Category Archives: Paddy Richardson

Halfway Down Dominion Road*


The building in this ‘photo is Auckland’s Supreme Courthouse. It’s even more beautiful and impressive in real life than it is in the photograph. It’s also a great reminder that crime happens everywhere, including New Zealand. You wouldn’t think so, but crime happens even in a beautiful place like this. Certainly crime-fictional sorts of crime happen.

If you want a thorough, rich discussion of Kiwi crime fiction, you’ll want to go and visit Crime Watch, which is the source for all things crime-fictionally Kiwi. It’s also your stop for updates and information on the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, New Zealand’s highest award for crime writers. For now, though, let me just make mention of a few New Zealand authors who set their novels and series here.

Perhaps the most famous of New Zealand’s crime writers is Ngaio Marsh. Her Roderick Alleyn novels take place in different countries, often England. But she also wrote stories that take place in New Zealand. For example, Died in the Wool is the story of the murder of MP Florence ‘Flossie’ Flossie Rubrick. One day, she goes to one of the sheep pens on her husband’s farm to rehearse a speech she’s planning to give. She doesn’t return until three weeks later when her body turns up in a bale of wool. The victim’s nephew asks Inspector Alleyn to investigate, and he travels to New Zealand to do so. In the process of looking into the matter, he finds out that several members of Rubrick’s family had very good reasons for wanting her dead. This murder turns out to be related to espionage, and to one family member in particular.

Another crime novelist who’s gotten quite well known is Paul Cleave. In fact, Cleave won the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel for Five Minutes Alone. His debut novel, The Cleaner is set in Christchurch, where Joe Middleton works as a janitor at the police station. Unbeknownst to everyone, he is also a serial killer known as The Carver. The story is that The Carver has killed seven victims. But Middleton knows that’s not true, because he’s only killed six. He wants to find out who the ‘copycat killer’ is, so that he can frame him for the other killings, and punish him for pretending to be The Carver. It’s not going to be as easy as it seems, though…

Paddy Richardson’s novels are also set in New Zealand. Her novels Traces of Red and Cross Fingers feature Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. In the first, Thorne begins to suspect that Connor Bligh, who is in prison for murdering his sister, her husband, and their son, might be innocent. If he is, this is the story that could ensure her place at the top of New Zealand TV journalism. So she starts asking questions and looking into the case again. As time goes on, she finds herself getting closer to the case than is safe. In Cross Fingers, Thorne investigates the thirty-year-old death of a man who dressed up as a lamb and entertained crowds during the Springboks’ 1981 tour of New Zealand. That tour was controversial, and there were many, many protests and reports of police abuse of power; so at the time, not a lot of attention was paid to the death of one person. But Thorne finds it an interesting angle, and uncovers an unsolved murder. Richardson’s standalone novels, Hunting Blind and Swimming in the Dark, are set on New Zealand’s South Island.

So is Vanda Symon’s series featuring Constable Samantha ‘Sam’ Shephard, who works with the Mataura Police. Along with the crimes she investigates, she has to deal with a difficult boss, family strain, and, in Overkill, being suspected of murder. But she has plenty of grit and determination; and, despite the fact that she doesn’t always play ‘by the book’ she’s a skilled detective.

Paul Thomas’ Tito Ihaka novels are mostly set in Auckland. Ihaka is a Māori police detective with his own way of solving cases. In Guerrilla Season, his first outing, Ihaka wants to investigate a series of deaths claimed by extremists called Aotearoa People’s Army. Ihaka isn’t sure they’re responsible, though, and starts to dig deeper. This gets him into trouble with his superiors, though, and he’s taken off that case and put onto a case of suspected blackmail. When that proves to be related, it’s clear that Ihaka has uncovered something much more than he’d suspected.

Bev Robitai’s Theatre Mysteries are also set in Auckland, at the Regent Theatre. In Murder in the Second Row, and Body on the Stage, Robitai combines murder with a look backstage at the way stage productions are planned, created, rehearsed and executed (yes, pun intended ;-) ) Readers also get to know some of the people outside the theatre who make those productions possible.

Under the pseudonym of Alix Bosco, Greg McGee has written two novels, Cut and Run and Slaughter Falls, featuring Auckland legal researcher Anna Markunas. In the first, she helps defend a young man accused of killing a rugby star. In the second, she investigates a series of deaths among a New Zealand tour group that’s visiting Brisbane. It’ll be interesting to learn if another Anna Markunas novel will be released.

