Category Archives: Ed McBain

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

Don’t Push Me Too Far*

pressureMost of us learn that we can only push people so far before they push back. Everyone has a different limit, but we all have one. Crime writers know this, and sometimes use it to real advantage in their novels.

That pressure, as someone pushes too hard, and someone else nears the breaking point, can add real suspense to a story. And it can serve as a credible motive for murder, at least in the mind of the killer.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we meet the Boyntons, an American family on a sightseeing visit to the Middle East. Matriarch Mrs. Boynton is malicious, vindictive, and tyrannical. She has her family so browbeaten that no-one dares go against her wishes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t resent her. A few of the members have been pushed so far for so long that they are at the proverbial breaking point. So, when Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies on the second day of a trip to Petra, Colonel Carbury decides to look into the matter. The death looks on the surface like heart failure, but the family dynamics make Carbury wonder. So, he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s also in the Middle East, to investigate. As we learn who really killed the victim and why, we see the wisdom in not pushing people past their limits.

Talmage Powell’s short story, To Avoid a Scandal, features a banker named Horace Croyden. He leads a quiet, well-ordered and completely scandal-free life, and he likes it that way. In fact, for quite a while, his life is, for him, perfect. Then he meets his boss’ cousin Althea. At first, she seems demure, with good taste and good manners. And that’s what draws him to her. They court in an utterly respectable way, and then marry. That’s when Horace discovers that his wife isn’t all the person he thought he’d married. She’s more vivacious than he’d prefer, and her habits, in his opinion, aren’t well-ordered at all. She shops without a list, she doesn’t always dress before breakfast, and so on. More and more, she pushes him to the limit. Then comes the day she accidentally destroys some ciphers he’s been working (ciphers are Horace’s passion). That’s when she pushes him too far…

Ed McBain’s Cop Hater is the first in his long-running 87th Precinct series. As the novel begins, the city of Isola (a thinly-disguised New York City) is suffering from a terrible heat wave. This novel was written before air conditioning was a common amenity for homes, so everyone’s sweltering and miserable. That includes Detective Steve Carella and his team, who are investigating the murders of two fellow police officers. They’re also expected to attend lineups of those who’ve been arrested for major crimes, so that they can become familiar with those cases. One of those suspects is Virginia Pritchett, who’s been arrested for killing her husband with a hatchet. She doesn’t deny the allegation. Rather, she explains that the murder was the end result of a buildup of tension between her and her husband that pushed her beyond her breaking point. And the miserable heat didn’t help:
 

‘‘The heat. It’s…it was very hot in the apartment. Right from the morning. You…you lose your temper very quickly in the heat.”
 

In this case, we see what happens when a person is pushed too far by both the heat and a tense domestic situation.

Ruth Rendell’s One Across, Two Down tells the story of Stanley Manning, who works as a fuel attendant. He has a prison record, but he’s trying to stay on the proverbial straight and narrow, and make a life for himself and his wife, Vera. But he’s got a big problem: Vera’s mother, Maude, who hates Stanley. The feeling is mutual, but Stnaley has to put up with her, because he and Vera stand to inherit a fortune when she dies. Still, the pressure of having to tolerate Maude gets worse and worse, until Stanley decides to take matters into his own hands. And as you can guess if you’ve read Rendell’s work, this doesn’t end well.

Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s An Easy Thing addresses another sort of pressure. In that novel, Mexico City PI Héctor Belascoaran Shayne gets three different cases. One of them concerns the death of an engineer named Gaspar Alvarez Cerruli, who was killed in his office at Delex, the company where he worked. The Santa Clara Industrial Council hires Belascoaran Shayne to find out who the killer was, and bring them the proof. This case is complicated by the fact that there’s a great deal of tension between union members and management at Delex. There’s a great deal of agitation for better wages and working conditions, and the union activists have been very busy. As the novel goes on, those tensions reach the boiling point, and this plays its role in this case. What’s more, the tension adds much to the suspense in the story.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place during the last years of the British Raj in Madras (today’s Chennai). In A Madras Miasma, the first of the series, Le Fanu and his assistant, Sergeant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah, are investigating the murder of Jane Carstairs, an English visitor whose body was found in the Buckingham Canal. It’s a difficult case, made more challenging by the fact that the trail leads to some very high places. In the midst of the investigation, there’s a protest. There are many who believe that India should move to Home Rule, and that the Raj should end. These people clash with the local authorities and the police, and the situation turns very, very ugly. Then, there’s a murder. And Le Fanu finds that this death is related to the Carstairs murder, and that the killer has used the protest to ‘disguise’ that connection. Part of the suspense in this novel comes from the simmering resentment against British rule, and the increasing pressure on the government to reform, and on the protesters to be quiet and go away.

