Category Archives: Michael Connelly

And I’m a Little Bit Older Now*

One of the important decisions that authors of series need to make is whether, and how quickly, their main characters will age. There are some good reasons not to have characters age. But there are also some strong arguments for letting characters age in more or less real time.

For one thing, we all age. So, we can identify with main characters who get older – it’s realistic. For another thing, as we age, different things happen in our lives (from beginning of career, through height of career, through retirement; from newlyweds, through raising children, through having grandchildren). This gives the author a number of possibilities for adding plot points, characters, and so on.

Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford age in real time, and that makes for several possibilities for plots. In The Secret Adversary and in the Partners in Crime collection, they are young, energetic, and adventurous. And that’s part of what draws them into the espionage business. In N or M? and By the Pricking of My Thumbs, they’re middle-aged. They’re more experienced, their children have grown, and they go about their cases differently. In Postern of Fate, they’ve retired. They’re older, with grandchildren, and take a different attitude towards life to what they did as a young couple. Fans of this series like the fact that they can see how the Beresfords change over time as they age. It adds appeal to their characters.

That’s arguably also true of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. When we first meet her, in Deadly Appearances, she’s middle-aged, the mother of a university-bound daughter and two younger sons. She’s moving to the top of her career as an academician and political scientist, and still coping with the death of her husband, Ian. As the series goes on, Joanne ages, as we all do, in real time. Her children grow, leave home, and make their own lives. She adopts another child, who also grows up and gets ready to leave home. She marries again, moves into retirement, and learns the joys of grandparenting. Other things happen in her home life, too, and they all fit in with what happens as people move in life and get older. That natural aging process makes Joanne an accessible, realistic character; her life reflects what happens to real people.

Tony Hillerman’s Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn ages, too, over the course of the novels that feature him. In the early novels, such as The Blessing Way, Leaphorn is a young man. He’s active, he has stamina, and so on. And the cases he investigates fit with that sort of a detective. As the series moves on, Leaphorn ages. As he does, he rises a bit in the ranks of the Navajo Tribal Police (now the Navajo Nation Police). He and his wife, Emmy, approach middle age together, and later, he copes with her death. In the later novels, Leaphorn has retired from active duty, but still occasionally lends his expertise. It’s an interesting transition through the course of the novels, and it makes his character believable.

Michael Connelly has made more or less the same decision about his main character, Harry Bosch. As the series begins, he’s about forty, and a veteran with the LAPD. He’s had relationships, but he’s not married or particularly tied to one person. As the series goes on, he goes through several changes professionally. He also marries and is later divorced. He also becomes a father. In more recent novels, he sees his daughter, Maddie, grow up and begin to think about becoming a police officer like her father. Although Connelly doesn’t place a big emphasis on Bosch’s age, he does address issues such as retirement age. You’re absolutely right, fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus.

There are also authors such as Donna Leon and Ruth Rendell, whose main characters have aged over time, but perhaps not as quickly as real time. Leon’s Guido Brunetti and Rendell’s Reg Wexford are both married fathers of young-ish children at the start of their respective series (‘though Wexford’s daughters are a bit older – in their teens). As both series go on, their children get older (Wexford becomes a grandfather). They begin to face the issues that people face as they get towards middle age, too. And, although, neither author places a great deal of emphasis on this ageing process, it’s going on in the background.

On the one hand, having characters age in real time can be limiting for an author. On the other, it’s a very natural process, so readers can identify with the characters. And it allows the author to work in different sorts of characters and plots. Do you prefer to see your characters age in real time? If you’re a writer, what choices have you made about your main character’s ageing process? Why?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s As I Come of Age.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman

Deadlines and Commitments*

Deadlines are a fact of life for most of us. For students, assignments have to be handed in on time. Journalists and other writers have deadlines for publication, and TV professionals have production deadlines, especially if they’re in the news business. Lawyers must have their cases ready by the hearing or trial date; a lot of judges don’t like granting continuances. And the list goes on.

