Category Archives: Robert Rotenberg

She Won’t Join Your Clubs, She Won’t Dance in Your Halls*

groupdynamicsAs I’ve said many times on this blog, well-written crime fiction shows us ourselves. And one of the things we see about ourselves is the way we behave in groups. Humans are social animals, so it’s natural for us to want to belong to a group. And, once in, we try to sort ourselves out. You can call it group dynamics, or group politics, if you will. Whatever you call it, it’s one way people try to impose order on their worlds.

Group dynamics can add much to a crime novel. There’s the tension as people establish the group order. There’s other tension as ‘outsiders’ try to become ‘insiders.’ There’s also the suspense as people try to either stay in the group, or leave it, or gain a particular position within it. There are too many examples in the genre for me to mention them all. Here are just a few.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly at the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted.’ The community is tightly-knit, and figuratively and literally separated from the outside world. It’s an insular group, and everyone knows the ‘right’ places to shop, the ‘right’ schools for their children, the ‘right’ people to befriend, and the ‘right’ causes to support. Everything changes when Argentina’s financial situation begins to deteriorate (the novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of 2000). At first, the residents of ‘the Heights’ seem impervious to the developing crisis, but that doesn’t last. The end result is a tragedy, and the residents now have to deal with what’s happened.

Megan Abbott’s Dare Me explores the world of teen social dynamics. Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy have been best friends for years. Now, they’re in their last year of high school, and they ‘own’ the school, Beth in particular. They’re both on the cheerleading squad, and getting ready to start their lives after they graduate. Then, the school hires a new cheerleading coach, Collette French. Right from the start, French changes the social order. She makes the cheerleading squad a sort of exclusive club, and Addy is welcomed as an ‘insider.’ Beth, however, is excluded, and becomes an outsider ‘looking in.’ Then, there’s a suicide (or was it?). Now this social group is turned upside down as everyone deals with what’s happened.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series takes place in Shanghai in the late 1990s, a time of great change in China. There’s still an influence of Maoism, and of some older, even ancient, traditions. But there’s also a newly developing form of capitalism as China continues to work with capitalist nations. China’s bureaucracy is a system of cadres, or social levels. Those in extremely important positions are ‘high cadre’ people, and do not take kindly to any threat, real or imagined, to their status. For that reason, the police have to work very carefully whenever a crime might possibly involve such a person. As the series goes on, we see how these cadres sort themselves out and establish and keep order. The dynamics may change as one or another member’s fortune changes. But the cadre system itself is a well-established and deeply-ingrained social structure.

If you’ve ever worked for a law firm, you know that the attorneys in a firm often form a community. In a large firm, you may find senior partners, junior partners, associates, and contract lawyers. And that’s to say nothing of the legal assistants (such as clerks, paralegals, and legal secretaries) and support staff. Even smaller firms have some sense of community, and, therefore, of social structure. And, even in the most supportive and employee-friendly firms, people sort themselves out. A beginning associate who wants to become a partner needs to know how the firm’s structure works, and what the firm’s priorities are. Crime writers such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham and Scott Turow explore not just the particular legal cases at hand, but also the inner workings of law firms. And it’s interesting to see how the social structure at a firm can impact what lawyers do.

Police departments also have their own social structure, and anyone who works in one quickly learns what that structure is. There are many, many police procedural series, some of them outstanding, that depict the ways in which police social structure works. In healthy departments, cases are solved by teams of people who have supportive leadership. Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels are like that. And so, arguably, are Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss novels, Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi novels and Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels. That’s not to say that the characters are all perfect, with no faults, quirks or weaknesses. Rather, we see how the groups in these novels sort themselves out, and how the people in them work out what their roles are.

Of course, there are plenty of police procedurals where we see a very unhealthy social dynamic. In those novels, ‘patch wars,’ infighting, and even sabotage happen. A few examples are Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, Simon Lelic’s A Thousand Cuts (AKA Rupture), and Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road. There are many others.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. That novel’s focus is Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main characters are members of three families, all of whom have children in the school’s Kindergarten class. Shortly after the school year begins, there’s a bullying incident. Renata Klein, one of the most influential ‘school mums,’ accuses another child of bullying her daughter. That boy, Ziggy, is the son of a relative newcomer. Ziggy says he didn’t do any bullying, and his mother believes him. And it’s not long before there are two camps. Tension escalates for this and other reasons, until it boils over on Quiz Night, which was planned as a school fundraiser. Tragedy results, and each family is deeply affected by what happens. Throughout this novel, we see the social structure of ‘playground mums’ and some dads, too. The elite group here is called ‘the Blond Bobs’:
 

‘The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob…it’s like a bylaw.’
 

