Category Archives: Scott Turow

Pressure, Pushing Down on Me*

In the US, one of the last major hurdles for Ph.D. candidates is defending their dissertations. I understand it’s the same in many other places, too. If you have a Ph.D. yourself, or you’ve sat in on one of these events, then you know it’s a very intense experience. As this is posted, it’s my ‘dissertation anniversary,’ which has me thinking about the process. Candidates spend weeks or even months preparing their presentations of their material, as well as responses to possible questions they may get from members of their dissertation committees (and, at times, the audience). And, of course, those questions may be about any aspect of the dissertation, so the candidate needs to be thoroughly familiar with every bit of the material. It’s nerve-wracking, to say the least.

The thing about defending a dissertation is that it’s a bit difficult to describe, since it doesn’t have a lot of obvious parallels in other fields. But a look at crime fiction can help give a few insights.

Getting ready to defend a dissertation is a little like rehearsing for a performance. Just as actors must know their lines and musicians must know their pieces, Ph.D. candidates have to have their presentations well-prepared. We see the intensity of rehearsal in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, Christine Poulson’s Stage Fright sees her protagonist, Cassandra James, asked to adapt a Victorian novel, East Lynne, for a stage production. She’s Head of the English Department at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge, and her specialty is Victorian literature. So, she’s the right choice for the job. All starts out well enough, and rehearsals begin. But then, Melissa Meadows, who is to take a leading role in the play, tells James that someone is stalking her. Then, she goes missing. This throws rehearsals into chaos, and, when she doesn’t return, leads to the investigation of a possible murder.

Fans of Ngaio Marsh, Simon Brett, and Deborah Nicholson, among others, will know that their novels also take the reader ‘backstage.’ In such novels, we see how many times material has to be prepared and how important timing is. We also see the suspense, nerves and tension that come out under so much pressure. It’s the same when one’s preparing to defend a dissertation.

Defending a dissertation isn’t really entertainment, though. Candidates need to be prepared to address challenges to everything about their work. They need to examine each aspect of their dissertations, from the topic, to the data collection, to the data analysis, and more. In that sense, preparing to defend a dissertation is a little like preparing for a trial. A good attorney prepares thoroughly for each trial. That includes working with witnesses and, possibly, the defendant. It also includes looking carefully at each aspect of the case, and addressing possible weaknesses. Attorneys know that any serious weaknesses in a case will be exploited by the other side. So, they do everything possible to prevent that. Admittedly, the Ph.D. candidate doesn’t risk prison. But it’s still quite a high-stakes process.

We see that sort of preparation in work by, for instance Scott Turow, John Grisham, Robert Rotenberg, and Paul Levine. The writing team of ‘Perri O’Shaughnessy’ also explore this sort of pre-trial work in their Nina Reilly novels.

Presenting one’s material before the dissertation committee, and fielding questions, isn’t exactly like a trial. The role of the dissertation committee is to support the candidate. After all, if the candidate doesn’t do well, this reflects on the committee, too – in particular on the candidate’s advisor/tutor, who generally chairs the committee.

In that way, defending a dissertation is a bit like a major sports competition. On the one hand, the player has to work very hard, and coaches can be difficult to satisfy. The Olympic Games, the World Series, the World Cup, and other such contests, all require discipline and focus. And coaches and trainers push and challenge players to get the most from them. At the same time, their role is to be allies and support systems.

Alison Gordon’s crime novels give readers a good look at what it’s like to play for a Major League baseball team. Readers see how important the actual games can be, and what the roles of coaches and trainers are. John Daniell’s The Fixer offers some similar insight into the world of rugby. And there’s Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar series, which takes the perspective of a sports agent. In all of these novels and series, we see how pivotal a game or series of games can be. That stress and tension is quite similar to what it’s like to defend a dissertation.

As I say, it’s a little difficult to describe getting ready to defend a dissertation. It’s a singular experience, and it challenges Ph.D. candidates to think about their work in ways they probably wouldn’t otherwise. But there is nothing quite like being informed you’ve passed, and having your committee address you as ‘Doctor.’ I often think it would actually be a solid context for a crime novel. There’s tension, intense preparation, possible ego clashes, and there’s no telling what the candidate might uncover in pursuit of that all-important data set. If you went through this process, I’d love to hear your experiences. I still remember mine, even after a number of years.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure.