If crime fiction shows us nothing else, it shows us that people do have their limits. There’s only so far that most of us can be pushed. If the pushing continues, there are bound to be consequences. And that tension can add a great deal to a crime story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Divinyls’ Back to the Wall.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Ed McBain, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Ruth Rendell, Talmage Powell

Been So Long Since I Last Saw You*

letting-a-series-goI’ll bet you know the feeling. You read about – or someone mentions – an author whose work you’ve always admired. Then it hits you: you haven’t caught up with that author’s work in a long time – perhaps too long. How does it happen that we stop reading one or another of our top authors?

I’m not talking here of authors who’ve put you off for one reason or another. We all have lists of authors like that. Rather, I mean authors you really like, but whose books you haven’t kept up with the way you wanted to do.

There are, of course, any number of reasons that might happen. And our reasons for not keeping up with a series can be as varied as we are. So, I can only speak for myself. That said, I do find it a really interesting topic, and I’d love your input on it.

Sometimes, people don’t keep up with, or finish, a series they really enjoy because there are just too many entries in it. For instance, Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series runs to more than 50 novels. It’s very difficult to keep up with a series that long. That takes quite a commitment. So, I have to confess, I’ve not read every entry in this series (although I would like to). And one of the things about this series is that it does depict changes in the characters’ lives as time goes by and as they evolve. For that reason, it would be especially good to follow the series straight through in its entirety. I’ve not, but perhaps someday.

There are authors who take a hiatus from a series – sometimes a long one – and then bring it back. That’s what Philip Kerr did with his Bernie Gunther series. Fans of this series will know that it begins with the Berlin Noir trilogy that takes place just before and during World War II. Gunther is a private detective, who’s trying to negotiate the very risky landscape that is Berlin at that time. After the first few novels, Kerr didn’t publish a Bernie Gunther novel for fifteen years. In that time, people move on to other things. Or, their tastes may change. That could very easily impact someone’s decision to keep up with a series. In fact, you could argue that it’s a real tribute to Kerr’s skill that he found a ready audience for his more recent Gunther novels.

In those sorts of cases, it’s understandable enough that someone might not keep up with a series, even an excellent one. What, to me, is more interesting is the case of the series where there’s no obvious reason to let it go, but we do.  Again, everyone is different about this, but for me, Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury series falls into that category. It’s a well-regarded series, with interesting characters and some wit. There are solid puzzles in it, too. I didn’t keep up with that series the way I wanted to, and it has nothing to do with its quality. Nor is it because my tastes have changed dramatically. Perhaps it’s got something to do with time; no-one has time to read everything that’s good. But this is one of those series that I’d like to keep up with better than I did.

So is the “Emma Lathen’ writing team’s John Putnam Thatcher series. Fans can tell you that it has as its context the banking and finance industry, with Thatcher as a vice president for the Sloan Guaranty Trust. The series is very well regarded, and with good reason. I know people who’ve read every one of the novels, too. I’ll confess I haven’t. And there’s no specific reason for that, either. I like the series, I like Thatcher’s character, and so on.  It’s just one of those series that simply hasn’t stayed in the forefront of my reading.

Neither has the work of Robert Barnard, who created several terrific crime-fictional characters. A few are recurring (such as PI Perry Trethowan). Others of his novels are standalones. In both cases, Barnard wrote some solid and well-crafted stories. I enjoyed those that I read very much. But…I didn’t keep up with them. It’s got nothing to do with the quality of the books, and I do recommend them.

Those are just a few examples from my own reading. Perhaps you have some of your own. And that raises a question (at least for me). If we don’t stop reading a series for quality reasons, why do we? Is it the ‘Oooh, shiny’ factor of new novels and new-to-us authors? It is the time factor? Or, perhaps, is it that ‘I will never catch up’ feeling when it occurs to you that you’re four or five books behind with an author?

I’d love to hear from you about this. Which enjoyable series have you let slip away? Do you plan to pick up where you left off?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Hollies’ Come on Back.

