Category Archives: Elizabeth Spann Craig

Oh, Let’s Go Back to the Start*

In a recent post, crime writer and fellow blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig made an interesting point about taking a story full circle. She suggested that one way to do this is to end a story by going back to the beginning. For instance, her Pretty is as Pretty Dies begins one morning at the home of Myrtle Clover. She’s a retired teacher who isn’t ready to be ‘put out to pasture’ yet. So, when she discovers the body of real estate developer Parke Stoddard in a local church, she can’t resist getting involved in the investigation, much to the chagrin of her son, who happens to be the local chief of police. As Myrtle starts to ask questions, she finds that there are plenty of people who had a good reason to want the victim dead. She was, to say the least, malicious and vindictive, and had alienated just about everyone in town. Myrtle discovers who the killer is, and in the final scene, is back at her home. In that sense, the story goes full circle, beginning and ending at Myrtle Clover’s home. But a lot of things have happened in the interim, and we see that as the final scene plays out.

And that’s one way in which that ‘full circle’ approach to storytelling can be useful. It allows the author to show character changes, but at the same time bring the story to some closure. And there are plenty of examples of how this works in crime fiction. Here are just a few.

In one of the very first scenes in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, sculptor Henrietta Savernake is in her studio, creating a piece for an upcoming show. We soon learn that she is one of several guests invited to spend a weekend at the home of some cousins, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Two of the other guests are to be Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife, Gerda; and for Henrietta, this makes the visit all the more special, since she is Christow’s mistress. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited for lunch, and arrives just after the murder. He and Inspector Grange work to find out who murdered Christow. At the very end of the novel, there’s another scene, again in Henrietta’s studio. It brings the story round to the beginning again, and shows some of what’s happened to Henrietta as a result of the events in the novel.

Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead more or less begins at the London home of forensic anthropologist David Hunter. He’s recovering from the physical and mental trauma he suffered as a result of events in Written in Bone, and now he’s preparing to leave for a trip to Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory, often called The Body Farm. For Hunter, this is a welcome trip, as he wants to get out of London for a time. He’s looking forward to doing some research as well as to renewing his acquaintance with his mentor, Tom Liebermann. Hunter arrives in Tennessee just in time to hear the news of the discovery of a decomposed body in a cabin not far from the laboratory. Hunter gets involved in the investigation, and it turns out to be a wrenching case. At the end of the novel, he returns to his London apartment. There’s a final scene in which he has a short conversation with the woman who lives in the flat above his. That conversation, and his return, really only take up a few sentences. But they bring the story back to the beginning to give some closure to it. And the scene shows some of what’s happened to Hunter in the course of the novel.

Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings is the first of her series featuring Victoria journalist Nell Forrest. As the story opens, she’s at the home she shares with two of her five daughters (the other three are adults who have their own homes). She gets a visit from the police, who inform her that there’s been a fire at her mother’s house, not far away. Nell’s mother, Lillian ‘Yen’ is safe, but the fire has done considerable damage. And the body of a man has been found in the garage. It turns out that this man is Dustin Craig, who lived next door to Yen. And it turns out that he was murdered before the fire started. Now, Yen is a suspect in a murder investigation. Nell doesn’t believe her mother is guilty. And there’s no lack of other suspects. So, she starts looking into the matter, and ends up getting into real danger. At the very end, there’s a scene where Nell is back at her home. She’s having a glass of wine with DS Ashley Armistead, who’s the official investigator on the case. In a way, the scene takes us back to the beginning of the novel. But it’s not the same Nell Forrest at the end, if I can put it that way. She’s learned a few things about herself, and sees the world a little differently.

