Category Archives: Elly Griffiths

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

Yours is so Distinctive*

Distinctive SeriesThe thing about crime fiction is that there’s a lot of it. Every year, new novels are released, too. All of this means that nobody can read all of the crime fiction that’s out there. And yet, despite all of the options and all of the reading we do, there are some series that really seem to stand out. There’s something about those series that makes them unique. I’m not talking here of just an interesting plot and characters; any well-written crime series has those. I’m talking more of something special that sets those series apart.

In some cases, it’s a unique sort of sleuth. These are sleuths who are distinctive enough that if you see a caricature, you know exactly which sleuth it is. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is like that. He has enough eccentricities that he’s quite distinctive. And his personality and detection style are part of what set those stories apart.

One might say the same thing about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, too. Both of those detectives are distinct from other detectives, both in physical appearance and in their approaches to solving crime. So the novels featuring them stand out, too. This isn’t to say that that mysteries themselves aren’t interesting, or that there’s nothing else appealing about those series. Rather, it’s to say that those characters are important parts of what sets those series apart from others.

For some series, it’s the cultural context that sets them apart. We see that, for instance, in Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels. Both of those characters are members of the Navajo Tribal Police, and the Navajo Nation. So, many of these stories take place in that culture. In fact, Hillerman was awarded the distinction of being named ‘A Special Friend of the Navajo’ for his thoughtful and respectful, but honest, depiction of the Navajo.

Fans of Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder novels will know that that series, too, is set apart by its depiction of a unique culture. In this case, it’s the Amish of the US state of Ohio. Burkholder is chief of police in the small town of Painters Mill. She is also Amish by background, although she no longer lives that life. So readers get a look at the distinctive way of life of the Amish, and that’s part of what makes this series different to others.

Many readers like a strong sense of setting in their novels. And any well-written crime series gives the reader a sense of what it’s like to live in the place where the stories are set. But in some series, that sense of setting is distinctive. I’m thinking, for instance, of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels. Longmire is the sheriff for fictional Apsaroka County, Wyoming, so in those novels, readers get a real sense of rural Wyoming. The physical setting, the climate, and the people who live there are all depicted in these novels. That’s not to say there’s nothing else about the series that makes it worth reading. It is to say, though, that for fans of these novels, the setting is one factor that sets them apart.

That’s also arguably true of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway/Harry Nelson series. Galloway is a forensic anthropologist with the University of North Norfolk; Nelson is a local chief inspector. Among many other things that fans of this series enjoy, the setting is distinctive. As the novels go on, readers learn about the history of this part of East Anglia, and about the climate, geography, and so on that make the place unique. And, of course, there’s Cathbad…

Peter May’s Lewis trilogy takes place in the Lewis and Harris part of the Outer Hebrides. Right from the beginning, readers are placed there in terms of climate, geography and so on. Certainly the character and plot are part of what appeal to fans of May’s writing. But the setting is definitely one of the things that sets this trilogy apart. May’s depiction of setting is also really clear in his standalone Entry Island.

Another element that sets some series apart for readers is the depiction of a profession. In those cases, readers learn what it’s really like to be a lawyer/doctor/paramedic/etc. John Grisham’s novels, for instance, just about always focus on an attorney or a group of attorneys. So they give readers an ‘inside look’ at the life of an attorney. And what sets these novels apart is that they go beyond the TV-and-film stereotypes of what an attorney does. The same is arguably true of Robert Rotenberg’s novels.

Katherine Howell’s novels feature New South Wales police inspector Ella Marconi. But they also include major characters who are paramedics. Among the things that set these novels apart is the way they depict the life of a paramedic. Readers get to ‘go behind the scenes’ and really see what it’s like to become a paramedic, to do the job, and to live the life. It’s interesting to note, too, that Grisham, Rotenberg and Howell are all, or have been, members of the professions that feature in their stories. This may be just my opinion, but I think that lends something to their series. And that depiction of profession sets them apart.

Of course, these are just a few examples of ways in which a series can distinguish itself from all the good series out there. As you think about the series that most stand out for you, what is it about them that draws you? If you’re a writer, what do you find easiest to do to make your stories unique?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sense Field’s Voice.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Elly Griffiths, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Linda Castillo, Peter May, Rex Stout, Robert Rotenberg, Tony Hillerman

Friday Night Arrives Without a Suitcase*

LuggageAny sort of travel involves luggage. Whether it’s a small ‘weekend’ size bag, or the largest suitcase an airline allows, luggage reflects a lot about the person who owns it. For instance, some people pack very neatly…and some don’t. And people tend to pack things in a certain way, even given today’s tight restrictions on what passengers may bring aboard a flight.

And then there’s the matter of how much you pack. Some people pack very heavily, and bring everything that they might need. It means they have to check luggage and get it wherever they’re going, but it also means they’re prepared for a lot of eventualities. Others pack very light. That’s the way I am. I only bring exactly what I need, and I don’t check my luggage through – ever. That’s got its advantages and disadvantages, and it does raise some eyebrows. If you’ll indulge me, here’s one example. I recently returned from a (roughly) week-long trip to New Zealand. When I returned, I went through Customs and Immigration at Los Angeles.  After having my passport stamped, etc., I started to leave the secured area, since all I had brought was one small pilot-sized suitcase and my handbag. One of the security people came over to me and we had this conversation:
 

Security Officer: ‘Can I help you?’
Me: ‘Oh, no, thanks. I’m all done the process – just leaving.’
Security Officer: ‘But you have to get your checked luggage from the carousel, and that has to go through security, too.’
Me: ‘Thanks – I don’t have any checked luggage.’
Security Officer Looking at my suitcase and handbag: ‘Are you sure? Because if you do, you’re going to have to get it and send it through security.’
Me: ‘No, this is all I have.’

