Category Archives: Johan Theorin

In a Room Where You Do What You Don’t Confess*

Secret RoomsSecret rooms and passages have been standbys in crime fiction for a very long time. They’re extremely useful and convenient for the author, and there really are plenty old places that have them. And let’s face it; they can be fun.

Of course, as with just about anything else in crime fiction, secret rooms and passages are tricky. Too much dependence on them and you lose credibility. In fact, one of the traditional rules for writing crime novels is that there can be no more than one such place in any given story. That’s a fairly wise idea. But there are places and situations where they can be extremely useful.

Anna Katherine Green’s short story Missing: Page 13 features her sleuth, New York debutante Violet Strange. In this story, she is hired to solve the mystery of what happened to a crucial page of an academic paper. A group of people had met for dinner; one of them was a certain Mr. Spielhage, who had just completed a paper which included a formula that might shed a whole new light on a certain industry. He was challenged about his ideas and determined to go over his paper word by word and find out where he might be wrong. The paper had been locked away, and Mr. Spielhage himself was sitting in the private room where the paper was, so that no-one could get at it. But when Mr. Spielhage read his paper, he found that the most important page – Page 13 – was not there. It’s one of those ‘impossible but not really’ cases, and when Violet makes an interesting discovery about the house, she determines what happened to the page.

Agatha Christie used hidden rooms and passages in more than one of her stories. In Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), for instance, Hercule Poirot is present at a cocktail party when the Reverend Stephen Babbington suddenly dies of what turns out to be pure nicotine poisoning. There seems no motive for the murder; Babbington was well-liked and certainly not wealthy. The investigation is underway in that case when there’s another death. This time, the victim is well-known mental health specialist Dr. Bartholomew ‘Tollie’ Strange. He, too, dies of nicotine poisoning. The two cases seem to be closely connected, especially since some of the same people were present at both occasions. But it’s hard to see exactly how; it’s even harder to see what the motive in the first death is. After a third murder, Poirot is able to work out who the killer is and what the motive is. It’s not the cause of the murders, but I can say without spoiling the story that a secret passage plays a role in this story. I hear you, fans of The Seven Dials Mystery…

In one plot thread of Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room, we meet Joakim and Katrine Westin, who sell their home in Stockholm and take a home at Eel Point, on the island of Öland. They tell themselves, each other, and everyone else that they plan to renovate their new home and get away from the noise and haste of the city. Soon, though, tragedy strikes the family. Police officer Tilda Davidsson investigates, and learns that the Westins’ home has a dark and tragic history. That history has a lot to do with the present-day tragedy, and a particular room in a particular building plays an important role in getting to the truth.

Steve Robinson’s In the Blood introduces readers to genealogist Jefferson Tayte. In this novel, he has accepted a commission from wealthy Boston businessman Walter Sloane to trace his wife’s ancestry as a gift. Tayte has discovered that one branch of the family moved south and then died out. The other, led by James Fairborne, went to England in 1783 with a group of Loyalists. So Sloane sends Tayte to Cornwall to follow up on that branch. When Tayte arrives, he discovers that the modern-day Fairborne family is not particularly disposed to help him. Still, he presses on with his quest. Meanwhile, we meet Amy Fallon, who lives in Cornwall. She is learning to face life again after the death two years earlier of her husband Gabriel. Before his death, Gabriel told her he’d made a discovery in their house, but never told her what it was. Now, some home renovations have revealed a hidden staircase leading to a secret room. In that room is a very old writing box. It turns out that this box is related to Tayte’s investigation, and it’s interesting to see how secret rooms figure into this story.

And then there’s William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department, the third in his series featuring Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev. In this novel, he and Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka are asked to investigate the murder of noted scientist Boris Azarov. It’s a very delicate case, because Azarov was working on a high-level, classified project. Nevertheless, Korolev and Slivka get to work on their investigation. They find a suspect, and at first, it seems the case is solved. But then that suspect is killed. Now the team has to start again. This time, the trail leads them to a much bigger case than they could have imagined. And there are all sorts of secret rooms and places that figure into the story.

And that’s the thing about secret rooms and hidden passages. They add to suspense and they can help a story along. They actually exist, too. Where would crime fiction be without them? I know I’ve only mentioned a few cases: which have you liked best?