And then there’s Donald Smith’s The Constable’s Tale. This story begins in 1758 in the British colony of North Carolina. Plantation owner Henry ‘Harry’ Woodyard is serving his term as a Royal Constable for Craven County. His work mostly involves breaking up drunken quarrels, levying fines on people who don’t attend church services, and catching petty thieves. Everything changes when Edward and Anne Campbell and their son are discovered brutally murdered at their home. Only their infant survived. On the surface, it looks like it might be the work of Indians. And, considering that this novel takes place during the Severn Years/French and Indian War, that wouldn’t be out of the question. But there are hints that that might not be what happened. A broach found at the murder scene provides a clue, and Woodyard decides to follow up on it. He believes that if he can find its owner, he can find the killer. So, he starts to follow the trail. In fact, it leads on a four-month journey all the way into Canada. In the end, though, Harry finds that the truth is closer to home than he would have imagined. The last scene in the novel has him back in Craven County, getting ready to resume his duties. He’s gone through some changes, though, and Smith makes that clear.

And that’s one of the advantages of using this sort of plot structure. Going back to the beginning can help the reader see how a character has grown or changed. It also allows the author to ‘tie up’ the novel and give some closure to it. Thanks, Elizabeth, for the inspiration.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Coldplay’s The Scientist.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donald Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ilsa Evans, Simon Beckett

Watching My Favorite Reality Show*

I’ll bet you’ve watched at least some of them. They can be addictive, even as you admit they’re not exactly edifying. Yes, I’m talking about TV competitions and reality shows. They’re everywhere, and they cover all sorts of topics. There’s MasterChef Australia, Power Couple, The Chase, Cash Cab, Survivor, and The Bachelor, to name just a few.

They’ve found their way into crime fiction, too, and that’s not surprising. All sorts of things can go on when the camera is turned off. And there’s the suspense and tension of the competition, too. And that’s to say nothing of the stress of the ‘ratings war.’ So, it’s little wonder that we see those shows in the genre.

In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Delicious and Suspicious, we are introduced to Lulu Taylor, who owns Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, one of Memphis’ popular restaurants. Aunt Pat’s has a chance at television fame (and the resulting increase in sales) when Rebecca Adrian, food critic for the Cooking Channel, visits. She’s in Memphis to search for the best barbecue restaurant in the city, and Aunt Pat’s is a strong contender. It’s exciting to think of the possibilities that the fame will bring, but Adrian is, to say the least, not a pleasant guest. She alienates nearly everyone. Still, Taylor makes certain that she serves the very best the restaurant can provide. Only hours later, Adrian dies of what turns out to be poison. And it’s not long before gossip starts about Aunt Pat’s. Mostly in order to clear her restaurant’s name, Taylor starts asking questions to find out who the killer really is.

Isis Crawford’s A Catered Christmas features a cooking competition on a popular local television show. The Hortense Calabash Cooking Show has invited five local caterers to compete on the show. One of those companies is A Little Taste of Heaven, which is run by sisters Bertie and Libby Simmons. It’s an exciting chance at important publicity, so the Simmons sisters get to work planning what they will cook. Then, on the day of the competition, an oven on the show’s set explodes. The blast kills Hortense, and of course, puts an end to the competition. The natural conclusion is that one of the five competitors must have been responsible. But it’s not the only possibility, and it turns out that Hortense had plenty of enemies. So, the Simmons sisters have a number of possible suspects as they look for answers.

A reality show turns very, very creepy in Ian Rankin’s Dark Entries, a graphic novel illustrated by Werther Dell’Edera, and featuring John Constantine, from the Hellblazer series. In this novel, Constantine (a paranormal investigator) is hired by the staff of Haunted Palace. That’s a reality show in which young contestants are trapped in a ‘haunted house.’ The only way to win is to get into a hidden room and claim the prize. This group of contestants has been bothered by visions and other scary incidents, but they aren’t the ones that the show’s staff have rigged. It seems, instead, that these young people are seeing these visions themselves. Constantine’s been engaged to find out who, or what, is behind the eerie events, before anyone is killed…

Max Allan Collins has written two novels featuring a sort-of reality show called Crime Seen! The host, former sheriff J.C. Harrow, tracks down criminals with the help of tips and information from viewers. In the first, You Can’t Stop Me, the show’s team uncovers a dangerous murderer who just might have been the one who killed Harrow’s family, and got him started with the show. In the second, No One Will Hear You, Harrow is about to wrap up the show, which was never intended to be a permanent fixture. But then, a killer sends a grotesque ‘demo tape,’ challenging the show’s crew to spotlight him. At the same time, there’s another killer at work, too. So, instead of ending production, the team has no choice but to try to find the killers before more people die.