 

The security officer was doing her job, and doing it courteously, but she must have wondered at a person who spends a week in another country and has so little luggage.

There are good reasons to be very careful about luggage. Don’t believe me? All you have to do is read some crime fiction. There are a lot of examples of luggage that turns out to contain all sorts of things.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is on board the famous Orient Express on a three-day trip through Europe. On the second night, Samuel Ratchett, one of the other passengers, is stabbed. At the request of Poirot’s friend M. Bouc, who is a director of the company that owns the train, he agrees to investigate. The idea is for him to find out who the killer is before the train reaches the next border, so that he can hand the murderer over to the police. At one point, it’s deemed appropriate to do a search of the passenger’s luggage, and it’s quite surprising what turns up in two particular suitcases…

In John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air, Professor Jake Landau is on a plane from Boston to New York with his friend and attorney Martin Ross. They’ve been working through the details of Landau’s divorce from his wife, and both are tired just from that process. All of that’s forgotten when a bomb goes off in the plane. Six passengers are killed, including Ross. Landau survives, and decides to try to find out who killed his friend. The only problem is, he’s stymied right from the beginning by airline policy and FBI security regulations. But Landau persists, and finds out that the bombing is related to a powerful and far-reaching drugs ring. And how did the bomb get on the airplane? In a suitcase that’s later stolen by the bomber just before he is killed, too. As an aside, this novel was published in 1970, long before today’s luggage screening protocols. Crime writers who write contemporary crime novels would find it difficult to re-create that sort of scenario.

Megan Abbott’s historical novel Bury Me Deep is the story of Marion Seeley, whose doctor husband Everett has to leave the country when his cocaine habit costs him his medical license. He sees that his wife is set up in an apartment in Phoenix, with a clerical job at the prestigious Werden Clinic. At first, all goes well enough. Marion settles in and forms friendships with a Werden nurse, Louise Mercer, and Louise’s roommate Ginny Hoyt. Before she knows it, Marion is drawn into their world of parties, drugs, and dubious ‘friends.’ As she slips closer and closer to the edge, Marion gets more deeply involved in that world. It all leads to tragedy for those involved. Interestingly enough, this novel is loosely based on the 1933 case of Winnie Ruth Judd, who was accused of killing two of her friends. The bodies were later discovered in trunks that Judd took with her to Los Angeles after the murders…

In Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase, we are introduced to Copenhagen Red Cross nurse Nina Borg. One day she gets a call from her friend Karin Kongsted. She wants Nina to go to the train station and pick up a suitcase that’s waiting in one of the lockers. She seems upset about the suitcase, but won’t tell Nina what’s wrong, nor why she needs the suitcase. Nina agrees to get the luggage and goes to the train station. To her shock, she finds that the suitcase contains a three-year-old boy. He’s drugged and dazed, but he is alive. Immediately she tries to reach Karin, but she can’t make contact. In the meantime, Sigita Ramoškienė, a young Lithuanian mother, faces every parent’s worst nightmare when her three-year-old son Mikas goes missing. The police aren’t very helpful; in fact, they suspect her of having something to do with Mikas’ disappearance. So she determines to find out on her own what happened to him. The trail leads her to Copenhagen, and it’s not long before we learn that the three-year-old boy that Nina Borg found is, in fact, Mikas. Now, each in her own way, Sigita and Nina work to find out who abducted Mikas and why. In the end, and after a brutal murder, they discover the truth.

And then there’s Elly Griffiths’ The Zig Zag Girl. It’s 1950, and magician Max Mephisto is on the circuit with other magicians, fortune-tellers, and other carnival people. He’s called in to help when the body of a young woman is found at Brighton’s Left Luggage Department. The body has been cut up in what DI Edgar Stephens thinks is a macabre re-enactment of one of Mehpisto’s illusions. So he’s hoping Mephisto will have some insight into who might be responsible for the murder.

Of course, luggage doesn’t always contain such horrible things as bodies and bombs. For instance, in Anthony Bidulka’s Aloha Candy Hearts, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is visiting his partner Alex Canyon in Hawai’i. He’s at the airport, preparing for the return to Canada, when he meets an enigmatic stranger who turns out to be archivist Walter Angel. Angel slips a cryptic message, a lot like a treasure map, into Quant’s hand luggage before Quant boards his flight. Shortly afterwards, Angel is murdered. Quant follows up on the clue he was given, and connects the killing to some dark secrets right in his own Saskatchewan.

You see what I mean about luggage? You’ll want to be very careful about yours, and don’t leave it unattended…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Lady Madonna.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Anthony Bidulka, Elly Griffiths, John Alexander Graham, Lene Kaaberbøl, Megan Abbott