Category Archives: Michael Connelly

I’m Free*

Click to hear this blog post!

As this is posted, it would have been Louis Braille’s 210th birthday. His system of reading and writing is still used today, and not just for books. If you’ve recently been to a cash machine or even used a public restroom, you may very well find the raised-dot system that Braille invented.

There are also, of course, thousands of books printed with the braille system. And that includes some modern crime fiction. I’ve seen titles by Lisa Gardner, Michael Connelly, Alex Gray, and others. The Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy is available, too, in braille.

Braille arguably opened up the world of books and literacy to those with blindness. But, since that time, there’ve been a number of technological advances that have made it easier for those with blindness and limited vision to experience books.

One of those advances has been recorded books. It used to be that book recordings were done almost exclusively to provide access to those with blindness. But today, millions of people listen to books, rather than read them. And with modern technology, there’s no need for the clumsiness of recording on a physical tape or disc, and then playing it back. An audio book is an awfully convenient way to experience a story, when you think about it. Digital recordings can go with you on a walk or commute, and it’s easy to download them from the library or estore. What’s more, an audio book allows for an extra layer of involvement with a story, as you listen to the way the narrator (or narrators) interpret the characters and dialogue. And, after all, the very first storytelling was oral; it’s easy to see why that format still captures our imaginations.  It’s still the way that many cultures pass stories along from one generation to the next, and from one group to the next.

Not everyone with vision impairment needs the total support that braille and recorded books provide. Some people do have some vision. Others’ vision changes as – ahem – the years go by. Today’s technology allows those people to enjoy books, too. For instance, one of the features available in most e-readers is a choice of font. An adjustment or two, and it’s possible to read using a very large font if that’s what you want or need. That option’s convenient even if you don’t have vision impairment, but do have some eyestrain. And just about all of today’s computers and smartphones allow you to easily adjust the font of what you’re reading. You can often change the background, too, so that the contrast between print and background is greater, making it easier to read.

For many people, there’s just no substitute for a paper book that you can actually hold. For those who want a paper book, but need some extra vision assistance, there are large print books. That larger size print can make all the difference for those who can still read, but whose vision is a little limited. If I may share a personal example, I’ve heard from several people that they liked the fact that my Joel Wiliams novel Past Tense was printed with slightly larger font and more space between lines. I hadn’t deliberately arranged for that, but it was interesting to find that that makes a difference to readers.

These are only a few of today’s options for those with blindness or limited vision, or for those with eyestrain. It’s admittedly not as easy to find the title you want, and it can take longer to experience a book. But it’s fascinating to see how access to books and stories has become much more easily available to a wider range of people.

It used to be that those with blindness and vision impairment had to rely on someone else to read aloud, write letters, and so on. And there’s lots of crime fiction that depicts that. For instance, Millicent Pebmarsh, whom we meet in The Clocks, is blind. She gets about well enough, but her horizons are limited in many ways. When the body of an unknown man is found in her home, she’s not aware of it at first. But, soon enough, she’s drawn into the mystery of how he got there and who killed him. Also drawn into the mystery is Sheila Webb, who works for a secretarial agency and who got a call requesting that she go to Miss Pebmarsh’s home to do some writing for her. That aspect of the novel is an interesting look at the way writing was accomplished in the days before modern technology.

Today, those with blindness and limited vision have more access to books and literacy than they did. In part, that’s because of advances in modern technology. But a lot of it started when Louis Braille created his system of reading and writing. What about you? Whether or not you need to do so, do you use audio books or larger font? If you’re a writer, what alternative options do you choose for making your work available?

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of song by the Who.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alex Gray, Lisa Gardner, Michael Connelly, Stieg Larsson

In Another Cameo Role*

We all have our lists of fictional sleuths we love, and it’s great when they take the lead in a novel. After all, we often enjoy crime novels because a particular sleuth is the main character.

Sometimes, though, it’s interesting to read a novel in which a main sleuth only has a cameo role. This lets the author introduce other characters and plot points. Authors can even use cameo appearances to start new series. And it gives readers some variety, too.

Agatha Christie uses a cameo appearance in Murder is Easy (AKA Easy to Kill). The sleuth/protagonist in that novel is Luke Fitzwilliam, who’s on his way to London on a train when he gets into a conversation with Lavinia Pinkerton. She tells him that there’s a murderer loose in her village, and lists for him the victims. She also says that Dr. John Humbleby will be murdered next. The following day, Fitzwilliam learns that Miss Pinkerton herself has died, and so has Dr. Humbleby. Fitzwilliam can’t let this go, so he travels to the village of Wychwood under Ashe. As the story moves on, we learn the truth about these deaths, and how and why they are connected. Fitzwilliam is the main character/sleuth. At the same time, though, there’s an official police investigation that’s carried out by Superintendent Battle. Christie fans will know that he’s appeared in The Seven Dials Mystery and Cards on the Table. In this novel, though, he doesn’t play a main role; he just ‘stops in.’ Christie’s done that with other characters, too.

