Category Archives: Ruth Rendell

My Hometown*

Fictional and Real SettingsIf you’re kind enough to read this blog regularly, you’ll know that my Joel Williams novels take place in the fictional US town of Tilton (Pennsylvania). It’s a small town that hosts Tilton University, where Williams teaches. As a writer, there’s a lot to like about creating a completely fictional town.

For one thing (and I admit, I like this), the writer can create whatever sort of place she or he wants. Who’s to say there isn’t an organic market on a certain corner? Or that the library isn’t five blocks away from one of the local churches? Or…or…or…  Along with this goes the freedom the writer has to make up street names, businesses and so on.

I’m in very good company, too. Fans of Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series will know that Bruno is Chief of Police in the fictional small town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. Throughout the course of the series, readers get to know several of the people who live in St. Denis. We learn about the different businesses, the street names, and so on. St. Denis has become, you might say, real.

So has Louise Penny’s Three Pines, a fictional small town in rural Québec. If you’ve read Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, you’ll know that Gamache is with the Sûreté du Québec. Beginning with Still Life, in which he and his team investigate a murder in Three Pines, Gamache spends a great deal of time there. In fact, he and his wife Reine-Marie retire to Three Pines. And it’s easy to see why. As the series has gone on, Penny has painted a vivid picture of a peaceful (well, sometimes) small town. Fans know who the ‘regulars’ are, and where one eats, shops, worships, and so on. The town has become so real to readers that a lot of people look up Three Pines on maps. But it isn’t there, of course.

D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington series also takes place in a fictional town – the village of Tuesbury. Heatherington is a retired milliner who still does occasional work to order; he’s converted his shed into a workshop, and tries to keep his business discreet, so that the council doesn’t have to hear of it officially. Heatherington is also an amateur detective. His insights prove very useful, since he’s lived in Tuesbury for a very long time and more or less knows everyone there. Through Heatherington’s eyes, we get to know the other local residents. Nelson also paints a verbal portrait of Tuesbury’s businesses, street names, topography, and so on. It’s a modern English small town, and Nelson shows us clearly what life is like there.

There are plenty of other authors, too, who have created fictional settings for their stories (I know, I know, fans of Ruth Rendell’s Reg Wexford novels and of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels). And there’s a lot to be said for doing that. But you don’t get a free pass when you create a fictional town. For one thing, the setting has to be credible. Tilton, for instance, is a university town. It’s not huge. There are no skyscrapers, underground trains, or nearby airports. It simply wouldn’t make sense to have them there.

The setting has to be believable in other ways, too. Things such as geography and climate have to be authentic. Winters are cold and snowy in the part of Québec where Louise Penny’s Three Pines is located, and that’s depicted faithfully. To take an extreme example, you wouldn’t be likely to find palm trees or olives growing naturally there.

It’s also important to be authentic in terms of cultural realities. Speech styles, customs, and other aspects of life have to be depicted faithfully, too. To give one example, the custom of market day that we see in Martin Walker’s novels isn’t followed in the same way in the US. Towns such as Tilton would more likely have a farmer’s market. It’s a similar tradition (but not identical), where local farmers, bakers and artisans gather once or twice a week (it’s sometimes less frequent than that). People then come to choose fresh produce, meat and so on. All of this is easy enough to create if the writer’s from the area where the fictional town is located. It’s more difficult otherwise. In those cases, the writer would have to do plenty of research, live in an area for a long time, or find some other way to make sure those subtle (but important) details are realistic.

Some authors choose to set their stories in actual places. As a matter of fact, that’s the case for the standalone I’m currently writing. When you set a story in an actual place, you are spared the time that it takes to create street names, locations of shops, and the rest of it. So in that sense, your work’s done for you.

But setting a story in an actual place brings with it other kinds of work. Anyone who lives in or near the place where a novel is set will know that setting and local culture. So the writer has to be accurate about place names, businesses and landmarks. That takes research (or, again, living in a place). In that sense, the writer can take fewer liberties.

