Category Archives: Katherine Howell

Many a Thing She Ought to Understand*

Many people begin their careers as trainees. They’re supposed to watch and learn, and they’re supposed to do as they’re asked. Of course, each situation is a little different; but, for instance, student teachers are limited in the amount of autonomy they have for much of their student teaching experience. Medical students are supposed to work only under the close eye of their supervising doctor. There are, of course, lots of other examples.

It’s not easy to be a trainee, if you think about it. You may have brilliant ideas, but you still have to learn how things are done, you still have to work with others, and you still have to be open to doing an awful lot of learning. It can be awkward, uncomfortable, and even disheartening at times, especially when you make a big mistake. But it’s a really important time in professional development. And it’s interesting how often this context shows up in crime fiction.

For instance, Robin Cook’s first major novel, Coma, is the story of a third-year medical student, Susan Wheeler, who is in training at Boson Memorial Hospital. When she discovers some patients went into comas during their surgeries, she begins to ask questions. She soon learns that this was the result of tampering with the patients’ oxygen lines and looks into the matter further. As she does, she finds herself in grave danger, as there are some ugly truths she uncovers. This is a thriller, but it also depicts the lives of medical students and their supervisors. Admittedly, the book was published in 1977, and there have been many changes in medicine in the last 40 years or so. But the essential roles the characters play, and the uncertainties and challenges of being a trainee, haven’t changed that much.

In Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, we are introduced to FBI trainee Clarice Starling. The FBI is looking for a serial killer they’ve dubbed ‘Buffalo Bill,’ and they think they have a way to find him. He is a former patient of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a noted, gifted psychiatrist. But Lecter is currently imprisoned in Baltimore’s State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. So, anyone who interacts with him may be at risk. Starling is chosen for the job, which does not exactly thrill some people who think that a trainee is not the right choice for this assignment. Still, she takes up her duties, and goes to visit Lecter. The two begin a dialogue, and Lecter agrees to help the FBI with the search for ‘Buffalo Bill.’ But he imposes a condition. For everything he tells Starling, she will have to share a personal secret. It’s a risky psychological game as the two pursue their agendas, and it doesn’t help matters that there’s still a killer on the loose.

Pablo De Santis’ Enigma of Paris introduces us to Sigmundo Salvatrio, son of a Buenos Aires shoemaker. He wants more than anything to be a detective, so he is thrilled to learn that he’s been accepted at the Academy for Detectives, run by world-famous detective Renato Craig. Craig is the co-founder of an international group of detectives known as The Twelve, and this group is scheduled to make a presentation at the upcoming Paris World’s Fair of 1889. Illness forces Craig to cancel his plans to attend the event, so he sends Salvatrio in his place. Salvatrio meets the other members of The Twelve, including the group’s other founder, Viktor Arkazy. Then, another member, Louis Dargon, is murdered, and Salvatrio works with Arkazy to find the killer. Throughout the novel, we see the roles that Salvatrio and the other detectives’ apprentices play, and how those roles are impacted by their trainee status.

We first meet Tony Hillerman’s Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito in The Fallen Man. In that novel, she is a rookie trainee in the Navajo Tribal Police’s Special Investigations Unit. In one plot thread of this story, the unit is tasked with getting to the truth about a series of cattle thefts. On the one hand, Manuelito knows very well that she is ‘the new kid,’ and has a lot to learn. On other, she learns some important things about the case, and decides to take some initiative. And, in the end, the unit learns who is responsible for the thefts. Manuelito’s need to balance her role as a trainee with her desire to solve the case reflects the dilemmas that many trainees may have. On the one hand, they’re supposed to watch, learn, take advice, and so on. On the other, they also need to learn to take initiative and make choices.

Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure begins as paramedic Carly Martens and her teammate for the day, Aidan Simpson, are called to the scene of what looks like a domestic dispute between Connor Crawford and his wife, Suzanne. They reassure the paramedics that all is well, although Suzanne has an injury. She insists that it’s minor, and that she’ll be fine, so the paramedics have little choice but to leave. The next day, Suzanne is brutally murdered, and Connor goes missing. New South Wales Police detectives Ella Marconi and Dennis Orchard investigate, and they find what the paramedics have to say is very useful. In one plot thread of this novel, we learn more about Aidan Simpson. He is a trainee, so he’s been assigned to work with different partners on a rotating basis to complete his training. But it’s not working out well. He is smug, arrogant, and unwilling to listen to what anyone says. What’s worse, he is inept. Both Martens and her regular partner, Mick Schultz, have tried to help Simpson fit in and learn his job. But he isn’t willing to try to learn. And that forms a thread in this novel.