Part of the tension in the story comes from the way this social hierarchy plays out.

And that’s the thing about groups. Almost any time people get together, those dynamics come into play. And they can be very dangerous.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines.

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Filed under Claudia Piñeiro, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Liane Moriarty, Megan Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Reginald Hill, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Turow

It’s Just Another Day*

Regular HabitsTo an extent, most of us are creatures of habit. We leave our keys in the same place all the time. We walk the dog or feed the cat at the same time. We usually take the same route to work. Or we order the same thing for lunch most of the time. Those routines can be comforting, and can free our minds up to deal with other things. And they help us not lose keys, handbags and so on.

We may not even be aware of our routines, but they figure in our lives. And they can be very useful for fictional criminals. Learning someone’s habits is a good way to find out when that person is vulnerable. For the detective, finding out people’s habits can also be useful. It’s a good way to learn who might have been in contact with a victim. And when a person goes missing, the first thing detectives do is find out where that person would likely be in the habit of going. Finding out people’s habits is also a way for the detective to find possible witnesses to a crime (e.g. Who’s in the habit of walking their dogs at the time the victim was seen going towards…). There are a lot of examples of the way habits are used in crime fiction, both by sleuths and by criminals. Here are just a few examples.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Violet Smith. She’s been hired as a live-in piano teacher at Chiltern Grange. The arrangement is that she spends the week there, and weekends with her mother in London. So, every Friday, she bicycles from Chiltern Grange to the train station. Every Monday she returns by the same route. And therein lies the problem. As Violet tells the story, she’s been followed lately by a man on a bicycle. He doesn’t allow himself to get close enough to her so she can get a good look at him. And he hasn’t approached her or spoken to her. But he knows her habits. She’s now quite concerned, and wants Holmes to investigate. This he agrees to do, and he and Dr. Watson look into the matter. It turns out that Violet Smith’s routine is key to this story.

So are the routines of Bob, the terrier who features in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). Bob shares his home with Miss Emily Arundell, a wealthy woman with plenty of financially desperate relatives. During one holiday, they come to visit her. She’s not at all naïve enough to think they’re visiting because they love spending time with her, but she makes it clear that they’ll get everything when she dies, and that they’ll have to wait until then. Late one night, Miss Arundell has a dangerous fall down a flight of stairs. At first, it’s put down to a terrible accident caused by Bob’s habit of leaving his toy ball at the top of the stairs. Everyone thinks Miss Arundell slipped on the ball and fell. But once the initial shock wears off and she has time to think things through, Miss Arundell is no longer quite so sure that that’s what happened. Now she begins to believe that someone is trying to kill her. So she writes to Hercule Poirot. By the time he gets the letter, though, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died of what seems to be liver failure. It turns out, though, that she’s been poisoned. Now Poirot works to find out who the killer is. And there are several possibilities. I can say without spoiling the story, though, that it’s not Bob the terrier.

In Donald Westlake’s The Hot Rock, we are introduced to John Dortmunder, who’s recently been released from prison. He learns through a friend that there’s a heist in the works that might interest him. The target this time is a valuable gem called the Balabomo Emerald, which is part of an exhibition being shown at New York’s Coliseum. And the client is Major Patrick Iko, the UN Ambassador from Talabwo. There’s a lot of money to be had if Dortmunder and his team can get the emerald, so they make their plans carefully. Part of that process is studying the habits of the staff, the guards, and the visitors. This heist isn’t going to be easy, because as you can imagine, the jewel is heavily guarded. But after a time, they learn those habits, and put together their plan. Needless to say, it doesn’t exactly go as planned…

In Kate Rhodes’ Crossbones Yard, we are introduced to psychologist Alice Quentin. DCI Don Burns asks her to help evaluate a soon-to-be-released prison inmate named Morris Cley to determine if he’ll be a danger to society. She believes that he won’t, and says as much to Burns, so Cley is released. That night, during her usual run through London, she discovers a body that’s been dumped at an old cemetery. Burns believes that this murder may be related to a series of other murders from several years ago, and that Cley is the key. But he seems to have disappeared. Now Burns asks Quentin to help profile and try to identify the killer. In the meantime, though, she starts getting disturbing notes that suggest that someone has learned about her habits (in particular, her habit of going running) and is stalking her. If that person is the killer, Quentin is in real danger. So she’ll have to try to find the killer in order to keep safe herself.