Colin Dexter, for instance, set his Inspector Morse series in Oxford. I’ll admit I’ve never lived there. But people who know the place have vouched for the authenticity of Dexter’s stories. Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney stories are set in different parts of Thailand. The Half Child, for instance, takes place mostly in Pattaya. Again, I’ve never lived in that part of Southeast Asia, but Savage has. And her familiarity is reflected in the stories. What’s more, she’s done the research needed to ‘fill in the gaps’ we all have in our knowledge. There are many, many other authors who’ve chosen to set their novels and series in actual places. Michael Connelly, Christine Poulson, Anthony Bidulka and Sara Paretsky are just a few entries on that list.

No matter which choice the author makes, there’s no such thing as a free pass when it comes to depicting the setting and context. Do you have a preference when you read? If you do, do you like fictional or real locations better? If you’re a writer, which have you chosen and why?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bruce Springsteen song.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Christine Poulson, Colin Dexter, Craig Johnson, D.S. Nelson, Louise Penny, Martin Walker, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell, Sara Paretsky

Tearful Nights, Angry Dawns*

DomesticNoirAn interesting post from Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling has got me thinking about what many people call domestic noir. It certainly isn’t a brand-new kind of crime story, but it’s gotten an awful lot of press in recent years. I thought it might be interesting (I hope it will!) to have a look at some examples and see how it’s evolved. Now, before I go on, please pay a visit to Reading, Writing and Riesling. Lots of great reviews, recipes and fabulous ‘photos await you there.

Domestic noir mostly concerns itself with intimate family relationships (sometimes friends are involved too). And that dynamic is an effective backdrop for a crime novel, since such relationships are complex. What’s more, the complexity and conflict aren’t always obvious on the outside. All of this means (at least to me) that it’s not surprising at all that those relationships are featured in so much crime fiction.

As I say, threads of domestic noir have been woven through crime fiction for a long time. For example, Agatha Christie’s The Hollow is in part the story of John and Gerda Christow. He’s a successful Harley Street specialist; she’s his frumpy, adoring wife. One weekend, they’re invited to the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, who’ve put together a house party. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and was in fact, invited for lunch that day. When he arrives, his first thought is that the scene of Christow’s murder has been staged for his ‘amusement.’ Soon enough it’s clear that this is a real murder, so Poirot works with Inspector Grange and his team to find out who the killer is. There’s a network of relationships here that matter in the course of this novel. There’s the Christows’ relationship, the relationship Christow has with his former lover Veronica Cray (a famous actress who’s also taken a cottage nearby), and the relationship Christow has with sculptor Henrietta Savernake, who is a member of the Angkatells’ house party. And (also in the tradition of domestic noir), this story doesn’t end happily for most of the characters. Admittedly, most people wouldn’t call this a ‘pure’ example of the sub-genre, but it’s an interesting take on it.

Both under her own name and as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell wrote several novels you might argue are examples of domestic noir. One of them is her first Barbara Vine novel, A Dark-Adapted Eye. In that novel, journalist Daniel Stewart decides to do a story on the execution of Vera Longley Hilliard. Years ago, she was hung for murder, and Stewart wants some background on her life and on the events that led up to the killing for which she was convicted. He approaches Vera’s niece Faith Longley Severn, hoping he can persuade her to help him write his story. As the two begin to collaborate, we learn the background of the proud, ultra-respectable Longley family. There’s a very complicated network of relationships in the family; and as they are explored, we see how they’ve led to murder.

Wendy James’ The Mistake offers readers an intimate look at the various members of the Garrow family. Angus Garrow is a successful attorney, and is being put forward as the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. His wife Jodie is beautiful and intelligent, and a good mother to their two healthy children, Hannah and Tom. On the surface, they’re a family to be envied. Then one day, Hannah is rushed to a Sydney hospital after a car accident. It turns out to be the same hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another girl – a baby she never mentioned to anyone. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby, and Jodie says she gave the child up for adoption. But when the nurse checks, she finds no records of a formal adoption. Now all sorts of ugly questions begin to surface. Where is the baby? If she’s alive, can she be contacted? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? As the stories get worse and worse, the Garrow family begins to splinter, and we how complex and sometimes difficult those relationships really are.

