Category Archives: John Burdett

Well, It Seems So Real*

One of the traditional maxims of writing is to ‘write what you know.’ And there’s certainly a lot to be said for that. Readers want a sense of authenticity in their stories, and that’s just as true of a story’s setting as it is anything else. So, does that mean that an author shouldn’t write about a different place or time, even a different country?

No. Many authors set their stories in places other than their own countries or in different times. And those stories are often absorbing, engaging, and authentic. There are a lot of examples of this sort of series. I’ll just mention a few.

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels take place mostly in the fictional English village of Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia, who is eleven at the time the series begins (with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie), lives there with her father and two older sisters, Ophelia ‘Feely’ and Daphne ‘Daffy.’ Also very much a part of the family is her father’s factotum, Arthur Dogger. The novels have a strong sense of place and time (the 1950s). And the village itself is an important part of the series. And yet, Bradley isn’t English; he’s Canadian by birth and upbringing, although he now lives on the Isle of Man. But, as Bradley himself has said,

 

‘I grew up in a family of British expat storytellers who never tired of spinning stories about “back ’ome.” 

 

And that was at the core of Bradley’s interest in writing about England.

Sometimes, authors write about places they have lived, even if those places are not their home countries. That’s the case with Angela Savage, who writes the Jayne Keeney series. Keeney is an ex-pat Australian PI who now lives and works in Bangkok. She travels to different parts of Thailand in connection with her investigations, so readers get a chance to see different regions of the country. Savage is Australian, based in Melbourne, but she lived in Southeast Asia, including Bangkok, for six years. She’s also a skilled researcher who checks the accuracy of what she writes. And that’s important if one’s writing about a country with a very different language, culture and set of social expectations. Interestingly, Savage chose to make Keeney an Australian by birth, which adds to the authenticity of the stories as Keeney sometimes looks at the Thai culture ‘from the outside.’

>A similar thing might be said of Savage’s partner, Andrew Nette. One of his novels, Ghost Money, is set mostly in Cambodia. In it, Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan is hired to find a man named Charles Avery, who was last seen in Bangkok. Quinlan agrees to the job and begins to follow the trail, which soon leads to Phnom Penh. Later, the action moves to the northern part of Cambodia. Throughout the novel, there’s a vivid portrait of life in that country. Like his partner, Nette is Australian, based in Melbourne. But he’s lived in Asia, where he was a journalist there for seven years. That experience has arguably added to the authenticity of the story, even though Cambodia has a very different culture and language.

Fans of Deborah Crombie will know that she is American, born and raised in Texas. She got the chance to go to the UK after graduating university and fell in love with the place. She lived there for several years, until moving back to Texas. So it’s little wonder that her Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James novels take place in the UK, mostly in London. Both Kincaid and James work for the Met, where Kincaid is a Superintendent and James is a Detective Inspector (DI). They are partners in life, too, and the series follows their relationship and family as well as the cases they investigate. Crombie travels to the UK several times a year, and her connection adds to the authenticity of this series.

There are other authors, too, such as Timothy Hallinan and John Burdett, who spend quite a lot of time in the countries where their series are set (in these two cases, Bangkok). And that adds a lot of authenticity to what they write. But there’s more to authenticity of place than that.

There’s also research. K.B. Owen, for instance, sets her Concordia Wells series mostly in Connecticut at the very end of the 19th Century. In order to make this series ‘feel’ authentic, Owen has done quite a lot of research on life at that time. And I know you could think of many other authors, too, who write historical series that seem authentic. They do their ‘homework’ to ensure that their stories ring true.

How do you feel about this? Do you get a sense of authenticity from a story even if the author doesn’t live in the place or time where the story is set? If you’re a writer, do you write about places and times you haven’t experienced? How do you make it all authentic?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Buzzcocks’ Why Can’t I Touch It?

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Filed under Alan Bradley, Andrew Nette, Angela Savage, Deborah Crombie, John Burdett, K.B. Owen, Timothy Hallinan

Give Me the Simple Life*

As this is posted, it’s 164 years since the publication of Henry David Thoroeau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. As you’ll know, one of the important messages in this book is the value of simplicity. Thoreau advocated for living close to nature and rejecting consumerism and materialism. And there’s something to be said for that perspective. If you’ve ever moved house, then you know how having a lot of ‘stuff’ can make everything all the more complicated.

There are a lot of crime-fictional characters who like to live very simply. And it’s interesting to get their perspectives, especially as they contrast with what a lot of people value. It’s just as interesting to see how they’ve been viewed in different places and at different times.