In real life, deadlines can cause anxiety. They can also spur on the procrastinator. Either way, they can add a layer of tension and suspense to a crime novel. And they are realistic, as just about all of us have to cope with them at one point or another. There are many examples of how deadlines work in the genre; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot receives an odd sort of deadline. He gets a cryptic note warning him of something that’s going to take place in the town of Andover. The writer of the note even goes so far as to give the date. Sure enough, on the appointed day, Alice Ascher, who owns a small newsagent shop, is murdered. At first, the police believe her estranged husband, Franz Ascher, is responsible. But he claims he is innocent, and Poirot is inclined to believe him. Then, Poirot gets another warning note, this time directing him to Bexhill-on-Sea. The body of twenty-three-year-old Betty Barnard is found on the beach, and it’s shown that she was killed on the day specified in the note. It takes two more deaths before Poirot and the police work out who the killer is, and what the motive is. In the meantime, especially for the fourth death, everyone’s scrambling to get ready before the day mentioned in the notes, so there’s a great deal of time pressure. It’s not a main point of the story, but that tension adds to the suspense.

In Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice, LAPD detective Harry Bosch goes to the scene of what looks like a suicide. The body of fellow copper Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore has been found in a seedy motel, and the story is that he committed suicide because he’d ‘gone dirty.’ Little things about the scene suggest that Moore might have been murdered, so Bosch decides to look into the matter. But it’s soon made clear to him that the Powers That Be want this case to be left alone. In fact, Bosch is distanced from the investigation, and given eight other cases to close – cases left unsolved because another officer is on a stress-related leave of absence. Bosch is also given an impossible deadline – one week – to finish the job. It’s hoped that giving him a heavy workload will keep Bosch from asking too many questions about the Moore case. It doesn’t work. Bosch follows up leads and pursues the case, and, in the end, finds out the truth about Calexico Moore.

Anyone who’s ever been in academia can tell you that deadlines are a part of life in that world.  For instance, in Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic, we are introduced to Cassandra James, who becomes Acting Head of the English Literature Department at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge. Her predecessor, Margaret Joplin, has been murdered, and, since James found the body and, of course, knew the victim, she wants to find out who was responsible for the killing. Until arrangements can be made, someone needs to undertake the duties of Head of Department, and that person is James. One of those tasks is to prepare for the next Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The department’s funding depends heavily on how successful it is at passing that exercise, so James must get everyone’s research, including her own, updated and as polished as it can be. She’s on a deadline, too, as the RAE is already in the works. So, besides finding out who killed Joplin, she’s under pressure to gather everyone’s scholarship. That deadline stress adds tension to the story.

If you’re a writer, you know all about deadlines. That’s especially true in journalism, but it’s true of other sorts of writing as well. And there are plenty of journalist protagonists who have to meet deadlines. One is James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, who is featured in Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series. After inheriting a fortune from a friend of his mother’s, Qwill moved to the small town of Pickax, in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ Now, he writes a twice-weekly column for the Moose County Something. Qwill is somewhat of a celebrity, but that doesn’t excuse him from having to meet deadlines. In more than one scene in this series, Qwill rushes to the newspaper office to turn in his copy in time (most of the novels were written before today’s Internet made submitting copy a matter of a few keystrokes).

And then there’s Brad Parks’ Carter Ross. He’s a reporter for the Newark, New Jersey Eagle-Examiner. Because it’s a daily paper, there’s a lot of pressure to meet publication deadlines. And Ross certainly feels that pressure. Even his cat’s named Deadline. In Faces of the Gone, for instance, he’s working on a story about four bodies that were found in a vacant lot. The first police theory is that one of the victims had held up a local bar, and the bar’s owner had the thief and accomplices murdered. But Ross soon discovers that that’s probably not true. In one plot thread, his boss wants him to go with the police account and do a background story on the bar based on that assumption. And he gives Ross a short deadline. Ross is reluctant, because he doesn’t want to put in print something that’s not true, so he starts by procrastinating. It takes a lot of convincing to get his boss to agree to a different approach, and it’s interesting to see how the pressure to put out a newspaper plays a role in the story.

And that’s the thing. Newspapers have to be published. Grades have to be given. Trial dates have to be set. And all of that means deadlines. We may not always like them, but they add an interesting layer of suspense to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Against the Wind.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brad Parks, Christine Poulson, Lilian Jackson Braun, Michael Connelly

Everything Has Got a Little Price*

Witnesses and suspects don’t always want to give police information they may have. There are many reasons for that – more than there is space for in this one post. So, I’ll just focus on one: a witness or suspect may want to get something out of any agreement to give information. In other words, information is a commodity to be traded.

