Category Archives: Barbara Vine

This Bird Had Flown*

Ruth_Rendell_1672119cMany crime writers (well, many writers in any genre) will tell you that they’d love to leave a distinctive mark on their genre and innovate it in some way. Few can actually do that. Ruth Rendell was one of those few, and her passing leaves a gaping hole in the world of crime fiction.

To me, anyway, Rendell helped bring the traditional mystery into the modern age. Her Inspector Wexford stories have several elements of the traditional whodunit novel. But she added other elements as well; integrated new themes and more contemporary contexts; and used that series to explore social issues as well as the mysteries at hand. What’s more, the Wexford series blends ‘home scenes’ and domestic life in with the actual crime story in innovative ways.

Her writing had a powerful impact on the genre in other ways too. Crime fiction fans can tell you that with novels such as To Fear a Painted Devil and A Judgement in Stone, Rendell explored the psychology of crime using new approaches. All sorts of themes, such as obsession, paranoia, phobias, and family dysfunction are woven into her work. Both under her own name and as Barbara Vine, she was a ‘game-changer’ when it came to writing about human interaction and human thinking.

What’s especially noteworthy (at least to me) is that Rendell didn’t indulge in gratuitousness to make her points. Some of her books are quite dark, but the stories don’t hinge on mindless brutality. Building suspense and creating a truly chilling story without brutality isn’t easy.

As a reader, I must confess I haven’t liked every Rendell/Vine story I’ve read. Even her most devoted fans will admit that some of her novels and stories are better than others. But what I do admire about Rendell is her willingness to try out different themes and different approaches. She saw ways in which the elements of the traditional mystery could be given contemporary settings and contexts, and she took the risks involved in being a part of that evolution.

Rendell’s work has many, many dedicated fans, and there are good reasons for that. But even if you’re not among them, it’s hard to deny her impact on the genre. And that in itself is worth remembering.

For crime writers, Rendell had another kind of impact. Many of us have learned a lot from her writing style, her plots, her characters and other aspects of her stories. I know I have. For instance, I admire her skill at peeling away the veneer of the supposedly peaceful, suburban idyll to reveal the ugliness that could lie beneath it. She was also, to my mind, quite skilled at building real psychological suspense without gore. And some of her stories bring larger social issues and problems down to the human level; I admire that too. I’d like to be able to do those things when I grow up. If I grow up.

So, would I want to be Rendell? No. But I think that’s the point. She wasn’t really a ‘clone’ of other writers. Instead, she followed her own path. I think writers do their best work when they find their own voices. Hers, anyway, changed crime fiction.

She will be missed.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).

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Filed under Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell

She’s Dead Serious About Her Family History*

Family SagasAn interesting book review at Cleopatra Loves Books has got me thinking about family sagas. Now, before I go any further, you’ll want to pay a visit to that fine blog. You’ll find all sorts of excellent, thoughtful reviews of crime fiction as well as some books from other genres too. It’s well worth a place on a bibliophile’s blog roll.

Right. Family sagas. Just about all families have their share of stories and ‘skeletons in the closet,’ and some of those stories have an effect for a very long time. Family sagas can be very effective contexts for crime fiction too, since some of those stories and ‘skeletons’ involve crime. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles concerns the ‘blueblood’ Baskerville family, which has had a home on Dartmoor for many generations. It’s said that the Baskerville family has been cursed since the 1600s, when Sir Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was infatuated. According to this tale, the family is haunted by a demon in the shape of a hound. In fact recently, the current head of the family, Sir Charles Baskerville, was found dead on the grounds of the Manor of Baskerville. Many people say the family curse was responsible, and now family friend Dr. James Mortimer is afraid for the new heir Sir Henry Baskerville. Sir Henry is due to come in from Canada soon, and Dr. Mortimer wants the matter settled before his arrival. Holmes is unable to leave London at the moment so he sends Dr. Watson in his stead. Between them they find that a curse had nothing to do with Sir Charles’ death…

Agatha Christie weaves in elements of the family saga in several of her novels. In Sad Cypress, for instance, Elinor Carlisle receives an anonymous note warning her that she could lose the inheritance she expects from her wealthy Aunt Laura Welman. Apparently someone’s been playing up to the elderly lady and the note hints that there’s an ulterior motive behind it all. Elinor isn’t particularly greedy, but she and her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy Welman travel to the family home at Hunterbury. There they renew their acquaintance with Mary Gerrard, daughter of Hunterbury’s lodgekeeper. They soon find out that Aunt Laura has become very much attached to Mary, and insists on altering her will to make a good provision for her; however, Aunt Laura dies before the will can be changed. Much to Elinor’s shock and dismay, Roddy becomes infatuated with Mary. In fact, Elinor breaks off her engagement with him. Then, not long afterwards, Mary dies of what turns out to be poison. Elinor is the most obvious suspect, and not just because of Roddy. There’s a fortune at stake as well. Hercule Poirot investigates and finds that Mary’s death has everything to do with a family saga. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow, Five Little Pigs and Crooked House

