Category Archives: Rex Stout

Yours is so Distinctive*

Distinctive SeriesThe thing about crime fiction is that there’s a lot of it. Every year, new novels are released, too. All of this means that nobody can read all of the crime fiction that’s out there. And yet, despite all of the options and all of the reading we do, there are some series that really seem to stand out. There’s something about those series that makes them unique. I’m not talking here of just an interesting plot and characters; any well-written crime series has those. I’m talking more of something special that sets those series apart.

In some cases, it’s a unique sort of sleuth. These are sleuths who are distinctive enough that if you see a caricature, you know exactly which sleuth it is. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is like that. He has enough eccentricities that he’s quite distinctive. And his personality and detection style are part of what set those stories apart.

One might say the same thing about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, too. Both of those detectives are distinct from other detectives, both in physical appearance and in their approaches to solving crime. So the novels featuring them stand out, too. This isn’t to say that that mysteries themselves aren’t interesting, or that there’s nothing else appealing about those series. Rather, it’s to say that those characters are important parts of what sets those series apart from others.

For some series, it’s the cultural context that sets them apart. We see that, for instance, in Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels. Both of those characters are members of the Navajo Tribal Police, and the Navajo Nation. So, many of these stories take place in that culture. In fact, Hillerman was awarded the distinction of being named ‘A Special Friend of the Navajo’ for his thoughtful and respectful, but honest, depiction of the Navajo.

Fans of Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder novels will know that that series, too, is set apart by its depiction of a unique culture. In this case, it’s the Amish of the US state of Ohio. Burkholder is chief of police in the small town of Painters Mill. She is also Amish by background, although she no longer lives that life. So readers get a look at the distinctive way of life of the Amish, and that’s part of what makes this series different to others.

Many readers like a strong sense of setting in their novels. And any well-written crime series gives the reader a sense of what it’s like to live in the place where the stories are set. But in some series, that sense of setting is distinctive. I’m thinking, for instance, of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels. Longmire is the sheriff for fictional Apsaroka County, Wyoming, so in those novels, readers get a real sense of rural Wyoming. The physical setting, the climate, and the people who live there are all depicted in these novels. That’s not to say there’s nothing else about the series that makes it worth reading. It is to say, though, that for fans of these novels, the setting is one factor that sets them apart.

That’s also arguably true of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway/Harry Nelson series. Galloway is a forensic anthropologist with the University of North Norfolk; Nelson is a local chief inspector. Among many other things that fans of this series enjoy, the setting is distinctive. As the novels go on, readers learn about the history of this part of East Anglia, and about the climate, geography, and so on that make the place unique. And, of course, there’s Cathbad…

Peter May’s Lewis trilogy takes place in the Lewis and Harris part of the Outer Hebrides. Right from the beginning, readers are placed there in terms of climate, geography and so on. Certainly the character and plot are part of what appeal to fans of May’s writing. But the setting is definitely one of the things that sets this trilogy apart. May’s depiction of setting is also really clear in his standalone Entry Island.

Another element that sets some series apart for readers is the depiction of a profession. In those cases, readers learn what it’s really like to be a lawyer/doctor/paramedic/etc. John Grisham’s novels, for instance, just about always focus on an attorney or a group of attorneys. So they give readers an ‘inside look’ at the life of an attorney. And what sets these novels apart is that they go beyond the TV-and-film stereotypes of what an attorney does. The same is arguably true of Robert Rotenberg’s novels.

Katherine Howell’s novels feature New South Wales police inspector Ella Marconi. But they also include major characters who are paramedics. Among the things that set these novels apart is the way they depict the life of a paramedic. Readers get to ‘go behind the scenes’ and really see what it’s like to become a paramedic, to do the job, and to live the life. It’s interesting to note, too, that Grisham, Rotenberg and Howell are all, or have been, members of the professions that feature in their stories. This may be just my opinion, but I think that lends something to their series. And that depiction of profession sets them apart.