And then there’s Douglas Lindsay’s We Are the Hanged Man. Met DCI Robert Jericho is ‘volunteered’ by Superintendent Dylan to participate as a consultant on a reality show called Britain’s Got Justice. In this show, contestants compete as apprentice police officers, and Jericho is to be one of the experts/judges. As it is, Jericho isn’t particularly interested in doing the show. He’s got other cases and concerns on his mind, and he’s not a big fan of reality television to begin with. Everything changes, though, when one of the contestants, Lorraine, ‘Lo’ Allison, goes missing. At first, it’s suspected that she simply decided to drop out of the competition, and gave no warning. But soon enough, it’s shown that she wanted to win as much as anyone else does. So, the police start a missing person search, and, since Jericho’s been involved with the show, he takes a major part in it. Among other things, this novel takes a cynical look at reality television, its creators, and the people who watch it.

And that’s the thing. A lot of people do watch this sort of TV, even at the same time as they acknowledge that it’s not exactly highbrow. And it can make for a very effective context for a crime novel. Do you ever watch reality/unscripted shows? What’s the draw if you do?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pascale Picard’s That is the Matter.

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Filed under Douglas Lindsay, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ian Rankin, Isis Crawford, Max Allan Collins, Werther Dell’Edera

Gone to Carolina in My Mind*

Have you ever been to North Carolina? Perhaps you live (or have lived) there? It’s a beautiful place, with an interesting mix of cosmopolitan, (sub)urban areas, beaches, and small towns. There are plenty of very rural places, too. And North Carolina is rich with history, beginning before the state was a colony.

On the surface, it’s a lovely, peaceful state. But just look at crime fiction, and you’ll see that a lot can happen, even in a friendly, small town or lovely city. As this is posted, it’s the birthday of North Carolina’s own James Taylor. So, what better time to share some fine North Carolina-based crime fiction?

For those who enjoy cosy mysteries, there are two series by North Carolina author Elizabeth Spann Craig. One features retired teacher Myrtle Clover. She lives in the small town of Bradley, where her son, Red, is chief of police. Myrtle may be retired, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be put out to pasture, as the saying goes. Much to her son’s chagrin, Myrtle gets very interested when there’s a murder, and likes to do her own sleuthing. She’s fairly good at it, too. She knows almost everyone in town, and, since she’s a ‘harmless old lady,’ she can go places and hear things that the police might not. Spann Craig’s other series features Beatrice Coleman, a retired art expert who moves to the small town of Dappled Hills for some peace and quiet after a busy career. That’s not what she gets, though. Through her association with the Village Quilters, Beatrice gets to know a lot of people in town – and gets involved in more than one murder investigation.

North Carolina has some prestigious universities and colleges, too. And Sarah R. Shaber gives us a look at higher education in that state with her Simon Shaw series. Shaw is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, who could have had his pick of any of the US’s top institutions. But he’s chosen to work at Kenan College, a small but selective and well-regarded school in a typical ‘college town.’ Shaw couldn’t imagine living and working anywhere but the South, and there’s plenty for him to do. As I say, there’s rich history in the state, and Shaw’s interested in a lot of it. For instance, in the first of this series, Simon Said, he’s works with an archaeologist friend to find out the truth about a long-buried set of remains that’s found on the old Bloodworth property. Part of it’s been deeded to the college, but that gift won’t go through without an investigation. So, Shaw looks into the family history to discover who the victim might have been, and who would have wanted to commit that murder.

