Category Archives: Maj Sjöwall

Must Have Been the Right Month*

januaryA lot of people see January as the time to start anew. It’s the beginning of the year, it’s a chance to ‘do it right this time,’ and it’s a time when many people set positive goals for themselves. You’d think it’d be an optimistic time of year, right?

Not exactly. For one thing, there’s the weather. In some places, it’s the dead of winter, with freezing temperatures, bad weather and little light. In others, it’s mid-summer, with intolerable heat and the onset of wildfire season. And there are plenty of crime novels that take place in January, too.

For example, Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train begins in January. In one plot thread, we are introduced to Katherine Grey, who has served as paid companion to wealthy Mrs. Harfield for ten years. When Mrs. Harfield dies, Katherine unexpectedly inherits a large fortune. One of her decisions, now that she has money, is to do what many other people with money do at that time of year: escape the January winter weather and head for a warmer climate. She decides to accept an invitation from a distant relative, Lady Rose Tamplin, to stay with her in Nice for a while. Katherine arranges to take the famous Blue Train to Nice, and that turns out to be a fateful decision. On the way, she gets drawn into a case of theft and murder. Hercule Poirot is also on the train, and Katherine works with him to help find out who the murderer is.

One focus of Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill is a case from 1978. One January day, Sophie Jenkins and Rachel Jones walked to school together. Only Rachel returned. A massive search was undertaken, but no trace of Sophie was ever found. Now, years later, there’s another death, this time of Yvonne Jenkins. At first it looks like a tragic, but straightforward case of suicide. But DI Francis Sadler suspects it might be more than that when a discovery is made that links this death to the 1978 case. With help from Superintendent Llewellyn, who investigated the original case, Sadler and his team look into the 1978 disappearance again, and discover how it is related to the present death.

Bitter January weather sets the scene for the end of a difficult case for Martin Beck and his team in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna. One summer day, the body of a young woman is dredged from Lake Vättern. At first, the police find it hard to identify her, since she wasn’t Swedish. But in time, they learn that she was twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, an American who was on a cruise tour of Sweden when she was killed. Little by little, and after several false starts, Beck and his team trace the victim’s last days and weeks, and they find out who was on board the cruise ship when she died. It takes months of hard work, and some lucky breaks, but they finally narrow down the list of suspects, and discover who was responsible for the murder. Then, they set up a ‘sting’ operation to catch that person. The operation takes place during bitterly cold January weather, which adds to the atmosphere. In the end, the team solves the crime, but it takes a lot of time and effort.

In some places in the world, January is the middle of summer. But that doesn’t make things any safer. For instance, Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood takes place in January. In that novel, Tasmania Police Sergeant John White goes to the scene of a home invasion. With him is Probationer Lucy Howard. She’s at the front of the house, and White goes to the back, where he’s stabbed to death. The suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in trouble with the law before. The police are more than eager to avenge the murder of one of their own, but they’ll have to tread lightly. For one thing, the suspect is a juvenile. For another, he may be able to claim Aboriginal identity. If he and his lawyer choose to do that, then the media will put everything the police do under very close scrutiny. It isn’t usually particularly hot in Hobart in January, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of tension in this novel…

There is in Geoffrey McGeachin’s St. Kilda Blues, too. That novel takes place in January, 1967 – the ‘Summer of Love.’ Melbourne police detective Charlie Berlin has been shunted aside, so to speak, in the police hierarchy because he doesn’t ‘play politics.’ But he’s pulled into action when fifteen-year-old Gudrun Scheiner goes missing. Her father is a wealthy and well-connected developer, and is desperate to get his daughter back if possible. So, the police are motivated to get to a solution quickly. As Berlin soon comes to believe, this isn’t an isolated case. Gudrun is one of nine girls who’ve disappeared, and it could be that Melbourne is up against a serial killer. With summer in full swing, and young people not in school, it’s even more difficult to track people’s whereabouts, but Berlin and his partner/former protégé Rob Roberts search for the truth. And the truth turns out to be very unexpected…

