Category Archives: James Ellroy

Always Shouts Out Something Obscene*

An interesting pair of events happened on this day, only five years apart. In 1955, copies of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl were seized as being obscene. Only five years later, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was ruled not obscene. It’s all got me to thinking about our standards for what ‘counts’ as too explicit, too violent, or in some other way too graphic. To an extent, beliefs about what ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be discussed are a product of the times. But there are arguably other factors at play, too.

For instance, like several writers of her generation, Agatha Christie didn’t really write about explicit sex. And certain other topics were also taboo. Yet, she made her meaning clear enough. For instance, in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of his death, he was having an affair with Elsa Greer, who was staying in Crale’s home (she was modeling for a painting he was doing). The fact of that relationship, plus some solid evidence, placed Crale’s wife, Caroline, under suspicion. In fact, she was arrested, tried and convicted, dying in prison a year later. But now, her daughter wants her name cleared, and Poirot agrees to try. Of course, if Caroline Crale was innocent, that means that someone else is guilty. So, part of Poirot’s task is to find out who that someone else might have been. One possibility is family friend Philip Blake. As it turns out, he had strong feelings for Caroline and, in fact, asked her to have an affair with him:

‘‘I never liked her, if you understand. But it would have been easy at any moment for me to make love to her…She came to my room. And then, with my arms around her, she told me quite coolly that it was no good! After all, she said, she was a one-man woman.’’

In this novel, first published in 1942, there are a few discussions of adultery and illicit affairs. They’re important in the story, but neither is described in detail.

Three years earlier, in 1939, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep was published. In that novel, PI Philip Marlowe is hired by Guy Sternwood to stop an extortionist named Arthur Geiger.  When Marlowe tracks Geiger to his office, he finds that Geiger’s just been killed.  Worse, Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen, is in the room. She’s too drugged or dazed to be of much help, but Marlowe doesn’t want her dragged into the situation any more than necessary. So, he gets her out of the room. With Geiger dead, Marlowe thinks he’s done with the Sternwoods, but the truth turns out to be quite different. At one point, for instance, Carmen turns up in Marlowe’s place (he actually finds her in his bed), and her purpose is obviously to seduce him:

‘Then she took her left hand from under her head and took hold of the covers, paused dramatically, and swept them aside. She was undressed all right.’

There’s more, but this should be enough to show that, even though this novel was published a few years before Five Little Pigs, it’s more explicit. Most people classify the Philip Marlowe novels as noir, which tends to be more graphic than is the work of more traditional Golden Age authors such as Christie. So, part of what ‘counts’ as too much explicitness could very well be a matter of sub-genre. For instance, cosy mysteries are, in part, defined by their lack of explicitness.

Another factor at play here may be context. For example, C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series takes place during the Tudor years. Shardlake is an attorney, which gets him involved in the murder cases he investigates. Throughout the series, there are references, for instance, to affairs. But they’re more oblique references, and aren’t described in detail. It’s not because Sansom is required to avoid explicitness. Rather, that series isn’t the right context for it. It takes place at a time when such things were not discussed (at least publicly) using the ‘blow by blow’ accounts that we sometimes see in today’s novels. So a very graphic description wouldn’t really fit in with the rest of the context.

On the other hand, Lawrence Block’s Small Town, published in the same year (2003) as the first Matthew Shardlake novel, is quite different. It features a serial killer nicknamed the Carpenter, and a collection of different New York characters, including a dominatrix and the ex-police commissioner who falls in love with her. There’s plenty of drug use, sex, and other explicitness in this novel. It’s that sort of story. Block doesn’t include those aspects for ‘shock value.’

There’s also, of course, the matter of personal taste. Some readers are bothered by any mention of sex beyond the most oblique reference. Others don’t mind the detail. And, although the focus in this post has mostly been about sex, the same might be said for anything else that could be considered ‘obscene.’

For instance, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet has quite a lot of extremely explicit language. The same goes for Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town. Christopher Brookmyre’s work also can get quite explicit. Many readers prefer to avoid that sort of language; others aren’t so bothered by it. Is it obscene? That’s a difficult question to answer. I would argue (and please feel free to differ with me if you do) that the language in those books is not out of context. That is, it’s not put there for shock value. It’s woven into the stories and helps to give them their ‘feel.’ That said, though, there’s no denying that it’s profanity, and profanity offends some readers (or at least, it’s language they’re rather not read or hear).