Another look at North Carolina’s history comes from Donald Smith’s The Constable’s Tale, which takes place in 1758.  Plantation owner James Henry ‘Harry’ Woodyard is serving his term as a Royal Constable for Craven County. Usually, that’s mostly a matter of breaking up drunken quarrels, catching petty thieves, and other small crimes. Everything changes when the bodies of Edward and Anne Campbell and their son are discovered. It looks like a sort of ritual killing, and that it might have been the work of local Indians. And that’s not impossible, considering this story takes place during the Seven Years (French and Indian) War. Soon enough, an Indian named Comet Elijah is arrested for the crime. Woodyard’s known the man for a long time, and cannot imagine him committing these murders. And there are other possibilities, too. For instance, why was a brooch engraved with Masonic symbols found at the scene? Campbell wasn’t a Mason, so there has to be another explanation. Woodyard takes an interest in the case, and, despite pressure from the Craven County authorities to accept the obvious solution, he finds out the real truth. Besides the mystery at the core of the novel, readers also get an interesting look at life in North Carolina during its colonial history.

Barbara Neely offers readers another perspective on modern North Carolina. In Blanche on the Lam, we meet professional housekeeper Blanche White. Originally from New York, White moved to North Carolina, and, as the series begins, works for a housekeeping agency. Her job means that she gets a very intimate look at her clients’ lives. That’s especially true because she is black, while most of her clients are white. They tend to see her as ‘the help,’ rather than as an individual. That attitude makes her almost invisible, which is very helpful as she investigates. Two of the novels (Blanche on the Lam, and Blanche Passes Go) take place in North Carolina, so readers get a sense of the setting. Along with that and the mystery plots, this series offers a close (and not always comfortable) look at race relations and social structure.

And then there’s John Hart’s The Last Child, which is set in contemporary small-town/rural North Carolina. Thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon has been devastated since his twin sister, Alyssa, went missing a year ago. He hasn’t stopped looking for her, although his mother has all but given up hope. He has a map, a bicycle, and a plan, and is determined to find Alyssa, or at least, her body. One day, Johnny’s skipping school, spending time at a local river, when he witnesses a car accident on the bridge over the river. A man’s body hurtles towards him, landing nearby. The man dies but not before telling Johnny,
 

‘‘I found her…the girl that was taken.’’
 

This gives Johnny hope that Alyssa may still be alive, and he renews his search. Detective Clyde Hunt has also been looking for the girl, and is afraid of the trouble Johnny may find if he keeps looking on his own. Still, he respects the boy’s motives and effort, and he tries, in his own way, to help. Each in a different way, he and Johnny pick up the search for Alyssa, and relate it to the unknown dead man, and to another disappearance.

See what I mean? North Carolina is physically beautiful, with lots of rich history and interesting places. But safe? Well….

ps. The ‘photos were taken on Emerald Isle, in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. See? Lovely!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from James Taylor’s Carolina in My Mind.

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Filed under Barbara Neely, Donald Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, John Hart, Sarah R. Shaber

Listen to the Auctioneer*

auctionsHave you ever been to an auction? They can be a lot of fun, whether or not you’re actually bidding on something. And sometimes, you can find a very good deal on something you really like. Auctions have their own kind of tension, too, as the items are described and the bidding starts. That’s one reason they can be such good backgrounds for scenes in novels, or even for contexts.

They’re quite varied, too. There are charity auctions, fun auctions (at street fairs, for instance), and silent-bid auctions. There are also, of course, extremely exclusive, high-bid auctions for ultra-expensive items. So, an author has flexibility when it comes to weaving an auction into a book.

Auctions bring a lot of disparate people together, and that can be part of their appeal, both in real life and as a tool for the writer. Wherever you have a group of people, you can have conflict and tension. And that can add much to the suspense of a story.

