Category Archives: Michael Connelly

A Lack of Originality*

CopycatsWhen there’s a case of multiple murders, there’s often a question of whether they were committed by the same person, or by more than one person. If the murders seem to have been committed in exactly the same way, it could be the same murderer. Or it could be a ‘copycat murderer.’

Killers may copy another murderer’s style for a number of reasons. One is that, in their way, they are paying homage to the first killer. Another is that they want to hide their own identities. So they choose the style of a well-known killer, and hope the police assume that it was the same person. There are other reasons, too.

Whatever the reason, the ‘copycat’ phenomenon can complicate a police investigation. Are they looking for one person? Two people? More than two? That suspense can add to a crime novel, so it’s little wonder we see ‘copycats’ in crime fiction. It’s got to be done carefully; otherwise ‘body count’ and brutality can render a story either not credible or too gory. Still, it can be a clever way to manipulate a plot.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and local groups of police to catch a multiple murderer. The killer leaves a copy of an ABC railway guide near each body, and sends a cryptic note of warning to Poirot before each murder. So it seems to be a case of one person committing all of the crimes. But there are some little pieces of evidence that suggest that more than one person may be at work. Is it a ‘copycat?’ The question of how many killers are involved certainly adds to the complexity of the case for the sleuths.

In Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo, we learn that L.A.P.D. police detective Harry Bosch was demoted for shooting a man he suspected of being a serial killer known as ‘The Dollmaker.’ In The Concrete Blonde, the family of the suspect, whose name was Norman Church, launches a civil suit against Bosch for wrongful death. So Bosch has to prepare to defend himself and his conduct. As if that’s not enough, another body is discovered, with the murder bearing all the hallmarks of the The Dollmaker’s style. Now Bosch is faced with two terrible possibilities. One is that he killed the wrong man, and Church was not The Dollmaker. The other is that Church was the Dollmaker, and the new murder is the work of a ‘copycat.’ In either case, Bosch has to catch a killer and defend his actions in the civil suit.

Jane Casey’s first Maeve Kerrigan novel, The Burning, also addresses the question of a ‘copycat’ murderer. In that novel, Kerrigan and her Met colleagues have a disturbing case on their hands: a killer who tries to disguise his work by incinerating his victims. He’s been dubbed ‘The Burning Man’ by the press, and the Met is getting a lot of media and political pressure to solve these crimes. Then another body is discovered. This time, the victim is PR professional Rebecca Haworth. It’s very likely another Burning Man killing, but there are enough little differences that it could also be a ‘copycat’ murder. Kerrigan wants to stay on the team that’s investigating the Burning Man case, but her boss asks her to dig a little deeper into the Haworth case. His reasoning makes sense, too. If it is a Burning Man murder, it’s important for the Met to investigate it thoroughly. If not, the Met will take a lot of criticism for letting cases go unless someone takes this one on. So a reluctant Kerrigan looks into it more deeply.

One of the plot threads of Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue concerns a killer the police have nicknamed ‘Johnny Bible.’ He seems to be emulating a notorious killer of the late 1960s who was dubbed ‘Bible John.’  It seems that ‘Bible John’ committed three rapes and murders of women he met at the Barrowland Ballroom. Then he disappeared, so that even with a description given by the sister of his last victim, the police were never able to catch him. Now there’ve been three more rapes and murders, in the same style. So the police have dubbed this new killer ‘Johnny Bible.’ Is it a twisted case of ‘hero worship?’ Is there a deeper connection between the two killers? It’s a difficult case, made even more so by the fact that in the meantime, Rebus is the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation. So his every movement is under very close scrutiny.

In Paul Cleave’s debut, The Cleaner, we get a very interesting perspective on the ‘copycat’ sort of killer. In that novel, we meet Joe Middleton, who works as a janitor at a police station in Christchurch. What his employer doesn’t know about him is that he is also a serial killer nicknamed ‘The Carver.’ According to what the police think, The Carver has claimed seven victims. But Joe knows that’s not true, since he’s only killed six people. So he decides to find out who the ‘copycat’ is, and frame that person for his other murders. He’s also of a mind to punish the other killer for pretending to be The Carver. That’s going to be more difficult than it seems, though…

