Category Archives: Bill Crider

You Were Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die*

As this is posted, it would have been James Dean’s 88th birthday. We’ll never know what he would have been like as a mature actor, because he died so young (he was only 24). For many people, it’s an especially sad loss when someone that young dies.

That’s true in crime fiction just as it is in real life. There’s something especially poignant about the loss of a young person, and there are many, many examples in the genre. Space only permits me to mention a few; I know you’ll think of more than I could.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, ten people receive an invitation to spend time on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For various reasons, each accepts the invitation and travels to the island. One of the guests is a young man named Anthony Marston. He’s young, full of life, and a bit reckless, although not really malicious. He and the rest of the guests arrive on the island, and settle in, despite the fact that their host has not yet made an appearance. After dinner that evening, everyone is shocked when each person, including Marston, is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. Shortly after that accusation, Marston suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, there’s another death. Soon it’s clear that someone has lured these people to the island to kill them. Now, the survivors will have to find out who the killer is if they’re to stay alive.

Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black is the first of her novels to feature Shetland Islands police detective Jimmy Perez. In it, the body of seventeen-year-old Catherine Ross is discovered not far from the home of Magnus Tait. The victim had visited Tait not long before her death, and he’s already got a reputation for being a misfit. There’s even talk that he was involved in another death years earlier. So, Tait is the most likely suspect. Jimmy Perez is assigned to the case and begins the investigation. He learns that Catherine had recently moved to Shetland from England, so, in a way, she wasn’t ‘one of us.’ What’s more, she was somewhat of a non-conformist, who had alienated more than one person. She wasn’t what people call ‘wild,’ but she was a free thinker. All of this means that Tait isn’t the only one who had a motive for murder.

Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage introduces readers to Vincent Naylor, who’s recently been released from prison. He has no desire to go back, either, and his long history of brushes with the law has taught him to avoid taking risks unless the payoff is especially valuable. In one plot thread, he connects with his girlfriend, Michelle, his brother, Noel, and some friends, and together, they plot a lucrative heist. The target will be Protectica, a security company that transports cash among Dublin’s banks. The Naylor brothers and their friends put together a plan that’s as risk-free as possible, and the heist is duly carried off. Then, everything goes wrong, and it all ends tragically. Now, Vincent decides he’ll exact revenge…

In Too Late to Die, Bill Crider introduces his sleuth, Blacklin Country, Texas Sheriff Dan Rhodes. In the novel, he’s alerted when the body of Jeanne Clinton is discovered in her home. Rhodes’ first thought is that her husband, Elmer, might be guilty. But he says that he was at work at the time of the murder, and he can prove it. And Rhodes is certain that Elmer Clinton loved his wife very much. For those reasons, and to be fair to Clinton, Rhodes looks into other possibilities, and it’s not long before he finds them. Jeanne had been ‘a bit wild’ as a teenager but had seemed to settle in the last few years. Still, people were in the habit of stopping by to visit her. It’s possible that some of those visits might have been more than just friendly chats. If that’s the case, more than one person might have had a motive for murder. As the story goes on, we learn about the victim. She wasn’t, as the saying goes, wild any more. Still, she wasn’t the shy, retiring type, either. Her extroversion, especially given how beautiful she was, and especially when it came to being friendly to men, was a problem for some people. And she wasn’t one to be overly concerned about what people thought of her.

And then there’s Alison Gordon’s The Dead Pull Hitter, the first in her Kate Henry series. Henry is a sportswriter for the Toronto Planet. Her special interest is baseball, so she covers all of the American League Toronto Titans’ games, including their ‘away’ games. After one such trip, the Titans return, and then host the Boston Red Sox for a series of games. The Titans win and clinch the AL Eastern Division Championship. During the celebration, word comes that one of the players, Pedro Jorge ‘Sultan’ Sanchez has been killed in his home. At first it looks like a burglary gone bad, and that’s how RCMP Staff Sergeant Lloyd ‘Andy’ Munro investigates it. But then, another player, Steve Thorson, is murdered at the team’s clubhouse. Now, it looks as though someone might be targeting the Titans, and Munro works to find out who that someone might be. Henry has an ‘in’ with the players, so Munro wants her help. He’s got an ‘in’ on the investigation, so Henry wants the exclusive story. With that agreed, the two begin to exchange information. There are several possibilities in this case, not least of which is that most of the Titans don’t exactly lead ‘choirboy’ lives. In the end, Munro and Henry find that the deaths have to do with secrets that someone has been keeping.

