Category Archives: James Ellroy

The Archetypal Man*

Over the years, there’ve been some interesting character types that have become an integral part of crime fiction. They’re almost mythical, in a way, because we know the reality is a lot more complex than the myth. It’s a bit like the myth vs the reality of the famous shootout at the OK Corral. And, yet, those mythical characters can add to a story. And they’ve helped shape our perception of crime-fictional characters.

One mythical sort of character is the crusading lawyer personified in Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels. On television, Mason was, of course, portrayed by Raymond Burr. This character fights for the defendant, comes up with all sorts of strategies, surprise witnesses, and so on, and works to get justice for the client. The reality is, of course, much more complex than what was presented in the TV series, especially. And modern crime-fictional attorneys show that complexity. Most attorneys (both in real life and in crime fiction) do want to do their jobs well. They want to win their cases, and they do try to do so in an ethical way. But sometimes, their clients are guilty. Sometimes, they do things that aren’t exactly above-board, so to speak. And they don’t always win their cases. But many people still want to believe in the Perry Mason type of attorney.

Another interesting archetypal character is the PI personified by Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He’s a loner, somewhat cynical, but still idealistic enough to want to do the right thing. He doesn’t let people get the better of him and stays just aloof enough not to get too personally entangled in a case, even if a ‘bombshell’ femme fatale tempts him. There are plenty of fictional PIs like that, of course. I’m sure you could name as many as I could. Crime fiction fans know, though, that PIs and the PI life are a lot more complex. For one thing, PIs come in lots of different shapes and sizes, so to speak. They do want to do their jobs well, by and large, but not all of them are fierce crusaders for justice. Some PIs are, indeed, susceptible to temptation. Some are extremely cynical, with their only focus on their fees, and so on. Crime fiction shows us this complexity, and most readers want that. At the same time, though, when we think of the PI, lots of us think of that Sam Spade archetype.

There’s also the mythical figure of the sheriff, especially in US western novels. You know the type, I’m sure: fighting for justice, facing off against a gang of ‘bad guys,’ and so on. If you’ve read novels by J.A. Jance, Craig Johnson, or Bill Crider (to name only three), you know that there’s more to being a sheriff than is portrayed in television and film westerns. And today’s sheriff characters are more complex. They’re not all male, they’re not all white, and their cases aren’t all clear-cut. Fictional sheriffs are often faced with ‘bad guys’ that aren’t so easy to spot, and aren’t always simplistic. Most sheriffs try to uphold the law in the best way they can, and they all do it a little differently. And, yet, despite these shades of differences, we still have a mental image of the sheriff as the lone force of good against the evil [Name of Gang] Boys.

There’s also the mythical loner/drifter who comes into town and ends up righting wrongs. I’m thinking, for instance, of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. This sort of character’s appeal arguably comes in part from being somewhat mysterious. We don’t ever really know everything about that person. But we do know that the ‘stranger in town’ is ultimately on the side of the angels. Of course, loners/drifters are more complex than it seems on the surface (we see that, actually, as the Jack Reacher series evolves). But there’s just something about the ‘stranger in town who ends up saving everything’ that appeals.

There are other mythical/archetypal characters, too, in crime fiction. But one character who isn’t enshrined in this way is the police detective. If you think about it, crime fiction includes a wide, wide array of police characters. There are bumbling cops (e.g. the way Arthur Conan Doyle portrayed police), dedicated detectives (like Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp), and ‘everyman’ police officers (e.g. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct police). And not all of the police characters are depicted as sympathetic, either. From James Ellroy’s Los Angeles trilogy to Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road and plenty in between, there are ‘bent’ police officers, too. Perhaps the reason there may not be an archetypal police character is exactly that there’s this much variety.

A mythical/archetypal character can be limiting. It’s taken several decades, for instance, for fictional PIs to include women, non-whites, LGBTQ+ characters, and so on. And there may not be as much room for depths and layers to a mythical character as there is to a different sort of character. But they serve an important purpose. They give us a mental image of a lawyer, or a PI, or….  And they have some interesting qualities that can add to a story.