Kate Rhodes’ first Alice Quentin novel, Crossbones Yard, also takes up the topic of the ‘copycat’ sort of murder. Quentin is a London psychologist who sometimes works with the police. In this instance, DCI Don Burns asks her to interview a convict, Morris Cley, who’s about to be paroled. Burns wants to know whether Cley is likely to present a danger to society if he’s released, and Quentin agrees to the interview. Her opinion is that Cley is not a threat, so he is duly placed on parole. The next night, Quentin is on her usual evening run when she discovers a body at Crossbones Yard, a former burial ground for prostitutes. This body was dumped at the burial site, though, so it’s not a case of an old corpse being re-discovered. The body bears the hallmarks of a set of killings committed some years earlier. Cley was associated with the couple who were convicted of the killings, so Burns thinks he may be the key to this new murder. The only problem is, Cley has disappeared. So Burns asks Quentin to develop a profile of the killer and hopefully discover the truth about this killing. It may be a ‘copycat’ murder. Or it may be that Cley is guilty, and was influenced by his former associates. Or there may be another explanation. Quentin will have to return to the older killings to find out how this one is connected.

‘Copycat’ sorts of killings do happen in real life. But writing about them credibly isn’t always easy. Still, when they are handled well, they can be compelling. I’ve only mentioned a few (I’ve not mentioned some I’m thinking of, to avoid spoilers). Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Cranberries’ Copycat.

27 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Jane Casey, Kate Rhodes, Michael Connelly, Paul Cleave

Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime*

Christmas PreparationAt this time of year, people often make plans to spend the holidays with family or with friends. Some take getaway holidays. Either way, it can mean a lot of planning, travel hassles and so on. And that’s to say nothing of the gift buying that’s usually involved. If all of that leaves you stressed, it might be a comfort to know that some people spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in some very unusual (and sometimes quite dangerous) situations. At least they do in crime fiction.

Consider Agatha Troy, who spends a very unusual Christmas in Ngaio Marsh’s Tied up in Tinsel. She’s been commissioned by Hilary Bill-Tasman to paint his portrait, and agrees to spend Christmas at his home, Halbards, to complete the task. Since her husband, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, is out of the country on a case, the timing works out perfectly. Troy soon finds, though, that this is a very unusual place. For one thing, Bill-Tasman believes firmly in the redemptive power of work and purpose. So he only hires former inmates; in fact, each of his employees has been convicted of murder. Still, Troy gets started on the portrait. Then, Bill-Tasman’s uncle, Fleaton ‘Uncle Flea’ Forrester and his wife arrive for Christmas, along with Uncle Flea’s longtime servant Alfred Moult. The plan is for Uncle Flea to dress up as a Druid (instead of the more conventional Father Christmas) to give out presents to the local children at a large party to be held at the house. On the day of the party, though, Uncle Flea is not well, so Moult takes his place. After he passes out the gifts, Moult disappears, and is later found dead. And it turns out that more than one person had a very good motive for murder.

In Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice, LAPD police detective Harry Bosch is ‘on call’ on Christmas Day, and spending the day at home. It’s ordinary enough to stay home at Christmas, but everything changes when Bosch hears news over the police scanner of a body found at a cheap motel. He’s surprised that no-one notified him, since he’s on call. He’s also surprised that one of the high-ranking department members has gone out to investigate. Bosch goes to the scene, only to find that the dead man is a fellow police officer, Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore. The official account of the death is that Moore was a ‘dirty’ copper who committed suicide. But there are hints that this was not a suicide, so Bosch decides to ask some questions. He’s immediately shunted to another set of unsolved cases that he’s tasked with closing before the end of the year. But of course, anyone who knows Harry Bosch will know that he doesn’t give up that easily…

Liza Marklund’s The Bomber begins a week before Christmas, when a major explosion rocks Stockholm. The city’s been chosen to host the next Olympic Games, and to everyone’s dismay, the bomb went off in Victoria Stadium, in Olympic Village. Annika Bengtzon, crime editor for Kvällspressen, goes to the scene only to learn that there’s been a death. Christine Farhage, one of Stockholm’s business and civic leaders, was in the building at the time of the explosion. There’s talk that this might have been an act of terrorism. But there are other possibilities, too. There’s soon evidence that this might have been an ‘inside job’ committed by someone connected with the upcoming events. So Bengtzon and her staff have a lot of ground to cover as they investigate. And the trail leads to a very unusual and dangerous place for Bengtzon to spend Christmas Eve.

