Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

Suddenly I Don’t Remember the Rules Any More*

crime-fiction-rulesThrough the years, there’ve been several sets of rules for detective fiction, among them S.S. Van Dine’s 20 rules, and Ronald Knox’s 10 rules. In some ways, it can be very helpful for the crime writer to have some guidance for creating a well-written story. This might be especially true for the first-time crime writer.

That said, though, we could also ask whether these rules really are relevant, especially for today’s crime fiction. Is it possible to write an excellent crime novel without each of those rules being followed?

Here’s one example. Both Van Dine and Knox wrote that the solution to a mystery should not be supernatural or otherworldly. They claimed that, to be credible, a mystery has to have a prosaic solution. Most readers seem to agree with this. In fact, one of the major ‘pet peeves’ that I’ve read is when a book lacks credibility, especially if there’s some sort of ghostly or paranormal solution. Some authors (Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, to name just two) have played with this rule. They’ve included characters who believe in the supernatural, for instance, or written stories where the culprit makes the murder look as though it has a supernatural explanation. But there’s nothing otherworldly about the real solution.

Closely related to this, both Van Dine and Knox claim that fictional detectives should not solve crimes through accident, intuition, or other means (Van Dine included unmotivated confession) besides logical deduction. And that was Arthur Conan Doyle’s main argument in creating Sherlock Holmes. He wanted a detective who solved crimes through logical, scientific means, not intuition. Crime fiction fans want their stories credible. That includes the means by which the sleuth gets to the truth. Too much coincidence takes away from that credibility. Seemingly magic intuition does, too. In real life, detectives solve crimes by making sense of evidence and putting the pieces together logically. That doesn’t mean they can’t have creative ideas. Great detectives do. But I think most of us would agree what we don’t want crimes to be solved through a series of happy accidents.

Another rule that both Van Dine and Knox mention is that the detective should not also be the killer. This, to these writers, is not ‘playing fair’ with the reader. What’s interesting about this rule is that there’ve been several novels (I won’t mention them because of spoilers) where the protagonist is, indeed, the killer. And some of those novels have gone on to great success and acclaim. Does this mean this rule isn’t relevant? What do you think? Have you read excellent crime novels where a detective is also the killer?

One rule that really is relevant (at least from my perspective – yours may differ) is that in whodunits, all of the clues have to be there for the reader to find. That is to say, both Van Dine and Knox refer to the need to give the reader the same opportunity as the detective has to solve the murder. I’m sure you can think of at least one novel you’ve read where you thought, ‘Well of course I’d have known who the killer was if I’d known that!’ I think most of us would agree that we want the author of a crime novel to ‘play fair’ and show us all the clues. In fact, the ‘Queen Team’ included asides to the reader in some of the Ellery Queen novels, to the effect that all of the clues are now in the reader’s possession. In a well-written whodunit, the clues may not be glaringly obvious, but they are there for the reader to find.

Van Dine has an interesting rule to the effect that there must be no love interest in a crime novel. He saw a romance angle as ‘cluttering up’ the intellectual exercise of solving a crime. On the one hand, I think most crime fiction fans would agree that too much emphasis on a romance can be a distraction. And, of course, every reader is different with respect to how much romance is ‘too much.’ That said, though, I can think of several highly-regarded crime novels that do include romances. One, for instance, is Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Fans of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series will know that his romance with detective novelist Harriet Vane is a story arc that ends with their wedding just before Busman’s Honeymoon. Romances are woven into some of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels, too. And those are by no means the only examples. What do you folks think? Was Van Dine right that romance should not figure into crime novels?

One of the other rules that Van Dine (but not Knox) proposed was that there should only be one detective – one main character. This one arguably hasn’t held up. If you look at series such as Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, or Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, or Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series (to name only three), you see how successful fictional partnerships can be. And a quick look at Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, or Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series, is all you need to see how well ‘ensemble’ series can work.

What about some of Van Dine’s and Knox’s other rules? Knox for instance, claimed that there shouldn’t be twins involved, unless the reader has been prepared for that. Van Dine said that there absolutely must be a corpse:
 

‘Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder.’
 

He also said that all crimes must have a personal motive, among other things.

What do you think of these rules? If they don’t apply, should there be other rules? If you’re a writer, do you follow ‘rules’ as you write your crime fiction?

 
 
 

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

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Dorothy Sayers, Ed McBain, Elly Griffiths, Fred Vargas, Reginald Hill, Ronald Knox, S.S. Van Dine, Tony Hillerman

Renaissance Man*

renaissance-peopleThey’re sometimes called ‘Renaissance people,’ or polymaths. They’re experts in several, sometimes very different sorts of fields, and that can make them fascinating. In real life, people such as Winston Churchill and Benjamin Franklin have been called ‘Renaissance people.’ I’m sure you could think of others, too.

