Category Archives: Louise Penny

If You Know Your History*

HistoriansAn interesting comment exchange with Prashant at Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema has got me thinking about historians. When you consider it, understanding our history is absolutely essential to understanding who we are now, and why we are the way we are. So the work historians do is important, even if we aren’t always conscious of it.

Historians, both professional and amateur, play roles in crime fiction, too. Well, academics in general figure into the genre quite a lot, but there’s only so much room in one post. Still, even if we only focus on one discipline – history – we see a lot of examples.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is a newspaper columnist who lives and works in Pickax, Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The area has a long and rich history that includes mining, railroads and more. And that history is often related to the present-day crimes that Qwill investigates. He himself may not be thoroughly informed on the area’s history, but he has a rich resource in Homer Tibbitt. Tibbitt is a nonagenarian expert on local history, and spends a great deal of time at the public library reading up on his topic. His expertise is very helpful too. For instance, in The Cat Who Blew the Whistle, Tibbitt is writing a paper on Moose County mining. It turns out that he’s very familiar with one of the original mining families in the area, the Trevelyans. And that history is of particular interest to Qwill, who’s investigating the disappearance of a modern-day member of the family – along with a million dollars – and that case’s connection to a murder. Tibbitt’s background knowledge proves to be extremely useful in solving the puzzle.

In Deborah Crombie’s A Finer End, Met Superintendent Duncan Kincaid gets a strange request from his cousin Jack Montfort, who lives in Glastonbury. Montfort’s aware of the legends about Glastonbury, its Druid past and the myth that King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are buried there. But he’s never really taken a serious interest in those matters. Still, he does find history fascinating. That’s how he comes across a thousand-year-old chronicle that tells of an ancient terrible crime. He’s troubled enough on several levels to ask his cousin’s help, and Kincaid agrees. After all, a nice, peaceful getaway from London is a welcome change. But for Kincaid and his partner Gemma James, it turns out to be anything but peaceful. When a local tiler Garnet Todd is murdered, the solution seems somehow to be connected to her interest in the pagan history of the area and to Goddess worship. So James turns for guidance to historian Erika Rosenthal, who’s made a career of studying that aspect of Glastonbury’s past. Rosenthal’s insights don’t solve the murder, but they do provide very helpful information.

There are, of course, plenty of fictional sleuths who are historians. For example, one of the protagonists in Martin Edwards’ Lake District series is Oxford historian Daniel Kind. His work earned him celebrity status, but he got burned out, as the saying goes, on TV and personal appearances. So he’s taken a home in the Lake District, where he’s trying to focus on his work. That’s how he meets up again with DCI Hannah Scarlett, who heads the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team, and who was also his father Ben’s police protégée. Scarlett and her team investigate cases that have their roots in the past – sometimes in the distant past. So she finds Kind’s expertise and historical perspective very useful.

One of Fred Vargas’ series features three historians: Marc Vandoosier, Lucien Devernois and Matthias Delamarre. They live together with Vandoosier’s uncle, a disgraced former police officer. They first get drawn into crime in The Three Evangelists when Sophia Siméonidis, the opera singer who lives next door, notices the sudden appearance of a beech tree in her yard. She asks the Vandoosiers, Devernois and Delamarre to help her make sense of why a tree would suddenly appear. Then, she disappears and is later found dead, and the Three Evangelists set out to find out the truth about her murder.

There’s also Sarah R. Shaber’s Professor Simon Shaw. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian whose specialty is the history of the American South. Although he could have his pick of academic positions, Shaw has chosen North Carolina’s small, but competitive and reputable, Kenan College. As the series begins (with Simon Said), he’s recovering from a divorce, and hoping to pick up a quiet, academic life again. Instead, he gets drawn into the 1926 murder of Anne Bloodworth. Throughout the series, he uses his knowledge of history and his research-oriented approach to investigation to help solve mysteries. And it sometimes gets him into danger.

Of course, that’s nothing compared to what awaits historian Augustin Renaud in Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead. In one plot thread of that novel, Renaud has been researching the history of Samuel de Champlain. When he is murdered at Québec City’s Literary and Historical Society, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache (who’s there for a respite and to enjoy the Winter Carnival) gets involved in the investigation. It turns out that Renaud’s murder is directly related to his determined search for Champlain’s remains.

You’ll notice that I’ve not mentioned the many fictional sleuths whose professions are history-related (e.g. anthropology and archaeology) – too easy. And that’s to say nothing of the many crime writers who are historians. They’re all examples of the way history finds its way into crime fiction. I know I’ve only mentioned a sampling here. Over to you.