This is, perhaps, part of why it’s so difficult to define ‘obscene. What ‘counts’ as obscene varies a great deal based on time, on context, on individual taste, and on other things. So, while there are some things that just about all of us would call obscene, there are others that aren’t at all so clear. What’s your view? What’s your ‘barometer,’ if you have one?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Mean Mr. Mustard.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Allen Ginsberg, C.J. Sansom, Christopher Brookmyre, D.H. Lawrence, James Ellroy, Karin Slaughter, Lawrence Block, Raymond Chandler

In The Spotlight: James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. James Ellroy is widely regarded as one of the masters of the modern noir novel. I’ve been remiss in not spotlighting his work, so let’s rectify that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential.

This novel, which takes place between 1951 and 1958, begins on Christmas Day, 1951. On that day, known as ‘Bloody Christmas,’ seven civilians were brutally attacked by members of the Los Angeles Police Department. The incident wasn’t investigated thoroughly until after several protests, and the internal investigation led to indictments and other discipline. This event is one of the two central cases of the novel.

In the lead-up to Bloody Christmas, we are introduced to three major characters, all police officers, whose histories will be intertwined. One is Wendell ‘Bud’ White. Another is Jack ‘Trashcan’ Vincennes. The third is Ed Exley. Each has his own backstory (more on that shortly) and all are caught up in what happens just before, during, and after Bloody Christmas. In fact, that incident has a profound impact on each man, both personally and professionally.

Two years later, another major incident happens, which again draws the three men into the same web. This time, it’s a shooting at the Nite Owl diner. The tragedy leaves six people dead and the police with a media nightmare as they try to catch the killer or killers. At first, it’s not clear whether the shootings were targeted at specific victims, or simply intended to wreak havoc. So, the police follow up on the identities of the victims. And this leads them to unearth other criminal activity.

Slowly, we learn what really happened at the Nite Owl, and why the shootings occurred. We also see the results of Bloody Christmas play out, both inside and outside the LAPD. And we see the links between the two.

This novel is as much a character study as it is anything. So, we learn quite a lot about White, Vincennes, and Exley. White witnessed his mother’s murder, and it’s left him with what we now call PTSD. In fact, he’s a proverbial ticking time bomb. He has the reputation of being a thug who doesn’t worry about the niceties of police policy. On the one hand, that spells a lot of trouble. On the other, it means he’s the sort of copper who goes after the ‘bad guys’ and isn’t afraid to play dirty to keep others safe.

Vincennes has been a bit worn down by his career in the department. But he tries to do a good job. He’s hampered, though, but a secret he’s keeping. He has a dark incident in his past that he’s trying to forget – something he hasn’t even told his wife, Karen. If it came out, his career could very well be over. Certainly, he’d sacrifice his reputation. He’s gotten a little too friendly with alcohol and, sometimes, other drugs, mostly as a way to get up every day and keep doing his job.

For his part, Exley is the son of a very successful police officer. He walks in his father’s shadow, and one of his main goals is to live up to his father’s expectations. Matters are not helped by the fact that his father pushes his son to be a police hero and move up the ranks of the department.

None of these characters is set up to be ‘the good guy’ or ‘the bad guy.’ As is the case with many noir novels, it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s right and who’s wrong. And there are plenty of characters who are very much both.

This isn’t just a character study, though. It’s a noir police thriller. So, readers go behind the scenes at the LAPD. There are investigations, there’s making sense of evidence, and so on. But there are also payoffs, backroom deals, political handouts, and ‘patch wars.’ There’s very little transparency, and citizens have very little idea of what’s really going on. What’s more, it’s very hard to tell at times who the ‘good guys’ are and who the ‘bad guys’ are. Ellroy’s LAPD has plenty of members who are deeply bigoted and sexist, and this plays out in the way in which the cases in this novel are pursued. Readers who dislike slurs will want to know that there are a lot of them in this novel.

There is also great deal of violence in the novel. Readers who prefer their violence to be ‘off stage’ will want to know that this isn’t that sort of novel. That said, though, the violence – and some of it is brutal – explains why some of the characters behave the way they do.

Consistent with the noir tradition, this story doesn’t have one of those endings where everything is all right again, and the ‘good guys’ win. The cases described in story involve great cost to a lot of people, and there is a real sense that nothing will ever be the same.

Fans of Ellroy will be familiar with his distinctive writing style, and this novel is an example of it. Whether or not you enjoy it or are put off by it will depend on your feelings about the style. Few people are neutral on it.