Because people do have habits and routines, it’s sometimes quite noticeable when they don’t follow them. For example, in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, we follow Gurdial Singh one morning as he’s doing his rounds delivering the Globe and Mail to his Toronto customers. One of his stops is the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums, where he always stops at the home of famous radio personality Kevin Brace. And every morning, Brace is there, waiting for the paper, with a mug of tea and a moment or two of conversation. This morning, though, Brace isn’t at the door, as is his habit. Singh is immediately concerned, and wonders for a moment what to do. He finally drops the paper as loudly as he can at the door, so that hopefully Brace will hear him. After a while, Brace appears, and it’s soon clear that something terrible has happened. And it has. Brace’s common-law wife Katherine Thorn has been killed. Detective Ari Greene and his team investigate, and find that this case is not at all ‘open and shut.’

Most of us have our little routines and habits. They make things comfortable and predictable, and that can be a good thing. And they can turn out to be very useful in a crime novel, too.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Another Day.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donald Westlake, Kate Rhodes, Robert Rotenberg

It’s Just Apartment House Rules*

Apartment BuildingsFlats, apartments, whatever you call them, can be an attractive alternative to home ownership, especially if you don’t have a whole lot of money. Even if you are doing well financially, living in an apartment often means you don’t have chores such as house painting, grass cutting and the like. And, depending on where you live, you’re not responsible for most repairs, either.

Of course, the experience of living in an apartment can be miserable if your landlord/lady or the management company isn’t professional and responsible. And you live at close quarters with other people, not all of whom may be pleasant.

But apartment buildings can be very effective contexts for crime fiction. People get to know things about each other when they live in the same building. And some apartment communities are more transient, which makes for all sorts of possibilities for hidden pasts and other secrets. It’s little wonder, then, that we see apartment buildings going up all over the genre.

In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, we are introduced to Norma Restarick, a young woman who shares a London flat with Claudia Reece-Holland and Frances Cary. One day, she visits Hercule Poirot, telling him that she may have committed a murder. However, she leaves before she even gives him her name, since she says he’s ‘too old’ to be of help. Poirot finds out that his friend, detective story author Ariadne Oliver, knows the young woman; and, armed with her name, Poirot tries to find her to learn more about this possible murder. So does Mrs. Oliver. But before they can find out the truth about it, Norma disappears. Neither of her flat-mates knows where she is, and her family isn’t any more helpful. Eventually, though, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver learn the truth about the murder and Norma’s part in it. And it turns out that the apartment building in which she lives holds important clues.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow) introduces readers to Smilla Jaspersen, who lives in a Copenhagen apartment building. As the novel begins, she is attending the funeral of ten-year-old Isaac Christiansen, who, so the police say, tragically fell from the building’s roof. Like Smilla, Isaac was a Greenlander, so she felt a sort of bond with him, and is drawn to the roof where he fell. As she looks at the patterns in the snow, Smilla begins to wonder just how accidental the fall really was. So she starts to ask questions. Her search for the truth leads Smilla back to Greenland, and to something much bigger than just the death of one young boy.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlings owns three Los Angeles apartment buildings, including the Magnolia Street Apartments. Even though he’s the actual owner, he does the maintenance work in the building, and keeps a very low profile, letting someone else collect the rent. That way, he can have time for his other work, which we learn in A Red Death is
 

‘…the business of favors.’
 

He doesn’t have an official PI license, but he does have a good reputation for being able to solve problems and find people who don’t want to be found. And he knows everyone in the building, too. Most people there think of him as the handyman, and that’s how he likes it.