*NOTE: the title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s Sundown.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anna Katherine Green, Johan Theorin, Stever Robinson, William Ryan

I Know There’s Fish Out There*

FishingFishing has been woven into our human experience since people first learned how to catch fish. Although people all over the world eat seafood, you really see the fishing culture in seaside or lakeside areas, for obvious reasons.

Fishing is big business, too. Whether it’s sport fishing or commercial fishing, there’s a lot of money to be made in the industry. Fishing is so deeply ingrained into human history that it makes complete sense that it’s also an important part of crime fiction. There’s no possible way for me to mention all of the novels in which fishing plays a role; but here are a few examples.

In John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Mystery, Reverend Dodd, vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Sea, takes an interest in the shooting murder of Julius Tregarthan. Dodd’s friend Dr. Pendrill has been called to the scene, and Dodd comes along. Soon enough, it’s clear that this case isn’t going to be easy. The victim was shot through the open window of his sitting room. Three shots seem to have been fired, all from slightly different angles. So one possibility is that there were actually three assailants. Other evidence, though, makes that unlikely. It doesn’t help matters that more than one person had a motive for murder, so there are several suspects. As he follows leads, Dodd finds that he gets some very valuable information from a local man who sometimes takes his fishing boat out.

Lots of people depend on fishing for a living, even if they don’t work for a large commercial outfit. For instance, in Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore, Vigo Inspector Leo Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez investigate the death of a local fisherman, Justo Castelo. In many ways, the death looks like a suicide. But little clues suggest to Caldas that Castelo might have been murdered. The only problem is that there doesn’t seem to be much motive. Castelo wasn’t wealthy, and he lived a quiet life. In fact, he preferred not to mix very much socially. Then, Caldas discovers something important. In 1996, Castelo and two other fishermen were on board a boat with Captain Antonio Sousa when a terrible storm struck. Sousa was lost in the storm, but the other three made it back to land. They’ve never spoken of the incident since, but Caldas finds that it plays a role in Castelo’s death. This novel offers an interesting look at the small-time fishing life, with boats coming in early in the morning to sell their catch at the local warehouses, and the area restaurants and individual buyers coming in later to make their choices. It’s not an easy life.

We also see that in Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide. Allan ‘Tug’ Bretton has captained his Brisbane-based family boat Sea Mistress for quite a long time. But he’s got a broken leg from an incident that ended in the murder of Ewan McKay, a deckhand from another trawler. Bretton’s daughter Samantha ‘Sam’ wants very much to take her father’s place as skipper until he’s back on duty. Her logic is that if Sea Mistress doesn’t go out, the family fishing business will suffer and may fail. Her father finally agrees, and Sam prepares to gather her crew. Her new deckhand is Chayse Garrett, an undercover police officer who’s investigating McKay’s death. The police suspect that Bretton killed McKay, and that he might be involved in the drugs smuggling trade; Garrett’s job is to find evidence bearing on that theory. Sam’s not aware of Garrett’s identity as a detective, but she has her own reasons for wanting to bring down McKay’s killer and clear her father’s name. As Sea Mistress’ crew looks for answers, we learn a lot about life on a modern trawler. We also learn how the small-time fishing industry can sometimes be useful to the smuggling trade.

Smuggling also happens in the larger commercial fishing trade. In Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star, for instance, Arkady Renko has been assigned to work as a crew member on the Soviet fishing ship Polar Star. It’s a punishment for his pursuit of highly-placed Party officials (read Gorky Park for the details). Renko is fed up anyway with policing, especially if it doesn’t really change things. But he’s drawn into a case of murder when one of his crew mates, Zina Patiashvili, is hauled out of the ocean with the day’s catch. At first, there seems no motive for the murder. The victim was a galley worker, like everyone else, and hadn’t any obvious enemies or wealth. But soon enough, Renko learns that there was another side to her. She was involved in smuggling and blackmailing, and some very important people are implicated.

Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano lives and works in fictional Vigàta, on Sicily. So as you can imagine, there’s lots of fishing integrated into that series. For example, in one plot thread of The Snack Thief, Montalbano investigates the shooting of a Tunisian sailor who happened to be aboard an Italian fishing boat. Montalbano finds that he was killed when a Tunisian boat fired on the Italian boat. The question then becomes: how accidental was the death, really? In that thread of the story, Camilleri makes reference to the long-standing unease between Tunisia and Sicily over water, territory and fishing rights.