A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife introduces readers to a successful Chicago couple, Todd Gilbert and Jodi Brett. He’s a developer; she’s a psychotherapist. Although they’ve been together for twenty years, they’ve never formally married. Everything changes for the couple – or better to say, a lot is revealed – when Todd begins an affair with Natasha Kovacs, the daughter of his business partner. Todd’s strayed before, but this time things are different. Natasha becomes pregnant, and wants marriage and a family. Todd says that’s what he wants, too, and moves in with her. Under the advice of his lawyer, Todd arranges for a letter to Jodi, evicting her from the home they’ve shared for years, and making it clear she has no claim to it, since they were never married. With her options getting more and more limited, Jodi begins to withdraw from life. Meanwhile, Todd has his own problems. He’s finding that life with Natasha isn’t at all what he imagined it might be, and is missing Jodi. Then, he’s murdered in a drive-by shooting. At first, it looks like a carjacking or burglary gone wrong. But it’s not long before the police discover that the killers were paid. The question of who paid them and why is of course an important aspect of this novel. But so is the slow peeling away of the layers of Todd and Jodi’s relationship, and their relationships with the other people in their lives.

Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry begins when Alistair Robertson and Joanna Lindsay make the long trip from Scotland to Victoria, where Alistair was born and raised. The idea is to be closer to Alistair’s daughter Chloe, who lives there with her mother Alexandra. Alistair wants to get custody of Chloe, and he knows his changes are better if he lives near her and re-establishes his relationship with her. The journey to Melbourne is nightmarish. Alistair and Joanna have with them their nine-week-old son Noah; and as anyone who’s ever been on a long flight with an infant knows, it’s difficult under the best of circumstances. And Noah is not an ‘easy’ baby. But, they finally arrive and begin the trip from the airport to their destination. That’s when they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. The police are alerted and a massive search is undertaken. The Australian media make much of the case, and there are all sorts of fundraising and other efforts in support of the family. But then, questions begin to come up about, especially, Joanna. There are certainly cases where parents are responsible for the loss of their children, and many people begin to wonder whether that’s happened here. As matters spiral out of control for both Alistair and Joanna, we get an ‘inside look’ at their relationship and the relationships they’ve formed with others. As is the case in a lot of domestic noir, not much is as it seems on the surface.

Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel explores another sort of relationship: the mother/child dynamic. Eve Moran is driven by her desire to acquire – money, things, men. And she’s toxic enough to do whatever it takes, including killing, to get what she wants. Her daughter Christine depends on her mother, as children do, and is drawn into Eve’s web because of that dependency as well as an unwillingness or inability to see her mother for what she is. It’s a very complicated relationship and it grows more and more dysfunctional. Then Christine begins to see that her three-year-old brother Ryan is being drawn into the same unhealthy, devastating pattern. This compels Christine to try to find a way to break free (and free Ryan) from Eve. In this novel, Abbott shows how the intimate relationships among parents and children can be at least as damaging as partner relationships.

There are a lot of other novels, too, that you could argue are examples of domestic noir (I know, I know, fans of Pascal Garnier, Minette Walters and of Karin Alvtegen). What do you think of this sub-genre? Why do you think it’s gotten so popular?

 

ps. The ‘photo is a reminder that lots of relationships aren’t noir at all. Happy anniversary, Mr. COAMN, and thanks for so many good, good years.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jacob Brackman and Carly Simon’s That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be.