What’s your view? Do you think of those mythical characters (like Sam Spade or Perry Mason) when you think of a crime-fictional PI or lawyer? If you’re a writer, do you get inspired by those characters?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Judee Sill.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bill Crider, Craig Johnson, Dashiell Hammett, Ed McBain, Erle Stanley Gardner, Garry Disher, J.A. Jance, James Ellroy, Lee Child

Who Tells Your Story?*

As this is posted, it’s 61 years since mobster Albert Anastasia was murdered in a barber’s chair in New York. This particular murder caught the interest of Mayra Montero, whose novel Dancing to ‘Almendra’ takes a look at that murder, putting it into the perspective of Mafia activity in New York and Havana at the time. In that novel, journalist Joaquín Porrata hears of this murder, and believes it’s because Anastasia got too interested in other Mob bosses’ interests in Havana. But Porrata’s editor points him to another story instead. When that story proves to be related to the Anastasia killing, Porrata is more determined to find out more about Anastasia. It takes a change of employer, but Porrata finally gets the chance to look more deeply into the murder. When he does, he quickly finds that some powerful people want to shut him up.

Montero is by no means the only author to have been inspired by a murder or other news event that perhaps didn’t get worldwide press at the time, but is nonetheless of interest. And sometimes, those stories can make for an engaging novel. It takes skill, because such stories do need to be credible. But when it’s done well, it can make for an absorbing read.

James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential begins with a real-life incident. On Christmas Day, 1951, a day later called ‘Bloody Christmas,’ seven civilians were brutally attacked by members of the Los Angeles Police Department. It took a groundswell of protests and demands for action before the department investigated what happened. Discipline and indictments followed, but not until the department was basically forced into action by the public outcry. Ellroy explores this incident through the eyes of three very different police officers who play different roles in it. Then, he follows those officers’ careers, and shows what happens to them two years later, when there’s a late-night shooting at a diner. The novel follows the investigation of the shooting, and also shows the fallout from Bloody Christmas.

In 1998, Colorado police detective Dale Claxton was murdered by a group of right-wing militia activists. There was a massive hunt for the fugitives, and several law enforcement groups, including the FBI, were involved. But those responsible for Claxton’s murder were never apprehended. Many people believe that’s because of FBI bungling, although that’s never been proved. This real-life murder is part of the inspiration for Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger. In that novel, Navajo Tribal Police detectives Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn investigate a theft from a Native American casino. A group of right-wing militia activists have stolen the money to buy arms, and of course, the FBI and local police want to find them. At first, a part-time casino security officer, Teddy Bai, is believed to have been the ‘inside person’ in the job, but he claims innocence. It turns out that this robbery is connected to an old Ute legend, and to murder.

Damien Seaman’s The Killing of Emma Gross has as its inspiration the real-life 1929 murder of a Düsseldorf prostitute. At the time, Peter Kürten was arrested, tried and convicted of the crime. He even confessed to it. But, although he was guilty of other murders (he was dubbed ‘The Düsseldorf Vampire), he later recanted his confession. And there was no direct evidence linking him to Emma Gross’ killing. Kürten was executed in 1931, and Emma Gross’ real killer was never found. Seaman explores this case through the eyes of his sleuth, Düsseldorf Detective Inspector (DI) Thomas Klein. In the novel, Klein thinks he has finally found evidence that links Kürten to several murders. But there is one murder, that of Emma Gross, that is still unsolved. It could be that Kürten is guilty of that murder, but Klein has come to believe that’s not the case. It could also be that another man, Johann Stausberg, is guilty. The police originally arrested him for some of the crimes, but then Klein seemed like a more likely possibility. Or, Emma Gross could have been killed by a completely different person. Klein starts to ask questions; and, eventually, he gets to the truth about this murder.

There are other cases, too, that, perhaps, don’t get the media attention that the Crippen case in the UK, or the ‘Zodiac’ case in the US did. But that doesn’t mean they’re not interesting. So it’s not surprising that authors are inspired by them sometimes.

In fact, there’s even a crime fiction series that features this sort of inspiration. Lynda Wilcox’s protagonist, Verity Long, is assistant/researcher for famous crime writer Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. Her job is to look up unsolved cases that might serve as the basis for a new novel. And sometimes that research gets her involved in solving those cases. Her work also gets her involved in solving present-day cases, some of which are tied to the unsolved cases she researches.

There are plenty of interesting cases that don’t necessarily make the headlines, but that are interesting, or thought-provoking. Those cases can serve as inspiration for crime fiction; and, when they’re done well, can keep readers engaged. These are only a few examples. Which ones have stayed with you?

 

ps. Thanks, Mob Museum, for the photograph of Albert Anastasia!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lin-Manual Miranda’s Finale (Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story)

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Filed under Damien Seaman, James Ellroy, Lynda Wilcox, Mayra Montero, Tony Hillerman

You Know I’m Gonna be Like Him*

It’s interesting how things get passed along in families. I’m not really talking here about physical appearance, although that, of course, is passed along, too. I’m talking more about things such as mannerisms, traits, and, sometimes, special talents. If you’ve ever caught yourself saying something exactly like one of your parents, or using a mannerism that one of your parents used, you know what I mean.

