Category Archives: Colin Dexter

Tired of Waiting For You*

I’ll bet you know the feeling. You’re at a job interview, a medical appointment, a bank, or perhaps even a mechanic. At some point, you’re asked to wait. That wait can seem endless, especially if you’re already feeling a little tense (you’re anxious about the job, or wondering what the medical news will be, or whether you’ll get that loan, or how much the car’s going to cost this time).

The tension people feel at those times is almost palpable, and in real life, it can be useful. People may not be as much on their guard, and that can be helpful for police detectives. It can also add a layer of suspense to a crime story. There’s an element of character depth, too that such suspense can add (how does a certain character behave under stress?).

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), for instance, a group of passengers is on a flight from Paris to London. Towards the end of the flight, one of those passengers, Marie Morisot, is discovered dead of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in that same cabin. So, the police, in the form of Chief Inspector Japp, ask those people to wait in a separate room until each can be interviewed. That scene is full of tension as the wait goes on. In this case, Japp doesn’t artificially extend the passengers’ wait, but it’s interesting to see how it impacts all of them. Hercule Poirot was on this flight, so he works with Japp to find out who the killer was.

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger takes place mostly at Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime military use. One day, a postman named Jospeh Higgins is brought to the hospital with a broken femur. The operation to set the bone is risky, as all operations are; still, it’s considered straightforward. Tragically, though, Higgins dies during the surgery. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police is assigned to do the routine paperwork, but he soon comes to believe that this death was not an accident. Then, there’s another death, this time, an obvious murder. The only really viable suspects are the people who were involved in the original death. So, Cockrill keeps a close eye on them, more or less keeping them in the same place. And they’re soon shunned by other people at the hospital. The tension that goes with being suspected, and with being cooped up, adds much to the atmosphere of this novel.

In Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are called to the exclusive Randolph Hotel. Laura Stratton, an American tourist who was staying there, has died of an apparent heart attack, and a valuable jewel has been taken from her room. The missing piece is called the Wolvercote Tongue, and is part of a Saxon buckle that’s on display at the Ashmolean Museum. Before her death, the victim was going to donate that piece to the museum, so the fact that it’s missing is a real blow on several levels. The next day, Dr. Theodore Kemp, the museum’s curator, is found dead. It seems clear that the two incidents are related, so Morse and Lewis investigate them that way. And they start with Laura Stratton’s tour group. During the investigation, the tour group can’t move on to the rest of their stops, so there’s a bit of a claustrophobic feel as they wait for Morse and Lewis to unravel the truth. In the end, it’s all tied to a past tragedy.

Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice Quiet Holiday begins as Judge Harish Shinde and his law clerk, Anant, travel to Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, for a two-week holiday. One of Shinde’s old friends, Shikhar Pant, has invited them for a visit, and it’s a good excuse to get out of the Delhi heat. Among the other guests at Pant’s home is his cousin, Kailish Pant, a well-known writer. There’s tension right away, mostly over the work being done by two other guests, Ronit and Kamini Mittal, who run an NGO. They’re trying to provide AIDS information and other reproductive health support to some of the rural areas, and many people see that as obscene. Others feel threatened for other reasons. And opinion among Pant’s guests is quite divided. Matters come to a head one afternoon when Kailish Pant is murdered. Inspector Patel is assigned to investigate, and he begins to talk to the house party. The judge and Anant work with Patel to find out who the killer is, and their job isn’t made any easier by the very tense atmosphere that’s created by that feeling of having to wait.

And that feeling of anxiety and suspense is there no matter how luxurious the atmosphere. For instance, in Swati Kaushal’s Drop Dead, we are introduced to Shimla Superintendent of Police Niki Marwah. She and her team are called to the ultra-luxurious Lotus Resort when the body of Rakesh ‘Rak’ Mehta is discovered in a valley not far from the resort. He was the CEO of Indigo Books India, and had brought his senior staff to the Lotus for a retreat. The case is soon identified as a ‘suspicious death,’ and Marwah and the team look more closely at the members of the victim’s staff. They learn that each of Mehta’s senior employees had a motive for murder, so until the investigation is complete, the staff will have to stay where they are. And that adds a solid layer of atmosphere and suspense, even in an elegant, extremely comfortable place like the Lotus.

There are plenty of other examples of this sort of tension. You see it as people wait for police interviews, in those ‘country house’ mysteries, and in other places, too. And it’s little wonder; anxious waiting really does add a layer of tension to a story.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Aditya Sudarshan, Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Colin Dexter, Swati Kaushal

An Evolving Mystery*

You may or may not be aware of this, but the world of crime fiction lost a very influential and talented member today with the passing of Colin Dexter. Whether you’re a fan of his work or not, it’s hard to deny the impact that his stories have had on the genre.

