Category Archives: Ross Macdonald

Someone to Face the Day With*

When there’s a murder or other tragedy, the police often start their investigation with the victim’s family members, and that’s as it should be. But most people also have at least one good friend – someone who actually may know more about the victim than the family does. The wise sleuth finds out who the victim’s closest friend is and gets to know that person.

In crime fiction, those friendships can serve the story in several ways. They can add layers of character development, for one thing. For another, in whodunits, at least, the loyal friend can provide clues. Sometimes, it’s even the loyal friend who pushes the investigation along.

In one plot thread of Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates the death of Carlotta Adams. She’s an American entertainer famous for her one-actor shows. One morning, her maid finds her dead of an apparent overdose of sleeping medication. But Poirot has good reason to think that she was murdered. One of the people he gets to know is Carlotta’s friend, a milliner named Jenny Driver. She’s as upset as anyone about Carlotta’s death, and is happy to help Poirot. One of the things she makes clear is that Carlotta wasn’t in the habit of taking drugs, even to help her sleep. This is one of several pieces of information that Poirot uses to get to the truth.

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar begins as Southern California PI Lew Archer is called to Laguna Perdida, a special school for ‘troubled teens.’ Dr. Sponti, who runs the school, is worried because one of the students, Tom Hillman, has gone missing. Sponti wants the boy found as soon (and as quietly) as possible, and he hires Archer to investigate. They’re talking in Sponti’s office when Tom’s father, Ralph Hillman, bursts in, saying that Tom has been kidnapped, and that his abductors want ransom money. Archer goes back to the Hillman residence and begins to work with Tom’s parents to find out where he might be. It’s not a clear-cut case of abduction-for-money, though. In fact, there’s even evidence that Tom may have left of his own accord. The Hillmans seem strangely uncooperative, but Archer starts to work on the case. In the course of the investigation, he meets Tom’s good friend, Stella Carlson. You might even say that she’s his girlfriend, but it’s as much a friendship as anything else. When she learns that Archer is looking for Tom, and that he suspects more is going on than a ‘typical’ abduction, she turns out to be very helpful, and she’s determined to do what she can to find her friend.

John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air begins as Professor Jacob ‘Jake’ Landau and his good friend and attorney, Martin Ross, board a plane from Boston to New York. The two have been handling the details of Landau’s divorce from his ex-wife, Kitty, and both will be glad to get back to Boston and be done with the process. Before the flight can land, a bomb goes off, killing six people, including Ross. Landau is injured, but he survives. Because he was on the flight, and because Ross was his friend, Landau wants to know the truth about the bombing. But he gets no help from the airline. So, he starts to ask his own questions. The police theory is that a man named Varga planted the bomb. He was killed after an incident in which he stole a suitcase from the plane, and the police believe that he placed a fake suitcase – the one with the bomb – at that time. So, as far as the official investigation goes, it’s believed that the crime has been solved. But Landau isn’t satisfied. Out of loyalty to his friend, he keeps asking questions, and ends up getting himself into real danger.

Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry also begins on a flight. This one’s between Scotland and Melbourne, so it’s a very long haul. That’s especially the case for Loanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson, because they have with them their nine-week-old infant, Noah. It’s a miserable flight, and it’s not made any easier by Noah’s nonstop crying. Everyone’s nerves snap, but the flight lands safely in Melbourne. Then, the couple begin the long drive from the airport to their destination, Alistair’s home town. Along the way, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. There’s a massive search, but no trace of the baby is found. There’s a huge public push to find him, but no evidence turns up. Then, there begin to be suggestions that the couple, especially Joanna, might know more than they are saying about the baby’s fate. Soon, there’s a backlash against her. Through it all, and as the search for the truth about Noah, continues, Joanna relies on her best friend, Kirsty McNicol. She stands by Joanna, runs errands for her, serves as a ‘go-between’ when it’s necessary, and so on. She is fiercely loyal to Joanna, and her character adds to the story.