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), for instance, we are introduced to Julia and Isabel Tripp. They live in the small town of Market Basing where they are friends with Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Lawson. When Miss Lawson’s wealthy employer, Miss Emily Arundell, suddenly dies, it’s put down to liver failure. But Hercule Poirot thinks differently. He had gotten a letter from Miss Lawson, asking him to investigate a ‘delicate matter’ that she didn’t detail. He and Captain Hastings didn’t follow up until Miss Arundell was already dead, but he still feels an obligation to his client. So, he begins to look into the matter to find out who would want to kill the victim. There’s no lack of suspects, as she had a large fortune and financially strapped relatives. Surprisingly, though, it’s Miss Lawson who inherits the bulk of the money. So, she also could have had a motive. Since the Tripps are friends of Miss Lawson’s, Poirot and Hastings naturally want to talk to them. They find that the Tripps are dedicated to living a very simple life, with few possessions and very much ‘back to nature’ food. After their conversation, they invite their guests for lunch:
 

‘…some shredded raw vegetables, brown bread and butter, fruit.’
 

Needless to say, Poirot quickly finds an excuse for the two men to leave. The Tripps’ lifestyle is not the reason for Miss Arundell’s murder. But it’s an interesting look at then-contemporary perspectives on the ‘back to nature’ lifestyle.

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil begins as Queen is trying to get some writing done. He’s taken a house in the Hollywood Hills to do just that, and he’s hoping for some peace and quiet. Such is not to be, though. Laurel Hill finds out that he’s there and wants him to investigate the death of her father, Leander. It seems he died of a massive heart attack, which his daughter says was deliberately brought on by a series of macabre ‘gifts’ left for him. What’s more, his business partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving bizarre ‘gifts.’ Against his better judgement, Queen finds himself intrigued, and starts to ask questions. Along the way, he meets Priam’s wife, Delia, and his stepson, Crowe ‘Mac’ McGowan. Mac is convinced that the world is on the brink of destruction from nuclear weapons, and he wants to be prepared to survive. So, he lives in a treehouse he’s built, and wears as little as possible – often nothing at all. His aim is to be able to make his way in a world where all of the things we take for granted are gone. Mac’s commitment to a ‘back to nature’ life isn’t the reason for the strange packages, nor Leander Hill’s death. But it adds leaven to the story and a layer to his character.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation. He is also a member of the Navajo Tribal (now the Navajo Nation) Police. In many ways, Chee is a traditional Navajo. He’s very much attuned to nature. More to the point, he’s not particularly interested in material things like a big house or a new car. He has the things he needs, but they’re quite simple. For instance, he lives in a trailer, and he doesn’t have a large wardrobe or the latest in sound systems. His wants are few, and he’s basically content with that.

Fans of Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson novels will know that, at the beginning of that series, she is a Stockholm lawyer. She’s not greedy, or even overly ambitious. But she wants to get ahead. Circumstances return her to her hometown of Kiruna, and she ends up staying there. As time goes on, she becomes more and more attuned to nature, and lives more and more simply. She does almost everything on her own, too, and isn’t really interested in the trappings of modern consumerism. In fact, as time goes on, her simple lifestyle brings her more contentment, in its way, than would a very high salary and a plush lifestyle.

John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitplecheep also lives a very simple life. He is a member of the Royal Thai Police, and mostly works in and near Bangkok. He is also an observant Buddhist. As such, he tries to live by the Buddhist tradition of putting aside cravings. That includes wanting things like a fine house, a good car, and so on. So, he has very little. He lives in one room and keeps only what he needs. He eats simply, too. For Sonchai, though, it’s not important to have a lot. In fact, one’s better off with less. So, he’s not, in general, discontent with his lifestyle.

Not everyone is content to live very simply. But, for those who are, it’s interesting to see how their choices and lifestyles contrast with the focus a lot of people have on consumerism. These are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Rube Bloom and Harry Ruby.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Ellery Queen, Henry David Thoreau, John Burdett, Tony Hillerman

Be Careful What You Wish For*

In John Burdett’s Bangkok Tattoo, Royal Thai Police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a dedicated Buddhist, has this to say:
 

‘To the evolved mind of the Gautama Buddha, any desire was an obscene distortion…’
 

And one of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is that the cause of all human suffering is desire, in some form or another.