And then there’s Wendy James The Lost Girls. This story’s focus is in part the murder of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. It’s January, 1978, and Angela’s been given (reluctant) permission to spend the summer with her aunt and uncle, Barbara and Doug Griffin. There isn’t much to do, so Angela, her cousin Mick, and Mick’s friends spend plenty of time at the local drugstore, playing pinball. Then, one horrible day, Angela goes missing. She’s later found dead, with a scarf around her head. At first, the police concentrate on family and friends, as is only logical. But they don’t have enough evidence to charge anyone. Then, a few months later, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is also found dead, also with a scarf around her head. Now, it looks as though the same person committed both crimes, and the press begin to dub this killer, ‘The Sydney Strangler.’ The case is never solved, and it leaves the family with lasting scars. Years later, documentary filmmaker Erin Fury decides to do a film on families who’ve survived the murder of one of their members. She wants to include the Griffin family, and interviews the various members. Little by little, and partly through these interviews, we learn the truth about Angela’s fate, and about Kelly’s.

See what I mean? January is not really a safe month. Perhaps it’d be best to follow the lead of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman and shut up shop for the month, as she does in Cooking the Books

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s January.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Geoffrey McGeachin, Kerry Greenwood, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Wendy James, Y.A. Erskine

I’m Spread Way Too Thin*

spread-too-thinIt’s a fact of life that the police have limited resources. They simply don’t have the staff to investigate everything, so they have to do the best they can with what they’ve got. That’s doubly true when they’re short-staffed. Whether it’s because of holidays, illness, or competing demands for resources, the police are extra miserable when they’re stretched thin, as the saying goes.

As difficult as it is in real life, being on a skeleton staff can add an interesting layer of tension to a crime novel. People sleep less, eat less healthfully, and are sometimes cooped up together for long hours during a staff shortage. All of that can add tension and conflict. And of course, there’s more possibility of crime when there are fewer people investigating it. So it’s little wonder we see this plot point come up in the genre.

In Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman, for instance, Stockholm police inspector Martin Beck and his team are stretched thin when a US senator comes for a visit. They’re expected to provide extra security, and make sure the visit goes without a problem. But there are plenty of people who oppose the Vietnam War (the novel was published in 1973), so a huge protest takes place at the American Embassy. Things get dangerous, and the police have their hands full trying to keep order. Then, there’s a terrible attack on a bus. A gunmen boards, and kills eight people, including police officer Åke Stenström. At first, it’s believed that this was a terrorist attack. But as Beck and his team look into the matter, they learn that someone was ‘hiding’ Stenström’s murder among the others; he was the real intended victim. But with a shortage of staff, it’s going to be difficult both to investigate the bus murders and to protect the embassy.

Ian Rankin’s Mortal Causes takes place during the Edinburgh Festival, which is always a difficult time for the police. The city fills with tourists, there are a lot of events, plenty of drinking, and it all makes for real trouble when it comes to keeping the city as safe as possible. As if this all weren’t enough, the body of Billy Cunningham is discovered at Mary King’s Close, one of Edinburgh’s busiest streets. The murder was especially brutal and deliberate. This wasn’t a mugging gone wrong. Matters get worse when it turns out that the victim may have had ties to the IRA and to Scottish ultra-nationalist groups. Then, it turns out that Cunningham was the son of Edinburgh crime boss Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. And he’d like nothing better than to get revenge in his own way. Now the police have to contend with the crowds, possible terrorist activity, and a gang leader who isn’t afraid to take all sorts of measures to find and deal with his son’s murder.

Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders also takes place during a holiday – this time Christmas. It’s 1943, and the Melbourne police are stretched thin enough as it is with the war going on. Add to that that people want time off at Christmas, and Inspector Titus Lambert has a definite shortage of staff. But he and Sergeant Joe Sable are doing the best they can. Then, the bodies of John Quinn and his son Xavier are discovered. It might be a murder-suicide situation, but Lambert isn’t sure. And there are other possibilities. For example, there was evidence found in the home that links the family to a pro-Nazi group. That group could have been involved in the deaths. There are other leads, too. Soon, Constable Helen Lord Joins Lambert and Sable in the investigation. Now, it’s more or less three people against what could be an extremely dangerous group.