For instance, in Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Going, Going, Gone, an auction turns out to be murderous. Atwood Taylor’s sleuth, Asey Mayo, takes his cousin, Jennie, to a local auction. Wealthy John Aiden has died, and the story is that he hid a lot of cash among his things. If that’s true, any of the items up for bid could have a lot of money in them. Aiden’s brother, Gardner, pays the unusually high price of three thousand dollars (the story takes place during WWII) for an old chest that’s supposed to contain books. But the key’s gone and the chest is locked. Mayo, being a local handyman, among other things, has a lot of different sorts of keys, and he’s asked to help open the chest. When it is finally opened, everyone’s shocked to see the body of Solatia Spry, who is said to be the local antiques ‘eyes and ears’ for a wealthy California client. Now, Mayo gets drawn into the investigation, and it turns out that more than one person had a very good motive for murder.

John Grant, who wrote as Jonathan Gash, wrote a series of mysteries featuring Lovejoy, an antiques expert and dealer. He’s got more than his share of faults, but Lovejoy knows an antique’s value. He what he does, and is passionate about antiques. And he’s gotten to know many of the other people in the field, as it’s a small community, so to speak. He attends his share of auctions, where he picks up on a lot of the gossip going around that community. In fact, in The Judas Pair, that’s one strategy he uses to try to track down a mythical (or is it?) pair of flintlocks called the Judas Pair. George Field wants Lovejoy to find these guns, because one of them was used to shoot his brother, Eric. Lovejoy’s not even sure they really exist, but he agrees to see what he can do. He puts the word out among his friends in the business, and starts going the rounds of the auctions. He soon learns that the guns actually do exist, and that someone really did use one of them to kill Eric Field. The closer Lovejoy gets to the truth, the more danger there is for him.

Tony Hillerman’s People of Darkness features his sleuth, Navajo Tribal Police Officer Jim Chee. In one part of this novel, Chee is looking for a man named Tommy Charley, who may have information on a case he’s investigating. He’s told that Charley will be attending a rug auction at a local elementary school, so he changes plans and goes. The auction itself doesn’t solve the case, but Chee does get some information. And, he meets a teacher there named Mary Landon, whom fans will know as Chee’s love interest for part of the series. The auction scene also gives readers a look at smaller, local auctions where you can find truly beautiful, handmade items that you can’t get at more ‘touristy’ or big-budget places.

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide features a charity dinner and art auction hosted by Memphis-area socialite and beauty pageant coach Tristan Pembroke. The evening is to be a benefit event, but Tristan is hardly a kind, generous person. She’s vindictive, malicious, and motivated only by self-interest. Still, plenty of people attend. One of the artists whose work will be featured is Sara Taylor. She’s already had a serious argument with Tristan about one of the paintings, but she can use the recognition (and money) that comes from being featured at the auction. When Sara’s mother-in-law, restaurant owner Lulu Taylor, discovers Tristan’s body that evening, Sara becomes the most likely suspect. Lulu knows she’s innocent, so she starts asking questions. And, as you’d imagine, she finds plenty of people who are not upset by Tristan Pembroke’s death.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s The Gifted, which features her sleuth, political scientist and (now-retired) academician Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. Her daughter, Taylor, has real artistic talent and passion, and has been invited to include some of her work in an upcoming charity art auction to be held in aid of Regina’s Racette-Hunter Centre. She’s only fourteen, and her parents aren’t entirely sure she’s ready for all the recognition this event could bring her. But they give permission for her to go ahead with her work. Taylor’s already shown her parents one of the pieces that she’ll present at the auction. The other, though, she keeps secret. And that painting proves to have tragic consequences for several people.

Auctions bring together people from all over, and they can be fun and exciting. But they can also be tense, and full of suspense. Little wonder we see them in the genre.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REM’s Auctioneer (Another Engine).  

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Filed under Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, John Grant, Jonathan Gash, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Riley Adams, Tony Hillerman

I Couldn’t Sleep at All Last Night*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 
 

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

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