The whole concept of wanting things (or a particular outcome, or…) is seen differently in non-Buddhist cultures. But even so, we’ve all been warned against greed. There’s even the old expression, ‘Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.’ And there’s something to that. Getting what we think we want may come with all sorts of consequences. Don’t believe me? Just take a quick look at crime fiction, and you’ll see what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, we are introduced to Honoria Bulstrode, who owns and runs an exclusive girls’ school called Meadowbank. It’s been a great success and has a gilt-edged reputation. In fact, things are going so well that Miss Bulstrode feels that it’s all gotten a bit dull. Some of the spark has gone out of her work, and she’d like to feel passionate about it all again. All thoughts of dullness go away when the new Games Mistress, Grace Springer, is shot late one night in the new Sports Pavilion. Then, there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. Now, parents start removing their daughters from the school, and there’s a real chance that the school might have to close. Hercule Poirot works to find out who or what is behind all that’s going on at the school. He finds that it’s all connected to some valuable gems and a revolution in a faraway place. Miss Bulstrode might have wanted things to be less dull, but she certainly didn’t want the havoc that’s wreaked on her school…

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity features insurance agent Walter Huff. When he goes to visit one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, he meets the man’s wife, Phyllis, instead. He’s immediately attracted to her, and she does nothing to discourage him. Before long, they’re having an affair. Phyllis tells her lover about a plan she has to kill her husband. She even persuades him to write the double-indemnity policy she needs to benefit from his death the way she wants to benefit. The two plan the murder, which is duly carried out. Now, it really hits Huff that he’s committed a murder because he wanted Phyllis Nirdlinger. As he gets drawn further and further into the web, he learns what can happen when you get what you think you want.

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, we meet Walter and Joanna Eberhart. They’ve just moved from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. Their goal was a nice home in an affordable place with low taxes and good schools. And they think they’ve found it. In fact, Stepford seems to be an ideal place. Then, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe starts to suspect that something might be very wrong with Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t believe it. Everything Bobbie mentions seems to have a logical explanation. Besides, Joanna doesn’t want to move again so soon after moving to Stepford. Then, other things begin to happen, and Joanna learns that what she thought she wanted has turned out very differently.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red features Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne. She’s been doing very well, but she knows that there are younger, hungry journalists right behind her. What she would really like is the story that could cement her position at the top of New Zealand journalism. And she gets that chance when she hears about the case of Connor Bligh. He’s been in prison for years for the murders of his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Only their daughter, Katy, survived, because she wasn’t at home at the time of the killings. There are little hints now that Bligh might not have committed the crimes. If he is innocent, then this could be the story Thorne’s been wanting. She starts to ask questions, and soon finds herself getting much closer to everything than she should. And she discovers that getting that perfect story isn’t all it may seem on the surface.

And then there’s Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket. Wally and Darren Keefe are both cricket-mad. As children, they play it in the backyard of their Melbourne home, and both of them want to be famous cricketers. Their mother wants that for them, too. It’s not out of the question, either, because both are quite talented. As time goes on, their talent is honed, and they both get what they want: cricket stardom. They have very different personalities, though, and that impacts what happens to them. Wally is the disciplined one. He works very hard and is driven to be the best. Darren has rare talent – the once-in-a-generation kind – but is more impulsive and less disciplined. When he’s at his best, he is superb. But he doesn’t have his brother’s focus. And these differences play an important role in both lives as the two brothers learn the hard way that what they thought they wanted isn’t at all what they imagined. It all leads to real tragedy.

And that’s the thing about getting what you think you want. Sometimes, it works out really well. Other times…it doesn’t. And that can have all sorts of consequences.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a song by Doug Adair.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, James M. Cain, Jock Serong, John Burdett, Paddy Richardson

I’ve Got Something to Say*

One way in which authors add some ‘leaven’ to their stories is to put in side comments – sometimes even full-on asides to the reader – to add in extra information. Among other things, these side comments can also be used to lighten a situation and to provide character background. They’re there in fiction, and they’re certainly there in crime fiction.

Like any other tool, side comments have to be wielded carefully. Otherwise, they break up the narrative too much. Too many side comments can also be confusing. But when they’re used well, they can be effective.

Some authors use side comments to address the audience quite directly. That’s what John Burdett does in his Sonchai Jitplecheep novels. Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police. He mostly works in Bangkok, although some cases take him to other places. More than once in this series, he gives insight into the Thai culture by speaking directly to the reader (whom he addresses as farang (foreigner)). For instance, in Bangkok Tattoo, the body of a CIA agent is found in a brothel, and the most likely suspect is one of the brothel’s top earners. Here is a comment Sonchai makes to the reader about many Bangkok sex workers:
 

‘These are country girls, tough as water buffalo, wild as swans, who can’t believe how much they can make by providing to polite, benevolent, guilt-ridden condom-conscious farang exactly the same service they would otherwise have to provide free without protection to rough, whoremongering husbands in their home villages. Good deal? Better believe it (Don’t look at me that way, farang, when you know in your heart that capitalism makes whores of all of us).’
 