Of course, these are just a few examples of ways in which a series can distinguish itself from all the good series out there. As you think about the series that most stand out for you, what is it about them that draws you? If you’re a writer, what do you find easiest to do to make your stories unique?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sense Field’s Voice.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Elly Griffiths, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Linda Castillo, Peter May, Rex Stout, Robert Rotenberg, Tony Hillerman

Well, I’m a Bum in the Sun And I’m Having Fun*

Bum in the SunWhen many people think of crime fiction, they think of a busy sleuth or team of sleuths who learn about crimes, investigate them, and solve them. In other words, people think of sleuths as busy, energetic types, and a lot of them are.  But there are some who aren’t that way at all.

I’m not talking here of fictional sleuths such as Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges, who balance work and ‘off time.’ Sleuths like that are certainly productive. Rather, I’m talking of sleuths and other characters who would just as soon not get involved in solving crimes. In some cases, you could call them lazy. In other cases, it’s not so much laziness as it is a more laid-back attitude towards life. Some would rather surf, fish, or simply lie in the sun than actually detect.

One of the most famous such detectives is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mycroft Holmes. While he’s not the ‘lie in the sun’ type, he certainly isn’t one to bestir himself. Fans will know that he’s even more brilliant than his younger brother Sherlock, but he sees no need to go from place to place looking for clues. He almost never leaves the Diogenes Club, where he holds court, and would far rather stay there than actually solve cases.

You could say a very similar thing about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. As fans can tell you, Wolfe doesn’t even take cases unless the coffers need re-filling. Unfortunately for Wolfe, he has expensive tastes, so he can’t devote himself entirely to his orchids and his culinary pursuits. It’s just as well he has Archie Goodwin to do the ‘legwork’ for him. Fred Durkin, Saul Panzer and Orrie Cather do their share, too.

There’s an interesting ‘bum in the sun’ type character in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw). In that novel, Elspeth McGillicuddy is on her way to visit her friend Miss Marple when she witnesses, or thinks she witnesses, a murder. At first, no-one believes her, since no body has been discovered. But Miss Marple knows that her friend is not in the habit of making things up or of flights of fancy. So she does a little digging and discovers that, in fact, there could have been a murder, just as Mrs. McGillicuddy said. The body has likely ended up on the property of Rutherford Hall, which is owned by the Crackenthorpe family. With help from her friend, Lucy Eylesebarrow, Miss Marple finds that there is a body on the property, and the police begin to investigate. One of the people of interest is Cedric Crackenthorpe, son of the family patriarch Luther Crackenthorpe. Cedric is a bohemian painter who lives on Ibiza. Although he stands to inherit Rutherford Hall if Luther dies, he’s hardly ambitious. He’s really too free a spirit for that.

Roderic Jeffries’ Inspector Enrique Alvarez is not exactly burning with energy, either. He lives and works on Mallorca, and quite frankly, prefers a good meal and a good siesta to actually investigating crimes. So in Definitely Deceased, he’s not inclined to be receptive when his cousin Delores, who’s keeping house for him at the moment, asks him to clear her cousin-by-marriage Miguel Munar of smuggling charges. Delores is not without resources, though, and hits on the perfect way to get Alvarez to do some actual work. She punishes him with terrible food until he finally relents and starts to ask questions about the Munar case. But when he does begin to investigate, Alvarez finds that the only person who can corroborate Munar’s story has been murdered. Now he has a much more demanding case on his hands than he ever would have wanted.