There are, arguably, also such people in crime fiction. The trick in creating them, of course, is to balance that variety of expertise areas with credibility. No-one can really do it all, or really knows it all. So, it can be a challenge to create such characters and make them appealing.
 

One such character is arguably Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Not only is he an expert in chemistry, but he’s also well-skilled in other areas, too. Here, for instance, is a bit of Dr. Watson’s summation (from A Study in Scarlet):
 

‘7. Chemistry. — Profound. 8. Anatomy. — Accurate, but unsystematic. 9. Sensational Literature. — Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century. 10. Plays the violin well. 11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman. 12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.’
 

That’s a wide variety of skills, and fans of these stories will know that Holmes uses those skills at different times. What’s interesting, though, is that there are some areas in which he has very little knowledge. He knows nothing of literature or philosophy, and little of politics. In fact, Holmes himself says that he devotes his attention only to knowledge that’ll help him in his profession. It’s an interesting mix of skills and lack of knowledge.

Fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey can tell you that he has a wide and quite varied set of skills. Along with his ability to deduct and solve mysteries, he’s got many rare books, and is somewhat of an expert in that field. He also knows his way around wine. And that’s not to mention his skills as a change ringer (right, fans of The Nine Tailors?). Those who’ve read Murder Must Advertise can also vouch for his skills on the cricket field. In fact, some readers have found Wimsey tiresome, in part because he’s good at so very much. Whether you’re in that group or not, there’s no doubt that Wimsey has a lot of expertise in different areas.

So does Rex Stout’s Nero Wole.  He is, as fans know, a brilliant detective. His skills at deduction are impressive. But any fan of Wolfe knows that he is also thoroughly knowledgeable about orchids of all kinds. He can discuss the most minute detail of orchid raising with the best-informed experts. And, although, orchids are his particular passion, he also knows other things about gardening. And I couldn’t discuss Nero Wolfe without mentioning his thorough knowledge of gourmet food. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on food, and several of the Wolfe mysteries feature his adventures among the gourmet greats (e.g. Too Many Cooks). What’s interesting about Wolfe, though, is that there are also things he’s not mastered quite so well. As Archie Goodwin is happy to point out, Wolfe has his limitations. He may be a ‘Renaissance person,’ but that certainly doesn’t make him perfect.

You could also argue that Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee is a “Renaissance person.’ She is a forensic accountant who, as the series begins, works for a Hong-Kong based company run by Chow Tung, whom she calls ‘Uncle.’ The company works on behalf of people who’ve been bilked out of money (sometimes a great deal of it), and are desperate to get that money back. Lee’s job is to track the missing money down. And that means she has to be able to follow a financial trail. So, as you can imagine, she’s an expert in accountancy. Lee is also (again, not surprisingly) an expert on computers and cyber-activity. Along with that, Lee is an expert in martial arts. That’s probably not a bad thing, considering the danger she often encounters in the course of her work. Whether she’s too ‘over the top’ will likely depend on the reader’s point of view and taste. But she’s certainly skilled in a lot of areas.

And then there’s Madhumita Bhattacharyya’s Reema Ray. She’s a PI who, as the series starts, has her own business in Calcutta/Kolkata. She’s studied several aspects of criminology; in fact, she almost became a police officer. But she has other skill sets, too.  Her small business isn’t immediately successful, so she has to also consider other ways of making ends meet. She is, therefore, a journalist – a writer for a lifestyle magazine called Face. Another area in which Reema has some expertise is in gourmet food. She’s not only an enthusiastic cook (mostly baking) herself, but she also is quite familiar with different sorts of cooking styles, spices and so on. Part of that expertise comes from her own interest; part comes from what she learns through her lifestyle writing and reporting. This doesn’t mean she’s all-knowing or perfect, though. She has her share of weaknesses and vulnerabilities as we all do.

And that’s the challenge with ‘Renaissance’ characters. It can be tricky for an author to endow them with several areas of expertise, and still keep them credible. No-one’s perfect, and that includes people who have a wide variety of skills. And when characters are too expert to be credible, this can quickly get tiresome. Still, a ‘Renaissance’ character can be interesting.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Midnight Oil.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Ian Hamilton, Madhumita Bhattacharyya, Rex Stout

I Couldn’t Sleep at All Last Night*

insomniaMost of us have circadian rhythms that guide us to be awake during the daylight hours, and asleep at night. We might be ‘morning people’ or ‘night owls,’ but we tend to get our sleep sometime during the night.