L.A. Confidential tells the very ugly, gritty story of Bloody Christmas, and the attitudes that led to it. It follows three major characters who are caught up in that tragedy, and traces their lives afterwards. It offers an unvarnished look at the seamy side of Los Angeles in the 1950s, and features a police department caught between traditions that no longer work (or, perhaps they never did) and a more contemporary approach to policing. But what’s your view? Have you read L.A. Confidential? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 20 March/Tuesday, 21 March – We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson

Monday, 27 March/Tuesday 28 March – Death of an Old Goat – Robert Barnard

Monday, 3 April/Tuesday 4 April – Peepshow – Leigh Redhead


Filed under James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential

The Lady With the Lamp, You Know She Understands*

Live-in NursesWe don’t see it as much these days, but there was a time when it wasn’t uncommon for a family to hire a live-in nurse if they had a relative who needed regular medical care. For the person with health issues, it means being cared for at home, rather than a hospital. For the family, it’s much more convenient, if they have the means. Live-in nurses get to learn a lot about a family, and they add an interesting dynamic to a household. So it makes sense that they’d find their way into crime fiction, too.

Agatha Christie chose a live-in nurse as the narrator in Murder in Mesopotamia. Famous archaeologist Dr. Eric Leidner hires Nurse Amy Leatheran to help care for his wife, Louise. They’re on a dig a few hours from Baghdad, and this is the first time Louise has joined the team. She’s been having difficulty with anxiety, and reports seeing faces at windows and hearing hands tapping and so on. Leatheran’s task will be to allay her fears and help with her anxiety. At first, things go well enough, although the atmosphere is a little tense. But Leatheran soon notices friction, carefully covered up with politeness, among some of the members of the excavation team. Then, Louise confides her reasons for being afraid: she believes that her first husband, Frederick Bosner, may be planning to kill her. According to her story, they were married for a brief time, but he was killed. It might be, though, that he didn’t die; and he’s always said that she would be his and no-one else’s. At first there doesn’t seem a whole lot of merit to that story. But one afternoon, Louise is murdered. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and is persuaded to investigate. Among other things, this novel offers a look at the life of a live-in nurse of the times. Yes, indeed, fans of Appointment With Death and of The ABC Murders. Oh, and of The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side.

In Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) The Minotaur, we are introduced to Kerstin Kvist, a Swedish nurse who moves to the UK to be near her lover Mark Douglas. She’s hired by the Cosway family to look after thirty-nine-year-old John Cosway, who is said to be schizophrenic. On the surface, it looks like a good arrangement for everyone. But soon after her arrival Kvist begins to suspect that something is very badly wrong. For one thing, the family still seems to live in the Victorian Era, which is strange enough. What’s more, family matriarch Mrs. Cosway has ordered that her son be kept heavily sedated. Kvist is sure that he doesn’t need to be medicated in that way. So, bit by bit, she withdraws the medication her patient is on, but doesn’t tell anyone. That decision leads to real tragedy, which is documented in the diary that Kvist keeps.

Minette Walters’ novella The Tinder Box is the story of the murders of elderly Lavinia Fanshaw, and her live-in nurse, Dorothy Jenkins. Everyone in their village of Sowerbridge is convinced that the murderer is an Irish worker named Patrick O’Riordian.  He is duly arrested, and it seems that the case will be settled. But Siobhan Levenham, who also lives in Sowerbridge, believes that Patrick is innocent. She thinks that he’s been ‘railroaded’ because of local prejudice, and wants to clear his name. But the more she learns about the accused’s past, the more she begins to wonder what really happened. Is O’Riordian guilty? If so, what went on among him, Lavinia Fanshaw and Dorothy Jenkins? As she looks for the truth, Levenham begins to question her own thought processes.

Anne Perry’s historical series features Hester Latterly, a nurse who’s recently returned from service in the Crimean War (the series takes place in Victorian London). At first, she works in a free hospital, but she is dismissed for insubordination. She treated a patient in crisis without a doctor present, something she’s not permitted to do. After that incident, Latterly takes up a career as a private nurse, working in homes where a patient is recuperating (or, at times, is chronically ill). She meets Detective William Monk (in The Face of a Stranger) through her sister-in-law, who swears by Monk’s PI skills. As the series goes on, Latterly and Monk work together on cases, and later become partners in life as well. Among other things, this series shows the life of a private nurse shortly after Florence Nightingale’s reform efforts began to make nursing a higher-status and more skilled profession.

