Category Archives: Sara Paretsky

I’ll Take Your Part*

Classic and Golden Age crime fiction includes quite a few ‘gentleman detectives’ such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. And it can be expensive to hire them. Poirot even admits a few times that his work does not come cheaply. Fans know that he is also sometimes compelled to investigate by compassion, but still,  hiring him can be costly.

And, yet, it’s not just the wealthy who are in need of an advocate. Sometimes those without any money get themselves into legal trouble or need a PI. Crime fiction also includes plenty of characters who help those without a lot of money or ‘clout – even if they’re not required to take such cases pro bono. And those stories (and characters) can be at least as compelling.

One of the most famous such characters is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. He is a self-described ‘salvage consultant’ whose specialty is helping those who have had money or property stolen from them and have nowhere else to turn. McGee’s needs are relatively few, and he’s not greedy. His arrangement with his clients is usually that he will work on their behalf to get back what was taken from them. In return, he claims half of the value of that money or property. On the one hand, it sounds like a lot. On the other, his clients know that they have no chance of recovering their property without help. McGee is straightforward, good at what he does, and willing to help even destitute and desperate clients. So, in general, the arrangement works well for all. It helps, too, that he has a compassionate side, and feels a need to get justice for those who have no other chance of getting it.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has also been known to work on behalf of those who have nowhere else to turn. For example, in Eight Million Ways to Die, he meets Kim Dakkinen, a sex worker who wants to get out of the business, and free of her pimp. She’s going to need help, and for that, she turns to Scudder. He agrees to do what he can to protect her, but it isn’t successful. Kim is found brutally murdered, and Scudder feels a sense of responsibility. His first thought is that Kim’s pimp, an enigmatic man who calls himself Chance, is the killer. But Chance claims to be innocent, and, in fact, hires Scudder to find out who the real killer is. And it turns out that Kim’s death is more than a case of punishing a sex worker for trying to leave the business.

In Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People, we are introduced to Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin. He works for a seedy firm, and does most of his business representing sex workers, drug users, and down-and-out people who don’t have much hope of getting legal help. In the process, he’s become familiar with the city’s underside, and that turns out to be useful to him. For instance, in I Remember You, Devlin becomes suspicious when a fire destroys the shop of tattooist Finar Rogan. Then, a bomb goes off under Rogan’s car. It’s clear now that someone wants to kill him. As Devlin himself thinks:
 

‘He knew the folly of becoming too closely involved with his clients and their misfortunes, yet it was a mistake he could never help making.’
 

It’s that fascination for his clients, and his determination to do the right thing, that makes Devlin a formidable ally.

Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski has a strong social conscience. More than once, that means that she works on behalf of those who can’t pay (or who can only pay a little). For instance, in Burn Marks, a visit from Warshawski’s Aunt Elena alerts her to a fire that took place in the seedy SRO hotel where her aunt lives. It’s a run-down place, occupied mostly by people who can’t afford anything better. Although Aunt Elena’s unexpected visit triggers Warshawski’s interest in the case, it’s her concern for the well-being of the people who live in the building that keeps her involved. And that interest turns out to be dangerous, as she goes up against well-placed developers and ‘backroom politics.’

Several of John Grisham’s protagonists take on the cases of those who have nowhere else to turn. In The Client, for instance, we are introduced to Memphis attorney Regina ‘Reggie’ Love. She gets involved in a very dangerous case when she meets eleven-year-old Mark Sway. He and his brother Ricky were sneaking a cigarette when they witnessed a suicide. That death is connected to another notorious murder and a missing body. Ricky was deeply affected and is in a sort of catatonic state. Mark is smart enough to know that the two boys are in real trouble. So, when he meets Love, he wants her help. The Sway boys and their mother can’t afford a lawyer, but Love wants to keep the boys safe, so she charges the family one dollar for her services. By getting involved in this case, Love goes up against some very dangerous people, including Mafia thugs and highly-placed people who are connected to the Mob. The Sway family fares little better, since the Mafia is convinced that Mark knows more than he is saying. And Love fears that the FBI won’t be of much help protecting the family. So, she will have to do what she can to keep the family as safe as possible. Fans of Grisham’s Gray Mountain will know that it also features a lawyer who works for those who don’t have much of a voice of their own.