And then there’s Jason Choi, whom we meet in Rob Kitchin’s Stiffed. His good friend is Irish ex-pat Tadh Maguire. One morning, Maguire wakes up after a night of drinking when he hears his girlfriend, Kate, screaming. He opens his eyes to find that, instead of Kate, there’s a dead man next to him. The body turns out to belong to Tony Marino, ‘right hand man’ to a crime boss named Also Pirelli. Maguire has no doubt about what will happen to him if Pirelli hears that his lieutenant was found dead in his bedroom. He doesn’t want to call the police, because he knows he’ll be suspected of the murder. So, he decides he’s going to need to hide the body. And for that, he relies on his good friend Choi. And Choi turns out to be very helpful, even after there’s another death, and an abduction. That’s the sort of loyal friend we all need…

Whether an author wants to use such a friendship to provide clues, add to the plot, or even drive the plot, such characters can make a lot of difference in a story. Which ones have you liked?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rembrandts’ I’ll Be There For You.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Helen Fitzgerald, John Alexander Graham, Rob Kitchin, Ross Macdonald

But I Got These Short Stories in My Bag*

Agatha Christie’s The Big Four started life as a series of short stories that were drawn together. And, as you’ll know, several of her sleuths (the Beresfords, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot) feature in both short stories and full-length novels. That’s not easy to accomplish. Short stories require a different form of writing to novels. That may be part of the reason for which some authors are better known for (perhaps even better at) short stories or novels.

Many authors who do both short stories and novels use their novels for ‘regular’ sleuths, and short stories for different sleuths, different styles of writing, and so on. Other authors, though, feature their main protagonists in both formats. There are advantages to doing this. Readers who are new to an author can ‘meet’ the author’s sleuth in short stories, and then move on to novels. For the author, a short story or a collection can be an effective way to keep a featured sleuth active while a new novel is in the works.

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. That’s the format for which he is perhaps most famous. But he also wrote four Holmes novels, including Holmes’ first appearance in A Study in Scarlet. Many people (certainly not all) think the short stories are better. Aidan at Mysteries Ahoy has an interesting discussion about A Study in Scarlet and the novels vs the short stories. You’ll want to check that out for a more in-depth look at that novel. And you’ll want to have a look at Aidan’s blog. Rich discussions and thoughtful reviews await you.

John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole actually started life as a television character. As you’ll know, he is a barrister who is completely dedicated to defending his clients. He doesn’t always like them, and he doesn’t always really think they’re innocent. But he always does his utmost for them. The move from television to short stories and novellas makes sense, when you consider the television episode format. The content of a short story or novella is often appropriate for the length of a television episode. It’s harder to fit the content of a full-length novel into a one-hour or ninety-minute television episode. Still, there are a few Rumpole novels. Rumpole’s Return, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, and Rumpole and the Reign of Terror are three of them.

Ellery Queen appears in a number of novels, beginning with The Roman Hat Mystery. And, most people think of those novels when they think of Queen. But he also appears in a number of short stories and collections. For example, there’s the Ellery Queen Omnibus, which contains nineteen short stories. The Adventures of Ellery Queen, which includes eleven short stories, and The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, which includes nine short stories and the novella The Lamp of God. Like Christie’s short stories, some of these are reprinted in more than one collection. But the net result is a variety of different ways for readers to experience Queen.

Lawrence Block has been quite prolific. Perhaps his most famous sleuth, though, is Matthew Scudder, the former police detective who’s become his own sort of private investigator. Scudder’s appeared in a number of novels (e.g. The Sins of the Father, Eight Million Ways to Die, and When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes). Many readers know him mostly through those novels. But Scudder has also appeared in several short story collections (e.g. The Night and the Music).

So has Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. He’s a Southern California PI who first appears in 1949’s The Moving Target. There are sixteen other novels in which he features. But he also appears in short story form, too. There are three Lew Archer collections: The Name is Archer; Lew Archer, Private Investigator; and, Strangers in Town. There aren’t as many Archer short stories as there are novels. But those stories allow readers a chance to get to know him. In fact, it was through a short story, The Singing Pigeon, that I first ‘met’ Lew Archer.

Elly Griffiths has also been versatile in her writing. Her Ruth Galloway series features Galloway, who is a forensic archaeologist. Thus far, there are ten novels in that series, and many people have become acquainted with Griffiths’ writing through them. But she’s also done a short story, Ruth’s First Christmas Tree. It’ll be interesting to see, as time goes by, whether Galloway appears in other short stories at some point.

And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus. Rebus has featured in a number of full-length novels, beginning with Knots and Crosses. And those novels have allowed Rankin to explore quite a lot about Scotland, about history, and about Rebus. Fans of the series have followed the various story arcs and gotten to know the characters through those novels. But Rankin has also written several short stories featuring Rebus. They’re all collected, if you’re interested in The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories.

