Category Archives: Reginald Hill

There is Nothin’ ‘Bout Me That’s Unsuitable*

A lot of us have at least something about our appearance that we’d like to change. That’s part of why the fitness, beauty, and pharmacy industries are as lucrative as they are. And there’s nothing at all wrong with choosing healthy foods or getting just the right haircut. After all, when you like the way you look, that can build confidence.

But it’s really refreshing to meet people who are, as the saying goes, comfortable in their own skins. Yes, it might be nice to be taller/shorter, a little younger, or perhaps have blue instead of brown eyes. But people who are at peace with themselves are content with the way they look. They don’t desperately try to be different, and that makes them more confident, interesting characters.

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, for instance, knows full well that she’s not a young, lithe beauty. And, yet, she doesn’t dye her hair, or spend lots of money on the latest beauty remedies. She keeps her appearance neat and clean, but she doesn’t obsess about what she looks like. And her age and comfort with herself gives her a certain confidence. On the surface, she’s everyone’s well-mannered, polite grandmother. But fans know that she has a razor-sharp mind and is confident enough in herself to be assertive when she needs to be. And that adds interest to her character.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe isn’t exactly ‘movie star’ attractive. As his partner, Archie Goodwin says, he weighs a seventh of a ton. Wolfe isn’t overly concerned about his appearance, though. He doesn’t dress in the latest fashion or spend a fortune on his hair or clothes. As fans know, there are a few novels in which he diets and (gasp!) exercises. But in the main, he’s not worried about losing weight or being on the ‘cutting edge’ of men’s fashion. He’s comfortable with the way he is, and he is utterly confident in himself – sometimes, as Archie would say, too confident. But Wolfe lives life on his own terms, with no attempt to look the way he’s ‘supposed to’ look.

Fans of Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel can tell you that it’s much the same with him. He knows he’s wrong at times. But he’s confident in himself and comfortable in his own skin. He certainly doesn’t worry too much about how men are ‘supposed to’ look. He doesn’t spend a fortune on clothes, men’s cosmetics, or gym memberships. Instead, he accepts himself exactly the way he is. If others don’t like it, he doesn’t much mind.

The same is true of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She’s a Melbourne accountant-turned-baker, who will be the first to tell you that she’s heavy. Here’s what she says about it, though:
 

‘I can’t afford to spend all day in self-loathing, as everyone expects fat women to do. Self-loathing eats your life. Being fat isn’t my fault or even my sin, despite what all those TV ads say. I was myself and that was what I was…’
 

She shares some wit about it, too:
 

‘I could not get that thin if I starved myself for ten years, and that is a fact. We are famine survivors, we fat women and ought to be valued for it. We must have been very useful when everyone else collapsed of starvation. We would have been able to sow the crops, feed the babies and keep the tribe alive until spring came. If you breed us out, what will you do when the bad times come again? At the very least, you could always eat us. I reckon I’d feed a family of six for a month.’ 
 

Chapman certainly has those moments we all do, where she’d like to have that beautiful outfit, or that perfect hair-and-makeup look. And she’s not what you’d call egotistical or arrogant. But she is confident and comfortable in her own skin.

So is Sophie Littlefield’s Stella Hardesty. She’s in her fifties, and she’s not exactly a magazine model lookalike. She likes her Johnnie Walker Black, and wears whatever’s comfortable. Her confidence is a real asset in her line of work, too. On the surface, she owns a legitimate sewing supply store. But she also has a ‘side business.’ Women who’ve been abused know that they can go to her for help evening the score. When she gets a new client, she pays a very uncomfortable visit to the abuser. If that’s not enough to teach him a lesson, she pays a second, even more unpleasant, visit. And she keeps track of her ‘parolees’ to make sure they stay on the proverbial straight and narrow. And after a visit from her, few of her ‘parolees’ want to fall afoul of her again. Hardesty knows that she’s not perfect, and she does make mistakes. But she is very comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t spend a lot of time obsessing about her appearance.

And that can be refreshing in a character.  We all have our anxieties; that’s perfectly natural. And it’s normal to wish we had perfect hair, a sculpted body, or something else. But people who are content with what they look like and who they are tend to have a real sense of confidence. And that can be very appealing.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s Big, Blonde and Beautiful.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Kerry Greenwood, Reginald Hill, Rex Stout, Sophie Littlefield

My Own Way*

When we think about what it takes to be a sleuth, management skills probably don’t come first to mind. But plenty of sleuths work regularly with others. And those sleuths are frequently in positions where they supervise others. So, management is an important part of their jobs.