In A Dark-Adapted Eye, her first novel as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell shares the story of the Longley family. The Longleys have always been a very respectable family – not a hint of grist for the ‘gossip mill.’ But in this case, appearances are, as the saying goes, deceiving. Many years ago, Vera Longley Hilliard was hanged for murder. No-one discusses the matter, but it’s haunted the family ever since. Then, journalist Daniel Stewart digs up the story and decides to write a book about the family and the hanging. He approaches Faith Longley Severn to help him with the work, since she’s a family member. She agrees and together they look into what really was behind the murder for which Vera Hilliard was executed. This novel is about the crime, but it’s also about the family, its history and its relationships.

One of the more famous family sagas is the story of the Vanger family, whom we meet in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist has just lost an expensive libel lawsuit against well-insulated and powerful Swedish industrial magnate Hans-Erik Wennerström. With his publication Millennium in danger of folding, he’s open to an offer from Henrik Vanger. Forty years earlier, Vanger’s grand-niece Harriet disappeared. Everyone thought she drowned, but Vanger has a good reason not to think so. He’s been receiving anonymous birthday gifts of dried flowers, just as Harriet gave him all those years earlier. Vanger offers to support Millennium financially, and give Blomkvist the information he needs to bring down Wennerström if Blomkvist will find out what really happened to Harriet. Blomkvist agrees and he and his research assistant Lisbeth Salander start exploring the Vanger family’s history and finances. And it turns out that this is quite a family saga…

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn has been working to support the political life of her friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. He’s got a very bright future in the party, and everyone’s looking forward to an important speech he’s scheduled to make. To everyone’s shock, he collapses during the speech and dies of what turns out to be poison. Kilbourn is grief-stricken at the loss of her friend, and decides to deal with that grief by writing a biography of Boychuk. As she does so, she begins to get closer and closer to the truth about why and by whom he was killed. She also learns quite a lot about the Boychuk family’s history and how it affected him.

Martin Edwards deals with family sagas and stories in several of his Lake District mysteries. For example, in The Hanging Wood, DCI Hannah Scarlett gets a call from Orla Payne, who wants to find out what happened to her brother. Twenty years earlier, Callum Payne went missing and no-one has ever found a trace of him – not even a body. Orla wants Scarlett and her team to look into the case, but unfortunately, she’s mentally fragile and is drunk when she calls, so Scarlett doesn’t make much of the matter. Then, Orla dies of what looks like suicide. Now Scarlett feels guilty for not taking that call more seriously, and begins to look into both Orla’s death and the the disappearance of her brother. That investigation turns up quite a lot of family history and a family saga that’s been going on for several generations.

When it comes to crime fiction, family sagas have to be handled deftly. Otherwise, the history of the family can take away from the story of the crime(s) that’s supposed to be at the heart of the novel. But when they’re well-written, family sagas can add a lot to a crime novel. And they can provide all sorts of useful and realistic motivations for murder. I’ve only mentioned some examples here. Your turn.

Thanks, Cleo, for the inspiration!
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Lucksmiths’ English Murder Mystery. OK, this is really a fun song if you’re a crime fiction fan. :-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Gail Bowen, Martin Edwards, Ruth Rendell, Stieg Larsson

We Just Saw It From a Different Point of View*

PerspectivesonCultureWhile I was in Madrid I had several interesting conversations with José Ignacio at The Game’s Afoot. One of them was about the differences between books written by authors who are members of the cultures they write about, and books written by authors who aren’t. One the one hand, someone who’s not a member of a given culture can offer a distinctive perspective on that culture. On the other, a member of a culture has an intimate knowledge of that culture’s subtleties and nuances. So the reader can really get an ‘insider’s view.’

The diversity of crime fiction lets us use both perspectives, and that in turn gives us a better understanding of the places and cultures that are discussed in the genre. Let me just offer a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll have many more to offer.

