a priority. One of them is that most (certainly not all!) murders are committed by people known to the victim. If the police know who that person was, they’re likely to narrow down the list of suspects. Even when it’s not a case of murder, identifying the victim allows loved ones and friends the closure that comes with knowing the fate of the person who’s died.

Modern DNA and other forensics technology has moved the process of identification forward considerably. And a lot of cop shows present this as a quick and easy way to find out the victim’s name and so on. But in real life, it’s not that simple. For one thing, DNA testing can be very expensive. Most police departments don’t have in-house DNA testing facilities, either, so they have to send any remains elsewhere. This can mean many weeks of delay in identification, and more opportunities for contamination of the evidence. It’s an important part of identification when there’s any doubt; but it’s not the ‘be all and end all’ that it might seem from cop shows. So police and other sleuths, both real and fictional, use other means of identifying bodies when there’s no obvious evidence such as a wallet with a driver license in it.

One means of identification is through dental records. Dental records are not, of course, foolproof. Still, they are useful. That’s what we see, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Clocks. In that novel, the body of an unknown man is discovered in the home of Millicent Pebmarsh. It’s very unlikely that she is the killer, since she was not at home at the time of the murder, and since she is blind. She claims not to know who the victim was, and what’s left with the body is no help, either. There’s no identification except for a business card that turns out to be bogus. What’s interesting (and one thing that puts Hercule Poirot on the right path) is that the victim has had dental work done; but it’s not the work of an English dentist. This means the man is probably a foreigner, and so he proves to be. When his records are finally located, it turns out that he is Canadian. There’s another Agatha Christie novel, too, in which dental records turn out to be key to the story. Even the title of the novel would be too close to spoiler-land for me, though, so I won’t give it. If you know the story, you know which one I mean, anyway…

One step the murderer takes in The Clocks to prevent identification is to remove the laundry and tailoring tags from the victim’s clothing. This makes sense, too, because victims can be traced by their clothing sometimes. That’s especially true for clothes that are custom-made. We see that, for instance, in Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove police is faced with a puzzling case when the torso of a dead man is found in an unused chicken coop. It’s obviously no use looking for a dental records match or even a fingerprint match. But the police do get one lead: some material from the victim’s clothing. Grace’s second-in-command Glenn Branson, who’s more sartorially sophisticated than his boss is, suggests checking with various manufacturers and tailors, and that proves to be a fruitful avenue of exploration.

There’s another very effective use of clothes to make an identification in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. In that story, Commissionaire Peterson brings an interesting case to Sherlock Holmes. Peterson interrupted a fight between an unknown man and some hooligans. The man ran off, but dropped his hat and a goose he was carrying. Peterson gave the goose to his wife to cook; as she prepared it, she found a valuable gem in its craw. Now Peterson’s intrigued, so he’s brought the hat with him to Holmes. After a few moments of examining the hat, Holmes deduces an awful lot about its owner. That information allows him to trace the man who dropped it and the goose; from there, we learn how the gem got into the goose’s craw.

Donna Malane’s sleuth Diane Rowe is a missing person expert, so she is skilled at using all sorts of clues to identify people. In one plot thread of Surrender, she’s been hired to help the police find out the identity of a man whose remains were found in New Zealand’s Rimutaka State Forest. There’s little to go on, as the man has been dead for several decades. Pathology results can only establish his gender, his probable age (twenties), and the likely time of his death (1970s). But bit by bit, Rowe gets closer to identifying the victim. One important piece of evidence proves to be a boot that was found near the remains. Looking at information from boot manufacturers helps Rowe discover the man’s name, and bring some closure to one person for whom he was important.

Diane Rowe’s work is just one example of how useful missing person reports can be. The police use them quite frequently when an unknown body is discovered. It’s no guarantee of identification, of course, but if a body is similar in age, weight and so on, and is of the same sex, there is at the very least a better likelihood of identifying that person. Those reports turn out to be very useful in Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs, when Inspector William Wisting and his team use them to solve a bizarre case. A series of feet clad in trainers has washed ashore near the Norwegian town of Stavern, and the media is only too happy to add to the speculation that a serial killer may be at work. That doesn’t turn out to be the case, and missing person reports help establish that fact.