It’s almost always a shock when someone dies. That’s even more the case when the person who dies was young, vibrant, and very much, well, alive. That was the case with James Dean, and it’s the case with some fictional characters, too. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles’ James Dean.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alison Gordon, Ann Cleeves, Bill Crider, Gene Kerrigan

In The Spotlight: Bill Crider’s Too Late to Die

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Bill Crider was a well-known, well-respected crime writer and commentator who passed away early this year. He left behind a legacy of crime fiction novels, Westerns, and horror fiction, too. It’s about time this feature included one of his stories, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Too Late to Die, the first of his Sheriff Dan Rhodes novels.

The story begins as Rhodes, Sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas, is looking into a break-in at a local market. He’s talking to the owner about it when the body of Jeanne Clinton is discovered in her home. The owner of the market, Hod Barrett, is none too happy about his case being relegated to second place, so to speak. But a murder is a murder, and Rhodes and his deputies and staff get to work.

As you might guess, the most likely suspect is the victim’s husband, Elmer. It doesn’t help his case that his wife had been ‘a bit wild’ as a younger woman and might still be entertaining ‘visitors.’ But Elmer says that Jeanne had matured, and he’s not the only one who says so. Besides, so he claims, he was at work at the time of the murder, and he can prove it. And even Rhodes is inclined to believe that Elmer Clinton loved his wife.

If Clinton isn’t the murderer, the team has to work out who is. And that means finding out who might have seen Jeanne Clinton on the evening she was killed. As it turns out, there are several people who did. Even Hod Barrett was there, as were a few other highly respectable local citizens. Every one of them eventually admits to being friends with the victim. But each one says that: a) it was just a friendship, nothing more; b) Jeanne was alive when last seen. Untangling the truth from the lies is going to take effort.

In the meantime, Rhodes is facing an election year, and this time, he’s got real competition. Ralph Claymore is running for sheriff, and he’s got his share of support. He looks the part, too, and is comfortable interacting with people. It’s not going to be an easy win.

As if that’s not enough, two local citizens have decided to sue Rhodes, the country, and whoever else they can sue for beating them up during a routine stop. They blame Rhodes’ deputy, Johnny Sherman, and they’re out for a big win. In fact, they’ve hired Billy Don Painter, who’s seen as a hotshot lawyer, to press their case for them. It doesn’t help matters at all that Sherman is dating Rhodes’ daughter, Kathy.

Then, there are two more deaths. Now, Rhodes is under intense pressure to solve this case. The public wants answers, and he’s not sleeping easily, either. And he’s not likely to win re-election if Claymore can use these murders against him. In the end, and piece by piece, Rhodes puts the puzzle together.

This novel takes place in rural Texas, and the reader is placed there immediately and distinctly. There are local food markets, plenty of boots and Dr. Pepper, Texas expressions, and pickup trucks. But Crider doesn’t present stereotypes. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that the characters in this novel are more complex than that.

Because the setting is a small, rural area, everyone knows everyone, and that includes Rhodes. Many of the people in town have relationships that stretch back to primary school, and Rhodes and his deputies know everyone’s history.

The story is told from Rhodes’ perspective (third person, past tense), so readers learn about him. He is widowed, but he has more or less gotten used to it. He misses his wife, but he doesn’t wallow in that. In fact, he starts his first, awkward, attempts at dating again in this novel (and no, it doesn’t really have a romance aspect). He makes mistakes in this case, but he is a persistent, hardworking detective who gets to the truth in the end.

The solution to the mystery is, in its way, more complex than it might seem on the surface. I don’t want to say more about it for fear of spoilers, but I can say that readers who appreciate moral ambiguity will appreciate some of the situations in the novel. In the end, Rhodes wants to do the right thing. But what counts as the right thing isn’t really clear when the facts are known.

There is some violence in the novel (there are, after all, three deaths). But it is mostly ‘off stage.’ Still, this is not a ‘frothy’ read. There is real sadness in the story, and knowing the truth doesn’t make that go away. That said, though, there is a strong sense that life will go on, and that the local people will pick up their lives.

Too Late to Die is the story of a small Texas community and its sheriff, and what happens to everyone when murder strikes. It uncovers several local secrets, and introduces a sleuth who wants to do what’s best for everyone. But what’s your view? Have you read Too Late to Die? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 17 December/Tuesday, 18 December – All She Was Worth – Miyuki Miyabe

Monday, 24 December/Tuesday, 25 December – In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

Monday, 31 December/Tuesday, 1 January – Accused – Lisa Scottoline

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Filed under Bill Crider, Too Late to Die

The Archetypal Man*

Over the years, there’ve been some interesting character types that have become an integral part of crime fiction. They’re almost mythical, in a way, because we know the reality is a lot more complex than the myth. It’s a bit like the myth vs the reality of the famous shootout at the OK Corral. And, yet, those mythical characters can add to a story. And they’ve helped shape our perception of crime-fictional characters.