Chris Grabenstein’s Danny Boyle isn’t exactly brimming with energy, either. When the series begins (in Tilt a Whirl), he’s a ‘summer cop,’ a temporary police officer hired to help with the influx of tourists. The town of Sea Haven, New Jersey, isn’t usually a hotbed of crime, but it does get very crowded during the summer; hence the need for extra police presence. Boyle isn’t unwilling to do his job, but he enjoys the beach life. He spends his share of time lazing around with his friends, barbecuing, and enjoying himself. In fact, at first, he finds it hard to get used to his boss, John Ceepak. Ceepak is a dedicated, 24-hour-a-day sort of cop, who doesn’t like to waste any time. As the series goes on, Boyle matures somewhat, and actually becomes a full-time police officer. But he still enjoys goofing off.

And then there’s Don Winslow’s Boone Daniels, whom we meet in The Dawn Patrol. He’s a San Diego surfer who would rather enjoy the waves than just about anything else. He and his friends are dedicated surfers who call themselves the Dawn Patrol. They have ‘day jobs,’ which they do as needed, but really, they’d rather be on their boards. Daniels is the last person you’d expect to be involved in solving a crime. But that’s what happens when a local stripper, Tamera Roddick, disappears. Then, her best friend, who goes by the name of Angela Hart, is murdered. Daniels and his friends get drawn into the case, and find that it’s related to a wrenching case from years earlier, when a local girl was abducted from her back yard.

You see? It’s not that these characters won’t get the work done. They will. It’s just that it’s time for lunch. And there are supposed to be some killer waves out there later. Oh, and there’s good TV on tonight…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Van Halen’s Beautiful Girls.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Chris Grabenstein, Don Winslow, Martin Walker, Rex Stout, Roderic Jeffries

I Am He as You Are He and You Are Me*

Point of ViewOne of the important choices writers have to make is which way they’ll tell a story. Most authors choose first or third person (more about second person in a bit). There are good reasons to choose each one, and a lot depends on what the author wants to accomplish.

Many of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are written in the first person, from the point of view of Dr. Watson. One of the big advantages of first person here is that it allows for a really interesting perspective on another character, Sherlock Holmes. As fans will know, Holmes is unusual, even unique. And his skill at deduction is legendary. To see all of that from someone else’s point of view allows for the same kind of wonder (‘How’d he do that?’) that we might feel when watching a magician. And then, of course, Watson’s perspective allows Holmes to explain himself. There are examples of that moment woven through the Holmes stories and novels. One that I like very much comes in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. In that story, Commissionaire Peterson brings an unusual case to Holmes. He broke up a fight in which some thugs were attacking a man. Everyone ran off, and in his haste, the man dropped his hat and a goose he was carrying. Peterson brought the goose home to his wife, and when she started to prepare it for cooking, she found a valuable gem in its craw. Peterson wants to know the story behind the gem, and for that, he’ll need the man’s identity. Holmes takes one good look at the hat and is able to be so precise about its owner that they soon find out who that person is.

Of course, sleuths are not perfect. Just ask Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. He’ll be very quick to lay out the limitations of his boss, Nero Wolfe. And that’s one of the real advantages of telling most of the Wolfe stories in first person, from Archie’s point of view. We get to see all of Wolfe’s faults (which he himself would hardly be willing to discuss). What’s more, we learn parts of the story that Wolfe wouldn’t necessarily know, since Archie usually serves as Wolfe’s ‘legs, eyes and ears.’

Agatha Christie used first person in several of her stories, too. One purpose that served (similar to what we see in the Stout stories) was to give some insight into another character. I’m thinking particularly of the Hercule Poirot stories in which Arthur Hastings serves as narrator. He certainly admires Poirot’s detection ability, but he is not oblivious to Poirot’s faults and eccentricities. And that gives us insight into Poirot’s character.

Hastings’ perspective also serves another purpose: misdirection. In Lord Edgware Dies, Poirot and Hastings investigate the stabbing death of Lord Edgware. The victim’s wife, Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect, but according to the testimony of twelve other people, she was at a dinner party in a different part of London at the time of the murder. It’s a difficult case, and at one point, Poirot explains why he values Hastings’ perspective on it so much:
 

‘‘In you, Hastings, I find the normal mind almost perfectly illustrated.’’
 