Ruth Rendell is English. Her novels under her own name and as Barbara Vine reflect her background; she is very much a member of the culture that’s featured in her work. Whether it’s her Inspector Wexford novels or one of her other works, we really get the ‘insider view’ on her culture. The same could be said of course of many other English authors. By contrast, Martha Grimes is American, although most of her Inspector Richard Jury novels take place in England. Like any two authors, these two have different writing styles and that’s clear in their novels. But beyond that, there’s an interesting question of the way they write about England. One has the intimate knowledge of the ‘insider.’ The other has the distinctive perspective of someone from a different culture.

We also see a contrast in crime fiction that takes place in Spain (and this is what José Ignacio and I spoke of in our conversation). In recent decades, there’ve been several Spanish authors who have given readers an ‘insider’s’ look at life in different parts of Spain. Authors such as Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who wrote the Pepe Carvalho series, and more recently Domingo Villar (the Inspector Leo Caldas series) and Teresa Solana (the Martínez brothers PI series) have portrayed Spanish life from a ‘local’s’ point of view if I may put it that way. There’ve also been many novels set in Spain that weren’t written by Spanish authors. For instance, Roderic Jeffries (the Inspector Enrique Álvarez series) is English. And Jason Webster, author of the Chief Inspector Max Cámara series, is Anglo-American. There are lots of other such examples too. These authors do vary in their writing styles of course. But you could also argue that there is a difference in perspective between novels about Spain written by Spaniards, and novels about Spain that are written by members of other cultures.

Both H.R.F. Keating and Tarquin Hall have written series that take place in India. Keating’s of course features Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay police force. Hall’s sleuth is Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Neither author was born in India, so you could argue that these series are written from the perspective of people who aren’t members of a given culture. On the other hand, Kishwar Desai is Indian. Her Simran Singh series has an ‘insider’ perspective because she is a member of one of India’s cultures. When it comes to India, one could make the point that because the British were in India for a long time, they became members of one Indian culture – the Anglo-Indian culture. And there are still close ties on many levels between India and the UK. But there is arguably a difference between books about India written by, say, English authors and those written by members of one of India’s original cultures.

The Chinese detective story has a long history, and many Chinese crime fiction stories haven’t been translated into other languages. But there are authors such as A Yi, Qiu Xiaolong and Diane Wei Liang, whose novels have been translated. Through those authors’ perspectives, readers get an ‘insider look’ at life in Beijing, Shanghai and other places in China. There have also of course been crime fiction stories set in China that aren’t written by Chinese authors. For instance, there’s Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee series, which is set in China’s northwest. Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing takes place mostly in Beijing. So does Catherine Sampson’s The Pool of Unease. And of course plenty of authors have had their protagonists visit China, even if the novel wasn’t set there. Those novels also depict life in China, but many people would say the authors have a different perspective, since they are not native members of any of the Chinese cultures.

Thai author Tew Bunnag has given readers a unique perspective on life in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. Admittedly he doesn’t exclusively write crime fiction, but through his stories we get an ‘insider’ look at the country. Many other authors, such as John Burdett, Andrew Grant, Timothy Hallinan and Angela Savage, also write about Thailand. Their perspectives are different because they aren’t members of that culture, but that’s just what makes those perspectives valuable. We get a broad look at the country from both points of view, if you will.

And that’s the beauty of the diversity in the genre. There’s room enough for both perspectives. These are just a few examples. Lots of other countries and cultures have been portrayed in crime fiction both by members and by non-members. My guess is that you’d be able to contribute a much longer list than I would.

How do you feel about this issue? Do you see a difference between novels written by members of a culture, and novels that aren’t? Writing style aside, for instance, do you see a difference between the work of Donna Leon and that of Andrea Camilleri, both of whom write about Italy? Do you see a difference between the portrayal of South Africa in the work of Malla Nunn, who is Australian, and its portrayal in the work of Deon Meyer, who is South African?  If you do see such a difference, do you find it off-putting?

And then there’s perhaps a more difficult question. How do you feel about the way your own culture is portrayed in crime fiction? Does it bother you when it’s portrayed by someone who’s not a member (assuming of course that the writer is accurate)?

If you’re a writer, do you write about another culture? If you do, what drew you to it?

 

ps  The ‘photo is of a sculpture by Joan Miró, which now makes its home in Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía,

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue.

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Filed under A Yi, Andrea Camilleri, Andrew Grant, Angela Savage, Barbara Vine, Catherine Sampson, Deon Meyer, Diane Wei Liang, Domingo Villar, Donna Leon, H.R.F. Keating, Jason Webster, John Burdett, Kishwar Desai, Malla Nunn, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Martha Grimes, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Van Gulik, Roderic Jeffries, Ruth Rendell, Shamini Flint, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana, Tew Bunnag, Timothy Hallinan

The Underlying Theme*

ThemesofBooksMost of us read crime novels for the stories. Plots, characters, settings and so on draw us in when they’re done well, and they keep us interested. But if you look a little deeper, you can also often see some larger themes in crime novels. A novel’s theme may not be the reason you choose to read it, or even the reason you richly enjoy it (or don’t!), but a theme can add to a novel and give the reader something to think about when the novel is finished. And it’s surprising how many crime novels and series address larger themes without losing focus on the stories themselves.