Many people enjoy sport fishing and fishing as a hobby. So there’s also a lucrative business in providing places and equipment for fishing enthusiasts. Just ask Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowksi. He and his wife Rosie live in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake. But they own Stuart Lake Lodge, a holiday fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. Clients come from many different places, including other countries, to spend time fishing and relaxing. It sounds harmless enough, but in Burnt Out, the lodge is burned, and a body discovered in the ruins of the fire. Now, gossip spreads that Bart is guilty of arson and very likely murder, too. He knows that he’ll need to find out what happened to his family’s business if he’s to clear his name. The Bartowskis aren’t going to be the same after this tragedy, but Bart’s determined to at least preserve the family’s integrity.

Scotland’s another popular place for sport fishing. Just ask M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth. He’s the local bobby for the village of Lochdubh, but he’d just as soon relax with a fishing line. So he understands the appeal of John and Heather Cartwright’s Lochdubh School of Casting: Salmon and Trout Fishing, to which we’re introduced in Death of a Gossip. The Cartwrights open a new class, hoping that all will go well. It doesn’t. One of the participants is Jane Maxwell, gossip columnist for the London Evening Star. She wants new fodder for her column, and is willing to go through everyone’s proverbial closet, looking for skeletons. When she’s found strangled with casting line, it’s clear that someone in that fishing class didn’t want her to find out too much. Macbeth investigates, and as he does, we learn a bit about the modern fishing resort. There are a lot of other crime-fictional mentions of the Scottish fishing life, too, including Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed and Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective, to name just two.

There are many, many other examples of fishing in crime fiction (I know, I know, fans of Johan Theorin’s Gerloff Davidsson). Which do you like best?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Downeaster ‘Alexa.’


Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Domingo Villar, Gordon Ferris, Johan Theorin, John Bude, M.C. Beaton, Mark Douglas-Home, Martin Cruz Smith, Nelson Brunanski, Sandy Curtis

There Are Places I Remember*

RemeniscencesAn interesting post at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking about a plot point that’s become more common in crime fiction in the last years. The genre is arguably featuring more older people as central characters (the reasons for that are, I think, the stuff of another conversation). Their reminiscences and ‘looking back’ on older crimes can be an effective way to tie those crimes in with newer ones.

That premise – that an older person looks back and tells the story of an older crime – isn’t of course brand-new. For instance, a few of the short stories in Anna Katherine Green’s 1915 collection The Golden Slipper and Other Stories have that plot point. Green’s sleuth is New York heiress and socialite Violet Strange, who has a secret career as a private investigator. More than once she finds that modern cases are connected with older ones, and that the key is an older person’s reminiscences.

We see that same plot point in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect, and in that novel, it’s the older person who takes on a central role. As the story opens, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just killed eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg investigates the case, which seems to make little sense at first. Burke had no family and wasn’t known to have anything really valuable that would be worth stealing. He had no known local enemies either. And yet, Alberg doesn’t think this was a freak, random killing. Since Wilcox reported the murder and claims to have discovered the body, Alberg becomes convinced that he knows more than he’s saying; and of course, Alberg’s right. As the novel goes on, we learn about the history between Wilcox and Burke, and what was behind the murder. That part of the story relies on Wilcox’s reminiscences and memories.

Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House is the first in the Arthur Bryant/John May series. Bryant and May been a part of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) for several decades, but everything changes when a bomb goes off in the PCU offices. In order to solve this case, May needs to return to the team’s first (1940) case, which had at its heart London’s Palace Theatre and its doomed production of Orpheus. That story, which included more than one murder and a disappearance, is told from May’s now-older perspective. And as it turns out, his memories of what happened, and the outcome of the Palace case, have everything to do with solving the modern-day case.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind takes an innovative approach to the ‘older person looking back’ plot point. Dr. Jennifer White is a retired Chicago orthopaedic surgeon who left her position after being diagnosed with early dementia. Now she lives with a caregiver, Magdalena, but as the story begins, she’s still quite high-functioning. She becomes involved in a case of murder when her neighbour, seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole, is killed. Detective Luton is assigned to the investigation and is soon interested in White as a suspect. White knew the victim well for thirty years, and the body was mutilated in a professional way that suggests a doctor or other medical professional is the culprit. But that evidence doesn’t conclusively prove White is the murderer. What’s more, White’s dementia is progressing, which makes it increasingly difficult for Luton to find out from her exactly what happened on the night of the murder. This story is told from White’s point of view, so readers learn the story of her relationship with the O’Tooles through her memories. Bit by bit, the truth of the crime comes out through those reminiscences.

