Category Archives: Sara Paretsky

Between This Genre, That Genre*

Crossover WritersI’ve started a new manuscript (an occupational hazard for writers). This one’s not a Joel Williams mystery; in fact, it’s not really even a traditional-style whodunit, ‘though it is a crime novel. I’m pleased about the idea, but it’s still in its beginning stages, so we’ll see how it goes. The process of getting started on this story has got me thinking about other writers who make an even bigger leap with their stories than I am with mine.

Some authors have even written in different genres. Or, they’ve written both fiction and non-fiction. Or they’ve written both poetry and crime novels. That sort of ‘branching out’ is risky. After all, many people write what makes them comfortable, and perhaps even get a reputation and a following. Trying something new means building up a new audience, using different skills, and so on. To move on to something different isn’t always easy. But it can result in some excellent work. And it gives the author the chance to experiment and ‘stretch’ creatively.

As you’ll no doubt know, Edgar Allan Poe is often credited with pioneering the detective story. Works such as The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter are frequently cited as examples of detective fiction. But as you’ll also know, Poe was a master of the horror story, too. The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Black Cat are just a few examples.

More recently, Alan Orloff has done a similar thing. Under his own name, he’s written Diamonds for the Dead, Killer Routine and Deadly Campaign, all crime novels. Under the name Zak Allen, he’s written The Taste and First Time Killer, both of which are horror novels. You might argue (and you’d have a well-taken point!) that horror novels and crime novels are close cousins. But they do require different sorts of storytelling skills, and they appeal to different audiences. That sort of flexibility takes skill.

Agatha Christie, of course, is renowned for her mysteries. She wrote all sorts of plays, short stories and novels featuring crime and its investigation. And if you’re kind enough to read this blog with any kind of regularity, then you know what a fan I personally am of her crime fiction. But she also wrote novels that explore characters and trace their lives. Under the name of Mary Westmacott, she wrote stories such as Giant’s Bread and A Daughter’s a Daughter, that explore love in its different forms, and provide interesting character studies. In those novels, the focus is on psychology and relationships, rather than on crime. And she’s by no means the only one to write both romance and crime fiction (Am I right, fans of Georgette Heyer?)

More recently, Paddy Richardson has written both well-regarded literary fiction (such as The Company of a Daughter) and well-regarded crime fiction (such as Hunting Blind and Swimming in the Dark). And she’s not only one who’s made that ‘literary crossover.’ Many other literary writers have also written crime fiction.

Some of them have been poets. For instance, Cecil Day-Lewis was the UK’s Poet Laureate. His collections are extremely highly regarded. Under his own name, he also wrote some literary novels. As fans will know, he also wrote a series of crime novels under the name of Nicholas Blake. His sleuth in those stories is Nigel Strangeways, who is, like his creator, a poet. And that’s an interesting example of the ways in which one’s writing in one genre/type of book can influence one’s writing in another.

Isaac Asimov gained a worldwide reputation as a scientist and an author of science textbooks. He was also a skilled writer of science fiction, such as the Foundation series. With his name made, as the saying goes, in that field, Asimov also created a short series of crime novels featuring Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley. Baley is a homicide detective in a futuristic New York, which bears all the hallmarks of Asimov’s background in science fiction. But the stories (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn, and the short story Mirror Image) are distinctly crime fiction.

There’s also Ausma Zehanat Khan, whose novels The Unquiet Dead and The Language of Secrets are crime novels featuring detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty. They take place in contemporary Ontario, and focus on crimes and their investigations. Khan is also writing a fantasy series (at the moment, it’s scheduled as a quadrilogy). The first in this series, Bloodprint, is due to be published in 2017.

Elizabeth Spann Craig has written three mystery series. Under her own name, she writes the Myrtle Clover series; under the name of Riley Adams, she writes the Memphis Barbecue series. She also writes the Southern Quilting Mysteries. Recently, Craig has also ‘branched out’ and written a post-apocalyptic novel that includes zombies. It’s a big change from cosy mysteries to post-apocalypse, but Craig has made it successfully.

Of course, there are plenty of other authors, too, who have used their skills in more than one genre or type of writing. J.K. Rowling, Sara Paretsky, and before them, Charles Dickens, are just some examples. I know that you’ll have lots more in mind to share.

Have you read the same author in two different genres? What have you thought? Can authors do that effectively, so that you, as a reader, enjoy their work? If you’re a writer, have you experimented in different genres, or with a literary-to-genre move (or vice versa). What was it like for you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Utada Hikaru’s Crossover Interlude.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Orloff, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Cecil Day-Lewis, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Isaac Asimov, J.K. Rowling, Mary Westmacott, Nicholas Blake, Paddy Richardson, Riley Adams, Sara Paretsky, Zak Allen

‘Cause When It’s All For One, It’s One For All*

Individualist and Collectivist CulturesCrime fiction arguably says a lot about the culture from which it comes. This is a very large topic, so I’ll just focus on one aspect of culture. One of the important ways in which cultures differ is in the extent to which they’re collectivist or individualist. Of course, very few cultures are what you’d call entirely collectivist or entirely individualist. But most cultures lean towards one or the other.

