Category Archives: Fred Vargas

It’s Only Surreal*

SurrealMost crime fiction fans want their stories to ‘feel’ real – as though the characters in them might exist, and the events happen. It takes a deft hand to introduce elements of the surreal – or at least dreamlike unreality – into a crime novel and make it work.

And yet, there are ways in which it can be done. For example, I’ll bet you’ve read crime novels where a character is drugged (either for medical reasons or for another reason) and that drug affects her or his perceptions. There are other ways, too, in which an author can introduce that sort of unreality. And it certainly can add some interest to a story when it’s done well.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, patriarch Richard Abernethie dies suddenly, and his family members gather for his funeral. When the family members get together to hear the will, Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, blurts out that her brother was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up; she herself urges the rest to pay no attention to her. But privately, everyone does start to wonder. And when Cora herself is murdered the next day, everyone becomes certain she was right. The family solicitor, Mr. Entwhistle, visits Hercule Poirot, and asks him to look into the matter. Poirot agrees, and begins to investigate. Slowly, little pieces of the puzzle start to fall together, and one night, Poirot has a very strange dream about it. The dream itself is quite surreal, as many dreams are. But it gives him the answer to the puzzle. I see you, fans of Murder in Mesopotamia.

Fred Vargas’ novels featuring Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg often have elements of surrealism in them. For example, The Chalk Circle Man begins with a very odd phenomenon: someone’s been drawing circles made of blue chalk on the pavement in different parts of Paris. Various weird objects are found in them, and there seems no explanation at all. And then comes the day when one of those ‘objects’ is a body…  In The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Adamsberg is persuaded to travel from Paris to the small town of Ordebec at the request of Valentine Vendermot. Her daughter Lina has had a vision in which she’s seen the legendary Ghost Riders. As the story goes, they appear in the company of those who are going to die a violent death. And Lina has seen them in the company of locals she knows. She’s very disturbed by the vision, and that’s why her mother wants Adamsberg’s help. He goes to Ordebec to look into the story of the Ghost Riders, only to get caught up an odd murder investigation when one of the people Lina saw is killed. And then there’s the matter of Snowball the office cat, who is, of all things, an expert tracker… Fans of this series will tell you that all kinds of surreal things happen in it.

In Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer, we are introduced to newly-fledged lawyer Catherine Monsigny. She gets her chance for a real push to her career when Myriam Villetreix asks specifically for her. Villetreix has been arrested and charged in the murder of her wealthy husband, Gaston, and wants Monsigny (whom she met when she first came from Ghana to France) to defend her. A win in this case will open many proverbial doors, so Monsigny gets right to work to do the best job she possibly can. As it turns out, the town where the murder took place is not far from where a tragedy occurred in Monsigny’s own life. When she was a very small child, her mother was murdered, with Monsigny as the only witness. She remembers very little from that day, and what there is, is hazy at best. But as she spends time in that place, some of the pieces begin to fit together. And as the story goes on, she begins to have dreamlike, disjointed memories of the day of the murder. They are surreal, but gradually, they give her information about what really happened to her mother.

Fans of Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire series will know that he has more than one encounter with the Old Cheyenne. Some people call them ghosts; some call them visions. Still others simply think that they’re a case of Longmire’s mind ‘playing tricks,’ as the saying goes. Whatever they are, they seem to be there when Longmire especially needs their help. For instance, in The Cold Dish, they appear as Longmire is caught on a mountain in a life-threatening snowstorm. They don’t magically transport him to safety, but their presence keeps him going. Longmire is a pragmatic person, and not given to believing in ghosts. But he has come to accept the Old Cheyenne, however surreal they may seem.

In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest and her team investigate when Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins is murdered in Green Swamp Well. At first, the death is put down to the tragic consequences of a drunken quarrel. But Tempest begins to have her doubts. So she looks into the case more thoroughly. The closer she gets to the truth, the more risk there is for her, as some very dangerous people are threatened by what she discovers. It turns out that Doc’s death had nothing to do with a drunken quarrel. At one point, Tempest has what can only be described as a surreal encounter with Andulka Jangala, about whom many stories have been told, some stranger than others. Even Tempest admits that some of the stories must be myths, rather than truth.
 