Sonchai makes other comments to the reader about Buddhism, about the Thai way of doing things, and so on.

Linwood Barclay’s Zack Walker, whom we meet in Bad Move, is a science fiction writer. In that novel, he and his family move from the city to a suburban development called Valley Forest Estates. Walker thinks the move will make the family safer, but it doesn’t turn out that way. Instead, he gets involved in a case of murder, fraud, and more. At one point, he has this to say about himself:
 

‘How many assholes know they’re assholes? So I guess what I’m saying is that if I know I’ve behaved like an asshole on certain occasions, then there’s no way I could actually be one. But I’d understand if you remain unconvinced. By the time you’ve heard this story, you might say, ‘Man, that Zack Walker, he’s a major one.’’
 

It’s interesting, convoluted logic, and Walker makes other comments about the way he thinks in other parts of the story.

Sometimes, authors use the aside to give character background and offer some depth. For example, Agatha Christie does this in Murder in Mesopotamia. That novel’s focus is an archaeological expedition taking place a few hours from Baghdad. The narrator is an English nurse, Amy Leatheran, who’s been hired by the expedition’s leader, Dr. Eric Leidner. It seems his wife, Louise, is having anxiety problems, and he wants a nurse to help allay her fears and tend to her needs. Nurse Leatheran is a practical and observant nurse, and sometimes makes comments from that perspective. For example, at one point, she’s describing another character, Sheila Reilly:
 

‘I had a probationer like her under me once – a girl who worked well, I’ll admit, but whose manner always riled me.’
 

When Louise Leidner is murdered one afternoon, Hercule Popirot is persuaded to interrupt his travels in the Middle East to investigate, and he finds out the truth. The story is told from Nurse Leatheran’s point of view, and it’s interesting to see how she views Poirot.

Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning introduces Edinburgh journalist Jack Parlabane. One morning, he stumbles onto the scene of a brutal murder. It all starts when Parlabane hears a commotion in the flat below and decides to go down and see what’s going on (and hopefully get the people in the flat to be quiet). He forgets his key, though, and locks himself out of his own flat, clad only in boxers and a T-shirt. Here’s what Brookmyre tells us next:
 

‘Now, the rational course of action for any normal human being at this point would be to enlist the help of the conveniently present police in securing the services of a locksmith, or at least the services of a few standard-issue Doc Martens. But even if he hadn’t been reluctant to enter into any dialogue with Lothian and Borders’ finest, he’d probably still have seen climbing in from another flat as the easiest solution.’
 

And that’s exactly what Parlabane tries to do. But when he goes to the downstairs flat and heads for one of its windows, he’s seen by a police detective, and gets drawn into a web of murder and high-level corruption. In this case, the aside gives us some information about Parlabane, and adds some wit to the story.

In Janice McDonald’s Another Margaret, Edmonton-based sessional instructor Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig gets involved in a mystery surrounding enigmatic author Margaret Ahelers, whose work Craig studied for her master’s thesis. Craig knows that Ahlers has been gone for years. So, how has a new Ahlers novel just been released? Is this a case of forgery? Or has an unpublished manuscript been found? The mystery leads to real danger and connects with another mystery Craig encountered years ago. Craig’s partner is police detective Steve Browning, who plays an important role in this novel. At one point, they go out to dinner together. During the meal, they discuss an alumni reunion that Craig is helping to plan (she is a graduate of the University of Alberta). Browning asks if he’s invited, and Craig assures him that he’s welcome:
 

‘‘I love you, Steve Browning.’
‘Mutual, I’m sure.’
Steve drove us to his condo…and we proved it to each other. There is nothing better than feeding steak to a red-blooded Canadian man, I am just saying.’ 
 

That one-line aside is witty, and it gives the reader a quick break from the plot of the story.

Asides can serve several purposes in a story. They can be funny, they can reveal character traits, and more. But, like all tools, they are best used in moderation, so that the flow of the story isn’t interrupted. What’s your view? If you’re a writer, do you use asides? Do you have a preference when it comes to your reading?

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Brookmyre, Janice MacDonald, John Burdett, Linwood Barclay

Are We the Things We Keep Hanging Around?*

If you have any storage space at all, my guess is that you use it. Most of us tend to accumulate all kinds of things for various reasons. You may have sentimental reasons for keeping something, or you may keep things because you think they’re beautiful. Or because they may come in handy someday and you never know. Or it may be a question of books, in which case there is no question. Books deserve good homes.

