Category Archives: Nicci French

And Your Loyalties Are Divided*

One very effective way that authors add tension to their stories is to create divided loyalties for their characters. It’s a little harder if the protagonist is a police officer or a judge. For those characters, there are official policies about being involved in cases where one has a personal interest. But it can be done. It can also be done if the sleuth is a PI or an amateur sleuth. And when it’s done well, that plot point can add suspense to a novel. It can also add a layer of character development.

For example, I was recently privileged to read Brian Stoddart’s A Greater God, the fourth in his Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series. It’s just come out, by the way. This novel takes place in India during the 1920s, the last years of the British Raj. In one plot line, Le Fanu returns to his ‘home base’ in Madras (today’s Chennai) to face several severe challenges. One of them is that there is increased bigotry and worse against Muslims. And the Inspector General of the Madras Police, Arthur Jepson, isn’t making things any easier. He’s hardline racist and determined to keep the British firmly in control. All of this creates a major problem for Le Fanu’s colleague, Mohammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah. Habi is a dedicated member of the police force who does his job very well. He is also a friend to Le Fanu. But Habi is Muslim, and it’s his people who are paying a terrible price right now. His loyalties are divided, and several people on the force are not sure he can be trusted. It all makes for real tension in this novel.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to France at the request of Paul Renauld. He writes that his life is in danger and begs Poirot to come to his aid. By the time Poirot and Hastings get there, though, it’s too late; Renauld has been murdered. Poirot works with the police to find out who the killer is and what the motive is. In the meantime, Hastings has a personal situation of his own. He’s met a young woman who calls herself Cinderella, and he finds himself quite attracted to her, although he doesn’t acknowledge it at first. That creates a problem for him when he discovers that she may not be telling him everything about herself. In fact, she may even know more about Renauld’s murder than she’s letting on. It all creates tension between Hastings and Poirot as Poirot gets closer to the truth about what really happened.

The ‘Nicci French’ writing team’s Blue Monday introduces London psychologist Frieda Klein. In one plot thread, she is working with a new client, a man named Alan Dekker. Among other things, he’s been having troubling dreams that focus on having his own son – a boy who looks just like him. In real life, Dekker and his wife, Carrie, haven’t had any children, and Dekker doesn’t want to adopt. He and Klein start the difficult work of ‘unpacking’ his views about having children, and of making connections with things from Dekker’s past. Then, four-year-old Matthew Faraday goes missing. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Malcolm Karlsson and his team investigate, but there are no good clues. The only case that bears any resemblance to this one is twenty-two years old, and it may not be related at all. But on the chance it is, Karlsson and his team do look back at it. When Klein learns of Matthew’s disappearance, she is faced with a real ‘divided loyalties’ problem. On the one hand, she is dedicated to her profession, and that means respecting her client’s confidentiality. On the other hand, she believes that what she knows about Dekker may help to find Matthew Faraday, or at least find out what happened to him. She finally opts to contact Karlsson, and, each in a different way, the two find answers. But her decision is not taken at all lightly.

Nicole Watson’s The Boundary begins as Justice Bruce Brosnan is hearing the case of the Corowa people, who have claimed the right to Brisbane’s Merston Park. A development company wants the land, but the Corrowa say that the land is theirs. Brosnan rules against them, and just a few hours later, is killed. Then, there are other deaths, all of people involved in the case. Police officer Jason Matthews is one of the investigating officers, and this puts him in a real situation of divided loyalties. On the one hand, he is a police officer, sworn to uphold the law, and dedicated to doing so. But he is Aboriginal. So, he has strong feelings about the Corrowa people’s claim. He finds it very difficult to investigate people he feels have been greatly wronged – his own people. He does his job, but it’s not without difficulty.

And then there’s Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room. Laurie and Martha have a successful marriage and have raised three children. Everything seems to be going well until Laurie’s past comes back to haunt her. She was raised in a cult in the US, not leaving it permanently until she was a young adult. So, she is still impacted by her experience. Still, she and Martha have built a good life together. Then, Laurie and Martha begin to be concerned about their oldest child, Hope. She recently broke up with her boyfriend, so they expected there’d be a rough patch. But Hope has become obsessed with dance. She’s not eating properly, she’s not getting enough sleep, and she’s dancing and doing other exercise more than is good for her. As if that’s not enough, someone from Laurie’s past has found her. And that’s when she feels, even after all this time, a bit of divided loyalty. She loves her family deeply and will do anything to protect them. But she still feels the ‘pull’ of her old life, and that comes back, in a way.