‘…but what the hell: our mob have lost so many myths along the way, I couldn’t see any harm in inventing a few new ones.’
 

He is (or was) a real person, but he’s disappeared. Tempest isn’t even sure he’s still alive, but one of her friends, Meg Branbles, says that he is. And then Tempest finds out for herself.

And then there’s Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. That novel begins in 1984, when Kate Meaney is ten years old. She dreams of being a detective, and has even launched her own agency, Falcon Investigations. She spends a lot of time at the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center, looking for suspicious activity. One day, she disappears during a trip to sit entrance exams at the exclusive Redsppon School. A thorough search is undertaken, but no sign of her is found – not even a body. Twenty years later, a mall security guard named Kurt notices that the security cameras have recorded something very strange: the dreamlike image of a young girl who looks a lot like Kate did. He tries to find the child, but can’t locate her. Still, the image keeps showing up on his camera. One night, he meets Lisa Palmer, assistant manager at the mall’s music store. She remembers Kate; and, when Kurt tells her what he’s seen, the two begin an awkward sort of friendship. Each in a different way, the two go back to the past, and we learn what really happened to Kate.

Those dreamlike, surreal moments aren’t the sorts of things you’d expect to happen in real life. But when they’re well-written, those moments can add an interesting flair to a crime novel.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Innocence Mission’s Surreal.

  

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Craig Johnson, Fred Vargas, Sylvie Granotier

Man, What a Ride*

Car DangersSometimes, news stories are stranger than anything writers dream up. For instance, a Florida man has been arrested for allegedly throwing a live alligator through the window of a drive-through fast food restaurant. And yes, that’s a real story; you can read about it right here.

As I was thinking about that story, it occurred to me that this would mean that the man in question had to transport that alligator in his car. I’m no zoologist, but my guess is that that in itself was a dangerous thing to do.

And it all just goes to show that you never know what might happen when you get into a car. There are all sorts of crime-fictional examples of what I mean. Here are just a few of them.

In William Brittain’s short story Yellowbelly, two bank robbers, Bryce and Augie, are on the run after holding up the Royson Bank. They’re planning to hide for the night up in the mountainous desert of the US Southwest, but instead of emptiness, they find a small roadside café and garage called Yellowbelly’s. They stop to get some fuel and to get the car’s faulty air conditioning repaired. They stay as calm as possible, hoping that Yellowbelly Dobkins, the owner of the place, and Pete Muggeridge, who works there, won’t have heard the news about the heist they just pulled off. All goes smoothly enough at first. Then, while Bryce and Augie are in the café eating, the restaurant’s radio broadcasts the news of the robbery and complete descriptions of the thieves. Pete acts precipitously and is wounded; now he and Yellowbelly are more or less at the mercy of their visitors. Yellowbelly repairs the car, and in the morning, the two thieves leave. But there’s one thing they hadn’t planned on: Yellowbelly’s knowledge of the desert and its inhabitants. When Bryce and Augie drive off, they turn on the newly-repaired air conditioning, only to find that the more comfortable environment has lured out of hiding a rattlesnake that was left in the car. Here’s what Yellowbelly later says about it to a police officer:
 

‘‘…a snake ain’t very lively when it gets too hot…I figgered that thing’d stay down below the seat in the shade.
Course when the air conditioning brought the temperature down to his likin’, first thing old snake wanted to do was come out to see what was going on.’’
 

The snake’s curiosity certainly changes plans for the bank robbers.

And that’s not the only example of snakes in crime-fictional cars.  As John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 begins, Sonchai Jitpleecheep and his partner Pichai Apiradee of the Royal Thai Police are on a surveillance assignment. They’ve been following a grey Mercedes and, for a few moments, lose sight of it. By the time they see it again, it’s too late: the occupant, William Bradley, is dead. A closer look at the scene shows that the car is full of poisonous snakes, and that the victim probably died from their bites. And when Pinchai investigates a little further, one of the snakes bites him, too. Sonchai is determined to avenge the death of his police partner and ‘soul brother,’ so his interest in this case is as personal as it is professional.