And then there’s Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe novels. Rowe is a Wellington missing person expert who’s called in to identify twenty-five-year-old remains in Surrender. In My Brother’s Keeper, ex-convict Karen Mackie hires Rowe to find her fourteen-year-old daughter Sunny. As Rowe learns, Mackie was in prison for trying to kill Sunny, so the dilemma in this case is a real one.

There are plenty of other New Zealand writers, such as Cat Connor and Andrew Grant, who set their novels elsewhere. For a small country, Kiwi crime fiction leaves quite a footprint…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Mutton Birds’ Dominion Road.


Filed under Alix Bosco, Andrew Grant, Bev Robitai, Cat Connor, Donna Malane, Greg McGee, Ngaio Marsh, Paddy Richardson, Paul Cleave, Paul Thomas, Uncategorized, Vanda Symon

But Everything I Know, I Keep it to Myself*

Reporting SuspicionsOne of the dilemmas people face, both in real life and in crime fiction, is whether (perhaps more accurately, at what point) to act when they suspect that something dangerous or worse is going on. On the one hand, most people don’t want to be considered fanciful or meddling. What’s more, something they consider suspicious may be perfectly innocent; reporting it thus wastes police time and thoroughly upsets and inconveniences an innocent person. That’s not a good way to build and maintain a harmonious relationship with someone.

On the other hand, I’m sure you’ve seen the same public service announcements (e.g. ‘If you see something, say something’) that I have. And there certainly are crimes that are prevented or quickly solved because someone spoke up or did something. So there’s an argument that speaking out is worthwhile. It’s a tricky dilemma, though, as crime fiction shows us.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, Hercule Poirot is staying in a Jerusalem hotel. One night, he happens to be at the window of his room, preparing to shut it, when he hears these words:

‘‘You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?’’

Poirot wonders, briefly, whether he ought to act on his natural curiosity, but quickly decides not to do so. After all, it’s probably

‘A collaboration, perhaps, over a play or a book.’

Poirot’s decision not to act comes back later, when an American visitor to the Middle East, Mrs. Boynton, is killed during a visit to Petra. You can’t really say that Poirot’s choice allows the murder to happen. But it’s an interesting example of that sort of dilemma.

In When the Bough Breaks, Jonathan Kellerman’s first Alex Delaware novel, LAPD officer Milo Sturgis gets a particularly ugly case. Psychiatrist Morton Handler and his lover Elena Gutierrez have been brutally murdered, and the only witness is seven-year-old Melody Quinn. Not only is her testimony impacted by her youth, but also, she’s on heavy medication for attention disorders, so it’s not easy to communicate with her. Sturgis hopes that his friend, child psychologist Alex Delaware, will be able to work with Melody and get her to talk about what happened. It’s not easy, but eventually, Delaware and Sturgis link these murders to a residential school for children called Casa de Los Niños. Later, it’s all linked to some events in some of the characters’ pasts. As it turns out, some characters face a difficult dilemma over telling what they know about what’s going on at La Casa de Los Niños, and it’s interesting to see how they have dealt with that dilemma.

In Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, crime writer Martin Canning is faced with a slightly different sort of ‘should I act’ dilemma. He and some other people are waiting their turn one day to buy tickets for a lunchtime radio comedy show. As they’re waiting, Canning and the others suddenly see a blue Honda hit the rear of a silver Peugeot that braked too quickly. The two drivers get out and get into an altercation that turns serious when the Honda driver brandishes a baseball bat and starts to beat Paul Bradley, who’s driving the Peugeot. No-one quite knows what to do or whether to act. Then, almost by instinct, Canning throws his laptop case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. Out of a sense of duty, Canning accompanies Bradley to a nearby hospital to make sure that he’s all right, and promptly gets involved in a web of fraud and murder he hadn’t imagined.

The question of ‘should I have spoken up?’ becomes very important in Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks. Fourteen-year-old Adam Vander has finally gathered the courage he needs to escape his abusive father, Joe. But he’s been so locked away that he has little knowledge of the world or how to survive in it. Fortunately for him, he meets Billy Benson, a young man who is visiting the house, as he leaves. Billy helps Adam get away, and the two take off. During the next week, they stay where they can, eat what and when they can, and get to know each other. They learn that there’s more in both of their pasts than either thought, and that they are connected to a past tragedy. They also get into real danger together. One of the things that comes up is: why didn’t anyone do anything to help Adam before? Everyone knew the kind of violent person Joe Vander was, so why didn’t anyone speak up or ask the authorities to investigate?

