Category Archives: Nicci French

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

My Analyst Told Me*

As this is posted, it would have been Sigmund Freud’s 161st birthday. There’ve been a lot of criticisms of Freud’s work through the decades as we’ve gotten to understand the human mind a little better. But it’s hard to deny his influence on the field of psychology. And many people agree that he was actually the founder of psychoanalysis.

The whole point of psychoanalysis is to bring to the surface unconscious fears and anxieties, repressed memories, and the like, so as to address mental health issues. There’s a lot to this approach to psychotherapy – far more than there is space in this one post. Besides, I’m not a psychologist. But one of the key facets of it – and something very relevant for crime fiction – is the intimate relationship between client and therapist.

That relationship is fascinating, actually. In the best of situations, it’s intimate without being a friendship or a romance. It’s professional without being cold, too. People tell things to their therapists that not even their partners may know. Yet, a healthy therapist/client relationship doesn’t entail the emotional responsibility, if I can put it that way, that other intimate relationships entail. And we certainly see a lot of therapist/client relationships in crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to Dr. Theodore Gerard, a noted psychologist. During a trip to the Middle East, he meets the Boyntons, an American family on a sightseeing tour. He’s fascinated by them on a professional level, and that’s not surprising. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is tyrannical, manipulative and malicious. Her impact on her family members is so negative as to be pathological, and just about everyone shows some symptoms of the trauma. The one who seems to be suffering the most is Mrs. Boynton’s youngest child, seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Jinny.’ As Gerard gets to know her, he sees (and so do readers) that she has delusions, and shows other signs of mental illness. On the second day of the visit to Petra, Mrs. Boynton is murdered. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and is asked to investigate. As he does, he relies on Gerard’s professional opinions of the various family members. And, in the end, he finds out who the killer is. It’s not spoiling the story to say that there’s an epilogue, that takes place five years after the murder. And it’s very interesting to see how the client/therapist relationship has developed between Gerard and Jinny Boynton.

The ‘Nicci French’ writing duo has created a series featuring London psychologist Frieda Klein. In Blue Monday, the first in that series, Klein is working with a new client, Alan Dekker. He has many anxieties and other issues, and Klein tries to help him work through them. Then, he begins to tell her about dreams he has in which he and his wife have a son who looks just like him. In real life, they have no children, and Klein tries to work with Dekker to address that and some other issues he’s facing. Then, four-year-old Matthew Faraday goes missing. The media makes much of this, and there are all sorts of efforts, both formal and informal, to find the boy. When Klein hears about this case, she begins to worry, first subconsciously, and then consciously, that there might be a relationship between the boy’s disappearance and the work she’s been doing with Dekker. Klein takes her commitment to Dekker’s privacy very seriously, but she’s concerned about Matthew Faraday, too. So, she approaches DCI Malcolm Karlsson, who’s in charge of the Faraday case. Each in a different way, the two begin to look into what happened, and they learn that this incident is related to a past disappearance. Among other things, the story shows just how intimate and complex the client/therapist relationship is.

Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace features Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She has her own personal issues, but she’s been successful professionally. And she’s developed effective professional relationships with her clients. Those relationships are intimate and personal, though, as all therapaeutic relationships are. So, Bergman is truly dismayed when she learns that someone has gotten access to her case notes. Then, the body of one of her clients, Sara Matteus, is found floating in water near Bergman’s home. There’s a suicide note that specifically mentions Bergman, too. But it’s soon clear that the victim was murdered. At first, Bergman is a ‘person of interest.’ But it’s shown that she is innocent. It’s also clear, though, that someone is out to ruin her, and might not be satisfied with just that. Now, Bergman is going to have to work quickly, and co-operate with the police, if she’s to stay alive.

There’s also Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, the story of Dunedin psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson. She’s just getting started in her profession when she meets a new client, Elisabeth Clark. Her first meetings with Elisabeth show just how difficult it can be to establish any kind of rapport with a client, so as to build trust. After a time, though, Elisabeth does begin to trust her new therapist a little, and shares a terrible story from her past. Years earlier, her younger sister, Gracie, was abducted. No trace of her was ever found, and the incident devastated Elisabeth. This story is hauntingly familiar to Stephanie, whose family faced similar devastation when Stephanie’s younger sister, Gemma, was abducted. Against her better judgement, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest, and try to find out who caused such pain to both families. So, she travels from Dunedin to her home town at Wanaka, and works to find out the truth about the two missing girls. Among other things, this novel shows the intimacy that there can be in a therapaeutic relationship.

Fans of Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels, and of Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin novels can say similar things about those series. They show the complexities and intimacy that develop when two people work together to help one of them heal. It’s little wonder this complicated relationship figures in so many crime novels.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Annie Ross’ Twisted.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Jonathan Kellerman, Michael Robotham, Nicci French, Paddy Richardson

Just Trying to Decide*

Difficult DecisionsThere are some decisions that involve real questions of conscience. Those decisions can be among the most difficult to make, because people have such different perspectives on them. Do you take that job with a company you know pollutes the atmosphere (because the money and chances for advancement are good, and maybe you can change it from within)? Do you defend the right of someone whose views you find repugnant to demonstrate? These are just two examples of the kinds of decision I have in mind. There are many, many others.

