Category Archives: Elly Griffiths

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 You Feel Like Trying Something New?*

trying-a-new-seriesNot long ago, I asked you to share your thoughts about authors who write more than one series. I wondered whether you actively look for other series by an author whose work you love. Many thanks to those of you who responded!

 

Now, let’s take a look at what you told me:

 

trying-an-authors-new-series

 

As you can see, of the 25 of you who responded, 10 of you (40%) told me you’re eager to try another series by an author whose work you really love.  That in itself isn’t an overwhelming majority. So, on the surface, it might seem that attachment to a particular author doesn’t make you rush out and try that person’s new series.

But then, I noticed something interesting. Of those who responded, 11 of you (44%) said that you actively look for a top author’s other series if that series is the sort of crime novel you like. What that suggests to me is that sub-genre (or style) of crime novel is at least as important (perhaps a bit more) as the fact that it’s an author you love. If you think about it, this means that 21 of you (84%) actively seek out a new series by an author you love. Admittedly, for many of you, that depends partly on the sort of series it is. Still, that’s a hint of some loyalty to your top authors.

But you’re not blindly loyal. You also think about what sort of book you want. What does this all mean? To me, it shows there are several factors that impact your decision of which series to read. One important factor is your feelings about the author. Another is your taste in crime fiction. In other words, it’s not just one thing that guides your decision making, even if that thing is your love for a particular author’s work. And that makes sense. Someone who really likes pitch-black noir might think twice before picking up a light, fun, ‘frothy’ cosy mystery, even if both books were by the same author.

And, consistent with that, 2 of you (8%), said that you actively seek out a new series by an author you love if it’s a similar sort of series (e.g. both PI series). This tells me that sub-genre also impacts what you’ll read.

What conclusions does this suggest? One conclusion that I’ve drawn is that your choices of what to read are affected by several factors. It’s not only a matter of whether or not you love a given author’s work. It’s more multidimensional than that. That said, though, it seems that your feelings about a given author do impact your reading choices. If you’ll notice, only 2 of you (8%) told me that your feelings for an author don’t influence your choice of what to read. What this means to me is that the impression an author leaves on you does matter. If that’s true, then I’ll bet you probably avoid a series by an author whose work you’ve really disliked. I don’t have the data to support that conclusion (yet), but that sort of finding wouldn’t be surprising, given what you told me about authors whose work you do like.

What might this mean for authors? If all of this reflects the way readers really make their choices (and remember, this is a very, very limited set of data), then it might suggest something about the sort of branching-out authors consider. Some authors, such as Elly Griffiths and Timothy Hallinan, have been quite successful writing two different sorts of series. The same is true for J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith, Kerry Greenwood, and others. But it is a risk. When two series are very different, readers might not be eager to make the move to the new series, even if they’re fans of that particular author. That’s not to say it’s impossible to have two very successful, but very different, series. Several authors have done so. But it takes planning, strong writing (of course!) and some luck.

What do you folks have to say about this? I’d really like your reactions. If you’re a writer, I’d really like to hear your thoughts on branching out to another series.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Jackson’s Breaking Us In Two.

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Filed under Elly Griffiths, Kerry Greenwood, Robert Galbraith, Timothy Hallinan

Ancient Minds, Ancient Lives*

relicsAs this is posted, it’s the 94th anniversary of Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb. That find taught us much about what life must have been like during Tutankhamen’s time, and that’s such an important aspect of archaeology. Whenever there’s a find, it’s not just the actual objects that matter. It’s also the windows they offer on life in a very different era. That, too, is fascinating.

We see that aspect of archaeology in quite a lot of crime fiction, and that’s not surprising. Finding out what life was like at another time is a sort of mystery in itself, so it makes sense that we’d see that theme in the genre. And that’s not to mention the monetary value of such discoveries, which can be considerable.

There are plenty of examples in crime fiction, too. For instance, fans of Agatha Christie will know that her second husband was an archaeologist, and that she accompanied him to the Middle East. The theme runs through a few of her stories, too, such as Murder in Mesopotamia. In that novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Louise Leidner, who is killed one afternoon in her room. She has accompanied her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, on a dig a few hours from Baghdad, and all the members of the excavation team come under suspicion. At one point, there’s a discussion of the value of what the team finds. It comes out that Dr. Leidner is a lot more interested in pottery and other daily-use objects than in gold. And it’s only partly because he has to pay the workers much more if they find gold. As much as anything, it’s because pottery and other such objects really show what life was like.

In Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man, we are introduced to archaeologist Harry Steadman. He’s a professor at Leeds University, until an inheritance frees him to do what he wants. And what he wants is to excavate Roman ruins in Yorkshire. He goes through the process of getting the necessary permissions, hoping that he will make some noteworthy finds. But instead, he is killed by blunt force trauma. DCI Alan Banks and his team investigate, and find several leads. For one thing, there are those who didn’t want the victim doing any digging. For another, there are the inevitable academic politics at Leeds. And those aren’t the only possibilities. It’s a complex case, and as Banks works through it, he learns that Steadman wasn’t in it, as they say, for the money. He was genuinely fascinated by what he might learn about life in Roman Britain.

Fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway will know that she is a forensic archaeologist associated with North Norfolk University. In The Crossing Places, the first of this series, she is asked to lend her expertise when a set of remains is discovered. DCI Harry Nelson suspects that the bones may belong to Lucy Downey, who disappeared ten years earlier, and he wants confirmation of his theory. But Galloway can’t provide that. The bones turn out to be much, much older than ten years. In fact, they belong to an Iron Age child. In one plot thread of this novel, that find spurs Galloway to arrange for an excavation in the place where the bones were found. She’s hoping to learn more about the people who lived in the area at that time. Even small things such as a bead bracelet can provide fascinating information, so it’s no wonder she’s eager to dig. Those Iron Age remains don’t really solve the Lucy Downey case. But they do give a perspective on the search to find out about life in different times.

We also see that in Kate Ellis’ series featuring DS (later, DI) Wesley Peterson and his friend, Neil Watson. Watson is an archaeologist who, in The Merchant House, has discovered a four-hundred-year-old home that originally belonged to a wealthy merchant named John Banized, and his wife, Elizabeth. The dig team has only six weeks to learn what they can from the place, because the area is set to be developed as a block of new residences. In the process of their excavation, Watson’s team unearths a pair of skeletons in the basement of the house. As they wait to get forensic information, Watson searches for a diary that Banized kept. He’s learned that it was passed on from generation to generation. So, if he can find a modern-day descendent of the family, he may learn much about life during Banized’s era. That story unfolds as Peterson also investigates a modern-day mystery – the murder of a young woman.

There’s also Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte mysteries. Tayte is a genealogist, so his stock in trade is tracing families’ lineage. And as he does, he often finds letters and other everyday objects that throw light on the past. That’s what happens, for instance, in In The Blood. He’s hired by wealthy businessman Walter Sloane to trace his wife’s lineage as a gift for her. The trail leads to Cornwall, and Tayte gets the ‘green light’ to go there and follow up on the leads he’s found. He finds that Sloane’s wife has modern-day distant kin in England, but they don’t seem eager at all to help him put the pieces of the puzzle together. In the meantime, we meet Amy Fallon, whose husband Gabriel was lost two years earlier in a storm. Just before he died, he told Amy that he’d found out a secret. He never got the chance to tell her what that secret was, but construction on their house has revealed it. There’s a hidden set of steps that leads down to secret basement. In the basement is a very old, carved, wooden writing box with a love letter in it. Fallon tries to find out who might have owned the box, and her trail leads her to Tayte. Each in a different way, they find out the truth about things that happened hundreds of years earlier, just from an everyday writing box.

There are even thrillers, such as Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk, that involve excavations. In that novel, neuroscientist Edward Armstrong is hired by a breakout biotechnology company called Genetrix. The goal is for him to develop a new anti-depression medication. He meets and falls in love with a nurse, Kimberly Stewart, whose family owns a house that’s several hundred years old. In the process of renovating the house, she discovers ergot growing in the old basement. That discovery provides answers to some bizarre questions haunting her family. And it opens up real possibilities for Armstrong’s research. But it also has frightening consequences.

There’s just something about discovering very old objects. They give a window on what life was like during a particular time. And they add to our knowledge. Little wonder there’s so much interest in them.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s You Can Make History (Young Again).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elly Griffiths, Kate Ellis, Peter Robinson, Robin Cook, Steve Robinson

Have Myself a Home Life*

HomeLifeAbout a week ago, we had a really interesting discussion about domestic scenes and home life in crime fiction. At the time, I asked you what your preference is regarding those scenes. Do you prefer books that have them? Books that don’t? Does it matter?

With warm thanks to those of you who voted, here’s what I found.

 

Home Life Preferences

 

One of the interesting things about these findings is that those of you who expressed a preference were more or less evenly split between those who prefer a lot of domestic scenes, and those who prefer few, if any. Four of you (22%) prefer crime novels with such plot layers; three of you (17%) prefer crime novels that have few, if any, of them.

To me, this means that there isn’t really a mandate one way or the other. That inference gets support from the major finding here. Eleven of you (61%) told me you have no preference with regards to scenes of domestic life, so long as the focus of a story is on the plot.

I admit these findings don’t really surprise me. Today’s crime fiction readers want a solid plot that makes sense and keeps them engaged. In fact, the findings are similar to what you told me not long ago about books that you don’t finish. Of the reasons you might not finish a book, about 30 of the 76 votes (some 39%) were plot problems (plodding story and too much suspension of disbelief). So it makes sense to me that, for the majority of you, a plot that’s interesting and keeps you engaged is more important than other factors.

And yet, let’s not forget that 15 of you (83%) in this poll told me that you either don’t mind domestic scenes (so long as the focus is on the plot), or outright prefer them. To me, this means that character development (of which domestic life is a part, I’d argue) is important to you.