And that’s the thing about divided loyalties. They impact one’s perspective, and they can make for very difficult decisions. But, in fiction, they can also make for interesting plot points and layers of character development.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Lucksmiths’ The Cassingle Revival.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Nicci French, Nicole Watson, Stella Duffy

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

Let Me Have My Privacy*

The balance between the right to personal privacy and the public good is a very delicate one. On the one hand, many countries have determined that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in the home, in one’s personal conversations, and so on. On the other hand, when there’s a criminal investigation, courts have determined that searches can be conducted of one’s car, one’s most personal things, one’s telephone logs, one’s private papers, and one’s banking records, among many other things.

That balance plays out in real life every time the police conduct a search or get a warrant. It plays out in crime fiction, too, and it’s interesting to see how it’s handled. It’s especially interesting to see how the concept has been seen differently in different places and at different times.

Warrants have been a part of police procedure for a long time. We see them, for instance, in more than one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. In The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter, for instance, Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, wants his help in a strange case. A man named Melas, who makes his living as an interpreter, is abducted, taken to a private house some two hours from London, and forced to act as interpreter for another man who speaks only Greek. Then, Melas is taken away from the house, and left just close enough to a train station to catch the last train back to London. As part of their investigation, Holmes, Watson, and Inspector Tobias Gregson go to the house itself. They’ve had to wait for an official warrant to enter it, though, so by the time they get there, Melas’ abductors have disappeared. He’s there, though, albeit barely alive. It seems the abductors captured him again when they learned that the police know what happened. It turns out that this case is based in greed and a dispute over property.

By the time Agatha Christie was writing, most people knew that the police can’t go through their private possessions, papers, and so on without a warrant. And in several of her stories, there are scenes where a character asks about a warrant. One of the more memorable ‘personal search’ scenes appears in Hickory Dickory Dock. In that novel, Hercule Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who killed Celia Austin, a resident in a hostel for students. It turns out that her death is connected to an odd series of petty thefts and other strange events that have been making everyone uneasy. At one point, Inspector Sharpe and his team come to the hostel armed with search warrants, and they go through the students’ belongings. Then, they want to search the private rooms of Mrs. Nicoletis, who owns the place. When they ask her to unlock a certain cupboard, she outright refuses, insisting that it’s her private property, and they have no right to look inside. In fact, she becomes belligerent. Sharpe then tells her that she can unlock the cupboard, or they’ll break it. She refuses again, and the cupboard door is broken. Its contents turn out to be most surprising.

One of the big issues around privacy has to do with communication with certain people such as lawyers, clerics, medical doctors, and psychologists/psychiatrists. Those sorts of conversations/contacts are confidential, and all of those professionals know that they may not release any information regarding that kind of communication except under certain very specific circumstances. In Nicci French’s Blue Monday, that presents a real dilemma for London psychologist Frieda Klein. She’s working with a new patient, Alan Dekker. One of the things he tells her is a vivid dream he’s had about a son – a boy who looks like him. In point of fact, he and his wife have no children, and he’s working through the issues around that. Then, four-year-old Matthew Faraday goes missing. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Malcolm Karlsson and his team are investigating, but so far, they haven’t found any substantive leads. When Klein hears of this, she begins to wonder whether there’s a connection between Dekker and the Faraday case. She has no real proof, but still, if her information can help find the boy, shouldn’t she give it to the police? On the other hand, what about her patient’s privacy? It’s a serious dilemma. In the end, she does contact Karlsson, and the two begin to work, each in a different way, on the case. It turns out that the boy’s disappearance is related to another disappearance twenty-two years earlier.

Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark features Gerda Klein and her daughter, Ilse. Years ago, during the ‘Cold War’ between the UK, US, and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies, the Klein family lived in Leipzig, in what was East Germany. At that time, and in that place, the Stasi (the East German secret police) had agents everywhere. What’s more, people were encouraged to denounce others to the authorities, no matter how close the relationship. People learned that conversations, even in the privacy of one’s own home, were not really private, and more than one person was taken into custody on the basis of private telephone calls and other communication. Gerda and her husband wanted to escape this environment, so they made careful plans. With help, and some luck, they and Ilse managed to leave the country, and ended up in Alexandria, on New Zealand’s South Island. There, they settled in, and Ilse became a secondary school teacher. As the novel begins, she faces a real challenge when Serena Freeman, one of her most promising students, stops coming to class. Then, she disappears. Ilse soon finds that her interest in, and concern for, the girl leads her to places she hadn’t imagined.