Thanks, Prashant, for the inspiration. Folks, you won’t want to miss Prashant’s excellent blog. Fine reviews of film, books, and much more await you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier.

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Filed under Deborah Crombie, Fred Vargas, Lilian Jackson Braun, Louise Penny, Martin Edwards, Sarah R. Shaber

He Was the Bed and Breakfast Man*

B&BsIn yesterday’s post, I mentioned that B&B’s are a different sort of accommodation to boarding houses or lodges. They’re not usually intended for long-term guests. At the same time, like lodging and boarding houses, they are often private homes. There’s also a sort of intimacy about the B&B that isn’t as common in hotels. The B&B makes a sometimes very pleasant alternative to the hotel or motel, too. You may not be able to get your dinner, but if you do a bit of research (and have a bit of luck), a B&B can be delightful.

There are a number of them in crime fiction; and, even when they aren’t directly concerned in the plot of a novel, they can certainly add character to a story. Here are just a few examples.

In Lawrence Block’s The Burglar in the Library, New York bookseller Bernie Rhodenbarr plans a romantic getaway for himself and his current love interest Lettice Littlefield. The plan is for them to go to Cuttleford House, a lovely B&B in upstate New York. Then, Lettice surprises Bernie with the news that she can’t go because she’s getting married – to someone else. Not wanting to waste the trip or go alone, Bernie invites his friend Carolyn Kaiser in Lettice’s place. To add to his motivation, there’s a rare book in Cuttleford’s library that he’d like very much to have. The snowfall that started before they even got to the B&B gets worse and worse. Still they arrive safely and prepare to enjoy a break from New York City. Then, the body of fellow guest Jonathan Rathburn is found in the very library where Bernie saw the book he wants. And with everyone snowbound, it’s more than likely that one of the other people at the B&B is the killer. And Rathburn’s is only the first death…

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Nag, Lochdubh Constable Hamish Macbeth has recently been demoted from sergeant. That in itself might not be so bad, but he’s also dealing with the breaking of his engagement to Priscilla Halburton-Smythe. And the circumstances of that breakup haven’t exactly made him popular. He’s fed up and a bit at loose ends, as the saying goes. So he makes arrangements to stay for a bit at the Friendly House, a beachside inn, and makes the trip there. It’s not really a B&B – more like a boarding house – and it’s certainly not friendly. There are all sorts of annoying and eccentric guests, and the hosts are not exactly model innkeepers. Then, one of the residents, Bob Harris, is murdered. Macbeth gets drawn into the investigation. He traces Harris’ last days, including an incident in which he saw Harris leave a house that he’s discovered is a brothel. Unfortunately, when Macbeth returns to follow up on that clue, he knocks at the wrong door:
 

‘An angry flush rose up her face. ‘This is a respectable bed and breakfast, I’ll have ye know. It’s that Simpson creature you’re wanting. I could hae ye for slander. Off wi’ ye.’
 

Upon hearing that the brothel he’s looking for is next door, he makes a very understandable hasty retreat. A few moments later, he speaks to the brothel owner, Mrs. Simpson. Here’s what she says when Macbeth tells her about the mistake he’s made:
 

‘She burst out laughing. ‘That must ha’ got the old biddy’s knickers in a twist. I can tell you her gentleman boarders, as she ca’s them, drink mair than any o’ the lot that come here.’
 

Just because a B&B is respectable doesn’t mean all of its guests are…

Fans of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series will know that many of the stories take place in the small, rural Québec town of Three Pines. If you aren’t staying with relatives or friends there, the place to stay is the local B&B/bistro, owned by Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau. It’s the setting for many interactions in the series, and both owners get involved at one point or another in the mysteries that Gamache investigates.

There are also, of course, a few mystery series set in B&Bs, with owners as sleuths. For example, there’s Jean Hager’s Iris House B&B Mystery novels. Beginning with Blooming Murder, the series follows Iris House’s owner Tess Darcy as she converts her late Aunt Iris’ former Missouri home into a B&B and launches her business. Things get off to a rather rocky start when Tess prepares to host participants in the Iris Growers’ Convention – and one of them ends up dead, stabbed with a cake knife.

And for a truly creepy B&B story, I recommend Roald Dahl’s short story The Landlady. Billy Weaver has just arrived in Bath to start a new job. He’s on his way to the Bell and Dragon, where he’s heard he can get a decent room, when he happens to pass a small, homey-looking place with a B&B sign. On impulse, he stops there and asks about a room. You can read what happens next right here. But I suggest you read it during the day. And not just as you’re looking up a B&B for that next getaway…

Don’t let stories like The Landlady stop you booking a B&B, though. They can be wonderful places; I know I’ve had some great experiences.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Madness’ The Bed and Breakfast Man.

