Category Archives: Jane Haddam

Fall in Philadelphia*

As this is posted, it’s 335 years since William Penn founded the US city of Philadelphia. As you’ll know, Philadelphia played a major role in early US history, and it’s still an important city, both culturally and in other ways. Did you know, for instance, that Le Bec Fin, one of the world’s top restaurants, is there? So are lots of other wonderful places to eat. And that the ‘Philadelphia sound’ had a powerful influence on popular music? And that the US Postal Service got its start there, when Benjamin Franklin set it up?

If you’re kind enough to read my blog on anything like a regular basis, then you’ll know that I spent most of my adult life in Philadelphia before more moving west, and I consider Philadelphia home. I’ve even set my next Joel Williams mystery mostly in Philadelphia. A standalone I’m writing is also set there.

And that’s the thing. Philadelphia is a great city in many ways, but it’s certainly not peaceful and crime-free! Just a quick look at crime fiction should show you that plenty of (at least fictional) mayhem happens there.

For example, Jane Haddam’s series features Gregor Demarkian, a former FBI agent who lives in an Armenian section of Philadelphia. He often gets drawn into mysteries through his association with the local parish priest, Father Tibor. The cases he gets involved in take him to many of Philadelphia’s different sections, and into its suburbs, too. In that way, Haddam shows clearly the diversity in the city. Each different part has a different ‘feel,’ and many of them are almost their own little worlds, where everyone knows everyone.

Gillian Roberts set her series featuring Amanda Pepper in Philadelphia. Pepper teaches English at Philadelphia Preparatory School (AKA Philly Prep), and gets drawn into more than one murder mystery. In Caught Dead in Philadelphia, for instance, Pepper gets an unexpected visit from Philly Prep’s part-time drama coach, Liza Nichols. Nichols asks if she can rest at Pepper’s home for a bit before going to the school later in the day. Pepper agrees, but when she gets home after her own work day, she finds Nichols dead. As you can imagine, she’s the first suspect, but Detective C.K. McKenzie is soon able to establish her innocence. This means, though, that someone else is guilty – someone who was in Pepper’s home. So, there’s a real sense of urgency about finding the killer.

Lisa Scottoline’s series is also set in Philadelphia. The Rosato and Associates/Rosato and DiNunzio novels feature the high-powered law firm, Rosato and Associates, owned by Benedetta ‘Bennie’ Rosato.  The series ‘stars’ various different members of the law firm in the different novels. The first, Everywhere That Mary Went, introduces Mary DiNunzio, who’s on track to become a partner in the firm. She soon finds that someone is stalking her. As if that’s not enough, her secretary is killed by a car that’s been following DiNunzio around.  Now, the firm is dealing with the murder of one of its own, as well as the very real risk that someone has targeted one of its junior attorneys.

Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel shows what life in Philadelphia was like in decades past, especially for those with means. The story begins in the late 1950’s. Evelyn ‘Evie’ Hobart grew up with little in the way of money or privilege, but she is beautiful and seductive. She is also acquisitive, and has always wanted ‘things.’ One night at a dance, she meets Hank Moran, who comes from a family with money and reputation, and it’s not long before they’re married. Now, Evie lives among the ‘better’ people in one of Philadelphia’s wealthy suburbs. It’s the sort of community where women take day trips into the city to shop, belong to clubs and societies, and focus on their well-appointed homes. Evie’s not really happy with her new life, though, since for her, the ‘spark of life’ comes from getting and having things, especially when she hasn’t paid for them. She’s caught more than once, but at first, everything’s kept quiet because of the family’s reputation and money. Finally, though, it becomes too much, and she is sent to The Terraces, an exclusive ‘special place’ where she can be ‘cured.’ Not much changes, though, and her daughter, Christine, grows up in that toxic environment. Evie does whatever she has to do to take what she wants, whether it’s money, jewels, men, or anything else. Christine can do little to stop her mother, until she discovers that her three-year-old brother, Ryan, is being drawn into the same dysfunctional web. Now, she resolves to free herself and her brother from their mother.

