Category Archives: Michael Connelly

Something’s Got to Pay Off*

Have you ever been to a casino? They’re designed to be exciting, and to get the adrenaline going. And every detail is very carefully planned so that you’ll spend the maximum amount of time there, and wager the maximum amount of money.

Because casinos are exciting, suspenseful places where a lot of money changes hands, it’s not surprising that they’re also really effective settings in crime novels. All sorts of things can happen in a casino, and they run the gamut from seedy, dangerous places to some of the most luxurious places in the world. So, there are lots of possibilities for an author.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, for instance, we are introduced to London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey. She’s just won a lottery, so she decides to take a trip to Le Pinet, where many of her clients go. She doesn’t have much luck at the casino, but she does meet some of the characters who figure later in the story. One of them is Lady Cicely Horbury. She’s got a gambling addiction, and has the bad judgement to think that her next roll will wipe out her debts. She has a run of bad luck, though, and is desperate for money. So, she borrows money from Marie Morisot, a Paris moneylender who does business as Madame Giselle. When she can’t pay the money back, Madame Giselle prepares to use the ‘collateral’ she has – private information that Lady Horbury does not want her husband to learn. Everything changes when Madame Giselle suddenly dies during a flight from Paris to London. It looks at first like heart failure due to a wasp’s sting. But it’s soon clear that this was murder. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight as Madame Giselle, as are both Jane Grey and Cicely Horbury, and all three get caught up in the investigation.

In the US, several Native American Nations generate revenue by operating casinos on their land. One of them, a casino in the Ute Nation, figures in Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger. In it, the casino is robbed by a group of far-right militia members who want to use the loot they stole to buy arms and equipment. If you know about casinos, then you know it’s well-nigh impossible to steal from them without ‘inside help.’ Deputy Sheriff Teddy Bai works part-time at the casino as a security guard, and the police suspect that he’s in league with the thieves. He claims he’s innocent, and his friend, Navajo Tribal Police detective Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito, believes him. She takes her concerns to Sergeant Jim Chee, and he starts asking questions. It turns out that this case is linked to the past, and to an old Ute legend.

In Michael Connelly’s Trunk Music, L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch investigates the murder of mediocre filmmaker Tony Aliso, whose body is found in the trunk of his Rolls Royce. He was killed execution-style, and all signs point to this being a Mob ‘hit.’ As Bosch looks into that possibility, he follows the trail to a seedy Las Vegas casino – and to former FBI agent Eleanor Wish, who’s become a professional poker player. He and Wish develop a relationship that ends in marriage, and it’s interesting to see how their story arc impacts the novels that come after this one. And in this novel, there’s a really telling scene between them that takes place in a casino.

As you’ll know, Havana was, at one time, a mecca for those who liked casinos. And many of those watering holes were owned by, or at least controlled, by Mob members. That’s one of the plot points in Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra’, which takes place in the years just before the revolution that put Fidel Castro into power. In that novel, we are introduced to fledgling journalist Joaquín Porrata, who works for the Diario de la Marina. Most of what he writes is ‘lightweight’ news, such as interviews with film actors. But then, he hears of the murder of Umberto Anastasia, who was killed in a New York barbershop. Anastasia was known as ‘The Great Executioner of Murder, Inc.,’ and Porrata thinks he was killed because he ‘stuck his nose’ into Mob business in Havana casinos. If that’s correct, then there’s a major story here. But instead, Perrota is told to write a story about a hippopotamus that escaped from a Havana zoo and was later found killed. He does what he’s asked to do, but his interest in the Anastasia murder is renewed when he uncovers a link between it and the hippo’s death – and yes, there is one. Throughout this novel, we see the role that casinos played in Havana’s economy and society during the last years of the Batista regime.

Andrew Nette’s Gunshine State features a different sort of casino. In it, professional thief Gary Chance goes from South Australia to Brisbane when a robbery he was involved in goes wrong. There, he meets Dennis Curry, who runs certain poker games for wealthy people who don’t go to ‘regular’ casinos. Curry wants to rob one of his clients, Frederick ‘Freddie’ Gao, and he wants Chance’s help. It sounds like an opportunity for a big payout, so Chance meets the rest of Curry’s team, and agrees to join it. The robbery is planned, but it doesn’t turn out to be anything like what Chance had imagined…

And, of course, I don’t think I could bring up the topic of casinos in crime fiction without mentioning Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Fans of these novels can tell you that he’s as comfortable at the baccarat table as he is anywhere else. And there are several important and tense casino scenes in the series.