Of course, lawyers, PIs and other professional investigators have to earn a living. But that doesn’t always mean that they don’t work on behalf of those who are ‘down and out.’ And it’s interesting to see how this theme comes through in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, John D. MacDonald, John Grisham, Lawrence Block, Martin Edwards, Sara Paretsky

Any Two-Bit Job That Pays*

Not every PI or attorney is well-known and sought-after by the rich and famous. In fact, some lawyers and PIs are very much ‘low rent.’ There are a variety of reasons for this, of course. Sometimes it’s because of the sorts of cases they take. Sometimes it’s because they simply don’t have recognition. There are other reasons, too.

These sorts of attorneys and PIs can make for interesting characters in crime fiction. For one thing, they may have interesting backstories. For another, the sorts of cases and people they deal with are often (not always) gritty, if I can put it that way. And that can add a layer of interest to a story, to say nothing of plot points.

For instance, in William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel, which takes place in 1959, we are introduced to low-rent PI Harry Angel. He’s not used to dealing with ‘upper crust’ clients, but one day, he gets a call from an upmarket law firm. It seems that one of their clients, Louis Cyphre, wants to find a missing man. His quarry is talented jazz artist Jonathan Liebling, also known as Johnny Favorite. According to Cyphre, he helped Liebling out at the beginning of his career, in return for which he was promised certain ‘collateral.’  World War II intervened, and Liebling came back from combat physically and emotionally damaged. He was placed in a psychiatric hospital, but now, he’s disappeared. Angel agrees to take the case, and starts to ask questions. But he soon finds that this is no normal missing person case. Instead, he’s drawn into a web of murder, horror, and evil.

Fans of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder will know that he used to be a New York City police detective. A tragic accidental shooting changed everything, and as the series begins, he’s a down-at-the-heels occasional PI. He doesn’t even have his license at first, and he barely maintains a home. He doesn’t have his own office, either; instead, he holds court in local bars. As the series goes on, Scudder does a little better, gets his official PI license, and so on. But he still deals with plenty of gritty characters and places.

So does Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. When he loses his wartime (World War II) job at an aircraft manufacturing plant, he has to find some way to make a living. So, he accepts a commission to find a missing woman in Devil in a Blue Dress. From then, he begins to get a reputation for being able to find missing people and solve other problems. Like Scudder, he doesn’t have a regular office or a fine home. And a lot of the people he helps are ‘regular people,’ rather than wealthy, well-connected people. As the series goes on, he gets an official PI license, and has some success. But he generally doesn’t mix with those who go to ‘A-list’ parties.

There’s also C.B. McKenzie’s Rodeo Grace Garnet, whom we meet in Bad Country. He’s a former rodeo star who now works as an occasional bounty hunter and low-rent private investigator. He doesn’t have an office, or post advertisements. Instead, he gets clients by word of mouth. That’s how he hears that Katherine Rocha wants him to look into the death of her teenage grandson, Samuel. The official explanation for the boy’s death is that he fell from a bridge (or possibly, committed suicide). But there’s also evidence that he might have been shot, and knocked from the bridge. If so, his grandmother wants to know who shot the boy and why. Garnet takes the case, and soon finds that some wealthy and well-connected people do not want the death investigated.

Fans of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski will know that she, too, starts out as what you might call a ‘low-rent’ PI. Certainly, she doesn’t live a wealthy life, and her clients are not always well-connected.