Nicci French’s Blue Monday begins in late November, but people are already getting into ‘holiday mode.’ And that’s just what London psychotherapist Frieda Klein hates most:
 

‘She loathed Christmas, and she loathed the run-up to Christmas, the frenzied shoppers, the tat in the shops, the lights that were put up too early in the streets, the Christmas songs that belted out of shops day after day…’
 

Soon enough, Frieda’s got much more to think about than her dislike of Christmas. Four-year-old Matthew Faraday has gone missing, and police efforts haven’t turned up any leads. Then, Frieda begins to get a very uncomfortable feeling about one of her patients, Alan Dekker. Some of the things that he tells her suggest that her work with Dekker may be in some way connected to Matthew’s disappearance. One of the issues she has to face is how much to tell DCI Malcolm Karlsson, who’s investigating the case. What’s the role of patient/therapist privacy? And how useful is what she could tell, anyway? Each in a different way, she and the police follow up on this investigation. In the end, they find out what happened to Matthew, and how it connects with another disappearance twenty-two years earlier. Through all of this, and mostly because of her feelings about Christmas, Frieda hasn’t done anything to prepare. Still, she allows herself to be talked into having her sister Olivia and niece Chlöe visit. Through a series of plot events, she actually ends up having a group of people at her house for Christmas. One of them even says,
 

‘‘What a collection of left-behinds and misfits we are.’’
 

It’s a very odd and unusual Christmas for Frieda, especially given she doesn’t celebrate the holiday. But as she herself says,
 

‘‘We could do worse.’’
 

And they could.

Just ask Anthondy Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant. In Flight of Aquavit, Quant has a new client, Daniel Guest, who’s being blackmailed. Guest is a ‘respectably married’ successful accountant, who has also had some secret trysts with men. Rather than coming out, as Quant thinks he should, Guest is desperate to have the blackmailer found and stopped. In the course of that investigation, Quant finds himself looking into a case of murder as well, and ends up in an extremely dangerous predicament with his friend Jared Lowe. The two are stranded outside just before Christmas Eve – a life-threatening situation in Saskatchewan. They manage to find shelter just in time, but they are still trapped, with no way home. It’s an very unusual Christmas Eve for them.

So next time you’re feeling stressed because of house guests, gifts, travel, or the myriad other things that can ‘pile on’ at this time of the year, keep one thing in mind. It really could be a lot worse…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime.

20 Comments

Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Liza Marklund, Michael Connelly, Ngaio Marsh, Nicci French

We Spend Hours Now Online*

Online CommunitiesAn excellent post from author and fellow blogger Rebecca Bradley has got me thinking about the new online world in which we live. I’m very fortunate and privileged to have met some of the finest people you could ever want to have in your life through this blog and my other online connections. And it’s been wonderful to meet some of you both face-to-face and in the online crime book club that Rebecca was kind enough to facilitate. It’s all been a great experience, and I truly hope to meet more of you in person as time goes by.

But the thing is, online life isn’t always that safe, enjoyable and rewarding. People aren’t always what their online personas seem to be. And although different social media outlets can suspend accounts and so on, that’s not much protection. And that’s to say nothing of how difficult it can be to verify information you find online. So, online interactions really do involve a leap of faith, as the saying goes. I’ve been most fortunate in mine, but not everyone is. Just a quick look at crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean.

In Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe’s The Calling, Port Dundas, Ontario DI Hazel Micallef and her team investigate a series of bizarre killings, beginning with that of eighty-one-year-old Delia Chandler, who was already terminally ill. There doesn’t seem to be much of a motive for killing her; yet this isn’t a suicide. Still, the evidence shows that she admitted her killer and put up no resistance. So it’s definitely not the sort of murder you find in, say, a home invasion or a more personal killing. Then, there’s another murder. This time, the victim is twenty-nine-year-old Michael Ulmer, who had multiple sclerosis. Bit by bit, the team links these deaths to others that have occurred. And one key to the mystery is a website that they had in common…

Cat Conner’s Killerbyte introduces readers to FBI special agent Gabrielle ‘Ellie’ Conway, an ex-pat New Zealander with a love of poetry. In fact she co-moderates a poetry-themed chat room called Cobwebs. When Conway bans one of the members, Carter McClaren, from the chat room, he shows up at her home to ‘pay her back.’ He’s arrested, but makes bail. Later, he’s murdered and his body found in Conway’s car. With it is a Post-it note on which there’s a poem. Conway and her fellow moderator/lover Cormac ‘Mac’ Connelly are trying to find out who might have killed Carter when there’s another murder, also of a chat room member. Again, a poem is left by the body, and taunting emails are sent to both Conway and Connelly. Now, they have to sift through all of the members and find out which one is the murderer, and why that person is targeting other members.