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Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Helen Fitzgerald, Patricia Abbott, Ruth Rendell, Wendy James

Residents Are More Than Welcome*

Boarding HousesIt can be a challenge to find a place to live, especially if you don’t have much in the way of means, or if you’re not planning to be in a place long enough to purchase property. And in times past, it wasn’t considered appropriate for, especially, young ladies to live on their own. So boarding houses and homes that offer lodging had real appeal. There were a variety of them, too, ranging from seedy and dangerous to luxurious.

You don’t see boarding houses and lodging places as much as in the past, although they’re still there. And the arrangement does make sense. The homeowner gets extra income; the lodger gets less expensive accommodations and, depending on the arrangement, meals. Boarding houses also make for effective settings and contexts for crime fiction. That makes sense too, when you consider the variety of different personalities, and the conflicts that can come up.

One of the more famous lodgings in crime fiction is of course 221B Baker Street, where Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes lodges. His landlady is Mrs. Hudson, who’s gotten accustomed to his eccentric ways, although they are unusual. In fact in stories such as The Adventure of the Empty House, she is helpful to Holmes in his cases. In that particular adventure, Holmes is targeted by an associate of his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, and wants to lay a trap for the man who’s been trying to kill him. So he has a bust of himself placed in his sitting room. Then, he has Mrs. Hudson move the bust at certain intervals, so that it looks as though he’s actually there. In that way, Holmes and Dr. Watson are able to catch the would-be assassin.

Marie Belloc Lowndes The Lodger, introduces us to Ellen and Robert Bunting, who’ve retired from domestic service. They don’t have much in the way of income, and have decided to open their home to a lodger. However, Ellen Bunting is quite particular about the kind of person she’ll allow to live in her home, so their extra space has gone unused for some time. Then one day, a man who calls himself Mr. Sleuth applies for the room. He seems to be ‘a gentleman,’ and has quiet habits, so the arrangement is made and he moves in. The Buntings soon learn that Mr. Sleuth is a little eccentric, but he doesn’t cause them trouble. More to the point, he pays well and on time. In the meantime, the Buntings have been anxiously following the story of several murders that have occurred in London, all committed by a killer calling himself The Avenger. Very slowly, Ellen Bunting begins to wonder whether her lodger may in fact be The Avenger. She doesn’t want to admit it at first, because she and her husband really need the income they get from Mr. Sleuth’s residence there. But before long, she’s faced with the reality that she may be shielding a killer.

In John Dickson Carr’s Death-Watch, Dr. Gideon Fell is faced with a very strange boarding-house mystery. An apparently homeless man has been stabbed to death in the home of clockmaker Johannes Carver, who has opened his home to boarders. The victim isn’t what he seems though; instead, he is a police detective named Ames, who’d come to the boarding house to arrest one of the lodgers for a prior shoplifting incident. Of course, this is a Carr mystery, so the solution is not as simple as a thief who kills to avoid being arrested. As Fell looks into the matter, we see the different kinds of things that can happen in a boarding house…

There’s always a certain amount of risk when you open your home to boarders. So in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, no-one is shocked when James Bentley is arrested for the murder of his landlady Mrs. McGinty, who was a charwoman. Bentley didn’t fit in well in the village of Broadhinny anyway, and everyone is quick to believe that he is guilty. But Superintendent Spence, who in fact investigated the murder for the police, has come to believe that Bentley may be innocent. He’s been assigned to another case, so he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. When Poirot begins to ask questions, he soon learns that Mrs. McGinty was the kind of person who found out things about the people whose homes she cleaned. When she learned something that was too dangerous for her to know, she paid the price for it. Fans of this novel will also know that Poirot himself takes a room in a guest house called Long Meadows. It’s run by two very – erm – unsophisticated owners, Maureen and Johnnie Summerhayes. Some of the scenes that take place at Long Meadows are (at least in my opinion) really funny, just because of the difference between Poirot’s expectations and habits and the Summerhayes’ approach to running the place.

Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down explores the lodging/boarding relationship as well. Mix Cellini takes rooms in a house owned by Gwendolyn Chawcer. He doesn’t find his landlady particularly appealing; she’s mentally unsound, and as we learn about her history, we see why. And the feeling of distaste is mutual, since Cellini has plenty of his own issues. He’s got a host of phobias and obsessions that make him a difficult person. But the two do need each other financially, so they make an arrangement. Cellini’s job is repairing exercise equipment; that’s how he meets supermodel Merissa Nash. He soon becomes obsessed with her, and that obsession begins to take over his life. So does his obsession with notorious killer Dr. Richard Christie…

Some of Charlotte MacLeod’s Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn novels have a boarding house context. As that series begins, Kelling is a widow who’s decided to open her Boston home to boarders (Bittersohn is one of those boarders). She’s a ‘blueblood,’ so she is extremely particular about the sort of boarding house she will run. Her first lodgers are each a little eccentric in their ways, but all starts well enough. Then she takes on Barnwell ‘Barney’ Augustus Quiffen. From the start, he is an annoying resident. He has a habit of complaining about everything, and demanding all sorts of extra service (and complaining again about the quality of that service). He soon succeeds in upsetting everyone, including Kelling. Then one day, he suddenly dies in what looks like a tragic fall under a subway car. The next morning, a strange woman shows up at the boarding house claiming that she witnessed what happened, and that it wasn’t an accident. And when the police begin to show up, too, asking questions, Kelling finds herself more involved in the investigation than she’d thought.

Boarding houses may not be as common as they were, but they’re still out there. And they do play interesting roles in crime fiction…

ps.  This whole topic got me thinking about B&B’s, which are (at least to me) a different kind of accommodation. A post on that is on tap for tomorrow…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Master of the House.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Dickson Carr, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Ruth Rendell

Let’s Get Married*

Arranged MarriagesIn Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot travels to Nasse House, in Nassecomb, to help his friend, detective story writer Ariadne Oliver. She’s at Nasse House on commission from its owner Sir George Stubbs; her task is to create a Murder Hunt as a part of the festivities for an upcoming fête. But Mrs. Oliver suspects that there’s more going on at Nasse House than preparations for the event. Poirot has agreed to look into the matter with her. On the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, actually is killed. Poirot and Inspector Bland investigate to find out who was responsible. As a part of that investigation, Poirot wants to get to know the members of the household as well as possible. So he has a conversation with Amy Folliat, whose family used to own Nasse House, and who’s lived in the area all her life. In fact, Sir George married her ward Harriet ‘Hattie’.  Here’s what she and Poirot have to say about that marriage:
 

‘‘…I admit that I deliberately influenced her to accept him. If it had turned out badly –’ her voice faltered a little, ‘– it would have been my fault for urging her to marry a man so many years older than herself.’
‘It seems to me,’ said Poirot approvingly, ‘that you made there a most prudent arrangement for her… To arrange a good marriage, one must take more than romance into consideration.’’

Many modern people, especially members of Western cultures, might bristle at the idea of arranged marriages. But marriage arrangements are still common in many parts of the world. In those cultures, there’s logic to that. It’s believed that parents have their children’s best interests in mind, and are more mature. Who better to guide the choice of marriage partner?

Of course, not all parents do have their children’s best interests at heart, and they aren’t always mature. Still, as Poirot points out, there’s more to a good marriage than just emotions and romance (not, of course, that they don’t matter). So even in cultures where marriages aren’t formally arranged by the families, parents often weigh in on their children’s choices of partner. Caring parents want their children to make wise choices.

Arranged marriages have been a part of many societies for a long time, too, and certainly a part of crime fiction. For example, Robert van Gulik’s sleuth is Dee Jen-djieh, usually known as Judge Dee, who serves as Magistrate for the district of Lan-Fang, in the northwest of China. Judge Dee has three wives, a not-uncommon practice during the Tang Dynasty in which he lives. His marriage to his first (senior) wife was arranged by their families. He’s chosen his other two wives. And the custom of families arranging marriages is woven throughout the Judge Dee stories. It’s sometimes a very elaborate process, with ritual visits and gifts and planning.