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Filed under Ngaio Marsh, Simon Brett, John Grisham, Harlan Coben, Scott Turow, Deborah Nicholson, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Robert Rotenberg, Christine Poulson, Paul Levine, Alison Gordon, John Daniell

She Won’t Join Your Clubs, She Won’t Dance in Your Halls*

groupdynamicsAs I’ve said many times on this blog, well-written crime fiction shows us ourselves. And one of the things we see about ourselves is the way we behave in groups. Humans are social animals, so it’s natural for us to want to belong to a group. And, once in, we try to sort ourselves out. You can call it group dynamics, or group politics, if you will. Whatever you call it, it’s one way people try to impose order on their worlds.

Group dynamics can add much to a crime novel. There’s the tension as people establish the group order. There’s other tension as ‘outsiders’ try to become ‘insiders.’ There’s also the suspense as people try to either stay in the group, or leave it, or gain a particular position within it. There are too many examples in the genre for me to mention them all. Here are just a few.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly at the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted.’ The community is tightly-knit, and figuratively and literally separated from the outside world. It’s an insular group, and everyone knows the ‘right’ places to shop, the ‘right’ schools for their children, the ‘right’ people to befriend, and the ‘right’ causes to support. Everything changes when Argentina’s financial situation begins to deteriorate (the novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of 2000). At first, the residents of ‘the Heights’ seem impervious to the developing crisis, but that doesn’t last. The end result is a tragedy, and the residents now have to deal with what’s happened.

Megan Abbott’s Dare Me explores the world of teen social dynamics. Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy have been best friends for years. Now, they’re in their last year of high school, and they ‘own’ the school, Beth in particular. They’re both on the cheerleading squad, and getting ready to start their lives after they graduate. Then, the school hires a new cheerleading coach, Collette French. Right from the start, French changes the social order. She makes the cheerleading squad a sort of exclusive club, and Addy is welcomed as an ‘insider.’ Beth, however, is excluded, and becomes an outsider ‘looking in.’ Then, there’s a suicide (or was it?). Now this social group is turned upside down as everyone deals with what’s happened.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series takes place in Shanghai in the late 1990s, a time of great change in China. There’s still an influence of Maoism, and of some older, even ancient, traditions. But there’s also a newly developing form of capitalism as China continues to work with capitalist nations. China’s bureaucracy is a system of cadres, or social levels. Those in extremely important positions are ‘high cadre’ people, and do not take kindly to any threat, real or imagined, to their status. For that reason, the police have to work very carefully whenever a crime might possibly involve such a person. As the series goes on, we see how these cadres sort themselves out and establish and keep order. The dynamics may change as one or another member’s fortune changes. But the cadre system itself is a well-established and deeply-ingrained social structure.

If you’ve ever worked for a law firm, you know that the attorneys in a firm often form a community. In a large firm, you may find senior partners, junior partners, associates, and contract lawyers. And that’s to say nothing of the legal assistants (such as clerks, paralegals, and legal secretaries) and support staff. Even smaller firms have some sense of community, and, therefore, of social structure. And, even in the most supportive and employee-friendly firms, people sort themselves out. A beginning associate who wants to become a partner needs to know how the firm’s structure works, and what the firm’s priorities are. Crime writers such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham and Scott Turow explore not just the particular legal cases at hand, but also the inner workings of law firms. And it’s interesting to see how the social structure at a firm can impact what lawyers do.

Police departments also have their own social structure, and anyone who works in one quickly learns what that structure is. There are many, many police procedural series, some of them outstanding, that depict the ways in which police social structure works. In healthy departments, cases are solved by teams of people who have supportive leadership. Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels are like that. And so, arguably, are Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss novels, Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi novels and Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels. That’s not to say that the characters are all perfect, with no faults, quirks or weaknesses. Rather, we see how the groups in these novels sort themselves out, and how the people in them work out what their roles are.

