Category Archives: Jim Thompson

They Say He’s Got to Go*

monstersOne of the most enduring plot types in any sort of writing is what I’ll call overcoming the monster. One example, for instance is the story of Beowulf and the monster called the Grendel. Of course, you don’t have to go back that far to find stories where protagonists have to overcome monsters.

If you think of monsters in the figurative sense, there are a lot of instances of this sort of plot in crime fiction. By the way, you’ll notice as this post goes on that there won’t be any instances of ‘crazed serial killer’ plots. Too easy.

In Cecil Day-Lewis/Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we are introduced to Frank Cairnes, a detective novelist who writes under the name of Felix Lane. Six months before the events of the story, his son Martin ‘Martie’ was killed in a hit-and-run incident, and he’s been inconsolable since then. His grief has driven him to the point where, as he puts it,
 

‘I am going to kill a man.’
 

He’s referring, of course, to the man who killed his son. And he regards that person as a kind of monster. He sets out to find the identity of the driver, and put an end to him. Cairnes moves to the town where he and Martie were living at the time of the boy’s death, and starts his sleuthing. He finds out that the driver of the car was likely a man named George Rattery. With that information, Cairnes wangles his way into the Rattery household and looks for an opportunity to kill the man. He gets his chance one afternoon when he and Rattery go sailing together. But, as it turns out, Rattery has found Cairnes’ diary, and knew about the plot to kill him. As he tells Cairnes, if anything happens to him, the police will immediately suspect Cairnes. That’s exactly what happens when, later that afternoon, Rattery dies of poison. Cairnes seeks out poet and amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways, and asks for his help. He claims that he’s innocent (after all, why would he have planned to poison Rattery when he was going to push him overboard?) and Strangeways goes to work finding out who the real killer was. In this case, Cairnes’ grief has made him think of Rattery as a monster.

Sometimes, the monster that characters seek to overcome is in themselves (perhaps that’s another blog topic in itself…). In Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, for instance, we meet Lou Ford, deputy sheriff of Central City, Texas. He’s a quiet sort of man, a little on the ‘plodding’ side, but not stupid. He investigates when a local prostitute, Joyce Lakeland, is viciously beaten. While he’s working on that case, there’s a murder. Now it’s clear that something is going on in Central City. And all along, what people don’t know about Ford is that he’s hiding something he calls ‘the sickness’ – something he tries to overcome. And that ‘sickness’ plays its role in the story.

Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men features her sleuth, artist Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair. The story takes place in 1932 in New South Wales. It’s a time of great hardship, with the worldwide Great Depression hitting everyone very hard. Siinclair’s family is relatively safe, as they’re wealthy and powerful. But that doesn’t mean they’re safe from tragedy. When Sinclair’s uncle, also named Rowland, is murdered one night, Inspector Biquit and his team investigate. Slowly, Sinclair comes to suspect that his uncle’s killers might be members of the New Guard, a far-right group led by Colonel Eric Campbell. The group’s aim is to stamp out all liberal and left-wing thinking, and establish a new government in Australia, that will protect the current class system, and re-establish very traditional ways of life. The more Sinclair learns about the New Guard, the more dangerous he finds them to be. In fact, they’re already plotting against New South Wales’ government, and the rest of the country will likely not be far behind. As Sinclair and his friends try to find out who murdered his uncle, they also have to work to prevent the New Guard, and Campbell, from succeeding. In this case, it’s a dangerous political group that’s seen as a sort of monster that must be stopped.

Most children are no strangers to the concept of a monster and the desire to overcome it. And for some children, it’s all too real. For instance, in Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, fourteen-year-old Adam Vander finally works up the courage to escape his abusive father, Joe. He’s always thought of Joe as a kind of monster, and with good reason. But until now, he’s always been too small and too frightened to leave. When he finally does, he meets Billy Benson, a young man who happens to be at the house when Adam makes his escape. The two spend the next week together, and form a sort of friendship. They learn, too, that they are connected in ways they’re not really comfortable discussing, but that are undeniable. And it all stems from a past incident. Still, they work together, and face real danger as the week goes on, and in the end, there’s a sense of resolution. Several parts of the story are told from Adam’s perspective, so we see how he regards Joe. It’s not exactly like Beowulf trying to defeat the Grendel, but there’s a very similar sort of sentiment.

