Category Archives: Michael Connelly

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

Looking at Pictures on Facebook*

The EU and other groups have created several rules and policies that are intended to protect people’s privacy. And it is good for people to know who has what information about them, and how that information is used. But the fact is, plenty of us freely provide information about ourselves without perhaps being aware that that’s what we’re doing. Do you ever order anything online? Then some merchant has your address, records of what you buy, and so on. Do you post reviews on Yelp or other, similar sites? Then it’s easy to work out where you eat and stay, what sorts of products you buy, and more.

Let me, if I may, share one example. Not very long ago, my husband and I were in the market for a mattress. We did some online research and chose a few places to visit for price and feature comparisons. We made our selection and completed the purchase. The very next day, I started seeing several ads for mattresses at different online sites I visited. It’s no great secret that we made that purchase, but it did make me think about how easy it is to find out how many children someone has (and what they look like – just look at Facebook if you don’t believe me), where someone shops, where and when people travel, and lots more.

As you might expect, this issue of online privacy, and how much information we willingly share, comes up a lot in modern crime fiction. There are all sorts of plot lines that can come from the topic, too, if you think about it. Here are just a few of many examples out there.

In Alafair Burke’s 212, we are introduced to Megan Gunther, an undergraduate student at New York University (NYU). Like many young people, she’s ‘plugged in’ to social media, and has joined an online forum called Campus Juice. It’s a space where members post information about events, share informal reviews, and pass along gossip. One day, Megan finds to her horror that someone has posted her class schedule. As if that’s not enough, her personal schedule (e.g. when she goes to the gym, where and when she eats, and so on), are also posted. The post ends with this cryptic warning:
 

‘Megan Gunther, someone is watching.’
 

Megan hadn’t made a big secret of her schedule, but it’s unsettling to know that someone got that information and has made it public. When she is later found stabbed, NYPD detectives Ellie Hatcher and J.J. Rogan investigate. They find that her murder is actually connected to two other murders they’re investigating.

Michael Connelly’s The Fifth Witness features Lisa Trammel, who has been charged with murdering Mitchell Bondurant, the mortgage officer who was handling Trammel’s mortgage. Trammel had plenty of motive, too, as the bank was about to foreclose on her home. What’s more, she is an active member of FLAG, a citizen group that has been protesting banks’ foreclosure policies. Attorney Mickey Haller (one of Connelly’s protagonists) takes the Trammel case. He doesn’t believe she’s guilty of murder. If he’s going to win the case, though, he’s going to have to show how she might have been set up to seem guilty. He thinks he may have what he needs when discovers that Trammel had a Facebook page where she posted news about FLAG’s activities. One of the bank’s employees ‘friended’ Trammel, and so, had access to a lot of information about FLAG. It’s quite possible that that person could have been involved in setting her up. And the more Haller looks into what’s going on at the bank, the more people with motives he finds.

Herman Koch’s The Dinner is the story of two families: Paul and Claire Lohman; and Paul’s brother Serge, and his wife Babette. The two couples meet for dinner one evening at an ultra-exclusive Amsterdam restaurant. As the meal goes on, we learn more and more about these people as the proverbial layers get peeled away. There’s a great deal of dysfunction in both families, and we learn about that as the evening progresses. We also learn the reason the couples met. Both of them have fifteen-year-old sons; together, they committed a terrible crime. What’s more, it can’t be hushed up, because the crime was recorded, and one of the boys’ friends uploaded the recording to YouTube. Now, the two sets of parents have to work out what they’re going to do about the situation.

In Donna Malane’s My Brother’s Keeper, Wellingtono-based missing person expert Diane Rowe gets a new client. Former prison inmate Karen Mackie hires Rowe to find her fourteen-year-old daughter Sunny, who’s been living with her father Justin. Justin has legal custody of Sunny, but Karen doesn’t know where they are. Diane takes the case and begins the work of finding the girl. That part turns out to be fairly straightforward. Convincing Sunny to talk to her mother is going to be the real challenge. And, as Diane gets more involved in the case, it becomes clear that things are not what they seem, and that more is going on here than a mother who lost her way and now wants another chance. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoilers. But I can say that one plot thread involves some photographs that were meant to be private…but ended up on the Internet. It’s an example of how people can sometimes get information, photographs, and more, whether we want them to or not.

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? In that novel, Gerry and Yvonne Mulhern move from London to Dublin, so Gerry can take advantage of a lucrative job opportunity. With them, they bring their newborn daughter. Since Gerry’s not home much, it mostly falls to Yvonne to take care of the baby’s many needs. She’s overwhelmed as it is, and she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin. So, she doesn’t have a support network. Then, she discovers an online forum called Netmammy, a support group for new mothers. Yvonne finally finds the support and camaraderie she needs. Then, one of her online contacts goes ‘off the grid.’ Not long afterwards, the body of an unknown woman is discovered in an abandoned apartment. Could it be Yvonne’s friend? If so, what does that mean for Netmammy? Throughout the novel, we see how many very personal things people sometimes post quite willingly. And that plays its role in the story.