And then there’s Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. Lucy Howard is a probationer with the Tasmania Police. She’s smart, and willing to do the work that it takes to learn the job. She’s lucky, too. Her boss is Sergeant John White, who wants her to do well. In fact, one afternoon, the police get called to the scene of a home invasion, and White taps Howard to go with him. For her, the prospect is nerve-wracking, but she is also flattered, and she wants very much to do the job well. Tragically, White is murdered at the crime scene, while he is at the back of the home, and Howard at the front. As the police deal with this death, and with the investigation, Lucy has to face her own feelings of guilt at not being able to save her boss.

It’s never easy to be a trainee. There’s so much to learn, there’s the social fitting-in, and there’s anxiety about doing the job well. That context can be challenging in real life, but it makes for a solid context for a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Maria.

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Filed under Katherine Howell, Pablo De Santis, Robin Cook, Thomas Harris, Tony Hillerman, Y.A. Erskine

We’re On the Move to the Scene of the Crime*

Any police officer or other first responder can tell you that when a call comes in, there’s no telling what, exactly, awaits. So those who are called to the scene need to be prepared for just about anything.

That first few minutes at the scene are crucial, too. There’s sometimes valuable evidence there, if it’s a crime scene. If it’s a medical emergency scene, every second can count. And in either case, it’s important to get as accurate a first impression as possible.

In a crime novel, the arrival at the scene of a crime or other tragedy gives the author a potentially powerful tool for suspense and tension. And authors of whodunits can use that scene for clues or ‘red herrings.’ It’s also a very realistic part of dealing with crimes. So, it makes sense that we’d see a lot of those moments in the genre.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot isn’t officially a first responder. But in The Hollow, he does come upon a murder scene. He’s been invited for lunch to the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. They’ve got several weekend house guests, and he’s included in their Sunday plans. When Poirot arrives at the house, he’s escorted to the outdoor pool area. There, he finds one of the guests, John Christow, lying by the pool, very close to death from a gunshot. Another guest is holding what appears to be the murder weapon. Everyone else is also nearby. At first, Poirot thinks it’s some sort of macabre ‘amusement’ for his benefit. But very quickly, he sees that Christow really has been murdered. The police are called, and Inspector Grange and his team begin the investigation. Later, Poirot’s first impression of the murder scene turns out to add an interesting dimension to the story.

Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice sees his sleuth, L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch, listening to the police-band radio in his home one evening when he’s ‘on call.’ That’s how he finds out about the discovery of the body of another police detective, Calexico ‘Cal” Moore in a seedy hotel room. Bosch rushes to the scene, not happy at all that he wasn’t called out right away, since he’s on duty. He’s soon told that Moore committed suicide, mostly because he had ‘gone dirty,’ and that he (Bosch) should leave the matter alone. Anyone who knows anything at all about Harry Bosch will know that ‘leaving matters alone’ is one thing he doesn’t do. He follows up on Moore’s death, and finds that it leads to a vicious drugs gang, incidents from the past, and some things the police department would rather not have made public. And one of the first impressions he gets from that initial arrival at the scene turns out to be helpful.

Katherine Howell is a former paramedic, and often taps those experiences in her writing. And several scenes in her novels depict what it’s like when first responders arrive. In Violent Exposure, for instance, paramedic Carly Martens and her teammate for the day, Aidan Simpson, are called to the scene of what seems to be a domestic dispute between Connor Crawford and his wife, Suzanne. The couple assure the paramedics that all’s well. But Suzanne is injured, and the tension between her and Connor is palpable. Still, there’s not much the paramedics can do in this particular situation, so they leave. The next day, Suzanne is discovered brutally murdered. New South Wales Police detective Ella Marconi and her partner, Dennis Orchard, begin the investigation. Based on what Martens and Simpson tell them, they suspect Connor Crawford right away. But he’s disappeared. Then, one of the young people who work at the Crawfords’ nursery also goes missing. Now, the detectives have to find the two missing people, if they’re still alive, and find out who killed Suzanne Crawford and why.

Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning begins as journalist Jack Parlabane wakes up. He’s sleepy and hung over, but he hears a lot of noise coming from the flat downstairs. Too curious to stay where he is, he leaves his own flat, and forgets to take his key with him. He goes downstairs to see what all the noise is about, only to find that that flat’s door is open. Parlabane soon regrets going in, because he finds a brutal and very ugly murder scene. He knows he can’t simply go back upstairs, because he’s locked out of his flat. So, he decides to climb out an open window in the downstairs flat, make his way up to his own open window, directly above, and return to his home that way. It doesn’t work. He’s no sooner heading out the window when he’s stopped by Detective Constable (DC) Jenny Dalziel. Soon enough, Dalziel sees that Parlabane is not guilty of the murder. Little by little, they begin to work together, and they soon find that they can be helpful to each other. It may be a very gory murder scene, but helps to forge a solid working partnership.

Every first responder, police or otherwise, knows that going to the scene can be highly dangerous, even fatal. We see just how fatal in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. One day, the Tasmania Police are alerted to a home invasion. Sergeant John White goes to the house, bringing with him probationer Lucy Howard. When they get there, they decide to split up. Howard will stay at the front of the house, and White will go to the back. Very shortly afterwards, White’s dead of a stabbing attack. Everyone thinks that the killer is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley. The theory is that he was in the home, taking what he could, when White interrupted him. Rowley’s going to be a difficult case, though. For one thing, he knows how to work the juvenile justice system very effectively, so as to stay out of trouble. For another, he’s part Aboriginal. So, the media will be closely watching everything the police do. Still, they start the task of linking him to the murder.

Of course, once in a while, a crime/murder scene comes to the police, if I can put it that way. In Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt a Whirl, for instance, Sea Haven police officer John Ceepak is having breakfast one morning with one of the summer-hire cops, Danny Boyle. They’re sitting in a local restaurant when they hear screaming. Running down the street towards them is a young girl, whose dress is covered with blood. She’s practically incoherent, but they finally calm her enough to find out what’s wrong. She says her name is Ashley Hart, and that she and her father, wealthy Reginald Hart, were on a ride at the local amusement park when a strange man with a gun came up and shot her father. Ceepak and Boyle go right to the crime scene, and end up involved in a murder investigation that isn’t nearly as straightforward as it seems.

The first look at the scene of a crime can be jolting. But it’s an important part of an investigation. And it can yield valuable clues.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Nell Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe’s Scene of the Crime.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Grabenstein, Christopher Brookmyre, Katherine Howell, Michael Connelly, Y.A. Erskine

I Dented Somebody’s Fender*

If you haven’t had this happen to you (and I hope you haven’t!), you may have seen it. Someone’s pulling out or in, or stopping at a traffic light, or switching lanes, and there’s a car accident. I don’t necessarily mean the sort of terrible accident that causes serious injury; those, are, of course, awful. But even what the police call minor accidents can be nerve-wracking, frustrating and expensive.

In real life, they mean calls to insurance companies, perhaps arguments with the other driver, and the cost and time of repair. In crime fiction, they have all sorts of possibilities, even when neither driver is hurt. After all, disparate strangers meet under difficult circumstances. And, in the hands of a skilled author, you never know where such an accident may lead.

For instance, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant, Mervyn Bunter, are on their way to the town of Walbeach one New Year’s Eve when they have a car accident near the East Anglia town of Fenchurch St. Paul. Neither man is hurt, and they decide the best choice is to walk towards the village and try to get some help. On the way, they meet Rector Theodore Venables, the local vicar. He rescues Wimsey and Bunter, and invites them to stay at the rectory until the car is repaired. The two men gratefully accept the invitation, and Wimsey is able to repay his host when he substitutes for a sick parishioner at the church’s annual change-ringing. He and Venables develop a friendship, which turns out to be very useful a few months later. During a funeral, an unidentified corpse is discovered at the gravesite. Vanables writes to Wimsey, asking for his help in the matter, and Wimsey and Bunter return to Fenchurch St. Paul, this time with no mishap. Wimsey looks into the matter, and finds that the extra body is related to a robbery and some missing emeralds.

