Category Archives: Ian Rankin

And I’m a Little Bit Older Now*

One of the important decisions that authors of series need to make is whether, and how quickly, their main characters will age. There are some good reasons not to have characters age. But there are also some strong arguments for letting characters age in more or less real time.

For one thing, we all age. So, we can identify with main characters who get older – it’s realistic. For another thing, as we age, different things happen in our lives (from beginning of career, through height of career, through retirement; from newlyweds, through raising children, through having grandchildren). This gives the author a number of possibilities for adding plot points, characters, and so on.

Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford age in real time, and that makes for several possibilities for plots. In The Secret Adversary and in the Partners in Crime collection, they are young, energetic, and adventurous. And that’s part of what draws them into the espionage business. In N or M? and By the Pricking of My Thumbs, they’re middle-aged. They’re more experienced, their children have grown, and they go about their cases differently. In Postern of Fate, they’ve retired. They’re older, with grandchildren, and take a different attitude towards life to what they did as a young couple. Fans of this series like the fact that they can see how the Beresfords change over time as they age. It adds appeal to their characters.

That’s arguably also true of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. When we first meet her, in Deadly Appearances, she’s middle-aged, the mother of a university-bound daughter and two younger sons. She’s moving to the top of her career as an academician and political scientist, and still coping with the death of her husband, Ian. As the series goes on, Joanne ages, as we all do, in real time. Her children grow, leave home, and make their own lives. She adopts another child, who also grows up and gets ready to leave home. She marries again, moves into retirement, and learns the joys of grandparenting. Other things happen in her home life, too, and they all fit in with what happens as people move in life and get older. That natural aging process makes Joanne an accessible, realistic character; her life reflects what happens to real people.

Tony Hillerman’s Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn ages, too, over the course of the novels that feature him. In the early novels, such as The Blessing Way, Leaphorn is a young man. He’s active, he has stamina, and so on. And the cases he investigates fit with that sort of a detective. As the series moves on, Leaphorn ages. As he does, he rises a bit in the ranks of the Navajo Tribal Police (now the Navajo Nation Police). He and his wife, Emmy, approach middle age together, and later, he copes with her death. In the later novels, Leaphorn has retired from active duty, but still occasionally lends his expertise. It’s an interesting transition through the course of the novels, and it makes his character believable.

Michael Connelly has made more or less the same decision about his main character, Harry Bosch. As the series begins, he’s about forty, and a veteran with the LAPD. He’s had relationships, but he’s not married or particularly tied to one person. As the series goes on, he goes through several changes professionally. He also marries and is later divorced. He also becomes a father. In more recent novels, he sees his daughter, Maddie, grow up and begin to think about becoming a police officer like her father. Although Connelly doesn’t place a big emphasis on Bosch’s age, he does address issues such as retirement age. You’re absolutely right, fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus.

There are also authors such as Donna Leon and Ruth Rendell, whose main characters have aged over time, but perhaps not as quickly as real time. Leon’s Guido Brunetti and Rendell’s Reg Wexford are both married fathers of young-ish children at the start of their respective series (‘though Wexford’s daughters are a bit older – in their teens). As both series go on, their children get older (Wexford becomes a grandfather). They begin to face the issues that people face as they get towards middle age, too. And, although, neither author places a great deal of emphasis on this ageing process, it’s going on in the background.

On the one hand, having characters age in real time can be limiting for an author. On the other, it’s a very natural process, so readers can identify with the characters. And it allows the author to work in different sorts of characters and plots. Do you prefer to see your characters age in real time? If you’re a writer, what choices have you made about your main character’s ageing process? Why?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s As I Come of Age.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman

It’s Happening All Around You*

It’s almost impossible for a writer not to be affected by larger events that are going on. After all, we’re all impacted by what happens in the larger world. Some authors choose not to weave those larger social climates and events into their work. When they do, it seems to work most effectively if those larger things are, if I can put it this way, in the background. In that way, both the author and the reader can focus on the characters and the plot at hand. If that happens, those larger events and social contexts can add a sense of time and place to a novel.