And then there’s Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past. Amateur divers seventeen-year-old Wilma Persson and her boyfriend, eighteen-year-old Simon Kyrö, go out to explore Lake Vittangijärvi. The ruins of a World War II plane that went down there have never been recovered, and the young people want to see what they can find. They locate the plane, but are trapped under the ice by a murderer and killed. Wilma’s body surfaces in the spring, and Inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate. With help from attorney Rebecka Martinsson, they discover that this case has everything to do with the area’s past. And some of the vital information they get comes from the memories of older residents; through those memories we learn about an older event that triggered a lot of what’s gone on in the area since then.

And I don’t think a post about the ‘older person looking back’ motif in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night. That’s the story of Sheldon Horowitz, an octogenarian from New York, who’s gone to live in Norway to be nearer his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband Lars. One thread of this story follows Horowitz as he rescues a small boy from the thugs who murdered his mother, who lives upstairs from Rhea and Lars. Horowitz hides the boy and then goes on the run with him. Another thread of the story tells Horowitz’ own personal history, including his stint in service during the Korean War, and the death of his son Saul in Vietnam. Those memories play a role in the way Horowitz reacts to the modern-day events. What’s interesting here is that Horowitz is slowly slipping away from being grounded in the modern day because dementia is starting to take a bit of a toll. But as readers familiar with this novel will know, he’s still smart, capable and resourceful.

Sometimes, older people don’t remember very recent things. But they often remember details from many years earlier, and those can be crucial in solving modern-day cases. These are just a few examples (I’m sorry, fans of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Johan Theorin). Which ones do you remember?

Now, may I suggest that the next stop on your blog round be FictionFan’s Book Reviews. There you’ll find excellent and thoughtful reviews, plenty of wit, and great ‘photos. And porpentines.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles In My Life.


Filed under Alice LaPlante, Anna Katherine Green, Åsa Larsson, Christopher Fowler, Derek B. Miller, Johan Theorin, L.R. Wright, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

He Sees Angels in the Architecture*

ArchitectureFor an author, it’s sometimes a challenge to decide how much detail to give the reader. On the one hand, painting a verbal picture can place the reader in a particular setting or context, and that can invite the reader to engage in the story. On the other, too much detail can slow a story down, and many readers will tell you they just skip over that information and move on to ‘the good stuff.’

Architecture is one example of the kind of detail that can add to a story or really detract from it depending on how it’s handled. And there really is a lot of architecture in crime fiction. That makes sense, if you think about it. For one thing, architecture can add context and even character development to a story. For another, architecture can play a role in mysteries, too.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Helen Stoner. She’s very much worried that her life may be in danger, and she wants Holmes’ help. Here is the story she tells. She and her sister Julia lived at the family home Stoke Moran with their stepfather Dr. Roylott. Julia began to hear strange noises at night, and started to be afraid. Then one night, she suddenly died after saying something about a speckled band. Shortly after that, Roylott insisted that Helen move her things into Julia’s room and use it as her own. Now, Helen is hearing the same strange noises that her sister heard right before her death. Holmes takes his client’s case seriously and he and Dr. Watson travel to Stoke Moran. There they discover that the danger to Helen is very real. As Holmes works out the truth, we learn how important architecture is in this story. Conan Doyle fans will know that architecture plays a role in other stories too (I know, I know, fans of The Red-Headed League).

Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly takes place at Nasse House, the property of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is visiting Nasse House to plan a Murder Hunt as one attraction for the upcoming annual fête to be held there. On the surface it seems that she’s simply been commissioned to plan clues, ‘red herrings,’ a ‘victim’ and so on. But she suspects there’s something more going on. So she asks her friend Hercule Poirot to investigate, and he travels to Nasse House to look into the matter. On the day of the big event, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was chosen to play the part of the victim, is actually killed. Now Poirot works with Inspector Bland and P.C. Hoskins to find out who the murderer is. One of the ‘interested parties’ is an architect Michael Weymouth, who’s on hand to build a small ornamental building – a folly – on the property. Weymouth’s profession is not the reason for the murder, but he has some interesting things to say about wealthy clients who don’t have any architectural knowledge or taste. And as it turns out, architecture does play a role in the story. Like Conan Doyle, Christie used architecture in more than one of her stories actually (I know, I know, fans of Three Act Tragedy).