Not always, though. There are people who have insomnia, which means they cannot easily fall asleep or stay asleep. Anyone can have an occasional sleepless night; a worrying situation, not feeling well, or even being in a strange place such as a hotel can interrupt sleep. But people with chronic insomnia have frequent difficulty sleeping.

There are any number of possible causes of chronic insomnia. Some people who have it get treatment for it; others learn to live with it. Either way, insomnia can make for an interesting trait in a crime-fictional character. It can add a layer of depth, and can allow the author some flexibility in terms of the action in a story.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that he often has an erratic sleeping schedule. When he’s working on a case, Holmes is able to stay awake, as Watson reports, for days at a time. At other times, he doesn’t do that at all. Holmes doesn’t seem to work very hard, either, to change his sleeping patterns to more conventional ones. He makes use of the nights when he’s wakeful.

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), we are introduced to Emily Arundell. She’s got a large fortune to leave, and several relatives who are desperate to get their hands on her money. Her usual response to them is that they’ll get their share when she dies. But some of them are finding it hard to wait that long. Miss Arundell has bouts of insomnia, and uses those late-night hours to check the household account books, write letters, and so on. She’s taken her inability to sleep in stride. One Easter weekend, her nieces, Theresa Arundell and Bella Tanios, visit. Also there are Theresa’s brother, Charles, and Bella’s husband, Jacob. While they’re visiting, Miss Arundell has one of her bouts of insomnia, and starts to go downstairs late one night. Someone’s laid a trap for her though. She trips over a piece of thread, and falls down the stairs. This unsettles her greatly, and she decides to find out who’s responsible. She writes a letter to Hercule Poirot, asking him to investigate the matter. But she doesn’t specify what it is that she wants him to do. Still, he’s intrigued, and he and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing. They’re too late, though; by the time they arrive, Miss Arundell has died. Poirot feels a duty to his client, and he and Hastings investigate. In the end, they find that Miss Arundell was right to be worried…

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover also has periods of insomnia. She’s a retired English teacher who lives in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. Unwilling to be ‘put out to pasture,’ even though that’s what her police-chief son would prefer, Myrtle finds herself getting involved in murder investigations. When she has trouble sleeping, Myrtle sometimes takes late-night walks, or goes outside to sit for a while. But being outdoors isn’t always as soothing as you’d think. In more than one story, Myrtle’s habit of being awake very late at night puts her in real danger. Still, she’s taken her insomnia in stride, and works around it.

In Peter May’s Entry Island, we are introduced to Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec. He usually works in Montréal, but is sent to Entry Island, one of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine/Magdalen Islands, when James Cowell is murdered there.   Mackenzie is a native speaker of English, although he speaks fluent French. And, since most of the residents of Entry Island are also native speakers of English, it’s thought that he’ll be successful at getting information from them. Almost as soon as he arrives, Mackenzie feels a strong connection to the island, although he’s never been there. He also feels a connection to the victim’s widow, Kristy, although they never met. So, although a lot of the evidence points to Kristy as the killer, he decides to look into the case more deeply. Mackenzie has frequent periods of insomnia, and sometimes goes a few days in a row without sleeping. His insomnia doesn’t solve this case, but it’s interesting to see how it’s become a part of his life.

Insomnia plays an interesting role in Craig Johnson’s The Dark Horse. In that novel, Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming, goes undercover as an insurance agent. It seems that Wade Barstad locked his wife, Mary’s horses in their barn and burned the barn. In response, Mary shot her husband six times. She’s even confessed to the crime. But Longmire isn’t sure that’s what really happened. So, he poses as an insurance agent to talk to people and find out who else might have wanted to kill Barstad. And he finds out that there are plenty of other people who might have wanted to see him dead. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Mary, who’s now about to be tried for a crime Longmire doesn’t think she committed, has been treated for chronic insomnia. It adds an interesting layer to her character, and interesting possibilities to the plot.

Chronic, clinically-diagnosed insomnia can be tricky in a character. It needs to be done authentically. But when it is done well, insomnia can make for an interesting character trait. It can also make for an interesting plot point.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from  Ritchie Adams and Malou Rene’s Tossin’ and Turnin’.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Peter May

You’re Just a Two-Bit Grifter*

griftersAs this is posted, it’s 43 years since the first release of George Roy Hill’s The Sting. It’s become a classic film – the story of a couple of professional grifters and their plot to take down a mob boss. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it highly.