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Filed under Jean Hager, Lawrence Block, Louise Penny, M.C. Beaton, Roald Dahl

There Are Secrets I’ll Never Tell*

PersonalLivesOr are there? An interesting comment exchange with Bernadette at Reactions to Reading has got me thinking about the amount of detail readers learn about sleuths’ personal lives. Do readers really want sub-plots, story arcs and other plot points that share what’s going on in the sleuth’s home?

On the one hand, I’d guess that most of us would say that we don’t want ‘cardboard characters. We want characters who feel authentic and ‘fleshed out.’ That said though, many of us would also say that when we read crime fiction, we want a plot – a mystery/crime that’s at the heart of the story. Too much ‘home life’ information takes away from the pace of that plot and can actually get tiresome.

It’s tricky to decide just how much information to include, really. And that choice has very likely changed over time as readers’ tastes have changed. There’s a strong argument that, while classic/Golden Age crime fiction certainly includes information about sleuths’ home lives, that’s often not the focus of the mystery. Today’s crime fiction is arguably quite different.

I thought it might be interesting to look at this question of personal lives in crime fiction just a bit more deeply. So the first question I asked myself was this: is there really as much ‘home life’ detail as it seems in crime fiction? To address that question, I chose 148 books that I’ve read. All of the books feature a police or PI professional sleuth. I didn’t consider amateur sleuths because, very often, their personal lives are the reason they get involved in detection. I thought it might skew my data.

Given that, here is what I found:

 

Cops' and PIs' Personal Lives

 

As you can see, of those 148 crime novels, 123 of them (83%) include ‘home life’ scenes and other information about the sleuth’s personal life. By ‘other information,’ I mean more than such things as a passing reference to ‘my wife/husband.’  Fans of series such as Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache novels or Henning Mankell’s Inspector Van Veeteren series probably won’t be surprised at this finding.

Going on the assumption that publishers are more likely to release books that readers want to read, there’s an argument here, I think, that we want that sort of ‘home life’ detail, at least to an extent. In fact, lots of readers actually follow story arcs in series precisely because they involve sleuths’ home and personal lives. In other words, books and series have this sort of information because readers want it. And that’s logical, given that most readers want believable characters.

The next question I asked myself was: has it always been this way? There’s a general perception that classic/Golden Age crime fiction doesn’t really give a lot of ‘home life’ information about sleuths. It’s been said that’s because those books tend to be more plot-driven. But is that really true? I decided to have another look at my data to see what it might show.

 

Percent of Books With Personal Life Details

As you can see, era really does make a difference when it comes to personal information and story arcs in crime novels. Only 38% of the pre-1950 crime novels in my data set include ‘home life’ scenes or other personal information. That number jumps to 85% in the years between 1950 and1980. And in the last thirty-five years, the percentage has risen to 92%.

Now, there are some important limitations to these findings. There are only 24 books in my pre-1950 data set. My guess is that that percentage would change if a lot more books were added. Would it go up to 92%? I personally doubt it, but it’s important to note the small size of the set. The same is true of the 1950-1980 set. There are 21 books in that set. If there were more, would the percentage be higher? Very possibly it would. But that, to me, would lend support to the argument that our interest in sleuths’ personal lives has increased over the years.

If this data reflects what’s really going on, why is it happening? Why do readers want to know, more than ever, about fictional cops’ and PIs’ personal lives? One answer is that we increasingly want our characters to be realistic, and that includes the fact that they have home lives. Another, related, possibility is that readers increasingly want story arcs in their series. If that’s the case, then it makes sense that story arcs would focus, at least some of the time, on personal lives. And in turn, it makes sense that we’d see more of sleuths’ personal lives in our crime fiction. Yet another explanation is that in general, people are sharing more of their lives (e.g. on social media). Whether or not that’s a good thing, we may be getting used to finding out others’ ‘home life’ information.

What do you think about all this? Obviously there’s such a thing as too much ‘home life’ in a crime novel. And I think most of us would agree that there’s definitely such a thing as too much dysfunctional ‘home life’ in a crime novel. But that aside, do you prefer books with ‘home life’ and other personal information about sleuths? If so, why? If you’re a writer, how do you balance that information with that all-important focus on the mystery at hand?

Thanks, Bernadette, for the inspiration. Folks, please give yourselves a treat and visit Reactions to Reading, simply one of the finest book review blogs there is. G’wan, you really want that blog on your blog roll!
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Careless Talk.

