Category Archives: Martin Edwards

‘Till I Can’t Take it Anymore*

Pushed to the EdgeVery often, it’s not the major stressors of life that sap us the most. Those tragedies do happen, and they are awful. But they don’t generally happen very often, and if we take care of ourselves when they do, we get through them. No, what pushes most people too far is a buildup of smaller things. Those are the things that threaten marriages (e.g. ‘If you leave the cap off the toothpaste tube one more time….’). They make people lash out at strangers, too (Ever been on a long flight where there was an infant who wouldn’t stop crying? Especially if the flight was delayed, you were hungry, etc…).

That buildup of stress can add a lot of tension to a novel, and it’s realistic too. We all have those times when we feel like snapping because of all of the things that have gone wrong. Sometimes that buildup can even lead to violence and worse, so it shouldn’t be surprising that we see this sort of suspense in crime fiction.

Ed McBain’s Cop Hater takes place during a terrible heat wave. Everyone’s miserable, and there seems no end to it. In the midst of this heat, police officer Mike Reardon is shot one day while on his way to work. Detective Steve Carella and his partner Frank Bush investigate. They’re hoping that once they find out what sort of gun was used in the killing, they’ be closer to catching the murderer. Then another officer, David Foster, is shot. His death is similar, so the police have to face the possibility that they are dealing with someone who has a vendetta against cops. In the meantime, the police have other duties as well. One of them is to attend lineups of those arrested for major crimes. The idea of this is that the police will become familiar with the area’s criminals. In one such lineup, we meet Virginia Pritchett, who’s been accused of murdering her husband with a hatchet. She doesn’t deny the deed; in fact, she explains that it all happened because of the buildup of tension between her and her husband throughout the heat wave. According to her, the argument that led to the murder started out simply enough and spiraled out of control. And matters weren’t helped by the heat:

‘‘The heat. It’s…it was very hot in the apartment. Right from the morning. You…you lose your temper very quickly in the heat.”

We see that buildup of small things leading to disaster in a few places in the novel.

P.D. James’A Taste For Death concerns the murder of Crown Minister Paul Berowne, whose body is found in a local church, along with the body of a tramp named Harry Mack. Because of Berowne’s status, the case is likely to attract a lot of media attention, so it’s going to have to be handled delicately. That’s where Commander Adam Dalgleish, DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin come in. They’re the members of a special group of detectives who are assigned to cases such as this, where the media is likely to take a great interest. As the team begins to investigate, one of their first stops is the Berowne family. The Berownes are upper-class, and matriarch Lady Ursula Berowne (mother to one of the victims) is determined to protect the family’s public image. But behind that mask is a lot of ongoing resentment that’s built up. That’s especially true in the case of Evelyn Matlock, who was taken in by the family as a ward, and now serves as housekeeper and maid to Lady Ursula. At one point, she’s had one stress too much, and finally snaps:

“I’m tired, I’m overworked and I hate you all. You didn’t know that, did you? You thought I was grateful. Grateful for the job of washing you like a baby, grateful for waiting on a woman too idle to pick up her own underclothes from the floor, grateful for the worst bedroom in the house, grateful for a home, a bed, a roof, the next meal. This place isn’t a home…And you think of no one but yourselves. Do this, Mattie, fetch that, Mattie, run my bath, Mattie. I do have a name. I’m not a cat or a dog. I’m not a household pet.”

It’s interesting to see how class issues come out in this novel and in Evelyn’s reaction.

Ruth Rendell’s One Across, Two Down introduces us to fuel station attendant Stanley Manning. He’s never really been much of a professional success, and it hasn’t helped his career at all that he has a prison record. Still, he’s trying to make a life for himself and his wife, Vera. The big problem is Vera’s mother Maude, who lives with the Mannings. Maude despises her son-in-law, and the feeling is most definitely mutual. They make each other’s lives miserable in any way they can. In fact the only ray of hope is that Stanley knows he and Vera will inherit Maude’s money when she dies. As time goes on and Stanley feels the pressure more and more, he decides to take matters into his own hands. And if you’ve read Rendell at all, you’ll know that that’s going to spell disaster.