Most people think of Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire series as distinctively Wyoming. And it is. But as fans can tell you, Longmire’s deputy, Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti, is a native of Philadelphia, and a former police officer there. She still has connections to the city, too. In fact, the third Longmire novel, Kindness Goes Unpunished, actually takes place there. At one point (in Death Without Company), here’s what Moretti says about herself:
 

‘‘I’m from Philadelphia, where we vote early and often, and everybody on the jury has a vowel on the end of his name.’’
 

Moretti is nothing if not unvarnished…

And I wouldn’t want to do a post on crime fiction in Philadelphia without mentioning Jerry Bruckheimer’s TV series, Cold Case, which aired in the US between 2003 and 2010. The show features a team of Philadelphia homicide detectives whose specialty is re-opening and investigating murder cases that have ‘gone cold.’ There are also, as you can imagine, story arcs about the detectives’ own lives. Admittedly, the show isn’t always – ahem – completely true-to-life. But it has a distinctive setting, and explores several of the different cultures in the city, as well as aspects of the city’s history.

See what I mean? Philadelphia is a vibrant city, rich with history, art, music, good food, top universities and medical facilities, and more. But peaceful? Crime-free? Well, perhaps not…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of song by Daryl Hall and John Oates.

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Filed under Craig Johnson, Gillian Roberts, Jane Haddam, Jerry Bruckheimer, Lisa Scottoline, Patricia Abbott

Hardly Anyone Has Seen How Good I Am*

Not long ago, I did a spotlight on Jane Haddam’s Not a Creature Was Stirring. And, as always seems to happen, the best thing about the post wasn’t the post at all. It was the discussion that followed it. In this case, a few of you commented about Haddam’s series, and wondered why it’s not much more widely read than it is.

And that’s got me thinking about other series that are like that. You know the sort of series I mean. They’re well-regarded, and may run to five, ten, or even more, books. But at the same time, they aren’t very widely read, and you don’t see them on a lot of ‘recommended’ lists.

It’s a difficult question to answer, really. After all, people differ greatly on what ‘counts’ as ‘widely read’ and ‘well known.’ That said, though, it’s interesting to consider why some series catch fire, as the saying goes, and are talked about a lot, and others aren’t.

Haddam’s is arguably one such series. For those not familiar with these novels, they feature former FBI agent Gregor Demarkian. He has an Armenian background, and is a member of Philadelphia’s Armenian community. In fact, most of the novels in the series are set in and around that city. Although he’s retired, he does consult with the police under certain circumstances. And a lot of the cases he investigates come through his best friend and local parish priest, Father Tibor. This is a 29-book series, so it’s not just a matter of a few books. And Haddam’s won awards for her work. And yet, plenty of people aren’t familiar at all with her series.

The ‘Emma Lathen’ writing team of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart created the very well-regarded John Putnam Thatcher series. As fans of the series can tell you, Thatcher is a vice-president for the Sloan Guaranty Trust. The Sloan is often involved in mergers, acquisitions, international banking, and so on. So, there’s plenty of opportunity for nefarious doings, including fraud and murder. This series is 24 novels long, and, like Haddam’s, has won awards. In fact, one of the entries, Murder Against the Grain, won the Crime Writer’s Association (CWA)’s 1967 Gold Dagger Award. And the team won the Malice Domestic Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1997. Admittedly, this series is arguably more widely known than Haddam’s. Still, it doesn’t always make the list of best-known authors and series the way, say, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series might.

The same might be said for the work of Marian Babson. Since 1971’s Cover Up Story, she’s had more than 40 books published. Interestingly enough, they’re all standalones (although some do re-use characters). They’re traditional-style mysteries, usually involving amateur sleuths. That said, though, they aren’t really what you’d call ‘cosy.’ While they tend to be low on violence (especially graphic violence), they aren’t ‘light, frothy’ books. Babson’s work is very highly regarded, especially among those who prefer traditional mysteries. She won the CWA’s 1996 Dagger in the Library Award for her body of work. And yet, a great many readers, including crime fiction fans, aren’t familiar at all with her work. And it’s not for lack of quality or high regard. Like Haddam and the Emma Lathen team, it’s also not because she only wrote a few novels.