That’s the thing about online life. We want (and deserve) our privacy. At the same time, people often give up a lot of their personal information without even being aware that that’s what they’re doing. It’s a reality of this new information age.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michael Rosenberg’s (AKA Passenger) Facebook.

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Filed under Alafair Burke, Donna Malane, Herman Koch, Michael Connelly, Sinéad Crowley

Politics – the Art of the Possible*

Whenever groups of people work together, there’s the issue of what I’ll call politics (I don’t mean government politics here. That’s the subject for another post at some point). Who’s in charge? Who gets ahead? Who’s allied with whom? Most people say that they get sick of office politics. On the other hand, it’s wise to be able to get along with colleagues. It’s a delicate balance to strike.

Some people, though, learn to be masters of workplace politics. They’re the ones who move along quickly in their careers. We may resent them, and even decide not to trust them. But it’s hard not to notice their ability to manage their careers. And we certainly see those characters in crime fiction.

For example, James Ellroy’s LA Confidential introduces readers to Los Angeles police detective Edmund ‘Ed’ Exley. He is the son of the much-revered Preston Exley, whose dream it is for his son to get to the top of the LAPD. He gives Ed all sorts of advice, pulls the right proverbial strings, and so on. And Ed certainly learns to play the ‘politics game.’ The real action in the story begins on Christmas Day, 1951, when seven civilians are brutally attacked by the police. Two years later, there’s another tragedy. This time, it’s a late-night shooting at the Nite Owl Diner. Exley is involved in both of these situations, and he uses his political skills (and the prodding from his father) to manipulate matters so that he can move ahead in his career.

Fans of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels will know that Bosch runs up against Irvin Irving more than once in his career. Irving is a very politically astute member of the LAPD, who’s quite skilled at protecting himself and those in high positions on the force. He isn’t above squashing investigations if they might impact his image, or the images of those above him in the pecking order. And, more than once, he works to impede investigations that Bosch is conducting. As any Bosch fan can tell you, Harry Bosch follows the trail wherever it leads, and that doesn’t always sit well with Irving’s political ambitions. The two butt heads more than once in the course of the series.

Martin Edwards’ Lake District mysteries feature Hannah Scarlett, who heads up the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. Her Assistant Chief Constable (ACC), Lauren Self, is extremely politically conscious and astute. She takes every opportunity she can to advance her career; and, while she’s not deliberately malicious, she has no intentions of letting anything get in the way of her success. On the one hand, Scarlett has much less interest in ‘office politics.’ She wants to get the job done. Sometimes that putts her at odds with her boss. On the other hand, she can’t help but notice, and, in a way, respect the way Self manages the political realities of the job.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti works at the Venice questura. He wants to see crimes solved, and justice done. But he’s often hampered by his boss, vice-questore Giuseppe Patta. Patta’s main focus is his own career. So, he toadies to those with money and power. If an investigation happens to lead to someone with influence, or someone who could help Patta’s career, he’s not above squashing the investigation. He’s been known to remove Brunetti from cases, too. Fortunately, Patta’s assistant, Signorina Elettra Zorzi, likes Brunetti and generally supports what he’s doing. She’s quite good at manipulating her boss, too, so she and Brunetti find ways to get things done.

It’s not just police forces where we see these politically astute characters. Many other groups and businesses include them. For example, in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, we are introduced to Albert Fernandez. He’s a Crown Prosecutor who lives and works in Toronto. Frenandez wants to move ahead in his career, and he does a lot to make that happen. He’s the first in the office in the morning, and the last to leave. He calculates the political risks of what he does, who he spends time with, and so on. It’s not that he’s soulless, but he’s intent on career success, and he has a sense of what that takes. He gets a chance at a real ‘feather in the cap’ when famous broadcaster Kevin Brace is arrested for killing his common-law wife, Katherine Thorn. It ought to be an easy case. Brace told a witness that he killed her. And he hasn’t said anything since to defend himself (actually, he hasn’t spoken since. He communicates with his own lawyer, Nancy Parish via handwritten notes). Fernandez isn’t going to find this case as easy a win as he thinks, though. Parish is no slouch, and there’s more to this case than it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Megan Abbott’s Dare Me. That novel takes place mostly within the context of a high school cheerleading team. Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy are members of their high school’s cheerleading squad, and undisputed ‘queen bees’ of their school’s social order. They know all about the politics of ‘making it’ in high school, and they’ve done well. Beth, in particular, is at the top of the high school social ladder. Then, Collette French is hired to coach the cheerleading squad. Right from the beginning, French changes the social order. The cheerleading squad becomes an elite social group, and Addy is welcomed into the ‘inner circle.’ Beth, though, is not. Then, there’s a suicide (or was it?). It’s interesting to see how the politics of high school, and those who play that game well, are important in this novel.