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Filed under Ed McBain, Emma Lathen, Martha Grimes, Philip Kerr, Robert Barnard

He’s In a Quiet Vibration Land*

DeafnessFor many decades now, we’ve continued to better understand deafness, and the needs of those who have it. As a matter of fact, in many countries, there is a distinct Deaf culture, with its own norms for social interaction and its own cultural taboos. Members of that culture don’t see themselves as disabled. Rather, they simply have a different culture and language. Those signed languages vary by country (i.e., for instance, American Sign Language (ASL) is different to Australian Sign Language (Auslan)). But they are all distinct from the spoken languages used in those countries.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that characters with deafness have also made their way into crime fiction. It’s interesting, too, to see how they navigate a largely hearing world. Space only permits a few examples; I know you’ll think of more.

Fans of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series will know that one of its main characters, Steve Carella, is married to a woman with deafness. We first meet Theodora ‘Teddy’ Franklin in Cop Hater, long before she marries Carella. As the series goes on, we see that Teddy isn’t portrayed as ‘disadvantaged’ or disabled. She’s a smart, streetwise, thoughtful and loving person who happens not to hear. She and Carella have worked out their own ways of communicating, and both make adjustments. Rather than Teddy being overly dependent on Carella, avid readers can tell you that he depends on her quite a lot.

In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate a poisoning death. Nicholas Quinn has recently been named to Oxford’s Foreign Exam Syndicate. That group is responsible for overseeing exams that are given in countries that follow the British system of education. So being named to the group is quite an accomplishment. Quinn is the only Deaf member of the Syndicate, and the decision to select him was by no means unanimous. So there’s some bad feeling and resentment about it. When Quinn is murdered one afternoon, Morse and Lewis start with the people who knew him best. Since Quinn was not married and had no children, that turns out to be the members of the Syndicate. And the detectives soon find that there are several motives among that group. Each member is hiding something – something Quinn could have found out. I can say without spoiling the story that Quinn’s deafness plays a role in the story’s outcome.

Elizabeth George’s For the Sake of Elena has Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigating the death of Elena Weaver. Elena is a student at Cambridge, and a member of the Cambridge University Deaf Students Union. When she is killed during her morning run, Lynley and Havers look into her family and other relationships. As they do so, we learn about some of the differing attitudes towards deafness. One the one hand, there are the members of the Deaf Students Union, whose purpose is to promote Deaf solidarity, and raise awareness of deafness as simply a different culture, rather than a disability. Some members are quite strident about this, too. To these students, there’s a difference between being deaf (i.e. having no hearing) and being Deaf (i.e. a member of a particular culture). On the other hand, there are Elena’s parents, who have worked very hard to help her fit into the hearing world. She speech reads, and is integrated into the larger society. Each side, if you will, resents the other, and that plays its role in her murder.

Clarissa Draper’s Sophia Evans is an MI5 analyst, and a gifted codebreaker. So in The Sholes Key, she turns out to be very helpful when DI Theo Blackwell is faced with a bizarre case of missing single mothers. When one of the missing mothers turns up dead, with a strange code on her body, Evans slowly works out what that code means. In The Electrician’s Code, we learn that Evans has an assistant, Crystal Priestly. Priestly is a former hacker who’s been hired by MI5, and she’s a real asset to Evans. She is also Deaf. Evans has learned British Sign Language (BSL) in order to work with her, and their partnership turns out to be quite productive as Evans helps to investigate the murder of a woman she’d been assigned to monitor.

And then there’s Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay. In that novel, we are introduced to Caleb Zelic, who’s been deaf since childhood. He can speech read, and does have hearing aids, but he also uses Auslan when he can. He and his business partner, former copper Frankie Reynolds, run Trust Works, a security firm. One day, he gets an urgent text from an old friend, Senior Constable Gary ‘Gaz’ Marsden. Marsden wants Zelic to go over to his house immediately, and says that someone named Scott is after him. By the time Zelic gets there, though, it’s too late: Marsden’s been brutally murdered. And it’s not long before the police begin to suspect that Zelic himself may have had something to do with it. In order to clear his name, Zelic starts asking questions. But someone is extremely determined that he won’t get close to the truth. As Zelic and Reynolds try to find the killer, we see how a person with deafness negotiates the hearing world. We also see how the people in Zelic’s life understand his deafness as simply a part of his identity, and communicate with him without making a fuss.

One of the many interesting things about crime fiction is the way that it shows us society and different cultures. And that includes the cultures of those with deafness. These are just a few such characters; there are plenty of others.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s Amazing Journey.

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Filed under Clarissa Draper, Colin Dexter, Ed McBain, Elizabeth George, Emma Viskic

You and Me Got Staying Power*

Staying PowerThere are some crime fiction series that really have what you might call ‘staying power.’ They last through fifteen, twenty, or sometimes many more entries. How does that happen? What is it about those really enduring series that keeps them appealing to readers even after the 20th, 30th, etc. novel?