There’s also Martin Edwards’ short story Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa. This story concerns a sales and marketing director named Lomas. He’s always had a nicely ordered life, but times have changed, and now he finds his life unbearable. For one thing, technology has changed the way people shop, so his job has changed. Lomas’ sales strategies haven’t really been able to keep up with the times, so he’s feeling work pressure. Then there’s the way modern technology has changed the way people communicate. The Internet, mobile ‘phones and so on are all troublesome for Lomas. His family adds to these stresses; his children have become teenagers who now inhabit a completely alien world from his perspective. Even the road system has changed. Lomas has tried, but all of these stresses have built up so much that at last, matters come to a tragic head.

That’s similar to what happens in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. That’s the story of former school principle Thea Farmer, who bought some property in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains as a place to retire. She had a dream home built for herself and was ready to enjoy the rest of her life. Then things changed. First, some bad luck and poor financial decision-making meant that she couldn’t have that dream home. Instead, she had to settle for the house next door. Then, Frank Campbell and Ellyce Carrington bought the house that Thea always thought of as hers, and moved in. Thea resents both of those developments very much, and her stress is only increased when Frank’s niece Kim moves in with her uncle. Despite herself, though, Thea actually forms a sort of awkward friendship with the girl. And that leads to more trouble when Thea becomes convinced that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for his niece. All of this stress builds up to the point that Thea decides to deal with the situation herself. And what’s interesting in this story is how much of the stress Thea has brought on herself.

Most of us can handle one stress at a time, like a traffic jam, an argument, an Internet outage or a delayed flight. Pile them all on, though, and they can add up to real tragedy. And they can add suspense and character development to a story.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Foreigner’s Head Games.


Filed under Ed McBain, Martin Edwards, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Virginia Duigan


Traditional MysteriesOne of the enduring legacies of Agatha Christie and other Golden Age/classic-era crime writers is arguably the traditional mystery structure. The ‘whodunit’ has survived very well, thank you, and continues to thrive.

To give one example of how the traditional mystery has thrived, consider that every year, the Malice Domestic convention is held in the US. Its focus is the traditional mystery, which is loosely defined as a mystery that contains no gratuitous violence, excessive gore or explicit sex. The Agatha Awards are given each year at Malice Domestic to US authors (or authors who publish in the US) who write the best traditional mysteries. And the Agathas are not the only awards that celebrate such crime fiction.

So what is the appeal of the traditional mystery? Why do they sell, and why do so many people love them? One reason is arguably that the traditional mystery is a really flexible way to tell a story. There are no rules that determine who the killer has to be, who the sleuth has to be, how many suspects there are, etc.

What this means is that there’s room for a lot of variety. For example, Cathy Ace’s Cait Morgan novels are considered traditional mysteries. They feature Morgan, a criminologist and academician who uses her experience, plus her own photographic memory, to solve crimes. Morgan is originally Welsh, but now lives in British Columbia. As an academic, she travels, presents at conferences, and so on. The mysteries that she solves don’t contain a lot of gore, gratuitous violence or explicit sex. They’re ‘whodunits’ in the traditional style. And yet, they’re thoroughly modern in outlook.

And they’re quite different to Martin Edwards’ Lake District mysteries. Also considered traditional, the Lake District mysteries feature Cumbria Constabulary’s DCI Hannah Scarlett and Oxford historian Daniel Kind. Together (and sometimes independently) they work to solve contemporary crimes that have connections to the past in some way. Edwards’ stories also bear the hallmarks of the traditional mystery; yet, they’re not like Ace’s. That’s what I mean by flexibility.