For example, the theme of justice is explored in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is on his way across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, he’s stabbed. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same coach. Since Hercule Poirot is among that group, he’s asked to investigate and see if he can find the killer before the train gets to the next international border. The idea is that if he can present the solution to the police, there’ll be less trouble and delay. Poirot agrees and interviews all of the passengers. He also finds out what he can about their backgrounds. In the end, we find that this killing has its roots in a past event. Throughout this novel, questions of justice, what constitutes justice and how we serve justice are raised. It’s really a very important theme here.

Of course, justice is a theme in a lot of other crime fiction too. So is family.  Gail Bowen explores that theme quite often. Her sleuth is Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, an academic and political scientist who has her own family. Several story arcs and sub-plots involve her family members. But Bowen explores family in other ways too. For instance, in The Nesting Dolls, an unknown young woman gives a baby to a friend of Joanne’s daughter Taylor. With the baby is a note identifying the mother as Abby Michaels. Abby makes it clear that she wants Isobel’s mother Delia to have full custody of the child. The situation is very complex, and of course a search is made for Abby. But she seems to have disappeared. She’s later found raped and murdered, her body left in her car. The themes of family in its many forms, family ties and family identity come up clearly in this novel.

Ruth Rendell explores family quite frequently too, both under her own name and under the pen name of Barbara Vine. Of course, those novels (I’m thinking for instance of A Dark-Adapted Eye) often explore families that aren’t particularly healthy. The theme of what family is and how family ties play out is a strong characteristic of her work though.

Honour is explored in a lot of crime fiction too. In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight for instance, Superintendent Frank Swann of the Perth Police investigates the murder of brothel owner Ruby Devine. Although they were on opposite sides of the law, so to speak, they were friends, and he is determined to find out who killed her. It’s not going to be easy though. Swann’s run afoul of the ‘purple circle,’ a group of fellow cops he reported for corruption. He’s ‘broken the code,’ so very few people will co-operate with him. Little by little though, Swann finds out the truth about Ruby Devine’s death. The theme of honour, of who has honour and of what it means and can cost is clear in this novel. And yet, the story itself is the main focus.

That’s also true in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. The main plot is the murder one morning of Tasmania Police Sergeant John White. The main suspect in the killing is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley. For various reasons, the police have to tread carefully in this case to make sure that everything is done ‘by the book.’ But in the end, we do find out the truth about White’s murder. Throughout the novel, the theme of loyalty comes up in several ways. For example, there’s the loyalty that White’s colleagues had towards him. There’s the loyalty that’s expected in general among cops. And there are other kinds of loyalty too. We see how that loyalty can be both an important social ‘glue’ and an impediment. But the real central focus of the novel is the murder, its investigation and its effects on everyone involved.

Guilt is a theme that’s often explored in crime fiction. Certainly we see it clearly in Arnaldur Indriðason’s series featuring Inspector Erlendur. One of the story arcs that runs through this series is Erlendur’s search for the truth about his younger brother Bergur’s fate. Years earlier, when the two were boys, Bergur was lost during a terrible blizzard, and Erlendur has always felt responsibility and guilt about this, since he was supposed to be ‘in charge.’ That guilt plays a powerful role in his thinking and choices. Guilt also plays a role in some of mystery plots in this series too. For instance, guilt is woven into the plot of Jar City, in which Erlendur and his team investigate the murder of a seemingly inoffensive old man named Holberg. The more they dig into his past though, the more possibility there is that he wasn’t as inoffensive as it seemed. As the case goes on, we see the theme of guilt in Holberg’s life. Guilt is also explored in the way that various people who knew Holberg react. But that theme doesn’t take over. The mystery plot is the focus of this novel.

And that’s the thing about an effective use of theme in a crime novel. Themes can add richness to a novel, and a layer of interest. They can also make the reader remember a novel long after it’s done. But the main focus of the high-quality crime novel is its plot, characters and context.

