Category Archives: Michael Connelly

You Dropped a Bomb on Me*

You know the sort of moment. You’re reading a novel, perhaps even drawn into it, when all of a sudden, the author, or a character, drops a proverbial bombshell. It’s usually (but certainly not always) a piece of information. And although such bombshells don’t always result in major plot twists, they certainly add to the suspense of a story.

Bombshells are, perhaps, easier to do in film than in books. Filmmakers can use tools such as facial expressions, atmospheric lighting and music, and so on, to add to the suspense of a bombshell. But even then, they’re a bit tricky. Too much of a bombshell, and you stretch credibility and risk melodrama. Not enough, and you could lose the reader’s interest. But when they’re done carefully, a bombshell can add to a story.

Sometimes, in crime fiction, the bombshell is the identity of the murderer. Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is like that. When retired business magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed one night in his study, the most likely suspect seems to be his stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. For one thing, Paton had motive. For another, he went missing on the night of the murder, and hasn’t been seen since. So, the police assume he’s on the run from them. Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, doesn’t think he’s guilty, though, and asks Hercule Poirot to clear his name. Poirot agrees, and looks into the matter. Fans of this story know that the dénouement contains a major bombshell having to do with the killer’s identity, and that bombshell brought Christie a lot of criticism at the time. It certainly changes the way one sees the book.

In one plot thread of Len Deighton’s Berlin Game, MI6 has discovered that there’s a KGB agent in a very high position at the agency’s London Central offices. Whoever the mole is, that person has access to highly classified information, to say nothing of private information about MI6 members. So, finding out that person’s identity is an urgent matter. Bernie Sansom is a middle-aged former field agent, who now has a desk job at the London Central offices, so he’s in a good position to try to catch the mole. This leads to an important bombshell piece of information that has a profound impact on the agency, on Sansom, and on the other two books in this trilogy.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we are introduced to Eva Wirenström-Berg, her husband, Henrik, and their six-year-old son, Axel. Eva has what she thinks is the perfect ‘white picket fence’ life – the one she’s always dreamed of having. Then a bombshell drops. She discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. Devastated by the news, Eva is determined to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she makes her own plans, and things soon begin to spin tragically out of control. In this case, the bombshell isn’t a murderer’s or other criminal’s identity. But it has a powerful impact on what happens in the novel.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has certainly had his ups and downs when it comes to romance. But, in The Black Echo, he meets FBI agent Eleanor Wish; and, over the course of time, they fall in love. In fact, it’s not spoiling the series to say that they marry at the end of Trunk Music. The magic doesn’t last, though, for several reasons. So, by the time of Angels Flight, the two split up. But there’s more to come. In Lost Light, Bosch has officially retired from the police force. But he’s still haunted by the four-year-old murder of production assistant Angella Benton, who was murdered in the vestibule of her apartment building. So, he starts to ask questions unofficially. The case turns out to have an FBI connection, which leads Bosch to his ex-wife. And that’s when he learns that he has a daughter, Maddie, whom he’s never met. It’s a real shock to Bosch, and certainly changes the course of the novels that follow Lost Light.

Larry Watson’s Montana 1948 is the story of the coming of age of twelve-year-old Daniel Hayden. As the title suggests, the real action in the story takes place a few years after World War II, in Bentrock, the county seat of Mercer County, Montana. David lives a more or less settled life with his parents, Gail and Wayne (Mercer County’s sheriff). Everything changes when the family’s housekeeper, Marie Little Soldier, falls ill with pneumonia. To everyone’s shock, she refuses to let Wayne’s brother, Frank, treat her. Frank Hayden is a well-known and well-respected doctor, and no-one really understands why she wouldn’t want his help. Then, she drops a bombshell. It seems that Frank has been raping some of his patients who come from the Fort Warren (Sioux) Indian Reservation. Nobody’s come forward before this because the Hayden name is too powerful. But Marie swears that it’s all true, and admits that she’s been one of the doctor’s victims, herself. This bombshell is devastating to the Hayden family, and has a tragic outcome.

Those explosive pieces of information have to be handled carefully, as all explosives do. They have to fall out naturally from the plot, and they’re often more powerful if they’re not presented in an overly dramatic way. That said, though, they can add a great deal to a story, and show some different sides of characters, too. Which fictional bombshell revelations have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Gap Band.

38 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Karin Alvtegen, Larry Watson, Len Deighton, Michael Connelly

What Shall I Call You?*

If you’re kind enough to read this blog occasionally, you’ll know that right now, I’m working on revising my fourth Joel Williams novel. Revising can be a difficult process, especially if some fundamental things about a story need to be changed. But most authors have to make at least some revisions to their drafts.