The key to all this, as it so often is) seems to be the way the author handles it. If the author weaves those scenes in, so that the plot is still the focus, then home life can add layers of character development and even sub-plots to a story.

Everyone has a different definition of how that’s accomplished, and who (among authors) does it well. But here are a few examples you’ve mentioned: Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series; Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe series; Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series; and Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series. There are many others, too, of course.

What’s your take on this? Got any final thoughts about the topic? If you’re a writer, I’d really be interested in your thought process on how much domesticity to include.

Thanks again to all of you who participated. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go do the dishes and some laundry. Then I have a family dinner to plan…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mayer’s Home Life.

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Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, Reginald Hill

Prove My Hypotheses*

ResearchOne of the things that academic types do is research. Even if you’re not an academic, I’ll bet you’ve had your own experience with research. Writers do it when they’re planning books. Attorneys do it when they’re mapping out their strategies. Medical people, of course, do it, too. Chefs, accountants, and teachers research as well. Almost whatever profession you’re in, you sometimes need to do research.

There are, of course, lots of different kinds of research, and the kind one chooses depends on one’s field, one’s question and so on. But basically, research is a matter of observing something, asking a question about it, forming a hypothesis, and gathering and making sense of relevant data. Not everyone uses those terms, but it’s a very similar process no matter what you want to know.

Research plays an important role in crime fiction, too. And that shouldn’t be surprising, since it’s an important part of learning new things in real life. You could even argue that sleuths are researchers.

But even if you don’t accept that argument, there’s plenty of research underway in the genre. For example, one of the characters in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours) is Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He has a devoted wife, Gerda, and two healthy children. He has plenty of patients and is well-respected. He has a mistress, Henrietta Savarnake, who, in her own way, loves him. And yet, his main focus in life isn’t really any of that. He is passionate about understanding and finding a cure for Ridgeway’s Disease. For Christow, finding the right combination of drugs to combat the illness is much more important than just about anything else. It’s not because he’s particularly noble, either, or that he’s bent on achieving glory. He just wants to have the answer. One weekend, he and Gerda, among other guests, are invited to visit the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and is invited for lunch on the Sunday. When he arrives, he sees what he things is a tableau set up for his ‘amusement’ – Christow has been shot and is lying by the pool. But it only takes a moment to see that it’s all too real. At first, the case looks very clear-cut, but as Poirot and Inspector Grange soon discover, it’s both simpler and more complex than they think.

If you read medical mysteries and thrillers such as those by Michael Palmer and Robin Cook, you’ll know that many of them feature characters who are engaged in medical research. And sometimes, the research raises some really important ethical questions (e.g. just because we can do something, does that mean we should?). Cook has also explored questions of whether certain research should be conducted.

Legal research is no less demanding, and is an essential when one’s working on a case. And it’s surprising what a legal researcher can sometimes find. For instance, in Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case (Der Call Colliini), we are introduced to a young Berlin attorney, Caspar Leinen. He’s taking his turn on standby duty for legal aid when he gets a call from the local examining magistrate. Fabrizio Collini has been arrested for murder. He went to the Hotel Adon where he shot one of the guests, Jean-Baptiste Meyer. Collini has said almost nothing since the incident, and makes no attempt to defend himself. So if he’s to do his job defending his client, Leinen will have to do some research. In the weeks and months that follow, Leinen looks into the background of both the accused and the victim. That research pays off when he discovers that this whole case turns on an obscure point of German law. In this case, the legal research Leinen turns out to be immeasurably valuable.

In Elly Griffith’s The House at Seas End, a team of archaeologists is doing a study of coastal erosion near the village of Broughton Seas End. In the course of their work, the team members find six skeletons. Ruth Galloway, forensic anthropologist at North Norfolk University, is called in to help learn as much as possible about the remains. It turns out that the skeletons all belong to murder victims. What’s more, they aren’t English murder victims. Now Galloway gets involved in the process of finding out who the victims were, when they died, and how they ended up at Broughton Seas End.

And then there’s Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective, in which we are introduced to Edinburgh Ph.D. candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill. He’s an oceanographer and an expert on wave patterns. In one plot thread of this novel, he’s using both his connections with fellow oceanographers and his expertise to find out what happened to his grandfather Uilliam. Years earlier, Uilliam was on a fishing trip when he disappeared. It was always said he was washed overboard, and Cal wants to find out the truth about it. So he researches the tidal patterns in the area as well as what he learns about his grandfather’s past to trace Uilliam’s probable location when he went missing, and to find out what happened to his body.

There are a lot of other examples of ways in which research plays a part in crime fiction The process of noticing something, asking a question, forming hypotheses about it, and testing them is a natural for the genre. Am I right, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Death Cab For Cutie.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elly Griffiths, Ferdinand von Schirach, Mark Douglas-Home, Michael Palmer, Robin Cook