With today’s CCTV cameras, it’s harder than ever for people to go places privately. It’s been determined that, so long as it’s made clear that the cameras are recording, then people don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in public places. But it still can make for awkward moments. For instance, what if a CCTV camera in a hotel lobby catches someone with a lover? It’s a violation of privacy, but, is it really? And, is the number of crimes that CCTV can help solve worth the fact that your presence at a bank, a hotel, or someplace else public is a matter of record?

The issues around personal privacy aren’t easy to resolve. And cases involving privacy have sometimes been controversial. It’s going to continue to be an issue as police procedure includes online activity more and more. And it certainly shows up in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Parliament’s Let Me Be.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Nicci French, Paddy Richardson

It’s a Very Special Knowledge That You’ve Got*

An interesting post from Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery has got me thinking about what Rosemary Herbert calls the surrogate detective. Here’s what Tracy had to say about it:

In Whodunit?: A Who’s Who in Crime & Mystery Writing by Rosemary Herbert, John Putnam Thatcher is described as a prime example of the surrogate detective.

The term “surrogate detective” is applied to characters who solve crimes yet who are neither amateur nor professional detectives. Like the accidental sleuth, the surrogate sleuth may simply have stumbled upon the crime scene, but whereas the accidental sleuth acts out of pluckiness or sometimes self-defense in order to prove who committed the crime, the surrogate sleuth feels compelled to act by applying expertise that he or she brings to the situation.

There’s a strong argument, too, that Emma Lathen’s John Putnam Thatcher is such a detective. He isn’t a police officer or PI. He’s a vice president for a large, international bank. He doesn’t solve crimes to prove himself, or to clear his name, or to clear the name of a friend or loved one. Rather, he uses his particular financial skills as he’s drawn into mysteries.

And he’s far from the only fictional surrogate detective out there. There are plenty more; there’s only space in this post for a few, but I know you’ll think of others. It’s an interesting category of sleuth.

For example, you might argue that G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown is a surrogate detective. He’s not a professional detective. And yet, he doesn’t get drawn into crimes, if you will, accidentally. Rather, he uses his particular background, skills and knowledge to solve mysteries. He feels compelled to set things right, in part because of his role as a priest.

John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell is another fictional sleuth who might be classified as a surrogate detective. He is an academic – a lexicographer by background – who uses those skills to solve mysteries. He’s not paid to do so, and his involvement in mysteries isn’t usually accidental. Rather, he wants to find out the truth, and is drawn into cases because he can add his own expertise to them.

There are several fictional medical sleuths who also use their expertise to solve mysteries. It’s often not to clear their names, but to solve an intriguing medical puzzle. Some of Robin Cook’s early medical thrillers (I’m thinking, for instance, of Outbreak and Blindsight) feature this premise. In more than one of them, a doctor, medical examiner, or someone in a similar position notices a case (or cases) of unusual death. Then, that medical person uses her or his expertise to narrow down the probable causes of death, and link them to a source.

We also see this in Kathryn Fox’s Anya Crichton novels. Crichton is a New South Wales-based pathologist and forensic physician. On the one hand, she is officially consulted on certain cases; so, in that sense, she’s a professional. On the other, she’s not a police detective or PI. Rather, she uses her medical expertise to put the pieces of a puzzle together.

Fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway will know that she is a forensic archaeologist associated with North Norfolk University. She is consulted by the police when her background and expertise are needed, but she’s not herself a professional detective. Once she gets interested in a case, she wants to find out the truth as much for the sake of knowing as for any other reason. In that sense, she does feel compelled to act and contribute what she finds out. There are plenty of other fictional archaeologists, too, who arguably are surrogate detectives.

There are also several crime-fictional psychologists who are arguably surrogate detectives. One, for instance, is the ‘Nicci French’ team’s sleuth, Frieda Klein. She’s a London psychologist who didn’t really bargain for getting involved in murder mysteries. She has her own life and issues to keep her busy. But she gets drawn into cases when her expertise is needed, or when she feels compelled to share it. For example, in Blue Monday, she learns that a small boy has gone missing. Some of the details of that case remind her eerily of a client she’s been helping. So, although even she wonders how ethical it really is, she shares the information she has with the police. And it turns out that her expertise is very helpful.