Sometimes what’s found in cars is quite a different kind of animal. For example, in Donald Honig’s short story Come Ride With Me, a man named Gannon stops at the Quick Stop diner. He has a specific purpose in mind: to ‘borrow’ a car. He’s just committed a robbery that ended in murder, and needs a getaway vehicle. Gannon waits at the diner until he sees exactly the sort of fast, late-model car he wants. When the car’s owner, well-off Frank Carstairs, uses the diner’s telephone, Gannon sees his chance and hides in the back of the car. Carstairs gets in his car and Gannon takes him hostage. But as he soon learns, he’s picked the wrong car. Carstairs has an entirely different purpose for it.

In one plot thread of Ruth Rendell’s The Veiled One, DCI Reg Wexford learns that his daughter Sheila has been caught cutting wire fencing on government property as a part of a protest against nuclear development. She stays with Wexford and his wife Dora for a short time after the incident’s made public. One evening, Wexford goes outdoors to move Sheila’s car so he can put his own away. That’s when a bomb rigged underneath the car goes off. Wexford is thrown clear, injured but alive. There’s heavy damage to the house, too, but no-one else is hurt. Wexford spends some time recovering, which means his assistant Mike Burden takes on the ‘lion’s share’ of another investigation, this one of a woman whose body is found in a shopping mall’s parking garage.

And then there’s Fred Vargas’ Ghost Riders of Ordebec. In one plot thread of that story, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his team investigate a car fire. Wealthy and well-connected Antoine Clermont-Brasseur has been killed in what authorities discover is a case of arson. The official theory is that the victim was killed by a local firebug named Momo, who has a record of torching cars. But Momo claims he’s innocent, and there’s evidence to support him, too. Commissaire Adamsberg comes to believe Momo, and takes a very unusual course of action to try to prevent an innocent man from being convicted. In the meantime, Adamsberg’s team learn that there are several other people who had a motive for murder.

As you see, most of us don’t drive around with alligators in our cars. But that doesn’t mean that a car ride is always smooth and easy. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a drive myself. Care to join me???

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charlie Ryan’s Hot Rod Lincoln. Listen to that version and the other popular version, recorded by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, and see which you prefer.

 

 

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Filed under Donald Honig, Fred Vargas, John Burdett, Ruth Rendell, William Brittain

Very Strange*

Odd ThingsPeople tend to like things to make sense. When something is in a very odd place or doesn’t look as it normally does, we want to know why. And sometimes that feeling of ‘That’s funny, what’s that doing there?’ can get our curiosity roused. In fact, here’s what Isaac Asimov had to say on the subject:
 
‘The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny…”
 

It’s just as true in criminal investigation as it is in science, really. When something just doesn’t make sense or fit in, that’s often an important clue that something is going on. And in crime fiction, that often means a murder. Those odd things that just don’t make sense can also be important leads, too, so sleuths learn to pay attention to them.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, for instance, Commissioner Peterson breaks up a scuffle between a couple of local thugs and their would-be victim. The man they were targeting runs off, dropping a hat and a goose as he goes. Peterson picks up the goose and hat and goes on his way. He gives the goose to his wife, but when she starts to prepare it for cooking, she sees that there’s a jewel stuck in its craw. That’s, of course, a very odd place for a jewel to end up, and Peterson can’t make sense of it. So he takes it and the hat to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes makes quite a few deductions from the hat, and eventually, traces the gem back to its original source. The case isn’t quite as complicated as it sounds, but it all starts with one of those ‘That’s funny!’ moments.

Agatha Christie made use of those moments in several of her stories. In fact, Hercule Poirot often mentions how important it is that any theory of a crime account for every piece of the puzzle, however small. In Evil Under the Sun, for instance, notorious actress Arlena Stuart Marshall is strangled during a holiday she and her husband Kenneth are having at the Jolly Roger Hotel. For several reasons, Kenneth Marshall is an obvious suspect at first. But it’s proven that he couldn’t have committed the crime. So Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere. One of the important clues to the murder comes from something simple, but odd: a mid-morning bath. Anyone might take a bath, but oddly enough, no-one admits to it this time. It’s one of those funny things that don’t make sense. But it does once the puzzle is solved.

In Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body, we are introduced to the residents of the Convent of St. Anselm. One morning, Sister Mary Saint Anne seems to be missing from her bed at wake-up call. A search is made, and her body is soon discovered on the floor of the basement. At first it looks as though she had a tragic fall down the stairs. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that she was murdered. Berebury Inspector C.D. Sloan and his assistant, Constable William Crosby, begin the investigation. One of the funny things they discover is that the victim’s spectacles are missing. She wouldn’t likely have left her room, let alone go around the convent, without them. They aren’t anywhere near the body, and they aren’t among her possessions. Nor does anyone else at the convent have them. The question of where they are points the detectives into a very interesting direction…

Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series will know that all sorts of funny things happen in those novels. Just to give one example, in The Chalk Circle Man, Adamsberg and his team have a very odd case on their hands. Someone has been using blue chalk to draw circles on the pavement in different parts of Paris. What are those circles doing there? And why are such odd things found in some of them? It seems like the work of some mentally ill person. But then one day, a new circle is found – with a body in it. Now what seems like something just a little weird is a case of murder. As Adamsberg and his team work to find out who the killer is, there are two more murders. And it all starts with a funny circle of blue chalk.

Sometimes it’s just a very small thing that rouses curiosity. That’s what happens in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall.  Early one morning, Gurdial Singh is making his morning rounds, delivering copies of the Globe and Mail to his customers in Market Place Tower, one of Toronto’s exclusive addresses. One of his ‘regulars’ is popular radio host Kevin Brace. When Singh gets to Brace’s condominium, he notices something odd right away: the door is partway open. Curious, he knocks on the door. When Brace comes to the door, he says,
 
‘I killed her, Mr. Singh…I killed her.’
 

And he says nothing else. Singh goes in and, as he later tells police, he discovers the body of Brace’s common-law wife Katherine Torn in one of the bathtubs. The ensuing investigation turns out to be complicated and difficult, but Detective Ari Greene and his team eventually get to the truth. And it all really starts because of Singh’s sense of ‘That’s funny’ when he sees the door partly open.

Those moments really do get people curious, and sometimes it’s impossible to resist trying to find out why something is in an odd place, or something that ought to be there isn’t. It’s in our nature to want those odd things to make sense. And those little oddities can add much to a crime novel.

ps. The ‘photo is of a scarf I saw on a walk the other day. What was it doing there? How did it get there? There are, of course, a number of different possible explanations. But still…that’s funny.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Penny Lane.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catherine Aird, Fred Vargas, Isaac Asimov, Robert Rotenberg

We Have Come to Relate Many Stories*

Separate Plot ThreadsIn many crime novels, the focus is on one main case. There may be sub-plots related to the case, but the novel really features one major investigation. But there is some crime fiction where several cases come under investigation. A few have completely separate plot lines.

It takes a deft hand to do that sort of novel well, as it can be difficult to follow separate plot lines through effectively. And it can be tricky for the reader to keep the plot lines straight. But when it’s done well, this approach can add some richness to a story. What’s more, if you think about modern police precincts, for instance, it’s realistic. The police don’t usually have just one case going, and most PIs don’t, either.

Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories often take this format. For instance, in The Chinese Maze Murders, Judge Dee has been newly appointed as District Magistrate for Lan-fang, on China’s northwestern border. He soon discovers that the area is more or less run by a local tyrant Chien Mow, who expects Dee to serve as his puppet. This Dee will not do, so the first order of business is finding a way to best Chien Mow. With that completed, Dee takes on three major cases. One concerns a former blacksmith named Fang, whose daughter White Orchid has gone missing. Another has to do with a cryptic message left to the widow of the late Governor Yoo. She was told that if she was ever in need, she should bring the scroll with the message to the magistrate, who would help her interpret it. In the third case, retired general Ding Hoo-gwo has been murdered. His son, Ding Yee, has accused Woo Fang, Commander of the Board of Military Affairs, of the crime. But Woo says he’s innocent. So Judge Dee investigates this ‘locked room’ mystery to see who is responsible.