There’s only been space here for a few themes and examples. Which main themes do you see in the crime fiction you like to read? If you’re a writer, do you consciously address themes?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Limelight.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Barbara Vine, David Whish-Wilson, Gail Bowen, Ruth Rendell, Y.A. Erskine

I Am the Entertainer, the Idol of My Age*

FangirlThere’s something about rock stars, film stars and other idols. People sometimes almost hero-worship them. Now, personally, I can’t imagine being obsessed about, say, a rock star – ahem. ;-) – But there are a lot of people who are. Just check Twitter, Instagram or other social networks and you’ll see that those kinds of stars get a lot of attention. And if you check news stories, that attention can quickly turn to obsession and more. That happens in crime fiction, too.

For instance, there’s a classic example of that kind of obsession in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Cracked From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). Heather Badcock and her husband Arthur have moved into the new council housing that’s come to the village of St. Mary Mead. Heather is extremely excited because her idol Marina Gregg has bought Gossington Hall, right nearby. She and her husband Jason Rudd are planning to carry on the tradition of an annual charity fête, and Heather can’t wait for the opportunity to speak to Marina Gregg in person. The big day comes and to Heather’s delight, she actually gets the chance to have a short conversation with the film star. Shortly after that though, Heather is taken ill and later dies. It’s soon shown that she was poisoned, and at first, everyone believes that the intended victim was Marina Gregg. But Miss Marple and her friend Dolly Bantry discover that Heather was the target all along. Now they have to figure out why.

In Michael Connelly’s The Overlook, LAPD cop Harry Bosch and his new partner Ignacio ‘Iggy’ Ferras are investigating the death of a physicist Stanley Kent. He was killed on an overlook on Hollywood’s Mulholland Drive, and of course Bosch and Ferras want to talk to anyone who might have been in the area and seen something. That’s how they meet twenty-year-old Jesse Milford. Milford came to L.A. as so many people do, to ‘make it’ in the film business. He’s obsessed with entertainer Madonna, and was actually on her property at the time of the murder. He wanted a photograph or some sort of memento to send to his mother to let her know he was all right. He may not be a major character in the novel, but he shows how obsessed we can be with our stars.

In Peter Lovesey’s Stagestruck, rock star Clarion Calhoun is getting a little older, and losing some fans. She wants to stay on top, so she decides to make a move from rock music to theatre. Her choice is a production of I Am a Camera, and everyone is counting on her ‘name draw’ to ensure a long run. When rehearsals start though, the cast and crew discover that Clarion has little acting talent. She insists on keeping her role though, and the production goes on. Then on opening night, Clarion is attacked by what turns out to be tainted makeup. Her makeup artist/dresser Denise Pearsall is the first suspect, but when she’s found dead, it’s clear that something more is going on.  Superintendent Peter Diamond investigates the attack and the murder and when he starts digging, he finds out that as cliché as it sounds, appearances here are deceiving. In the end he discovers that it all has to do with someone’s past.

Peter James’ Not Dead Yet looks even more closely at how obsessed a fan can be. Rock star Gaia Lafayette has decided to do some film acting. She will be starring in a film about Maria Fitzherbert, mistress to King George IV. Everything’s set for the filming to take place in Brighton, where Gaia was born and raised. There are some security concerns though, because Gaia has received a death threat. Then there’s an attempt on her life. Superintendent Roy Grace is assigned to ensure the star’s security during the filming, but he’s got other issues he’s dealing with at the moment. One is a dead body found in a chicken coop. When that body turns out to be tied in with the threats on Gaia’s life, Grace knows that he’s going to have to take this protection case seriously. One of the characters in this novel is Anna Galicia, Gaia’s biggest fan. Anna is obsessed with her idol, and is more than excited when she finds that Gaia is actually coming to Brighton. It’s an interesting psychological portrait of a person who is consumed by her devotion to a star.

And it’s not just rock stars who are the focus of this kind of obsession. For instance, in Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell’s Gallowglass, a troubled young man named Joe is saved from suicide by a man named Sandor. Sandor convinces Joe that he is destined to ‘serve the chief.’ It’s all part of Sandor’s plan to kidnap one of the world’s most beautiful women, supermodel Nina Abbott. Sandor’s been obsessed with her for some time, and is determined to, as he sees it, free her from imprisonment in the heavily guarded home in which she lives, so she can be with him. Of course, things don’t work out as Sandor intends…

As you can see, there are a lot of obsessed fans out there, both in real life and in crime fiction. I’ve only given a few examples here. And of course, obsession can certainly go too far. But there’s nothing wrong with some posters, t-shirts, memorabilia, music, right? What!?   ;-)

 

Happy Birthday, Mr. Joel!

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Michael Connelly, Peter James, Peter Lovesey, Ruth Rendell