In one plot thread of Ruth Rendell’s The Monster in the Box, Inspector Hannah Goldsmith is faced with a difficult case. She’s been assigned to find out the truth about sixteen-year-old Tamima Rahman, whose parents are recent émigrés from Pakistan. It’s suspected that Tamima was coerced into a marriage against her will – a marriage arranged by her family. On the one hand, Goldsmith is not alone in her belief that sixteen-year-olds are too young to marry, whether or not it’s their choice. On the other hand, as the Rahman family reminds her, every culture is different, and it’s risky to make judgements about other belief systems. As Goldsmith works to find Tamima and sort out the truth about this marriage, she also has to confront her own assumptions.

That’s also the case in Rhys Bowen’s Evanly Bodies. In one plot thread, Constable Evan Evans has to deal with greatly increased tensions in the town of Llanfair. The Khan family moved there not long ago and no-one is really comfortable about it. The Khans are Pakistani, and the locals are not accustomed to their traditions. For their part, the Khans have been treated with enough bigotry that they don’t trust anyone. One day though, sixteen-year-old Jamila Khan helps Evans’ wife Bronwen with groceries, and the two strike up a friendship. So when Jamila disappears, Bronwen is especially worried, and urges her husband to look into the matter. It’s believed that the girl went into hiding to avoid being sent back to Pakistan for an arranged wedding. At first, the Khan family blames Bronwen for interfering and accuses her of shielding Jamila. And even after it becomes clear that Bronwen had nothing to do with the girl’s disappearance, the Khans still believe that their customs and traditions are being disregarded. To them, there’s nothing wrong with ensuring that Jamila will have a solid marriage to someone of their own culture. There’s of course more to this mystery than that question, but it forms an interesting thread throughout the novel.

Arranged marriages are also a part of modern life in India. A former colleague told me that, in her experience, it’s not that today’s young people have absolutely no say in their partners. But parents often do guide their choices. For example, parents may consult astrologists to find out the best sort of match for their child. They also put out personal advertisements in papers, and participate in ‘vetting’ marriage candidates. They get involved in other ways too. Once the spouse-to-be is chosen, both families make arrangements for the wedding. We see this process in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, which introduces Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. His ‘bread and butter’ is background checks on future spouses. Families pay his agency to find out everything possible about a likely marriage candidate before the final wedding agreement is made. In this novel, Puri’s involved in a few such background checks, and they lead to some interesting findings.

Arranged marriages may seem coercive or worse. Certainly people from Western backgrounds, who likely chose their own partners, may see the custom as wrong. Speaking strictly for my family, I’m quite sure my daughter wouldn’t have gone along with an arranged marriage; nor would I. But not everyone sees it that way, and the tradition has a long history in society – and in crime fiction.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Rhys Bowen, Ruth Rendell, Tarquin Hall

One Word From You is All I Need to be Inspired*

Writing InspirationIn Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver is talking to Hercule Poirot about how she gets inspired for her stories:
 

‘It does happen that way. I mean, you see a fat woman sitting on a bus…And you look at her and you study her shoes and the skirt she’s wearing and her hat and guess her age and whether she’s got a wedding ring on and a few other things. And then you get off the bus. You don’t want ever to see her again, but you’ve got a story in your mind…’
 

Later in the conversation, Mrs. Oliver points out (and I think, rightly, at least for me) that it would ruin the inspiration if she actually knew the woman she describes. Then the woman she created wouldn’t really be, well, her own creation.

Lots of fiction writers get asked if they base their stories on real people. And of course, there are plenty of authors who write fiction about real people (Hilary Mantel, Martin Edwards and Truman Capote, to name just three). But a lot of writers don’t quite do that.

What happens instead (well, at least for me) is that the writer may see an event, or read or hear about it. Or, perhaps the writer notices a stranger in a grocery store or restaurant or park. Whether it’s a person or event, it sparks the writer’s imagination. Then, the ‘what if questions’ happen: ‘That guy in the baseball cap is so wrapped up in his ‘phone that he’s not paying attention to anything. There could be a murder right behind him and he might not even notice! What would that be like?’  And the story starts to come together, just from that one scene.

