Category Archives: Sara Paretsky

‘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

Gimme Shelter*

SheltersIt’s arguably not as easy to go ‘off the grid’ as it once was, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post. But if you know where to go and what to do, and you have the money and motivation, you can do it. Sometimes, though, it’s not as easy as just disappearing, even if you want (or need) to do that. For example, those dealing with domestic abuse (usually, but not always, women and children) may simply not have access to money, a car and so on. So they need to rely on shelters or on groups of ‘safe houses.’ Sometimes they’re helped by individuals too.

Shelters and other similar places have been around more or less since the 1970s; before then, someone who had to escape had very, very few choices. Even today it can be awfully difficult, but there are shelters and other places that can help to protect survivors of abuse. They’re certainly out there in real life, and they are in crime fiction too.

Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House features Helping Hands, a Southwark women’s shelter. One night, there’s a fire in a warehouse next door to Helping Hands, and one of its residents reports the incident. The body of an unidentified woman is found among the ashes, and Superintendent Duncan Kincaid begins the investigation. At the same time, Kincaid’s partner, DI Gemma James, gets a call from the Reverend Winnie Montfort. One of Montfort’s congregants is missing, and she may be the unidentified woman. There are other possibilities though. One of them is Laura Novak, who works at Guy’s Hospital, and who is also on the Board of Directors at Helping Hands. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that the shelter and the people who live and work there do figure into this mystery.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy features Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell. In the second novel Exile, she has a job at Place of Safety, a women’s shelter. There, she meets Ann Harris, who is one of the shelter’s residents. Then, Ann disappears. On the one hand, the residents are under no obligation to tell the staff where they go and what they do. On the other, it’s always a cause for concern when residents go missing, because it could easily mean they’ve returned to an abusive situation. So Mauri does worry about Ann’s well-being. Still, there’s nothing to indicate a problem until two weeks later, when Ann’s body is found in the Thames. Mauri immediately suspects that Ann’s husband Jimmy killed her. But Jimmy’s cousin Louise, who runs the shelter, thinks he’s innocent. So she and Mauri start to ask questions about what really happened.

When we first meet Zoë Sharp’s Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox in Killer Instinct, she’s left the armed forces for reasons she would rather not discuss. But she’s found a way to fit back into civilian life:
 

‘I’ve been holding self-defence at the Shelseley Lodge Women’s Refuge for the last couple of years.’
 

On the whole, she finds the work satisfying, and the shelter provides her a place to teach her classes in exchange for not charging its residents any tuition. One night, she goes with a friend to a karaoke night event at the newly remodeled Adelphi Club. During the evening, she gets into a fight with another patron Susie Hollins. When Susie is later found murdered, the police are naturally very interested in Charlie. If she’s going to clear her name, she’s going to have to find out who the killer is, and all of the possibilities are dangerous…

In Sara Paretsky’s Tunnel Vision, her PI sleuth V.I. Warshawski is the lone holdout against the powerful Culpepper brothers, who own the Chicago building where she has her office, and who want to sell it. To add to that stress, one night, she finds a homeless woman and her children living in the building’s basement. She’s trying to find a solution for this family when her most important client asks her to help him find a community service placement for his son, who’s been arrested for computer hacking.  Warshawski finds a place for the boy at Home Free, a homeless advocacy group. Then, Deirdre Messenger, who sits on Home Free’s Board of Directors, is murdered and her body left in Warshawski’s office. Warshawski knew the victim, since both were volunteers at Arcadia House, a women’s refuge. So even if the body hadn’t been found in her office, she’d have taken an interest. She starts asking questions and ends up uncovering some very dirty domestic abuse secrets in some very high places.

Of course, there are plenty of individuals who help those who need to escape, even if they’re not affiliated with a particular group. In Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, for instance, private investigator Lena Jones works with her PI partner Jimmy Sisiwan to rescue thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from Purity, a polygamous sect. Rebecca’s father Abel has rejoined the sect after some time away, and has agreed that Rebecca will marry the group’s leader Solomon Royal. Rebecca’s mother Esther, who’s divorced from Abel, wants Rebecca to be returned to her. So Jones and Sisiwan track Rebecca down and rescue her. In the process, Jones sees that Royal has been shot and is badly wounded. Still, she thinks that since neither she nor Rebecca had anything to do with the incident, they’ll be fine. But shortly after Rebecca and Esther are re-united, Jones learns that Royal has died. Now Esther is a suspect in his murder and will very likely be extradited from Arizona to Utah to face trial. So Jones infiltrates Purity to find out who really killed the victim. As she gets to know the area, she discovers that what’s going on at Purity is much more than just teenage girls being forced to marry (as if that weren’t bad enough!). But she also learns of a few individuals who have helped some of the women and children escape. And that makes a big difference.

Domestic abuse shelters and refuges are important ‘safety nets’ for those trapped in abusive situations. So it’s little wonder they show up in crime fiction, too. And in real life, they can use all the help they can get. Just as an example, if you’re looking for a new home for books you no longer want to keep, why not consider such a shelter? A good book can provide a badly needed balm when someone’s in such a situation. Your time, your donations and your advocacy when funding’s being debated are also good ways to help.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Rolling Stones song.

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Filed under Betty Webb, Deborah Crombie, Denise Mina, Sara Paretsky, Zoë Sharp