Category Archives: Michael Connelly

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

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.

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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.

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