There are plenty of other fictional examples of people who are astute at ‘office politics.’ Such characters have important social survival skills; even as we may resent them, it’s hard to deny their ability to negotiate some dangerous waters, as the saying goes. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s The Art of the Possible.

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Filed under Donna Leon, James Ellroy, Martin Edwards, Megan Abbott, Michael Connelly, Robert Rotenberg

Say That We’ll be Nemeses*

A recent post from Sue at Novel Heights has got me thinking about fictional nemeses. I’m not talking here of one antagonist in one novel. Rather, I mean a recurring character who serves as a ‘bad guy,’ or at least an antagonist, in more than one novel.

It’s not easy to create such a character. By and large, crime fiction fans want their characters to be believable. So, if a character is going to, say, be arrested in one novel and imprisoned, there’d have to be a credible reason that character would show up in another.

Sue’s post (which you really do want to read) mentions Dean Reeve, whom we first meet in Nicci French’s Blue Monday. That series’ protagonist is London psychologist Frieda Klein, who encounters Reeve in the course of linking a decades-old disappearance with a contemporary one. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoilers. Reeve’s role in the series doesn’t end with that novel, though. He returns later in the series and upends Klein’s life. And his role in the novels is a clear example of the way nemeses can add to a series.

But Reeve is hardly the only example of a fiction nemesis. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle will know that his Sherlock Holmes goes up against Professor Moriarty more than once in the course of his career. In fact, he has what Conan Doyle originally thought of as a final showdown in The Adventure of the Final Problem. In that story, Holmes and Watson have to leave London, and end up in Switzerland. There, Holmes has a confrontation with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Fans of the Holmes stories didn’t want them to end, though, and Conan Doyle was persuaded to bring Holmes back in further stories.

In Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe are sent to the campus of Holm Coultram College. A body has been discovered in the course of some campus renovations, and Dalziel and Pascoe investigate the death. One of the people they encounter is brilliant and enigmatic student activist leader Franny Roote. He’s a thorn in both detectives’ sides during this novel, and his role doesn’t end there. Roote makes appearances in A Cure For All Diseases, Death’s Jest-Book, and Dialogues of the Dead. And in each one, he proves to be a more-than-worthy adversary, especially to Pascoe. Roote’s an interesting character in his own right, and his presence in the novels arguably adds leaven to the series.

We might say the same thing about Ian Rankin’s Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Caffery. As fans of Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus series know, Cafferty is an Edinburgh crime boss, who makes his first appearance in Tooth and Nail. He goes on to appear in several other Rebus novels, and the two have an interesting relationship. On the one hand, they are antagonists. Cafferty is a criminal and Rebus is a copper. Rebus will do whatever it takes to put Cafferty behind bars, keep him there, and stop his operations. And, of course, Cafferty has no intention of letting that happen. On the other hand, the two develop a grudging respect for each other over time. And there are cases in which they end up helping each other. As time goes on, we also see how the face of Edinburgh crime and law enforcement change. Those changes impact both men, so that each one wonders, in his own way, where he’s going to fit in in the new order of things.

Not all fictional nemeses are criminals. For instance, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch contends with Irvin Irving in more than one of the Bosch novels. Irving is a very politically astute member of the LAPD, who’s involved in several of Bosch’s cases. For various reasons, mostly to protect himself or other, highly-placed, members of the police force, he often tries to limit what Bosch does. He’s been responsible for disciplining him, having him transferred, and so on. Later in the series, Irving runs for, and is elected to, political office. But that doesn’t mean he and Bosch no longer interact. Irving isn’t an evil, twisted serial killer, nor a crime boss. But he isn’t above squashing investigations and muzzling the police detectives who want to pursue them, especially if his name is connected to anything. And he’s not at all afraid to threaten Bosch’s job and career if that’s what it takes. Bosch, of course, isn’t willing to shut up and go away, or ‘rubber stamp’ an investigation. It makes for an interesting adversarial relationship as the series goes on.

And that’s the thing about nemeses. When they’re well drawn as characters, they can add suspense and strong story arcs to a series. They can also be interesting characters in their own right, so that we want to know more about them, even if we want the protagonist to ‘win.’ These are only a few examples of nemeses; I know you’ll think of more.

Thanks, Sue, for the inspiration! Now, folks, may I suggest you pay a visit to Sue’s excellent blog? Fine reviews and news await you there.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jonathan Coultron and John Roderick’s Nemeses.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Nicci French, Reginald Hill