Whatever the reason, we do seem to accumulate things. Sometimes those things can reveal a lot about a person. So, it’s no surprise that, when police investigate a murder, they take a look at people’s things. If nothing else, it’s a way to get to know the victim a bit. Little wonder, then, that we see this happen in crime fiction, too. And it can reveal a lot about the victim and other characters.

It’s precisely the lack of such accumulated things that gets Hercule Poirot wondering in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds. In that novel, Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who killed a French moneylender who went by the name of Madame Giselle. She was poisoned on board a flight from Paris to London, so the only possible suspects are the other people in the cabin. Poirot thinks he may learn more about the motives people may have had for murder by getting to know the victim. So, he visits her Paris home. To his surprise, there are almost no personal items. No photographs, mementos, personal letters, boxes of books, or anything else that might give him information. That in itself interests Poirot, and he determines to find out why the victim seemed to want no connection of any kind with her past. The lack of accumulated things doesn’t solve the mystery, but it gives real insight into Madame Giselle’s history and character.

Things are completely different In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Went Into the Closet. Journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran and his two Siamese cats are preparing for the winter, which can get severe in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ Their home isn’t suitable for winter living, so they’re going to spend it at the former home of Euphonia Gage, who lived in a large house in the middle of town. She’s now moved to a senior living facility in Florida, so the house is available. They settle in, and Qwill can’t resist doing a little exploring in the old house. It’s full of closets that are full of accumulated things, and he and the cats find that interesting enough. Then, Euphonia Gage dies, apparently of suicide. It’s not long, though, before that’s called into question. She was in good health, very much enjoying life, and had no financial problems. Then there’s another death, which could very well be related to hers. Now, Quill suspects that something more sinister is going on, and so it is. And some of the keys to the mystery are in the junk left behind in the house.

As L.R. Wright’s The Suspect begins, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just killed eight-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. We know from the beginning who the killer and victim are, but we are not told the motive. Wilcox leaves the scene of the crime and returns home. Later, he notifies the police, and RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg investigates. Sechelt, British Colombia, is a small town, so it’s not long before everyone knows what’s happened, and everyone starts to speculate about who killed Burke and why. Alberg starts to put the clues together, and before very long, he suspects Wilcox. What he doesn’t know is the motive. The two men didn’t like each other much, but that’s hardly a reason to kill someone. And there’s no real evidence to connect Wilcox to the crime. Bit by bit, as Alberg tries to get the evidence and information he needs, we learn more about the history between victim and killer, and the motive is slowly revealed. And Alberg finds the evidence for it among some accumulated ‘stuff.’

In R.J. Harlick’s Death’s Golden Whisper, we are introduced to Meg Harris. She’s inherited a house and land at Three Deer Point in Outaouais, in Western Québec, from her Great-Aunt Agatha, and has settled in. Aunt Agatha had always enjoyed a good relationship with the Miskigan people of the area, and Meg has worked to do the same. So, Miskigan Band Chief Eric Odjik turns to her for help. There’s a good possibility of gold on Whisper Island, which lies near Deer Point. A company called CanacGold wants to mine the island. And there are plenty of Miskigan who don’t want the island mined, for various reasons. The simplest way to keep the company off the island is to prove that it is someone’s property, and that someone may be Meg. If it can be shown that Whisper Island belonged to Aunt Agatha, then Meg gets to decide what will happen to the island.  And she doesn’t want CanacGold to mine, so she’s only too happy to agree to help. In one plot thread of this novel, she goes through Aunt Agatha’s things to try to find any paperwork that may indicate who owns the island. Her search leads her to some surprising family truths. In the meantime, Meg’s friend and employee, Marie Whiteduck, goes missing. Later, Marie’s abusive husband, Louis, is found dead. Meg gets caught up in this investigation, and we see that it’s connected to the controversy over Whisper Island.

Not everyone accumulates a lot, though. Take John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitplecheep. He is a member of the Royal Thai Police, who lives and works in Bangkok. He’s also a devout Buddhist and tries to be attached as little as possible to possessions. He lives in one room, which doesn’t have a television. And, although he has the clothes he needs and some other things, he hasn’t accumulated much of anything. He has a very different perspective on the value of owning things.

For a lot of us, though, it’s amazing how many things we tend to accumulate without even being aware of it. That is, until we get ready to move house…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alice BrightSky’s Box of Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, John Burdett, L.R. Wright, Lilian Jackson Braun, R.J. Harlick