There are, of course, many other examples of authors whose main characters appear in both novels and short stories; I know you can think of many more than I could. How do you feel about this? Do you have a preference for novels or short stories about the fictional characters you like best? If you’re a writer, do you write both novels and short stories about your main character(s)?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Current Swell’s Short Stories.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Elly Griffiths, Ian Rankin, John Mortimer, Lawrence Block, Ross Macdonald

Put Me In a Special School*

Some young people don’t benefit from the traditional, ‘regular’ school experience. For any number of reasons, they struggle, they get into trouble, and so on. Most people don’t want to see these students end up in the juvenile justice system or worse. So, for many years, there’s been an interest in, and sometimes reliance on, what used to be called ‘reform school.’

This sort of alternative education goes by different names in different places.  And such schools take different forms. But the basic principle is similar. Young people go to these schools (they’re often residential) as a way to help them focus and learn to make better choices, and so, stay out of prison. Ideally, they also get some education, so that they can earn a living. Alternative education isn’t always successful, but it has a long history.

It’s interesting, too, to see how it plays a role in crime fiction. That’s not surprising, considering that the context is a group of disparate young people who already have their own problems and now have to live and learn together. If you add in their teachers, who have their own lives, it’s a very effective sort of context for a crime story.

Agatha Christie’s They Do it With Mirrors (AKA Murder With Mirrors), for instance, takes place mostly at Stonygates, a former private Victorian home which now houses a school for delinquent boys. It’s run by Carrie Louise Serrecold and her husband, Lewis, and both are quite devoted to the cause. Carrie’s sister, Ruth Van Rydock, is concerned, though, because she believes someone is trying to kill Carrie.  She tells her old school friend, Miss Marple, about her worries, and Miss Marple gets concerned, too; Carrie Louise was also one of her school friends. So, she visits Stonygates to see for herself what’s going on. While she’s there, another visitor arrives: Christian Gulbrandsen, who is a trustee of the foundation that funds the school. One evening, he is shot. The police are called in, of course, and they investigate. Miss Marple learns, though, that this case is not as straightforward as it seems on the surface.

In Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar, PI Lew Archer is hired by Dr. Sponti, head of Laguna Perdida, which is a boarding school for troubled teens. Sponti’s worried because one of the students, seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman, has gone missing. He doesn’t want to upset Tom’s wealthy parents, and he’d rather not call in the police. So, he asks Archer to try to find the boy as quickly and quietly as possible and return him to the school. Archer and Sponti are discussing the matter when Tom’s father, Ralph Hillman, arrives at his office. Hillman says that Tom has been kidnapped, and that his abductors are demanding ransom. Archer returns to the Hillman home, hoping that he can find out as much as possible about the boy and trace his whereabouts. Almost immediately, Archer gets the feeling that things are not what they seem. For one thing, Ralph and Elaine Hillman are unusually reticent about Tom’s past, and about where he might be. For another, there’s some evidence that Tom might have joined his abductors of his own free will. Despite the Hillmans’ unwillingness to help, Archer pursues the case. In the end, he finds out the truth about Tom, his parents, and the people who took him.

In Margaret Millar’s Mermaid, we are introduced to twenty-two-year-old Cleo Jaspar. She is visiting a law office one day when she meets Tom Aragon, one of the attorneys who works there. She asks to speak to him, and, when he agrees, she says that she wants to know what her rights are. It’s clear from their short conversation that Cleo has special needs, although she is high-functioning. As the two continue to talk, she tells Aragon that her life is too limited, and she never gets the chance to do what she wants to do, although she’s of legal age. There’s not much Aragon can do for her, though, and Cleo soon takes her leave. Then, she goes missing. Her much-older brother, Hilton, traces her movements to Aragon’s office, and asks him to find Cleo and persuade her to come back. Aragon agrees and starts asking questions. The trail leads to Holbrook Hall, the special school for troubled students that Cleo attends. He talks to several of the students there, and, bit by bit, learns that the teacher who knew Cleo best was Roger Lennard. But, when he gets to Lennard’s home, he finds that Lennard is dead – a victim of suicide. Aragon is certain that this suicide and Cleo’s disappearance are linked, and he pursues the case. In the end, he finds out the truth, but not in time to prevent more murder.

And then there’s Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. Fans of this series know that he had a very difficult childhood. Bosch is the son of a prominent Los Angeles-area attorney and a prostitute. He lived with his mother, but, after she was murdered, he spent years in foster homes and reform schools. It wasn’t until he joined the armed forces, and, later, the police, that he chose a more productive lifestyle. And his past still impacts him.

I explore alternative schools, myself, in Downfall. In that novel, former police detective-turned professor Joel Williams works with two colleagues on a piece of research into such schools. In one program they study, they learn about a two-year-old death that was put down to accident…but wasn’t. You can read more about Downfall here.