And then there’s James Ellroy’s historical (1950’s) novel, L.A. Confidential. The novel’s focus is three L.A.P.D. officers, each of whom gets drawn into solving the case of a group of murders at the Nite Owl Café. One of these cops is Jack Vincennes, who is acting as a technical advisor for a television show called Badge of Honor. The set designer, David Mertens, has a rare form of epilepsy, and needs regular nursing attention and medication in order to function. For that, he’s hired a live-in nurse, Jerry Marsalas, to look after his needs. Marsalas also accompanies Mertens to the studio set, to be available as needed. Without spoiling the story, I can tell you that these characters play important roles in the novel.

See what I mean? Live-in nurses have all sorts of crime-fictional jobs, from classic and Golden Age novels to modern noir, and a lot of other types besides. This is just a small dose (I know, I know, fans of Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford); which ones have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Country Joe McDonald’s Lady With the Lamp.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anne Perry, Barbara Vine, Charles Todd, James Ellroy, Minette Walters, Ruth Rendell

Tell Me What the Papers Say*

True Crime and NovelsAs we all know, there’s at least as much real crime out there as there is fictional crime. And writers can’t help but be influenced by those crime stories. After all, crime writers follow the news like a lot of other people, and sometimes those true crime stories can be fascinating enough that they catch the writer’s interest. Something about them gets the writer thinking.

For example, the 1888-1891 Whitechapel murders – the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders – have caught the imagination of lots of writers. These eleven murders of women have never been officially solved although there has been a lot of speculation about who ‘Jack the Ripper’ was. Possibly because the murders weren’t neatly solved, and because there was so much interest in them at the time, those killings have inspired many novels; I’ll just mention a few. In R. Barri Flowers’ historical thriller Dark Streets of Whitechapel, Dr. Jack Lewiston has been captured New York and arrested for the ‘Jack the Ripper’ crimes. But before he can be brought to trial, Lewiston escapes to London. Former New York City detective Henry Marboro comes out of retirement and travels to London to try to track Lewiston down before he can claim more victims.

Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is also based on the Whitechapel murders. In this story, we meet Robert and Ellen Bunting, highly respectable middle-class Londoners who let rooms. They’re particular about the people they admit, but they are also facing financial difficulties. So when a man calling himself Mr. Sleuth agrees to pay in advance for one of the rooms, Mrs. Bunting is more than willing to have him lodge there. Besides, he speaks and acts like ‘a gentleman.’ All goes well enough at the beginning but soon, the Buntings begin to get an eerie feeling about Mr. Sleuth. After a time Ellen Bunting begins to suspect that he might be a mysterious and vicious killer known as The Avenger, who’s been making headlines in all of the newspapers. The more time goes by, the creepier Mr. Sleuth seems and the more danger the Buntings feel. But at the same time, Mr. Sleuth hasn’t threatened them and they desperately need the money he pays them. Part of the suspense in this novel comes from the dilemma of whether the Buntings will report what they suspect to the police (and give up that rent), or whether they’ll keep quiet.

And then there’s Glynis Smy’s Ripper, My Love, which tells the story of Kitty Harper, a seamstress who lives and works in Whitechapel at the time of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders. This novel’s been called romantic suspense and it is in the sense that the novel follows Kitty’s life and the way she deals with three young men who are vying for her. But at the same time there’s a strong thread of crime and danger as the Whitechapel murders are seen from Kitty’s perspective – and the murderer may be closer to her than anyone knows. There are dozens and dozens of other novels that refer to, are inspired by or are retellings of the Whitechapel murders.

Another murder that has generated a lot of interest (and inspired other crime writers) is what’s often called the Crippen case. American homeopathic physician Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged in 1910 for the murder of his wife Cora. There was significant evidence against him too. A torso which could have been hers was found buried in his basement. He’d purchased hyoscine, a quantity of which was found with the remains. He had a new love, too, Ethel ‘Le Neve’ Neave and in fact, they were captured as they landed in America after leaving England together. There was other evidence too that Crippen had killed his wife. Although the verdict against Crippen has been disputed in the last few years, most people at the time thought him guilty. The story made a sensation and has influenced more than one crime writer. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead is the story of the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger James Bentley. Superintendent Spence doesn’t think so though and asks Hercule Poirot to look into the case. Poirot agrees and travels to the village of Broadhinny to do so. He finds that Mrs. McGinty had learned more than it was safe for her to know about one of the ‘nice’ people who live in the village; that’s why she was killed. One of the clues in this case is a story about four old murders, one of which is the murder of a woman by her husband. Like Crippen, this ‘Craig case’ features a body found in a basement and a man who was hanged for the crime while his lover left the country.

