Category Archives: Reginald Hill

Do You, Do You Wanna Be My Sidekick, Sidekick*

The Evolution of the SidekickOne of the interesting developments we’ve seen in crime fiction over the past decades has been in the role of the ‘second in command,’ or sidekick. This character plays a very important role in a novel or series. Authors use assistants/sidekicks to give a different perspective on the sleuth, to provide plot twists, and sometimes, to find out information. And these characters can be very interesting in their own right.

In many (certainly not all!) classic and Golden Age novels, the assistant may find clues and so on; and sometimes, the sleuth is both aware of and grateful for the assistant’s input. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson and Agatha Christie’s Captain Hastings are arguably examples of this. Both of these characters are intelligent, educated people, and not unusually foolish or gullible. They provide perspectives that help Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, respectively, and they certainly don’t sit idly by, gaping in admiring awe. At the same time, in both cases, it’s the sleuth who solves the case. The sleuth puts the pieces of the puzzle together, and makes the vital connections.

In some cases, the sidekick has even been a detriment to the sleuth (I’m thinking, for instance, of Catherine Aird’s Inspector Sloan/Constable Crosby series. Fans of this series know that Crosby is not exactly what you’d call an original, insightful thinker. Of course, not all assistants have been incompetent, but we certainly see them.

As we look at more modern crime fiction, though, we see assistants coming into their own, if I may put it this way. Many of today’s fictional assistants solve cases, carry their own sub-plots, and more. And lots of crime fiction fans like it that way.

Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel/Peter Pascoe series is an example of this development (although I grant it’s not a new series). Fans of this series will know that Peter Pascoe is at least the intellectual equal of his boss. He looks at life differently, and of course, Dalziel is still the boss. But Pascoe more than carries his proverbial weight. In several of the novels in this series (I’m thinking, for instance of Pictures of Perfection), it’s really Pascoe who does a lot of the investigating. His character is, at the very least, as well developed as that of Dalziel.

The same might be said of Sergeant Siobhan Clarke, who ‘co-stars’ in Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series. Rebus is Clarke’s boss, but she contributes a great deal to their investigations. She has skills that Rebus doesn’t have; and, in novels such as Resurrection Men, she more than proves that she can handle cases. As the series goes on, it becomes clear that Rebus respects her, too, and depends on her, and not just for admiration. In fact, in novels such as Exit Music, Clarke takes on her share of interviews (even difficult ones) and other police work.

There’s a very interesting sleuth/assistant relationship in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Carl Mørck series. When the series begins (Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes)), Mørck is assigned to head the newly-formed ‘Department Q,’ which is tasked with looking into cases of ‘special interest.’ This basically amounts to cold cases that, for political reasons, are getting new attention (mostly to show that the police are doing their jobs). Mørck insists on having an assistant, and is provided one in the form of Hafez al Assad, who’s originally hired to clean. But Assad very soon proves to be much more than just a floor-sweeper and teapot-washer. He has a somewhat mysterious past, which we learn in bits as the series goes on. And he has surprising skills that his boss doesn’t even know about, at least at first. And he has a way of getting Mørck to do things and think about things that he otherwise wouldn’t. He’s most definitely his own person.

There are certainly plenty of modern assistants (e.g. Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Rachel Getty) who have things to learn, and who look to their bosses for guidance. But those assistants are also skilled and intelligent in their own right. They have their own histories, personalities and perspectives. Their bosses know this, and many value and depend on their assistants for that reason.

I don’t have the data to support this, but I see a connection between this evolution of the assistant/sidekick and the evolution of crime fiction fans’ interest in rich character development. As crime fiction fans continue to want better developed characters, it makes a lot of sense that that would include assistants and sidekicks. And most readers are not satisfied with the assistant whose only purpose is to bask in the sleuth’s glory, so to speak.

What do you think about this? Have you noticed that sidekicks and assistants are getting more deeply developed and capable as characters? If you have, why do you think this is? If you’re a writer who’s created an assistant, how do you think about this?

ps. You may notice that I didn’t include Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin here. I often wonder whether he’s really a sidekick, even if he is officially an employee.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Walk the Moon’s Sidekick.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Catherine Aird, Ian Rankin, Reginald Hill

Have Myself a Home Life*

HomeLifeAbout a week ago, we had a really interesting discussion about domestic scenes and home life in crime fiction. At the time, I asked you what your preference is regarding those scenes. Do you prefer books that have them? Books that don’t? Does it matter?

With warm thanks to those of you who voted, here’s what I found.

 

Home Life Preferences

 

One of the interesting things about these findings is that those of you who expressed a preference were more or less evenly split between those who prefer a lot of domestic scenes, and those who prefer few, if any. Four of you (22%) prefer crime novels with such plot layers; three of you (17%) prefer crime novels that have few, if any, of them.

To me, this means that there isn’t really a mandate one way or the other. That inference gets support from the major finding here. Eleven of you (61%) told me you have no preference with regards to scenes of domestic life, so long as the focus of a story is on the plot.

I admit these findings don’t really surprise me. Today’s crime fiction readers want a solid plot that makes sense and keeps them engaged. In fact, the findings are similar to what you told me not long ago about books that you don’t finish. Of the reasons you might not finish a book, about 30 of the 76 votes (some 39%) were plot problems (plodding story and too much suspension of disbelief). So it makes sense to me that, for the majority of you, a plot that’s interesting and keeps you engaged is more important than other factors.

And yet, let’s not forget that 15 of you (83%) in this poll told me that you either don’t mind domestic scenes (so long as the focus is on the plot), or outright prefer them. To me, this means that character development (of which domestic life is a part, I’d argue) is important to you.

The key to all this, as it so often is) seems to be the way the author handles it. If the author weaves those scenes in, so that the plot is still the focus, then home life can add layers of character development and even sub-plots to a story.

Everyone has a different definition of how that’s accomplished, and who (among authors) does it well. But here are a few examples you’ve mentioned: Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series; Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe series; Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series; and Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series. There are many others, too, of course.

What’s your take on this? Got any final thoughts about the topic? If you’re a writer, I’d really be interested in your thought process on how much domesticity to include.

Thanks again to all of you who participated. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go do the dishes and some laundry. Then I have a family dinner to plan…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mayer’s Home Life.

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Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, Reginald Hill

(More) Things You’ll Never Hear These Sleuths Say… ;-)

Things Sleuths Don't SayA few years ago, I did a post on things you would never hear certain fictional sleuths say. And if you think about it, you can learn as much from what sleuths wouldn’t say as you can from what they would say, especially when it comes to character development. Of course, one post never allows enough space to mention all the sleuths out there, so I thought it might be fun to take a look at a few more sleuths. Now, if you’ll be kind enough to park your disbelief in front of the TV for a bit, here are…

 

(More) Things You’ll Never Hear These Sleuths Say

 

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple

Really? He did? I hadn’t noticed.
Bugger the garden! There’s a great football match on.
I’m so tired of this boring village. I’ve been thinking of getting a place in Camden Town.

 

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe

Fine, but it’s going to cost you. Five grand and I never saw anything, never met you.
God, you’re beautiful! Of course you’re innocent.
Oh, no, thanks. Never touch the stuff.

 

Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel

None for me, thanks. Watchin’ the blood pressure.
Sorry, did that upset you?
(To Pascoe) Go on, then. Aren’t you and Ellie going to that book signing tonight? This’ll wait.

 

Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano

No, thanks. I just don’t feel like eating.
You know what, Livia? Let’s set a wedding date.
What a beautiful morning! The sun’s shining, the birds are singing. It’s going to be a great day!

 

Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher

Oh, I couldn’t! Ladies don’t do that.
I’ll need to check with Inspector Robinson first. He’s in charge of the case.
Not another dinner dance invitation! I hate those things!

 

Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti

So what? Everybody takes a cut, don’t they? Why shouldn’t I?
Signorina Elettra? She’s just a glorified secretary. Who cares what she says?
I have so much respect for Vice-Questore Patta. He’s my role model.
Bonus: Brunetti’s wife, Paola Falier (In a very meek tone of voice):  Yes, dear. 

 

And there you have it. Things you will never hear these sleuths say. What about you? What things do you think your top sleuths would never say? If you’re a writer, what would your sleuth never say?

 

And Now For a Few Things You Will Never Hear Margot Say

Oh, no, thanks. I can’t stand the taste of coffee.
I couldn’t care less who wrote that stupid book.
Billy who?

 

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Donna Leon, Kerry Greenwood, Raymond Chandler, Reginald Hill

And He’s Stealing the Scene*

Scene StealersMost crime fiction novels have a protagonist or protagonists who are the ‘stars’ of the story or series. The other characters are, hopefully, well-developed, but they don’t have top billing, as the saying goes. And yet, there are some secondary characters who can steal scenes very effectively. They have a way of calling attention to themselves, whether it’s because of a strong personality, an interesting background, or a way of serving as a foil to the protagonist. They can certainly add to a story, and if they’re well drawn, they can do so without taking away from the protagonist’s role.