Another reason for the traditional mystery’s appeal arguably lies in its very nature. Many readers enjoy crime novels, but aren’t so fond of a lot of gore, blood and explicit sex. Since traditional mysteries, by their very natures, don’t feature those elements, they’re attractive to such crime fiction fans. For instance, consider work like that of D.S. Nelson, whose Blake Heatherington novels are traditional. Her stories take place mostly in the fictional village of Tuesbury, and feature contemporary life, contemporary issues and so on. There’s nothing ‘frothy’ about them. And yet, they aren’t gory, and Nelson leaves the reader to imagine whatever intimacy there is among different characters.

The same is true of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who write as Michael Stanley. Their David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series takes place in modern Botswana, and features Kubu, who works for the Botswana CID. These novels are contemporary in outlook, and include an honest look at today’s Botswana. Sears and Trollip don’t gloss over the horror of murder. But at the same time, the novels are not gratuitous, and don’t feature a lot of gore or explicit sex. The focus is on the crime(s) and on the search for the killer.

And this leads me to another reason for which the traditional mystery may be so appealing. Just because a reader may not care for a lot of gore or explicit sex doesn’t mean that reader prefers Golden Age/classic social views. Novels written during that time period often reflect, however subtly, the prejudices and ‘isms’ of the times. Many modern readers don’t care for those attitudes, no matter how elegantly the mystery is done. Modern takes on the traditional mystery allow readers to enjoy the traditional structure without gritting their teeth at the ‘isms.’ For instance, Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series features many characters who would probably have been marginalized in earlier times. As an example, there are Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau, who own the local B&B/bistro. They’re an integral part of the community of Three Pines, where many of the novels take place, and the ‘regulars’ in this series see them as excellent cooks and hosts, and good friends – not as gay people who run a bistro. There are plenty of other examples, too, of characters who might be marginalized in classic or Golden Age novels, but aren’t as much in today’s world.

We also see that in the work of Martin Walker. His sleuth, Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges, is chief of police in the small French town of St. Denis. The town and area are becoming more diverse, as indeed France is; and many of the characters are members of groups that might have been marginalized in earlier crime fiction. But they really aren’t in Walker’s world. And although Bruno is the protagonist, there are plenty of strong, independent female characters as well. This isn’t to say that there is no prejudice in these novels. They’re about people and people have biases. But you don’t see the systematic, sometimes casual bias that you sometimes do see in earlier crime novels.

There’s also the matter of engagement in the mystery itself. Many, many readers enjoy matching wits with the author to find out whodunit before that information is revealed. There are other intellectual challenges, too, that come from modern-day traditional-style mysteries. Cryptic clues, intellectual puzzles and so on are often really appealing to readers, and traditional mysteries offer them. There are too many such novels for me to list them, but I’m sure you can think of at least as many examples as I ever could.

It’s also worth noting that while today’s traditional mysteries don’t contain a lot of gore, ugly violence or explicit sex, they are also realistic. They don’t tend to be ‘frothy,’ and they include the kind of character development that invites the reader to engage in the story. Some of them are witty, but they don’t offer trite, easy solutions to mysteries.

To me, it’s little wonder that the traditional mystery, that’s low on gore, doesn’t indulge in gratuitous violence or explicit sex, and does feature the whodunit puzzle, is popular. It’s at least as popular now as it ever was.

What do you think? Do you enjoy traditional style mysteries? Why (not)? If you’re a writer, do you use that structure? Why (not)?



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick


Filed under Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, D.S. Nelson, Louise Penny, Martin Edwards, Martin Walker, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Stanley Trollip

I Wanted to Tell You My Story*

Tapping Prior KnowledgeThere’s a great deal of research that shows that we learn and remember by associating new information with what we already know. If that research is correct (and I’ve yet to read anything that disproves it), then we build mental representations of things, concepts, and so on by adding new things we learn to our prior knowledge.

If you think of it from the other direction, so to speak, it works like this. When we do something or encounter something new, we tap what we already know to make sense of it and work with it. That’s why, for instance, when you buy a new car, you often get used to driving it quickly. You tap your background knowledge about where everything is in a car and use that to learn where your new car’s features are.