One of the things I’ve discovered about this particular novel as I’ve been revising is that, of all things, the title I’d chosen no longer works. The plot has changed, and that means that the title doesn’t reflect it very well any more. So, I have to choose a new title.

Titles are interesting things, too. In some way, they have to catch the reader’s attention. Some authors do that by selecting unusual titles. For instance, the titles of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels are certainly inventive. There’s A Red Herring With Mustard, and I Am Half Sick of Shadows, just to name two. And Bradley’s by no means the only author to opt for such unusual titles.

Other authors, such as Sue Grafton and the ‘Nicci French’ team use titles to link the novels in their series. Fans can tell you that Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is sometimes called ‘the alphabet series,’ because each book begins with a letter of the English alphabet (e.g. A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc..). And the Nicci French Frieda Klein novels all have days of the week in their titles (e.g. Blue Monday).

Whatever title an author chooses, most people agree that it needs to be short enough to be remembered fairly easily. Too many words and it’s clumsy. That’s why there are so many crime titles that are one or two words (e.g. Elmore Lenoard’s Get Shorty, or Ruth Rendell’s The Vault). There are exceptions to this, of course. However, titles that are ‘crisp’ and not overblown generally seem to be more successful.

A title also arguably has a real advantage if it reflects something about the book. Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice has as one of its central plot points a dangerous new drug, known as ‘black ice.’ In this case, ‘black ice’ also refers more metaphorically to very dangerous situations that one might not see coming, and are all the more perilous if one’s not prepared. And Rex Stout’s Champagne For One is about the death of Faith Usher, who dies of poison after drinking a glass of champagne at a dinner party.

As you can see, the choice of a title can be a tricky business. It can’t be too long (but it has to be long enough to say something about the book). It can’t be too ‘cookie cutter’ (but not too ‘cutesy’ either). It has to be attention-getting (but not so strange that it’s off-putting). Little wonder that I’m really paying attention to this part of the revision.

But, you see, I have an advantage. I have you. You folks are all readers, and excellent judges of the titles of that get your attention or annoy you (or something in between). So, I’ve decided to ask you to help me and choose the title of my next Joel Williams novel. Below, you’ll see a poll with some possible titles. If you’d like a say, vote for your choice. The poll will be up for about a week, and then we’ll talk about it.

Now, to help you decide, here’s the tentative blurb (there may be some changes, but this is the basic story):
 

Research Can Be Deadly!

Criminal justice professor Joel Williams and two colleagues are studying Second Chances, a Philadelphia alternative school program that’s supposed to keep at-risk students off the streets and out of prison. But it hasn’t kept those young people out of danger. The research team is shocked when their work turns up a tragic death. One of the students, 15-year-old Curtis Templeton, fell from a building near the school, and everyone says it was a horrible accident. But if it was an accident, why isn’t anybody willing to talk about it? And if it wasn’t, who would want to kill Curtis?

To get answers, Williams and the team will step into the world of for-profit alternative schools, and into the lives of the people they’re meant to serve. And they’ll go up against someone who’s willing to do whatever it takes to keep certain secrets hidden.
 

What do you think? Which title says it best?

 


 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Thompson Twins’ Flesh and Blood.

42 Comments

Filed under Alan Bradley, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, Nicci French, Ruth Rendell, Sue Grafton

My Mustang Ford*

fordAs this is posted, it’s the 103rd anniversary of the first moving assembly line. It was originally installed in a Ford Motor Company factory for the production of the Model T – the famous ‘Tin Lizzie.’ The assembly line made profound changes in the workplace and in production. You can say those changes have been beneficial or quite the opposite; it’s hard to deny the impact, though, of the assembly line.

It also changed transportation. Now, instead of cars being a plaything for the rich, they became affordable for ordinary people. And ordinary people started to buy them. That made permanent social, recreational, and demographic changes in many societies. Now, the automobile is omnipresent, and there’s more variety in terms of prices, features and so on than ever before. Just watch television for a short time and you’re likely to see an ad for one car maker or another.

Cars have driven into crime fiction, too. For example, one of the early scenes in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None features Anthony ‘Tony’ Marston. He’s driving a Dalmain on the way to meet a ferry that’s going to take him to Indian Island, where he’s accepted an invitation. Marston gets quite a lot of attention as he goes. He’s good-looking to begin with, and drives,

 

‘A car so fantastically powerful, so superlatively beautiful, that it had all the nature of an apparition.’