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Filed under Henning Mankell, Louise Penny

When Sleuths Buy Gifts ;-)

When Sleuths Buy GIftsHave you ever taken part in a ‘Secret Santa’ gift exchange? Sometimes it’s called a ‘Kris Kringle,’ and sometimes a ‘Pollyanna.’ There are other names for it too. Whatever you call it, the way it generally works is that a group of people put their names into a hat, a box or some such thing. Each one draws the name of someone else and gets a gift for that person.

It sounds like a wonderful idea, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t always work out as planned. Don’t believe me? Let’s see what happens….
 

When Fictional Sleuths are ‘Secret Santas.’
 

I. Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)

Hastings: Whose name did you draw, Poirot?
Poirot: I have drawn…(Glances down at the slip of paper) Mlle. Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton).
Hastings: Any idea what you’ll get for her?
Poirot: I think, mon ami, that I will have Georges make an appointment for her at a dressmaker’s shop. Les femmes, they all love beautiful dresses, do they not?
Hastings: Er…well…I suppose so.
 

II. Rebecka Martinsson (Åsa Larsson)

(Having a coffee with Inspector Anna-Maria Mella)
Rebecka: So I got talked into this Secret Santa business.
Anna-Maria: Well, it might be fun. Whose name did you get?
Rebecka: Her name’s Corinna Chapman (Kerry Greenwood).
Anna-Maria: So what will you buy?
Rebecka: At this time of year? A heavy parka. If I rush it, she’ll get it before Christmas too. Hmm…. I don’t know her size. Well, I’ll just get her an average-sized coat – one I might wear. That ought to be safe. Can’t miss!
 

III. John Rebus (Ian Rankin)

Rebus: Shiv, you doing this Secret Santa thing?
Siobhan Clarke: Yeah, sure. You?
Rebus: Don’t have much choice, I don’t think.
Clarke: Who’d you get?
Rebus: His name’s Inspector Morse (Colin Dexter).
Clarke: Ah, fellow copper. What are you getting him?
Rebus: Everyone loves music, right? Think I’ll get him tickets to a Rolling Stones concert.
Clarke: (Looks down at her cup of tea) Maybe you ought to find out what kind of music he likes first?
Rebus: Who doesn’t love the Stones?
 

IV. V.I. ‘Vic’ Warshawski (Sara Paretsky)

(Having a glass of wine with Lotty Herschel)
Vic: So I’ve been thinking about this whole Secret Santa thing.
Lotty: That’s good. It’s coming up soon.
Vic: I know, and I think I have just the thing. I got this guy Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout). He’s never been to Chicago. So I’m going to take him bar-hopping! Really show him a Jack Daniels night. Then we’ll go to the Maxwell Street Market for some kielbasa. Ha! I might even get him a Cubs hat! What do you think?
Lotty: If you really think he’d like it.
Vic: Can’t go wrong!
 

V. Armand Gamache (Louise Penny)

(Having breakfast with his wife Reine-Marie)
Reine-Marie: So, have you decided what to do about this Secret Santa name draw?
Armand: Actually I think I have. I drew Lisbeth Salander’s name (Stieg Larsson). She’s from Stockholm, so I thought it would be nice to give her a real Québec welcome, with Christmas right here in Three Pines.
Reine-Marie: What a lovely idea! I’m sure she’d love a small-town holiday after living in the city. We can ask them to give her a room at the B&B, we’ll make sure she meets everyone, and she can come to Midnight Mass with us.
Armand: Good thinking. No-one does gourmet bistro better than Olivier and Gabri. She’ll love it!
 

VI. Nick and Nora Charles (Dashiell Hammett)

Nora: I’ve got it, Nick!
Nick: Got what?
Nora: The perfect idea for the Secret Santa draw, of course.
Nick: Oh, that. Who’d we get anyway?
Nora: His name’s Walt Longmire (Craig Johnson). He’s from Wyoming.
Nick: So what’s your brilliant idea?
Nora: Well, we’re going to be in New York for the next couple of months. Why not get him the best Broadway tickets we can? We’ll put him up at the Plaza for a few days.
Nick: Sounds great! I’ll bet he’s dying to get out of whatever one-horse town he lives in.

Perhaps after all it’d be just as well for these sleuths to stick to solving crime… ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Colin Dexter, Craig Johnson, Dashiell Hammett, Ian Rankin, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Sara Paretsky, Stieg Larsson, Sue Grafton

What’s in a Name, Anyway?*

Cover and Title ChangesA great deal of what we do is influenced by culture. And a recent comment exchange with Crimeworm (whose blog you really ought to check out!) and Cleo of Cleopatra Loves Books (another blog treasure) has got me thinking about how culture influences things like book titles and book covers.