For example, the protagonist in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit is Anne Bedingfield. After her professor father dies, Anne is left alone in the world without a lot of money. But she does have a sense of adventure. One day, she witnesses a terrible accident in which a man falls (or is pushed) from a train platform to the tracks below. She happens to notice a piece of paper that fell out of his pocket, and later, gets her hands on it. The message on the paper seems cryptic until she works out that it’s a reference to the upcoming sailing of the HMS Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse, Anne books passage on the ship, and ends up getting mixed up in a case of international intrigue, stolen jewels and murder. One of the other passengers on the ship is Suzanne Blair, a wealthy woman a little older than Anne is herself. Suzanne is independent and knows exactly what she wants. She gets it, too. She becomes Anne’s friend, but is really quite a strong character in her own right. And she is most helpful in getting Anne out of trouble.

In Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe investigate when a body is discovered at Holm Coultram College. Renovations are being made at the school, and part of the work involves digging up a statue and moving it to another place on campus. That’s when the body of the college’s former president, Alison Girling, is found. It was assumed she’d died as a result of an avalanche during a skiing trip, so everyone is shocked to find her body so close to home. And it turns out that several people at the school might have had a good reason to want the victim dead. One of the characters we meet in this novel is Franny Roote, who leads a revolutionary student activist group called the Student Union. He’s not what you’d call a nice person. And his fellow activists do their best to disrupt the normal goings-on of life at the campus. And yet, he does have a certain magnetism, and he’s a very interesting (i.e. not one-dimensional) character. As fans of this series know, he makes return appearances, too, in later books (Dialogues of the Dead and Death’s Jest-Book come to my mind). He may be a major thorn in, especially, Peter Pascoe’s side. But Franny Roote can steal a scene.

The setting for most of Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is the small, rural Québec town of Three Pines. One of the people who lives in that town is poet Ruth Zardo. She is brilliant and observant, but her wit is caustic and she doesn’t really let people close to her. There are a few characters with whom she has what you might call a friendship. At least, she has a sort of back-and-forth/give-and-take repartee with them. But she keeps a very close guard on herself, keeping others away with her prickliness. And yet, she knows a lot about what goes on in town, and she herself is more complex than it seems. She really shares her soul in her poetry more than in any other way. In A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), Ruth wins the Governor-General’s Award for her work, and her name begins to get around more than it has. So she launches her newest book of poems at a Montréal bookshop, and several of Three Pines’ residents go to the event. On the one hand, the book launch doesn’t draw crowds. On the other, we see that despite her manner, Ruth is important to the people of Three Pines.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins series mostly features Rawlins, a PI living in post-World War II Los Angeles. He’s originally from Louisiana, and still knows people from that time in his life. One of those people is his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander. Mouse is a complex and interesting character. On one level, he’s dangerous. He has a hair-trigger temper and few boundaries. On the other, he is brave and loyal to Easy. In Little Green, for instance, we learn that he rescued Easy from certain death after a car accident. Mouse tells a compelling story, too. In one scene (also from Little Green) we learn how he survived being shot in the back. In that scene, Easy is recovering from his near-death experience as Mouse tells his story, and even in that short space, we can see how Mouse is able to steal that scene. And in the novel, it’s Mouse who asks Easy to help locate a missing young man named Evander, who seems to have disappeared after getting mixed up with some hippies (the story takes place in the late 1960s). Mouse may be violent at times, but he is also fascinating.

In Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water, we are introduced to Vigàta Inspector Salvo Montalbano. In that novel, he and his team are looking into the sudden death of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this investigation is Luparello’s political rival, Angelo Cardemone. In fact, there’s evidence that his son Giacomino was near the scene on the night Luparello died. That’s how Montalbano meets Giacomino’s wife, Ingrid Sjostrom. Originally from Sweden, she’s a race car driver who lives life exactly as she wants. She’s very much her own person, and that adds ‘spicy’ to her character. She and Montalbano become friends, and she can be very helpful. She can steal scenes, too. For instance, in this novel, she and Montalbano test one of his theories about Luperallo’s death. The test involves having Ingrid drive her car down a certain difficult path. She’s quite in control of that scene.

And then there’s Count Kolya, whom we first meet in William Ryan’s historical (late 1930s) novel The Holy Thief. Kolya is Chief Authority of the Moscow Thieves, and as such, lives life on the wrong side of the law. But he has his own code, and he is a complex character. As the series goes on, we learn bits about Kolya, and we see that there are depths to him. What’s interesting about this is that the series actually features Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev. He, too is an interesting character, and the well-drawn protagonist of the series. But when Kolya is ‘on screen,’ he is compelling. And he has a habit of popping up unexpectedly. Korolev finds him an unlikely but sometimes very helpful ally.