Writers have known this and made use of it for a very long time. How often have you heard the expression, ‘Write what you know.’? Of course, this doesn’t mean the author never ‘stretches,’ or uses some imagination. Lots of female authors write male main characters for instance (I do that, myself). The opposite happens as well. And many authors write about experiences they’ve never had. But if you look closely, you find that those authors also do plenty of research first. That’s the body of knowledge on which they build their stories.

It is said that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Dr. Joseph Bell, for whom Conan Doyle clerked for a time. Fans of the Holmes stories will know that Holmes is not a medical doctor as Bell was. And Conan Doyle was not a private investigator. In that sense, Conan Doyle didn’t tap his own background to create his stories. But he did tap his knowledge of Bell and his observations of the way Bell went about his work. And he used his medical background to lend authenticity to the character of Dr. Watson. Through Holmes, Conan Doyle gave voice to what he had learned about science. He also gave voice to what he had learned about the other detective fiction available at the time. To him, it was inadequate because the protagonists didn’t use any deduction to solve their cases; their solutions were too intuitive and therefore, not credible.

Agatha Christie frequently tapped her own knowledge and experiences for her stories. She worked in a hospital dispensary for a time, and was thoroughly familiar with the properties of different chemicals. She was also thoroughly familiar with the way the medical system worked. That knowledge is obvious in her work. Many of her stories feature murder by poison. And it shouldn’t be surprising that plenty of her characters are doctors, nurses or other medical professionals. Fans will know that not all of them are exactly what you’d call sympathetic characters. But Christie’s work as a whole shows the ways in which she tapped her professional background. She tapped her personal experiences, too. Several of her stories feature archaeology and archaeologists; her marriage to an archaeologist proved a rich resource. So did her experience living in the Middle East. It’s even said that Christie was once on a train that was snowbound for a brief time. She later used that experience as an inspiration for Murder on the Orient Express.

There are many other authors, too, who tap their professional experiences when they write. I know I do (one of my protagonists is in higher education, as I’ve been for most of my adult life). Lawyers such as John Grisham, Scott Turow and Martin Edwards have created attorneys as their main characters. Katherine Howell spent several years as a paramedic. She uses that background in all of her Ella Marconi novels. Marconi herself isn’t a paramedic; she’s a police detective. But every novel also includes first-responder characters.

Authors often tap other kinds of experiences that they’ve had, too. For instance, David Whish-Wilson has a lot of experience working with prison populations. In Line of Sight and in Zero at the Bone, there are several incarcerated or formerly-incarcerated characters who reflect that experience. Oh, and, Mr. Whish-Wilson, if you’re reading this, I hope we’ll see more of your Frank Swann in the future. Angela Savage is Australian, but has lived in Southeast Asia, too. She taps that experience in her Jayne Keeney novels. Like her creator, Keeney is Australian, but she lives in Bangkok, and her cases take her to different parts of Thailand.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, authors also go beyond their experiences. They may imagine what it’s like to be a certain kind of person. Or they encounter or read about a certain place or person – something new to them – and think ‘That would make for a great story!’ Crime writers, for instance, have, by and large, not committed murder. Well, at least I haven’t. So in that sense, people who write murder mysteries have to put themselves in the position of someone who would. That requires imagination, too. And research.

But that said, there’s an awful lot of tapping of prior knowledge that happens among authors. That includes their professional experience, their personal stories, and what they read. In fact, that’s one reason for which it makes so much sense for writers to do a lot of reading. Want to know more about the value of reading if you’re a writer? Check out Rebecca Bradley’s great post on this topic. And while you’re at it, have a look at her excellent blog.