Reform schools, alternative schools, whatever they are called, can be viable options for young people who don’t benefit from ‘regular’ schools. They aren’t always the right solution, and they’re not perfect. But they are interesting contexts for crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Weezer’s Troublemaker.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Margaret Millar, Michael Connelly, Ross Macdonald

There’s One Law For the Rich, One For the Poor*

It’s no secret that money, social status, celebrity, or whatever gets one power in a given culture, also usually gives one a tremendous advantage in the justice system. For instance, money lets you hire the best attorneys there are. And there’s sometimes quite a lot of hesitation before prosecuting someone in a high, powerful position.

Crime fiction reflects the way this works, as you might imagine. And that can make for an interesting layer in a story. It can also add tension. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In several of Agatha Christie’s novels, rich and powerful people are mixed up in murders. It certainly happens in Murder on the Orient Express, when American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed during a three-day train journey. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and he works with M. Bouc, who’s a company director for the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, that owns the train. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same car, and several of them are in the highest social circles. For example, one such passenger is Princess Natalia Dragomiroff. From the very beginning of the novel, it’s obvious that she moves in the top international circles and is accustomed to deference. She’s in such an unassailable social position that M. Bouc even hesitates to ask her to come to him and Poirot to answer questions. Here’s what he says to the conductor about it:
 

‘‘Tell he we can wait on her in her compartment if she does not wish to put herself to the trouble of coming here.’’
 

Princess Dragomiroff decides to go to the dining car, where the interviews are being conducted. And she proves a very formidable personality. As you can guess, the second-class passengers are not offered the option of ‘being waited on’ in their compartments…

Anne Perry’s Face of a Stranger concerns the murder of Joscelin Grey, a ‘blueblood’ who is found dead in his home. Inspector William Monk, and his assistant, John Evan, investigate the death. As you might expect, one of their avenues of exploration is the victim’s family. But looking at that angle of the case isn’t going to be easy. This is Victorian London, and the Grey family is prominent and powerful, with impeccable social credentials. There are different rules, if you will, for dealing with these people, and that’s made clear to Monk by his boss. And, more than once, various family members remind him that he is a ‘mere’ policeman, and they don’t really need to talk to him at all (i.e. ‘A family like ours could have had nothing to do with such a sordid matter. Do your job and go after the riffraff who did it!’). It takes time, and Monk steps on a few toes, as the saying goes, but he does get some valuable information from some of the family members.

Bill Pronzini’s The Snatch features wealthy Louis Martinetti and his wife, Karyn. When their son, Gary, is kidnapped, Marinetti contacts San Francisco PI Nameless (he is named later in the series, but not here). At first, Nameless thinks Martinetti wants him to find the boy, and he urges his new client to work with the police. But that’s not what Martinetti wants. He wants Nameless to take the money to the drop site identified by Gary’s kidnappers. Then, he, tells Nameless, he’ll be informed where the boy is. Nameless agrees to do the job and goes to the appropriate place at the set time. But when he does, everything goes wrong all at once. Now, the case takes a whole new direction, and Nameless will have to decide what to do. Throughout this novel, we see how there’s a different set of rules for those who are wealthy and powerful. Nameless sees it, too, and it’s not to his liking. Readers who enjoy Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer stories, and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories, will be familiar with this theme.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant introduces readers to Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. His firm usually concerns itself with ‘vetting’ potential spouses for families who want to arrange the best marriages for their children and grandchildren. But one day, he gets a very different sort of case. Wealthy and privileged lawyer Ajay Kasliwal has been accused of raping and killing a household servant, Mary Murmu. He claims that he’s innocent, but it can’t be denied that Mary went missing, and hasn’t been found. Kasliwal asks Puri to find out the truth and clear his name. Puri agrees and starts asking questions. He soon finds that the Kasliwals are the sort of family that can do what they want, send their children to the best schools, and live in upmarket places. They’re used to privilege. And that just adds to Puri’s trouble. The police are determined to show that they are not the tools of the rich and powerful, and that no-one is above the law. So, they arrest Kasliwal and imprison him. And they are completely unwilling to work with Puri to find out the truth. In the end, he and his team do find out what happened to Mary. And it’s interesting to see how those ‘two sets of rules – one for the rich and one for the rest of us’ works in this novel.