There’s also the case of K.C. Constantine. He is the author of the Mario Balzic series, which takes place in the fictional Western Pennsylvania town of Rocksburg, where Balzic is Chief of Police. Beginning with The Blank Page, there are 17 novels in the series, most of which feature Balzic (two feature his protégé, Detective Sergeant Ruggiero ‘Rugs’ Carlucci, as well as other ‘beat’ cops). Rocksburg is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone, so, as the series evolves, we get to know Balzic, his wife, and several other people in the town quite well. And, in fact, character development plays an important role in the series. It’s a highly-regarded series, and fans will tell you it’s well worth reading. And, yet, you might easily be forgiven for never having heard of these books. In a way, that’s how Constantine likes it. He chooses to remain as anonymous as possible, and values his privacy, and that of his family, very much. So, even if you’re a crime fiction fan who goes to conferences such as Malice Domestic, Crimefest, Bouchercon, or other such events, you’re not likely to meet him.

And then there’s Jill McGown’s series featuring Detective Inspector (DI) David Lloyd, and Detective Sergeant (DS) Judy Hill of Stansfield CID. Beginning with 1983’s A Perfect Match, this is a traditional-style police procedural series. As the series goes on, Lloyd and Hill move along in their careers. They also continue their romantic relationship, eventually marrying and having a family. But the focus in these novels is on the mysteries. All in all, there are thirteen books in the series, and they’re well regarded. In fact, A Shred of Evidence was adapted for television film in 2001. McGown’s fans are devoted, too. And yet, this series is arguably not a ‘household word,’ the way, say, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is.

There are plenty of other series, too, that fall into this category. I’ll bet you could name far more examples than I could. And there are a number of reasons that a series might not be particularly widely known. Even if authors are willing to go to a lot of conferences, etc., to promote their work, there’s a lot of competition. And with today’s self-publishing and other digital publication, there are even more book choices. So, readers have to make decisions about what they’ll choose. So do publishers. Even if an author is talented, and gets professional acclaim, that doesn’t mean that particular author is a best-seller. And publishers are interested in promoting the work of authors whose work sells a lot.

There are other reasons, too. What do you think about this? Which authors do you feel deserve a lot more attention than they’ve gotten? Why do you think those authors haven’t ‘caught fire?’ Thanks to those who commented on that earlier post, and got me thinking about this!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Rosalinda’s Eyes.

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Filed under Colin Dexter, Emma Lathen, Jane Haddam, Jill McGown, K.C. Constantine, Marian Babson, Sue Grafton

In The Spotlight: Jane Haddam’s Not a Creature Was Stirring

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s something about what a lot of people call the country house mystery. The house doesn’t always have to actually be in the countryside; but such a story usually involves a disparate group of people who have gathered, a sense of isolation, and, of course, a murder. Such a story is Jane Haddam’s Not a Creature Was Stirring, the first of her Gregor Demarkian novels, so let’s turn the spotlight on that story today.

The real action in the novel begins when Philadelphia-based former FBI agent Gregor Demarkian gets a note from the local parish priest, Father Tibor, asking him to pay the priest a visit. Father Tibor has had a very unusual request, and he’s agreed to pass it along to Demarkian. A very wealthy man named Robert Hannaford wants Demarkian to have dinner with his family on Christmas Eve. In return, he’s willing to give US$100,000 to the church. On the one hand, it’s not surprising that Hannaford would know Demarkian’s name, as he had quite a reputation before he left the Bureau. On the other, it’s an extremely odd request. Still, Demarkian agrees to go. The dinner is to be held at the family home, Engine House, in Bryn Mawr, a very wealthy suburb of Philadelphia.

When Demarkian arrives, he sees that it’s too late to find out what his host really wanted: Hannaford has been murdered. The police have already arrived, and Detective John Jackman is in charge of the investigation. He and Demarkian know each other; and, at first, he thinks that the FBI is going to take over the case, much to his chagrin. But, once Jackman’s reassured that Demarkian’s no longer with the Bureau, and has no desire for a ‘patch war,’ he decides to tap Demarkian’s expertise, and hire him as a consultant.