The Brighton and Hove area is very popular with tourists, and Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace is all too familiar with what it’s like to need more people on staff than are actually available. It becomes quite a challenge in Not Dead Yet. In that novel, a male torso is discovered in a disused chicken coop. So Grace and his team get to work trying to find out who the man was and who killed him. As you can imagine, that’s quite a challenge. But then, Grace’s superiors tell him that international superstar Gaia Lafayette is coming to Brighton, where she grew up. She’s set to star in a film being made there, and the studio has insisted that Brighton and Hove provide plenty of extra security – naturally, at no cost. The argument is that her presence in the area will draw lots of commerce, so the payoff will be worth the investment. But protecting Gaia is going to be especially challenging. Her life has already been threatened more than once, and before long, it’s clear that whoever’s responsible is not going to give up. It all makes for very long hours and little sleep for Grace and his team.

And then there’s Jane Woodham’s Twister. As the novel begins, the city of Dunedin is dealing with a virulent ‘flu epidemic. What with people falling ill, and having to take care of sick family members, the ranks of the police are temporarily thinned. Against that backdrop, the city endures five straight days of rain, followed by a twister that roars through the area. The police are hoping that everything will stay relatively calm until the damage is cleaned up and the epidemic dies down. But that’s not to be. In the wake of the storm, the body of Tracey Wenlock, who’d been missing for two weeks, is discovered in Ross Creek. It’s not the sort of case that Detective Senior Sergeant Leo Judd would normally take, as he is coping with the disappearance of his own daughter nine years earlier. But with the staff stretched thin, there’s no-one else available. So Judd assembles a team from among the few healthy members of the staff, and begins to look into the case. He finds that this case will resonate in ways he hadn’t imagined.

Everything is more difficult when there’s a staff shortage. If you’ve experienced what it’s like to do the work of three people during a shortage, you know what I mean. And that stress can add a solid layer of tension to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line form Dirty Heads’ Spread Too Thin.

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Filed under Ian Rankin, Jane Woodham, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Peter James, Robert Gott

Another Scandal Every Day*

corruptionTransparency International has released its 2015 Global Corruption Perception rankings. That’s an annual ranking of nations based on transparency of government activity, press access, independence of judiciary, and other factors. On the one hand, it’s sad, but not surprising, that no country is corruption-free. On the other, there are countries that, based on these factors, have much lower levels of corruption than others. Want to see where your country ranks? You can check it out right here.

Government corruption is a very, very common topic in crime fiction, and that’s not surprising. There’s a lot of money involved, and very important people whose careers and reputations are at stake. All of that makes for suspense and for an effective context for a crime novel. In fact, there are so many such novels that I only have space to mention a very few. I know you’ll be able to think of lots more.

Many of the novels in Maj Sjöwall and Per Whalöö’s Martin Beck series address the topic of corruption in the Swedish government and members of the Swedish business community. And that series isn’t, of course, the only one that does so. Those who’ve read Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon novels know that they also feature plot threads where Bengtzon, who’s a journalist, investigates government corruption.

Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano novels also address high-level corruption, this time in 1970s Argentina. At that time, and in that place, the military is very much in power. Anyone perceived as a threat to that power faces imprisonment or worse. The government is not answerable to the press or to the people, so all sorts of crimes go uninvestigated and unpunished. In Needle in a Haystack, the crime is the murder of a pawnbroker named Elías Biterman. His death is made to look like an Army ‘hit,’ the same as many others at that time. And Lescano knows better than to question what the Army does. But there are some things that are different about this killing, and that piques Lescano’s interest. He begins asking questions that several powerful people, including government officials, do not want asked. Throughout the novel, we see how extensive the corruption is.

There’s a look at high-level corruption in Australia in Peter Temple’s Black Tide. Sometime-lawyer Jack Irish gets a visit from Des Connors, one of his father’s friends. Connors wants Irish to help him make out a will. In the course of that conversation, Irish learns that Connors’ son Gary has ‘gone to ground’ after borrowing (and not paying back) sixty thousand dollars. Now Connors is in real danger of losing his home, so Irish decides to help try to find Gary and get the money back. The search for Gary leads to some very high places, and a record of vicious ways of dealing with journalists or anyone else who might want to expose the wrongdoing. Irish is mostly concerned about making sure his client gets his money back and doesn’t lose his home; but in the end, he finds that that’s just the proverbial tip of a very dangerous iceberg.