In Alafair Burke’s 212, we are introduced to Megan Gunther, an undergraduate at New York University (NYU). She’s joined an online community called Campus Juice, in which people post news, upcoming events, and gossip going around campus. One day, she’s looking at the site when she sees, to her dismay, that someone has posted her class schedule. What’s more, whoever it is has also posted information about her personal schedule (e.g. when she goes to the gym). The post ends with a cryptic warning:
 

‘Megan Gunther, someone is watching.’
 

When Megan is later stabbed, NYPD detectives Ellie Hatcher and J.J. Rogan are assigned to the case and begin the investigation. Soon enough, they discover that this is not just a case of a dangerous stalker who’s used the online community to target one person. Rather, it’s connected to two other murders…

There’s an interesting online community in Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China. In that novel, Shanghai police detective Chen Cao is assigned to a delicate case. Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, has apparently committed suicide. It’s not a complete surprise, since he was under investigation for corruption. In fact, he’d been arrested and was under police guard in a hotel room when he died. But when Chen starts to look at the case, he sees some signs that this might have been murder. It’s going to be difficult to carry on with this investigation, though, because the Party officials to whom Chen is responsible want a simple ‘rubber stamp’ of suicide. As the case moves on, Chen finds out that Zhou’s activities came out through the efforts of a group of ‘netizens’ who posted them online. These people have found that the only successful way to really speak out about China is through online communities where they feel they can get factual information, rather than official government information. They have to be careful, though, because at the same time as the government benefits from the information they find, it also wants to be in control of what they say. So things can get dangerous.

Some online communities are themselves dangerous. The same online camaraderie that people share when they talk about recipes, clothing, cars or sport can also be used for uglier purposes. For instance, in one plot thread of Michael Connelly’s Angels Flight, LAPD detective Harry Bosch re-opens the case of twelve-year-old Stacey Kincaid, who was found raped and murdered. Michael Harris was arrested and convicted in connection with the crime, but he has claimed his confession was, to put it mildly, coerced. If that’s true, reasons Bosch, then someone else murdered Stacey. Bosch’s investigation leads to a web site called Charlotte’s Web Site, which is not a community you’d want taking an interest in your young daughter.

There are also more recent books featuring the phenomenon of online communities. Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? is the story of Yvonne, a new mother who’s just moved from London to Ireland. She turns to an online community called NetMammy for support, and soon finds a group of other mothers who are also dealing with the stresses of new babies. Then, one of those members goes ‘off the grid,’ and Yvonne eventually begins to suspect that something is wrong, especially after a body is discovered…   There’s also Angela Clarke’s Follow Me, which explores the modern phenomenon of social media celebrity and the reality of how anonymous people can really be online. I confess I’ve not (yet) read these two novels. But they both serve as examples of what today’s online communities can be like.

It’s not surprising that more authors are exploring online groups in their crime fiction. They are a part of modern life for a lot of people. And I, for one, am better for the online communities of which I’m a member. But they’re not without danger…

Talking of online… May I suggest you visit Rebecca’s terrific blog. There you’ll find terrific reviews, and you’ll get the chance to enjoy her crime novel Shallow Waters. Thanks, Rebecca, for the inspiration.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ken Block’s We Don’t Talk Anymore.

26 Comments

Filed under Alafair Burke, Angela Clarke, Cat Connor, Inger Ash Wolfe, Michael Connelly, Michael Redhill, Qiu Xiaolong, Sinéad Crowley

It’s All So Unexpected That I Just Don’t Understand*

Violating ExpectationsIf you’ve read enough crime fiction, you start to build up a set of expectations for crime novels. For example, imagine that a character’s walking down a very dark, abandoned street late at night. You expect that something bad’s going to happen. There are other overall expectations that we have of crime stories, too, and research suggests that we bring those assumptions with us when we read.

But at times, those expectations prove to be wrong. Authors sometimes play with readers’ expectations in order to build suspense and set readers up to be surprised. There are cases, too, where the author doesn’t do this sort of thing deliberately. Rather, the story simply goes in a direction that the reader hadn’t anticipated. Sometimes that works well, and sometimes it doesn’t. For the author, there’s a delicate balance between playing with readers’ assumptions and not ‘playing fair.’ There’s a delicate balance between taking a story in an interesting direction, and going off on an improbable tangent.