Detectives (well, at least fictional ones) make all sorts of arrangements with sources of information. Some are formal, as in cases where a suspect makes a plea bargain to give information in order to get a reduced sentence. A lot, though, are less formal (e.g. ‘You know, I’d really love a beer right about now.’) And we see them all through crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker. On the surface of it, there seems no reason for anyone to kill her, so this isn’t going to be an easy case. As a part of the investigation, Poirot visits the Tucker family, where he speaks with her parents. As he’s leaving the house, he has a conversation with Marlene’s younger sister, Marilyn. Among other things, she tells Poirot that Marlene had extra money to buy things she wanted. Here’s what happens next:
 

“Tell me, how did Marlene get the money to buy these things?’
Marilyn looked with close attention at a drainpipe.
‘Dunno,’ she muttered.
‘I think you do know,’ said Poirot.
Shamelessly he drew out a half-crown from his pocket and added another half-crown to it.
‘I believe,’ he said, ‘there is a new, very attractive shade of lipstick called ‘Carmine Kiss.'”
‘Sounds smashing,’ said Marilyn, her hand advanced towards the five shillings.’
 

With this ‘agreement’ made, Marilyn tells Poirot what she knows about Marlene’s source of money, and it helps in solving this case.

In Michael Connelly’s Echo Park, Raynard Waits is arrested for two brutal murders. There’s no question that he’s guilty, as he was caught with the grisly evidence of what he’d done. Now, he’s in prison facing execution. He offers to trade the police information on other cases in exchange for his sentence being commuted to life in prison. One of those cases is the disappearance of Marie Gesto, who walked out of a Hollywood supermarket one day, and never made it back home. LAPD detective Harry Bosch investigated the Gesto case but was never able to get the evidence he needed to go after the right suspect. He’s always felt guilty about the fact that he didn’t solve the case, so he decides to work with Waits.

In Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lamb, the FBI is looking for a killer they’ve nicknamed ‘Buffalo Bill,’ and they think they have a way to find him. His former psychiatrist is Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and he could provide very helpful information. But Lecter is imprisoned in the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane. And he’s there for very good reasons. FBI trainee Clarice Starling is chosen to go to the hospital and try to get Lecter to help with the investigation. She’s by no means universally accepted as the right choice, but she visits Lecter. He agrees to help the FBI, but he asks a high price. For everything he tells Starling, she must reveal a personal secret. It’s a risky psychological undertaking, and it doesn’t help matters that there’s a killer out there. But Starling goes through with the agreement. And the ‘cat and mouse’ game between her and Lecter adds to the tension in the novel.

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo features journalist Mikael Blomqvist. In one plot thread, he’s been successfully sued for libel by Swedish industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. With his magazine, Millennium, in danger of folding, Blomqvist needs financial support. Then, he gets a very tempting offer from Henrik Vanger, who’s also been very successful. Vanger offers to give Blomqvist information that will bring down Wennerström and put Millennium back on solid financial ground. In return for that information, he wants Blomqvist to solve the forty-year-old disappearance of his grand-niece, Harriet. It’s not going to be an easy task, since so much time has passed. And several people who might know something are unwilling to talk. But Blomqvist agrees to the deal, and he and his research assistant, Lisbeth Salander, look into the case.

And then there’s Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart. In it, we meet Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty, an ex-pat American who’s now living in Bangkok. He makes his living as a rough travel writer. But he’s also quite good at finding people, whether or not they want to be found. And that’s what Clarissa Ulrich hires him to do. She hasn’t heard from her Uncle Claus in several months, and she’s concerned about him. Rafferty agrees to look into the matter and starts to ask questions. The trail leads to an intimidating, enigmatic older woman named Madame Wing. She agrees to give Rafferty some of the information he needs. But this comes with a price. He must agree to do a job for her. Madame Wing claims that some valuable property has been stolen from her. She wants Rafferty to find that property, and to locate the man who stole it. Rafferty needs the information Madame Wing has, so he agrees. This adds another case to his burden, and a great deal more danger to his investigation.

Fictional detectives often need information that others might be unwilling to provide. And sometimes, they make all sorts of arrangements to get it. These are only a few examples. I know you’ll think of lots more.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Master of the House.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Michael Connelly, Stieg Larsson, Thomas Harris, Timothy Hallinan

But This is Where I Start*

Many people might like (or even prefer) to read a series in order. But there are plenty of good reasons one might not do that. For example, the first novel(s) in a series might be out of print. Or, might not be translated into a language a reader speaks. Or, a reader might have been gifted a book that falls later in a series. Or, a reader might try a later book because it’s conveniently available in a library, and the reader wants to sample the author before buying a book. There’s also the issue of geography and publishers’ decisions about where to make books available.