Fans of ‘ensemble’ police series such as Ed McBain’s 87the Precinct novels, Dell Shannon’s Luis Mendoza series, or Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series will know that these often feature more than one case at a time. For instance, in Vargas’ The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Adamsberg travels to the small town of Ordebec to investigate a series of strange events and a disappearance. At the same time, his team back in Paris is investigating the murder of the wealthy and well-connected Antoine Clermont-Brasseur. He was burned, along with his car, and the official theory is that a local arsonist named Momo is responsible, but he claims that he’s innocent. And Adamsberg is inclined to believe him. So along with solving the mysterious occurrences in Ordebec, Adamsberg and his team also look into Clermont-Brasseur’s death.

Tarquin Hall’s Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri and his team frequently have more than one case going at the same time. Much of their day-to-day business involves ‘vetting’ potential spouses for families who want to be sure their son or daughter is marrying the right person. So, for example, in The Case of the Missing Servant, Puri takes on the case of an attorney, Ajay Kasliwal, who’s been accused of rape and murder. But at the same time, he’s looking into the background of Ramesh Goel for the family of Goel’s intended bride Vimi Singla. He’s also investigating Mahinder Gupta at the behest of Brigadier Kapoor, whose granddaughter Tisca is planning to marry Gupta. These cases aren’t closely related to each other; they’re separate plot threads. But Hall explores all three. Fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe series will know that those novels, too, follow several cases, rather than just one mystery at a time.

Sometimes, authors explore separate plot threads even when the story doesn’t include an ensemble police or PI team. For example, Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective has two distinct plot threads. Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill is an Edinburgh oceanographer and Ph.D. student whose specialty is tides and wave motion. He’s using his expertise to find out the truth about his grandfather Uilliem, who disappeared during a sea voyage years earlier. The trail leads to ilean Isagaich Mor, Great Fishing Island, where his grandparents met, and where they lived until Uilliem’s disappearance. At the same time, readers follow the story of Preeti and Basanti, members of India’s Bedia group. They’ve agreed to become part of the sex trade for a few years, so that their families can earn money. They’re sent to Scotland where they’re separated. After a time, Basanti escapes from the people who brought her to Scotland, and goes looking for her friend. That’s how she finds McGill, who has expertise she thinks can help her find out what happened to Preeti. While both of these plot lines involve McGill, they are separate stories, really.

So are the two stories in Donna Malane’s Surrender. Diane Rowe is a Wellington-based missing person’s expert whose sister Niki was murdered a year before the events in this novel. When Rowe learns that James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson has been murdered in the same way, she wants to find out more. Not long before Snow was murdered, he confessed to having murdered Niki, and having been paid for it. Rowe reasons that if she finds out who hired Snow, she’ll learn who killed her sister. So one plot line in this novel is her search for the truth about Niki’s death. The other concerns a missing person case for which she’s been hired. Some human remains have been found in the Rimutaka State Forest, and Inspector Frank McFay wants Rowe to find out whose they are. These cases don’t really intermix, beyond the fact that Rowe investigates both. But they are both followed to their conclusions.

And that’s the thing about crime novels where more than one major plot thread is explored. When it’s done effectively, both (or all) stories are followed, so that the reader has a sense of conclusion. It’s not always easy to manage, but it can work quite well.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steeleye Span’s A Calling-On Song.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Dell Shannon, Donna Malane, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Robert Van Gulik, Tarquin Hall

You’ll Find it Takes Teamwork Every Time*

TeamworkIt’s very rare that an individual solves a crime, especially a crime as complex as murder, alone. And even in crime fiction from the classic and Golden Age years, there are plenty of examples of sleuths who work with a partner (e.g. Holmes and Watson, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and Poirot and Hastings). But since the advent of the more modern police procedural, we’ve seen a growth in crime fiction that follows not just one or two sleuths, but a whole team of them. These novels aren’t just stories of the crimes; they are also the stories of the groups of people who solve them. So they are arguably character studies as well as crime novels.