But that’s just the thing. Casinos lend themselves to adrenaline, tension and suspense. And a lot of money is at stake. So, they do make really effective contexts for crime novels, and scenes in them.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Nette, Mayra Montero, Michael Connelly, Tony Hillerman

Just the Few of Us*

There are only so many ‘regular’ characters an author can weave into a series without confusing readers. That’s why, even in crime fiction series that are set in large cities, there’s a relatively small group of ‘focus characters.’ That’s just as true of police procedurals as it is of other sorts of series.

It’s easy enough when a series takes place in a small town. Such places may only have one police station with a relatively small number of people who work there. It’s a bit trickier for series that take places in larger cities. Readers couldn’t, for instance, keep track of every fictional police officer in Sydney, Toronto, London, Los Angeles or Moscow. So, how do authors face this challenge?

Some focus on one geographic area. For example, Ed McBain’s long-running police procedural series mostly features the police who serve in the 87th Precinct of Isola, a thinly-disguised New York City. That precinct has a limited number of officers, and serves a limited geographic area. Fans of the series know that there are occasional forays into other parts of the city. But, because the 87th is a finite group, it’s easier to keep track of Steve Carella and the rest of his team. The reader isn’t faced with the challenge of trying to remember the thousands of fictional police officers who might actually serve in such a large city.

Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series also has a geographic focus: New York City’s Chinatown. Yu was born and raised in that part of the city, and in Chinatown Beat, he’s stationed there. The series does see him temporarily assigned to other places, but he basically stays in Chinatown. This allows readers to get to know the area, as well as the various characters with whom Yu usually interacts. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Jean-Baptsite Adamsberg will know that that series, too, focuses on one small geographic part of Paris.

That’s certainly not the only way to address the challenge, though. Some authors focus on just one department (such as Robbery, Homicide, etc.). That’s what Michael Connelly does with his Harry Bosch novels. Fans of this series will know that Bosch has been a member of several L.A.P.D. departments. He’s been a part of Robbery/Homicide, Open/Unsolved, and Homicide Special, among others. This choice has given Connelly (and his readers) some real advantages. One is that, as Bosch works with one team (say, Open/Unsolved), readers get to know that team, and don’t have to try to remember the many other members of other teams. As the series has gone on, and Bosch has been with other departments, it’s kept the series from being restricted to only one small group. This has allowed for different sorts of plots and characters.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss also works with a departmental team. She is a member of the Göteborg/Gothenberg Police‘s Violent Crimes Unit. It’s a relatively small unit, with a focus just on murder and other violent crimes. This choice has allowed Tursten to develop her characters over time, as different members of the department evolve. It’s also allowed (as happens naturally) for members to leave and join.

The same thing’s true of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad. That team, has a small number of members. So, we get to know them. And different members of the squad ‘star’ in the different novels of the series. So, as members leave, join, and so on, we get to see how the team operates in the real world of a large city like Dublin.

Sometimes, police teams are gathered for a specific purpose. For example, at one point, P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh heads up a squad set up specifically for investigations that are likely to attract a lot of media attention. That’s the case in A Taste For Death, when Crown Minister Paul Berowne is murdered. He’s well known and ‘well-born,’ so of course the media take note when he’s killed. The squad, which consists of Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham, and DI Kate Miskin is assigned to the case. They slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together, and find that this is as much about the victim’s private life as it is about his public life.

There’s also Jussi Adler-Olsen’s ‘Department Q.’ Part of the Copenhagen police force, Department Q is tasked with cases ‘of special interest.’ It was set up in part to appease the government’s (and the public’s) demand that the police show they’re looking into all cases, even those that have ‘gone cold.’ This group is headed by Carl Mørck, a homicide detective who has a reputation of being difficult. In fact, he’s so hard to work with that that’s the reason he was given the department in the first place – to keep him off others’ teams. Mørck is crusty and sometimes truculent. And the department has few resources and only a very few members. But the team gets the job done.

And then there’s Christopher Fowler’s London-based Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). That group, led by Arthur Bryant and John May, is tasked with solving strange crimes that the regular police homicide units haven’t been able to solve. It’s a very small group, but that makes it easier for readers to follow the team and get to know the members well.

These small units, whether they’re based on geography, on department, or on special assignment, allow the author to develop characters. And they make it much easier for readers to follow along and keep track of those characters. I’ve only mentioned a few; which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s It Takes Two.

