Category Archives: 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

When You’re Down and Out, When You’re On the Street*

ShelterWhere do you go if you have to escape a domestic abuser in the middle of the night, with nothing but car, keys and kids (if you even have a car)? What if you’ve run out of money and have no place to live? What if you’re a teen who’s been thrown out of your home, or who’s had to escape an abuse situation? Your first thought might be to go to the home of a friend or relative. But if that’s not an option, what other choice have you got?

For many people, the answer is a shelter. There are different kinds of shelters, of course. Some are municipal, some are run by charities, and others by individuals. And they vary greatly in safety and quality. But they’re all integral parts of a system where people sometimes fall through the proverbial cracks. And they can, quite literally, mean the difference between life and death for those who live there.

It’s easy to see, too, why such places are woven through crime fiction. Consider the disparate people who live and work in shelters. And there’s the myriad stories of the residents. That, too, can create conflict, tension, and all sorts of plot points. So it’s little wonder we see shelters in the genre.

For example, Denise Mina’s Exile is the second in her trilogy featuring Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell. In this novel, she has a job in a Glasgow women’s shelter called Place of Safety. While she’s there, she meets one of the residents, Ann Harris. When Ann goes missing, Mauri begins to get concerned. On the one hand, the residents aren’t required to report on where they go and what they do. Still, as this is a women’s shelter, there’s always the concern that someone might return to an abusive situation. When Ann’s body turns up in the Thames two weeks later, all signs point to her husband, Jimmy, as the killer. But his cousin Louise, who runs the shelter, doesn’t think he’s the murderer. So she and Mauri start to ask questions to find out what really happened to Ann Harris.

Peter Temple’s Bad Debts sees Melbourne PI and sometimes-lawyer Jack Irish trying to find out who killed a former client, Danny McKillop. The trail seems to lead to a man named Ronnie Bishop, who very likely knows more than he’s said about the murder and the past circumstances that led to it. But Irish soon discovers that Bishop has gone missing. As he tries to trace the man, Irish learns that he once worked for the Safe Hands Foundation, a charity group that supports homeless children. And it turns out that Bishop recently telephoned Father Gorman, who runs the foundation. So Irish visits the place and talks to Father Gorman. The visit doesn’t solve McKillop’s murder, but it does give Irish important background information.

The real action in Robert Barnard’s No Place of Safety begins when teenagers Katy Bourne and Alan Coughlan go missing on the same day. Leeds PC Charlie Pearce looks into the case and soon learns that the two young people attended the same school, but had nothing else in common. They didn’t even really know each other. Still, he suspects their disappearances may be related. Sure enough, he finds them both at a hostel for runaways. Usually called The Centre, it’s run by an enigmatic man named Ben Marchant. For various reasons, Pearce thinks at first that the best choice for both young people is to stay at the hostel for the time being. But little by little, questions arise about the place. For one thing, very little is known about its owner. For another, the relations between Marchant (and the hostel’s residents) and the people who live nearby are not good. Tensions are high, and could lead in any number of directions. Then a young girl, Mehjabean ‘Midge’ Haldalwa, shows up at the refuge, claiming that she’s running away from an arranged marriage. As things at the hostel get more and more dangerous, Pearce is going to have to contend with more than just two runaway teens.

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Soul Murderers, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets an early-morning call from her daughter, Mieka, who’s just discovered the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin in a trash bin near her catering shop. At first, the police think Bernice is the latest in a series of murders they’re calling the Little Flower murders. But this murder turns out to be different. Then there’s another death. The trail in this case leads to the Lily Pad, a Regina drop-in refuge for homeless teens. On the surface, it seems to be a safe place for young people, with hot meals, showers, counseling, and mentoring. But as Kilbourn learns, there’s more going on there than it seems. And some people are carrying secrets from their pasts.

Sara Paretsky’s Tunnel Vision features Arcadia House, a women’s shelter where Chicago PI V.I. Warshawski volunteers, and also sits on the board. One of the plot threads in this novel concerns one of the other board members, Dierdre Messenger. Since the shelter’s focus is survivors of domestic abuse and their children, there are several people – some in very high places – who don’t want it known that anyone in their family is there. And that plays its role when Messenger is murdered and her body left in Warshawski’s office…

And then there’s Sarah Hilary’s Someone Else’s Skin. DI Marnie Rome is assigned to try to interview Ayana Mirza, whose brothers attacked her with acid. The police are hoping that if she’s willing to testify, her brothers can be prosecuted successfully. At the moment, Ayana is living in a women’s shelter in Finchley, so Rome and DS Noah Jake go to the shelter to try to convince Ayana to speak out. When they get there, though, they find a shocking surprise. Hope Proctor, another resident, has stabbed her husband Leo. On the one hand, all of the witnesses and all of the evidence suggest that Hope was defending herself. On the other hand, there’s a big question of how Leo Proctor got into the shelter in the first place. The more Rome and Jake learn about the shelter and the people there, the more past history and secrets people are keeping play their roles.

Shelters of all kinds are vital resources in many communities. They can literally save lives, and are usually staffed by tireless, deeply committed people. They’re also really interesting contexts for novels, including crime novels.

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Denise Mina, Gail Bowen, Peter Temple, Robert Barnard, Sara Paretsky, Sarah Hilary