 

Marston finds that other people, too, have been invited to the island, and joins them on the ferry. When they get there, they find that their host has been delayed. Still, dinner is served and everyone settles in. After the meal, though, the guests are shocked when each is accused of killing at least one other person. In Marston’s case, it has to do with his driving; he’s accused of the hit-and-run killing of two children. Not long afterwards, he dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night, there’s another death. And then another. Now the people on the island know that they’ve been lured there, and that someone plans to murder them. So the survivors have to find and stop the killer if they’re to stay alive.

If you’re a fan of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, and especially if you’ve seen the television series, you’ll know that Morse drives a Jaguar. Somehow, it seems to suit him. But did you know that, in the earlier novels, he actually drove a Lancia? What’s interesting is that in this case, the novels and the television show were very closely integrated. Partly that’s because Dexter was very much involved with the show’s production. After the various episodes were aired (showing the Jaguar), later editions of the novels changed the Lancia to a Jaguar.

Some sleuths depend very heavily on their cars. For example, in Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, we are introduced to Los Angeles attorney Mickey Haller. He doesn’t do business from an office, although he does, technically speaking, have a business address. Instead, he has a ‘portable office’ – his Lincoln Town Car. He has a driver, Earl Briggs, and conducts his business as he goes between places. Connelly was inspired for this character by a real-life attorney, David Ogden. I read that Ogden actually drives a Ford Five Hundred SEL, but I’m not sure if that’s still true. Even if it’s not, it’s still really interesting to think of a car as a place of business.

Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole has a signature 1966 Corvette. That’s not a surprising choice, given that he lives and works in car-addicted Los Angeles. And if you’ve seen Corvettes from that era, and you’re familiar with Cole’s personality and style, you may find yourself agreeing that the car matches the man.

Some sleuths drive even more unusual cars. For example, Mike Ripley’s sleuth is Fitzroy Maclean Angel, a jazz trumpeter who drives an unlicensed cab. He’s named his car Armstrong – yes, for Louis Armstrong – and finds his transportation quite useful. After all, if someone mistakes his car for an actual cab and pays him for a ride, who is he to argue? In Just Another Angel, that’s the mistake that Josephine ‘Jo’ Scamp makes. But Angel gets much more than he bargained for when she gets into his car. One night with Jo ends up drawing Angel into a case involving robbery, some unpleasant thugs, and Jo’s very angry husband…

And I don’t think I could discuss cars and sleuths without mentioning television’s Lieutenant Columbo. Any fan of this show will tell you that he drives a sometimes-unreliable battered Peugeot. Sometimes there are jokes made about it, and he himself knows it’s not exactly upmarket. But he loves his car, and it would be hard to imagine him without it.

And that’s the thing about cars. Thanks in no small part to the moving assembly line, many people can now afford a car, even if it’s not the car of their dreams. And cars have become so varied that they often reflect their owners’ tastes and personalities. And that includes fictional sleuths.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chuck Berry’s My Mustang Ford.

24 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Michael Connelly, Mike Ripley, Robert Crais

The Man Said, Why Do You Think You’re Here?*

counselingPolice work and other criminal investigation can take a real toll on a person. After all, these people see the worst that humans can do to each other, and that can leave scars. Even the most sane, balanced person can get pushed to the breaking point under those circumstances.

That’s why many police departments have psychologists, either on their staff or as professional associates. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the detectives will actually use those services unless required. There’s still, to some extent, a stigma attached to getting mental health care. But more and more, people are seeing the wisdom of getting such support when it’s necessary. And that aspect of police work – the aftermath of a case – can make a fictional character more human and believable.

For example, in Michael Connelly’s The Last Coyote, LAPD detective Harry Bosch is at the end of his proverbial rope. After an incident in which he attacks a superior officer, he’s sent for mandatory psychological counseling, and relieved of his duties until he completes it. Bosch begins his sessions with Dr. Carmen Hinojos, who tries to help him face some of his personal issues. One of them is the fact that his mother was murdered when he was eleven. She was a prostitute, and not a ‘high profile’ one, either. So not much was done to investigate. Feeling at loose ends because of his enforced break from work, Bosch begins to look into his mother’s death again. That case, plus his work with Hinojos, helps Bosch do some of the work he needs to do to start functioning again.