One mythical sort of character is the crusading lawyer personified in Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels. On television, Mason was, of course, portrayed by Raymond Burr. This character fights for the defendant, comes up with all sorts of strategies, surprise witnesses, and so on, and works to get justice for the client. The reality is, of course, much more complex than what was presented in the TV series, especially. And modern crime-fictional attorneys show that complexity. Most attorneys (both in real life and in crime fiction) do want to do their jobs well. They want to win their cases, and they do try to do so in an ethical way. But sometimes, their clients are guilty. Sometimes, they do things that aren’t exactly above-board, so to speak. And they don’t always win their cases. But many people still want to believe in the Perry Mason type of attorney.

Another interesting archetypal character is the PI personified by Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He’s a loner, somewhat cynical, but still idealistic enough to want to do the right thing. He doesn’t let people get the better of him and stays just aloof enough not to get too personally entangled in a case, even if a ‘bombshell’ femme fatale tempts him. There are plenty of fictional PIs like that, of course. I’m sure you could name as many as I could. Crime fiction fans know, though, that PIs and the PI life are a lot more complex. For one thing, PIs come in lots of different shapes and sizes, so to speak. They do want to do their jobs well, by and large, but not all of them are fierce crusaders for justice. Some PIs are, indeed, susceptible to temptation. Some are extremely cynical, with their only focus on their fees, and so on. Crime fiction shows us this complexity, and most readers want that. At the same time, though, when we think of the PI, lots of us think of that Sam Spade archetype.

There’s also the mythical figure of the sheriff, especially in US western novels. You know the type, I’m sure: fighting for justice, facing off against a gang of ‘bad guys,’ and so on. If you’ve read novels by J.A. Jance, Craig Johnson, or Bill Crider (to name only three), you know that there’s more to being a sheriff than is portrayed in television and film westerns. And today’s sheriff characters are more complex. They’re not all male, they’re not all white, and their cases aren’t all clear-cut. Fictional sheriffs are often faced with ‘bad guys’ that aren’t so easy to spot, and aren’t always simplistic. Most sheriffs try to uphold the law in the best way they can, and they all do it a little differently. And, yet, despite these shades of differences, we still have a mental image of the sheriff as the lone force of good against the evil [Name of Gang] Boys.

There’s also the mythical loner/drifter who comes into town and ends up righting wrongs. I’m thinking, for instance, of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. This sort of character’s appeal arguably comes in part from being somewhat mysterious. We don’t ever really know everything about that person. But we do know that the ‘stranger in town’ is ultimately on the side of the angels. Of course, loners/drifters are more complex than it seems on the surface (we see that, actually, as the Jack Reacher series evolves). But there’s just something about the ‘stranger in town who ends up saving everything’ that appeals.

There are other mythical/archetypal characters, too, in crime fiction. But one character who isn’t enshrined in this way is the police detective. If you think about it, crime fiction includes a wide, wide array of police characters. There are bumbling cops (e.g. the way Arthur Conan Doyle portrayed police), dedicated detectives (like Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp), and ‘everyman’ police officers (e.g. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct police). And not all of the police characters are depicted as sympathetic, either. From James Ellroy’s Los Angeles trilogy to Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road and plenty in between, there are ‘bent’ police officers, too. Perhaps the reason there may not be an archetypal police character is exactly that there’s this much variety.

A mythical/archetypal character can be limiting. It’s taken several decades, for instance, for fictional PIs to include women, non-whites, LGBTQ+ characters, and so on. And there may not be as much room for depths and layers to a mythical character as there is to a different sort of character. But they serve an important purpose. They give us a mental image of a lawyer, or a PI, or….  And they have some interesting qualities that can add to a story.

What’s your view? Do you think of those mythical characters (like Sam Spade or Perry Mason) when you think of a crime-fictional PI or lawyer? If you’re a writer, do you get inspired by those characters?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Judee Sill.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bill Crider, Craig Johnson, Dashiell Hammett, Ed McBain, Erle Stanley Gardner, Garry Disher, J.A. Jance, James Ellroy, Lee Child

Nothing Could be Longer Than that Corrugated Road*

There’s plenty of crime in cities and suburbia. We see it on the news, and we read about it in crime fiction, too. Large city police forces certainly have their hands full, and I’m sure you could list dozens and dozens of big-city crime novels and series.