Each manager has a slightly different style, and some people respond better to a given style than others do. It’s interesting to see how sleuths’ personalities come out in the way they manage, and how others react to those personalities. It’s also interesting to see how management skills develop over time.

Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel has a singular approach to managing. He is a tough, no-nonsense leader who expects his team to do their jobs well. Fans know that he does not suffer fools gladly, and he’s quite plain-spoken when he has a criticism. He’s not much of a one for being too concerned about people’s sensitivities. Working for Andy Dalziel requires a very thick skin. That said, though, there’s another side to his management style. He never asks his team to work harder or take more risks than he does. And he supports his team members, too. More than once in the series, Dalziel protects the people he supervises, and backs them in disputes with the Powers That Be. He’ll rake someone over the proverbial coals himself, but he is just as loyal to his team as he expects his team to be loyal to him.

Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg has a very different approach to management. But, then, he has a very unusual team. His team members are all what a lot of us would think of as eccentric, to say the least. One of them has narcolepsy, one is a naturalist, and one is a ‘walking encyclopaedia’ who drinks far more white wine than most people would think is a good idea. Oh, and in several books, there’s Snowball the office cat, who is a far better tracker than the humans at the office. Adamsberg knows that he works with very talented people. Insisting that they behave conventionally would rob him of some expert teammates. So, he looks the other way about the wine drinking, the narcolepsy, and so on. And he has come to trust his team as they trust him. Adamsberg himself is a bit eccentric. He has more of a philosophical approach to solving crime than a conventional one. Sometimes, he spends as much time at a local café thinking things through as he does sitting in his office. But he and his team are successful.

Angela Marsons’ Detective Inspector (DI) Kim Stone has had her challenges in life. She grew up in the care system, and was shuttled among several foster homes, not all of which were healthy places. So, she sometimes has an abrupt manner. She can be thoughtless, too, and sometimes pushes her team without considering that they have home lives and other obligations. But she works at least as heard as she expects any of her colleagues to do. And she’s quite well aware that she has faults. When she does see that she’s been too curt, or that her team desperately needs a break, she admits that and makes amends when she can. Her honesty may be brusque, but her team appreciates that she tells everyone the truth. And it’s interesting to see how she grows in her management role as the series goes on

Mari Hannah’s Detective Inspector (DI) Kate Daniels gets a chance at an important management role in The Murder Wall. The body of Alan Stephens is discovered, and Daniels’ boss, Superintendent Bright, names her Senior Investigating Officer (SIO). That’s a real coup, and Daniels wants, of course, to do well. It’s not going to be an easy case, though. For one thing, the team knows and has worked with the chief suspect, the victim’s ex-wife. For another thing, Daniels herself knew the victim, and hasn’t told anyone. Still, she and her team take on the investigation. As the novel goes on, one of the interesting story threads is the way Daniels begins to grow into her role as SIO. She and her team certainly make their share of mistakes. But they also learn a lot, and they do find the killer. It’s an interesting look at developing a management style.

We also see the development of a management style in Martin Edwards’ Lake District mysteries. As they begin (with The Coffin Trail), Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Hannah Scarlett has just been named to head the Cold Case Review Team at Cumbria Constabulary. She faces several challenges as she gets started, too. Her new position is actually seen as a demotion, since the team is ‘relegated’ to looking at cases that aren’t really making the news. And she’s got to deal with all of the interactions among team members, as well as the inevitable paperwork, assessment, and other duties that fall to those who manage. It’s a process for Scarlett as she learns to lead the team effectively and earn the respect of those who report to her. She makes mistakes, but her style develops as she gains confidence.

Everyone, real and fictional, has a different management style, And sometimes, different styles can be equally effective, depending on the leader and depending on those who report to that person. There’s only been space to talk about a few examples here, but I know you’ll think of lots more.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Rembrandts.

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Filed under Angela Marsons, Fred Vargas, Mari Hannah, Martin Edwards, Reginald Hill

I Prefer You*

Many crime writers have more than one series. This lets them explore different characters and plot lines. Having more than one series gives authors other options, too. It also lets them reach out to different audiences.

And that’s what’s interesting. Even ardent fans of an author usually prefer one of that author’s series over the other. While I have no hard data, my guess is that there are several reasons for that, and those reasons interact with one another.