In Ian Rankin’s Resurrection Men, we meet career analyst Andrea Thomson. On the one hand, she’s not a doctor, a psychiatrist, or a psychological therapist. She’s hired by the police (as a freelancer) to work with the detectives on job-related issues. On the other hand, job counseling and mental health counseling aren’t that far apart, so some of the same issues come up. That’s how she meets Inspector John Rebus, who’s just gotten into deep trouble for throwing a mug of cold tea at a supervisor during a meeting. In Rebus’ case, he’s been sent back to Tulliallan Police College for career counseling and a refresher course on working with others. Needless to say, Rebus isn’t happy being pulled from his regular work. Nor is he deeply interested in reflecting on his career. He’s happiest out on the streets, dong his job. He and a group of other detectives who’ve been sent for the same refresher course are given a ‘cold case’ to work, as a way of building their teamwork skills. But that doesn’t stop him working with Sergeant Siobhan Clarke on a case they were already investigating. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how the police view counseling, Thomson, and the process of reflecting on their work.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) introduces readers to Copenhagen detective Carl Mørck. As the novel opens, he’s just returned to active duty after a line-of-fire incident in which one of his colleagues was killed, and another left with permanent paralysis. Mørck was badly injured, too, and not just physically. He’s never been overly friendly or extroverted, but since his return, he’s been even worse. In fact, no-one wants to work with him. So he’s ‘promoted’ to head a new department called ‘Department Q,’ which will have responsibility for cases of special interest – cold cases. In this way, the Copenhagen police can respond to media and public criticism over unsolved cases, and at the same time get Mørck out of the way. The first case that Mørck and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad re-open is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. At the time she went missing, everyone thought she’d had a tragic fall from a ferry. But Mørck and Assad begin to suspect she may still be alive; if so, she may be in grave danger. In the meantime, Mørck’s boss wants him to get some psychological help. The department has recently hired a crisis counselor, Mona Ibsen, and Mørck is strongly encouraged to work with her. He has no desire to face any personal issues, but he is smitten by the new counselor. And it’s both funny and awkward to see how he starts to do the work he needs to do, even if it is for very much the wrong reasons. Fans of this series will know how both his mental health work and his interactions with Mona Ibsen evolve as the series does.

In David Mark’s Sorrow Bound, Hull D.S. Aector McAvoy and his team are up against a dangerous new crime boss. At the same time, they’re dealing with what looks like a series of revenge killings that are related to past police investigations. And all of this takes place during a heat wave that makes everyone miserable. Things aren’t made easier for McAvoy by the fact that he’s been required to attend six sessions of counseling to help him deal with some of the trauma he’s been through recently. Here’s what he says to Sabine Kean, his counselor:
 

‘‘Look, the people at occupational health have insisted I come for six sessions with a police-approved counselor. I’m doing that. I’m here. I’ll answer your questions, and I’m at great pains not to be rude to you, but it’s hot and I’m tired and I have work to do, and yes, there are lots of places I would rather be. I’m sure you would, too.’’
 

As the novel goes on, we see how McAvoy’s sessions progress and where they lead him, mentally speaking.

Of course, it’s not only the police who occasionally need mental health support, whether they admit it, or want it, or not. Fans of Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson series will know that Martinsson, who is a lawyer, needs and gets quite a lot of psychological counseling after experiencing severe trauma in The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm) and The Blood Spilt.

It makes sense to weave this element in to crime novels, since crime is traumatic. So long as it’s not melodramatic, that sort of plot thread can help make characters seem more believable.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Amy Winehouse’s Rehab. 

37 Comments

Filed under Åsa Larsson, David Mark, Ian Rankin, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Connelly

I Think You Ought to Know That I Intend to Hold You For the Longest Time*

ProposalToday (or yesterday, depending on when you read this), a friend of mine is getting married. I couldn’t be happier for the couple, and I’m really looking forward to the wedding.

It’s got me thinking about what my husband a reliable expert tells me is not nearly as easy as it may seem: the marriage proposal. For one thing, there’s always the risk that you’ll get your heart broken if the answer is ‘no.’ For another, there’s choosing the right moment. And if you’re the one getting the proposal, do you say an immediate ‘yes,’ even if you’re not quite sure? And if the proposal is a public one, how do you deal with everyone looking on?

Even so, marriage proposals are exciting. They’re very sweet, too; have you noticed how people always seem to smile and applaud when they witness one? And some of them are breathtaking. I know someone whose husband proposed during a hot-air balloon ride. Someone else I know proposed during a trip to one of the US’ most beautiful national parks. And I read a story about a firefighter who proposed to his partner during his community-outreach trip to the classroom where she’s a teacher.

Marriage proposals work their way into crime fiction, too, as nearly everything does. Of course, a romance angle to a crime novel can make it too cloying if it’s not handled well. But when handled deftly, a marriage proposal can fall out naturally from a plot, and it can add a welcome touch of warmth and humanity.