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Filed under Christopher Fowler, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, Henry Chang, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Connelly, P.D. James, Tana French

I Looked in My Mirror, and a Red Light Was Blinkin’

One of the many things police do (and probably the one most of us are most familiar with) is to regulate traffic. It isn’t a high-status job to catch speeders and suspected impaired drivers, but it is important. And you never know where such a stop might lead.

Of course, different places have different laws about what police may do when they stop someone for, say, speeding. And particular circumstances play a role, too. These encounters certainly happen in real life, and they do in crime fiction, as well. That’s not surprising, when you consider that they give an author all sorts of possibilities for plot lines, tension, and more.

For example, in Elijah Ellis’ short story Welcome Stranger, we are introduced to two men, Garvin and Mac. They’re driving near a notorious ‘speed trap’ in the small town of Keysburg. Sure enough, they’re pulled over by Constable Ashley. Very soon, they’re arrested on multiple trumped-up charges, and brought before a corrupt judge. Without spoiling the story, I can say that all is not as it seems in this story. And it’s interesting to see how both sides deal with this traffic stop.

There’s a similar setup in Alex Gaby’s short story The Crooked Road. Henry Adams and his wife are driving on a country road near the small town of Robertsville, when they’re stopped by Officers Charles Bleecker and Carney Tait. Within minutes, it’s clear that this is a ‘speed trap.’ To add to that, the couple’s car is just about forcibly towed to a local garage, which will add quite a bit to their expenses. The police, the local judge, and the towing company are all in on the scam, too. But things don’t turn out quite the way you’d think they would…

In Michael Connelly’s Echo Park, a traffic stop results in a gruesome discovery in a car belonging to Raynard Waits. Based on that evidence, he’s arrested and convicted of two brutal murders. He’s facing the death penalty, so he wants to make a deal with the police in order to avoid execution. His offer is to trade information about other murders in exchange for his life. One of those murders is the Marie Gesto case. Years earlier, she left a Hollywood-area supermarket, but never made it home. At the time, LAPD detective Harry Bosch was assigned to the case, but he never learned the truth. In fact, he missed an important clue and was interested in the wrong suspect. He wants to get some peace for the victim’s family and for himself, so he decides to work with Wait and find out the truth. It’s a complex case, and it shows just how much can come out of a simple traffic stop.

In one plot thread of Fred Vargas’ The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Paris Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his team investigate a car fire that took the life of wealthy and well-connected Antoine Clermont-Brasseur. The most likely suspect is a local firebug called Momo. But he says he’s innocent, and Adamsberg comes to believe him. Still, Momo does have a record of other arson convictions, and he’s not likely to get a very fair hearing. So, Adamsberg comes up with an unusual plan to keep an innocent man from going to prison. At one point in the novel, Momo is in a car with Adamsberg’s son, Zerk. They’ve approached a traffic stop, and they don’t want any trouble:
 

“New plates, eh?’ he [a gendarme] said.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Zerk. ‘I put ‘em on a fortnight ago.’
‘Seven-year-old car, new plates?’
‘That was in Paris, Officer,’ Zerk explained. ‘Plates were knocked in, front and back, had to change ‘em.’
‘Why, weren’t they readable any more?’
‘Yeah, but you know what it’s like, Paris, if your plates are fucked up, they just think they can, like, bash your car any time they park.’
‘You’re not from Paris, then?’
‘O-oh no. Pyrenees, us.’
‘Ha, better than Paris, anyway,’ said the gendarme with the hint of a smile as he handed back their papers.’
 

Zerk comes up with a very neat way to avoid too much attention, and to keep the gendarme from asking too many questions.

And then there’s Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor. He’s a former member of the Garda Síochána who was removed from the force because of excessive drinking that led to a disastrous encounter with a speeder. One evening, Taylor and his police partner, Clancy, were on duty at a speed check when a Mercedes sped by, far exceeding the posted speed limit. Fueled by brandy-laced coffee (much more brandy than coffee), Taylor insisted on stopping the speeder. Clancy saw that the car had government plates, and tried to stop his partner from interfering. Taylor, though, had a different view:
 

‘‘It’s a bloody scandal.’’
 

Things went downhill fast when Taylor had a heated exchange with the car’s officious and rude owner. It all ended up with Taylor assaulting the man. Now he does private investigation, although he still knows several members of the Garda.

There are other examples, too, of crime stories that involve those routine traffic stops. They can be very effective at building suspense, at providing clues, and at showing character, too. And they’re very much a part of real life, too.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charlie Ryan’s Hot Rod Lincoln. Listen to that version and the recording by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, and see which you like better.