Peter Temple’s Truth features Inspector Stephen Villani, who heads the Victoria Police Homicide Squad. In the novel, Villani and his investigate several murders, including the death of a teenage sex worker, and the murders of three drug dealers whose bodies are discovered in a warehouse. The team is also facing the terrible reality of severe bush fires that threaten Melbourne. And Villani’s got his own personal problems as well. Villani is the sleuth and protagonist in this novel. But another Temple protagonist, Jack Irish, has a small cameo role, too. Temple fans will know that, like Villani, Irish lives in Melbourne, where he’s a PI and sometimes-lawyer. So, it’s no surprise that he would happen to be in a pub that Villani visits. Irish has no part in the investigation in Truth, but he does stop in.

There’s a really interesting case of a cameo appearance in Robert Crais’ The Last Detective, and in Michael Connelly’s Lost Light. In The Last Detective, Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole agrees to look after ten-year-old Ben, the son of his current love interest Lucy Chenier, while she’s away on business. Then, Ben is abducted, and Cole tries frantically to get the boy back. As you can imagine, the LAPD gets involved, and Cole works with several of them. Here’s what he says about one of the cops he encounters:
 

‘A few years ago, his house had been damaged in the big earthquake. I didn’t know him then or that he was with LAPD, but not long after I jogged past while he was clearing debris and saw that he had a small rat tattooed on his shoulder. The tat marked him as a tunnel rat in Vietnam.’
 

This LAPD detective isn’t named in Crais’ story, but any fan of Michael Connelly’s will know that Crais is referring to Harry Bosch. Bosch plays no role in the investigation in this novel, but he does ‘stop in.’

Connelly reciprocated in Lost Light. In that novel, Harry Bosch re-opens the investigation into the murder of Angella Barton, whose body was found in the vestibule of her apartment building. At the time, she was working as a production assistant on a Hollywood film set. And it turns out that her murder is related to a US$2 million robbery from the set of a film that Barton’s employer was making. Bosch wasn’t officially assigned to this case, although he worked a bit on it. So, when he finds out that it was never solved, he gets interested enough to look into it again. At one point, Bosch has this encounter:
 

‘I saw a vintage yellow Corvette waiting at the light across from me. I knew the driver, sort of. Every now and then I’d see him jogging or driving the ‘vette past my house. And I’d seen and spoken to him at the police station on occasion, too. He was a private eye who lived on the other side of the ridge from me. I put my arm out the window and gave him the sweeping palm-down salute. He did likewise back to me. Smooth sailing, my brother. I was going to need it.’
 

Crais fans will know that Bosch’s encounter is with Elvis Cole, although Cole is not named in the novel. Nor does he play any role in the investigation. It’s a way that both authors had of saluting each other and acknowledging their friendship.

And then there’s Crime Scene, which Jonathan Kellerman wrote with his son, Jesse. Clay Edison is a deputy with the Alameda County (California) Coroner’s Bureau. In that role, he examines the body of Walter Rinnert, who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase. On the surface, it looks as though heart trouble and too much to drink were a lethal combination. But the victim’s daughter, Tatiana, insists that he was murdered. She wants Edison to look into the case further, and he agrees. It turns out that there is much more to this case than it seems. And part of the information Edison gets comes from psychologist Alex Delaware, who fans will know is Jonathan Keller’s main sleuth. He’s not really the protagonist in this novel; Edison is. But he does play a role.

There are other authors, too, who’ve given their sleuths cameo roles. That strategy can give an author flexibility and can welcome fans to a new fictional sleuth. It can be a fun ‘inside joke,’ too. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock, for instance, will know of his habit of playing a cameo role in his films. He was especially challenged in Lifeboat, in which there is a very limited number of characters, all in a confined space. He solved the problem by appearing on a newspaper advertisement! Thanks, The Hitchcock Zone, for the photograph!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Don’t Do it to Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Jesse Kellerman, Jonathan Kellerman, Michael Connelly, Peter Temple, Robert Crais

Put Me In a Special School*

Some young people don’t benefit from the traditional, ‘regular’ school experience. For any number of reasons, they struggle, they get into trouble, and so on. Most people don’t want to see these students end up in the juvenile justice system or worse. So, for many years, there’s been an interest in, and sometimes reliance on, what used to be called ‘reform school.’