Qiu Xialong’s series featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao includes several plot lines involving corruption at high levels of government. For example, in Enigma of China, Chen is asked to ‘rubber stamp’ an official theory of suicide when Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, is found dead. And there is reason to support that theory. For one thing, the victim was found hung in a hotel room, with no-one seen going in or out. For another, he was in that hotel room because he was under police guard after having been arrested for corruption. It’s believed that he took his own life rather than face the charges. But Chen isn’t completely convinced that this was suicide. So, very delicately, he and his assistant, Detective Yu Guangming, begin to look into the matter. They soon find that there is definitely more to this death then the suicide of someone who was about to be publicly humiliated for corruption. This isn’t the only novel, either, in which Qiu addresses the way corruption can work, at least in late-1990s Shanghai.

One of the plot points in Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night is the way in which corruption can link the very wealthy and powerful to police and government officials who will co-operate for a price. Social worker Simran Singh travels from Delhi, where she lives, to her home town of Jullundur, in the state of Punjab. She’s there to help the police unravel the truth behind a terrible crime. Thirteen members of the wealthy and powerful Atwal family have been poisoned, and some of them stabbed. The only family member left alive is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal. She hasn’t said anything, really, since the crime, so police don’t know whether she is guilty, or whether she is also a victim, but just happened to survive. It’s hoped that Singh will be able to get the girl to talk about what happened that night, so that police can complete their investigation. Singh begins to ask some questions, and in the end, uncovers much more than just a young girl who ‘snapped.’

Ian Rankin also explores the way corruption links up wealthy and powerful people with the government leaders who can get them what they want. In several of his John Rebus novels, Rankin looks at the impact that that corruption has on everyone. Here’s what he says about it in Black and Blue:
 

‘Corruption was everywhere, the players spoke millions of dollars, and the locals resented the invasion at the same time as they took the cash and available work.’
 

Rebus himself sometimes feels corrupt as he finds himself having to make deals and work with all kinds of people in order to get the job done.

There are plenty of novels that explore government corruption in the US, too. Margaret Truman’s series featuring Georgetown University law professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith deals with this topic quite frequently. Murder at the Kennedy Center, for instance, is the story of the killing of Andrea Feldman, a campaign worker for Senator Ken Ewald’s bid for the US presidency. Smith knows Ewald, and in fact, supports his candidacy. So he’s willing to help when Ewald’s son Paul is suspected of the murder. Paul was having an affair with the victim, so he’s the most likely suspect, too. But it turns out that he’s by no means the only one. Smith discovers that there are several powerful people who want nothing more than for Ewald’s campaign to be de-railed, and are willing to go to great lengths to do just that.

And no post on government and high-level corruption would be complete without a mention of Donna Leon’s series featuring Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti. Many of the cases he and his team investigate involve corruption in very high places, and people who may or may not ever ‘face the music’ for what they do.

Government corruption is a continuing global problem. It’s not going to go away quickly. So it’s no surprise that so much crime fiction deals with it. Hopefully if people keep talking and reading about it, this will keep our attention on the problem…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Third World’s Corruption.

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Filed under Donna Leon, Ernesto Mallo, Ian Rankin, Kishwar Desai, Liza Marklund, Maj Sjöwall, Margaret Truman, Per Wahlöö, Peter Temple, Qiu Xiaolong

Next Phase, New Wave*

CrimeFIction TrendsYou don’t need me to tell you that there are certain trends in crime fiction that become popular, especially if a particular book does very well. Other publishers and authors see that, and it doesn’t take much intuition to understand the appeal of doing what sells very well. It’s also easy to see how authors might be inspired to explore a topic if they see that it’s been ‘safe’ for another author to do so.