We see this in crime fiction, too, and it can make for an interesting layer of character development. It can even add to a plot point. It’s realistic, too, so it can also add some credibility to family dynamics.

Agatha Christie addressed this in several of her stories. There’s even one (I’m not giving title or sleuth, so as to avoid spoilers) in which family traits prove to be a major clue to a killer. Appointment With Death, for instance, features the Boynton family, Americans who are on a tour of the Middle East. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is a malicious, tyrannical person whom Hercule Poirot calls a mental sadist. She has her family so much under her control that they do whatever she says, and never risk displeasing her. The family takes a trip to the ruins of Petra, during which Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies. Colonel Carbury is in charge of the case, and he’s not quite satisfied that this was a natural death. He asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and it soon comes out that the victim was murdered. The most likely suspects are the members of her family, each of whom had a very good motive for murder. One of those family members is seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Jinny’ Boynton. She’s become mentally quite fragile as a result of her mother’s psychological abuse, and on the surface, she doesn’t seem much like her at all. But, she has a rare acting ability. When she gets the chance to live her own life, free of her mother’s influence, we see just how talented she is – and that she has more in common with her mother than it seemed. Here’s what one character says:
 

‘‘Looking at Jinny, I saw – for the first time – the likeness. The same thing – only Jinny is in light – where She was in darkness…’’
 

It’s an interesting commentary on the way certain mannerisms and personality traits can be passed down.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, we are introduced to Trevor Sharp. He’s a teenager who’s a bit at loose ends. He doesn’t fit in well at school, and he doesn’t have a lot of friends. So, as you can imagine, he’s quite drawn in by a local delinquent named Mick Webster. His father, Graham, warns him away from the boy, but Trevor doesn’t listen. That’s how he gets mixed up in several cases that Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks is investigating. For one thing, a voyeur has been spying on several of Eastvale’s women. For another, there’s been a series of home invasions. Then, there’s a murder. And Banks wants to know what role, if any, Trevor has played in these crimes. As we get to know the Sharps, we see that on the surface, they’re different. But they really aren’t that different after all. And, in the end, we see how much Trevor has inherited, if that’s the right term, from his father.

One of the main characters in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential is an LAPD officer named Edward ‘Ed’ Exley. He is the son of LAPD legend Preston Exley, and that fact makes his life extremely complicated. His older brother Thomas, was, in many ways, just like their father, and slated for a highly successful police career. In fact, Exley senior placed all of his hopes in Thomas. But Thomas was killed in WW II (the novel takes place in the early 1950s) shortly after his graduation from the police academy. Now, the burden of excelling on the police force falls to Ed, who’s not nearly as much like his father as his brother was. Still, as the novel goes on, we see that he has more in common with his father than it may seem on the surface.

Herman Koch’s The Dinner features the members of the Lohman family. One evening, Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, meet up with his brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. They’re having dinner at an ultra-exclusive and extremely expensive Amsterdam restaurant. On the surface, it’s just a getting-together of two couples. But under the surface, there’s a lot more going on. Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son, and, together, their boys have committed a terrible crime. Now, the two couples have to decide what they’re going to do about it. As the novel goes on, we see that, in several ways, the boys have inherited their attitudes and beliefs from their parents. While the parents are unwilling to admit it, there’s a resemblance between them and their sons.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. She is a (now-retired) academic and political scientist. She is also the mother of an adopted daughter, Taylor. Among other things, Taylor is an extraordinary artist, with rare talent. Interestingly, her biological mother, Sally, also had real artistic talent. The novels in the series don’t all focus on Taylor, Sally, or art. But throughout the series, we see how, even though they spent no real time together during Taylor’s formative years (Sally was killed when Taylor was not much more than a toddler), there are still real resemblances between the two. And sometimes, they’re very clear to Joanne, who was friends with Sally and who has raised Taylor.

There are, of course, plenty of examples of parents and children who are absolutely nothing like one another. But in a lot of cases, there are similarities, whether it’s in attitude, mannerisms, preferences, or something else. So it makes sense that we’d see those similarities in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Herman Koch, James Ellroy, Peter Robinson

We Can Be Heroes*

One of the interesting contradictions in human thinking has to do with what I’ll call larger-than-life figures. On the one hand, we want the people in our lives to be, well, human. And that means they make mistakes and fall short at times. On the other hand, we want heroes to look up to, as well.