Of course there’s the obvious answer: some authors just have a lot of writing talent. And that’s true. But beyond that (perhaps in part because of it), I think there are some things that keep a series going well beyond just five or ten novels. Here are just a few of my ideas. I’d love to hear yours, too.
 

Flexibility

The more restrictive a series is, the less durable it arguably is. A series that is less ‘rigid’ is likely to stay around longer. And there are many ways in which a series can show that flexibility.

For example, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series has remained flexible in a few ways. As the series has continued, Rankin has addressed the changing landscape of Scottish politics and economic issues. He’s even addressed changes in the way crimes are committed, and the people who are responsible. And as the nature of Scottish life has evolved, so has the series.

Of course, this is a proverbial double-edged sword. Too much focus on one or another issue can date a book or series. But when the focus stays on the crime(s) and investigation, moving along with the political and economic times can help keep a series relevant.

There are other ways, of course, to keep a series flexible. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, for instance, takes place in a thinly-disguised New York City. It’s a large metropolis that attracts many, many different kinds of people. So there are all sorts of possibilities for plot lines. Peter Corris’ Cliff Hardy novels are set mostly in Sydney, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. In both of those cases, there’s a lot of opportunity for flexibility just based on the setting.

The 87th Precinct series is also made more flexible by its ensemble cast. Although Steve Carella is one of the main protagonists in the series, he’s by no means the only major character. Sometimes he’s not even a ‘major player’ at all. That ensemble approach allows for a wide variety of plot threads and conflicts.

 

Evolution

Closely related to flexibility is, I think, evolution. That, too, takes lots of forms, not the least of which is character evolution. People change over time, even if their basic characteristics are stable. A well-written series that lasts 20 books or more will reflect that fact.

For example, Someone Always Knows, the 35th of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone novels, is due to be released this summer. Fans of that series can tell you that over time, she and the series have evolved. She started as a fairly ‘hardboiled’ private investigator, both pragmatic and hard-edged. But she’s gotten more psychological depth and, some would say, maturity over time. Interestingly enough, not everyone has celebrated the changes to her character or to the series. Some say she’s ‘lost her edge,’ and that the series now has too much focus on the domestic. Whether that’s objectively true or not, there’s no denying that today’s Sharon McCone is not the same Sharon McCone we met in 1977, when Edwin of the Iron Shoes was released.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series has evolved over time, too. When the series begins, Kilbourn is a university professor and political scientist who’s still dealing with the murder of her husband, Ian, and the realities of raising three teenagers. Over time, her character and life circumstances have changed, as they do for most of us. I won’t spoil story arcs by giving specific examples, but we can see how she has evolved over time. It’s important to note, though, that her basic character has remained stable. She’s grown and changed, but the things that make up her personality in the first novel, Deadly Appearances, are also there in What’s Left Behind, which has recently been released. That stability makes a series more credible.

 

Variety

You could argue that variety is also closely related to flexibility. It goes without saying that readers don’t want series that make use of the same sorts of plots over and over. And the best and most enduring series don’t fall into that trap.

For example, Agatha Christie wrote 33 novels, a play, and over 50 short stories that feature Hercule Poirot. Strictly speaking, they aren’t a series, although they are loosely connected to one another. But they do follow Poirot through his career. Even though they feature the same protagonist, there is a great deal of variety among them. Christie experimented with different points of view, different settings, and different sorts of puzzles. There are stories with prologues, and stories without them. There are stories with a large group of characters, and some with only a few. There are ‘country house murders,’ and there are murders that take place in London. There are…well, you get the idea. Even Christie’s most ardent fans will admit that not all of her work is anywhere near her best. But its variety is part of what made her so popular, and what has kept readers following her work nearly 100 years after she started writing.

One might say a similar thing about Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels The 23rd in that series, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, is due to be released in November. As the series has gone on, Connelly has integrated quite a lot of variety in it. Bosch has worked in different departments, left the force, returned to the force, gone to some different places, and so on. And there’s been quite a variety in the sorts of plots Connelly has created, too. There are ‘personal’ kinds of murders, and more ‘public’ murders. There are cases that have national and international implications, and some that are quite local. I could go on, but I don’t think that’s necessary. The variety in this series is part of what’s made it so enduring.

What do you think about all of this? Obviously if a series is to be that lasting, it’s got to be based on solid plots, strong characters and skilled writing. But I think there’s more to it than that (or perhaps there are things that fall out from that). What are your thoughts?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Staying Power.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Marcia Muller, Michael Connelly, Peter Corris