Those trends have been a part of the genre since its beginnings, and my guess is, they’ll keep happening. It’s interesting to see what’s been popular just lately, and perhaps speculate on what might be coming next. Here are just a few examples of what I mean. I know you’ll think of more than I could.

There’s been excellent Scandinavian crime fiction out there for quite a while. Many argue that it’s been a tradition since the work of Steen Steensen Blicher in the 19th Century. But many English-speaking readers didn’t experience it until the mid-to-late 1960’s, when Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series was translated. And it was even later, at the end of the 1990’s and beginning of the most recent decades, that a lot of English-speaking readers got to experience more of the richness of Scandinavian crime fiction.

Publishers saw the market, translations were commissioned, and the work of writers such as Peter Høeg, Åke Edwardson, Henning Mankell, and later, Liza Marklund and Karin Fossum (among many, many others) became better known in English-speaking markets (I can’t speak as well for other markets). This success could very well be part of what encouraged other authors and publishers to make other Scandinavian crime fiction available in English.

Scandinavian crime novels have been around for more than 150 years, but there’s been a particular interest in it in English-speaking markets in the last twenty years or so. Today it’s possible to read the translated work of many, many Scandinavian writers. Will this trend continue? Will interest fade in that particular kind of crime fiction? I don’t have the data to support myself here, but I don’t think it will fade out. Translated Scandinavian crime fiction is too well established, as I see it, and has been for some time. It’s also too broad a category. But it will be very interesting to see what form it takes as new generations of Scandinavian crime writers have their work translated.

Another trend we’ve seen, especially in the last seven or eight years, has been a large number of novels that are often called ‘domestic noir.’ In those novels, the focus is on families, intimate relationships, and the things that can go on underneath a seemingly peaceful surface.

Of course, that sort of story is not new. Work such as Margaret Yorke’s (and even work before hers) has featured this kind of plot line for some time. But since the popularity of work such as Gillian Flynn’s, publishers are seeing that domestic noir can be lucrative. That’s arguably part of why we’ve seen several such novels published in the last five years. I’m thinking, for instance, of Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife, and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, among many others. Publishers are seeing that there’s a market for such work, and they’re happy to meet that demand.

Will the trend continue? Will interest in it fade? I’m less certain here. In one sense, it’s a well-established sub-genre if you include books such as Yorke’s and some of Margaret Millar’s. On the other hand, it’s not as broad a sub-genre, and doesn’t have a very long history if you put it in context. I’m not sure if the current intense interest in domestic noir will continue.

Another interesting development I’ve seen (have you noticed this?) is an interest in children involved in crime and how that affects them. Some of these novels (such as Ruth Dugdall’s Humber Boy B, Simon Lelic’s The Child Who, Kanae Minato’s Confessions, and William Landay’s Defending Jacob) focus on young offenders. Others, such as Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, feature young people who are impacted by crime among the adults in their lives. There are many other examples, too, of that sort of novel.

Of course, novels about children who are mixed up in, or the perpetrators of, crime are not new. There’s even an Agatha Christie novel that features a young person as the killer (No, I’m not saying which one. No spoilers here.).  And that’s not the only Christie in which a young person is one of the suspects. But there is a lot of interest in the last few years in how we treat young offenders, how responsible they are for what they do, and whether they can be reintegrated into society.

These aren’t easy questions, of course, and perhaps that’s part of why this sort of novel has gotten a lot of attention recently. Perhaps authors and publishers are seeing that readers are open to exploring some of these difficult issues. Or it could be that as we learn more about young people’s development, we’re learning more ways in which to work with them (and ways that don’t work!).

What do you think about all this? What trends have you been noticing in the crime fiction you read? Do you think they’ll continue? If you’re a writer, do you pay attention to those trends when you choose your themes, characters and plots? And just as importantly, what do you think may be coming next?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.

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Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Gillian Flynn, Helen Fitzgerald, Honey Brown, Kanae Minato, Karin Fossum, Liza Marklund, Maj Sjöwall, Margaret Millar, Margaret Yorke, Paula Hawkins, Per Wahlöö, Peter Høeg, Ruth Dugdall, Simon Lelic, Steen Seensen Blicher, William Landay

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 Retancourt, 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.

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