And then there’s Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol’s Cemetery of Swallows. That novel begins as Manuel Gemoni travels from France to the Dominican Republic. There, he kills a Dominican citizen named Tobias Darbier. There’s no doubt that Gemoni is the killer, but what’s missing is a motive. All he says about it is that he killed Darbier,
 

‘‘…because he had killed me.’’
 

Gemoni has been badly injured, so Police Commissioner Amédée Mallock of the Paris CID is sent to the Dominican Republic to bring Gemoni back to France as soon as his condition allows. When he has fully recuperated, the agreement is that he will be returned to the Dominican Republic to face trial. Mallock is particularly interested in this case, since one of his colleagues is Gemoni’s sister. As the novel goes on, we slowly learn the history of Gemoni and Darbier. And we see that the theme of overcoming a monster is woven into the plot.

It’s woven into many plots, actually. And that’s not surprising. That plot type can be very suspenseful and tense. And it’s something that resonates with readers.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blue Öyster Cult’s Godzilla.

 

26 Comments

Filed under Cecil Day-Lewis, Honey Brown, Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol, Jim Thompson, Nicholas Blake, Sulari Gentill

Far Too Many Sins to Mention*

FaultsNobody’s perfect. That’s a very obvious point, but when it comes to crime-fictional sleuths, I think it bears a little reflection. I think most of us would probably agree that we don’t want our protagonists to be too perfect. After all, a perfect protagonist isn’t realistic. So characters with no weaknesses and faults don’t feel well-developed or authentic.

In the early days of crime fiction, a lot of character depth was arguably less important than it is now. This isn’t to say of course that no classic or Golden Age detective stories have well-rounded protagonists. But the emphasis was on the plot rather than on the evolution of a flawed but still appealing and believable protagonist.

Just as one example, one of the criticisms I’ve read of Dorothy Sayers’ work is that her Lord Peter Wimsey is too perfect. He gets it right too often. Whether you agree with that particular claim or not, it reflects a more general criticism of some of the ‘heroes’ of the stories of that era. People want their protagonists to be believable and that means to be less than perfect.

One response to this interest in the ‘not perfect’ protagonist has been what people sometimes call the ‘anti-hero.’ Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is arguably one example of that sort of character. Ripley is not without any feelings, but he is amoral. He’s been mixed up in fraud, murder, theft and other crimes; on that level, he’s got many deep flaws.

There are also characters such as Jim Thompson’s Lou Ford, whom we meet in The Killer Inside Me. On the surface, Ford seems to be what everyone thinks he is – a pleasant if dull local sheriff’s deputy. Then crime comes to Central City, Texas. First, there’s a vicious beating. Then there’s a murder. As the investigation goes on, we begin to see what Lou Ford is really like, and we learn about his past. Without spoiling the story, I think it’s fair to say that Ford is not a classic detective-story ‘hero.’

There are more modern examples too of the ‘anti hero’ sort of protagonist. For example, some people feel that Leif G.W. Persson’s Evert Bäckström is an anti-hero. Certainly he’s not ‘politically correct.’ He’s not easy to work with, he’s egotistical and he’s bigoted. By most people’s estimation he’s a fairly deeply flawed character.

And yet, the trilogy featuring Bäckström and his team has been well-regarded. A lot of people think that The Killer Inside Me is a classic noir story. And Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels have certainly gotten a great deal of praise. So it’s possible for an ‘anti hero’ to be appealing enough to hold readers’ interest.