It’s not too hard to show how authors use their own experiences when they write, and tap their prior knowledge. And if you’re a writer, I’d love to read your thoughts on how you make use of your own experiences.  But here’s the thing. Readers do not have the same backgrounds and prior knowledge as authors do. Readers are all individuals. They come from different backgrounds, have different experiences and so on. So how does an author encourage readers to tap their own backgrounds and make some meaning from the stories they read?

Let’s put the question another way. How do authors invite readers to really engage with stories? That’ll be the stuff of my post tomorrow, when we’ll flip this topic of tapping prior knowledge the other way.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Verve’s Stormy Clouds.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, David Whish-Wilson, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Martin Edwards, Rebecca Bradley, Scott Turow

Welcome to Tonight’s Presentation*

Giving LecturesSooner or later, most of us are faced with the prospect of giving a lecture or presentation. It might be something as simple as sharing some information at a business meeting; or it might be a formal academic lecture. No matter what kind of presentation it is, there’s a lot to consider. There’s the matter of tailoring one’s talk to one’s audience. And there’s the not-at-all trivial matter of making the presentation interesting to that audience. Some people are naturally more extroverted than others, so one also has to consider the delivery. In particular, if you’re not a natural extrovert, how do you make your voice, your mannerisms and so on more interesting than whatever games members of your audience may be playing on their telephones? It’s also important to find ways to deal with the natural nervousness that can go along with giving lectures and presentations. Some people’s careers involve lots of presentations, so they’re accustomed to having all eyes on them, even if it’s not something they enjoy. Others, however, get extremely anxious in front of a group. Finally, there’s the matter of logistics. Power Point or video? What about the audio? Is there WiFi in the room you’ll be using if you need that? If not, how will you adjust? Handouts or no? How much time do you have? Are you going to leave time for questions and comments? You get the idea.

Despite all that, people give presentations all the time. So it’s little wonder we see them throughout crime fiction. Some characters handle them more easily than others. There’s an interesting mention of a presentation, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly. In that novel, Ariadne Oliver has been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as an attraction for an upcoming fête at Nasse House, the property of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Mrs. Oliver has a strange feeling there’s more to this than just an attraction, so she asks Hercule Poirot to visit, and see what he thinks. Mrs. Oliver’s worst fears come true on the day of the fête, when fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker is strangled. On the surface of it, there seems no motive for the murder, but Poirot and Mrs. Oliver discover that the victim had a way of finding out other people’s secrets, and that she might have found out more than was safe for her to know. At one point, Poirot has a telephone conversation with Mrs. Oliver. His first question is whether it’s a good time to talk:

‘It’s splendid that you’ve rung me up,’ she said. ‘I was just going out to give a talk on How I Write My Books. Now I can get my secretary to ring up and say I am unavoidably detained.”

Mrs. Oliver is pleased to get out of this obligation because she feels there’s not much interesting about writing books:

‘What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all. It would have taken me just three minutes to explain that, and then the Talk would have been ended and everyone would have been very fed up.’’

It’s much better, from her perspective, to work on the case at hand.

The real action in Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes begins when Miss Lucy Pym, who’s gained some renown as a psychologist, is invited to Leys, an exclusive physical training school for young women run by her old friend Henrietta Hedge. Miss Pym is scheduled to give a lecture on psychology to the Leym students.  She’s there for several days and is getting to know the students when word comes that a well-known school has a job vacancy. Everyone thinks that Mary Innes will be selected; instead, the choice is Barbara Rouse. There are already some questions about Barbara; she’s behaved in an odd and secretive way. But this infuriates everyone. Then, Barbara is badly wounded in what looks like a terrible accident. Later, she dies of her injuries. Now Miss Pym has to use her observation and her knowledge of psychology to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Kathryn Fox’s Malicious Intent introduces Anya Crichton, a New South Wales-based pathologist. She’s recently opened her own freelance office, and sometimes gives lectures at the local university. Here are her thoughts about preparing her lectures:

‘Put the word ‘forensic’ in a lecture’s title and it pretty much guaranteed a full house.’