For example, World War II is the backdrop for Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger. Heron Park Hospital has been converted for wartime use, and as the story begins, seven different people are going to the hospital to work in different capacities. One day, a postman named Joseph Higgins is brought the hospital with a broken femur. It’s not a life-threatening injury, but he does need surgery. When he dies during the operation, it’s put down to a tragic accident at first. In fact, Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police goes to the hospital to ‘rubber stamp’ that explanation. Then, a nurse who was present at Higgins’ death has too much to drink at a party, and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered, and she knows how it was done. Later that night, she is murdered. Now, Cockrill investigates both deaths as murders, and finds out who the killer is. In this case, the war provides the atmosphere, and there’s plenty of talk about it. But the action doesn’t take place on the battlefield. Rather, the focus is on the hospital and the characters involved.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood takes place mostly in the small village of Warmsley Vale. World War II has recently ended, and Lynn Marchmont has returned home to her mother, Adela, after military service. Times are not easy, but the Marchmonts had always counted on Adela’s wealthy brother, Gordon Cloade, for financial support. In fact, he’d told all of his family members not to worry about money, as he would see to their well-being. So, it was a shock to the family to learn that Cloade had married. It was an even worse shock when he died intestate. Now, everything will likely go to his widow, Rosaleen. Then, a stranger, who calls himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints that Rosaleen may not be eligible to inherit, since she may have been married to someone else at the time of her marriage to Cloade. Arden is killed before anyone can determine whether he was telling the truth, and the Cloades (and Marchmonts) find themselves drawn into the murder investigation. Hercule Poirot is consulted by two members of the Cloade family, and he works to find out the truth. Postwar privation, and the postwar atmosphere aren’t the main focus of the novel, nor the reason Arden is killed. But Christie certainly taps into the atmosphere of the times (this book was published in 1948).

Twenty years later, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman, was published. In it, Stockholm police detective Martin Beck and his team are assigned to help secure the US Embassy. There’s a large protest against the Vietnam war, and things could, of course, get disastrous. Then, a gunman boards a bus and shoots eight people, including a police officer. At first, it looks like an act of terrorism. But soon enough, Beck and his team discover that this might have been a very deliberate attack on the dead policeman, whose current investigation was proving dangerous to some dangerous people. While the student activism and anti-war sentiment of the late 1960s isn’t the reason for the murders on the bus, that atmosphere and political context are certainly woven into the story and provide interesting background.

During the mid-1980s, there was a major strike among UK miners. Feelings ran high on all sides, and the strike left lasting resentments. That’s the background against which Reginald Hill’s Under World is set. In that novel, Colin Farr returns to the small mining town of Burrthorpe, where his father, Billy, died a few years ago in a tragic fall (or was it an accident?). It’s not long before he alienates everyone – especially those who think his father was responsible for the disappearance and murder of a young girl, Tracey Pedley. So, he’s an attractive target for suspicion when there’s another murder. Superintendent Andy Dalziel leads the investigating team, and it’s not going to be an easy case. Woven into all of this is the climate engendered by the strike. There’s a lot of hostility towards the police, which makes it hard to get information. And, there’s a look at the life of the miners, both underground and above it. It’s a very difficult, dangerous occupation, and it’s got its own culture.

And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Set in Darkness, which takes place just before the Scottish Parliament is to be reconvened after hundreds of years. A long-dead body is discovered behind a blocked-up fireplace in a building that’s being renovated to house the Parliament. The body isn’t nearly as old as the building is, so Inspector John Rebus and his team look into the building’s more recent history to find out the truth about the body. As if that’s not enough, a homeless man throws himself off a bridge – and leaves behind quite a lot of money. And a promising prospective MP is murdered. The upcoming reconvening of the Scottish Parliament is woven through the novel and adds to its atmosphere and background.

There are plenty of other examples, too, of authors who use contemporary events, movements, and so on as backgrounds to their stories. Doing that adds the risk of dating a novel. But if the focus stays on the characters and the actual plot, such events and movements can add real atmosphere to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Brett Dennen’s Surprise Surprise.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Ian Rankin, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Reginald Hill

We Were Just Young and Restless and Bored*

Have you ever gotten so busy that you almost wish you could be bored? You might even think what a luxury it is to have enough time for boredom. But, before you get too envious of those who are bored, keep in mind that it has its own challenges.

If you look at crime fiction, you see all sorts of negative consequences that come from being bored. Boredom, especially among young people, can get one into serious trouble. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll think of lots more than I could.