What he means is that he learns from Hastings what the murder wants him to think. Hastings is not stupid, but he doesn’t put pieces of a case together the way Poirot does. He sees and hears things, but isn’t always aware of their significance.

Christie also created several first-person stories where the narrator is unreliable – another form of misdirection. I won’t list titles or characters, as that would give spoilers. But fans will know which ones I mean. And she’s not the only one who uses first person for the purpose of creating an unreliable narrator. A few authors and titles that come to my mind are James W. Fuerst’s Huge, Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind.

There are other reasons, too, for which authors choose the first person. For example, it allows for readers to really get to understand the protagonist. But it’s got its limits. It’s harder for an author to share information that a given character couldn’t know unless that author uses third person. That reader omniscience allows for a great deal of suspense as readers can anticipate what’s going to happen next once they get some information. Karin Fossum does this quite a lot with her Konrad Sejer stories, for instance. As one example, in When the Devil Holds the Candle, we know something terrible is going to happen when best friends Andreas Winther and Sivert ‘Zipp” Skorpe spend a fateful day together. But Sejer doesn’t know. And that tension as the events unfold, and as Sejer later investigates them adds to the suspense.

There’s also the fact that third person allows for multiple points of view. Many, many writers (including yours truly) share stories through different points of view. Doing that gives the reader a broader perspective on the events. It also allows for the evolution of a group of characters (since the reader can get to know more than one of them). Kate Atkinson does this in One Good Turn, for instance. In that novel, we follow the lives of several disparate characters, including her protagonist Jackson Brodie, who all end up in the same place one afternoon when a blue Honda crashes into the back of a silver Peugeot being driven by Paul Bradley. The lead-up to the crash, and the consequences of it, are fateful for several of the characters, and Atkinson shows us that through more than one pair of eyes.

There are some authors who’ve actually chosen to use the second person, too. Charles Stross’ Rule 34 comes to my mind as an example of this. That novel takes place in the near future, in a sort of alternative reality. In it, Edinburgh police detective Liz Kavanaugh and her team investigate several murders that are connected with online spamming, a shadowy criminal group called The Organization, and a former identity thief named Anwar. The points of view shift throughout the novel, but the story is all told in the second person.

There are good reasons to choose one or another way to tell a story. Neither first person nor third person is always ideal, and a lot of people are not comfortable with second person. At the same time, each of these offers some important advantages, too. Do you have a preference? Let me know in the poll below, and we’ll talk about it again when everyone’s had a week to vote. I’ll be interested in what you have to say. If you’re a writer, what drew you to the first/second/third person choices you’ve made?

 

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ I Am the Walrus.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Stross, James W. Fuerst, Karin Fossum, Kate Atkinson, Mark Haddon, Rex Stout, Virginia Duigan

And He Wasn’t Into Selling Door to Door*

Door to DoorDespite the prevalence of online shopping and cars, some companies still have a door-to-door sales program. And of course, religious groups do that, too. So do fund-raising groups. If you think about it, knocking at a stranger’s door has real risk attached to it. Still, people do it anyway, and all sorts of things can happen.

They certainly happen in crime fiction. Oh, and before I go on, you’ll notice that this post won’t refer to the door-to-door efforts the police make when they investigate a crime. That’s another post in and of itself.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, we are introduced to Mr. Alexander Bonaparte Cust, a World War I veteran and door-to-door stocking salesman. He’s a bit odd, even eccentric. But he’s soft-spoken and certainly not the violent type. He doesn’t cause trouble for his landlady, and doesn’t call much attention to himself. His perspective is one of those shared in this novel, in which Hercule Poirot solves a seemingly unrelated set of murders. The only things that really link them are a set of cryptic warnings Poirot receives before each one, and the fact that an ABC railway guide is found near each body.