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Filed under Alex Gaby, Elijah Ellis, Fred Vargas, Ken Bruen, Michael Connelly

Standing on My Own Two Feet*

One of the writing projects I’m working on right now is a standalone that features one of the characters from my second Joel Williams novel, B-Very Flat. It’s a bit of a risk. After all, it’s one thing for a character to appear – even to have an important role – in a novel. It’s quite another for that character to feature in the lead role.

And yet, there are cases where it’s done successfully. And sometimes, that character has enough backstory, personality, and so on to make a novel (or even a new series) interesting. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

K.B. Owen’s historical (end of the 19th Century) series (which begins with Dangerous and Unseemly) features Concordia Wells, who teaches at Hartford Women’s College. It’s not so much that she’s overly eager to investigate and solve crimes. And in her world, ‘proper’ ladies do not interest themselves in something as sordid as murder. But she is curious, and she does want to see justice done. So, she gets drawn into mysteries. One of the characters we meet in that series is Penelope Hamilton Wynch, a former operative for Pinkerton’s. She serves as a mentor for Concordia, but she doesn’t ‘star’ in that series. Still, she’s an interesting character in her own right. So, Owen decided to give Penelope her own series. That series, which begins with Never Sleep, starts some thirty years before the Concordia Wells series. It tells the story of Penelope’s work with Pinkerton’s and details some of her cases.

Henning Mankell is perhaps best known for his series featuring Ystad police detective Kurt Wallander. Fans of that series will know that Wallander has a daughter, Linda, with whom he has a complicated relationship. As the series goes on, she begins to come into her own as a character. In fact, Mankell planned a three-novel series in which she was to be the protagonist. The first novel, Before the Frost, was published in 2002. But, tragically, Johanna Sällström, who took the role of Linda Wallander in the Swedish television series, died in 2007, probably by suicide. Her death had a real impact on Mankell, and he never finished the trilogy. It would have been interesting to see Linda’s character develop over time if he had.

Michael Connelly took a very interesting approach to giving a character a ‘spinoff’ series. Fans will know that Connelly’s Harry Bosch is a homicide detective for the L.A.P.D. He is the son of Marjorie Lowe, who was a prostitute, and prominent attorney J. Michael ‘Mickey’ Haller. Bosch never met his father, and his mother was murdered when he was a boy. So, he grew up mostly in a children’s home. In The Black Ice, Connelly shares a flashback in which Bosch discovers who his father is, and learns that he is dying. He decides to pay his father a visit, and, later attends his funeral. Bosch also learns that he has a half brother several years younger:
 

‘The half brother was now a top defense attorney and Harry was a cop. There was a strange congruence to that that Bosch found acceptable. They had never spoken and probably never would.’
 

That half brother turns out to be Mickey Haller, whom we later meet in The Lincoln Lawyer. He has his own backstory, including two ex-wives, a daughter, and his own history with his father. Since The Lincoln Lawyer, Haller has appeared in eight other Connelly novels, and ‘starred’ in five of them. He’s certainly become very much his own character, and fans will tell you that he carries that series quite well.

Tana French has also taken an interesting approach to giving some of her characters their own stories. Her Dublin Murder Squad series includes (thus far) six novels. The first two feature Cassie Maddox (although In the Woods really ‘stars’ Rob Ryan). In the second, The Likeness, we’re introduced to Frank Mackey, who is the main protagonist in the next novel, Faithful Place. That sort of shifting of main characters happens in the other novels, too. In real life, police detectives do move in and out of assignments. They join and leave squads, and so on. It makes sense that that would happen in this series, too, and that’s how French has chosen to write it.

And then there’s Kathy Reichs’ Temperance ‘Tempe’ Brennan. She’s a forensic anthropologist who’s moved from North Carolina to Montréal, where she’s called in when the bodies of murder victims can’t easily be identified. Fans will tell you that, along with her professional work, Brennan also has family issues that sometimes come up. And one of those family members is her grand-niece, Tory. Tory doesn’t really play a role in this series, but she does in another series that Reichs has written with her son, Benjamin. That four-book YA series, called the Virals series, tells the story of a group of young people who live in South Carolina. The novels have elements of the speculative (the young people, for instance, acquire special powers through a mysterious infection they get in the first novel). The focus, though, is on the mysteries that they solve.

There are all sorts of ways in which a character in one novel or series can end as the main character in another. It is a bit tricky to do that, as that character has to be strong enough to take the lead. When it works, though, it can make for an interesting new direction for an author.

ps. The picture shows just how well spin-offs can work on television…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jean Beauvoir.