Dexter’s work is interesting on several levels, and one post couldn’t really do it justice. But here are just a few things that (at least to me) have made his work such an important part of crime fiction.

We first met Dexter’s sleuth, Inspector Morse, in 1975’s Last Bus to Woodstock. So, both chronologically and in other ways, Dexter’s work arguably bridges the gap between the end of the Golden Age of crime fiction (Agatha Christie, for instance, ended her writing career in the early 1970s) and the coming of the modern era of crime fiction. And we see that in several aspects of Dexter’s writing.

In novels such as The Way Through the Woods, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, and Death is Now My Neighbour, Dexter created complex, traditional mystery plots. Many of them are, in that sense, reminiscent of the whodunits of the Golden Age. Finding the killer is a matter of checking alibis, looking at the clues, and so on. But, like some of the Golden Age writers, Dexter included plot twists such as issues of identification, words (mis)heard, and so on.

In those senses, one could easily argue that Dexter’s work resembles the Golden Age that came before him. But there are also many elements that we see in more modern crime fiction. The psychology of family dysfunction, for instance, plays an important part in The Remorseful Day; and we arguably see more of a focus on that aspect than on, say, the whodunit sort of plot that we see in some older mysteries. There are other ways, too, in which this series reflects more contemporary approaches to telling a crime story.

Inspector Morse is, as fans will know, a member of the Thames Valley Police. So, among other things, we get a look at UK police procedure at the time. There were certainly police sleuths before Morse. But this series offers an interesting look at the evolution of the police procedural. In many (certainly not all!) earlier novels featuring police, we don’t see a lot of the coppers’ home lives – certainly they don’t form story arcs. Just to offer an example, we know, for instance, that Dorothy Sayers’ Inspector Parker is married to Lord Peter Wimsey’s sister, Mary. And there are some home-based conversations that include them. But there aren’t really the sort of ‘domestic life’ story arcs that we often see in today’s police procedural.

We see the glimmerings of those arcs in some of Dexter’s novels. For instance, fans will know that Dexter has more than one relationship in his life, although he doesn’t marry. He has medical problems in a few of the novels, too (The Wench is Dead and The Remorseful Day come to mind). These sub-plots and story arcs aren’t the central focus of Dexter’s novels, but they do show him as a fully fleshed-out character (more on that shortly). Sergeant Lewis, too, has a home life, and we hear about that from time to time. Again, though, it’s not the main focus of the novels.

You might easily argue that there are other police procedurals of the time (for instance, Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels and Ruth Rendell’s Reg Wexford novels) that also made a real impact on the genre. And you’d be right. They did. Work such as Hill’s, Rendell’s, and Dexter’s set the stage for, among other series, Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series, Peter May’s Superintendent Roy Grace series, and Ann Cleeves’ DI Vera Stanhope series.

So why does Dexter’s series really stand out? Another element is arguably Morse’s character. He’s complicated, sometimes moody, and at times short-tempered, especially with what he sees as ineptitude. He likes his pint (frequently having more liquid than solid at meals). And he doesn’t always play by the proverbial rules, either in terms of tact or in terms of policy. He’s blind to his own health problems, too. Still, he’s not a stereotypical ‘demon-haunted detective.’ He knows the value of proper procedure, and he isn’t a maverick sort of loner, who breaks every rule and doesn’t care. He can be quite compassionate in his way, too. He is, in other words, a complex human being, as we all are. And he’s unique.

Morse is also a brilliant detective. Dexter didn’t make the mistake of allowing Morse to always be right. In fact, he blunders more than once as he investigates. But he gets to the solution of some very difficult puzzles.

If the series were only about Morse, it might still be well-regarded. But Dexter also created Sergeant George Lewis (his first name was changed to Robbie for the television series). Lewis is by no means an awed onlooker in these novels. Yes, Morse is his boss. But Lewis is bright, thoughtful, and a skilled detective in his own right. Sometimes he sees things more clearly than Morse does, and he is better with certain aspects of investigation. They’re different sorts of people, though, and the dynamic between them is arguably another element that makes this series distinctive.

And then, of course, there’s the Oxford-area setting. Fans of the series will know that Dexter depicts the area vividly. There’s the ‘town/gown’ dynamic, the challenges of living in a large modern city (don’t get Morse started on traffic and parking), and the unique history of the place.