There are lots of other reasons, too, for which readers don’t follow a series in strict order. So, if an author wants to win (and keep) fans, it’s wise to be aware of this, and try to welcome readers wherever in a series they start.

One way to do that is not to include information later in a series that spoils an earlier novel. Much as I am a fan of Agatha Christie (and anyone who knows me, knows that’s true!), I must admit she’s done that a couple of times. I try to warn people, for instance, not to start their explorations of Christie with Dumb Witness or Cards on the Table. Both contain spoilers to other novels. Now, to be fair, Christie doesn’t specifically, say, refer to someone as a killer (e.g. ‘X, who killed Y.’). But at the same time, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to join the dots, especially if you happen to remember those two books later when you read the earlier ones. Avoiding spoilers can be a challenge if one writes story arcs. But it is worth the effort.

It’s also worth the effort to remind readers of the major characters’ backstories. For instance, fans of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee know that his boat, The Busted Flush got its name because he won the boat in a card game. Those who’ve followed the series don’t need the full-length version of that game. But new readers who start later in the series might not know anything about The Busted Flush’s history. MacDonald addresses this by mentioning the card game in later novels. But it’s said more or less in passing, without going into all of the details. In this way, new readers are told about it, but those who’ve followed the series aren’t told the same story again and again.

We see that in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourne Shreve series, too. She is an academician and political scientist (in later novels, she has retired from her university work). She’s also the mother of four children. The youngest, Taylor, is adopted, and Bowen tells the story of her adoption in Murder at the Mendel. The story is referred to in later novels, so that new readers can ‘meet’ Taylor properly and can understand some of the things that happen in those later novels. But Bowen doesn’t go into full details in each book. That series provides a balance between welcoming new readers, wherever they start a series, and keeping existing fans interested.

If I may say it, I’ve done a similar thing. In my first novel, Publish or Perish, my sleuth, Joel Williams, works with the police to solve the murder of a promising graduate student. At the end of the novel, Williams inherits the victim’s dog, Oscar. And Oscar makes appearances in my other Joel Williams novels, too. From time to time I mention that Williams adopted Oscar after the dog’s prior owner was killed. But I don’t go into the details about who the person was, how he was murdered, and so on.

Sometimes, it only takes a few words to welcome new readers. For instance, fans of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels and of his Mickey Haller novels will know that those two men are half-brothers. Their father was a prominent attorney, and they had different mothers. Later in life they meet, and occasionally work together. The Black Ice tells the story of how Bosch discovered his father’s identity, and about his meeting with his father, and a few other details. Later novels refer to the fact that Bosch and Haller are half-brothers, but Connelly doesn’t go into long descriptions in each novel about how the two men met, what their father was like, and so on. Fans already know that information, and new readers get enough background to engage themselves in the story and, perhaps, go back to an earlier novel if they wish.

 

Programming Note

All of this thinking about the structure of a series came about because of something that happened to me quite recently. If you’re kind enough to follow my ‘In The Spotlight’ series, you’ll know that I had planned to spotlight Paul Thomas’ Inside Dope tomorrow (Monday, 13 August). It’s the second of Thomas’ Tito Ikaha series, and it’s one that I didn’t have myself, so I ordered it (it’s not as easy to get as you’d think!). Without going into the details of it, it was hard to find the title, and it proved far more complicated to get than I thought it would. I didn’t receive it until far, far too late to go over it properly and spotlight it. But….I still wanted to share Paul Thomas’ work with you. So… I decided to spotlight Thomas’ Death on Demand, which I already had, instead. It’s the fourth in the series. My apologies in advance for any annoyance and/or inconvenience. Fortunately, Thomas welcomes new readers to his series wherever they start, so I suppose all’s well that ends well. But it just goes to show that there might be any number of reasons that a reader might start a series with a later novel. And readers appreciate it when the author welcomes them wherever they start.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, John D. MacDonald, Michael Connelly, Paul Thomas

And He’s Proud of His Scars and the Battles He’s Lost*

Most people go through at least some sadness in their lives – sometimes true sorrow. And some of what happens can leave a person with real psychological scars. It happens in fiction, too, which makes sense, since well-written fiction shows us ourselves.