It’s interesting to contrast that sort of work with the work of a very rural police officer or other law enforcement officer. There’s crime in both cases – sometimes horrible crime – and, like their counterparts in cities, rural law enforcement officers have to do things like file paperwork, interview witnesses, look for evidence, and so on. But there are differences, too.

Rural law enforcement people are often spread thinner, as the saying goes. So, it helps if they’re familiar with the land. In some cases, they also have to be very much aware of weather patterns and other natural phenomena. And they tend to know the people they serve quite well, since there are usually far fewer of them. There are other differences, too. And it’s interesting to see how rural law enforcement plays out in crime fiction.

For example, Arthur Upfield’s Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte works with the Queensland Police. But, as fans can tell you, he certainly doesn’t stay in Brisbane. His territory is large, and lots of it is very rural. So, he’s learned to read ‘the Book of the Bush.’ He understands weather patterns, animal traces, and so on. And he gets to know both the Aboriginal groups he meets and the whites who live in the tiny towns and ranches in the area. He’s learned to pay attention, too, to the stories and gossip he hears. Word spreads, so he’s often able to learn about an area’s history and legends. That helps him, too.

Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest grew up in Moonlight Downs, a very rural Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory. She left for school and travel, but returns in Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs). And, in Gunshot Road, she begins a new job as an ACPO (Aboriginal Community Police Officer). In both novels, she shows her deep understanding of the land, the weather, and other natural phenomena. We also see how connected she is to the people she serves. She knows, or at least has heard of, practically everyone, even though people are very spread out in her territory. Most of the people in the area know her, too, and trust her, since she’s ‘one of them.’ That relationship means that she’s able to get information that people aren’t always willing to give to the police.

A similar thing might be said of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. They are members of the Navajo Nation. They are also members of the Navajo Tribal Police. Most members of the Navajo community live in a very spread-out, rural area of the Southwest US. Chee and Leaphorn cover an awful lot of territory in their investigations, and some of that land is unforgiving, so both have learned to respect it. They understand weather patterns and other phenomena, and they’re smart enough not to take risks they don’t have to take. Members of the Navajo community know each other, or at least know of each other. In fact, there are complicated links among various Navajo clans. So, there’s less anonymity, even in such a sparsely populated area, than there is in some large cities. And Chee and Leaphorn take advantage of the way word spreads. You’re quite right, fans of Stan Jones’ Nathan Active series, and of Scott Young’s Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak novels. We see a similar situation in Alaska and in Canada’s far northern places.

And it’s not always in the far north of Canada, either. For example, Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe’s Detective Inspector (DI) Hazel Micallef series takes place in fictional Port Dundas, Ontario. Micallef and her team cover a wide area that’s mostly rural and small-town. It’s not a big department, and they don’t have access to a lot of resources. But they make do, as best they can, with what they have. One of their advantages is that people know each other. For instance, Micallef’s mother, Emily, is a former mayor of Port Dundas. So, she’s well aware of the area’s social networks. So are most of the members of Micallef’s police team. And they use those networks to get information. Things can get awkward, as they do when you work in the same town where you grew up. But Micallef and her team also use that familiarity to their advantage.

So does Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire (oh, come on – you knew I couldn’t do a piece about rural law enforcement without mentioning him). He’s the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. While he’s based in the small town of Durant, he does more than his share of travel throughout the mostly rural county. As fans can tell you, Longmire has learned to be respectful of the weather conditions, natural forces and climate in the area. It can be a harsh place to live and work, especially in the winter. But Longmire knows the tricks of survival. He also knows the value of all of the networks of rural communication. Because it’s a sparsely-populated area, there’s sometimes a lot of travel between places. So, Longmire has learned to make use of those social networks. He knows that people – even people who don’t live close by – congregate at places like the Red Pony (a local bar/restaurant) and the Busy Bee Café. So, he listens to what he hears in those places. That helps him make the most efficient use of his travel efforts.

And that’s the way it is for a lot of rural law enforcement characters. It’s quite a different form of policing to what goes on in large towns, suburbs, and cities. And it’s important work, too. Anyone who says crime doesn’t happen in rural areas hasn’t read much crime fiction (right, fans of Bill Crider’s Sheriff Dan Rhodes novels?)…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Midnight Oil’s Gunbarrel Highway.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Arthur Upfield, Bill Crider, Craig Johnson, Inger Ash Wolfe, Michael Redhill, Scott Young, Stan Jones, Tony Hillerman

Pomp and Circumstance*

Academic MysteriesAs I post this, the university where I teach is holding its annual Commencement exercises. It’s a very special time for the graduates and their families, and there’s always a profusion of flowers, decorations, and so on.