Architecture plays a pivotal role in the plans of Mike Daniels, a professional thief whom we meet in Robert Pollock’s Loophole: Or, How to Rob a Bank. He and his team mates have decided to try to pull off a major heist: the robbery of the City Savings Deposit Bank. But as you might expect, the bank boasts the latest in security, so it’s not going to be easy to get the job done. One night Daniels meets a man he think can help the group. He takes a ride in a cab that’s driven by out-of-work architect Stephen Booker and the two strike up a conversation. Over time, Daniels takes more rides in Booker’s cab and they begin to get to know one another. Finally Daniels feels comfortable enough to invite Booker to lend his skills to the group in exchange for a share of the loot. At first, Booker’s reluctant; after all, Daniels and his team are thieves and what they want to do is, of course, both illegal and dangerous. But he’s getting desperate for money, so he agrees. With Booker’s skills, the team plans the tunneling and other preparations they’ll need. Finally, the day of the robbery arrives, and everything looks to be going well. Then, a sudden and unexpected storm blows up that changes everything.

In Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room, we are introduced to Joakim and Katrine Westin. They’ve moved to a run-down manor house near Eel Point on Öland, with the goal of getting away from big-city life. They tell themselves and everyone else that they want to raise their children in a healthier environment, and are looking forward to the less-frenetic pace of life on the island. One of their major tasks will be to renovate their home. That project becomes a the subject of a feature in a local news magazine, and a reporter visits the Westin home to get ‘photos and background for the story:


Katrine and the reporter followed him [Joakim] up the crooked wooden staircase to an upstairs corridor. It was gloomy up here despite the fact that there was a row of windows facing the sea, but the panes were covered with pieces of chipboard that let in only narrow strips of daylight.’


When tragedy strikes the family, police officer Tilda Davidsson investigates, and we learn that this particular house has a dark history.

Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are sheds an interesting light on architecture. Television presenter Frank Allcroft has reached a sort of crossroads in his life. He’s got a happy marriage and a good relationship with his eight-year-old daughter Mo. But he’s trying to search out the direction his life should take. He’s also devastated by the death of his predecessor, friend and mentor Phil Smedway. Smedway was jogging one day when he was hit by a car. It’s been regarded as a tragic accident, but Allcroft is drawn to the scene of the accident as he works through his grief. He notices that the road there is straight and wide, so it would have been easy for even a tired or drunk motorist to see Smedway. What’s more, the road was dry at the time of Smedway’s death. So Allcroft starts to ask some questions. Along with this search for the truth about his friend’s death, he’s also dealing with the loss of his architect father, and his complicated relationship with his mother. Allcroft’s father was passionate about his work, and although he was distant from his family, he created some imaginative and forward-thinking plans. So Allcroft has been working very hard to preserve the last of the buildings his father designed. Here’s Mo’s observation about it when the preservation approval comes through:


‘I think in four hundred years, people will be coming here for day trips. They’ll have question sheets to fill in about the name of the man who built it and the shape of the windows like we had to do at Aston Hall…I bet loads of them will look at the building and say, ‘Wow! What a great building. I wonder if he had any grandchildren.’ And they’ll try to imagine me, but they won’t be able to because I’ll be so long ago and mysterious.’


Architecture really can take on a life of its own, so to speak.

There isn’t space to mention all of the ‘impossible-but-not-really’ mysteries that rely on details of architecture. Nor is there space to mention authors such as P.D. James, who integrate a powerful sense of architecture into their novels. You’ll be better able than I anyway to fill in those gaps. Which architectural stories have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catherine O'Flynn, Johan Theorin, P.D. James, Robert Pollock

From the Beginning*

Book BeginningsIt can be very tricky to write the beginning lines of a book. Many readers decide within the first paragraph whether they’re interested in reading the story or not. And even for readers who wait a bit longer to decide how they feel about a story, the first few words are important ‘hooks.’ So most authors put a lot of thought into how they’ll start a story. Perhaps that’s even a bit of the reason that some writers find it challenging to begin the actual writing of a novel.