Agatha Christie, for instance, played with readers’ expectations in several of her stories. In Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is en route to London on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed. M. Bouc, a director of the company that owns the train, is also aboard, and asks Poirot to investigate. The idea is for Poirot to find out who the killer is before the train crosses the next frontier, so that the killer can be handed over to the police. The only possible suspects are the other people in the same coach, so Poirot concentrates his attention on them. And here we have what seems a rather traditional sort of Golden Age setup: a murder, a limited cast of suspects, some clues, and a snowstorm to isolate them. But as anyone who’s read this novel can tell you, the solution isn’t ‘typical’ at all. In that way, Christie manipulated readers’ expectations.

Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice also plays with readers’ expectations. In that novel, LAPD detective Harry Bosch happens to be listening to his police scanner when he hears of a suicide in a seedy motel in his jurisdiction. Surprised that he wasn’t officially notified, since he’s ‘on call,’ Bosch goes to the scene. There, he finds that a fellow officer, Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore, has died, apparently a successful suicide attempt. A few details strike Bosch as inconsistent with suicide, so he starts to ask questions. But the ‘higher ups’ don’t want him to make much of this case. The official story is that Moore had gone dirty and committed suicide as a result, and that’s what Bosch’s bosses want on the report. Bosch being Bosch, though, he isn’t satisfied with ‘rubber stamping,’ and investigates Moore’s death. There’s a very key violation of reader expectations in this novel. At the same time, though, it’s not random, and it’s not unexpected if one really thinks about it.

In Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone, Boston PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro take on the heartbreaking case of a missing four-year-old girl, Amanda McCready. The police have been out in force looking for the child, and of course there’s been a major public appeal for any information. So at first, Kenzie and Gennaro aren’t really sure what they can do that hasn’t already been done. But Amanda’s Uncle Lionel and Aunt Beatrice insist, and the PIs are reluctantly persuaded to look into the matter. Without spoiling the story, I can say that it goes against reader expectations in some important ways. At the same time, it does so in a way that (at least to me) is credible. Lehane’s choices about the storyline also raise some important and powerful ethical questions.

Sometimes, characters can turn out to be quite different to what readers expect, and that can impact readers’ assumptions about the story. For instance, in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction writer Zack Walker and his journalist wife Sarah move their family from the city to a beautiful suburban housing development called Valley Forest Estates. Walker believes that the family will be safer there, and he’s hoping that the lower cost of living will mean he can devote full time to his writing. Trouble begins soon after the Walkers move in. First, the family notices several problems with the house they’ve bought. Then, when Walker goes to the main sales office to complain, he witnesses an argument between one of Valley Forest’s executives, and local eco-activist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker finds Spender’s body by a local creek. Bit by bit, the naturally cautious Walker gets drawn into more danger than he could have imagined. There are a few characters in this novel who turn out not to be at all what they seem. We have certain expectations of those characters, possibly from reading a lot of other crime fiction, but those assumptions turn out to be wrong. That fact adds to the interest in the story.

Sometimes, the story itself takes a new and unexpected direction. This can be quite tricky, since readers may think they’re ‘signing up’ for one kind of story, only to get a story that proves to be something else. At times that can work very well, as the new direction in the story draws the reader in. It’s less successful at other times. One such story is arguably Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. As that novel begins, Smilla Japsersen attends the funeral of ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen, who lived in the same Copenhagen apartment building. Isaiah fell off the roof of the building in what police say was a tragic accident. But when Jaspersen sees the marks in the snow on the roof, she notices signs that suggest that Isaiah’s death was not an accident at all. So she begins to ask questions. At this point, the novel has many of the hallmarks of a whodunit as Jaspersen tries to find out who would want to kill a young boy. But as she learns more, the novel arguably takes on the qualities of a science thriller. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoilers, but if you’ve read the novel, you know what I mean.

The question of whether and how much to manipulate reader expectations isn’t an easy one. But when it’s done well, it can make for a compelling story. It’s a risk, though, since if it doesn’t work well, it can also make readers very cranky. What are your thoughts? Are there certain expectations that you don’t want violated? How do you react when your assumptions about a story are turned upside down?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Church’s One Day.

36 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Dennis Lehane, Linwood Barclay, Michael Connelly, Peter Høeg

You Got That Right*

AccuracyIn Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of wealthy Emily Arundell. She’s left behind several relatives who are desperate for their share of her money, and who have very good motive for getting her out of their way. It’s a complicated case, and one evening, Hastings suggests that the two of them take their minds off the investigation and go to see a play. Poirot agrees and they duly attend. However, there’s one problem: Hastings  has chosen a crook play.
 