In Rex Stout’s novella Kill Now, Pay Later, Nero Wolfe gets involved the case of Peter ‘Pete’ Vassos, a door-to-door shoeshiner. Wolfe has a soft spot for Vassos, in part because he does a good job. Archie Goodwin likes him for the same reason. There’s also the fact that Vassos is the only one who really pays attention to Wolfe’s commentary on the classics. So Wolfe’s included to be helpful when Vassos comes to him with a problem. It seems he went into the room of another regular customer, Dennis Ashby, but found the room empty. He left the room and went outside, only to find Ashby’s body on the pavement. Unfortunately for Vassos, he was seen going into the room by receptionist Frances Cox. Now Vassos is a very likely murder suspect. Wolfe and Archie Goodwin look into the matter and find that more than one other person could have wanted Ashby dead.

In David Liss’ The Ethical Assassin, we meet seventeen-year-old Lem Atlick. He’s trying to save up money to go to Columbia University; and, since his parents won’t pay, he’s taking whatever employment he can. That employment turns out to be door-to-door encyclopaedia sales, and to Lem’s surprise, he’s good at it. One hot day, he’s doing the rounds of a Florida trailer park when he comes to the home of a woman named Karen and her husband, nicknamed Bastard. While he’s talking to them, a man named Melford Kean comes into the trailer and shoots both of Lem’s customers. He hadn’t expected there to be a witness but he takes care of the problem neatly. Lem is faced with two choices: either he can keep quiet about what happened, or Kean will go to the police, and he’ll end up taking the fall for the killings. Lem chooses the former and ends up getting drawn into Kean’s strange world. Is he an activist? A vigilante? Something more sinister?

Several religious groups send representatives from door to door, and we see that in crime fiction, too. In Anna Jaquiery’s The Lying Down Room, which takes place partly in Paris, we learn that four women, Isabelle Dufour, Elisabeth Guillou, Marie Latour and Irina Volkoff, have al lodged complaints at their local police stations. Each has said that two religious evangelists have come to their doors, bothering them. Of course, religious evangelists come to a lot of people’s doors, but these particular two have unsettled the women. It’s not taken overly seriously until Isabelle Dufour is found murdered. Commandant Serge Morel and his team do consider the victim’s family members as they look for the killer. But they’re also interested in the evangelists. After all, they might be witnesses, if nothing else. Then, Elisabeth Guillou is found dead, killed in the same way as Dufour. Now the search for the evangelists becomes more intense, as Morel believes strongly that they are the key to the case. But they seem to have disappeared. So Morel and the team have to find them. And that will involve tracing a history that goes back a few decades.

In Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black, Catherine Ross and Sally Henry, knock at a stranger’s door (well, a near-stranger) for quite a different reason. One New Year’s Eve, they’re coming back from a party when they happen to pass Hillhead, a house that’s owned by Magnus Tait. He has the reputation of being ‘soft in the head,’ and neither girl has ever actually interacted with him. Sally, though, has heard of him and been warned away. Catherine dares her to knock on the door, though, just to wish a lonely man a happy new year. Against her will, Sally agrees and the two girls go to the door and knock. A surprised Tait invites them in and they all toast the new year. When Catherine is found dead not many days later, Tait becomes the most likely suspect. But DI Jimmy Perez isn’t convinced that Tait’s guilty. So he investigates more deeply, and finds that more than one person might have wanted to kill Catherine.

You see? Going door to door can certainly have its risks, for both the person who knocks and the one who opens the door. Oh, wait – excuse me a moment. I think someone’s knocking…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s 4 + 20.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Anna Jaquiery, David Liss, Rex Stout

Feet of Clay*

Feet of ClayThe passing of Harper Lee (yesterday, as I write and post this) has got me thinking about her iconic character, small-town attorney Atticus Finch.  Finch was first introduced to readers in To Kill a Mockingbird, and, of course, brought to life by Gregory Peck in the film adaptation.