This kind of series can be a bit challenging to write. On the one hand, the author wants a group of interesting, perhaps even eccentric characters. On the other, it’s important to keep the focus on the mystery at hand. That balance isn’t always easy, but when it does work, the result can be memorable.

Beginning in 1956, Ed McBain published a long series of novels featuring the police of the 87th Precinct. Although Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer and Bert Kling appear most frequently in this series, it’s really about many other people at the precinct, too. The various characters have their eccentricities and foibles, but they work together as a team, and each one brings something to that team. The series is a long one, and there are several story arcs throughout it that involve the personal lives of the various detectives. But that said, the focus in these novels really is the cases at hand.

Shortly after the 87th Precinct series got underway, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö began their ten-novel Martin Beck series. Starting with Roseanna, this series follows Beck and his Stockholm homicide team as they go about their work. The novels do include story arcs that deal with the characters’ personal lives, and we get to know them as people. They have their eccentricities, as we all do, and they certainly don’t always see eye to eye. But they do work as a team, and they know they depend on each other. Fans will know that Sjöwall and Wahlöö used this series as a way to critique Swedish government and society. Even so, the novels keep their focus on the crimes that are the focus of the novels. The plots don’t tend to get lost, if I may put it that way.

The same might be said of Reginald Hill’s series featuring Superintendent Andy Dalziel and his team. Beginning with 1970’s A Clubbable Woman, this series follows Dalziel, his assistant, Peter Pascoe, and the various members of their team. On one level, many of the sub-plots and story arcs follow the characters’ personal lives. We get to know their backgrounds, and we see them as people. They’re in some ways a very disparate group, too, so it’s interesting to see how they interact. They don’t always agree; and sometimes, there’s real tension among them. And yet, they do respect each other, and each one adds to the team’s collective ability. That’s arguably why Dalziel supports them as he does. Part of what has made this series so successful is arguably the way in which the characters develop, and their personal stories. But Hill also didn’t lose sight of the mysteries at hand in these novels. The real focus is the set of cases that the team investigates.

One of the most eccentric groups of detectives is the one supervised by Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. His team includes Danglard, a ‘walking encyclopedia’ who drinks far more white wine than you’d think judicious; Mercadet, who deals with narcolepsy; and Betancourt, a naturalist who interacts more effectively with animals than with people. There’s also (in a few novels) Snowball the office cat. These are very disparate characters, and their personal stories are woven through the series. In several story arcs, we learn about their backgrounds and their home lives. They certainly don’t always agree on things, but they do know that they depend on each other and their boss. And Adamsberg knows he depends on his team. These particular characters may not be conventional, but they get the job done. While the stories in this series do include character development, their focus is the mysteries that the team solves.

More recently, Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series also shows how a disparate team of people work together to solve crimes. Montalbano may get irritated with one or another (or even a few) members of his team from time to time. And each member has weaknesses and personal foibles. But all of the team members know that they depend on each other. They’re quite a motley crew, as the saying goes. But they each bring something to the team, and everyone knows that, especially Montalbano. There are story arcs and sub-plots that explore the personal lives of some of the team members, and Camilleri fleshes out the characters. But the focus here, as it is in the other series I’ve mentioned, is the plots – the actual cases.

Thus far I’ve discussed police teams, but there are also plenty of examples of this sort of teamwork outside the police station, too. For example, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features Chapman, who lives and has her bakery in a distinctive Melbourne building. But the stories are most definitely not just about her. Several other people also live and/or have businesses in the same building, and we get to know them all as the series goes on. They’re all quite different, and each has eccentricities. But they do work together and each contributes to the series. Their personal stories are woven into the series in the form of story arcs and sub-plots, but the main focus is the set of mysteries. Greenwood weaves together character development and plot development as the series goes on.

And that seems to be the key to making such ‘ensemble’ series work. Readers want to know about the characters; story arcs and sub-plots can help in this. But such novels work best when the real focus is on the plot. Which ‘ensemble casts’ do you like best? If you’re a writer, do you use teams?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s Teamwork.

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Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Kerry Greenwood, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Reginald Hill