At the beginning of Val McDermid’s A Grave Tattoo, Wordsworth scholar and fledgling academic Jane Gresham is living in a London council flat – not a luxurious place to be. It’s what she can afford, though, and she’s doing her best to move on in her academic career. She’s made a sort of friend in thirteen-year-old Tenille Cole, who lives in the same building. That’s what living at close quarters can do. Tenille is extremely bright, and Jane sees in her true potential in literature and writing. But Tenille has a terrible home situation. The first part of this novel has a strong focus on life in council flats. Then, Jane hears that a body has surfaced in a bog in her native Lake District. It is possible that the body may be that of Fletcher Christian, of H.M.S. Bounty fame. If it is, then it’s possible that he didn’t die on Pitcairn Island as has always been believed. And if that’s true, he may have told his story to his good friend Wordsworth, which could mean there’s an unpublished manuscript out there somewhere. If it exists, that manuscript could be exactly what Jane needs to get her career going, so she goes to stay with her parents in their Lake District home to look into the matter. Meanwhile, one night after a tragic incident, Tenille leaves her home, too, and ends up in the Lake District. Her presence there plays an important role as Jane gets involved in a web of murder and false leads to try to find the manuscript she is convinced must exist.

There’s an interesting use of an apartment building in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. Waldemar Leverkuhn finds out that a lottery ticket he went in on with friends has come out the big winner. So he goes out with those friends to celebrate. Late that night, he is murdered in his own bed. Intendant Münster and his team investigate. Of course, the victim’s wife Marie-Louise comes in for her share of suspicion, but she claims she wasn’t home the night of the murder. The team members also speak to the other people who live in the same apartment building as the Leverkuhns, and it’s interesting to learn how much they know about each other. People know who’s been in and out, who does what, and so on. Despite that, though, the investigating team doesn’t get very far at first. Eventually, though, they link Leverkuhn’s death to the events that led to it.

Of course, no discussion of apartment buildings in crime fiction would really be complete without a mention of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. Chapman is a baker, who lives and has her shop in a large Melbourne apartment building called Insula. As the series goes on, we get to know the other people who live in the building. They each contribute to the atmosphere of the place, and they all care about each other. They may not be related to the other residents, but the people of Insula have formed a sort of family of their own.

Apartment buildings can have that sort of effect. Of course, they can also be eerie places. That’s why we see so many of them in crime fiction – much more than I can show in one post (I know, I know, fans of Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall). After all, do you really know what the person living next door, above you, or below you is really like?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Høeg, Robert Rotenberg, Val McDermid, Walter Mosley

How to Succeed*

Internal PoliticsUnless you’re self-employed (and even, sometimes then!), you likely work with other people. And that nearly always means office politics. Political machinations take different forms, of course, depending on the kind of work you do. But they’re likely to be there in some way or another.

All of that tension and conflict can make for very effective plot lines in crime fiction. You’ll notice as this post goes on, by the way, that there won’t be mention of police politics. There are far too many examples out there, as the police figure a great deal in crime fiction. Even taking that form of politics out of the conversation, though, there’s plenty of office politics in the genre.

For example, any attorney can tell you that there’s often a great deal of politics involved in that profession. It certainly helps to have a law degree from a prestigious school. But in many law firms, moving ahead takes more than that. It means very long hours, especially at first, and showing everyone that you’re the first to arrive and the last to leave. We see that in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall. The main plot thread of that novel is the murder of Katherine Thorn, common-law wife of Toronto radio personality Kevin Brace. Brace himself is the most likely suspect; in fact, he even admits to the first witness on the scene,
 

‘‘I did it.’’
 

Crown prosecutor Albert Fernandez knows that a quick conviction in such a high-profile case will mean a lot for his career. And though he’s not unprincipled, Fernandez also knows that getting ahead often means playing politics. So he makes sure to get to his office before anyone else, to be the last to leave at the end of the day, and to ‘dress the part.’ In this particular case, he also goes very hard for the win, as the saying goes. Fernandez’ bosses want him to take the case to trial, too, so he’s under a lot of political pressure to refuse a plea deal with Brace’s lawyer Nancy Parish. He doesn’t want to see an innocent person convicted, but at the same time, a loss in a case like this could spell trouble for him. I won’t give away spoilers, but there are other places in this novel where that kind of politics plays a role.