There are a lot of other fictional sleuths who might be considered surrogate detectives. And, of course, the line between a surrogate detective and an amateur detective can be very blurred. So, we might not all agree on whether a sleuth is one or the other. But it’s a really interesting concept.

What do you think? Do you agree with Herbert’s idea of the surrogate detective? Which of your top fictional sleuths ‘counts’ as one? Writers, is your main character a surrogate detective?

Thanks, Tracy, for the inspiration! Now, folks, may I suggest your next stop be Tracy’s excellent blog? Excellent reviews await you there!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie’s Did You Ever Have a Dream?

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Filed under Elly Griffiths, Emma Lathen, G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr, Kathryn Fox, Nicci French, Robin Cook

What Shall I Call You?*

If you’re kind enough to read this blog occasionally, you’ll know that right now, I’m working on revising my fourth Joel Williams novel. Revising can be a difficult process, especially if some fundamental things about a story need to be changed. But most authors have to make at least some revisions to their drafts.

One of the things I’ve discovered about this particular novel as I’ve been revising is that, of all things, the title I’d chosen no longer works. The plot has changed, and that means that the title doesn’t reflect it very well any more. So, I have to choose a new title.

Titles are interesting things, too. In some way, they have to catch the reader’s attention. Some authors do that by selecting unusual titles. For instance, the titles of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels are certainly inventive. There’s A Red Herring With Mustard, and I Am Half Sick of Shadows, just to name two. And Bradley’s by no means the only author to opt for such unusual titles.

Other authors, such as Sue Grafton and the ‘Nicci French’ team use titles to link the novels in their series. Fans can tell you that Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is sometimes called ‘the alphabet series,’ because each book begins with a letter of the English alphabet (e.g. A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc..). And the Nicci French Frieda Klein novels all have days of the week in their titles (e.g. Blue Monday).

Whatever title an author chooses, most people agree that it needs to be short enough to be remembered fairly easily. Too many words and it’s clumsy. That’s why there are so many crime titles that are one or two words (e.g. Elmore Lenoard’s Get Shorty, or Ruth Rendell’s The Vault). There are exceptions to this, of course. However, titles that are ‘crisp’ and not overblown generally seem to be more successful.

A title also arguably has a real advantage if it reflects something about the book. Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice has as one of its central plot points a dangerous new drug, known as ‘black ice.’ In this case, ‘black ice’ also refers more metaphorically to very dangerous situations that one might not see coming, and are all the more perilous if one’s not prepared. And Rex Stout’s Champagne For One is about the death of Faith Usher, who dies of poison after drinking a glass of champagne at a dinner party.

As you can see, the choice of a title can be a tricky business. It can’t be too long (but it has to be long enough to say something about the book). It can’t be too ‘cookie cutter’ (but not too ‘cutesy’ either). It has to be attention-getting (but not so strange that it’s off-putting). Little wonder that I’m really paying attention to this part of the revision.

But, you see, I have an advantage. I have you. You folks are all readers, and excellent judges of the titles of that get your attention or annoy you (or something in between). So, I’ve decided to ask you to help me and choose the title of my next Joel Williams novel. Below, you’ll see a poll with some possible titles. If you’d like a say, vote for your choice. The poll will be up for about a week, and then we’ll talk about it.

Now, to help you decide, here’s the tentative blurb (there may be some changes, but this is the basic story):
 

Research Can Be Deadly!

Criminal justice professor Joel Williams and two colleagues are studying Second Chances, a Philadelphia alternative school program that’s supposed to keep at-risk students off the streets and out of prison. But it hasn’t kept those young people out of danger. The research team is shocked when their work turns up a tragic death. One of the students, 15-year-old Curtis Templeton, fell from a building near the school, and everyone says it was a horrible accident. But if it was an accident, why isn’t anybody willing to talk about it? And if it wasn’t, who would want to kill Curtis?

To get answers, Williams and the team will step into the world of for-profit alternative schools, and into the lives of the people they’re meant to serve. And they’ll go up against someone who’s willing to do whatever it takes to keep certain secrets hidden.
 

What do you think? Which title says it best?

 


 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Thompson Twins’ Flesh and Blood.

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