There’s also mystery novelist and fellow blogger E. Michael Helms’ Dinger. He’s a low-rent PI in post-World War II Las Vegas. He’s a tough, hardboiled sort of a guy, who’s not afraid to mix it up with all sorts of low-life types. Helms has published his Dinger stories in serial form. You can read Part One of one of them, Rose, right here. Once you do, you’ll want to read the other parts, too! I hope – I really do – that we’ll see more of Dinger. A-hem, Mr. Helms…

Martin Edwards’ Harry Devlin is a Liverpool-based attorney. But he’s not the sort you see in high-profile, lucrative cases. He’s a low-rent attorney who makes his living defending drunks, prostitutes and thieves, among others. He’s got a small place, and works in a cheap firm. So, he sees the gritty side of the city. In All The Lonely People, where we first meet him, Devlin is shocked when his ex-wife, Liz, comes for a visit. She says she’s left her current lover, Mick Coghlin, because he’s abusive, and she’s afraid of him. She asks to stay with Devlin a few days, and he agrees. Then, she disappears, and her body is found in an alley. Devlin feels guilty because he didn’t take Liz’ concerns seriously at first, and decides to find out who murdered her. At first, he assumes that Coghlin is the killer. But the more Devlin learns, the more possibilities there are. His search for the truth takes him into several of Liverpool’s seedy places.

And then there’s Attica Locke’s Jay Porter. When we are introduced to him, in Black Water Rising, he’s a low-rent Houston-area lawyer. It’s 1981, and Porter is trying to build his law business. But so far, he’s not been very successful. Then, in one plot thread, he gets drawn into the case of a fatal shooting. The trail leads to some very high, very well-protected places, and it’s a big risk for Porter. He’s black in what is still very much a white person’s world. And he’s up against some considerable opposition.

Low-rent, two-bit, down-at-the-heel, whatever you call it, such fictional attorneys and PIs add an interesting layer to crime fiction. They often deal with the sorts of cases others might not be willing to handle. And they themselves can be interesting characters.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Clouds’ Pocket.

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Filed under Attica Locke, C.B. McKenzie, E. Michael Helms, Lawrence Block, Martin Edwards, Sara Paretsky, Walter Mosley, William Hjortsberg

Que Bonita es Barcelona*

Writers are like everyone else: we are products of our times, and we live through events as the rest of the world does. And those events sometimes have a real impact on us. Well, they do on me, at any rate.

And therein lies the issue. Like millions of others, I am heartbroken about the loss of life and the devastation in Barcelona. I’ve been there. I’ve walked down its streets and explored its history (did you know that Barcelona is home to Europe’s oldest synagogue?). So, there’s a really personal sense of loss. I felt the same way about what happened in London before that. And in Charlottesville. And in Manchester, although I admit I’ve not been there. And in other places, too. This has been, so far, a terrible year in terms of the awful things people can do to each other.

The thing is, I’m a writer. Writers are, in general, observers. That’s part of what we do. And we can’t help seeing what goes on around us (am I right, fellow writers?). The question is, what do we do with it? How do writers cope with some of the awfulness of life that we can’t help seeing?

Some writers speak out about it. That’s what Margaret Atwood has done in The Handmaid’s Tale. She herself has said that everything that happens in that novel has happened, or is happening, in real life. She’s used those things as inspiration, and brought a lot of things to our notice. Perhaps this novel isn’t, strictly speaking, a crime novel, but crimes are certainly committed in it.

They are in George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, too. Like Atwood, Orwell spoke out about what he observed, and used what he saw to inspire his writing. And there’ve been many crime writers who’ve done the same. Attica Locke, Kishwar Desai, Antti Tuomainen and Sara Paretsky are only a few examples of authors who’ve been deeply affected by major issues like poverty, racism, and climate change, and have discussed them in their writing. I know you’ll think of many more.

Other writers have made other choices. For instance, Agatha Christie lived through two world wars. She was tragically familiar with wartime shortages, the loss of people she knew, and so on. In fact, she safeguarded both Curtain and Sleeping Murder, which were written during World War II, in case she didn’t survive it.