That said though, I think we could all think of examples of stories we’ve read with one too many broken, demon-haunted, drunken detectives. I won’t make a list; you’ve all read your share I’m sure. We’ve all had the experience too of reading books we didn’t enjoy because there simply nothing to make us care about the protagonist. So simply giving a character many, many flaws isn’t enough to make her or him interesting.

What’s the balance, then? A protagonist who’s too perfect is not just unrealistic, but can also be annoying. But a protagonist who is too full of weaknesses, flaws and negative qualities puts readers off. How flawed does a protagonist need to be for that character to seem realistic? How many flaws are just too many? When do your ‘eye roll’ moments start?  Of course, different people will have different reactions, but I would really be interested in your input.

If you’re a writer, how do you decide how many weaknesses your protagonist is going to have?  What’s your strategy for making your protagonist human enough to be believable, but not so full of flaws as to be off-putting?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Right on Time.

45 Comments

Filed under Dorothy Sayers, Jim Thompson, Leif G.W. Persson, Patricia Highsmith

When the Sun Comes Up on a Sleepy Little Town*

Small TownLook at any picture postcard and you’ll see that the image of the village or small town is supposed to be peaceful, quiet and inviting. But beneath the surface of small-town hospitality and pleasantness can lurk an awful lot of nastiness. In a way that’s not surprising. After all, people in small towns tend to know each other well. That means all sorts of resentments can build up. And small towns and villages can be insular – outsiders not welcome at all. Add to that the history that small-towners can have together and it can make for a very effective context for a murder. There are many examples of the ‘creepy small town’ sort of crime novel. I’ll just give a few of them here.

Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger takes place in the village of Lymstock. Jerry Burton and his sister Joanna have recently moved there so that Jerry can recover from a wartime injury. They’re not there long when they receive a vicious anonymous note that suggests that the Burtons are not siblings, but lovers. Soon, they discover that they’re not the only victims. Several other villagers have gotten awful anonymous notes, and soon, some very ugly rumours begin. Then, a letter to the local solicitor’s wife results in a suicide. Then there’s another death. The police investigate, but the local vicar’s wife thinks Miss Marple will be far better suited to find out what really happened. Miss Marple is very familiar with village histories, animosities and so on, and is in a good position to make sense of what she hears. It turns out the network of relationships among the villagers has a lot to do with the letters and the deaths.

Central City, Texas is the setting for Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. It’s a quiet, peaceful town on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath that bucolic tranquility. When a local prostitute Joyce Lakeland is badly beaten, deputy sheriff Lou Ford investigates. He’s what most folks think of as the ‘nice but dull,’ plodding sort, but he’s not stupid. And he’s hiding something most people don’t know about – something he calls ‘the sickness.’ He’s looking into the attack on Joyce Lakeland when there’s a murder. Now it’s clear that something sinister is going on in the town and that things are not nearly as peaceful and pleasant as it seems.

Caroline Graham wrote seven Inspector Barnaby novels, but as anyone who’s watched Midsomer Murders knows, those few novels inspired a television series that’s been on the air since 1997. In the novels, Graham takes a look at the hidden lives of villagers and the sometimes ugly things beneath the surface of an ‘ordinary English village.’ In The Killings at Badger’s Drift for instance, Emily Simpson suddenly dies of what looks on the surface like a heart attack. But her friend Lucy Bellringer thinks otherwise. In fact, Miss Bellringer is so insistent that this is a case of murder that the police make an investigation. It turns out that the victim was poisoned with hemlock. As Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate, they discover that there is a lot going on beneath the surface of the quiet village of Badger’s Drift, and that Miss Simpson found out more about it than was safe for her to know.

Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin takes place in the Peak District near the village of Rakedale. A skeleton is discovered at Pity Wood Farm not far from the village, and DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper begin the investigation. Then another skeleton is found, and the investigation moves into high gear. The current owner of the farm is Manchester attorney Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the land for development and doesn’t know much about the farm or the area. So Fry and Cooper try to get information about the farm’s former owners, brothers Derek and Raymond Sutton. Derek Sutton has died, but Raymond Sutton is still alive and in a nursing home. He claims to know nothing about the bodies and in fact, forensic evidence suggests that the remains were buried after Sutton sold the farm. As a part of the investigation, Fry and Cooper try to talk to the people who live in the area, but the Rakedale villagers are not interested in talking to outsiders, especially if they’re police. In fact there’s a very telling scene in which Fry goes into the local to try to get some answers. It’s very clear that Rakedale keeps itself to itself as the saying goes. That insularity adds a layer of tension to the novel, and so does the set of old traditions, beliefs and superstitions that the detectives uncover as they find out the truth about the deaths.

In P.J. Parrish’s Dead of Winter, police detective Louis Kincaid takes a new job in the small town of Loon Lake, Michigan. Loon Lake is popular with hunters, anglers, and those who like ice fishing, so there are lots of ‘getaway’ cottages and homes in the area. But the town itself is small and on the surface of it very peaceful. Soon after he arrives, Kincaid discovers that he was hired to replace Officer Thomas Pryce, who was recently murdered in his own home. Kincaid has some questions about the official police theory, and his boss Brian Gibraltar gives him permission to pursue the investigation. Bit by bit, Kincaid finds that Pryce was keeping some secrets; finding out what they are will be critical to solving his murder. But there are several other people in this supposedly peaceful community who also aren’t telling everything they know. So Kincaid doesn’t get much help on the case, even from people in whose interest you would think it would be to find the killer. Along with Kincaid’s sense of increasing isolation as he investigates, there’s also a sense of lingering racism in this community. Certainly anyone who’s ‘different’ is considered odd. That atmosphere adds a layer of tension to this story.

And then there’s Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which features the lives of the residents of Chabot, Mississippi. After twenty-five years of absence, Silas Jones returns to Chabot to serve as its constable. Soon, he finds himself investigating the disappearance of Tina Rutherford. Everyone assumes that local ‘oddball’ Larry Ott is responsible and in fact, he’s attacked in his own home by a vigilante. Ott’s the most likely suspect because years earlier, he took Cindy Walker out on the only date he’s ever had, and she never returned. No-one could prove what happened to her, but everyone thinks Ott’s guilty of murdering her. Jones finds that as he investigates the Tina Rutherford case, he also has to face the town’s (and his own) past and find out what really happened to Cindy Walker.

There are other series too that uncover the hidden layers of nastiness in small towns and villages. For instance, Ellery Queen visits the small town of Wrightsville in three Queen novels: Calamity Town, Ten Days Wonder and The King is Dead. There’s also Rebecca Tope’s Thea Osborne series, and Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder series. There are also lots of small-town series for those who prefer cosy mysteries. Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting series is just one example. Who said small towns are the safest places to live??? 😉

Thanks to Keishon at Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog for the inspiration. Go pay that terrific blog a visit; you’ll find some excellent crime fiction reviews there.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doobie Brothers’ China Grove.

37 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ellery Queen, Jim Thompson, Linda Castillo, P.J. Parrish, Rebecca Tope, Stephen Booth, Tom Franklin

Eisenhower, Vaccine, England’s Got a New Queen*

1950sIf you watch television shows (especially US television shows) from the 1950s, you might get the impression that it was a peaceful decade with an emphasis on a happy suburban life and economic prosperity. Certainly there was an increase in consumerism. But the reality was of course quite different from that serene surface. The 1950s brought a lot of major changes and they were hardly peaceful years. And since crime fiction reflects the times in which it was written (or about which it’s written), we see a lot of the major developments of the 1950s in the crime fiction from and about that era.

Agatha Christie wrote several novels during that time period, and her work shows some of the major changes going on at the time. Life for many was transformed after World War II and that included the loss of many of the great old homes and estates. We see commentary about this in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) and in Dead Man’s Folly. In the former, Enderby House, the home of the Abernethie family, is being sold after the death of the last real family patriarch Richard Abernethie. In the latter, Nasse House, which had been in the Folliat family for generations, is now the property of Sir George Stubbs and his wife Hattie, and is one of the few homes that hasn’t been turned into a guest house or hostel. In fact, the next home over has been turned into a hostel, and that plays a role in the novel.