This contradiction’s very clear, at least to me, in the way we read. On the one hand, one consistent thing I learn from other readers is that they want their characters to be believable human beings. So do I. ‘Superheroes’ aren’t really credible. On the other hand, people do want to look up to someone. That’s one reason why, for instance, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey has been such a popular protagonist. Plenty of readers think that he’s ‘too perfect.’ You may very well be one of them. But plenty of readers love the fact that he saves the day.

We certainly see this contradiction in crime-fictional characters. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we are introduced to Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He and his wife, Gerda, are invited to spend the weekend at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Gerda very much doesn’t want to go. Not only is she put off by the Angkatells, but she loves her regular, routine life, and she is devoted to her children. But, John wants to go. And, for Gerda, that’s enough. She hero-worships her husband and feels a great need to look up to him. So, the Christows go to the Angkatells’ home. On the Sunday, John Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby and was invited for lunch as it was. So, he gets involved in the investigation. At first, it looks like a very straightforward case. But it turns out to be not very straightforward at all. One of the interesting aspects of this novel is Christow’s contradictory views about being hero-worshipped. He wishes Gerda didn’t look up to him as perfect, the way she does. On the other hand, he admits to himself that he likes his own way, and that he married her in part because she hero-worships him.

John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler introduces readers to Classics professor Arnold Weschler, who teaches at Hewes College. One day, he is summoned to the office of the college’s president, Winthrop Dohrn. The college has been rocked by student unrest (the book was published in 1971), and Dohrn believes that Wechsler’s brother, David, who’s been involved with radical student groups, may have knowledge of subversive activities. Dohrn wants Wechsler to contact his brother and have him get whatever group is involved to stop what they’re doing. Wechsler isn’t a particularly political person, so he’s reluctant to get involved. It doesn’t help matters that he and David are estranged. But he agrees, and contacts David. Then, there’s a kidnapping. And a bombing that causes a death. David is implicated, although he claims to be innocent, so the brothers have to work together to find out who’s behind these incidents. Without spoiling the story, I can say that wanting to look up to someone as a hero plays an important role in the novel.

It does in Beryl Bainbridge’s Harriet Said, too. As the story begins, the thirteen-year-old unnamed narrator is waiting for her fourteen-year-old friend, Harriet, to return to Lancashire from a holiday in Wales. As it happens, the narrator encounters Peter Biggs, who is middle-aged and unhappily married, during a walk one day. The two strike up a friendship of sorts, and the narrator feels the first stirrings of hormones. But she dares not do anything about it until Harriet gets back. When she returns, Harriet says that they’ll use this as one of the many experiences they’ve been documenting. So, the two decide to spend some time spying on Biggs. One day, they see something they weren’t meant to see, and things start to spin out of control, and the result is horrific. The narrator has interesting contradictory feelings about Harriet. On the one hand, she is well aware of Harriet’s faults. In fact, she has times of thoroughly disliking her. On the other hand, she feels the need for a friend, and for someone to look up to as well. So, Harriet becomes a sort of hero. And it doesn’t work out well…

James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential explores this same sort of contradiction. One of the main characters in the novel is LAPD detective Edward ‘Ed’ Exley. He is the son of the much-revered Preston Exley. In many ways, he hero-worships his father, as many children do. So, since Preston Exley wants his son to go to the top of the LAPD ladder, that’s what Ed tries to achieve. And it impacts his conduct throughout the novel. On the other hand, Ed has good reason to resent his father, too. And he’s very much aware that his father is anything but a perfect hero. It makes for an interesting exploration of Ed Exley’s character as the novel goes on.

And then there’s Emma Cline’s The Girls, in which we meet fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd. It’s the summer of 1969, and she is feeling restless for something – anything – to happen. Then, she meets a group of young girls in a park, and feels drawn to them, especially to one of them, who’s named Suzanne. Through Suzanne, Evie meets Russell, the charismatic ‘hero’ of these girls. As the novel goes on, Evie gets more and more involved with this group, and more and more obsessed with Suzanne. And we see how hero worship can lead to some very dark places.

But most of us do not blindly worship heroes. Instead, we prefer people who are more realistic. And that means they make mistakes and sometimes fail. At the same time, we want our heroes, too. It’s an interesting contradiction…

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie’s Heroes.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Beryl Bainbridge, Dorothy L. Sayers, Emma Cline, James Ellroy, John Alexander Graham

Politics – the Art of the Possible*

Whenever groups of people work together, there’s the issue of what I’ll call politics (I don’t mean government politics here. That’s the subject for another post at some point). Who’s in charge? Who gets ahead? Who’s allied with whom? Most people say that they get sick of office politics. On the other hand, it’s wise to be able to get along with colleagues. It’s a delicate balance to strike.