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, we are introduced to two young men, Andreas Winthur and Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. They are best friends; in fact, you could say that they’re each other’s only real friend. They are also bored with life, and without much purpose. Their search for something to do gets them into trouble more than once. And, on one fateful day, it has terrible consequences. Andreas and Zipp spend the day together. Later, Andreas disappears. His mother, Runi, is worried about him, so she goes to the police. At first, Inspector Konrad Sejer isn’t overly concerned. After all, Andreas isn’t a young child. But when more time goes by, and he hasn’t returned, Sejer and his assistant, Jacob Skarre, start investigating. Naturally, one of their first interviewees is Zipp. But he’s not much help. Zipp says he and Andreas parted company before Andreas disappeared. Sejer is sure that Zipp knows more than he’s telling, but it’s not going to be easy to find out the truth.

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls is the story of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. In 1978, she gets permission to spend some of the summer at the home of her Aunt Barbara and Uncle Doug Griffin, near Sydney. Angela, her cousin, Mick, and Mick’s friends, are a little bored, with no school, no sport contests, and so on. So, they spend a lot of time playing pinball at a local drugstore. One day, the group goes to the drugstore as usual, but Angela doesn’t come back. She is later found dead, with a scarf over her head. The police investigate, and they focus their attention on Mick and his friends, but they can’t find any evidence of wrongdoing. Then, a few months later, another young girl is found dead, again with a scarf around her head. The theory now is that someone is targeting young girls, and people do worry. The press even dubs the killer, the ‘Sydney Strangler.’ No more killings are reported, though, and the murders are never solved. Years later, filmmaker Erin Fury decides to do a documentary on families who’ve lost a loved one to murder, and she approaches the Griffin family. They eventually agree to be interviewed, and we slowly learn what really happened to Angela.

In Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain?, we meet twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrand. There’s not much for him in the small town in which he lives, and he’s bored and restless. Then, he meets professional assassin Simon Marechall. And it turns out that he’s got something Marechall needs: a driver license. Marechall needs a driver to take him to Cap d’Agde, on the French coast, where he wants to do one more job before he retires. Bernard isn’t doing anything else with his life, and he is bored. So, he agrees to serve as driver, and the two plan their trip. But Bernard doesn’t know what his new boss does for a living. By the time he finds out, it’s too late, and things start to spin out of control.

Of course, it’s not just young people who get bored with their lives. In Ian Rankin’s Doors Open, for example, wealthy Mike Mackenzie has gotten bored with his life, and he’s looking for some excitement. He and his banker friend, Allan Cruikshank, share a love of art. So, together with art professor Gissing, and with help from local gangster Chib Calloway, Mackenzie and Cruikshank devise a plot. They want to rob the National Gallery of Scotland, and replace some of its valuable holdings with forged art. They choose the gallery’s Doors Open day, when the public gets to view the warehouses and other ‘behind the scenes’ places associated with the museum. The robbery goes off as planned, but the group soon learns that there’s more to benefiting from art then just stealing it…

Sometimes, of course, boredom has more positive consequences. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock, Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary, Miss Lemon, brings him an unusual problem. Her sister, Mrs. Hubbard, manages a hostel for students where some perplexing things have been happening. Odd things have been disappearing, and there seems no explanation for what’s going on. Here are Poirot’s thoughts on the matter:
 

‘Hercule Poirot was silent for a minute and a half.
Did he wish to embroil himself in the troubles of Miss Lemon’s sister and the passions and grievances of a polyglot Hostel? …
He did not admit to himself that he had been rather bored of late and that the very triviality of the business attracted him.’
 

Poirot agrees to look into the case, and it turns out that this is much more serious than someone stealing things for fun.

As you can see, boredom has all sorts of consequences. Some of them can be positive, as boredom can spur us on to find new ways to be productive. But other times, boredom can lead to disastrous consequences. There are all sorts of examples in crime fiction; which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Night Moves.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Karin Fossum, Pascal Garnier, Wendy James

Say That We’ll be Nemeses*

A recent post from Sue at Novel Heights has got me thinking about fictional nemeses. I’m not talking here of one antagonist in one novel. Rather, I mean a recurring character who serves as a ‘bad guy,’ or at least an antagonist, in more than one novel.