In Alex Gaby’s short story Crooked Road, Henry Adams and his wife are driving along a country road near the small town of Robertsville. They’re forced off the road by a police car being driven by Officers Charles Bleecker and Carney Tait. In the process, they land by the side of the road, with one of their tires in shreds. It’s soon clear that this is a ‘speed trap,’ and that they’re going to be bilked for whatever they have. To make things worse, the owner of the local towing company is in on the racket, and they’re more or less forced into having their car towed into town. But things don’t turn out quite the way it seems they will…

One of the pivotal plot points in Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn is a car crash between a blue Honda and a silver Peugeot. It happens one afternoon when Paul Bradley, who’s driving the Peugeot, suddenly stops to avoid hitting a pedestrian. The Honda hits the Peugeot from behind, and both drivers get out of their cars. An argument begins, and gets so heated that the Honda driver brandishes a bat and starts to attack Bradley. As it happens, mystery novelist Martin Canning is among several witnesses to the accident and argument. By instinct, he throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. Out of a sense of obligation, Canning then accompanies Bradley to the nearest hospital to make sure he’ll be all right. That decision draws Canning into a dangerous web that involves multiple murders.

In Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit, we are introduced to Sydney paramedics Jane Koutofides and Alex Churchill. One morning, they go to the scene of a one-car crash. The drive, Marko Meixner, seems unhurt, but refuses to allow the paramedics to take him to a local hospital. He finally goes with them, but keeps insisting that he’s in danger, and so will they be if they spend any time with him. Koutofides thinks that Meixner needs a psychiatric evaluation, and that the crash may have been a suicide attempt. So, when they get to the hospital, she requests a workup for Meixner. He leaves before that can be done, though, and there’s nothing much that the staff can do. Later that day, Koutofides and Churchill are called to another scene, this time the death of a man who fell under a commuter train. When they discover that the victim is Meixner, it seems at first that he finally succeeded at killing himself. But New South Wales Police Inspector Ella Marconi wonders whether Meixner was right about being in danger.  If he was, then this could be a murder. So, she and her police partner, Murray Shakespeare, work to find out the truth behind Meixner’s life and death.

David Housewright’s Unidentified Woman No. 15 begins with a car accident – well, a series of them. One day, former St. Paul police detective Rushmore McKenzie and his partner, Nina Truhler, are on the snow-covered road between Minneapolis and St. Paul, when a pickup truck cuts in front of them. As they watch, a man gets into the bed of the truck, opens the gate, and dumps the body of a young woman out the back. McKenzie brakes suddenly to avoid hitting the woman, and unwittingly starts a chain reaction of accidents. By the time the road is clear again, the truck is gone. The woman, though, is alive, and is rushed to the nearest hospital, where she slowly starts to heal from her injuries. She doesn’t remember her name, though, or the accident, or much of anything. Still, it’s clear that she’s in danger, and St. Paul Police Commissioner Bobby Dunstan asks McKenzie to look after her until she’s well. He agrees, and the woman settles in. But before long, they’re all involved in a case of theft and multiple murders.

See what I mean? Even a fender-bender can lead in any sort of direction in a crime novel. I’m sure you can think of more examples than I can. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, neither vehicle that you see in the ‘photo belongs to me.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Madness’ Driving in My Car.

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Filed under Alex Gaby, David Housewright, Dorothy L. Sayers, Kate Atkinson, Katherine Howell

She Won’t Join Your Clubs, She Won’t Dance in Your Halls*

groupdynamicsAs I’ve said many times on this blog, well-written crime fiction shows us ourselves. And one of the things we see about ourselves is the way we behave in groups. Humans are social animals, so it’s natural for us to want to belong to a group. And, once in, we try to sort ourselves out. You can call it group dynamics, or group politics, if you will. Whatever you call it, it’s one way people try to impose order on their worlds.

Group dynamics can add much to a crime novel. There’s the tension as people establish the group order. There’s other tension as ‘outsiders’ try to become ‘insiders.’ There’s also the suspense as people try to either stay in the group, or leave it, or gain a particular position within it. There are too many examples in the genre for me to mention them all. Here are just a few.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly at the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted.’ The community is tightly-knit, and figuratively and literally separated from the outside world. It’s an insular group, and everyone knows the ‘right’ places to shop, the ‘right’ schools for their children, the ‘right’ people to befriend, and the ‘right’ causes to support. Everything changes when Argentina’s financial situation begins to deteriorate (the novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of 2000). At first, the residents of ‘the Heights’ seem impervious to the developing crisis, but that doesn’t last. The end result is a tragedy, and the residents now have to deal with what’s happened.

Megan Abbott’s Dare Me explores the world of teen social dynamics. Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy have been best friends for years. Now, they’re in their last year of high school, and they ‘own’ the school, Beth in particular. They’re both on the cheerleading squad, and getting ready to start their lives after they graduate. Then, the school hires a new cheerleading coach, Collette French. Right from the start, French changes the social order. She makes the cheerleading squad a sort of exclusive club, and Addy is welcomed as an ‘insider.’ Beth, however, is excluded, and becomes an outsider ‘looking in.’ Then, there’s a suicide (or was it?). Now this social group is turned upside down as everyone deals with what’s happened.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series takes place in Shanghai in the late 1990s, a time of great change in China. There’s still an influence of Maoism, and of some older, even ancient, traditions. But there’s also a newly developing form of capitalism as China continues to work with capitalist nations. China’s bureaucracy is a system of cadres, or social levels. Those in extremely important positions are ‘high cadre’ people, and do not take kindly to any threat, real or imagined, to their status. For that reason, the police have to work very carefully whenever a crime might possibly involve such a person. As the series goes on, we see how these cadres sort themselves out and establish and keep order. The dynamics may change as one or another member’s fortune changes. But the cadre system itself is a well-established and deeply-ingrained social structure.

If you’ve ever worked for a law firm, you know that the attorneys in a firm often form a community. In a large firm, you may find senior partners, junior partners, associates, and contract lawyers. And that’s to say nothing of the legal assistants (such as clerks, paralegals, and legal secretaries) and support staff. Even smaller firms have some sense of community, and, therefore, of social structure. And, even in the most supportive and employee-friendly firms, people sort themselves out. A beginning associate who wants to become a partner needs to know how the firm’s structure works, and what the firm’s priorities are. Crime writers such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham and Scott Turow explore not just the particular legal cases at hand, but also the inner workings of law firms. And it’s interesting to see how the social structure at a firm can impact what lawyers do.

Police departments also have their own social structure, and anyone who works in one quickly learns what that structure is. There are many, many police procedural series, some of them outstanding, that depict the ways in which police social structure works. In healthy departments, cases are solved by teams of people who have supportive leadership. Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels are like that. And so, arguably, are Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss novels, Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi novels and Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels. That’s not to say that the characters are all perfect, with no faults, quirks or weaknesses. Rather, we see how the groups in these novels sort themselves out, and how the people in them work out what their roles are.

Of course, there are plenty of police procedurals where we see a very unhealthy social dynamic. In those novels, ‘patch wars,’ infighting, and even sabotage happen. A few examples are Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, Simon Lelic’s A Thousand Cuts (AKA Rupture), and Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road. There are many others.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. That novel’s focus is Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main characters are members of three families, all of whom have children in the school’s Kindergarten class. Shortly after the school year begins, there’s a bullying incident. Renata Klein, one of the most influential ‘school mums,’ accuses another child of bullying her daughter. That boy, Ziggy, is the son of a relative newcomer. Ziggy says he didn’t do any bullying, and his mother believes him. And it’s not long before there are two camps. Tension escalates for this and other reasons, until it boils over on Quiz Night, which was planned as a school fundraiser. Tragedy results, and each family is deeply affected by what happens. Throughout this novel, we see the social structure of ‘playground mums’ and some dads, too. The elite group here is called ‘the Blond Bobs’:
 

‘The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob…it’s like a bylaw.’
 

Part of the tension in the story comes from the way this social hierarchy plays out.

And that’s the thing about groups. Almost any time people get together, those dynamics come into play. And they can be very dangerous.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines.

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Filed under Claudia Piñeiro, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Liane Moriarty, Megan Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Reginald Hill, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Turow

Yours is so Distinctive*

Distinctive SeriesThe thing about crime fiction is that there’s a lot of it. Every year, new novels are released, too. All of this means that nobody can read all of the crime fiction that’s out there. And yet, despite all of the options and all of the reading we do, there are some series that really seem to stand out. There’s something about those series that makes them unique. I’m not talking here of just an interesting plot and characters; any well-written crime series has those. I’m talking more of something special that sets those series apart.

In some cases, it’s a unique sort of sleuth. These are sleuths who are distinctive enough that if you see a caricature, you know exactly which sleuth it is. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is like that. He has enough eccentricities that he’s quite distinctive. And his personality and detection style are part of what set those stories apart.

One might say the same thing about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, too. Both of those detectives are distinct from other detectives, both in physical appearance and in their approaches to solving crime. So the novels featuring them stand out, too. This isn’t to say that that mysteries themselves aren’t interesting, or that there’s nothing else appealing about those series. Rather, it’s to say that those characters are important parts of what sets those series apart from others.

For some series, it’s the cultural context that sets them apart. We see that, for instance, in Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels. Both of those characters are members of the Navajo Tribal Police, and the Navajo Nation. So, many of these stories take place in that culture. In fact, Hillerman was awarded the distinction of being named ‘A Special Friend of the Navajo’ for his thoughtful and respectful, but honest, depiction of the Navajo.

Fans of Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder novels will know that that series, too, is set apart by its depiction of a unique culture. In this case, it’s the Amish of the US state of Ohio. Burkholder is chief of police in the small town of Painters Mill. She is also Amish by background, although she no longer lives that life. So readers get a look at the distinctive way of life of the Amish, and that’s part of what makes this series different to others.

Many readers like a strong sense of setting in their novels. And any well-written crime series gives the reader a sense of what it’s like to live in the place where the stories are set. But in some series, that sense of setting is distinctive. I’m thinking, for instance, of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels. Longmire is the sheriff for fictional Apsaroka County, Wyoming, so in those novels, readers get a real sense of rural Wyoming. The physical setting, the climate, and the people who live there are all depicted in these novels. That’s not to say there’s nothing else about the series that makes it worth reading. It is to say, though, that for fans of these novels, the setting is one factor that sets them apart.

That’s also arguably true of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway/Harry Nelson series. Galloway is a forensic anthropologist with the University of North Norfolk; Nelson is a local chief inspector. Among many other things that fans of this series enjoy, the setting is distinctive. As the novels go on, readers learn about the history of this part of East Anglia, and about the climate, geography, and so on that make the place unique. And, of course, there’s Cathbad…

Peter May’s Lewis trilogy takes place in the Lewis and Harris part of the Outer Hebrides. Right from the beginning, readers are placed there in terms of climate, geography and so on. Certainly the character and plot are part of what appeal to fans of May’s writing. But the setting is definitely one of the things that sets this trilogy apart. May’s depiction of setting is also really clear in his standalone Entry Island.

Another element that sets some series apart for readers is the depiction of a profession. In those cases, readers learn what it’s really like to be a lawyer/doctor/paramedic/etc. John Grisham’s novels, for instance, just about always focus on an attorney or a group of attorneys. So they give readers an ‘inside look’ at the life of an attorney. And what sets these novels apart is that they go beyond the TV-and-film stereotypes of what an attorney does. The same is arguably true of Robert Rotenberg’s novels.

Katherine Howell’s novels feature New South Wales police inspector Ella Marconi. But they also include major characters who are paramedics. Among the things that set these novels apart is the way they depict the life of a paramedic. Readers get to ‘go behind the scenes’ and really see what it’s like to become a paramedic, to do the job, and to live the life. It’s interesting to note, too, that Grisham, Rotenberg and Howell are all, or have been, members of the professions that feature in their stories. This may be just my opinion, but I think that lends something to their series. And that depiction of profession sets them apart.

Of course, these are just a few examples of ways in which a series can distinguish itself from all the good series out there. As you think about the series that most stand out for you, what is it about them that draws you? If you’re a writer, what do you find easiest to do to make your stories unique?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sense Field’s Voice.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Elly Griffiths, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Linda Castillo, Peter May, Rex Stout, Robert Rotenberg, Tony Hillerman