One of the reasons might be that there are simply more novels in one of an author’s series than in the other. For example, Agatha Christie wrote 33 novels, a play, and more than 50 short stories featuring Hercule Poirot. She wrote 12 Miss Marple novels and a few short story collections. By contrast, she wrote only 4 novels and one short story collection featuring Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. It’s not surprising, if you think about it, that fans of Agatha Christie would prefer either Poirot or Miss Marple. It’s not necessarily because they are better stories (although some would argue that they are). It might also be that the Beresfords don’t get the ‘press’ that Poirot and Miss Marple do.

A similar thing might be said of Reginald Hill’s work. He wrote 24 novels featuring Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe, and many people know him from those stories (and the TV series based on them). But he also wrote 5 novels featuring Joe Sixsmith. There are people who like them better, but my guess is, most people think of Dalziel and Pascoe when they think of Hill.

Sometimes, an author’s different series features two very different contexts and/or main characters. So, a reader’s preference might have to do with the setting or the characters. For instance, Kerry Greenwood has two successful series. One features the Honorable Phryne Fisher, a 1920’s socialite who becomes a private detective. That series has been adapted for television, with Essie Davis in the role of Phryne Fisher. Greenwood’s other series features former accountant-turned baker Corinna Chapman. She’s quite a different sort of character to Phryne Fisher, although both are independent, intelligent, quick-witted women. The two series are quite different, too. One takes place in the 1920s; the other is contemporary. One is told in third person (past tense), the other in first person (also past tense). There are other differences, too, and readers certainly respond to them.

That’s arguably also the case with Ann Cleeves’ Jimmy Perez series and her Vera Stanhope series. They’re both contemporary series, and both feature a police detective. But, as fans know, they have different settings. The Perez series takes place in Shetland, while the Stanhope series takes place in Northumbria. The two characters are quite different as well, even apart from their genders. So, it’s not surprising that some readers prefer the Vera Stanhope novels, and some prefer the Jimmy Perez series

There are also authors who have written very different types of series. For example, consider Donald Westlake’s work. He was a prolific author, so I’ll only focus on two of his series. Under his own name, he wrote a series featuring professional thief John Dortmunder. Under the name of Richard Stark, he wrote another series featuring another professional criminal named Parker. Although both main characters are professional criminals, the series are quite different. The Parker series is gritty, and Parker himself is ruthless. He doesn’t hesitate to kill if the need arises, and he is capable of being quite violent when pushed to it. There is wit in the series, but it’s not at all a light ‘comic caper’ series. The Dortmunder series, on the other hand, is lighter (although it, too, isn’t really a ‘comic caper’ series). Dortmunder isn’t a coward, but he prefers to avoid violence if he can. He’d rather make the right plans so that violent confrontation isn’t necessary. Of course, fans can tell you that Dortmunder’s carefully-laid plans seldom work out the way he hopes that they will. Many readers find his character more sympathetic than that of Parker. Others, though, prefer the grit and cool, logical efficiency of the Parker character.

Lawrence Block, also a prolific writer, has created two very different series in his Matthew Scudder novels and stories, and his Bernie Rhodenbarr novels and stories. Scudder is a former NYPD officer who’s become a PI. The stories featuring him tend to be dark and gritty, and fans know that Scudder goes through some very difficult times as the series goes on. And in it, Block explores the dark side of human nature. So, the endings aren’t usually neat, ‘everything will be all right now’ sorts of endings. By contrast, his Bernie Rhodenbarr novels are lighter, even comic. Rhodenbarr is a professional thief and lock picker who doesn’t set out to be involved in murders. But he does come across bodies in his line of work, and he is highly motivated not to be arrested for home invasion or theft (or murder!). So, he investigates as much to keep himself out of trouble as for any other reason. This is a very different sort of series to the Matthew Scudder series, so it isn’t surprising that some fans like one series better than the other.

And these are by no means the only examples of authors who write more than one series. When that happens, fans often do go for one series or another. Is that true of you? If an author whose work you love writes multiple series, which is your preference? Why?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Monk Higgins, Harvey Fuqua, Morris Dollison, and Dave McAleer.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Donald Westlake, Kerry Greenwood, Lawrence Block, Reginald Hill, Richard Stark

It’s Happening All Around You*

It’s almost impossible for a writer not to be affected by larger events that are going on. After all, we’re all impacted by what happens in the larger world. Some authors choose not to weave those larger social climates and events into their work. When they do, it seems to work most effectively if those larger things are, if I can put it this way, in the background. In that way, both the author and the reader can focus on the characters and the plot at hand. If that happens, those larger events and social contexts can add a sense of time and place to a novel.