Martin Edwards’ Dancing For the Hangman is a fictionalised account of the Crippen case told from Crippen’s own point of view. The story begins just after Crippen is convicted for murder, and follows his thoughts as he awaits execution. Interspersed with reports and newspaper stories of the time, the novel tells of Crippen’s life in America, his move to London and his marriage to Cora. It then details how Crippen met Ethel Le Neve and tells the story of their plans to go to America together. In this novel, Edwards gives an alternative account of what exactly happened to Cora and why.

One of the most famous novels based on true crime is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. That novel is a re-telling of the 1959 murders of Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie Mae and his children Nancy Mae and Kenyon. Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested, tried and convicted of the crimes. The motive for the murders was money; Hickock and Smith had been in prison before the Clutter murders and heard from a fellow inmate that Herb Clutter had a lot of money at his farm. That wasn’t true but it didn’t stop Hickock and Smith from committing four murders and then going ‘on the run’ until the end of that year when they were caught. Capote’s novel tells the story of the victims’ lives, the relationship between Hickock and Smith and the devastating effects of the Clutter murders on the community. You could call this ‘untrue crime,’ as it is fiction but tells the story of a real crime.

So does James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. That novel’s focus is the still-unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, who was killed in Los Angeles in 1947. LAPD detectives Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichert and Lee Blanchard are on a stakeout when they discover Short’s body. The case starts to overwhelm the LAPD and becomes a media sensation. Bleichert becomes more and more obsessed with the case, especially when he meets the enigmatic Madeleine Sprague, who closely resembles the victim, and begins to have an affair with her. Blanchard too is obsessed with Elizabeth Short, in large part because his sister was also murdered. This case takes a heavy toll on both officers as they get more and more deeply involved in finding out who Elizabeth Short really was, what her life was like and why she died. Ellroy presents a fictional solution to the case but the real focus in this novel is on the way the murder case affects the cops who investigate it.

There are many other novels that are based on real crimes. For example, there’s Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, which is based on the 1933 ‘trunk murders’ in which Winnie Ruth Judd was found guilty of murdering two of her friends. Abbott looks at the relationships and history that might have been behind those murders. Some crimes just take hold of the imagination and it can be fascinating to explore different aspects of them. And unlike journalists, novelists can create their own versions of how a crime might have happened and that can make for an absorbing story. In fact, that’s how Lynda Wilcox’s fictional crime writer Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport gets her inspiration. As we learn in Strictly Murder, KD’s assistant Verity Long researches old cases and KD uses those as the basis for her novels. It’s not hard to see how they might inspire her.

But what do you think? Do you enjoy reading true-crime books or ‘untrue crime’ stories? If you’re a writer, do you use real crime for inspiration?



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Elton John/Bernie Taupin song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Glynis Smy, James Ellroy, Lynda Wilcox, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Martin Edwards, Megan Abbott, R. Barri Flowers, Truman Capote

No Stop Signs, Speed Limit, Nobody’s Gonna Slow Me Down*

Recently I had an interesting comment exchange with Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan (an excellent blog that I highly recommend) about pacing and timing in crime fiction. It’s got me to thinking about how the pace of crime fiction novels has changed as time has gone by. In general, are today’s crime novels faster-paced with more twists and action than novels of earlier years? On the surface of it, you might think the answer is “yes;” we can all think of novels where the action moves quickly and sometimes unexpectedly. And timing and pacing is often a part of what publishers use to sell books. How many books have you seen advertised where the blurb includes words and phrases such as “pulse-pounding,” “action-packed,” or “twists and turns?” I’ve seen a lot of them.

That said, though, there are plenty of crime novels from the earlier days of the genre that also have lots of action and quick pacing and timing. And there are plenty of novels and series today that are both well-regarded and popular where the pacing isn’t fast. So there’s likely more to this question of pacing, timing and the drama in novels than it seems on the surface. And that’s what makes the question an interesting one :-). One possibility is that sub-genre and author style also have a lot to do with it.