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Filed under Henning Mankell, K.B. Owen, Kathy Reichs, Michael Connelly, Tana French

You Know the People Were Quite Pleased ‘Cause the Outlaw Had Been Seized*

As this is posted, it’s 137 years since Australian bushranger Ned Kelly was captured. Later that year, he was hanged. His exploits became the stuff of legend; in fact, some of Australia’s highest awards for crime fiction are called the Ned Kelly Awards – the ‘Neddies.’

That dramatic sort of confrontation and capture certainly makes the news in real life. And it can add suspense and tension to a crime novel, too. Of course, some stories don’t lend themselves well to this sort of drama, and are better off with a lower-key unmasking of the killer. But when it suits the story, that sort of confrontation can add much to a crime story.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate a strange case brought to them by pawnbroker Jabez Wilson. Through an unusual series of events, he was offered a job that promised easy money. All he had to do to get paid was copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Then, the job abruptly ended. Now, Wilson wants to know what was really going on with this job. Holmes takes the case, and he and Watson begin to investigate. What they find is that this strange job is connected to a gang of robbers who want to tunnel into a bank. The confrontation between the ‘good guys’ and the robbers adds tension to this story.

In Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski, Scotland Yard’s Henry Tibbett and his wife, Emmy, take a skiing trip to the small town of Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. They’ll be staying at the Bella Vista Hotel, which caters to such holidays. One day, one of the other hotel guests, Fritz Hauser, is shot, and his body discovered on the downward-facing ski lift that runs between the hotel and the village below. Capitano Spezzi and his team begin to investigate. And, once he finds out that Tibbett is with Scotland Yard, the two men slowly begin to work together. They find that there are plenty of suspects among the hotel guests. Hauser was involved in smuggling, blackmail, and other dirty business, and no-one mourns his loss. Bit by bit, Tibbett and Spezzi find out who the killer is. And there’s a dramatic scene – a ski chase – when the killer is unmasked. That confrontation adds to the tension in the novel.

Michael Connelly uses such tension in several of his stories. For instance, in The Black Ice, LAPD detective Harry Bosch happens to hear of the suicide of fellow copper Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore. He goes to the scene of the suicide, and it’s not long before he notices a few things that aren’t consistent with suicide. The official word on the case is that Moore had ‘gone dirty’ and then committed suicide. But Bosch isn’t so sure of that. He persists, as is his way, and discovers that this death is not what it seems. The trail leads to a dangerous Mexican drugs gang, and to Moore’s background. Towards the end of the novel, there’s a dramatic showdown between the Bosch and some allies he’s made, and some of the ‘bad guys’ in the novel, and it adds a great deal to the suspense of the story.

Meg Gardiner’s China Lake is a thriller, so you’d expect that it would include a dramatic confrontation. And it does. In the novel, we are introduced to science fiction author and legal researcher Evan Delaney. She’s at the funeral of an AIDS activist friend one day, when the mourners are accosted by a fanatic religious group called the Remnant. That’s when Delaney learns that her ex-sister-in-law, Tabitha, has joined the group. Worse, Tabitha’s made it clear that she wants custody of her six-year-old son, Luke, who’s been in the care of his father, Delaney’s brother, Brian. And the Remnant is willing to take all sorts of measures to get Luke away from Brian. They engage in vandalism, harassment, and more. Then, Pastor Pete, the leader of the Remnant, is found murdered in Brian’s home, with Brian being the chief suspect. Now, Delaney has to clear her brother’s name, try to keep Luke safe, and try to convince the police that the Remnant are much more dangerous people than is known. In the end, there’s a quite a confrontation…

And then there’s Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy, in which we meet Copenhagen detective Carl Mørck. In the novel, he’s just getting back to work after a line-of-duty incident in which he was badly injured. For several reasons, he’s put in charge of a new department – Department Q – which is dedicated to those cases ‘of special interest.’ In this case, that means cold cases. He’s given an assistant, Hafez al-Assad, but very few other resources. Still, he and Assad begin their duties. Their first case of interest is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Linggaard. At the time she went missing, it was believed that she’d fallen overboard in a tragic ferry accident. But little pieces of evidence suggest otherwise, so Mørck and Assad look into the matter. And in the end, they find out the truth. There’s a dramatic confrontation in the novel between the police and a perpetrator that adds quite a lot of tension to the last bit of the novel.

And that’s the thing about those confrontations and captures. When they’re done well, they can add a lot of suspense to a novel, even if it’s not a thriller. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s Smackwater Jack.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Meg Gardiner, Michael Connelly, Patricia Moyes