Such decisions can add an interesting layer of suspense to a crime novel. They’re sources of conflict, and they are realistic. There’s not very much space in just this one post for me to mention them all, so here are just a few. I know you’ll think of many more.

One of the most difficult and painful decisions a person ever makes is whether to have (or perform) an abortion. I won’t get into the moral and political issues involved here. This is a crime fiction blog, not a blog about politics, religion or morality. Suffice it to say that it’s a wrenching decision. We see that in Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need, which he wrote under the name of Jeffrey Hudson. The novel takes place in 1968 Boston, a time when abortion was not legal in the U.S.  Dr. Arthur Lee, an obstetrician at Boston’s Memorial Hospital, is arrested in connection with the death of Karen Randall. The charge is that he performed an illegal abortion which he botched, causing her death. Lee asks his good friend, pathologist Dr. John Berry, to help clear his name. Berry knows that Lee performs abortions, but Lee assures him that Karen Randall’s wasn’t one of them. Berry doesn’t want to see his friend wrongfully imprisoned, so he agrees to see what he can find out. This runs him directly up against the highest levels of authority at the hospital, since the victim was the daughter of a very wealthy and powerful doctor. Berry finds out the truth about Karen’s death; as he does, we see just how controversial the decision to have or perform abortions really is.

I touch on the same issue in my Joel Williams novel Past Tense. It’s out for submission right now (I could really use some happy thoughts, please!), so as you can imagine, elements of it may change. But as it is, a set of bones dating from the early-to-mid 1970s is discovered on the campus of Tilton University. Former police officer turned professor of criminal justice Joel Williams takes an interest in the case when he finds out about it from a colleague. He learns that one of the people who may be involved is another colleague who was a student at Tilton during that time. That’s when she faced the difficult question of what to do when she found she was pregnant. Abortion had recently become legal in the US, so she made the choice to have the procedure. As her story shows, it’s a wrenching decision.

So was the decision about whether to participate in the Vietnam War. There were many young people who took seriously what they saw as their duty to country to serve in that war. We see that in Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night. The protagonist of that novel is octogenarian Sheldon Horowitz, who’s moved from his native New York City to Norway, so as to be nearer to his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband. One day he witnesses the murder of a young woman. She’s left a small son behind, so Horowitz takes the boy with him, since he’s sure the killers will be back for the child. The two of them go on the run, trying to outwit their pursuers. In the process, we learn Horowitz’ backstory. His son (and Rhea’s father) Saul served two tours of duty in Vietnam, and was killed during the second. Horowitz actually encouraged his son to enlist in the military, giving him the message that he should give back to the country that took care of him. Since his son’s death, Horowitz has had to deal with the guilt he feels about that encouragement.

Other people’s consciences didn’t allow them to fight in Vietnam. Instead, they left the country; many went to Canada. In Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier, we meet Andy Smith, and his wife Lucy ‘Lucky’ two ex-pat Americans who moved to Trafalgar, British Colombia so that Andy wouldn’t have to fight a war he thought was immoral. In one plot thread of that novel, a group of citizens wants to create a Peace Garden in memory of those who followed their consciences and refused to fight the war. They’ve got the financial backing they need, too. Others, though, feel that the garden would be too controversial, especially given that Trafalgar is a tourist destination that can use the money that comes from American visitors. Andy and Lucky’s daughter Moonlight ‘Molly’ is a constable caught in the middle of the debate. Her job is to help keep order, and that’s not going to be very easy with feelings running so high.

In Nicci French’s Blue Monday, London psychologist Frieda Klein faces another kind of conscience-based decision. She’s working with a new patient, Alan Dekker, who’s suffering from anxiety problems and other issues. Bit by bit, the two begin to address those issues, and Dekker tells her of a dream he’s had – a dream in which he has his own son. Dekker and his wife haven’t been able to have children, but Dekker resists adoption, so Klein sees a natural connection between Dekker’s personal situation and his dreams. Gradually, they begin working on events from his past that have impacted his current psychological situation. Then, Klein hears of a truly disturbing event: four-year-old Matthew Faraday has gone missing. Despite massive public appeals and police efforts, no trace of the boy has turned up. At first subconsciously, then actively, Klein begins to wonder if there is a link between her work with Alan Dekker and Matthew Faraday’s disappearance. She’s not supposed to reveal anything about her work with her clients, but this is different. So she makes the difficult decision to go to the police, in the form of DCI Malcolm Karlsson, with her concerns.