Of course, university lectures don’t always go over the way one thinks they will. Trust me. Here, for instance, is the first question Crichton is asked:

‘‘Excuse me, but will this be in the exams?’’

Every educator will be able to relate to that. All thoughts of successful lecturing are put to one side, though, when Crichton’s friend, DS Kate Farrer, asks her to take a look at an unusual death. It turns out to be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg as the two end up pitting themselves against a very dangerous force.

Martin Edwards’ Daniel Kind is an Oxford historian who became something of a celebrity. He’s gotten ‘burned out’ on it, though, and has taken a cottage in the Lake District. There, he works with DCI Hannah Scarlett as she and her Cold Case Review Team look into unsolved cases that still resonate. His work with Scarlett doesn’t mean that Kind has lost interest in his own field, though. He continues to do research and give presentations and lectures. In fact, in The Serpent Pool, he’s just returned from the US, where he spent several months giving a series of guest lectures. While he enjoyed the experience, he’s glad to back in the Lakes. And it turns out to be none too soon, as Scarlett and her team are faced with a six-year-old case of drowning that turns out not to be suicide, as was originally thought. That death, and two other, recent, deaths turn out to be related to Kind’s current research topic.

And then there’s Philip Kerr’s The Lady From Zagreb, which features his PI sleuth Bernie Gunther. The story takes place in 1956, but in it, Gunther remembers the Germany of 1942, when Gunther, who hated the Nazis, was drawn against his will into a Nazi plot. The goal was to get famous actress Dalia Dresner to return to making Nazi propaganda films. To defy the Nazis was not possible, but Gunther found a way to navigate the waters, so to speak. In one plot thread of this novel, the Germans have arranged an international crime conference; and General Arthur Nebe, who’s in charge of it all, wants Gunther to be speak at the conference. As you can imagine, Gunther is loath to do so:

‘‘My idea of public speaking is to shout for a beer from the back of the bar.’’

But Nebe has no other real option, and Gunther is not in a position to refuse. The conference makes for an interesting plot point in the novel.

Giving lectures and presentations is second nature to some. To others, it’s an onerous task best avoided if at all possible. But no matter how we feel about it, most of us have that experience sooner or later. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go through my Power Point slides and make sure my video works….



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sublime’s What’s Really Goin’ Wrong.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Kathryn Fox, Martin Edwards, Phhilip Kerr

Is There Life After Breakfast?*

BreakfastIt’s been said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And it’s not hard to see why people have that view. After all, breakfast gets you going in the morning. Breakfast is also a really useful meal for fiction writers.

For one thing, breakfast is a very culturally contextual meal (they all are, really). In some cultures, and contexts, a heavier breakfast is the custom. In others, one eats a light breakfast, and then a heavier lunch or dinner. What’s more, the foods that one eats for breakfast vary by culture.

Breakfast is also a very individual sort of habit. Each of us is a bit different with respect to what and how much we eat in the morning. For the writer, this means that breakfast can be a very effective way to show what a character is like, both culturally and as an individual.

Breakfast can be the setting for effective scenes, too. Those scenes can add to the tension of a story, or to the portraits of the characters. So it’s little wonder that breakfast is woven into a lot of crime fiction.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that her Hercule Poirot is a chocolate-and-croissant sort of breakfast eater. He’s not much of a one for the traditional, larger ‘Englishman’s breakfast.’ Just that simple fact about him shows readers something of his cultural background.

Christie uses breakfast scenes quite frequently to build story contexts, too. For example, the first chapter of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is titled, Dr. Sheppard at the Breakfast Table. In it, Dr. James Sheppard, who is the local GP for the village of King’s Abbot, comes home after a very early call. His sister Caroline, who keeps house for him, joins him for a traditional eggs-and-bacon breakfast. At that time, and in that place, breakfast wasn’t a matter of grabbing a protein bar. As the two are talking, we learn about the death of one of the village’s residents, Mrs. Ferrars. That conversation sets the stage for what’s to come next in the novel – the stabbing death of retired business magnate Roger Ackroyd. There are other Christie novels, too (Dead Man’s Folly comes to my mind) in which a breakfast scene gives readers both context and character development.