‘There is one piece of advice I offer to all my readers. Never take a soldier to a military play, a sailor to a naval play, a Scotsman to a Scottish play, a detective to a thriller – and an actor to any play whatsoever!’
 

Poirot gets very frustrated with the plot, claiming that the whole case could have been solved before the end of the first act.

This shows, I think, how we all bring our expertise into what we do in the rest of our lives. Certainly research suggests that we tap our knowledge, background and expertise when we read. People in general are not passive when they read. They interact with what they read; and, however unconsciously, compare it to what they know from real life. This doesn’t mean that readers are never willing to set aside disbelief. But a lot of readers do get cranky if the author isn’t more or less accurate.

For example, you may or may not know that my professional background has been mostly in the world of education. So I’m particularly ‘tuned in,’ for lack of a better phrase, when I read crime novels that take place in academia. And, if I’m being honest, I’m probably less patient with such novels when the author doesn’t portray that world accurately. I bring what I know to the reading process, as we all do, so I notice it more when what I know isn’t reflected in what’s in the book. That’s why I have a particular appreciation for work like Christine Poulson’s, Gail Bowen’s and Elly Griffiths’, whose novels have an academic context. In part because of the authors’ experiences in academia, the context is authentic, and that makes those novels more believable.

It’s the same, I would imagine, for just about any profession. For instance, the law profession varies from place to place, and certainly from country to country. But there are certain things about what lawyers do and don’t do that are, I think, a little more universal. And a well-written legal novel reflects that reality. I would suspect that attorneys who read crime fiction are ‘tuned in’ to those aspects of legal novels, and probably not patient when the author isn’t authentic. Not being an attorney myself, I can’t speak from expertise. But the works of authors such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham, Scott Turow and (in his Mickey Haller novels) Michael Connelly strike me as being realistic.

One might say the same thing about crime novels that take place in the health care and medical community. Physicians, paramedics, nurses and other health care providers who read crime fiction probably get very impatient with crime novels that don’t depict that world accurately. And they’re probably quite pleased with the authenticity of writers such as Katherine Howell, Michael Crichton and Michael Palmer.

I could go on and on with examples, but I think the point’s made. Whatever your profession or work background is, you’re likely to bring it to your reading, and you may very well find yourself noticing it particularly when someone isn’t accurate.

What about law enforcers who also read crime fiction? Most crime writers aren’t police officers (although some of course are or have been). And yet, if you think about it, just about every crime novel involves police presence, at least just a little. And some focus quite a lot more than others do on police activity. Some of those novels give a more authentic portrait of police life than others do. So my unsophisticated guess would be that there is plenty of frustration among law enforcement people when it comes to the way what they do is portrayed.

You’ll notice that all of the authors mentioned thus far have a professional background in the area that’s the focus of their books. For instance, Howell has been a paramedic, Rotenberg is a criminal lawyer, and Bowen has been a professor. Does this mean that you need to be a member of a given profession to write about it accurately? I don’t think so.

Let’s consider some of the highly regarded crime series out there. Ed McBain is, as you’ll know doubt know, the creator of the 87th Precinct series, which many people regard as a superior series. Its focus is police detectives and their lives, and the crimes they investigate. McBain was never, at least to my knowledge, in law enforcement. And yet this series is often held up as an example of an excellent police procedural series.

Jussi Adler-Olsen has done a number of things with his career, including music, business and publishing. He’s never, to my knowledge, been a police detective. Still, his Carl Mørck novels are very highly regarded police procedurals. Not being in law enforcement myself, I can’t vouch conclusively for their authenticity. But they certainly have the hallmarks of the police procedural, including life at the precinct, policy and so on.

Sara Paretsky isn’t a private investigator. Her background was in political science and history before she turned her focus to writing. But as any fan will tell you, her V.I. Warshawski series is very well-regarded, and gives readers a great deal of information about the ins and outs of private investigation. These are just a few examples; there are dozens of others. But I think just these few serve to show that some authors have written extremely credible work about professions that aren’t in their backgrounds. The key here really seems to be doing effective research (and of course, telling a well-written story!).

What about you? When you read a novel about people who do what you do professionally, do you pay extra attention to the details? Do you get frustrated when the author isn’t accurate?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song.

35 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, John Grisham, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Katherine Howell, Michael Connelly, Michael Crichton, Michael Palmer, Robert Rotenberg, Sara Paretsky, Scott Turow