Ilse Klein has to decide whether to speak up in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. She is a secondary school teacher in Alexandria, on New Zealand’s South Island. One of her most promising pupils is fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. The girl has real academic skill and Ilse is confident she’ll do well. Then, Serena starts skipping school. And when she is there, she doesn’t participate. Ilse is concerned about it, and ends up speaking to the school’s counselor, who visits the girl’s home. In this case, that makes sense, since teachers and counselors are, as a rule, required to report suspected child abuse or neglect. Rebuffed by Serena’s mother, the counselor doesn’t make much headway. Then Serena disappears. She’s gone for three weeks before her mother contacts her older sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie.’ And one question Lynnie has is, why isn’t anyone looking for Serena? Why has so little been done? As we find out the truth about Serena, we also learn how important it can be to speak up and report things.

And then there’s Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed. World War II has just ended, and Douglas Brodie is trying to put the pieces of his life back together in London. Then, he gets a call from an old friend Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. It seems that Donovan’s been arrested for the murder of a young boy. He claims to be innocent, and wants Brodie to come to Glasgow, where the two grew up, and find out the truth. Brodie agrees to go, very reluctantly, and at first, he is not convinced of Donovan’s innocence. There’s certainly evidence against him; there’s even a possibility that he committed four other murders. Then, Brodie meets Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell. She believes that her client has been framed, and, slowly, Brodie comes around to her point of view. The trail in this case leads to some ugly secrets that some well-placed people have been keeping. What’s more, it raises the question of what might have happened if people who’d suspected something had not kept quiet.

And that’s the thing. Sometimes, something that seems suspicious is quite innocent. It’s a very serious matter, too, to make allegations. But at times, ‘If you see something, say something’ makes more sense.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buddy Guy’s Keep it to Myself (AKA Keep it to Yourself).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gordon Ferris, Honey Brown, Jonathan Kellerman, Kate Atkinson, Paddy Richardson

Like Looking at My Mirror and Seeing a Police Car*

Resistance to PoliceIf you read enough crime fiction, you find that a lot of fictional characters – even those who are not guilty of a crime – do not like the police. Even in cases where the police characters are ‘the good guys,’ there’s a tendency not to want them around. There are even plenty of characters who would rather try to manage a very dangerous situation on their own than involve the police. I’m no expert on sociology or psychology, but I think there are some basic, underlying patterns that drive a wedge between the police and the people they are supposed to protect. Those wedges can mean that even when the police are ‘on the side of the angels,’ people don’t trust them.


Police Aren’t Always ‘The Good Guys’

There are plenty of stories in which characters have good reason to distrust the police. For example, in cases such as Nicole Watson’s The Boundary and Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road (Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, too), characters have had unfortunate, even terrible experiences with the police. The police have acted in racist, bullying ways. Or they’ve abused their authority because of a ‘power rush.’ In cases such as Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark or Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack, you see police who are part of a larger, dangerous state system where people ‘disappear.’ There are plenty of other examples, too, of course.

When this sort of thing happens, especially if you see it happen multiple times, it’s only natural to believe that the police cannot be trusted. Why would you speak to anyone who could very well end up abusing you or worse? In this case, even a copper who’s on the ‘side of the angels’ has a hard time getting anyone to talk. No-one is willing to take that risk.


There’s Community Resistance to the Police

In some communities, the police are seen as meddlers and officious busybodies. People in those communities want the police to just go somewhere else and arrest someone else, rather than tell them what to do. Anyone who is regarded as being too friendly with the police is seen as a threat, or at least someone who isn’t quite ‘one of us.’

We see that sort of community in Peter May’s Lewis trilogy. Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod grew up on the Isle of Lewis, but left as a very young man, and has been serving as a police officer in Edinburgh. He’s seconded back to Lewis at the beginning of the trilogy, and it’s interesting to see how everyone reacts to him. For some, that reaction is because of personal history. Others, though, can’t resist commenting on the fact that he’s ‘polis’ now, the implication being that he’s no longer ‘one of them.’ We also see this attitude in several of Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel/Peter Pascoe novels. In those cases, the police have to penetrate rather closed communities, where the police are simply seen as not belonging. Even those who aren’t guilty of any crime would rather not be seen as talking to the coppers.