And yet, if you read Christie’s work, you see comparatively little discussion of the real costs of war. She certainly mentions war and its losses in books such as The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Taken at the Flood and some other work, too. But her stories really focus on the mysteries at hand, the characters involved, and so on. And in some books, such as Five Little Pigs, there’s no mention of the war at all, although that particular novel was published in 1942.

Christie isn’t the only author who didn’t really write about what she was living through at the time. The ‘Queen Team’ also wrote during World War II. Calamity Town, for instance was published in 1942. And yet, you don’t see a lot of discussion of war losses, shortages and so on. In fact, Calamity Town doesn’t really mention World War II at all.

Every writer is different, of course. Some deal with their sense of grief and loss and heartbreak through their writing. Others prefer to escape those sorrows and write other sorts of stories. Still others are motivated in different ways. I don’t think there is a ‘right’ way to cope, to be honest.

What do you folks think? If you’re a reader, are you comfortable with books in which the author explores the raw grief, anger and heartbreak that go with war, terrorism, loss, and sorrow? Or does that keep you too close to it all? If you’re a writer, do you deal with your sense of anger and grief at these horrible events by writing? Or do you use your writing to go (and take the reader) elsewhere?

As for me, I can’t answer that question right now – at least about the terrorism we’ve seen lately. It’s too recent. But just because I’m not writing about the heartbreak doesn’t mean I’m not feeling it…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Manuel Moreno. In English (my translation) the title means: How beautiful Barcelona is.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Antti Tuomainen, Attica Locke, Ellery Queen, George Orwell, Kishwar Desai, Margaret Atwood, Sara Paretsky

It Was Just My Dog and Me*

Recently, Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write posted some lovely pictures of writers with their cats. I really enjoyed that post, because I think it shows a side of authors that we don’t always see. And, although I don’t live with cats, I do like them very much.

Of course, there are also plenty of authors who are owned by dogs. So, I thought it might be fun to have a look at some of those authors, too.

 

Here is Canadian novelist Louise Penny with her Golden Retriever. Her series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who’s also owned by a dog.

 

This is Sara Paretsky with her Golden Retriever. As fans can tell you, her V.I. Warshawski is owned by two dogs, Mitch and Peppy.

 

And here’s Stephen King with his Corgi canine overlord. No, let’s not mention Cujo here….

 

This is Martin Walker, author of the Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series. Here he’s consulting with his Basset Hound owner.

 

I don’t think I could look at crime-fictional authors and their canines without mentioning Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Here he is with his terrier owner.

 

And anyone who knows me will know that I also couldn’t do a post on crime fiction without a mention of Agatha Christie. Here’s a young Ms. Christie with her Fox Terrier. It shouldn’t be surprising that dogs figure so often in her stories.

It’s not just fictional sleuths who are owned by dogs. Their creators often are, too. Thanks very much, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration. I’m really glad you got me thinking about this. Folks, give yourselves a treat and have a look at Marina Sofia’s excellent blog. Fine reviews, excellent poetry, and more await you there.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Hiatt’s My Dog and Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Louise Penny, Martin Walker, Sara Paretsky, Stephen King

Why Did Those Days Ever Have to Go?*

Historical NuancesThe world changes, sometimes very quickly. So it’s easy to forget what life was like in the not-too-distant past. That’s one advantage of reading well-written novels from different eras: they offer a look at life at a certain time and in a certain place. And sometimes they include subtle nuances that really add to the atmosphere of a story – nuances we don’t really think about unless we compare them with our lives today.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), for instance, Hercule Poirot is on a flight from Paris to London when one of the other passengers, Marie Morisot, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other people on board the flight, so Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have a limited supply of suspects. Along with the mystery in this novel (who killed Marie Morisot, how, and why), readers also get a sense of what airline travel was like at the time (this book was first published in 1935). Planes were smaller, full meals were served, and flight was much noisier than we see today. There were many other differences, too, and Christie shares those nuances.