The decision of whether to give a child up for adoption is addressed in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate the death of Maryanne Delbeck, who volunteered there at the New Life Children’s Centre. In order to find out the truth about Maryanne’s death, Keeney looks into what’s going on at New Life. She discovers that in part, its mission is to prepare children who are eligible for adoption for their new homes. As she learns how New Life really works, we learn about one toddler, Kob, who is matched with an American couple. Keeney gets involved with that process, and as she does, we see just what wrenching decisions are made when it comes to adoption.

These are only a few of the difficult choices we sometimes face. They may keep us awake at night, but they also form interesting story strands in crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Babys’ Isn’t it Time. 

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Filed under Angela Savage, Derek B. Miller, Jeffery Hudson, Michael Crichton, Nicci French, Vicki Delany

What I Am is What I Am*

Nature and NurtureIn Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the killer was her rather unpleasant lodger James Bentley, but Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence has come to believe that Bentley is innocent. One evening, Poirot is invited to a party and later, joins a group of people who’ve gathered at the home of one of the characters, Laura Upward. During a discussion about the care and breeding of Irish Wolfhounds, Mrs. Upward says,
 

‘Environment can give a veneer – no more. It’s what’s bred in people that counts.’
 

Without spoiling the story, I can say that this question of ‘nature vs nurture’ is one of the elements in this novel.

And it’s not surprising. The question of what impacts us the most, our environment or heredity, has fascinated people for centuries. It’s been the driving force behind countless studies.

The answer to the question, of course, is quite complicated. People are complex, and impacted by many factors. Heredity is one, and so is environment. So are other forces as well. But despite the fact that we know it’s not as simple as ‘nature or nurture,’ people still debate that issue, and explore it in writing.

Certainly it’s there in crime fiction. Christie discussed it in several of her stories (I’m thinking, for instance, of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, of Appointment With Death, and of The Murder on the Links). There are lots of other examples, too.

Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City takes up the topic of nature and nurture and what it all means, too. In that novel, Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur and his team investigate the murder of a seemingly inoffensive elderly man named Holberg. At first the case looks like a robbery gone very wrong. But there are a few clues that suggest that this was a deliberate killing. So the next step is to look at the people in the victim’s current life, as well as those in his past. And as it turns out, Holberg was quite possibly not as harmless and innocent as he seemed. As the police team digs into his background, they find some ugly allegations of rape and attempted rape. There’s even a possibly-related case of suicide that seems to have had its roots in Holberg’s past. Among other things, it’s an interesting exploration of the environment/heredity issue.

The ‘Nicci French’ writing team raises the question of nature v nurture in Blue Monday. In that novel, London psychologist Frieda Klein gets a new client, Alan Dekker. He has all sorts of emotional and other issues, one of which is his dream of having his own son – a boy who looks just like him. He and his wife, Carrie, haven’t had any children, and Dekker doesn’t want to adopt. So he and Klein start the difficult work of exploring his past, his feelings about adoption, and his beliefs about heredity and environment. Then comes the disturbing news that four-year-old Matthew Farady has gone missing. DI Malcom Karlsson and his team begin the investigation immediately, but nothing turns up. When Klein hears of the boy’s disappearance, she begins to worry, first subconsciously and then actively, that it might be connected in some way with the work she’s doing with Dekker. It’s risky from the perspective of professional ethics, but Klein lets Karlsson know of her concerns. They begin to look more deeply into the case and, little by little, each in a different way, they find out the truth. They also find out how it relates to another disappearance from twenty years earlier.

Gail Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, is a political scientist and academician. She is also the adoptive mother of Taylor, who is a gifted artist. Taylor’s birth mother Sally Love was also a gifted artist, and Taylor has had her issues in coming to terms with her own talent and what that means about her connection to her birth mother. She’s been raised in the Kilbourn/Shreve home for almost all of her life, so she certainly is impacted by the influence from that experience, too. One of the challenges she faces as she begins the journey to adulthood is to sort out her personal self and reconcile her heredity and the environment in which she’s lived.

And then there’s Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel. That novel explores the relationship between Eve Moran and her daughter Christine. Eve has always been both seductive and manipulative, able to get anything. And she’s not above doing whatever it takes, including murder, to go after what she wants. On one level, Christine has always known what her mother was like. But she’s been raised in that environment, and has a complicated relationship with Eve. Everything changes, though, when Christine notices that her three-year-old brother Ryan is beginning to be drawn into the same dangerous web. Now she has to come to terms with the person Eve is and the person she herself has become, and find a way a way to free herself and Ryan. Among other things, this novel shows just how intermingled and ‘muddy’ the relationship between heredity and environment can really be.

A lot of research shows that we are products of both our heredity and our environment in a lot of complicated and integrated ways. So it’s really not sufficient to say that one or the other is the most important factor in what we are. Still, many people find that question absolutely fascinating, and there are certainly a lot of stories that address it. I’ve not mentioned some of those I had in mind, for fear of giving away spoilers. But I’ll bet you know of plenty yourself.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Edie Brickell’s What I Am.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Gail Bowen, Nicci French, Patricia Abbott