For example, World War II is the backdrop for Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger. Heron Park Hospital has been converted for wartime use, and as the story begins, seven different people are going to the hospital to work in different capacities. One day, a postman named Joseph Higgins is brought the hospital with a broken femur. It’s not a life-threatening injury, but he does need surgery. When he dies during the operation, it’s put down to a tragic accident at first. In fact, Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police goes to the hospital to ‘rubber stamp’ that explanation. Then, a nurse who was present at Higgins’ death has too much to drink at a party, and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered, and she knows how it was done. Later that night, she is murdered. Now, Cockrill investigates both deaths as murders, and finds out who the killer is. In this case, the war provides the atmosphere, and there’s plenty of talk about it. But the action doesn’t take place on the battlefield. Rather, the focus is on the hospital and the characters involved.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood takes place mostly in the small village of Warmsley Vale. World War II has recently ended, and Lynn Marchmont has returned home to her mother, Adela, after military service. Times are not easy, but the Marchmonts had always counted on Adela’s wealthy brother, Gordon Cloade, for financial support. In fact, he’d told all of his family members not to worry about money, as he would see to their well-being. So, it was a shock to the family to learn that Cloade had married. It was an even worse shock when he died intestate. Now, everything will likely go to his widow, Rosaleen. Then, a stranger, who calls himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints that Rosaleen may not be eligible to inherit, since she may have been married to someone else at the time of her marriage to Cloade. Arden is killed before anyone can determine whether he was telling the truth, and the Cloades (and Marchmonts) find themselves drawn into the murder investigation. Hercule Poirot is consulted by two members of the Cloade family, and he works to find out the truth. Postwar privation, and the postwar atmosphere aren’t the main focus of the novel, nor the reason Arden is killed. But Christie certainly taps into the atmosphere of the times (this book was published in 1948).

Twenty years later, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman, was published. In it, Stockholm police detective Martin Beck and his team are assigned to help secure the US Embassy. There’s a large protest against the Vietnam war, and things could, of course, get disastrous. Then, a gunman boards a bus and shoots eight people, including a police officer. At first, it looks like an act of terrorism. But soon enough, Beck and his team discover that this might have been a very deliberate attack on the dead policeman, whose current investigation was proving dangerous to some dangerous people. While the student activism and anti-war sentiment of the late 1960s isn’t the reason for the murders on the bus, that atmosphere and political context are certainly woven into the story and provide interesting background.

During the mid-1980s, there was a major strike among UK miners. Feelings ran high on all sides, and the strike left lasting resentments. That’s the background against which Reginald Hill’s Under World is set. In that novel, Colin Farr returns to the small mining town of Burrthorpe, where his father, Billy, died a few years ago in a tragic fall (or was it an accident?). It’s not long before he alienates everyone – especially those who think his father was responsible for the disappearance and murder of a young girl, Tracey Pedley. So, he’s an attractive target for suspicion when there’s another murder. Superintendent Andy Dalziel leads the investigating team, and it’s not going to be an easy case. Woven into all of this is the climate engendered by the strike. There’s a lot of hostility towards the police, which makes it hard to get information. And, there’s a look at the life of the miners, both underground and above it. It’s a very difficult, dangerous occupation, and it’s got its own culture.

And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Set in Darkness, which takes place just before the Scottish Parliament is to be reconvened after hundreds of years. A long-dead body is discovered behind a blocked-up fireplace in a building that’s being renovated to house the Parliament. The body isn’t nearly as old as the building is, so Inspector John Rebus and his team look into the building’s more recent history to find out the truth about the body. As if that’s not enough, a homeless man throws himself off a bridge – and leaves behind quite a lot of money. And a promising prospective MP is murdered. The upcoming reconvening of the Scottish Parliament is woven through the novel and adds to its atmosphere and background.

There are plenty of other examples, too, of authors who use contemporary events, movements, and so on as backgrounds to their stories. Doing that adds the risk of dating a novel. But if the focus stays on the characters and the actual plot, such events and movements can add real atmosphere to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Brett Dennen’s Surprise Surprise.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Ian Rankin, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Reginald Hill

Then Came the Reading of the Will*

An interesting post from Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books has got me thinking about what happens (at least in crime fiction) when a will is read. It’s possible that there aren’t as many scenes in modern crime fiction as there used to be of a group of people gathered to hear the reading of a will. But that moment – when someone opens and reads the terms of a will – can make for a tense, suspenseful scene. And, in real life and in crime fiction, a will and its implications can have a lot of impact. So, it’s little wonder that a lot of, particularly less recent, crime novels include that sort of scene.