There are other ways, too, that are used to find the identity of ‘John/Jane Doe’ victims. Some are more successful than others, and none is foolproof. But when used in conjunction with DNA and other testing where appropriate, they can be quite valuable.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Wesley Harding’s To Whom it May Concern.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Malane, Jørn Lier Horst, Peter James

Riddle Me This*

RiddlesMany people enjoy solving riddles and playing ‘riddle’ games, where they have to put clues together to find an answer. And it can be a really interesting way to ‘exercise the brain.’ ‘Riddle games’ have been woven into plenty of crime fiction, which shouldn’t be surprising, really. After all, if you’re a crime fiction fan, you probably like to use your ability to link clues together and solve mysteries. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Musgrave Ritual, Sherlock Holmes relates one of his older cases to Dr. Watson. Sir Reginald Musgrave was a university friend of Holmes’, and so, was acquainted with his legendary deductive skill. He asked Holmes to visit him at his home and help solve a mystery. Musgrave’s butler, Richard Brunton, and his maid, Rachel Howells, disappeared, and no sign has been seen of them. The only clue is that before the two went missing, Musgrave had caught Brunton looking through some private family papers. The one he seemed most interested in was a paper that contained an old, apparently meaningless, poem used in a sort of family ritual. It turns out to be far from meaningless, though, when Holmes discovers what the poem really says.

Agatha Christie used riddles, puzzles and so on in several of her stories. For instance, in the short story Manx Gold, we meet Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker, a recently-engaged couple who travel to the Isle of Man to hear the reading of the will when Fenella’s eccentric Uncle Myles dies. The will states Uncle Myles found buried treasure on the island, and provides clues to the treasure. According to the will, Fennella, Juan, and two other potential heirs will be given sets of clues to where the treasure is buried. The first to find the treasure gets to claim it. Very soon, the race is on. What’s interesting about this story is that Christie wrote it on commission to help boost tourism on the island. It was printed in instalments, and given to tourists, who were invited to make sense of the clues and find the treasure. Ironically, no-one ever claimed the real-life treasure – £100 to the first person who could find four identical snuffboxes holding Manx half-pennies. I know, I know, fans of Dead Man’s Folly.

There’s a more macabre puzzle in Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil. In this novel, Queen has taken a house in the Hollywood Hills to spend some quiet time writing. His plans change dramatically when he meets Laurel Hill. She’s heard he’s there, and wants his help solving what she considers to be a murder. Her father, Leander Hill, recently died of a heart attack after receiving several grotesque ‘gifts.’ She doesn’t know what the packages mean, but she is sure that her father did. What’s more, Hill’s business partner, Roger Priam, has also been getting ‘gifts.’ Lauren believes that if Queen can find out what the puzzle of the packages means, he’ll find out who caused her father’s heart attack. Queen doesn’t want to get involved at first; he wants to work on his writing. But he finds himself getting drawn into the puzzle as he solves the riddle that was left for Hill and Priam.

One of the more unusual ‘riddle games’ is in Fred Vargas’ The Chalk Circle Man, the first of her novels featuring Comissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his police team. As the novel begins, there’s been a great deal of attention given to a strange phenomenon: someone has been drawing chalk circles in blue on the pavement in various places in Paris. Each circle is accompanied by the strange saying,

‘Victor, woe’s in store. What are you out here for?’

And all sorts of things have been found inside the circles, including notebooks, an orange, and a hat. Then one day a body is found inside one of the circles. Now the case has gone beyond the bizarre and into the murderous, so Adamsberg and his team get to work looking for the killer. In order to find that person, they’re going to have to solve the riddle of the circles, their contents, and the strange message.