Culture and language have to be taken into account when a book moves into international markets. Publishers know this too, so sometimes, titles aren’t directly translated from one language into another. For instance, the original title of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was Män som hatar kvinnor – Men Who Hate Women. Those who are familiar with the book will know that that title gets right to one of the main points of the plot. But when the book was translated and prepared for English-speaking audiences, the publisher opted to change the title. That choice had two important effects. One was that the new title was more closely related to the other two titles in the trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. That’s one effective strategy for ‘branding’ books.

Another effect of that title change was arguably to give the series a broader appeal. Among other things, Larsson used these novels to comment on Swedish politics, on social issues and on the role of women in Swedish society. While some of his commentary transcends borders, it’s possible that readers from other countries wouldn’t have been as tempted to try those stories if they had seen them as appealing mostly to Swedish readers. The title change also places extra emphasis on the character of Lisbeth Salander. And that switch of emphasis had commercial value as well. Quite possibly international readers found her story and personality more intriguing than the finance and Swedish social class issues that are also prominent in the series.

Culture is of course inextricably linked with language. So when publishers settle on final titles for novels, they also take words and language into account. Obviously that means translating from one language into another. But it also can mean more subtle differences, such as differences among dialects. To take just one example, Ian Rankin’s fifteenth novel featuring Inspector John Rebus was initially published as Fleshmarket Close. But when the US publication option was picked up, the title was changed to Fleshmarket Alley. That’s because in Scotland, a ‘close’ is an alley, but the word ‘close’ isn’t used that way in the US. It was thought that US readers would find it easier to understand the title if the word ‘alley’ was used. Interestingly, some other Rankin titles that would have extra levels of meaning in Scottish parlance were not changed for US audiences. For example, on one level, the title of the first Rebus novel Knots and Crosses is a play on words, referring to the game ‘naughts and crosses’ – the UK name for what’s called ‘tic tac toe’ in the US.

Another important thing to keep in mind about culture is that it is dynamic. Title changes of books therefore sometimes reflect changes in society and its values over time. For instance, one of Agatha Christie’s best-regarded novels is And Then There Were None. Fans will know that this title reflects the story of ten people who are invited to spend some time on Indian Island. One by one, the people on the island are killed, and the survivors have to find out which one of them is the killer if they’re to stay alive. Fans will also know that this book had two other names as well. The original titles were not considered to be offensive at the time that the book was published; and in fact, those original titles were in keeping with an old poem that plays a role in the novel. But by today’s standards, those two titles are considered offensive. This one’s Christie’s best-selling novel, but I wonder what sales might be like if the original titles had been kept.

Sometimes, title changes don’t have as obvious a cultural motivation. For example, Louise Penny’s Dead Cold was published in the US as A Fatal Grace. Agatha Christie’s The Hollow was published as Murder After Hours, and her Five Little Pigs was also published as Murder in Retrospect. There are lots of other examples like this as well. I’m sure that you could think of many more than I could. Sometimes those changes are made because there’s another novel with the same or a very similar title being published in the ‘target’ country. Sometimes it’s because the publisher thinks the new title will ‘stand out’ more. Other times it’s to link a group of novels by the same author (e.g. the ‘nursery rhyme’ theme in some of Agatha Christie’s titles).

The central point of all of this is really that when a publisher is preparing a book for a new market, the main concern is making that book appealing to readeres in that market. In order to do that, publishers choose titles that are likely to stand out in the minds of readers. They also choose titles that ‘brand’ a book or series for readers, and that take into account the culture of the target market. All of those factors play roles in the titles that are eventually selected. They can also mean that the same book has several titles, even in the same language. That can sometimes result in confusion and even frustration, but it probably also means that more books are sold.

The other topic that was brought up in this interesting comment exchange had to do with covers. Why, for instance, are covers for the same novel (same title, even) different between, say, the US and the UK? Why does the same book have two different covers in different editions? Part of the reason may have a bit to do with culture. Each culture, for instance, has different standards for what is appealing/appropriate. But as Cleo pointed out, there’s also the matter of graphic artist or company. Different publishers use different companies or individuals to do the cover art. Those companies or people have different interpretations of the story, and different ideas of what is likely to appeal to readers. And, of course, there’s the important reality of film and television tie-ins. Many cover changes are influenced by those adaptations.

These are just my initial thoughts on the topics of title/cover changes. What do you think? Thanks to Crimeworm and Cleo for the delicious ‘food for thought.’ You’ll want to visit their blogs and see how terrific they are.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from K.L. Dunham and Johnny Mandel’s Don’t Look Back.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Louise Penny, Stieg Larsson