The challenge, if you’re an author, is depicting a character who has such scars. On the one hand, psychological scars impact the way people interact and think. Not to acknowledge that is unrealistic. On the other hand, many readers don’t want their characters (especially their protagonists) to be so damaged that they languish at the bottom of a bottle or at the end of a needle. That might be all right for a very short time, but most people want their main characters to be functioning, if not always entirely functional. There are some crime-fictional characters who balance dealing with their scars with actually functioning in life, and they can make for interesting reading.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, for instance, we are introduced to the members of the Boynton family, who are on a tour of the Middle East. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is, as Hercule Poirot puts it, a mental sadist who has her family so cowed that not one member dares to cross her. Her cruelty is psychological, not really physical, and it’s had its impact on her three stepchildren and her daughter. On the second day of their trip to the ancient city of Petra, Mrs. Boynton dies of what turns out to be poison. Poirot is in the area, and Colonel Carbury persuades him to investigate. Each member of the victim’s family had a very good motive for murder, and so did some of the other characters associated with the family. As we learn about the family, we see the scars that Mrs. Boynton’s treatment has left. Those scars have certainly impacted each character, even those who aren’t what you’d call incapacitated.

In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts, Queen investigates the murders of two famous Hollywood stars, Blythe Stuart and John Royle. Part of his investigation involves looking into the victims’ backgrounds and histories to find out if something in their pasts has caught up with them. As a part of that process, he meets well-known gossip columnist Paula Paris. She’s ‘plugged in’ to every bit of talk in Hollywood, and her contacts find out whatever there is to know. Interestingly, Paris gets all of this information without ever leaving her home. She is, in fact, agoraphobic. There’s not really a clear reason given for her condition, but it certainly impacts her. That said, though, she doesn’t sit wringing her hands. Instead, she uses her network, and she writes a popular column. So, she’s got plenty of influence, and no financial worries. In this particular case, Queen helps her overcome the worst of her agoraphobia. And she proves to be quite helpful as he finds out the truth about the murders.

Fans of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch know that he’s had several psychologically scarring experiences. He spent a good deal of time in a children’s home and had to deal with the murder of his mother. Then, later in his life, he served in Vietnam. His experiences there were traumatic, too, as they are with nearly everyone who serves in war. All of this has meant that Bosch has some psychological wounds. They impact the way he sees his job, the way he interacts with others, and more. That said, though, they haven’t left him so dysfunctional that he can’t do his job. It’s true he’s had difficulty with personal relationships, and certainly with some of his work colleagues. Still, he hasn’t drowned at the bottom of a bottle, and he has a loving relationship with his daughter, Maddie.

In The Diggers Rest Hotel, Geoffrey McGeachin introduces readers to Charlie Berlin. It’s 1947, and Berlin has recently returned to his native Melbourne from service in World War II. He has what we would now call PTSD, and that’s not surprising, considering that he saw combat and served time as POW. Still, he’s trying to put his life back in order. In this novel, and the other two Berlin novels (Blackwattle Creek and St. Kilda Blues), we see how Berlin copes with his personal scars. On the one hand, he doesn’t ‘get over it.’ And it’s clear that he’s been permanently impacted by what he’s been through in life. On the other, he gets on with life. He marries, has children, and so on. It’s an interesting case of a character who does his best to cope with life, given everything.

Angela Marsons’ Detective Inspector (DI) Kim Stone also has her share of scars. When we first meet her in Silent Scream, we learn that she spent more than her share of time in the care system. That experience has left its mark on her. She’s prickly, sometimes very impatient, and not always good at picking up on others’ subtle cues and nuances. But she’s not hopelessly dysfunctional. She interacts professionally a lot of the time, she’s aware that she’s not easy to be with, and she does try to acknowledge it when she makes a mistake. As the series goes on, she does some growing, too. She never ‘gets over’ some of the things that have happened to her, but she learns to cope with life in a (mostly) productive way.

And then there’s Abir Mukherjee’s Captain Sam Wyndham. When this series begins, it’s 1919, and Wyndham has just arrived in Kolkata/Calcutta to take up his duties with the police. He suffers, as most soldiers do, with the after-effects of his wartime (WW I) service, and he’s grieving the loss of his wife, Sarah. He’s good at his job, and he is a functioning person. But the psychological scars are still there, and they’ve led to him using opium. His dependency doesn’t keep him from doing his job. Nor does it mean he has no relationships with anyone else, etc. But he has several hidden scars.

And that’s the case with a lot of major crime-fictional characters. The challenge is acknowledging the scars without them being so debilitating that the character can’t function. Striking that balance isn’t easy, but the result can be a character who’s realistic.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Prelude/Angry Young Man.

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Filed under Abir Mukherjee, Agatha Christie, Angela Marsons, Ellery Queen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Michael Connelly