This sort of alternative education goes by different names in different places.  And such schools take different forms. But the basic principle is similar. Young people go to these schools (they’re often residential) as a way to help them focus and learn to make better choices, and so, stay out of prison. Ideally, they also get some education, so that they can earn a living. Alternative education isn’t always successful, but it has a long history.

It’s interesting, too, to see how it plays a role in crime fiction. That’s not surprising, considering that the context is a group of disparate young people who already have their own problems and now have to live and learn together. If you add in their teachers, who have their own lives, it’s a very effective sort of context for a crime story.

Agatha Christie’s They Do it With Mirrors (AKA Murder With Mirrors), for instance, takes place mostly at Stonygates, a former private Victorian home which now houses a school for delinquent boys. It’s run by Carrie Louise Serrecold and her husband, Lewis, and both are quite devoted to the cause. Carrie’s sister, Ruth Van Rydock, is concerned, though, because she believes someone is trying to kill Carrie.  She tells her old school friend, Miss Marple, about her worries, and Miss Marple gets concerned, too; Carrie Louise was also one of her school friends. So, she visits Stonygates to see for herself what’s going on. While she’s there, another visitor arrives: Christian Gulbrandsen, who is a trustee of the foundation that funds the school. One evening, he is shot. The police are called in, of course, and they investigate. Miss Marple learns, though, that this case is not as straightforward as it seems on the surface.

In Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar, PI Lew Archer is hired by Dr. Sponti, head of Laguna Perdida, which is a boarding school for troubled teens. Sponti’s worried because one of the students, seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman, has gone missing. He doesn’t want to upset Tom’s wealthy parents, and he’d rather not call in the police. So, he asks Archer to try to find the boy as quickly and quietly as possible and return him to the school. Archer and Sponti are discussing the matter when Tom’s father, Ralph Hillman, arrives at his office. Hillman says that Tom has been kidnapped, and that his abductors are demanding ransom. Archer returns to the Hillman home, hoping that he can find out as much as possible about the boy and trace his whereabouts. Almost immediately, Archer gets the feeling that things are not what they seem. For one thing, Ralph and Elaine Hillman are unusually reticent about Tom’s past, and about where he might be. For another, there’s some evidence that Tom might have joined his abductors of his own free will. Despite the Hillmans’ unwillingness to help, Archer pursues the case. In the end, he finds out the truth about Tom, his parents, and the people who took him.

In Margaret Millar’s Mermaid, we are introduced to twenty-two-year-old Cleo Jaspar. She is visiting a law office one day when she meets Tom Aragon, one of the attorneys who works there. She asks to speak to him, and, when he agrees, she says that she wants to know what her rights are. It’s clear from their short conversation that Cleo has special needs, although she is high-functioning. As the two continue to talk, she tells Aragon that her life is too limited, and she never gets the chance to do what she wants to do, although she’s of legal age. There’s not much Aragon can do for her, though, and Cleo soon takes her leave. Then, she goes missing. Her much-older brother, Hilton, traces her movements to Aragon’s office, and asks him to find Cleo and persuade her to come back. Aragon agrees and starts asking questions. The trail leads to Holbrook Hall, the special school for troubled students that Cleo attends. He talks to several of the students there, and, bit by bit, learns that the teacher who knew Cleo best was Roger Lennard. But, when he gets to Lennard’s home, he finds that Lennard is dead – a victim of suicide. Aragon is certain that this suicide and Cleo’s disappearance are linked, and he pursues the case. In the end, he finds out the truth, but not in time to prevent more murder.

And then there’s Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. Fans of this series know that he had a very difficult childhood. Bosch is the son of a prominent Los Angeles-area attorney and a prostitute. He lived with his mother, but, after she was murdered, he spent years in foster homes and reform schools. It wasn’t until he joined the armed forces, and, later, the police, that he chose a more productive lifestyle. And his past still impacts him.

I explore alternative schools, myself, in Downfall. In that novel, former police detective-turned professor Joel Williams works with two colleagues on a piece of research into such schools. In one program they study, they learn about a two-year-old death that was put down to accident…but wasn’t. You can read more about Downfall here.

Reform schools, alternative schools, whatever they are called, can be viable options for young people who don’t benefit from ‘regular’ schools. They aren’t always the right solution, and they’re not perfect. But they are interesting contexts for crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Weezer’s Troublemaker.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Margaret Millar, Michael Connelly, Ross Macdonald

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