There’s also the very well-regarded television series (and spinoffs) that came from and with the novels. You’ll probably know that Dexter had a great deal to do with the writing and production of the original Inspector Morse show. That’s arguably part of why, for many people, John Thaw was Inspector Morse, and Kevin Whately is Lewis. In fact, the show and the series were so closely integrated that Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours is actually an adaptation of an Inspector Morse episode called The Wolvercote Tongue.

No matter what you think of Dexter’s work, of Morse, or of the television series (if you’ve seen it), it’s hard to deny the impact of these novels and their author. Dexter will be much missed.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Barrington Pheluong.

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Filed under Colin Dexter, Inspector Morse

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

I’m Finding it Hard to Be Really As Black As They Paint*

petty-crime-and-murderIf you read enough crime fiction, you learn that, at least fictionally, anyone can be a killer. But are some people more likely to kill than others? For instance, are people who shoplift, or steal cars, or rob homes more likely to kill than are people who don’t commit those crimes? It’s not an easy question to answer, because there are a lot of different factors that play roles in who kills and who doesn’t (or in who embezzles and who doesn’t, or…). The picture isn’t really made any clearer by looking at crime fiction, either.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot speaks often of the psychology of someone who kills. And he differentiates it clearly from the psychology of someone who steals (not that he thinks either is acceptable). I don’t want to say much about specific Christie novels, for fear of spoilers, but I will say this. In many (not all!) cases, Poirot points out that just because a suspect has committed a crime (say theft) doesn’t mean that suspect is, per se, a murderer, too. He even makes this comment about the difference to Katherine Grey in The Mystery of the Blue Train:
 

‘You could, perhaps, love a thief, Mademoiselle, but not a murderer.’
 

That said though, there are cases (again, no spoilers) where someone who’s unmasked as a thief also turns out to be a killer.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, DCI Alan Banks has recently moved from London to the small Yorkshire town of Eastvale. He’s barely had time to settle in when he has deal with some difficult cases. For one thing, a voyeur is making the lives of Eastvale women miserable. There’s a lot of pressure on Banks and his team to catch this person. As if that’s not enough, there’s been a series of home invasions and thefts lately. And then, there’s a murder. Is there a connection between the home invasions and the killing? What about the peeper? The question of whether the same person is responsible for all (or some) of these activities is an important part of the novel.

A similar sort of question comes up in Colin Dexter’s The Remorseful Day. Two years before the events in the novel, Yvonne Harrison was murdered, and her body found in her bedroom. On the one hand, she led a private life that could easily have put her in danger. And her family life was complicated and dysfunctional. On the other, the police never could get sufficient evidence against one person, and the case was allowed to go cold. Now, a man named Harry Repp has been released from prison, where he was serving time for burglary. Anonymous tips have suggested that he killed Yvonne Harrison. Inspector Morse is assigned the case, but he seems quite reluctant to do much about it. So, Sergeant Lewis does most of the investigation. And he’s faced with a difficult question. There’s no doubt that Repp is a thief. Did he escalate to murder? Was he framed? As it turns out, this case isn’t going to be easy for anyone, least of all Morse or Lewis.

Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos introduces readers to a Marseilles police officer, Fabio Montale. He and his two good friends, Manu and Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini grew up in one of Marseilles’ rough districts. And they got into more than their share of trouble as young people. Then came a tragedy that caused Montale to re-think all of his choices. He served in the military, then returned to Marseilles and joined the police. Manu and Ugo, though, got involved in the criminal underworld. As the novel starts, Manu’s been murdered, and Ugo returns to Marseilles to avenge his friend’s death. When he, too, is killed, Montale feels a sense of obligation to find out what happened to his friends.  Without giving away spoilers, I can say that it’s interesting to see how being involved in petty crime impacted each of these characters.

In one plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage, we meet Vincent Naylor. He’s recently been released from prison, and has quite a history with law enforcement. He has no desire to go back inside, so he’s decided not to take any more risks. Not unless the payoff is so great that it makes the risk worthwhile. He thinks much more in terms of heist and theft than he does of murder. After his release, he meets up with his brother Noel, his girlfriend, Michelle, and some other friends. Before long, they begin to plan a major heist – one that will set them all up financially. Their target will be Protectica, a security company that transports cash among various Dublin banks. The group plans out every detail of what they’re going to do, and pull off the heist. But then, things begin to go badly wrong. There’s no doubt that Vincent Naylor is a thief who’s been in more than one scuffle with the law. Does that mean he’s a murderer, too? It’s an interesting layer in this novel.