Because of the security at the family home, it’s highly unlikely that a stranger would have killed Hannaford. And because of a snowstorm that’s made the roads steadily more difficult to navigate, it would be hard in any case for someone to commit murder and make a quick getaway. That leaves the members of the Hannaford family, all of whom are staying in the house.

And it’s not long before Demarkian finds plenty of motive among Hannaford’s seven children. The victim disliked all of his children, and made no secret of the fact. And they disliked him just as much. In fact, the only reason most of them are spending Christmas at Engine House is that Christmas is very important to their mother, Cordelia. She’s insisted that everyone should spend the holiday in the old-fashioned way. Within a short time, Demarkian and Jackman establish that any one of the Hannaford children could be the killer. The only one who couldn’t have murdered Hannaford is Cordelia, who’s got advanced multiple sclerosis, and can’t move easily.

Then, there’s another murder. And another. Now, it looks as though someone might be trying to kill off all of the Hannafords. If so, who is it? If there are specific victims in mind, what links them? In the end, Demarkian and Jackman work out who the killer is, and what the motive is.

This is a traditional-style mystery, with a closed group of suspects, several possible motives, and secrets several of the characters are keeping. And the snow and cold give the story a ‘closed in country house murder’ atmosphere. The solution is consistent with a traditional mystery, too. I can say without spoiling the novel that it’s not a serial killer who wants to target rich people.

And rich they are. The Hannaford family is what’s known in Philadelphia as ‘old Main Line.’ People like them have been in the exclusive ‘Main Line’ suburbs of Philadelphia for hundreds of years. They have debutante balls, they go to expensive Ivy League universities, and belong to the most selective clubs in the area. As the story goes on, we get to see what that lifestyle is like. We also get to see how that sort of wealth and social standing has impacted the Hannaford children.

The story is told from a variety of points of view. So, we also get to see what those (now-grown) children and their parents are like. All of them are deeply flawed; some of them are not at all sympathetic characters. And they all have reason to dislike each other. There’s none of the family bonding that many people feel with their siblings and parents. And Hannaford himself is a tyrannical old-style patriarch. Yet, because we see their different perspectives, we also see what motivates them, and we see that, like most people, they are complex.

We also learn about Gregor Demarkian’s character. He’s a widower who still misses his wife, Elizabeth, very much. He doesn’t wallow in it, but he is marked by her death. He is of Armenian ethnic background, and lives in an Armenian area of Philadelphia. Everyone there knows everyone, and Demarkian is woven into that social fabric. In fact, there’s a funny scene during which he has dinner with Bennis Hannaford, one of the Hannaford children. They eat in a local restaurant, and word soon gets around about Demarkian’s ‘date.’

There are other ways, too, in which Haddam weaves some wry wit into the story. In one scene, for instance, one of the Hannaford sons, Teddy, is opening a Christmas gift:
 

‘The second box had gloves in it. Black leather gloves. Teddy already had six pairs…Teddy threw the gloves on the floor. They were from [his sister] Emma. Emma had given him the other six pairs.’
 

It’s not really a light novel. There’s more violence and more profanity than you usually see in light ‘frothy’ stories. But there are some darkly witty moments.

Not a Creature Was Stirring is the story of a wealthy, Main Line Philadelphia family, and the relationships among its members. It has a touch of psychology, and gives the reader a look at life behind the walled estates of the area. And it introduces a sleuth who finds that detection may be the spark he needs to start his life again. But what’s your view? Have you read Not a Creature Was Stirring? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 3 July/Tuesday, 4 July – Inspector Imanishi Investigates –  Seichō Matsumoto

Monday 10 July/Tuesday, 11 July – A Morbid Taste For Bones – Ellis Peters

Monday 17 July/Tuesday, 18 July – Talking to the Dead – Harry Bingham

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Filed under Jane Haddam, Not a Creature Was Stirring