Some authors use breakfast places and scenes to build a sense of local culture. That’s what Craig Johnson does in his Walt Longmire series. Longmire lives in the small town of Durant, Wyoming. He lives alone and doesn’t do a lot of cooking for himself. But he doesn’t need to, because Durant is home to the Busy Bee Café, owned and operated by Dorothy Caldwell. The Bee, as it’s called, is where the locals go for pancakes, eggs, and other ‘homestyle’ cooking. And coffee. That sort of breakfast food reflects both the small-town context for this series, and the local culture.

Breakfast choices are also very much reflections of the individual. For instance, in D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington stories, we learn that Heatherington’s breakfast preference is an almond croissant. That fits well with his lifestyle (he’s not really the ‘outdoors, strenuous exercise’ type) and his age (he’s – erm – no longer twenty). On the other hand, his detective partner Delilah Delibes, who is much younger and more energetic, prefers a fried breakfast. Not only do their breakfast conversations give readers background for the mysteries, but they also show readers a bit of what these two people are like.

There’s also Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel. As fans will know, he’s a born-and-bred Yorkshireman who enjoys his food. His personality is reflected in his breakfast choices, too. In Recalled to Life, for instance, Dalziel has gone to the US to follow up on a long-ago murder case that’s stirred up a lot of interest. In this scene, American journalist Linda Steele invites him to breakfast:

‘‘I’ll not quarrel with that. Can I get bacon and eggs? I don’t suppose they do black pudding.’
‘Never mind. I like me bacon crisp enough to shave with, and me eggs like a parrot’s eye.’
Linda Steele translated the order into American and the waitress replied in kind.
‘She wants to know if you want syrup.’
‘No, thanks. Marmalade.’
‘With your eggs?’
‘With my toast! Bloody hell, you’ll be offering me kippers and custard next.’’

This bit not only shows Dalziel’s personality, but it also shows gives an interesting cultural perspective.

People’s breakfast choices often become a part of their daily life, too, so that it’s very hard to change them. For example, in Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, we learn that a big change is coming to the Cumbria Constabulary:

‘The senior management team had insisted that the catering franchisee should wipe the Big All Day Breakfast off the menu during summer.’

The idea is that officers should develop healthier eating habits. But that change is certainly not universally accepted. The series features DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of the constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. In this novel, her second-in-command is Nick Lowther, who

‘…still preferred calorie-laden junk food that resembled an exhibit in a long-ago poisoning.’

Scarlett’s friend and fellow DCI Fern Larter isn’t much of a fan of the new healthy eating initiative either. In The Serpent Pool, she and Scarlett agree to meet for breakfast at the Beast Banks Breakfast Bar. Larter chooses

‘…eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, fried bread and black pudding.’

She’s not one to be dictated to by policies.

Breakfast choices can be influenced by generation, too. For example, Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant doesn’t eat a big breakfast as a rule. But his mother Kay sees things differently. She is a farm wife, who’s spent her adult life cooking heavy-duty farm breakfasts with a Ukrainian flair. So when she comes to stay with her son in Flight of Aquavit, there’s an interesting generation clash about what ‘counts’ as breakfast.

There are a lot of other examples, too, of the way that breakfast choices show us what characters and local cultures are like. Some people simply eat cereal (I see you, Jill Edmondson’s Sasha Jackson). Others don’t eat breakfast at all. Still others (you see this in a lot of classic/Golden Age novels) have breakfast served in bed. Sometimes small details like that add depth to characters and contexts to stories in ways that a lot of words wouldn’t. And let’s face it: breakfast resonates with most of us.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Ray Davies song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Craig Johnson, D.S. Nelson, Jill Edmondson, Martin Edwards, Reginald Hill