Agatha Christie is said to have been inspired for Murder on the Orient Express by a personal experience in which she was caught on a train that was stopped because of snow. Of course, there wasn’t a murder on the train, and it wasn’t for three days, and…  But that one incident sparked her imagination. I can’t speak for her, of course, but my guess would be that she didn’t base the characters in that novel on specific people she knew. It’s possible that no-one on the train with her that day resembled any of the characters. Instead, it was the experience that got her thinking.

In October of 1999, two trains collided more or less head-on near Ladbroke Grove, a few miles from Paddington Station. There were 31 deaths and hundreds of injuries, and the incident left permanent scars. Ruth Rendell used that incident as the setting for her novel Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, in which three women’s lives intersect as a result of the crash. Two lose their partners in the wreck; the third meets her fiancé because of it. When these three discover that they’ve all been duped by the same con artist (who was ostensibly killed in the crash) the result leads to some dark places. Rendell didn’t, as far as I know, base those characters directly on people she actually knew who survived the crash. Rather, the event itself sparked the story.

You might say the same sort of thing about Michael Connelly. As he has told the story, he was at a baseball game and got to talking with another person who was there. That man was a lawyer who didn’t have an office in the conventional sense of that word. Rather, he used his car as an office. If you’ve read Connelly’s work and that sounds familiar, it should. Connelly used this person he met as the inspiration for Mickey Haller, whom he introduced in The Lincoln Lawyer. Fans of Haller will know that he uses his car as an office, and travels all over Los Angeles to pursue his cases. The man Connelly met at the baseball game wasn’t named Mickey Haller, and very likely didn’t resemble Haller either in character or appearance. My guess is that instead, Connelly was inspired to imagine a lawyer who works out of his car, and the kind of cases he might encounter.

In discussing the creation of his John Rebus series, Ian Rankin has said that Rebus came to him as a fully-formed fictional character. But he (Rankin) was inspired by the place where he was living at the time he was writing Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus novel. He has said that he wrote the story on a typewriter, sitting at a table by a window. From that window, he could see the tenement opposite, and decided that Rebus would live there – across the way. His living situation inspired the sort of home environment Rebus would have. Fans of this series will also know that Rankin has been inspired for several stories by other places in Edinburgh.

Here’s what Val McDermid says about the inspiration for her novel The Vanishing Point:
 

‘‘I was travelling with my son when he was about six,’ she says. ‘I’ve got replacement knees so I set off the detectors, and they literally put you in a box. While I was there, my boy was standing by the luggage belt waiting for our bags to come through and I thought that someone could just take him by the hand and walk away with him.’’
 

She took that moment of fear, with which any parent can identify, and used it to spark the story, even though fortunately, the events of the story didn’t happen in her personal life.

Some writers do use real people, of course. And if you’re interested in the legalities of that, please check out this fascinating post by Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan. That’s a great crime fiction blog, by the way, that deserves a place on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

A lot of writers, though, take those little ideas that come from people they see, events they watch (or learn about) or experiences, and use them to spark fictional stories. Admittedly it can be a bit difficult to explain the process. But when it happens to you, there’s nothing quite like it.

 

ps  It’s not just authors who do this. So do those who write songs. For instance, Billy Joel was, so it is said, inspired to write New York State of Mind by a bus ride he took to West Point. And Allentown was inspired by a comment he heard from a fan.

Wait, what? You wonder why I’d mention a rock star in a crime fiction blog post? But it’s Billy Joel!! And it’s his birthday. So happy birthday, Mr. Joel. And now I’m off to celebrate this important international holiday. Problem with that? Good! ;-)

 
 
 

*NOTE: the title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Blonde Over Blue.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Hilary Mantel, Ian Rankin, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell, Truman Capote, Val McDermid