If you look at crime fiction, there are plenty of other examples of criminals who are taken down, not by the police, but by one of their own, or one of their victims. It’s an interesting premise, and when it’s done well, it can be very effective. That’s especially true if, as is the case with The Sting, the protagonist is depicted sympathetically.

Of course, it’s easy to paint protagonists in a sympathetic light when they’re sleuths. That’s what happens in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. Lady Eva Brackwell is being blackmailed by Milverton, who makes his living that way. It seems that she had written letters – the type that used to be called ‘indiscreet’ – and Milverton got his hands on them. Now, he’s threatening to reveal them to Lady Eva’s fiancé, the Earl of Dovercourt, unless she pays a huge sum of money. She asks Sherlock Holmes for help, and he agrees to take the case. When Milverton refuses to return the letters, Holmes decides to break into his home (with Dr. Watson’s help) and take the letters. Things don’t turn out exactly the way he’d planned, though. It seems that another of Milverton’s ‘clients’ has her own way of dealing with the situation…

Bill Pronzini’s The Snatch is the first of his novels featuring his Nameless detective. In this story, Nameless gets a commission from wealthy Louis Martinetti. It seems that Martinetti’s son, Gary, has been kidnapped. The ransom is to be delivered to a certain place, and by one and only one person. Martinetti wants Nameless to be that person. At first, Nameless demurs, saying that the Martinetti would be better off going to the police. But he finally agrees. For one thing, Martinetti says that Gary will be killed if the police are involved. And a fee is a fee. The next day, Nameless picks up the ransom money and takes it to the appointed place. His role is supposed to be limited to handing over the cash. But everything changes when, as the saying goes, all hell breaks loose at the drop-off point. Someone else apparently had other plans. Now, Nameless has decide what he’s going to do. In the end, we find out what happened to Gary, and what’s behind it all. I can say without spoiling the story that it’s an interesting case of manipulating people who don’t really know they’re being manipulated.

Fans of Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder series will know that, although Dortmunder isn’t exactly law-abiding, he is a sympathetic protagonist. In The Hot Rock, Dortmunder has just been released from prison. He’s planning to ‘go straight,’ but his friend, Andy Kelp, has other ideas. He tells Dortmunder that Major Patrick Iko, the U.N. Ambassador from the small country of Talabwo, wants to hire Dortmunder and Kelp for a heist. The target is a valuable emerald that is claimed by Talabwo, but is currently the property of another country, Akinsi. Iko wants that emerald, and is willing to pay well for it. Dortmunder assembles a team, and they plan the job. It doesn’t go as intended, though, and now, the team has to go up against several obstacles, including some people who don’t exactly ‘play nice’ themselves…

There’s an interesting example of ‘small-timers’ trying to get the best of a bigger player in Patricia Melo’s The Body Snatcher. A former telemarketer and sales representative from São Paulo has settled in the small town of Corumbá. He settles in, and begins a relationship with Sulamita, an administrative assistant to the local police. One day, the (unnamed) narrator happens to see a small plane crash into a nearby river. He rushes to the scene, and discovers that the pilot is beyond any help. He takes the pilot’s backpack and watch and leaves the scene. Later, he discovers that the backpack is filled with cocaine. The drugs are worth plenty of money, so the narrator decides to partner up with a friend and sell them as a one-time opportunity to make some cash. Things go well until the partners discover that the drug dealers they’ve gone into business with were also working with the dead pilot. The gangsters believe that the narrator and his partner have stolen their drugs, and they want their money back. Now, the narrator has to come up with a plan to get the money and get the better of these drug dealers. It’s a strange plan, but it just might work. At least, that’s what the narrator thinks.

Sophie Littlefield’s A Bad Day For Sorry introduces readers to Stella Hardesty. She’s the owner of a sewing supply store in small-town Prosper, Missouri. At least, that’s her legitimate business. But she also runs another sort of enterprise. Women who’ve been abused know through word of mouth that they can depend on Stella to help even the score. Stella isn’t a killer-for-hire. But she pays visits to men who’ve abused their wives, and reminds them, in very unpleasant ways, of how they’re supposed to behave. Most of the time, Stella’s clients have no more problems after one of her ‘social calls.’ One day, though, Stella finds out from one her clients, Chrissy Shaw, that Chrissy’s ex-husband, Roy Dean, has disappeared, and probably has her son, Tucker, with him. Chrissy wants her boy back, so, even though Stella works alone as a rule, Chrissy insists on joining in. Together, the two women find out where the boy is, and go up against a much bigger criminal operation. But they have their own resources. And, even though this isn’t a case of conning people, it does involve a couple of small-time people taking down much bigger fish, as the saying goes.

