Category Archives: James Ellroy

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