Related to this are the novels in which the police have to work within a closed religious community, where members don’t usually interact with ‘outsiders.’ I’m thinking, for instance, of Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder novels, where the Amish community of Ohio figures largely.

Fear of Retribution

In some cases, the police are up against a dangerous enemy – one with at least as much power (or so it seems) as they have. In these cases, people know what will happen to them if they talk to the police. So they keep quiet in the hopes of staying out of trouble, calling no attention to themselves, and (hopefully) staying alive.

We see that, for instance, in Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. Some very dangerous people are seen as more threatening than the police who are investigating a murder. So people say as little as they can. That’s also true, to an extent, in Maureen Carter’s Working Girls. That story takes place among Birmingham’s sex workers, who have more to fear from powerful pimps, as they see it, than from the police. So it’s very hard to get information from them, especially for those who don’t have an ‘in.’

There is Risk to One’s Reputation

There’s less of this, I think, in modern crime novels than in classic or Golden Age crime novels. I haven’t gathered the data to support myself on this, but I do think people are less concerned about ‘what everyone will say!’ if they call the police than in times past.  But certainly a lot of fictional characters hire a private detective rather than call the police for just that reason.

For example, in several of Agatha Christie’s novels (I’m thinking, for instance, of Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client)), Poirot is hired because his client doesn’t want to involve the police. It’s considered to be a family matter, and therefore, not something the client wants made public. There’s even a mention in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours) that

It’s common to be mixed up with the police, and don’t you forget it.’

And Christie is by no means the only author who weaves this prejudice into her stories.


Characters are Guilty

There is, of course, also the fact that people don’t want the police around because they are guilty. They may not be guilty of murder; in fact, many aren’t. But they are guilty of something, and they would rather the police not find that out. You see that in many, many novels, and I don’t want to spoil stories by mentioning particular titles or authors. But if you read enough crime fiction, you know that lots of people dodge the police because they have ‘side businesses,’ or skim from company funds, or perhaps don’t exactly mind the legal drink limit, or something of that sort.

All of this, of course, makes it very hard for the police to go after a killer. Trying to get through all of these side issues and resistance can be extremely difficult. But it also adds to the tension and complexity in a novel.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Almost Cut My Hair.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Attica Locke, Ernesto Mallo, Eva Dolan, Garry Disher, Linda Castillo, Maureen Carter, Nicole Watson, Paddy Richardson, Peter May, Reginald Hill

You’re Living in the Present Tense*

Stories In the Present TenseHave you noticed that there seems to be a trend in crime fiction towards telling stories in the present tense? Using the present tense is not a brand-new phenomenon in the genre. Still, it seems that many modern crime writers make that choice. Some writers claim that using the present tense conveys more immediacy, and allows a certain character depth. Other writers choose it for other reasons.

Use of the present tense is by no means universally popular though. Traditionally, publishers have frowned on that choice, requesting instead the use of the past tense. And lots of readers dislike reading books told in the present tense. It’s certainly not a settled question.

That said though, there are a lot of writers who’ve used that option. For instance, Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind is told in the present tense. It’s the story of the Anderson family, whose lives are changed forever when four-year-old Gemma Anderson goes missing during a school picnic one terrible day. A massive search is undertaken, but no trace of the girl is ever found – not even a body. The Andersons try to move on as best they can, but they are left shattered. Seventeen years later, Gemma’s older sister Stephanie is a fledgling psychologist who lives and works in Dunedin. She begins working with a new patient, Elisabeth Clark, only to learn that she, too, had a younger sister who disappeared at a young age. Against her better professional judgement, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who is responsible for the abductions. Her journey takes her back to her home town of Wanaka; and as she finds out the truth, she also slowly begins the healing process.

Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin/Vincent Ruiz series is also told in the present tense. It begins with The Suspect. In that novel, the body of Catherine McBride is pulled out of London’s Grand Union Canal. DI Vincent Ruiz discovers that she was a patient of psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, and wants his help in the matter. Then there’s another murder; this time O’Loughlin is clearly implicated. Ruiz already had questions about O’Loughlin, and now it seems that those suspicions are confirmed. Since the story is told from O’Loughlin’s point of view, I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that he is innocent and is being cleverly set up. The question, of course, is by whom and why. It’s an interesting pairing of these two protagonists, and as fans will know, it’s a fruitful partnership.

Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, which takes place in 1981, is the story of Houston area lawyer Jay Porter. One night, he takes his pregnant wife Bernadine ‘Bernie’ out for a bayou cruise to celebrate her birthday. During the trip, they hear a woman’s screams and then gunfire. Then they see a woman tumble into the water. Almost by instinct, Jay rescues her and they return to the boat dock. The woman says very little about herself, and claims that she’ll be fine. But she does consent to be taken to the nearest police station. After she’s dropped off there, the Porters return home. The next morning. Porter learns of a fatal shooting in the area where they rescued the young woman. He doesn’t want to be involved, but ends up drawn into the case, which turns out to be a complicated web of corruption and greed at high levels. This story is told in the present tense; but, interestingly, its follow-up, Pleasantville, is not. That novel takes up Porter’s story fifteen years after the events of Black Water Rising.

Chris Grabenstein’s John Ceepak/Danny Boyle novels are also told in the present tense, from Boyle’s point of view. Beginning with Tilt a Whirl, this series takes place in fictional Sea Haven, New Jersey, and features Boyle, who starts out as an extra ‘summer cop,’ hired to help deal with the tourists. As the series goes on, he becomes a full-time member of the Police Department, and works under the supervision of John Ceepak. These novels are told in the way that you might tell a friend about something that happened to you (e.g. ‘So there I am, sitting at the café, when these two guys come in. They go up to the counter and order…’).

Another author who uses present tense is John Burdett, whose Sonchai Jitpleecheep series takes place in modern Bangkok. Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police. He is also an observant Buddhist who tries to live his life according to those principles. Beginning with Bangkok 8, the series chronicles some of Sonchai’s cases as well as his own personal development. The novels are told in the first person, so we see the events clearly from his point of view. Burdett also uses the present tense/first person as a tool to convey interesting information to the reader. More than once in the series, Sonchai figuratively turns to the reader and offers ‘asides’ on Buddhism, Thai society and philosophy.

And then there’s Ernesto Mallo. His Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano series takes place in late 1970’s Argentina. Lescano is a police officer at a very dangerous time. The far-right military government does not hesitate to silence any opposition, however illusory. And since everyone is trying to stay alive, very few people can be trusted not to ‘sell out’ others. Against this backdrop, Lescano is just trying to do his job and solve cases.  The series begins with Needle in a Haystack, in which Lescano investigates the death of a successful moneylender and pawn broker, Elías Biterman. Every effort is made to make his death look like an Army hit so that the police will leave the case alone, as they so often do. But enough things are different about this case that Lescano stars asking very risky questions.

There are many other novels and series, too, that are written in the present tense (I know, I know, fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels). Some people enjoy the use of that tense; some people really dislike it. Others don’t really notice, or care, one way or the other.

What do you think about this? I’ve put a little poll here so that you can speak up, and I’d love your input. After a week or two, I’ll do a follow-up post on your answers.


Writers, do you use present tense? Why or why not?

ps. A special thanks goes out to FictionFan, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews, for the inspiration for this post.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Geddy Lee’s The Present Tense.


Filed under Attica Locke, Elly Griffiths, Ernesto Mallo, John Burdett, Michael Robotham, Paddy Richardson

And I Know That You’ll Use Them However You Want To*

Prior Knowledge ReadersIn yesterday’s post, I mentioned that authors often tap their own experiences and prior knowledge as they create new stories. That’s only natural if, as the research suggests, knowledge comes from associating new things with what we already know. But what about readers? Readers come from a wide variety of different backgrounds and have a wide variety of experiences. So how does an author invite readers to tap their own life experiences to make meaning from what they’re reading, and thus connect with a book at a deeper level?

I think it’s important to start by saying that readers enjoy using their imaginations. Wise authors respect their readers, and give them credit for the ability to imagine things they may not have experienced. Just because a reader hasn’t, say, been to Canada’s Ellesmere Island doesn’t mean that he or she can’t fully enjoy M.J. McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk novels, which take place there. Authors who assume otherwise either condescend to readers, or provide so much ‘information dump’ that it distracts from the story.