So does a new generation of young people, and we see this in Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death). The residents of a student hostel become the focus of an investigation when one of them seems to commit suicide after admitting to a series of petty thefts. Of course, things aren’t as they seem…  Several of the main characters of this novel are young people who have a different outlook on life to the outlook their parents had. Christie also uses this novel to comment on some of the other major issues of the 1950s, one of which is the Cold War between the UK, the US and their allies and the Soviet Union and its allies. There’s more than one remark about communists and communist sympathy in this novel.

That theme also plays an important role in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death, which takes place during the same time. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins has been separated from the airplane manufacturing company where he worked, and now earns his living ‘doing favours for friends.’ And that’s just what gets him into trouble. He gets a letter from an IRS agent threatening him with jail time for not paying taxes on income that he earned solving a case. The only way out seems to be to help the FBI take down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler. Rawlins has been told his tax problems will go away if he helps the FBI so, not seeing much choice, he agrees. In the process, he becomes a target for someone who tries to frame him for two murders. There’s a lot of talk in this novel about patriotism, communism and one’s civic duty. But what’s interesting is that this novel is told from the perspective of a Black American and more than once Rawlins reflects on why he should be such a patriot when his country hasn’t done much for him. It’s a compelling commentary on the segregation and racism of the era. It’s also an interesting peek at the nascent civil rights movement that began in earnest later in the decade (Christie by the way comments on race issues too in Hickory Dickory Dock).

There’s also a fascinating look at Cold War thinking and politics in Geoffrey McGeachin’s Blackwattle Creek, which takes place in 1957. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin is a World War II veteran who is still trying to deal with the scars from the war. But he’s more or less managed to put his life together. He’s got a stable marriage and two healthy children and life is going on for him. Then, his wife Rebecca asks him to help a friend of hers look into an oddity about the death of her husband. Berlin agrees and before he knows it, he’s drawn into a case involving high-level cover-ups and some odd events at local funeral homes. The Cold War theme is woven through this novel quite effectively, as is the reality of life for many of those returning from World War II. The armed hostilities had ended, but for many of those service people the 1950s was a time of real difficulty as they had to adjust to a peacetime life and do their best to deal with their emotional and physical scars.

There was a deepening interest in and emphasis on psychology, especially what used to be called ‘abnormal psychology’ as the 1950s got underway, and we see that in the psychological kinds of thrillers/crime novels of that era. For instance, Patricial Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train is the story of a chance encounter between Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, who are fellow passengers on a cross-country train journey. What starts out as a friendly conversation evolves into a discussion about each man’s problems: Haines is unhappy in his marriage, and Bruno has a bad relationship with his father. When Bruno suggests that each man kill the other man’s ‘choice victim,’ Haines brushes it off as almost a joke. It becomes all too real though when Bruno actually fulfills what he sees as his side of the bargain and insists that Haines do the same. Highsmith’s exploration of psychology reflects the growing interest in the topic of that decade, as does the work of other writers such as Jim Thompson.

We also see a fascinating look at psychology in Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which takes place in 1950’s California. Lora King is a Pasadena schoolteacher who gets drawn into a completely alien, seamy world when her brother Bill marries Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. Lora tries for her brother’s sake to be friendly with her new sister-in-law, but Alice has a hidden past and a lot of secrets, and a big part of Lora doesn’t trust her. And yet at the same time as she is repulsed by Allice’s world, she also finds it alluring. And when Alice seems to be implicated in a murder that occurs, Lora finds herself more and more pulled into Alice’s life. Besides the psychology we see in this novel, we also see some of the sociological phenomena of the era. There’s the surface-level conformity that was expected at the time which hides some ugly truths. There’s also an interesting look at the way women were viewed. The women’s movement that’s been called ‘Women’s Lib’ among other things was still some time off, but already women were beginning to be dissatisfied with society’s limited expectations of them. At the same time as many conformed in terms of dress, household roles and so on, they also wondered if this was all there was, so to speak. And some did more than wonder. Die a Little also reflects something else about the era: the beginnings of more open discussions about sexuality (anyone read Peyton Place???).