Agatha Christie fans can tell you that she wove romance into several of her mysteries. For example, in Evil Under the Sun, Captain Kenneth Marshall, his wife, Arlena, and his daughter, Linda, visit the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Not long after they arrive, Arlena begins to carry on a not-so-discreet affair with another (married) guest, Patrick Redfern. So when she is murdered one day, her husband is an obvious suspect. But Marshall claims that he’s innocent, and it seems that his alibi is reliable. Hercule Poirot is also staying at the hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the real killer is. As they investigate, they find that more than one guest might easily have had a motive for murder. In one of the sub-plots of this novel, a couple meet again for the first time in several years, and discover that they have feelings for each other.
 

‘‘Are you going to ask me to marry you now…or are you determined to wait six months?’…
‘How the devil did you know I’d fixed six months as the proper time?’
‘I suppose because it is the proper time. But I’d rather have something definite now, please.’’
 

And it’s not spoiling the story to say that this proposal takes place in a lovely spot on a cliff above the beach.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey falls in love with mystery novelist Harriet Vane almost from the moment he sees her (Strong Poison has the story). But the only problem is, she’s on trial for murder. So he can’t propose to her then. But he doesn’t give up – not even in the face of her initial reluctance to be romantically involved with him. But everything changes in Gaudy Night, when Wimsey helps her solve the mystery of some baffling and frightening events at her alma mater college of Oxford. At the end of the novel, they’re taking a walk through the campus when Wimsey asks her to marry him. And, very appropriate to the place, he does it in part in Latin:
 

‘‘Placetne, magistra?’ (Does it please you, Mistress?)
‘Placet.’’ (It pleases.)
 

There’s a lot more conveyed in that exchange than there is space for in this post, chiefly because it’s very difficult to translate nuances from one language to another, but it’s a very meaningful proposal.

In Michael Connelly’s Trunk Music Harry Bosch investigates the murder of mediocre filmmaker Tony Aliso. His death has all of the hallmarks of a Mob execution, but the LAPD seems strangely reluctant to pursue the investigation, even though it could mean bringing down a criminal group. But that doesn’t stop Bosch, who follows the trail to a seedy Las Vegas casino. During his trip, Bosch renews his acquaintance with Eleanor Wish, a former FBI agent who’s become a professional poker player. They find that they still care about each other, and Bosch doesn’t want to let his chance go by.
 

‘He almost faltered, but then the resolve came back to him.
‘There is one stop I’d still like to make before we leave. That is, if you’ve decided.’
She looked at him for a long moment and then a smile broke across her face.’
 

They wouldn’t be the first couple to get married in Las Vegas…

When Camilla Läckberg’s Erica Falck returns to her home town (in The Ice Princess), she meets up again with people she’s known for a long time. That includes local police officer Patrik Hedström, whom she was smitten with when they were in school. In the course of that novel, they begin a relationship, and soon enough, they have a daughter, Maja. It’s not easy to be the parent of a new baby, especially if you’re dealing with all of the physical changes that come with giving birth, and Ericka feels the pressure. So it’s doubly special for her when, in The Stonecutter, Patrik proposes:
 
‘Erica Sofia Magdalena Falck, would you consider doing me the honor of making an honest man out of me? Will you marry me?’
 

The whole thing has made Patrik anxious. There’s picking out the ring, suddenly wondering whether he’s made a mistake in assuming she’ll say ‘yes,’, and then that awkward silence as he waits. But as fans know, he’s not disappointed. This isn’t the most exotic proposal in the world; it takes place right at home, in their study. But it’s just right for them.

And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s Aloha Candy Hearts, which more or less begins with a marriage proposal. In that novel, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant takes a trip to Hawai’i to spend time with his partner, Alex Canyon, who’s a private and corporate security specialist. Canyon currently works in Melbourne, so the two have settled on Hawai’i as a good ‘in between’ place. It doesn’t hurt matters in this case that Canyon has paid for the airline tickets and the hotel. One night, they’re having dinner at an upmarket restaurant called La Mer, when Canyon proposes.
 

‘Then came THE QUESTION…
I was pretty sure a few neighbouring diners were also monitoring the drama at our table. How could they resist? Two well-dressed men seated at the best table in the house, a tropical paradise as our backdrop, the sultry haziness of too much too-expensive wine that begs close acquaintance from perfect strangers, romantic island music, one of us with a ring in his hand and a hopeful look on his face, the other with a wide-open mouth and shock on his (that would be me).’
 

Seriously, that sort of proposal is hard to resist. And Quant doesn’t.

Marriage proposals can take all kinds of forms. But no matter what the proposal is like, it always speaks of hope and promise, and that can really add to a novel. If you’re reading this, all the best to both of you!

ps. The ‘photo was taken on my ‘proposal night.’ In case you were wondering, I said ‘yes.’

 
 
 

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

36 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Camilla Läckberg, Dorothy Sayers, Michael Connelly