We also see that in Kalpana Swaminatham’s Greenlight. In that novel, several children from a small Mumbai slum called Kandewadi disappear and are later murdered. At first, not much attention is paid to the killings. But finally, there’s enough public outcry that the police assign Inspector Savio to the case. He consults regularly with retired police detective Lalli, and she works with him on these murders. One of the elements in the story is the gulf between the rich and powerful, and the poor. Those with money and power are convinced that they can do as they wish, at any time. And more than once, we see how they react when anyone questions them.

Whether we like it or not, there’s an argument that wealthy, powerful people live by one set of standards, and there’s another set for the rest of us. Certainly, there are examples of that in real life. And there are in crime fiction, too.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ian Axel, Chad Vaccarino and Teddy Geiger’s Ordinary Man.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anne Perry, Bill Pronzini, Kalpana Swaminathan, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Tarquin Hall

We Ain’t no Delinquents*

Fictional police officers and PIs come from all sorts of different backgrounds. Not all of them come from steady, stable homes where the law is respected (although there are plenty of fictional police detectives whose parents were also police officers). In fact, it’s interesting to see how many of them started out as juvenile delinquents, or close to it. In some ways, it doesn’t make sense for someone who’s used to flouting the law to enforce it.

But there is some logic to it, if you think about it. For some of these fictional characters, finding a place in law enforcement gives them a sense of purpose. For others, it gives them a pseudo-family. Or a chance to make things right. Whatever the reason, it can make for an interesting layer of character development to have someone make the choice to move from breaking the law to being ‘on the side of the angels.’

Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer is that sort of character. He was a troubled child from what seems to have been an abusive home (he mentions taking the strap away from his father in The Doomsters). As he got older, he became a petty thief. But a veteran cop befriended him, and Archer changed his perspective. He joined the Long Beach (California) Police but saw too much corruption there. Now, he’s a PI, who does what he can to make things right.

There’s another, slightly similar example in the case of David Whish-Wilson’s Frank Swann. As a young person, he committed his share of petty crime, and got into his share of trouble. He didn’t really have a sense of purpose until he met Marion Monroe. When they started dating, he got the chance to meet her father, George Monroe, who was a police officer. Monroe treated Swann with dignity and found ways to reach out to him. Ultimately, that helped lead Swann to choose a career as a police officer. He’s hardly perfect and doesn’t always do things ‘by the book.’ But he’s got a sense of purpose, and he’s developed a core of integrity.

Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone also had a difficult start in life. After the death of her parents in a car wreck, she went to live with her aunt. Aimless in high school, she became a delinquent. Still, she finished high school and tried community college. That wasn’t a success, though, and it wasn’t until she became a PI that Millhone found a sense of purpose. Fans of this series can tell you that she doesn’t always walk the proverbial straight and narrow. But her life has focus, and she’s ‘on the side of the angels’ now.

Carol O’Connell’s Kathy Mallory started out as a homeless child who’d fled from her native Louisiana to New York City. When she was eleven, NYPD detective Louis Markowitz caught her stealing. Instead of turning her over to the juvenile justice system, Markowitz took her in and raised her as his own. As they’ve gotten to know each other, he’s learned about her past, and it’s a dark one. In fact, she’s a nearly-feral ‘baby sociopath.’ But they’ve forged a bond, and Mallory respects her surrogate father. When Markowitz is killed in a line-of-duty incident, Mallory takes it upon herself to find his killer. Later, she enrolls in the police academy and begins a law enforcement career of her own. Her mentor (and Markowitz’ former partner) Sergeant Riker, does his best to help her. It’s not always successful, since Mallory still has plenty of ‘baggage.’ But she’s working at making a life on the right side of the law.

Jean-Claude Izzo’s Fabio Montale grew up in a not-very-nice part of Marseilles. He and his friends, Manu and Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini, committed plenty of petty and sometimes more serious crimes. They probably would have continued this way, and even done worse things, but everything was changed by a tragedy. Montale left Marseilles and joined the military. In Total Chaos, he’s returned, and is now a police officer in the very area where he grew up. It’s not spoiling this trilogy to say that Montale gets fed up with a lot of what he sees on the police force, and that has a real impact on his own choices. But he’s made the choice not to get drawn into the criminal underworld.

These are only a few examples of fictional sleuths who started out as delinquents (or worse). And it’s an interesting question why they make the choice to enforce the laws they flouted. Each sleuth has a different pattern of reasons for that decision, and it adds to that sleuth’s character.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Gee, Officer Krupke!

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Filed under Carol O'Connell, David Whish-Wilson, Jean-Claude Izzo, Ross Macdonald, Sue Grafton