To many people, Finch embodied the notions of doing the right thing and standing up for justice. He also embodied the principles of being a skilled attorney – so much so that the University of Alabama’s School of Law created the Harper Lee Prize for best legal fiction. He loomed larger than life, if I may use that expression.

And that’s why plenty of people didn’t want to read (or were disappointed when they read) Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. In that novel, which takes place twenty years after the events in To Kill a Mockingbird, we learn that Finch is much more complex than the noble role model that his daughter Jean Louise ‘Scout’ envisions. I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t read it and plan to do so. But I will say that what we learn about Finch in this novel was extremely difficult for a lot of readers to accept. There’ve been other criticisms of Go Set a Watchman, too. But the revelations about Finch’s character have certainly caused a lot of discussion and disillusionment.

That sort of thing has happened with other fictional characters, too. For example, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that Conan Doyle originally planned to end the Holmes stories with The Final Problem. In that story, Holmes goes up against his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Things get so dangerous that Holmes and Watson end up leaving England for the European Continent. Moriarty tracks them down, though, and there’s a climactic scene at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls. Readers were upset, of course, at losing Sherlock Holmes. But they were also upset that their hero had actually succumbed – had not been able to best his opponent. The outcry against that fate played a major role in Conan Doyle’s decision to bring Holmes back.

Some readers have become a bit disillusioned with Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. It’s not his commitment to his work, nor his skill, that’s the problem. It’s his personal life. Although he has a caring relationship with his longtime lover, Livia Burlando, Montalbano does allow himself to be distracted by other women. He sometimes acts in immature ways, too. And there are readers who feel a little let down by that. Others see it as evidence that Montalbano is a complex character who is a flawed human, as we all are.

Sometimes, fictional characters become disillusioned with the main character. That’s what happens to Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin more than once. His boss, Nero Wolfe, is a brilliant detective, and Goodwin knows and respects that. But at the same time, Wolfe has plenty of faults, as his fans know. As Goodwin sees this, he does feel let down at times, and a few times, actually parts ways with Wolfe. But in the end, he sees Wolfe for what he is: a flawed human being with a real talent for detection.

Agatha Christie’s Captain Arthur Hastings becomes a little disillusioned with Hercule Poirot at times. In Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), for instance, Poirot and Hastings investigate the death of wealthy Emily Arundell. Poirot had gotten a letter from her asking for his assistance. But she didn’t mention exactly what the problem was. By the time he got the letter, though, it was too late. She was already dead. Still, Poirot feels an obligation to his would-be client. And he and Hastings soon discover that more than one person had a motive for wanting her dead. At one point, they’re visiting Miss Arundell’s niece, Theresa. During their visit, Theresa’s brother Charles also stops by her home. Poirot and Hastings take their leave, but Poirot insists on turning back and listening at the door to see what the two Arundells say to each other. Hastings is not at all happy at this, feeling that Poirot has let him down by not ‘playing the game.’ And of course, Hastings is all too aware of Poirot’s – er – sense of self-empowerment. Flawed Poirot certainly is, but Hastings knows he’s a brilliant detective.

And that’s the thing about those fictional characters who’ve had a real impact (I’ve only mentioned a few here. I know you could list many more!). On some level, we want them to always make the right choices, and win out in the end. Perhaps it’s idealism. On the other hand, we also want our fictional characters to be human beings. And that means that they have flaws. Sometimes they let us down.

What do you think about all of this? Have you felt really disillusioned by one of your top fictional sleuths? Does that stop you reading about that person? If you’re a writer, do you deliberately make way for your characters to let readers down?

 

In Memoriam

 

Harper Lee
 

This post is dedicated to the memory of Harper Lee. She created some of American literature’s iconic and memorable characters. Whatever Atticus Finch might have been like if he’d been real, we’ll always remember what we want to think he was.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Alex C. Kramer, Hy Zaret, and Joan Whitney.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Conan Doyle, Harper Lee, Rex Stout