Fledgling attorneys also know that they may not get very far in their careers if they go against what a firm partner, especially a senior partner, wants. That’s the way law firm politics are. And sometimes that can mean real trouble for the beginning lawyer. That’s what Brad Miller discovers in Phillip Margolin’s Executive Privilege. In one plot thread of that novel, we learn that he’s a newly-minted attorney who works at Reed, Briggs, Stephens, Stottlemeyer and Compton, Oregon’s largest law firm. As do many new attorneys, Miller works an exhausting number of hours, and is otherwise taken advantage of by the partners. One day, the firm’s top attorney, Susan Tuchman, directs him to take on the pro bono case of Clarence Little, who’s been convicted of murdering Laurie Erickson, and is due to be executed. Little wants Reed, Briggs to handle his appeal. From the firm’s perspective, it’s just a matter of form, and Tuchman doesn’t want Miller spending any real time on it. But the more Miller gets to know about the case, the more he begins to suspect that Little is not guilty of the crime for which he’s about to be executed. Now Miller runs straight up against law firm politics. He knows that his career at Reed, Briggs depends on his pleasing the partners and doing what he’s told. On the other hand, this case is turning out to be quite different to what he’d been informed it would be. Among other things, this plot thread gives a really interesting perspective on the politics involved in working for some large and powerful law firms.

As anyone who’s ever worked in a hospital can tell you, politics play an important role there, too. Junior doctors, interns and other medical professionals who are on the ‘lower rungs’ of the hospital hierarchy know that it’s not enough to do one’s job well and establish a good rapport with patients. It’s also important to catch the attention of senior doctors, and get (and stay) in their good graces. Sometimes this means getting caught in ‘turf wars’ between conflicting senior doctors. It’s had a lot of other consequences, too, some of them serious. Authors of medical thrillers often use the reality of hospital politics as important plot points. I’m thinking, for instance, of some of Robin Cook’s thrillers, where we see a junior hospital doctor or pathologist who notices a pattern that senior doctors either want to cover up or don’t believe.

This sort of plot thread has shown up in medical mysteries for quite some time, actually. Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need (which he wrote as Jeffery Hudson), was published in 1968. This story features junior pathologist John Berry, who tries to clear the name of a colleague and friend who’s been accused of negligence and of performing a then-illegal abortion. Along the way, Berry runs up against the most powerful doctor in the hospital, J.D. Randall. That layer of politics adds much to the suspense in this novel.

There’s also plenty of politics in higher education (Oh, come on! You were just waiting for me to mention academia, right? 😉 ). It’s easy to see why, too. For one thing, tenure is highly coveted at institutions that grant it. So some people will go to great lengths to become tenured. And even when that’s not an issue, there are all kinds of promotion, funding, staffing and other decisions that are impacted by institutional politics. I’ve written about it myself (Publish or Perish, if you’re interested).

And I’m by no means at all the only one. Just ask Christine Poulson’s creation Cassandra James. Head of the English Literature Department at St. Ethelreda’s College, Cambridge, she is no stranger to the politics of academia. In one plot thread of Murder is Academic, for instance, she’s just taken the reins at the department, and one of her tasks is to prepare everyone for the upcoming Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The department’s funding and security depend heavily on its success with the RAE, so everyone’s scholarship has to be as impressive as possible. That’s not going to be an easy task, considering that James is also mixed up in the murder of her predecessor (she discovered the body, for one thing). Among other things, this series (of which Murder is Academic is the first novel) gives readers a close look at the internal politics of university life. Still interested in academic politics? You can also check out Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw mysteries, of which Simon Said is the first. There are many more examples, too.

But you don’t need to be a lawyer, doctor or professor to understand internal politics. Just look around, and I’ll bet you’ll see plenty of examples. That colleague who toadies to all the ‘right people,’ that boss who’s more concerned with her own promotions than with supporting her department, that sales executive who angles for the corner office, well, you know what I mean. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just got an email about a meeting I’ve been invited to attend. Never mind that it’s during the weekend, it could be my chance to really get ahead! 

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Christine Poulson, Jeffery Hudson, Michael Crichton, Phillip Margolin, Robert Rotenberg, Robin Cook, Sarah R. Shaber

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