That said, though, there’s also research that shows that readers engage more with stories, remember them better and make more meaning from them when they can identify in some way with a story. In other words, when readers can tap their own backgrounds, they’re more likely to enjoy and remember what they read.

If that’s true, then how does the author accomplish that? One effective way to go about this is to focus on things, events and feelings that most people can identify with and connect with their own lives. For example, one plot thread of Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark concerns Gerda Klein and her daughter Ilse. Originally from Leipzig, in what used to be East Germany, they left there during the 1980s, during the Cold War, and ended up in New Zealand. That’s where their lives intersect with the life of fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, who is one of Ilse’s most promising students. When she loses interest in school, Ilse becomes concerned. And everything changes completely when she disappears. Not all readers have experienced life under a totalitarian regime. Not all readers know what it’s like to move to another country. But just about everyone has had the experience of being in a new and unfamiliar place, where you have to get used to where everything is, how to get things done, and how to fit in. On that deeper, human level, it’s easy for readers to identify with Gerda and Ilse Klein.

Today’s readers never experienced the Victorian Era – not on a personal level. So why do Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories still resonate the way they do? In part, of course, it’s that the mysteries are interesting. But more than that, there are common human experiences and themes woven throughout the stories. For instance, in The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the mystery of a strange set of coded messages sent to Elsie Cubitt. Her husband Hilton is concerned about them, mostly because of the change he sees in his wife. She’s obviously frightened, although she won’t tell him why, or who sent the messages. Not all readers are interested in or good at ciphers and codes. And as I say, today’s readers can’t identify on a personal level with the Victorian Era as a rule. But we can all understand at a deep level what it’s like to care about someone who’s hurting or frightened. And it’s not hard to understand the feeling of wanting to protect a loved one, as both Elsie and Hilton Cubitt try to do.

There’s another way in which authors can invite readers to tap their world views and knowledge and engage in a story: helping to build background knowledge. Some authors tell stories about places or times or particular events that others might not know very well. In those cases, giving the reader some information can be very helpful.

Of course, there’s an important caveat here. Too much information (and not enough story!) can pull a reader out of a novel. So it’s got to be done carefully. That said though, giving some background information can be helpful.

That’s what Stan Jones has done in his Nathan Active novels. Those novels take place in Chukchi, Alaska, and feature several characters who are Inupiak. Readers may very well not be very knowledgeable about those people and their lives. So Jones provides some really interesting information to help in forming some background knowledge. Yet, he doesn’t distract the reader from the story and the characters. Instead, the information is given as it’s relevant to the story, in pieces at a time. I hear you, Tony Hillerman fans…

That’s also true of Faye Kellerman’s Rina Lazarus/Peter Decker series. Those novels feature an ‘inside look’ at Orthodox Judaism, since Lazarus is an observant member of that community. Several plots in this series involve Jewish observations, history, customs, and so on. And yet, Kellerman doesn’t overload the stories with facts, background information or long-winded histories. Rather, she provides information as it’s relevant to the story at hand. So readers who don’t have background knowledge can build it and can use that understanding to make meaning for themselves.

And that’s another aspect of inviting readers to connect with a story: trusting them to make that meaning. Authors who don’t assume that readers are active participants in the reading process risk several things. First, they risk insulting those readers. Not a good idea. Second, they risk boring those readers. If an author spells everything out (rather than trusting the reader to use her or his background knowledge to ‘fill in the blanks’), readers quickly lose interest. That’s also not a good idea.

It goes without saying (or should) that readers will engage themselves more in novels with effective writing and interesting plots and characters. But there is another, deeper level at which readers can also choose to identify with what’s happening in a story. That comes when the author provides characters, events and things that readers can connect with in their own lives, no matter their background. It can also be helped with the author provides some background information when it’s less likely readers would have it.

More than anything else though, at least in my opinion, it’s important to remember that readers bring their own backgrounds and experiences to the reading process. Trusting them to use that knowledge and giving them some points of connection can make the difference between a good book and one the reader will always remember (and hopefully recommend).

What are your thoughts on this? Are there books you’ve connected with on that very deep level? What’s done that for you? If you’re a writer, what do you do to invite readers to make those connections?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Anna Nalick’s Breathe (2 AM). Best understood if you know that the preceding line is: ‘Cause these words are my diary screaming out loud.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Faye Kellerman, M.J McGrath, Paddy Richardson, Stan Jones, Tony Hillerman