It’s not easy to create such a character. By and large, crime fiction fans want their characters to be believable. So, if a character is going to, say, be arrested in one novel and imprisoned, there’d have to be a credible reason that character would show up in another.

Sue’s post (which you really do want to read) mentions Dean Reeve, whom we first meet in Nicci French’s Blue Monday. That series’ protagonist is London psychologist Frieda Klein, who encounters Reeve in the course of linking a decades-old disappearance with a contemporary one. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoilers. Reeve’s role in the series doesn’t end with that novel, though. He returns later in the series and upends Klein’s life. And his role in the novels is a clear example of the way nemeses can add to a series.

But Reeve is hardly the only example of a fiction nemesis. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle will know that his Sherlock Holmes goes up against Professor Moriarty more than once in the course of his career. In fact, he has what Conan Doyle originally thought of as a final showdown in The Adventure of the Final Problem. In that story, Holmes and Watson have to leave London, and end up in Switzerland. There, Holmes has a confrontation with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Fans of the Holmes stories didn’t want them to end, though, and Conan Doyle was persuaded to bring Holmes back in further stories.

In Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe are sent to the campus of Holm Coultram College. A body has been discovered in the course of some campus renovations, and Dalziel and Pascoe investigate the death. One of the people they encounter is brilliant and enigmatic student activist leader Franny Roote. He’s a thorn in both detectives’ sides during this novel, and his role doesn’t end there. Roote makes appearances in A Cure For All Diseases, Death’s Jest-Book, and Dialogues of the Dead. And in each one, he proves to be a more-than-worthy adversary, especially to Pascoe. Roote’s an interesting character in his own right, and his presence in the novels arguably adds leaven to the series.

We might say the same thing about Ian Rankin’s Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Caffery. As fans of Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus series know, Cafferty is an Edinburgh crime boss, who makes his first appearance in Tooth and Nail. He goes on to appear in several other Rebus novels, and the two have an interesting relationship. On the one hand, they are antagonists. Cafferty is a criminal and Rebus is a copper. Rebus will do whatever it takes to put Cafferty behind bars, keep him there, and stop his operations. And, of course, Cafferty has no intention of letting that happen. On the other hand, the two develop a grudging respect for each other over time. And there are cases in which they end up helping each other. As time goes on, we also see how the face of Edinburgh crime and law enforcement change. Those changes impact both men, so that each one wonders, in his own way, where he’s going to fit in in the new order of things.

Not all fictional nemeses are criminals. For instance, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch contends with Irvin Irving in more than one of the Bosch novels. Irving is a very politically astute member of the LAPD, who’s involved in several of Bosch’s cases. For various reasons, mostly to protect himself or other, highly-placed, members of the police force, he often tries to limit what Bosch does. He’s been responsible for disciplining him, having him transferred, and so on. Later in the series, Irving runs for, and is elected to, political office. But that doesn’t mean he and Bosch no longer interact. Irving isn’t an evil, twisted serial killer, nor a crime boss. But he isn’t above squashing investigations and muzzling the police detectives who want to pursue them, especially if his name is connected to anything. And he’s not at all afraid to threaten Bosch’s job and career if that’s what it takes. Bosch, of course, isn’t willing to shut up and go away, or ‘rubber stamp’ an investigation. It makes for an interesting adversarial relationship as the series goes on.

And that’s the thing about nemeses. When they’re well drawn as characters, they can add suspense and strong story arcs to a series. They can also be interesting characters in their own right, so that we want to know more about them, even if we want the protagonist to ‘win.’ These are only a few examples of nemeses; I know you’ll think of more.

Thanks, Sue, for the inspiration! Now, folks, may I suggest you pay a visit to Sue’s excellent blog? Fine reviews and news await you there.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jonathan Coultron and John Roderick’s Nemeses.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Nicci French, Reginald Hill

Say I’m Old-Fashioned*

As times change, people often change with them. We learn to use new technology, we may change our thinking about things, and so on. But there are people whom time seems to leave behind. They stay with more traditional ways of thinking, and they see value in sticking to the old ways.