Individualistic cultures tend to value individual achievement and efforts. In those cultures, one’s identity comes from individual experiences, choices and the like. In collectivist cultures, on the other hand, individuals’ identities come from their memberships in the larger group. Group goals and achievements have priority over individual goals, and members of the group rely on each other for child and elder care, financial support and the like. The point here isn’t to argue the merits of one type of culture or the other. Rather, it’s to point out that individualism or collectivism really does impact cultures.

We certainly see it in real life, and we see it in crime fiction, too. For example, one aspect of individualistic cultures is an emphasis on individual effort. And that’s arguably reflected in the kinds of sleuths and stories that come from US authors (the dominant US culture is considered highly individualistic). If we look at characters such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Bill Pronzini’s Nameless, or Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, we see examples of sleuths who generally work alone, and certainly don’t get their sense of identity from membership in a particular group. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have friends, don’t value what they learn from others, and so on. But their individual efforts are really the main point of the stories that feature them.

Another characteristic of a lot of individualistic cultures is what’s often called low power distance. In just about every culture, some people have more power than others. Power distance refers to individuals’ willingness to accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. So, lower-ranking individuals from low power distance cultures are less likely to be comfortable with the unequal distribution of power. To see how this plays out, we can take a look at David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, the first of his Superintendent Frank Swann novels. These take place in 1970’s Perth, in a culture that’s generally considered to be quite individualistic. In Line of Sight, Swann investigates the murder of a former friend, brothel owner Ruby Devine. To get to the truth, he has to go up against a very powerful group of top police brass known as the ‘purple circle.’ The novel shows, among other things, the view that titles and power don’t necessarily equal the respect of others. Certainly they don’t guarantee obedience from others. And that’s not surprising, considering that this is an individualistic culture.

Fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels will probably find that perspective familiar, and that’s not surprising, either. These stories take place mostly in Scotland, which is also considered an individualistic culture. The cultural values of low power distance and an emphasis on individual effort and achievement come through very clearly in the series.

These aren’t the only examples of individualistic cultures and the novels that come from them, of course. There are many, many more. And as we look at novels from individualistic cultures, we see how those perspectives and cultural values come through.

That’s also arguably true of collectivist cultures and the novels that depict them. For example, we can take a look at power distance from the point of view of Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen series. Chen lives and works in late 1990’s Shanghai, a culture that’s considered very collectivist. High power distance (or, the acceptance and expectation of unequal distribution of power) is an important aspect of that culture. And we see that reflected in this series. It is expected that those of higher rank – those considered more important – have more power and make the rules that they see fit to make. That’s not generally questioned very much. You might argue that, in his way, Qiu does question that power structure, since the murders Chen investigates often lead to very high places. But at the same time, there is an acknowledgement of that characteristic of this society.

Another collectivist characteristic that we see in Qiu’s novels is the emphasis on group, rather than individual, goals. One important political goal is social harmony (that’s a main plot point of Enigma of China). The greater good, so the belief goes, is served when nothing disrupts the order and harmony of the group. Fans of this series will undoubtedly be able to think of examples of how this plays out in the novels.

Because collectivist cultures place a high value on group membership, members are responsible for the welfare of other members. Group effort is therefore a very high priority. This is reflected in Swati Kaushal’s Niki Marwah series, which takes place in northern India. There are, of course, many different cultures in India; it’s a large and diverse country. But in general, it’s considered collectivist. Marwah is Superintendent of Police in Shimla, and as such, makes the final decisions. But she’s not really out for personal gain and achievement. And she knows very well that without the efforts of her team members, crimes won’t be solved. Each team member has something to contribute, and each team member is responsible to the others.

This series (and Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri series, too, among others) also shows the vital importance of family in many collectivist societies. Marwah may be an independent and successful police inspector. But she’s also a member of her family, and takes her responsibilities seriously. She attends family events, she listens to what the older members of her family say (even if she doesn’t end up taking their advice) and so on.

These are just a few examples of the ways that culture impacts stories and characters. And of course, collectivism/individualism is just one dimension of culture. There are many, many more. But even with this small peek at the topic, it seems clear (at least to me) that we can tell a lot about a culture from its crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bryan Adams’ All For Love.

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Filed under Bill Pronzini, David Whish-Wilson, Ian Rankin, Qiu Xiaolong, Raymond Chandler, Sara Paretsky, Swati Kaushal, Tarquin Hall

You Got That Right*

AccuracyIn Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of wealthy Emily Arundell. She’s left behind several relatives who are desperate for their share of her money, and who have very good motive for getting her out of their way. It’s a complicated case, and one evening, Hastings suggests that the two of them take their minds off the investigation and go to see a play. Poirot agrees and they duly attend. However, there’s one problem: Hastings  has chosen a crook play.
 