The book that Cleo was referring to, Reginald Hill’s Child’s Play, is a really clear example of a scene where a will is read. Wealthy Geraldine Lomas dies, and, as you might expect, her relatives look forward to benefiting from her will. When her will is read, though, the family members are shocked to learn its terms. According to the will, all of Geraldine Lomas’ considerable fortune is to go to her son, who disappeared during WW II, providing he can be found before 2015. If he’s not, then the fortune is to be divided among three charities. At the funeral, an unknown man shows up, claiming to be that long-lost son. Before his claim can be evaluated, though, he’s found dead in his car. Now, Superintendent Andy Dalziel and his team have to find out who had the most to gain by the murder.

Agatha Christie included several will-reading scenes in her work. In After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), for instance, wealthy Richard Abernethie dies, and the members of his family gather for the reading of his will. All of his relatives are in need of money, some more than others, so they’re all eager to hear what family attorney Mr. Entwhistle has to say. According to the terms of the will, everyone gets some of the fortune. And that means everyone’s under suspicion when Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that he was murdered. Everyone hushes her up, but privately, everyone wonders whether she was right. When Cora herself is found murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was. Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. He finds that more than one person might have wanted both family members dead.

Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth includes a very unusual will and reading. Eccentric and wealthy Cadmus Cole has spent most of his life at sea. He’s had little contact with his relatives and doesn’t even know where most of them are. But, he wants to make arrangements for the disposition of his fortune. So, he hires Queen, who’s recently set up a PI firm with his friend, Beau Rummel. The agency’s charge is to find any living relatives of Cole’s, and the two men set about it. It turns out that one relative is Kerrie Shawn, who’s eking out an existence in Hollywood as she tries to become a film star. The other is Margo Cole, who’s mostly lived in Paris. When the will is made public, everyone’s surprised to learn its main terms. The two heiresses will have equal shares of Cole’s fortune, but only provided they live together in Cole’s home on the Hudson River for one year. It’s a strange provision, but both women agree, and they travel to New York. Shortly after they settle in, Margo is shot. Kerrie, of course, becomes the prime suspect. Beau Rummel has become infatuated with her, though, and wants to clear her name. So, he starts investigating the murder, and he finds that Kerrie is by no means the only person who might have killed the victim.

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine features the members of the Lawson family. Mallory Lawson, his wife, Kate, and their daughter, Polly, all benefit greatly when Mallory’s wealthy Aunt Carey dies. Mallory is burned out from his job, and he and Kate have wanted to start their own small publishing firm for a while. So, for them, the money is a dream come true. When the will is read, Polly learns that she, too, will inherit a very generous share of the fortune when she turns twenty-one (she is twenty at the start of the novel). The Lawsons also learn that, under the terms of the will, they will need to move to Carey Lawson’s home, and provide a permanent home on the property for Benny Frayle, who was Carey Lawson’s companion. This the family is only too happy to do, as they like Benny. Everyone’s excited about the future, and it’s not long before the family settles in. Then, the Lawsons’ financial advisor, Dennis Brinkley, dies in what looks like a tragic accident. Benny doesn’t think it’s an accident, though, and tries to get the police to investigate. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Tom Barnaby looks over the files, but he doesn’t see anything that warrants a closer look. Then, there’s another death that’s very likely connected to the first. Now, it’s clear that Brinkley’s death was no accident.

And then there’s Minette Walters’ The Scold’s Bridle. The body of Mathilda Gillespie is discovered in her bathtub. Her wrists have been slashed, and on her head is a ‘scold’s bridle,’ a medieval device with tongue clamps that was used to punish women branded as nags. At first, her death is put down to a bizarre suicide. She’d been suffering from several ailments, so it’s not out of the question. Then, her will is read. It turns out that she left all of her fortune to her doctor, Sara Blakeney. Now, questions begin to be raised. Did Sarah know about this provision? If so, did she kill the victim? In order to clear her own name, Sarah looks into the case. She finds the victim’s diaries, and they start to provide some of the answers. This death turns out to be connected to the past.

There’s something about a will, and the revelation of its terms, that can be quite suspenseful. That’s especially true if there’s something unusual about it. Little wonder that we see scenes like this in crime fiction.

Thanks, Cleo, for the inspiration. Now, give yourself a treat and go visit Cleo’s excellent blog. Lots of fine reviews await you there.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Almond’s Widow Weeds.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Ellery Queen, Minette Walters, Reginald Hill