For instance, the hard-boiled sub-genre made famous by authors such as Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett tends to have a lot of action and drama. Novels such as Hammett’s The Thin Man and Spillane’s My Gun is Quick include a number of fight scenes, chases and so on. The events in the stories happen quickly and unexpectedly, too. That fast pacing is part of what makes the hardboiled sub-genre popular with its fans. Today’s hardboiled series also feature quick pacing and timing and plenty of action. For instance, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski doesn’t have many dull moments. Neither does Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. James Ellroy’s novels also feature plenty of action and quick pacing and timing. Hardboiled novels have always had lots of octane, so to speak, and that doesn’t seem to have changed over time.

The detective novel made famous by writers such as Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers and John Dickson Carr tends to have less fast-paced action. The focus in this genre is more on the mystery itself. There is violence (after all, they are murder mysteries) in these novels, and sometimes there are “high-octane” moments, but in general, they’re more focused on the mystery – the puzzle at hand – than they are on fast-moving events. Of course, at least in Christie’s case, that’s not true for each novel she wrote. The Big Four, The Man in the Brown Suit, and N or M? are all examples of Christie novels where there’s plenty of action, narrow escapes and so on. So this question of pacing and timing isn’t entirely a matter of sub-genre (I’ll get back to that in a minute). But, to use a proverbially very broad paintbrush, this kind of detective story tends not to focus as much on pace and action. That’s true today, too. For instance, P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh series certainly includes plenty of “action” scenes. But the focus is on the mystery. That’s also the case with Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks series and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series. Yes, there are fast-paced moments and twists and turns in the plots. But the emphasis isn’t on those moments as much as it is on the cases these sleuths are working.

Sub-genre does play a role in how much action there is in a novel, and how much pacing and timing there is. But it’s not the only factor. Author style matters as well. I don’t have a whole lot of research to support this but my guess is that author style plays a bigger role in a novel’s “octane level” than it used to play, simply because there is so much more variety and diversity in crime fiction than there was. Authors have more flexibility, so their individual ways of expressing themselves come through more obviously.

For example, Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series and his Precious Ramotswe series are both thoughtful, “quiet” series. There are certainly mysteries and in Mma. Ramotswe’s world, there are cases that need to be solved. Events happen, people interact and so on. But both series move along at a quiet pace. And that’s just the way some readers like their crime fiction.

Some authors such as Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine and Margaret Yorke include action in their stories but it’s often more of what you’d call psychological action. In other words, the pace isn’t frantic in terms of one event happening after another. Rather, the “octane” comes from the buildup of psychological suspense.

Other authors such as Lee Child and Leigh Russell write thrillers. Their novels have a lot of action in them. The pace is quick and that pacing and timing add a great deal to the suspense of the stories. Here too, the pacing seems to be affected by the sub-genre (thrillers do tend to move at a faster pace and have more dramatic events) and author style.

With all of this, though, it’s worth pointing out that times have changed. Today’s crime fiction addresses sometimes very ugly issues in a way that wasn’t always done in the past. Today’s sleuths are more diverse than ever and live and work in more different kinds of contexts than ever. And today’s crime fiction fans are savvier than ever. They don’t want “cookie-cutter” plots (so there have to be well-written twists). They don’t want novels that aren’t engaging (so there has to be some action. Something has to happen). In that way, there is more room for drama, action, plot twists and so on than there was. And in that sense, crime fiction probably does include more novels with fast pacing and lots of plot twists than it did. It’s a larger genre with more diversity.

But modern crime fiction also includes plenty of novels and series where the pace is slower and where the focus is more on the mystery or the characters than it is on pacing and timing. And there are plenty of crime novels from bygone years that move at a fast pace and where there is all sorts of action and drama. That’s where there’s an argument that author style and sub-genre play important roles, too. In the end, crime fiction is affected by several factors, and that’s what makes it such an interesting genre. That goes as much for its pacing and timing as it does for any other aspect of the genre.

What are your thoughts on this question? Do you think today’s crime fiction novels are faster-paced and more “high-octane” than novels of earlier times? If you think other factors are involved, what do you think they are? If you’re a writer, how do you use pacing and timing in your work? Do you feel compelled to move things along really quickly and include lots of action?




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from AC/DC’s Highway to Hell.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Barbara Vine, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Sayers, Henning Mankell, James Ellroy, John Dickson Carr, Lee Child, Leigh Russell, Mickey Spillane, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Peter Robinson, Ruth Rendell, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton