Category Archives: Kerry Greenwood

Everybody Needs a Passion or They Cash in While They Can*

FollowingPassionsFor most of us, the reality is that we have to earn a living. That means that we have to work at something that’s going to pay the bills. And that, in turn, means that we sometimes have to balance, even compromise, our practical needs and our passions. Ask any writer who also has a full-time ‘day job.’ It’s not always easy to strike that balance.

We see that balance/compromise come up in crime fiction, just as it does in real life. Admittedly, it’s not always the reason for a murder, but it can add for a fascinating layer of character development. And it can make for a story arc, too.

Artist Alan Everard finds himself facing that challenge in Agatha Christie’s short story Within a Wall. He gains early notice and even acclaim for some top-quality work that has depth and insight. He is passionate about his art, and committed to doing the best work he can. Shortly after his career begins, he marries ‘well born’ Isobel Loring, who has her own plans for her new husband’s success. One afternoon, he and Isobel are hosting a tea party to unveil his latest work: a portrait of her. It’s technically an excellent piece of art. But he knows inside that it’s also flat and lifeless, without the passion of his other work. He gets a chance to compare the painting with his other work when one of the guests discovers a painting of his daughter’s godmother (and his muse) Jane Haworth. That contrast shows how much of an influence Jane has had on his life, and that has its consequences. While this isn’t really a crime story, it is an interesting psychological study of the dilemma Everard faces as he is torn between his wife’s desire for him to do lucrative society portraits, and his muse’s candor about the quality of his work.

In Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights, we are introduced to Corinna Chapman. She is a former accountant who had a very promising career with a successful company. But she discovered that she didn’t really care very much about numbers and accounting. Instead, her real passion is baking. For her, bread is real:

‘I make bread, that’s what I do, that’s what I am.’

So she establishes her own bakery in the Melbourne building where she lives. She may not be wealthy, but she is doing what has real meaning for her.

Gail Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and retired academician. She is also the mother of three grown children and a teenager. Early in this series, her older daughter, Mieka, makes the choice to leave university and follow her passion: her own catering company. As she puts it:
‘‘Her [Mieka’s]  voice was strong. ‘I want my chance. I know I may get flattened but I have to try.’’

Her mother has misgivings (as any parent might), but Mieka makes a go of it, and does what she dreams of dong.

Fans of John Grisham’s legal novels will know that he often addresses the dilemma that attorneys face when it comes to their work. Does the lawyer choose a well-paying position (often, but not always, in a large firm)? Such jobs often have the promise of advancement, good salary, and so on. But they don’t always allow the young attorney to work on cases of real interest and make a difference. Should the lawyer choose a low-paying job (often, but not always, in a smaller firm)? Such positions don’t always pay well. But legal aid and pro bono work can be richly rewarding in other ways, and even billable hours in a smaller firm can allow the attorney to follow a particular passion (e.g. the environment; child welfare, etc.). Of course, there’s more to the choice of job than just big or small firm. But attorneys are sometimes faced with the choice between going for a high salary, opportunity for partnership and so on, and handling the kinds of cases they want to handle. And although the focus of Grisham’s novels is the set of legal mysteries in them, there’s also often a sub-plot involving the attorney’s choice between money and particular legal interest.

Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who was much in demand in the academic world. He could have had his pick of just about any academic institution. And, although most university professors don’t get rich (trust me!), Shaw could have negotiated quite a glittering ‘hiring package’ for himself. Instead, he’s chosen to follow his passion, which is the history of the American South. He loves the South (he was brought up there) and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. What’s more, he’s not really interested in becoming a ‘celebrity academic.’ He wants peace, quiet, and the chance to explore his particular research interests. So Shaw has chosen a relatively small school, Kenan College, in North Carolina. The school has a very high-quality reputation, but if Shaw thought that living in small-town North Carolina and working for a small school would be peaceful, he’s quite wrong…

In a similar way, Martin Edward’s Daniel Kind has made the choice to follow his academic passion, rather than opt for a lot of money. Kind is an Oxford historian who’d become a celebrity. He got ‘burned out’ by that life, though, and, in The Coffin Trail, decides to take a home in a quiet part of the Lake District. He’s hoping to follow his own research interests and do some writing. But that’s not how things work out. He does do the research he wants, but his life is hardly peaceful. He works with Cumbria Constabulary’s DCI Hannah Scarlett on cold cases that her team investigates, and that can make his life anything but tranquil…

And then there’s M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth. He is the village bobby for the town of Lochdubh, in the Scottish Highlands. He’s a skilled detective; and, if he wanted, he could rise through the ranks, earn more money, and perhaps have a higher status. But that’s not where Macbeth’s interest lies. He’s much more interested in a quiet life of fishing, occasional hunting, and spending time with his dog. The lure of money just doesn’t appeal to him.

We all have to make a living, and if we’re lucky, we get paid to do what we love. But sometimes, it’s not that simple. The choice between money and passion isn’t an easy one. But it can add a layer to a character and a thread to a story.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Money or Love.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Martin Edwards, M.C. Beaton, John Grisham, Kerry Greenwood, Gail Bowen, Sarah R. Shaber

Circus Life, Under the Big Top World*

CircusesThere’s something about a circus that can capture the imagination. The trapeze and other acts, the glittering costumes, the illusions, it’s all got something magical about it for a lot of people. At the same time, ‘circus people’ have often been seen as ‘not quite like the rest of us.’ They’re itinerant, they tend to keep to themselves, and they don’t always fit in.  And behind the scenes, the circus life is one of hard work, no real roots, and sometimes grimy, even ugly, surroundings. And yet, on the surface, the circus can look so enticing that it’s little wonder plenty of young people have dreamed of being clowns, acrobats or high-wire walkers.

It’s also little wonder we see plenty of circuses popping up in crime fiction. If you grew up reading Enid Blyton, you probably remember that circuses are a part of those children’s mystery stories. But we also see them in adult crime fiction.

For example, in Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, New York City Homicide Bureau police officer Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk when he encounters a young woman about to jump off a bridge. She allows him to persuade her to come with him rather than jump; he then takes her to an all-night diner where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy Harlan Reid. Although her mother died when she was very young, she’s had a more or less happy life until recently. Her father has met Jeremiah Tompkins, who is, as he puts it, cursed with the ability to see the future. Since that time, Harlan Reid has become obsessed with knowing the future; and now, Tompkins has predicted his death. Reid’s been told he will die at midnight on a certain day, and his daughter can no longer stand to see what’s happened to him since then. Shawn tries to help the Reids as much as he can, including investigating Tompkins. After all, Reid is a rich man, and it’s quite likely that someone is trying to manipulate him for his money. If it’s not Tompkins, it may be someone else. The trail leads to an itinerant carnival – a ‘tent show,’ but by the time the police get there, the whole show has moved on.  The police track down the performers, and it’s interesting to see how the operation is portrayed in this story.

In Clayton Rawson’s The Headless Lady, a young woman calling herself Mildred Christine comes to Merlini the Magician’s magic shop. She wants to purchase a particular illusion: ‘The Headless Lady.’ Merlini is reluctant to sell it to her, since it’s his only demonstration model. But she insists, and is willing to pay an exorbitant amount of money. Merlini finally agrees on the condition that she answer a few questions. She says that if she decides to do so, she’ll come back later. Merlini and his friend Ross Harte investigate, and trace the woman to an itinerant circus. It turns out that she is a circus performer, Pauline Hannum, daughter of the circus’ late owner Major Hannum.  When it comes out that Hannum was murdered, and that the killer might not be done, Merlini and Harte get involved in a behind-the-scenes circus mystery.

Jo Nesbø’s The Bat has Oslo police inspector Harry Hole travel to Sydney, where he’s been seconded to observe the investigation into the murder of a Norwegian national, Inger Holter. In the process of looking into her murder, the police find that there’ve been other, similar murders. If they are all connected, then the police could be dealing with a very dangerous killer. Hole and his Australian hosts have to ‘join the dots’ to find out what links all the victims, and one lead takes them to a circus that’s been giving performances in several different parts of the region. One of the things that we see in this novel is the ‘fringe’ nature of a lot of circus performers. Many of them don’t mix in with ‘the rest of us.’

Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher goes undercover at Farrell’s Circus and Wild Beast Show in Blood and Circuses. In one plot thread of that novel, a few of the side show performers who travel around with the circus are concerned about some of the goings-on there. There’ve been several ‘accidents,’ including a broken tightrope, a fire, and a horse that suddenly died. The performers want Phryne to find out why the circus seems to be cursed, and who would want it to be ruined. She goes undercover as a trick rider, without access to her money, her title or her usual friends. As she finds out what’s happening at the circus, readers get a look at what circus life is like for the various performers.

Private investigator Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver also investigates some nefarious circus goings-on in Catriona McPherson’s The Winter Ground. The Cooke family circus is spending the winter on the grounds of Blackcraig Estate. They’re happy for a safe place to stay, and willing to do some shows for the current owners in exchange. And Dandy’s two sons are excited that they’ll get the chance to see the circus. Then, some frightening things begin to happen, and Mrs. Cooke wants an end to it. So she asks Dandy to find out what’s behind it all. That’s when Anastacia ‘Ana,’ the bareback rider, falls from her mount and is killed. It’s set up to look like a tragic accident, but Dandy soon discovers that it isn’t accidental at all.

Elly Griffiths’ new series featuring magician Max Mephisto begins with The Zig Zag Girl. It’s 1950, and Max is on the circuit, touring with fortune-tellers, dancers, sword-swallowers and so on. He’s called in to help when the body of a woman is discovered cut up and deposited in the Left Luggage section of Brighton Station. To DI Edgar Stephans, it looks like a macabre re-enactment of an old magic trick, The Zig Zag Girl, so he asks Max to help find out who might be responsible. At first, Max is very reluctant to get involved. As he puts it,

‘I don’t like the police.’

But he agrees, and as he and Stephens investigate, readers find out about life on the performing circuit during the early 1950s.

As you can see, the circus can be an exciting place, but underneath the glitter and the show, there can be real danger. Which circus stories have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Journey’s Faithfully.


Filed under Catriona McPherson, Clayton Rawson, Cornell Woolrich, Elly Griffiths, Jo Nesbø, Kerry Greenwood

Don’t Have Any Need to Prove Nothin’ to No One*

Life on One's Own TermsThere are people (I’ll bet you know some, yourself) who live life absolutely on their own terms. It’s not that they don’t care about others, such as friends and loved ones. Very often they do. What they don’t care about is ‘what everyone else will think!’  They don’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone, and they live as they see fit, without trying to self-consciously fit in.

That independence of character can make a person all the more interesting, and can add depths to a fictional character, too. Of course, as with most things, creating this sort of character requires a tricky balance. Independence of thought is one thing; too much eccentricity or thoughtlessness can be quite another. But there are some characters out there in crime fiction who seem to strike that balance. Here are just a few; I know you will think of many others.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is not at all bound by what people might think of his lifestyle. He keeps unusual hours, has a very unconventional approach to housekeeping (the tobacco in the slipper being just one example), and doesn’t exactly play by the conventional rules when it comes to catching criminals, either. He doesn’t particularly worry about what anyone thinks of his lifestyle, either, and makes no apologies for it. To be fair, in A Study in Scarlet, he does warn Dr. Watson about the way he is when they begin to share rooms:

‘‘I generally have chemicals about, and occasionally do experiments. Would that annoy you?’
‘By no means.’ [Watson]
‘Let me see — what are my other shortcomings. I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end. You must not think I am sulky when I do that. Just let me alone, and I’ll soon be right.’’

But he isn’t very much attached to what Watson thinks of him – not in the ‘aiming to please’ sort of a way that new roommates sometimes have.

Although he lives a more conventional lifestyle than Holmes does, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot isn’t very much bound by what people think of him, either. And some of Christie’s other characters are like that, too. For instance, in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of the murder, his wife Caroline was the most likely suspect, and she certainly had motive. He was having an obvious affair with Elsa Greer, even going so far as to have Elsa in his home while he did a painting of her. Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted, and died a year later in prison. Her daughter thinks she was innocent, though, and wants Poirot to find out the truth. To do so, he interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ on the day of the murder; one of those people is Elsa, now Lady Dittisham. We learn about her that she was not at all worried about what people would think of her. On one level, she wanted to be ‘respectably married.’ But she dressed as she wished, she lived life completely on her own terms, and still doesn’t much care what people think of her. In fact, when Poirot asks her what her husband’s opinion would be of her involvement in the investigation, she says,

‘‘Do you think I care in the least what my husband would feel?’’

And she really doesn’t.

Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe will know that he doesn’t care very much what people (clients, the police, or even his own employees) think of him. He has his own very rigid schedule that suits him, and he sees people when he agrees to do so. He lives life on his own terms, and it doesn’t matter in the least bit to him that he is unconventional. Rather than try to fit into a world where people go out to offices, travel, interact in public and so on, he’s created a world that suits him. He has a world class chef, so that he only need eat elsewhere when he wants to do that. He has an elevator in his home, so that he doesn’t need to use the stairs. And he relies on Archie Goodwin and his other employees to do the ‘leg work’ for him and bring witnesses and suspects to him. Of course, if you’re a fan of this series, you’ll know that Goodwin has his own way of manipulating situations and getting his boss to do things. But Wolfe lives his life as he sees fit, with no apologies to anyone.

Another character who makes no apologies to anyone is Virginia Duigan’s Thea Farmer. She’s a former school principal who has bought some land in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She’s even had a dream home built there. Then, bad luck and poor financial decisions mean that she has to give up that home and settle for the house next door, a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ To make matters worse, her dream home is purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, and they soon move in, much to her chagrin. She has nothing but contempt for these ‘invaders,’ and doesn’t much care if they like her. The only person there whom she finds even bearable is Frank’s niece Kim, who comes to live with the couple. So when Thea begins to suspect that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for the girl, she gets concerned. The police aren’t going to do anything about it; so, rather than worry about what anyone will think of it all, Thea makes her own plans.

Sulari Gentill’s Edna Higgins is another crime-fictional character who lives life on her own terms. She is a friend, secret love interest, and muse to Gentill’s protagonist, Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair. At the time that this series takes place – the 1930’s – there are things that young ladies do and do not do, but Edna doesn’t worry overmuch about that. She feels no need to prove herself to anyone. She is a sculptor who creates what she wants to create. She’s also a sometimes-model, who isn’t afraid of the social sanctions for posing in the nude. She does some acting, too. She lives the life she wants to live, on her own terms.

And then there’s Sheldon Horowitz, whom we meet in Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night. He’s moved from his native New York to Norway, to be nearer his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband. In one plot thread of this novel, Horowitz rescues a young boy whose mother has just been murdered. The two go on the run, and Horowitz does his best to protect the boy from some very nasty people. His thinking is unconventional, and he really doesn’t care much about that. He’s not worried about what a man of his age ‘should’ be doing, either. And that makes him all the more interesting.

That’s the thing about characters who don’t have anything to prove (You’re absolutely right, fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher!). They live life on their own terms, and that in itself can be very interesting. They can certainly add to a story, too.


ps. That’s a ‘princess’ dress over a T-shirt and a pair of sport leggings, and those shoes are mine. Yes, that’s what I call living life on one’s own terms.. ;-)


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Motorcycle Song. Interestingly, this song later became All About Soul. If you’ve heard both songs, you’ll notice the similarity…


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Derek B. Miller, Kerry Greenwood, Rex Stout, Sulari Gentill, Virigina Duigan

Call Up the Craftsmen, Bring Me the Draftsmen*

HandmadeThere’s something about handmade, custom-created things. There’s a personal touch that you don’t see in machine-made products. And when you’re fortunate enough to have something custom made, you know what a difference that extra effort and personal touch can make. Before the advent of the assembly line, a lot of things were handmade, but that’s not as true now. So when you can get something handmade, the experience can be all the richer.

Handmade and custom-made products add richness to crime fiction, too. There are, of course, historical series such as Eleanor Kuhns’ that feature handmade things. Her Will Rees is an itinerant weaver whose trade is a part of this series. And this is by no means the only example.

But there are also books and series set in modern times that include people who create handmade and custom-made things. For example, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn novels take place mostly among the Navajo people. The Navajo Nation is noted for exquisite weaving, so Navajo blankets and rugs are well-made and beautiful, too. If you know where to go, you can actually find some that are made traditionally (i.e. not just produced for tourists). In People of Darkness, for instance, Chee, who is a member of the Navajo Tribal Police, is looking for a man named Tomas Charley, who may have valuable information on a case he’s investigating. He learns that Charley will be attending a rug auction at a local elementary school, and goes there. The rug auction is a regular way for local weavers to sell their wares, and for those handmade products to be available to successful bidders. It’s not the sort of thing that you find at a roadside tourist stop. But for those who know, there’s nothing like a custom-made rug or blanket.

Handmade rugs also feature in Anthony Bidulka’s Date With a Sheesha. In that novel, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets a new client. Pranav Gupta wants to know what happened to his son Nayan ‘Neil.’ The younger Gupta had been on a trip to the Middle East to give a series of lectures on antique carpets, and to get some samples of traditionally-made carpets for the University of Saskatoon’s permanent collection. He was killed in what police said was a tragic, but unplanned, murder by local thugs in an open-air market. But Pranav Gupta thinks otherwise, and sends Bidulka to the Middle East to find out the truth.

If you enjoy baked goods, then you know that it’s hard to match the quality of fresh-baked, homemade bakery items. That’s part of the reason why Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is successful with her bakery, Earthly Delights. She is dedicated to making real breads with proper ingredients, and she knows the difference between machine-produced bread and handmade bread. And her apprentice, Jason Wallace, is just as dedicated. His specialty is muffins, and his work is of such quality that one of his nicknames is ‘The Muffin Man.’ When a competitor from a large chain called Best Fresh moves in down the street in Trick or Treat, we see just how seriously these two take their work. Best Fresh may be a larger company, but the cooks there are more technicians than they are real bakers, and that difference shows in the product.

D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington knows the value of handmade, custom-created products, too. He is a former milliner, who ran the family business for several years in London. Now he’s retired to the village of Tuesbury, where he still makes hats to order – discreetly, of course, so as not to arouse too much interest from the local council. After all, he’s not technically supposed to have a business on his home property. But anyone who has a Heatherington hat knows how well worth it that extra effort is. Heatherington creates hats from the right materials, and always with his client’s needs and wishes foremost in mind. He’s quite observant, too, which makes him not only a skilled milliner, but also a very apt amateur detective…

Fans of Peter Temple’s Jack Irish novels will know that he has unofficially apprenticed himself to cabinetmaker Charlie Taub. Both of them know the value of careful workmanship and the right wood. They tease each other, but they both respect the effort it takes to do a cabinet job the right way – by hand.

And then there’s Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen’s Benjamin Cooker. He and his assistant Virgile Lanssien are wine experts, and they know what it takes to make great wine. Certainly there are machines and technology used in the process, but at the same time, the real key to fine wine is the personal touch of the vintner. Properly made wine doesn’t taste ‘mass produced,’ and these amateur sleuths know that. In this series, along with the mysteries, readers also get a look at the way wine is made, and the many subtleties that the personal touch adds to the final product.

There are other series, too, that feature characters who make handmade and custom-made items. There’s Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting mysteries, which feature Beatrice Coleman. She’s retired from her work as an Atlanta folk art curator, and has moved to Dappled Hills, North Carolina, where she’s joined a local quilting guild, the Village Quilters. In this series, readers get a look at the Southern tradition of handmade quilts. And there are Beth Groundwater’s Claire Hanover novels, which feature custom-made gift baskets. Those are only two examples; there are many others.

Although today’s technology certainly has its place, there really is something about handmade and custom-made items. Perhaps it’s because so much is machine-made that we really appreciate it when something is made just for us.


ps. The ‘photo shows you what I mean. This set of bookshelves was handmade by a friend who’s, among other things, a skilled carpenter. I love it, not least because of the careful workmanship that went into it. What?! Can’t a girl find a solution to the TBR problem? ;-)



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars.



Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Beth Groundwater, D.S. Nelson, Eleanor Kuhns, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Kerry Greenwood, Noël Balen, Peter Temple, Tony Hillerman

You’ll Find it Takes Teamwork Every Time*

TeamworkIt’s very rare that an individual solves a crime, especially a crime as complex as murder, alone. And even in crime fiction from the classic and Golden Age years, there are plenty of examples of sleuths who work with a partner (e.g. Holmes and Watson, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and Poirot and Hastings). But since the advent of the more modern police procedural, we’ve seen a growth in crime fiction that follows not just one or two sleuths, but a whole team of them. These novels aren’t just stories of the crimes; they are also the stories of the groups of people who solve them. So they are arguably character studies as well as crime novels.

This kind of series can be a bit challenging to write. On the one hand, the author wants a group of interesting, perhaps even eccentric characters. On the other, it’s important to keep the focus on the mystery at hand. That balance isn’t always easy, but when it does work, the result can be memorable.

Beginning in 1956, Ed McBain published a long series of novels featuring the police of the 87th Precinct. Although Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer and Bert Kling appear most frequently in this series, it’s really about many other people at the precinct, too. The various characters have their eccentricities and foibles, but they work together as a team, and each one brings something to that team. The series is a long one, and there are several story arcs throughout it that involve the personal lives of the various detectives. But that said, the focus in these novels really is the cases at hand.

Shortly after the 87th Precinct series got underway, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö began their ten-novel Martin Beck series. Starting with Roseanna, this series follows Beck and his Stockholm homicide team as they go about their work. The novels do include story arcs that deal with the characters’ personal lives, and we get to know them as people. They have their eccentricities, as we all do, and they certainly don’t always see eye to eye. But they do work as a team, and they know they depend on each other. Fans will know that Sjöwall and Wahlöö used this series as a way to critique Swedish government and society. Even so, the novels keep their focus on the crimes that are the focus of the novels. The plots don’t tend to get lost, if I may put it that way.

The same might be said of Reginald Hill’s series featuring Superintendent Andy Dalziel and his team. Beginning with 1970’s A Clubbable Woman, this series follows Dalziel, his assistant, Peter Pascoe, and the various members of their team. On one level, many of the sub-plots and story arcs follow the characters’ personal lives. We get to know their backgrounds, and we see them as people. They’re in some ways a very disparate group, too, so it’s interesting to see how they interact. They don’t always agree; and sometimes, there’s real tension among them. And yet, they do respect each other, and each one adds to the team’s collective ability. That’s arguably why Dalziel supports them as he does. Part of what has made this series so successful is arguably the way in which the characters develop, and their personal stories. But Hill also didn’t lose sight of the mysteries at hand in these novels. The real focus is the set of cases that the team investigates.

One of the most eccentric groups of detectives is the one supervised by Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. His team includes Danglard, a ‘walking encyclopedia’ who drinks far more white wine than you’d think judicious; Mercadet, who deals with narcolepsy; and Betancourt, a naturalist who interacts more effectively with animals than with people. There’s also (in a few novels) Snowball the office cat. These are very disparate characters, and their personal stories are woven through the series. In several story arcs, we learn about their backgrounds and their home lives. They certainly don’t always agree on things, but they do know that they depend on each other and their boss. And Adamsberg knows he depends on his team. These particular characters may not be conventional, but they get the job done. While the stories in this series do include character development, their focus is the mysteries that the team solves.

More recently, Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series also shows how a disparate team of people work together to solve crimes. Montalbano may get irritated with one or another (or even a few) members of his team from time to time. And each member has weaknesses and personal foibles. But all of the team members know that they depend on each other. They’re quite a motley crew, as the saying goes. But they each bring something to the team, and everyone knows that, especially Montalbano. There are story arcs and sub-plots that explore the personal lives of some of the team members, and Camilleri fleshes out the characters. But the focus here, as it is in the other series I’ve mentioned, is the plots – the actual cases.

Thus far I’ve discussed police teams, but there are also plenty of examples of this sort of teamwork outside the police station, too. For example, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features Chapman, who lives and has her bakery in a distinctive Melbourne building. But the stories are most definitely not just about her. Several other people also live and/or have businesses in the same building, and we get to know them all as the series goes on. They’re all quite different, and each has eccentricities. But they do work together and each contributes to the series. Their personal stories are woven into the series in the form of story arcs and sub-plots, but the main focus is the set of mysteries. Greenwood weaves together character development and plot development as the series goes on.

And that seems to be the key to making such ‘ensemble’ series work. Readers want to know about the characters; story arcs and sub-plots can help in this. But such novels work best when the real focus is on the plot. Which ‘ensemble casts’ do you like best? If you’re a writer, do you use teams?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s Teamwork.


Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Kerry Greenwood, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Reginald Hill