Characters like that can add a layer to a crime novel. They can be interesting in and of themselves. They can also provide perspective on other characters, and on the context of the novel.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), we are introduced to Miss Cecilia Wiliams. She’s one of five people who were ‘on the scene’ on the day famous painter Amyas Crale was poisoned. Crale and his wife, Caroline, had hired Miss Williams to teach Carline’s half-sister, Angela Warren. So, she was present on the afternoon of his death. At the time, Caroline was widely assumed to be guilty, and she had good reason. That, plus the evidence against her, was enough to convict her of the crime, and she died in prison. Now, sixteen years later, the Crales’ daughter, Carla, wants her mother’s name cleared. So, she hires Hercule Poirot to re-investigate the murder. To do so, he interviews Miss Williams and the other people who were at the Crale home when the killing took place. He also gets written accounts from each. Those interviews and accounts give Poirot the information he needs to find the killer. Throughout the book, we get to know Miss Williams’ character. She is Victorian in her outlook, and traditional in what she believes.
 

‘She had that enormous mental and moral advantage of a strict Victorian upbringing, denied to us in these days – she had done her duty in that station in life to which it had pleased God to call her, and that assurance encased her in an armour impregnable to the slings and darts of envy, discontent and regret.’
 

Miss Williams’ evidence doesn’t solve the murder, but it does help clear Caroline Crale’s name.

In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, Dane McKell learns that his wealthy father, Ashton, is hiding a secret. It seems that he is having an affair with famous fashion designer Sheila Grey. When Dane discovers who his father’s paramour is, he decides to confront her. Unexpectedly, he finds himself attracted to her, and the two begin a relationship. Then, one night, Sheila Grey is murdered. New York Police Inspector Richard Queen investigates, and, naturally, his son, Ellery, gets involved in the case. Both Ashton and Dane McKell come in for their share of suspicion. So does Ashton’s wife, Lutetia. As the Queens get to know her, we learn that she is very much a ‘throwback’ to Victorian times. She’s very traditional in her views, and that adds to the tension and even dysfunction in the family. As the investigation continues, the Queens find that the McKells aren’t the only suspects. The victim had a complicated personal life, and there are several possibilities when it comes to her murderer.

One of the recurring characters in Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus series is Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. He’s a notorious Edinburgh crime boss, and, as such, frequently goes up against Rebus. Every once in a while, the two find themselves ‘necessary allies’ when it’s in both of their interests. And, over time, they develop a grudging respect for each other, even though neither really likes or trusts the other. As the series begins, Cafferty is very much in charge of his share of Edinburgh’s crime trade. But, as the series goes on, times change, and crimes change with them. Little by little, crime bosses such as Cafferty are being supplanted by other sorts of crime and new sorts of criminals. For Cafferty, this raises a question. Where does an old-style crime boss like him fit in in Edinburgh’s new crime scene? It’s not an easy situation for him.

Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond is the first of his series featuring Diamond. There’s a reason for that title, too. Diamond is, in many ways, an old-fashioned sort of detective. He believes in ‘legwork,’ in looking for clues, interviewing witnesses and suspects, and so on. And, although he’s had some trouble, he’s good at what he does, and he has a solid instinct. He sees himself as the last of the true detectives, who rely on their own skills, rather than getting all of their answers from computers. And he’s well able to show that nothing can completely replace a good police detective with solid instincts and the ability to put the pieces of a puzzle together.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a former accountant-turned baker, who lives and has her bakery in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Fans of this series know that the building is also home to several other ‘regular’ characters. One of them is retired professor Dionysus Monk. He’s a bibliophile who regularly quotes Greek and Roman classics. While he is fully aware that it’s a modern world, he has a sort of ‘old world’ charm and courtliness that appeals. And he often has quite a lot of wisdom.

So does Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. She is the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Botswana’s only female-run private investigation company. Mma Ramotswe understands that the world keeps changing, and so do tastes and attitudes. She even agrees with some of those changes, as they improve life. But she is old-fashioned in many respects. She clings to traditional Botswana values, and is very proud of her people’s ways. She isn’t completely ‘stuck in the past,’ but she believes that many traditions are worth preserving.

There are other characters, too, who are, as you might say, reminders of an earlier time. They know the world is changing, but they prefer some (or even all) of the older ways. Depending on how the author creates those characters, this can make for a sympathetic character or…the opposite. Which have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock and Roll.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Ellery Queen, Ian Rankin, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Lovesey