We also see that in novels of the day such as Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, in which some of the characters are prostitutes and in which there is more obvious innuendo than we see in earlier novels. Cop Hater also shows the blurred lines between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ that is characteristic of a lot of more modern crime fiction. 

On the surface of it, the 1950s was a time of social conformity and neat categorisation, where ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ the two sexes, different racial groups and different social classes still occupied different worlds. That meant there was some ugly racism, blatant sexism and other social issues that weren’t addressed. But at the same time the proverbial lid was being lifted off that box, and a lot of what went on beneath the surface is explored in the crime fiction of and about the era. And that’s to say nothing of the music of the era… And with new tools such as psychology, we see how writers were exploring the ‘why’ and ‘what started it all’ of crime as well as its actual investigation.

What do you think of ‘50s crime fiction and historical crime fiction? What do you think it reflects about the era? If you’re a writer who explores that era, what draws you to it?

 

ps. The ‘photo is of holiday shopping in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1951. Among other things I think it shows the rising consumerism of the era.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.

18 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Geoffrey McGeachin, Jim Thompson, Megan Abbott, Patricia Highsmith, Walter Mosley

That I Can Tell You in One Word…Tradition!*

TraditionsTradition plays a very important role in our lives. Whether it’s family tradition, religious tradition, sport tradition or something else, our traditions give us a sense of continuity and stability. And that can be comforting and very helpful in a world that sometimes seems upside-down.

There are traditions in crime fiction too. For example, one tradition in crime fiction is that there is an obvious crime, usually murder, which is then investigated. That tradition began with the earliest crime fiction and has continued even to recent releases. For instance, Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime, released just a few years ago, features the poisoning murder of Lídia Font. Her wealthy and politically powerful husband Lluís Font is a likely suspect. He believed that his wife was having an affair, and even hired Barcelona private investigators Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez to follow her and find out if she was being unfaithful. But Font claims that he’s innocent, and he wants his name cleared. So he asks the Martínez brothers to continue working on his behalf and find out who the real killer is.

Another tradition in crime fiction is that the sleuth pursues leads, makes sense of evidence and finds out who committed the crime. Again, we see that tradition in a lot of modern crime fiction. For instance, Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs begins with the gruesome discovery of a left foot that has washed up on shore near the Norwegian town of Savern. Chief Inspector William Wisting and his team begin the process of looking for clues, following leads and so on. Then another left foot is discovered. And another. It turns out that these discoveries are linked to the disappearance of a group of residents that have gone missing from the same old-age care home. Wisting and his team also discover that the missing people had another connection, this one going back to the years during and just after World War II. The tradition of narrowing down the list of suspects and finding out whodunit and whydunit is an important part of this novel.

And then there’s the tradition that crime fiction stories are told from the perspective of the sleuth and/or a sidekick/assistant. Although readers may get a look at what other characters do and say, the real focus of the novel is the sleuth. Of course not every early crime novel was written this way (for instance Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone wasn’t). But from the beginning, it’s been customary for crime stories to be told from the sleuth or sidekick’s point of view. And many modern novels follow this tradition. For instance, Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series is told from the perspective of Galloway, who is a forensic archaeology expert at the University of North Norfolk, and the perspective of DCI Harry Nelson, the official investigator of these cases and also the father of Galloway’s daughter Kate.

These and other crime fiction traditions are a critical part of the genre. They are at its roots and they give readers and authors both a structure and a set of important parameters. But here’s the thing. Times change. Ideas change. People change. And if the genre didn’t evolve too, it would become stale and outworn. It wouldn’t meet the needs and interests of today’s readers and it would limit today’s authors. So traditions are perhaps most helpful if they are integrated with adaptation and innovation.