If you’ve participated in Commencements, then you know that those events are filled with ritual, from the things that are said, to the caps, gowns and hoods people wear, to some of the things they do. The ceremonies themselves are a very traditional aspect of academia.

It’s all got me thinking about a recent post from Moira, who blogs at Clothes in Books. By the way, if you’re not already a fan of Clothes in Books, you will be after just one visit. It’s a treasure trove of fine book reviews and discussions of fashion and popular culture in fiction, and what it all says about us.

Moira’s post described her list of the best mysteries set in schools. And she’s got a terrific set of novels, so you’ll want to check them out. There are a lot of novels and series set in the world of academia, and it’s not surprising. There’s that layer of tradition that I mentioned. But underneath it is the reality of a disparate group of people, each with a different agenda. And in the world of university, there’s also the reality of young people, many of whom are away from home for the first time. And let’s not forget the competitive nature of a lot of universities. Little wonder there’s so much rich context for a novel or a series.

There’s a lot to choose from, just within this group of crime novels. Here are a few that I’ve found really reflect the academic life at its best. And worst.

Fans of Dorothy Sayers’ work will know that Gaudy Night is set at fictional Shrewsbury College, Oxford, the alma mater of Sayers’ mystery novelist, Harriet Vane. In that novel, she returns to Shrewsbury at the request of the Dean when some disturbing and mysterious things begin to happen. As she looks into what’s going on, readers get a sense of some of the pomp and even pageantry of traditional academic life. The novel shows what it was like to be at university at that time and in that place. I couldn’t agree more, fans of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, and of Michael Innes’ Death at the President’s Lodging.

There’s also Edmund Crispin’s Dr. Gervase Fen, Professor of English at fictional St. Christopher’s College, Oxford. These mysteries are whodunits that often feature the sort of ‘impossible but not really impossible’ sort of mystery that classic/Golden Age crime fiction fans often associate with writers such as John Dickson Carr. In fact, Fen refers to Carr’s creation, Dr. Gideon Fell, in The Case of the Gilded Fly.

Of course, times have changed since Sayers and Crispin were writing, and so has academia. Christine Poulson’s Cassandra James novels show readers university life from a more contemporary perspective. James is Head of the English Literature Department at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge. As such, she has to cope with challenges such as staffing, student issues, budgets, and ensuring that her department meets the requirements of outside examiners. She knows what goes on in her department, so she has a very useful perspective when murder occurs on and around campus. Among other things, these novels offer a look at the day-to-day life of a modern academic.

We also get that perspective in Gail Bowen’s series featuring Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. She’s a Saskatchewan political scientist and, for the first several novels, a university professor. In novels such as A Killing Spring and Burying Ariel, readers get an ‘inside view’ of what it’s like to teach at a Canadian university.

Sarah R. Shaber has written an academic mystery series featuring Pulitzer Prize winning historian Simon Shaw. Shaw teaches at Kenan College near Raleigh, North Carolina. Because of his scholarly interest, these mysteries tie in historical elements with the modern-day plots, and with the realities of academic life.

There are several other examples of US-based academic mysteries, too. For instance, there’s Amanda Cross’ Kate Fansler series, set in New York. And two of Bill Crider’s mystery series (one featuring Carl Burns and the other featuring Sally Good) are set in colleges located in Texas. Oh, and my own Joel Williams novels are also academic mysteries, set in a fictional university town in Pennsylvania.

Novels and series that are set in a university context can take advantage of a lot of aspects of that setting. Universities draw together students from many different kinds of backgrounds, who may have any number of motivations. They also draw together professors, each with a different agenda. And then there’s the pressure on both students and members of the faculty, whether it’s pressure for high marks or for promotion/tenure. There’s also the fact that academic mysteries allow the author to explore a topic (such as literature, politics, history or archaeology). After all, professors have their own areas of research interest, and that can provide an interesting set of plot layers for the author. With all of that, it’s really little wonder that academic mysteries are so popular. And I’ve only touched on the ones that take place at college and university campuses.

Want more? Check out Moira’s excellent post. Thanks for the inspiration, Moira! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to put on my cap, gown and hood…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is, of course, the commonly-known (at least in the US) title of Pomp and Circumstance, March No. 1 in D, one of Sir Edward Elgar’s most famous compositions.

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Filed under Amanda Cross, Bill Crider, Christine Poulson, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, Gail Bowen, John Dickson Carr, Josephine Tey, Michael Innes, Sarah R. Shaber