‘There is one piece of advice I offer to all my readers. Never take a soldier to a military play, a sailor to a naval play, a Scotsman to a Scottish play, a detective to a thriller – and an actor to any play whatsoever!’
 

Poirot gets very frustrated with the plot, claiming that the whole case could have been solved before the end of the first act.

This shows, I think, how we all bring our expertise into what we do in the rest of our lives. Certainly research suggests that we tap our knowledge, background and expertise when we read. People in general are not passive when they read. They interact with what they read; and, however unconsciously, compare it to what they know from real life. This doesn’t mean that readers are never willing to set aside disbelief. But a lot of readers do get cranky if the author isn’t more or less accurate.

For example, you may or may not know that my professional background has been mostly in the world of education. So I’m particularly ‘tuned in,’ for lack of a better phrase, when I read crime novels that take place in academia. And, if I’m being honest, I’m probably less patient with such novels when the author doesn’t portray that world accurately. I bring what I know to the reading process, as we all do, so I notice it more when what I know isn’t reflected in what’s in the book. That’s why I have a particular appreciation for work like Christine Poulson’s, Gail Bowen’s and Elly Griffiths’, whose novels have an academic context. In part because of the authors’ experiences in academia, the context is authentic, and that makes those novels more believable.

It’s the same, I would imagine, for just about any profession. For instance, the law profession varies from place to place, and certainly from country to country. But there are certain things about what lawyers do and don’t do that are, I think, a little more universal. And a well-written legal novel reflects that reality. I would suspect that attorneys who read crime fiction are ‘tuned in’ to those aspects of legal novels, and probably not patient when the author isn’t authentic. Not being an attorney myself, I can’t speak from expertise. But the works of authors such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham, Scott Turow and (in his Mickey Haller novels) Michael Connelly strike me as being realistic.

One might say the same thing about crime novels that take place in the health care and medical community. Physicians, paramedics, nurses and other health care providers who read crime fiction probably get very impatient with crime novels that don’t depict that world accurately. And they’re probably quite pleased with the authenticity of writers such as Katherine Howell, Michael Crichton and Michael Palmer.

I could go on and on with examples, but I think the point’s made. Whatever your profession or work background is, you’re likely to bring it to your reading, and you may very well find yourself noticing it particularly when someone isn’t accurate.

What about law enforcers who also read crime fiction? Most crime writers aren’t police officers (although some of course are or have been). And yet, if you think about it, just about every crime novel involves police presence, at least just a little. And some focus quite a lot more than others do on police activity. Some of those novels give a more authentic portrait of police life than others do. So my unsophisticated guess would be that there is plenty of frustration among law enforcement people when it comes to the way what they do is portrayed.

You’ll notice that all of the authors mentioned thus far have a professional background in the area that’s the focus of their books. For instance, Howell has been a paramedic, Rotenberg is a criminal lawyer, and Bowen has been a professor. Does this mean that you need to be a member of a given profession to write about it accurately? I don’t think so.

Let’s consider some of the highly regarded crime series out there. Ed McBain is, as you’ll know doubt know, the creator of the 87th Precinct series, which many people regard as a superior series. Its focus is police detectives and their lives, and the crimes they investigate. McBain was never, at least to my knowledge, in law enforcement. And yet this series is often held up as an example of an excellent police procedural series.

Jussi Adler-Olsen has done a number of things with his career, including music, business and publishing. He’s never, to my knowledge, been a police detective. Still, his Carl Mørck novels are very highly regarded police procedurals. Not being in law enforcement myself, I can’t vouch conclusively for their authenticity. But they certainly have the hallmarks of the police procedural, including life at the precinct, policy and so on.

Sara Paretsky isn’t a private investigator. Her background was in political science and history before she turned her focus to writing. But as any fan will tell you, her V.I. Warshawski series is very well-regarded, and gives readers a great deal of information about the ins and outs of private investigation. These are just a few examples; there are dozens of others. But I think just these few serve to show that some authors have written extremely credible work about professions that aren’t in their backgrounds. The key here really seems to be doing effective research (and of course, telling a well-written story!).

What about you? When you read a novel about people who do what you do professionally, do you pay extra attention to the details? Do you get frustrated when the author isn’t accurate?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, John Grisham, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Katherine Howell, Michael Connelly, Michael Crichton, Michael Palmer, Robert Rotenberg, Sara Paretsky, Scott Turow

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

The Law Won*

Not all fictional coppers play ‘starring roles’ in their series. But they can still add character depth, a police perspective and sometimes tension to a plot Here’s a salute to them, with some help from Sonny Curtis’ I Fought the Law, from whence the title of this post.  Enjoy!
 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Jonathan Kellerman, Kerry Greenwood, Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout, Sara Paretsky, Stuart Palmer, Tess Gerritsen