It all just goes to show that a character doesn’t have to be the protagonist to steal a scene (or more). Which scene-stealing characters have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ellis Paul’s River.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Louise Penny, Reginald Hill, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

All Day Long, Wearing a Mask of False Bravado*

Hiding Behind MasksWe all wear masks, if you think about it. A person may be honest and straightforward, for instance, in business, but does anyone really need to know about the knee-knocking fear that person feels every time a major presentation comes up? When people go on first dates, they want everything to go smoothly and to make a good first impression. So, they take pains with appearance, try to keep the conversation to things they know about, and so on.

Sometimes those masks are deliberately deceptive of course. We’ve all read stories, both real and fictional, of people who pretend to be something they most definitely aren’t. More often, though, the masks we wear are meant to preserve privacy or to hide our insecurities and weaknesses. Because that’s such a human thing to do, it’s no surprise that we see it in crime fiction, too.

In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), for instance, Hercule Poirot is present at a cocktail party during which one of the guests, Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. He didn’t have any enemies, and certainly no fortune to leave, so it’s hard to establish the motive at first. Not very long afterwards, there’s another, similar poisoning, this time at another house party. Many of the same people were at both events, so it’s hard to argue that the two cases are not connected. One of the ‘people of interest’ here is Oliver Manders, a young man who’s just getting started in his career. He has all of the insecurities that a lot of young people have as they move out into the world. So he wears a mask of jaded boredom and sarcasm. It certainly doesn’t endear him to others, but Poirot sees that he’s really just an unhappy young man who’s no more pleased with his annoying mask than anyone else is.

Fans of Reginald Hill’s series featuring Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant (later Inspector) Peter Pascoe will know that Sergeant Edgar Wield wears a sort of mask, at least at first. Wield is a part of Dalziel’s team, and does his job well. But he’s gay at a time and in a place where it’s not wise to let that fact be widely known. Everything changes in Child’s Play, though. In that novel, the team is investigating the strange case of the Lomas family. Wealthy Geraldine Lomas left her considerable fortune to her long-lost son, provided he returned by 2015. When she died, a man claiming to be that son came to her funeral, so now it looks as though he is set to inherit the money. Then he’s killed, and his body found in a car at the police station. In one of the sub-plots of this novel, Wield comes out as gay. It’s awkward for him, but as it turns out, not nearly as difficult for his bosses as he thought it might be.

We see a similar kind of mask in Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit. Successful (and married) accountant Daniel Guest has been leading a sort of double life. He’s also had several trysts with men, and in that sense, identifies as gay. But he doesn’t want to come out. That choice has gotten him into trouble, as he’s being blackmailed. Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who the blackmailer is and get that person to stop. Quant thinks it would be better for his client to come out as gay, but Guest refuses to do that. So Quant starts asking questions. The trail leads him to New York City – and to an unexpected murder.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces readers to Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King and her brother Bill, who’s a junior investigator for the district attorney’s office. It’s the 1950’s, when everyone is expected to get married, settle down and have a family. So when Bill meets former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant Alice Steele, it seems that ‘suburban dream’ is about to come true for him. Lora tries to be happy for her brother, but right from the start, she’s not too fond of Alice. Still, Bill is in love, and the two get married. For Bill’s sake, Lora tries to get along with her new sister-in-law. And on the surface, Alice is a happy suburban wife. She becomes the ‘star’ of their circle of friends, and takes great pains to ensure that every event she hosts comes off perfectly. Behind that mask, though, Lora senses something dark. As she starts to learn more about Alice’s life, she is both repelled by it and drawn to it. Then there’s a murder, and a good possibility that Alice may be mixed up in it. Now Lora worries for her brother’s safety. Alice isn’t what she seems, but what, exactly, is she?

And then there’s Louise Penny’s Yvette Nichol. When we first meet her in Still Life, she’s just been made a member of the Sûreté du Québec, and is excited about this promotion. Even more, she’s been assigned to work with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who has a strong reputation. Nichol has had an unfortunate background with a dysfunctional family. That in itself puts her at a disadvantage. She also has the insecurities that any young person might when starting a career with a prestigious leader. She doesn’t want to appear weak, and wants desperately to belong. But instead of asking questions, listening to advice, and doing as she’s asked, Nichol hides her insecurity behind a mask of smugness and arrogance. Her decision not to be honest with herself and others leads to a tense story arc (which I won’t spoil by revealing).

Masks may not always be the wisest choice. But we all wear them. We all present ourselves (as best we can) in the way we want others to see us. So it’s no wonder that there are so many masks in crime fiction.

Thanks to Tim, who blogs at Beyond Eastrod, for the inspiration for this post. Now, do go visit his blog. Lots of interesting ‘food for thought’ awaits you there.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Player’s Baby Come Back.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Louise Penny, Megan Abbott, Reginald Hill