And then there’s Lisa Unger’s In the Blood, which tells the story of college student Lana Granger. She’s working on a degree in psychology, and is hoping to finish soon. When her mentor recommends her for a job as an after-school sort of nanny, Lana’s not sure she wants the position at first. But the child, eleven-year-old Luke Kahn, is an interesting case from a professional viewpoint. He is extremely intelligent – even gifted. But he has severe emotional, anger, and other issues. It might be a valuable experience to work with such a child, so Lana is persuaded to contact Luke’s mother Rachel. Lana gets the job offer and prepares to work with Luke. But she soon finds it to be quite a challenge, as he is a troubled young boy. Lana’s not sure whether he is brilliant, and simply bored, or whether he is victim of abuse, or seriously disturbed for some other reason. One day Luke insists that they play a game. He begins to give clues, all of which make Lana begin to wonder at how much Luke seems to know about her. It’s an eerie game, but Luke refuses to stop playing. Then, Lana’s roommate and friend Rebecca ‘Beck’ Miller goes missing. As the police start looking into the case, Lana herself becomes a ‘person of interest.’ And Luke seems to know an awful lot about the case…

Riddles and ‘riddle games’ can be a lot of fun, and certainly intellectually stimulating. They can also add some interesting leaven to a mystery story. Oh, and you’ll notice, I didn’t include any of the serial-killer novels where the killer leaves cryptic clues. Can you guess why?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steel Pulse’s Steppin’ Out.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Fred Vargas, Lisa Unger

Everywhere You Look Now There’s Murder Incorporated*

Changing Bad GuysWell-written crime fiction shows us ourselves – who we are as people. We can learn a lot about what we wish for, fear, and more as we read in the genre. For instance, if you consider the ‘bad guys’ in certain crime novels, you see that they reflect sociopolitical events, societal fears and sometimes prejudices. You also see how those have changed as the world has changed.

For example, if you look at early crime fiction, or historical crime fiction that takes place during the late Victorian Era and the Edwardian Era, you see that the ‘bad guys’ were frequently members or leaders of shadowy syndicates and crime rings. The best known example that I can think of is, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. Fans will know that he is a highly intelligent master-criminal who gives Sherlock Holmes quite a run for the money, as the saying goes. But he’s not the only criminal of that type. You see that influence also in Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry. In that novel, private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn go up against Sebastian Nightwine, a dangerous opponent whom Barker exposed as a criminal years ago. When Nightwine returns to London, Barker is sure that trouble is going to follow, and he’s right. Barker ends up accused of murder and on the run, with all of his assets frozen. Then there’s another murder. He and Llewelyn will have to work hard to clear his name and take down Nightwine’s.  A few of Agatha Christie’s novels (The Big Four being one of them) also set up shadowy syndicates as ‘the enemy).

More modern novels, such as Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano stories, have a more contemporary take on the crime syndicate. Sometimes, as in Camilleri’s work and that of authors such as Michael Dibdin and Tonino Benacquista, the syndicate takes the form of what we call the Mafia (sometimes in the US, it’s called the Mob). There are also modern takes on crime syndicates from other places, too, such as the Glasgow underworld that we see in William McIlvanney’s and Malcolm Mackay’s work.

World War I and World War II had profound influences on people’s conceptions of ‘bad guys.’ Several of Agatha Christie’s stories (N or M? and Postern of Fate, for instance) set up first the Triple Alliance, then the Axis powers (specifically the Nazis) as ‘the bad guys.’

And by no means is Christie the only author who’s used Nazis, their associates, and their modern-day incarnations as antagonists. You see that in a lot of crime fiction and thrillers, actually. Just to take a few examples, there’s Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, and Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders.

In fact, the Nazis-as-enemies have had a profound influence even in modern crime fiction that simply touches on the World War II years. I’m thinking, for instance, of Camilla Läckberg’s The Hidden Child, Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath be Past, and Ferdinand von Schirach’s Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case). In those novels (and many more), we see how modern relationships, interactions, and even crime has its roots in the war, in Nazi occupation and in loyalties of that time.  It will be interesting to see what happens to that theme as time goes on, and there are fewer and fewer people whose parents/grandparents/great-grandparents lived through World War II.