Crime novels start in all sorts of different ways. Sometimes, the first sentence tells the reader right away that things are not going to go well. One of the best examples of that (at least in my opinion) is the famous first sentence of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone:

‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’

Of course Rendell goes on to explain how it all started, who the Coverdales are, who Eunice Parchman is and so on. But right from the very start we know that something terrible is going to happen.

That’s also true in Liza Marklund’s The Bomber, which begins this way:

‘The woman who was soon to die stepped cautiously out of the door and glanced around.’

Later that night, she is indeed killed, and her body discovered in the wreckage of a bomb blast. When Kvällspressen crime editor Annika Bengtzon is told about the blast, she rushes as quickly as she can to Victoria Stadium, in the Olympic Village that’s been recently constructed for the upcoming Games. The dead woman is later identified as Stockholm business/civic leader Christine Furhage, and immediately the suspicion is raised that the bombing is the work of terrorists. There are other possibilities though, and Bengtzon and her teammates work to find out who really killed the victim and why. The tension continues throughout the story, but we know from the first sentence that something is going to go very, very wrong.

Of course, not all stories start that way. Some authors choose to build suspense by contrasting what happens later in a novel with a more optimistic beginning. Here, for example, is the first bit of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile:

Linnet Ridgeway!’
‘That’s her!’ said Mr. Burnaby, the landlord of the three Crowns.’

Burnaby and his friend are referring to the wealthy and beautiful Linnet Ridgeway, who’s just purchased Wode Hall. In the first few pages of the story, we learn that she seems to have it all: looks, money, brains. She’s the kind of young woman many other people envy. Christie chooses to slowly build the suspense by contrasting that bright beginning with what happens later in the novel, as Linnet marries Simon Doyle, former fiancé of her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort. They take a honeymoon cruise of the Nile, and on the second night of that trip, Linnet is shot. Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race are aboard the same ship and they work to find out who the killer is.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives also begins on a bright, optimistic sort of note:

‘The Welcome Wagon lady, sixty if she was a day but working at youth and vivacity…twinkled her eyes and teeth at Joanna and said, ‘You’re really going to like it here! It’s a nice town with nice people! You couldn’t have made a better choice!”

And at first, the small, pretty town of Stepford, Connecticut does seem like an idyllic place for Joanna Eberhart, her husband Walter and their two children Pete and Kim. They settle in and before long they’ve made friends and begun to become a part of community life. Slowly, though, Joanna and her friend Bobbie Markowe begin to suspect that something is very, very wrong in Stepford and it turns out that they’re all too right…

There are also authors who choose to use the beginnings of their stories to set the scene and give the reader a sense of time and place. That can be effective too, as a sense of atmosphere and setting can add much to a novel. Here, for instance, is the beginning of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency:

‘Mma. Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill. These were its assets: a tiny white van, two desks, two chairs, a telephone, and an old typewriter.’

McCall Smith goes on to describe the part of Botswana where Mma. Ramotswe’s agency is located. In this first novel in the series, he also introduces Mma. Ramotswe’s first cases, and gives background on her and her family. This approach gives the reader a strong sense of place and culture, and invites the reader to be drawn into the stories once the scene is set.

That’s also the case in Johan Theorin’s Echoes From the Dead, which begins this way:

‘The wall was made of big, rounded stones covered in grayish white lichen, and it was the same height as the boy…Everything was gray and misty on the other side.’

Theorin goes on to explain that this is a garden wall, and describes the boy’s first journey to the other side of that wall. Soon afterwards the boy, whose name is Jens, disappears. His family is of course devastated. In fact, his mother Julia is so distraught that she leaves Öland, where the story takes place, intending not to return. Twenty-five years later, Jens’ grandfather Gerlof Davidsson receives a strange package that contains one of the sandals Jens was wearing on the day he disappeared. Hoping he’ll at last get answers, Davidsson contacts Julia, who reluctantly returns to Öland. The two then work to find out what happened to Jens on that terrible day.

There are of course other ways to begin a novel. There isn’t a set ‘rule’ for how to start. The key is that whatever the author chooses needs to get the reader wanting to find out more. What’s your view on this? Do you prefer novels that start by letting you know something terrible is going to happen? Do you like optimistic beginnings that soon change to something quite different? What about beginnings that set the scene? Perhaps you have another preference? If you’re a writer, how do you prefer to get readers ‘hooked?’

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Greg Lake.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Johan Theorin, Liza Marklund, Ruth Rendell