For instance, for many years, the crime fiction tradition was that PI sleuths were male (I know there were a few early female PI sleuths; I’m talking in generalities here). But authors such as Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky changed the PI tradition. The genre is better because it includes stories that feature Sharon McCone, Kinsey Millhone and V.I. Warshawski. Not only has that innovation welcomed many new readers and authors, it’s also breathed new life into the PI sub-genre. Yes of course there are still traditional male PI fictional sleuths and some of them are terrific characters. But adapting the sub-genre to meet new needs has improved it.

When Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published, she got quite a lot of criticism for it because she broke with one of the important traditions in crime fiction. She had kept with the custom of the sleuth (in this case Hercule Poirot) who investigates a murder (here, the stabbing death of retired magnate Roger Ackrody). But she did part with tradition in a fundamental way and plenty of people didn’t like that. There was a feeling she hadn’t ‘played fair.’ And yet, if you read through that novel, there are several clues as to whodunit. This novel was an innovation and helped to change and develop the genre. In hindsight, it’s often regarded as one of Christie’s best and has one of the most famous dénouements in crime fiction history.

We also see a break with tradition in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. The story is told from the perspective of Central City, Texas deputy sheriff Lou Ford and concerns the investigation of a brutal beating and later, a murder. So far, so traditional.  But Lou Ford is not at all a ‘typical’ lawman. He has a hidden dark side – he calls it, ‘the sickness’ – that affects much about him and plays a critical role in the novel. Thompson’s creation added an innovation to the genre and opened it to all sorts of different kinds of plot twists and protagonists as well as new ways to build tension.

And then there’s the crime fiction tradition that a crime novel involves an obvious crime and the ensuing investigation. That tradition is one of the founding principles of the genre. And yet, opening up the genre to include novels where there isn’t an obvious murder or other crime has allowed for memorable novels. For instance, Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost tells the story of Kate Meaney, a ten-year-old would-be private investigator. She’s even got her own agency Falcon Investigations. Kate is content with her life until her grandmother Ivy decides she would be better off going away to school. She insists that Kate sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School and Kate reluctantly agrees after her friend Adrian Palmer persuades her to go. Palmer even goes with Kate to the school to keep her company. Then, Kate disappears. Despite an intensive police search, no trace of her is found, not even a body. Palmer is blamed for her disappearance, although he claims he’s innocent. In fact, his life is made so difficult that he leaves town. We learn the truth about Kate when twenty years later, Palmer’s sister Lisa and a friend of hers Kurt return to the mystery and piece together what happened. Without spoiling the story I can say that this isn’t at all a typical crime-followed-by-investigation kind of novel. And yet it’s powerful.

Traditions link us with the past. They give us a safe structure and they are important in helping us order our lives. But without innovation and change, traditions become limiting. They seem to be most helpful to us when they are seasoned with evolution. What do you think? When you read, what sort of balance between tradition and innovation do you like? If you’re a writer, how does tradition fit into what you write? Or doesn’t it?

 

On Another Note…
 
Jackie Robinson

 

This post is dedicated to the memory of Jackie Robinson. On 15 April 1947, he became the first African-American to play in a major-league U.S. baseball game. Baseball has always been a sport rich with tradition. It still is. But then-Brooklyn Dodgers President and General Manager Branch Rickey saw that in order to attract new fans and make the game more popular, baseball would need to evolve and change the tradition of fielding only White players. Rickey had the idea and Robinson had the courage, the class and the baseball talent to make that idea a reality. And baseball is far better for it. So are we as a people.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the prologue to Jerry Brock and Sheldon Harnick’s Tradition (Book by Jospeh Stein).

24 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Elly Griffiths, Jørn Lier Horst, Jim Thompson, Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Teresa Solana, Wilkie Collins