Of course, there are characters such as Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder, and Lawrence Block’s Bernie ‘the Burglar’ Rhodenbarr. They’re thieves, and have committed other crimes, too. But they aren’t what you’d call ‘natural’ killers. And, of course, any crime fiction fan knows that there are characters who are completely law-abiding – until the day they kill. So perhaps the connection between crimes such as theft, home invasion and so on and murder isn’t really clear. Certainly the law puts those crimes in very different categories. What do you think about all of this?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart’s Reviewing the Situation.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Donald Westlake, Gene Kerrigan, Jean-Claude Izzo, Lawrence Block, Peter Robinson

My Mustang Ford*

fordAs this is posted, it’s the 103rd anniversary of the first moving assembly line. It was originally installed in a Ford Motor Company factory for the production of the Model T – the famous ‘Tin Lizzie.’ The assembly line made profound changes in the workplace and in production. You can say those changes have been beneficial or quite the opposite; it’s hard to deny the impact, though, of the assembly line.

It also changed transportation. Now, instead of cars being a plaything for the rich, they became affordable for ordinary people. And ordinary people started to buy them. That made permanent social, recreational, and demographic changes in many societies. Now, the automobile is omnipresent, and there’s more variety in terms of prices, features and so on than ever before. Just watch television for a short time and you’re likely to see an ad for one car maker or another.

Cars have driven into crime fiction, too. For example, one of the early scenes in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None features Anthony ‘Tony’ Marston. He’s driving a Dalmain on the way to meet a ferry that’s going to take him to Indian Island, where he’s accepted an invitation. Marston gets quite a lot of attention as he goes. He’s good-looking to begin with, and drives,

 

‘A car so fantastically powerful, so superlatively beautiful, that it had all the nature of an apparition.’

 

Marston finds that other people, too, have been invited to the island, and joins them on the ferry. When they get there, they find that their host has been delayed. Still, dinner is served and everyone settles in. After the meal, though, the guests are shocked when each is accused of killing at least one other person. In Marston’s case, it has to do with his driving; he’s accused of the hit-and-run killing of two children. Not long afterwards, he dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night, there’s another death. And then another. Now the people on the island know that they’ve been lured there, and that someone plans to murder them. So the survivors have to find and stop the killer if they’re to stay alive.

If you’re a fan of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, and especially if you’ve seen the television series, you’ll know that Morse drives a Jaguar. Somehow, it seems to suit him. But did you know that, in the earlier novels, he actually drove a Lancia? What’s interesting is that in this case, the novels and the television show were very closely integrated. Partly that’s because Dexter was very much involved with the show’s production. After the various episodes were aired (showing the Jaguar), later editions of the novels changed the Lancia to a Jaguar.

Some sleuths depend very heavily on their cars. For example, in Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, we are introduced to Los Angeles attorney Mickey Haller. He doesn’t do business from an office, although he does, technically speaking, have a business address. Instead, he has a ‘portable office’ – his Lincoln Town Car. He has a driver, Earl Briggs, and conducts his business as he goes between places. Connelly was inspired for this character by a real-life attorney, David Ogden. I read that Ogden actually drives a Ford Five Hundred SEL, but I’m not sure if that’s still true. Even if it’s not, it’s still really interesting to think of a car as a place of business.

Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole has a signature 1966 Corvette. That’s not a surprising choice, given that he lives and works in car-addicted Los Angeles. And if you’ve seen Corvettes from that era, and you’re familiar with Cole’s personality and style, you may find yourself agreeing that the car matches the man.

Some sleuths drive even more unusual cars. For example, Mike Ripley’s sleuth is Fitzroy Maclean Angel, a jazz trumpeter who drives an unlicensed cab. He’s named his car Armstrong – yes, for Louis Armstrong – and finds his transportation quite useful. After all, if someone mistakes his car for an actual cab and pays him for a ride, who is he to argue? In Just Another Angel, that’s the mistake that Josephine ‘Jo’ Scamp makes. But Angel gets much more than he bargained for when she gets into his car. One night with Jo ends up drawing Angel into a case involving robbery, some unpleasant thugs, and Jo’s very angry husband…

And I don’t think I could discuss cars and sleuths without mentioning television’s Lieutenant Columbo. Any fan of this show will tell you that he drives a sometimes-unreliable battered Peugeot. Sometimes there are jokes made about it, and he himself knows it’s not exactly upmarket. But he loves his car, and it would be hard to imagine him without it.

And that’s the thing about cars. Thanks in no small part to the moving assembly line, many people can now afford a car, even if it’s not the car of their dreams. And cars have become so varied that they often reflect their owners’ tastes and personalities. And that includes fictional sleuths.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chuck Berry’s My Mustang Ford.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Michael Connelly, Mike Ripley, Robert Crais