In the post-World War II era, one of the most important geopolitical realities was the Cold War between the UK, US and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies. This arguably set up the KGB and other Soviet-bloc spy agencies as very effective ‘bad guys.’ Read the work of authors such as John le Carré, Len Deighton and Robert Ludlum, and you’ll see that in a lot of those novels, the enemy is usually the KGB or other such agency in some form or another. Sometimes it’s one person who’s a member of such a group, but that person often represents the Soviet Union and its policies. You can even see such sentiments in books that aren’t exactly what you would call spy thrillers. For example, there’s Martin Cruz Smith’s work featuring Arkady Renko. And Walter Mosley’s The Red Death has his sleuth Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins being asked to take down a suspected Communist. As I think about the Cold War era, I often wonder what impression I’d get if I could read Russian well enough to read some of the novels of those years that are written in that language.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1993, the world changed, and so did crime fiction. There are arguably two kinds of ‘bad guys’ that have populated crime fiction since that time. One is the Eastern European crime gang that we see in novels such as Daniel Pembrey’s The Harbour Master. Another, very closely related, outgrowth is arguably the Eastern European/Russian human trafficking gang (check out Tess Gerritson’s Vanish as an example). The other sort of ‘bad guy’ is the Russian oligarch/shady businessman. With official Communism at an end, these businessmen came to the fore in terms of their power and ruthlessness. Several of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels mention them (especially Exit Music). There are also some thrillers (such as Daniel Silva’s Moscow Rules) that touch on such people as ‘the bad guys.’

Another recent development in terms of ‘bad guys’ is the terrorist group, particularly the Middle Eastern terrorist group. Novels such as le Carré’s 1983 The Little Drummer Girl are earlier examples of such crime fiction, but by no means the only ones. Lindy Cameron’s Redback includes such terrorists as ‘bad guys.’ So do many other novels. In the wake of more recent terrorist events, we’ve seen a lot more such ‘bad guys,’ even in novels that aren’t billed as ‘thrillers.’

There’s also been another development in the sort of ‘bad guy’ authors choose: big corporations and their leaders.  I’m sure you’ve read as many novels as I have in which big developers are depicted as antagonists. Some novels (I’m thinking of Gail Bowen’s Kaleidoscope) present a more complex picture of development. But many depict big companies and developers quite negatively. For instance, there’s Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, several of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels, and more.

Not all crime novels feature this sort of plot. Many are more personal plots, if I can put it that way. They feature crimes where one person (or a group of people) commit murder for reasons such as revenge, fear, or personal greed. That said though, if we look at crime plots over time, we really do see, I think, how they often use certain antagonists to reflect the kind of fears and prejudices that we have. I wonder which group will be next to be depicted in this way…


NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Murder Incorporated.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Conan Doyle, Åsa Larsson, C.J. Box, Camilla Läckberg, Daniel Pembrey, Daniel Silva, Ferdinand von Schirach, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Ira Levin, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Lindy Cameron, Malcolm Mackay, Martin Cruz Smith, Michael Dibdin, Peter Temple, Philip Kerr, Robert Gott, Robert Ludlum, Tess Gerritsen, Tonino Benacquista, Walter Mosley, Will Thomas, William McIlvanney

I Know You Have Laid a Trap For Me*

Traps and StingsMost criminals don’t want to be caught. So when the police don’t have enough evidence to pursue a conviction, it can be difficult for them to get a confession from the guilty party. There are, after all, limits to what police are allowed to do to obtain a confession. That’s one reason for which police sometimes use ruses and other setups to get criminals to talk.

This is always a bit tricky for the author of a crime novel. As I say, there are limits to what police can actually do. And for authors who write about amateur sleuths, there are limits to what those sleuths can believably do. Still, if it’s credibly done, a ruse or ‘sting’ can build tension in a story, and serve as an interesting plot point.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes uses such means in several of his cases. For example, in The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate a series of strange, coded notes that have been left for Elsie Cubitt. Her husband Hilton is so worried about his wife’s panicked reactions to the notes that he’s asked Holmes to look into the matter. One challenge in this case is to decipher the notes. The other is to catch the person sending them. Before Holmes and Watson can do both, there’s a tragedy in which Cubitt is shot. Elsie is the prime suspect, but Holmes doesn’t believe she’s guilty. A few clues give him a very good idea of who is responsible for the notes, and he uses the very code in which those notes were written to ‘flush out’ the killer and solve the case.

Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table features the stabbing death of the very enigmatic Mr. Shaitana. The only possible suspects in this murder are the four people, guests at a dinner party he hosted, who were playing bridge in the same room when he died. Each claims to be innocent, of course, although each had a powerful motive and the opportunity. Hercule Poirot is among four sleuths who were also at the fateful dinner party, and he works with the other sleuths to find out who was guilty. He doesn’t really have conclusive proof, even towards the end of the story, and he knows that a confession from the criminal will be the only way to prove his case. So he uses a bit of trickery to get that person to tell what happened. It raises an interesting question of what would be permitted in real life. And that’s not the only Christie novel in which ruses are used to get confessions (I know, I know, fans of 4:50 From Paddington).

The first of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels, Roseanna, proves to be a very difficult case. It starts when the body of an unknown woman is pulled from Lake Vättern. She has no documentation, and there are no records of missing persons who match her description. After a great deal of time and effort, she is identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was on a cruise tour of Sweden. It takes another several months and a few strokes of luck to narrow down the possibilities to one prime suspect. But even then, Beck and his team know that this killer will not simply give in and submit to an arrest. So they arrange a difficult and (for one team member in particular) dangerous setup – a trap to catch the murderer. In the end, the ruse is successful, and the murderer is caught. But it raises an interesting question about cases where police go undercover to solve cases. How much danger is reasonable? More modern police procedurals show how important protecting the safety of operatives has become, and the developments in both procedure and equipment. But there is still danger.

Margaret Maron’s One Coffee With takes place mostly on the campus of Vanderlyn College, where Riley Quinn serves as deputy department chair of the Department of Art. One morning, department secretary Sandy Kepler goes as usual to the college cafeteria to bring back coffee for the members of the department. She returns with it and places the cups in their usual spot. Then there’s a buzz of activity as students and faculty go in and out of the main office where the cups are. One by one, various people get their coffee. Shortly after he takes his cup, Quinn dies of poison. NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald and her assistant Detective Tildon take the case and begin the investigation. As they trace the events leading up to Quinn’s death, they find that just about everyone had motive for killing the victim. What’s more, enough people had access both the poison and to Quinn’s coffee that it’s very difficult to pin down exactly who was responsible. And even after Harald and Tildon deduce who the killer was, they haven’t enough conclusive proof to pursue the case in court. So Harald sets a trap for the killer, using one of the other suspects as ‘bait,’ if you will.

In Andrea Camilleri’s Dance of the Seagull, Vigàta Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate the disappearance of one of their own. Giuseppe Fazio was looking into a case of smuggling when he went missing, so his colleagues decide to follow the trail that he left. They believe that if they pick up where he left off, so to speak, they’ll find him. That turns out to be the right decision, as Fazio is found, wounded but alive. Getting him safely to a nearby hospital, and keeping him protected, is only part of the challenge the team faces. The other is catching the criminals he was after, especially when they end up being responsible for a brutal murder. Montalbano decides that the best way to catch the guilty party is to set up a trap, so with the help of one of the characters, that’s what he does. And in the end, he’s able to expose the murderer quite publicly.

Ruses, traps, and ‘stings’ can be very tricky. There are limits to what’s allowed and what’s feasible. They can be dangerous, and sometimes they don’t work. But they can add some interesting tension to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bic Runga’s Captured.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Conan Doyle, Maj Sjöwall, Margaret Maron, Per Wahlöö

And I Know That You’ll Use Them However You Want To*

Prior Knowledge ReadersIn yesterday’s post, I mentioned that authors often tap their own experiences and prior knowledge as they create new stories. That’s only natural if, as the research suggests, knowledge comes from associating new things with what we already know. But what about readers? Readers come from a wide variety of different backgrounds and have a wide variety of experiences. So how does an author invite readers to tap their own life experiences to make meaning from what they’re reading, and thus connect with a book at a deeper level?

I think it’s important to start by saying that readers enjoy using their imaginations. Wise authors respect their readers, and give them credit for the ability to imagine things they may not have experienced. Just because a reader hasn’t, say, been to Canada’s Ellesmere Island doesn’t mean that he or she can’t fully enjoy M.J. McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk novels, which take place there. Authors who assume otherwise either condescend to readers, or provide so much ‘information dump’ that it distracts from the story.

That said, though, there’s also research that shows that readers engage more with stories, remember them better and make more meaning from them when they can identify in some way with a story. In other words, when readers can tap their own backgrounds, they’re more likely to enjoy and remember what they read.