Some people, though, learn to be masters of workplace politics. They’re the ones who move along quickly in their careers. We may resent them, and even decide not to trust them. But it’s hard not to notice their ability to manage their careers. And we certainly see those characters in crime fiction.

For example, James Ellroy’s LA Confidential introduces readers to Los Angeles police detective Edmund ‘Ed’ Exley. He is the son of the much-revered Preston Exley, whose dream it is for his son to get to the top of the LAPD. He gives Ed all sorts of advice, pulls the right proverbial strings, and so on. And Ed certainly learns to play the ‘politics game.’ The real action in the story begins on Christmas Day, 1951, when seven civilians are brutally attacked by the police. Two years later, there’s another tragedy. This time, it’s a late-night shooting at the Nite Owl Diner. Exley is involved in both of these situations, and he uses his political skills (and the prodding from his father) to manipulate matters so that he can move ahead in his career.

Fans of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels will know that Bosch runs up against Irvin Irving more than once in his career. Irving is a very politically astute member of the LAPD, who’s quite skilled at protecting himself and those in high positions on the force. He isn’t above squashing investigations if they might impact his image, or the images of those above him in the pecking order. And, more than once, he works to impede investigations that Bosch is conducting. As any Bosch fan can tell you, Harry Bosch follows the trail wherever it leads, and that doesn’t always sit well with Irving’s political ambitions. The two butt heads more than once in the course of the series.

Martin Edwards’ Lake District mysteries feature Hannah Scarlett, who heads up the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. Her Assistant Chief Constable (ACC), Lauren Self, is extremely politically conscious and astute. She takes every opportunity she can to advance her career; and, while she’s not deliberately malicious, she has no intentions of letting anything get in the way of her success. On the one hand, Scarlett has much less interest in ‘office politics.’ She wants to get the job done. Sometimes that putts her at odds with her boss. On the other hand, she can’t help but notice, and, in a way, respect the way Self manages the political realities of the job.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti works at the Venice questura. He wants to see crimes solved, and justice done. But he’s often hampered by his boss, vice-questore Giuseppe Patta. Patta’s main focus is his own career. So, he toadies to those with money and power. If an investigation happens to lead to someone with influence, or someone who could help Patta’s career, he’s not above squashing the investigation. He’s been known to remove Brunetti from cases, too. Fortunately, Patta’s assistant, Signorina Elettra Zorzi, likes Brunetti and generally supports what he’s doing. She’s quite good at manipulating her boss, too, so she and Brunetti find ways to get things done.

It’s not just police forces where we see these politically astute characters. Many other groups and businesses include them. For example, in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, we are introduced to Albert Fernandez. He’s a Crown Prosecutor who lives and works in Toronto. Frenandez wants to move ahead in his career, and he does a lot to make that happen. He’s the first in the office in the morning, and the last to leave. He calculates the political risks of what he does, who he spends time with, and so on. It’s not that he’s soulless, but he’s intent on career success, and he has a sense of what that takes. He gets a chance at a real ‘feather in the cap’ when famous broadcaster Kevin Brace is arrested for killing his common-law wife, Katherine Thorn. It ought to be an easy case. Brace told a witness that he killed her. And he hasn’t said anything since to defend himself (actually, he hasn’t spoken since. He communicates with his own lawyer, Nancy Parish via handwritten notes). Fernandez isn’t going to find this case as easy a win as he thinks, though. Parish is no slouch, and there’s more to this case than it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Megan Abbott’s Dare Me. That novel takes place mostly within the context of a high school cheerleading team. Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy are members of their high school’s cheerleading squad, and undisputed ‘queen bees’ of their school’s social order. They know all about the politics of ‘making it’ in high school, and they’ve done well. Beth, in particular, is at the top of the high school social ladder. Then, Collette French is hired to coach the cheerleading squad. Right from the beginning, French changes the social order. The cheerleading squad becomes an elite social group, and Addy is welcomed into the ‘inner circle.’ Beth, though, is not. Then, there’s a suicide (or was it?). It’s interesting to see how the politics of high school, and those who play that game well, are important in this novel.

There are plenty of other fictional examples of people who are astute at ‘office politics.’ Such characters have important social survival skills; even as we may resent them, it’s hard to deny their ability to negotiate some dangerous waters, as the saying goes. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s The Art of the Possible.

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Filed under Donna Leon, James Ellroy, Martin Edwards, Megan Abbott, Michael Connelly, Robert Rotenberg