 There are plenty of other examples, too, of fictional grifters, con artists, and other criminal who have their own reasons and use their own resources to go up against their own. Sometimes even sleuths take part in the action. These are just a few examples. Over to you.  

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Randy Newman’s You Can’t Fool the Fat Man.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Bill Pronzini, Donald Westlake, Patricia Melo, Sophie Littlefield

What’s On Your Radio?*

radio-dramasIn 1922, the BBC began airing daily radio news broadcasts. Radio had already been used to broadcast election results, among other things. And it wasn’t long before the power of radio was felt. Until the advent of reasonably priced commercial television, roughly thirty years later, radio was people’s source for news, entertainment, and more.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of crime fiction, especially the crime fiction of those years, found its way to radio. And there’s still something about those radio broadcasts. They invite listeners to use their imaginations in ways that film and television don’t.

One set of mysteries that were adapted for radio was Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Various actors took the roles of Holmes and Dr. Watson; among the most famous were Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Fans will know that they also played these characters on film. But there were several other actors, too, who took those roles. An argument has been made that these radio broadcasts were responsible for a resurgence of interest in Conan Doyle’s stories. And what’s interesting is that the broadcasts didn’t end when television became popular. There were even some made in the 1970s and 1980s. If you’d like to experience some of these broadcasts for yourself, several of them are available right here.

G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories were also brought to the radio. From 1984 to 1986, the BBC aired several of the stories, with Andrew Sachs taking the title role. What’s interesting about this radio series is that it aired long after television was entrenched in many cultures. Stories such as The Blue Cross, The Hammer of God, and The Honour of Israel Gow were successfully adapted for radio. Like many of the Sherlock Holmes adventures, many of the Father Brown mysteries are short stories (as opposed to novellas or novels). That format really seems to lend itself well to the radio format.  If you’re interested in listening, you can find them here (there are even two from an older (1945) radio series).

Agatha Christie fans can tell you that she wrote several plays, including radio plays. For instance, she adapted her short story Yellow Iris for radio; it premiered on BBC Radio in 1937. This story takes place mostly in a restaurant, and the radio play had much more of a focus on that setting than did the short story. Later, the story was adapted again into a full-length novel that Christie called Sparkling Cyanide. There were some significant differences between the story and the novel, too, including a change of detective (it’s Poirot in the story, but not in the novel) and a different murderer. If you get the chance to experience all three versions of the story, I invite you to see which version works the best for you. Plenty of other Christie works have been adapted for radio. You can listen to many of them right here, including some from 1944-45.

Ellery Queen has been popular with crime fiction fans since 1929. And Queen’s adventures have been adapted for stage and screen (both large and small) several times. There’ve also been Ellery Queen radio dramas; in fact, the ‘Queen team’ of Frederic Danney and Manfred Lee wrote the early scripts for the 1939-1948 series.  Later, (in the 1970s), there was another incarnation of Ellery Queen on the radio. This time, the title was The Ellery Queen Minute Mysteries. As the name suggests, listeners were briefly given a set of clues and a scenario, and then invited to solve the mystery. If you’d like to try your hand at some of them, or, if you’d like to listen to some of the earlier broadcasts, you can do so right here. One note is in order. This site doesn’t include the original correct titles for the broadcasts. But they’re announced in the broadcasts themselves, and Queen fans will likely find the stories familiar.

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe has been an iconic crime fiction figure for more than seventy years. Since that time, Marlowe has starred in film and television adaptations as well as in novels and short stories. There was also a radio series, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, based on the Chandler stories. The series, which ran, all told, from 1947 to 1958, starred Van Heflin and, later, Gerald Mohr in the lead role. If you’d like to hear some of these episodes, you can experience them right here.

Most of the radio dramas didn’t faithfully follow the stories on which they were based. Some of them were entirely new stories that simply used the famous sleuths as protagonists. But all of them had a role in keeping people interested in crime fiction and in those sleuths in particular. And, in the era before television dominated media, radio was an important form of entertainment. That was especially true for those who didn’t have access to a nearby cinema or theatre. Even today, audio broadcasts have an appeal. They invite listeners to use their imaginations, and they offer a way to experience mystery stories through a different medium.

What do you think? Have you listened to the old radio broadcasts (and some not-so-old) of crime stories? What’s your opinion? Does it bother you when they veer off the original stories?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Living End

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, G.K. Chesterton, Raymond Chandler