If that’s true, then how does the author accomplish that? One effective way to go about this is to focus on things, events and feelings that most people can identify with and connect with their own lives. For example, one plot thread of Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark concerns Gerda Klein and her daughter Ilse. Originally from Leipzig, in what used to be East Germany, they left there during the 1980s, during the Cold War, and ended up in New Zealand. That’s where their lives intersect with the life of fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, who is one of Ilse’s most promising students. When she loses interest in school, Ilse becomes concerned. And everything changes completely when she disappears. Not all readers have experienced life under a totalitarian regime. Not all readers know what it’s like to move to another country. But just about everyone has had the experience of being in a new and unfamiliar place, where you have to get used to where everything is, how to get things done, and how to fit in. On that deeper, human level, it’s easy for readers to identify with Gerda and Ilse Klein.

Today’s readers never experienced the Victorian Era – not on a personal level. So why do Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories still resonate the way they do? In part, of course, it’s that the mysteries are interesting. But more than that, there are common human experiences and themes woven throughout the stories. For instance, in The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the mystery of a strange set of coded messages sent to Elsie Cubitt. Her husband Hilton is concerned about them, mostly because of the change he sees in his wife. She’s obviously frightened, although she won’t tell him why, or who sent the messages. Not all readers are interested in or good at ciphers and codes. And as I say, today’s readers can’t identify on a personal level with the Victorian Era as a rule. But we can all understand at a deep level what it’s like to care about someone who’s hurting or frightened. And it’s not hard to understand the feeling of wanting to protect a loved one, as both Elsie and Hilton Cubitt try to do.

There’s another way in which authors can invite readers to tap their world views and knowledge and engage in a story: helping to build background knowledge. Some authors tell stories about places or times or particular events that others might not know very well. In those cases, giving the reader some information can be very helpful.

Of course, there’s an important caveat here. Too much information (and not enough story!) can pull a reader out of a novel. So it’s got to be done carefully. That said though, giving some background information can be helpful.

That’s what Stan Jones has done in his Nathan Active novels. Those novels take place in Chukchi, Alaska, and feature several characters who are Inupiak. Readers may very well not be very knowledgeable about those people and their lives. So Jones provides some really interesting information to help in forming some background knowledge. Yet, he doesn’t distract the reader from the story and the characters. Instead, the information is given as it’s relevant to the story, in pieces at a time. I hear you, Tony Hillerman fans…

That’s also true of Faye Kellerman’s Rina Lazarus/Peter Decker series. Those novels feature an ‘inside look’ at Orthodox Judaism, since Lazarus is an observant member of that community. Several plots in this series involve Jewish observations, history, customs, and so on. And yet, Kellerman doesn’t overload the stories with facts, background information or long-winded histories. Rather, she provides information as it’s relevant to the story at hand. So readers who don’t have background knowledge can build it and can use that understanding to make meaning for themselves.

And that’s another aspect of inviting readers to connect with a story: trusting them to make that meaning. Authors who don’t assume that readers are active participants in the reading process risk several things. First, they risk insulting those readers. Not a good idea. Second, they risk boring those readers. If an author spells everything out (rather than trusting the reader to use her or his background knowledge to ‘fill in the blanks’), readers quickly lose interest. That’s also not a good idea.

It goes without saying (or should) that readers will engage themselves more in novels with effective writing and interesting plots and characters. But there is another, deeper level at which readers can also choose to identify with what’s happening in a story. That comes when the author provides characters, events and things that readers can connect with in their own lives, no matter their background. It can also be helped with the author provides some background information when it’s less likely readers would have it.

More than anything else though, at least in my opinion, it’s important to remember that readers bring their own backgrounds and experiences to the reading process. Trusting them to use that knowledge and giving them some points of connection can make the difference between a good book and one the reader will always remember (and hopefully recommend).

What are your thoughts on this? Are there books you’ve connected with on that very deep level? What’s done that for you? If you’re a writer, what do you do to invite readers to make those connections?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Anna Nalick’s Breathe (2 AM). Best understood if you know that the preceding line is: ‘Cause these words are my diary screaming out loud.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Faye Kellerman, M.J McGrath, Paddy Richardson, Stan Jones, Tony Hillerman