Pheobe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery, first published in 1931, is the first in her series featuring Asa ‘Asey’ Mayo. In the novel, Prudence Whitsby and her niece Betsey are staying at their Cape Cod summer cottage to escape the heat and humidity of the city. Staying nearby is famous writer Dale Sanborn. One night, Prudence’s cat escapes and she trails it to Sanborn’s cabin, where she discovers that he’s been murdered. The police are alerted and local sheriff Slough Sullivan takes charge of the investigation. Soon enough, the evidence points to Bill Porter, a friend of the Whitsby family, as the guilty party. But Porter’s cook and ‘man of all work’ Asey May doesn’t think his employer is the killer. So he works with Prudence to find out who really murdered Sanborn and why. Besides the mystery, this novel explores the ‘summer culture’ of that era, before people had air conditioning. Anyone who could afford to do so would go to the shore or the mountains to escape the city heat, and we see that here. We also see what life was like in the sort of small seaside town where summer visitors congregated.

Technology has arguably created a revolution in the way detectives get information. But it wasn’t very long ago, when you think about it, that PIs didn’t have those resources (neither, really, did police). And we see that in Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels. The first Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only, was published in 1982. In it, Warshawski is hired to find a young woman, Anita Hill, who’s gone missing. She starts with a visit to Anita’s boyfriend, Pete Thayer. But when she gets there, she discovers that Pete’s been murdered. Now Warshawski’s faced with a missing person case that involves murder and fraud. As she investigates, readers get a sense of PI work in the days before the Internet, mobile telephones and GPS navigation. Warshawski uses telephone books, maps, lots of ‘legwork,’ face-to-face interviews, and so on as she solves cases.

Readers also see those nuances in Mike Ripley’s Angel series. Beginning with 1988’s Just Another Angel, the series features jazz musician, unlicensed cab driver, and occasional PI Fitzroy MacLean Angel. In the first novel, Angel meets Josephine ‘Jo’ Scamp. The two enjoy each other’s company and the evening ends in a one-night stand. Both agree that that’s all it is, so Angel doesn’t think much more about it until five months later when he sees Jo again. This time, she wants his help. It seems that a former friend, Carol Flaxman, has made off with some credit cards and a valuable emerald pendant, and Jo wants them back. Angel is very reluctant to take the case on, but in the end, he’s persuaded. He tracks Carol down and gets Jo’s property back, but that’s only the beginning of his adventures. As it turns out, this case puts Angel up against the police (who suspect Jo of criminal activity), Jo’s husband (who is not someone you want angry with you) and a very large and angry bouncer with an agenda of his own. As Angel searches for Carol, and as he tries his best to get out of the mess he’s in, we see how PIs worked in the days before easy access to information. Incidentally, readers also see the nuances of life as a London jazz musician of that time. There was no Facebook with band pages; there was no Twitter to put out the word about a gig. So musicians had to learn of gigs, and spread the news of their own events, via word of mouth – and flyer.

Sometimes a novel or a series captures the entire atmosphere of an era. That’s the case in Len Deighton’s Bernard ‘Bernie’ Samson novels. In Berlin Game, which was published in 1983, Samson is sent from MI5’s London Central offices to Berlin. It seems that one of MI5’s agents, code-named Brahms Four, wants to come to the West. Samson’s task is to persuade Brahms Four to stay in place for just a little longer. In the meantime, MI5 has an even bigger problem. There’s a mole at what appears to be a very high level. So Samson has two serious challenges: solving the Brahms Four issue, and finding the mole before it’s too late. This novel, and the others in the series, show the nuances of the Cold War in everyday life. What’s more, they show small details of what espionage was like at this point in that conflict. The atmosphere and culture of London and Berlin during the early 1980s is an important part of the novel, and readers get a look at it.

And that’s the thing about some novels and series. They give readers a real sense of the nuances and subtleties of an era. And it’s those small things, like landlines, airline food, and paper maps, that really show (or remind) readers of what life was like. Which novels have given you a real sense of an era?

ps. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned historical novels. To me, that’s a different way of looking at a time and place.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Wonder’s I Wish.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Len Deighton, Mike Ripley, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Sara Paretsky