Of course, there are plenty of police procedurals where we see a very unhealthy social dynamic. In those novels, ‘patch wars,’ infighting, and even sabotage happen. A few examples are Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, Simon Lelic’s A Thousand Cuts (AKA Rupture), and Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road. There are many others.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. That novel’s focus is Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main characters are members of three families, all of whom have children in the school’s Kindergarten class. Shortly after the school year begins, there’s a bullying incident. Renata Klein, one of the most influential ‘school mums,’ accuses another child of bullying her daughter. That boy, Ziggy, is the son of a relative newcomer. Ziggy says he didn’t do any bullying, and his mother believes him. And it’s not long before there are two camps. Tension escalates for this and other reasons, until it boils over on Quiz Night, which was planned as a school fundraiser. Tragedy results, and each family is deeply affected by what happens. Throughout this novel, we see the social structure of ‘playground mums’ and some dads, too. The elite group here is called ‘the Blond Bobs’:
 

‘The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob…it’s like a bylaw.’
 

Part of the tension in the story comes from the way this social hierarchy plays out.

And that’s the thing about groups. Almost any time people get together, those dynamics come into play. And they can be very dangerous.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines.

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Filed under John Grisham, Megan Abbott, Scott Turow, Reginald Hill, Helene Tursten, Fred Vargas, Katherine Howell, Qiu Xiaolong, Claudia Piñeiro, Robert Rotenberg, Liane Moriarty

At Every Occasion I’ll be Ready For the Funeral*

funeralsAn interesting comment exchange with crime and true crime writer Vicky Blake has gotten me thinking about funerals. Now, before I go on, do pay a visit to Vicky’s excellent website, and try her work. You’ll be glad you did.

Right, funerals. It’s inevitable that, in crime fiction, there’d be plenty of crime-fictional funerals. After all, in a lot of crime novels, there’s at least one murder. Police and other sleuths can find those events quite useful, actually. Most people are killed by people they know. So, attending a funeral can give the police a good idea of how people react to the death in question. And that can give them important clues.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), the family of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie gathers for his funeral. After the actual ritual, they return to the family home at Enderby, where Abernethie’s attorney, Mr. Entwhistle, prepares to read his client’s will. At that gathering, Abernethie’s youngest sister, Cora Lansquenet, blurts out that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up. Even she tells everyone not to pay any attention to what she’s said. But privately, people do begin to wonder. And when she herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was right. Mr. Entwhistle has his own concerns, and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. As it turns out, something at that funeral gathering provides an important clue. And so does something that’s said at a later gathering, where Abernethie’s family members decide which pieces of furniture and other belongings they want.

Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances marks the debut of her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. In that novel, up-and-coming politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned one afternoon when he’s about to make an important speech at a community picnic. He was a good friend and political ally of Joanne’s so she is devastated by his death. As a way to deal with her grief, she decides to write a biography of her friend, and starts to gather material. As she does, she slowly finds out what really happened to him and why. At one point, she accompanies Boychuk’s widow, Eve, to his funeral. There’s quite a police presence there, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. The purpose is, of course, to see who attends and how the different people react. It’s an interesting look at the way police use information they get from funerals.

The real action in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent begins with the funeral of Carolyn Polhemus. She worked as a prosecutor for (fictional) Kindle County before she was murdered. Because of her ties with that office, it’s extremely important that the investigation into her death be handled scrupulously and transparently. So Kindle County Prosecutor Raymond Horgan assigns his best deputy prosecutor, Rožat “Rusty” Sabich, to the case. At the funeral, Sabich notes how big the police presence is, and for good reason:
 

‘Killing a prosecutor is only one step short of killing a cop, and Carolyn had many friends on the force…’
 

Attending the funeral doesn’t give Sabich (or the reader) the answer to the question of who killed Carolyn Polhemus. But it’s interesting to see how the police react to this ‘(almost) one of their own’ funeral.

In Jane Casey’s The Burning, Met DC Maeve Kerrigan. Her team is investigating the case of a killer who tries to incinerate his victims. For that reason, the press has dubbed him ‘The Burning Man,’ and there’s a lot of pressure to solve the case quickly. And Kerrigan wants to be a part of the investigation. When the body of PR professional Rebecca Haworth is discovered, it’s believed at first that she was another victim of this serial killer. But Kerrigan isn’t completely sure. There are enough differences between Haworth’s murder and the others that it could also be a case of a ‘copycat’ killing. She’s put on the Haworth case, both to prove to the public that the police aren’t neglecting other cases, and to explore that lead if this is a ‘Burning Man’ killing. As a part of looking into the murder, Kerrigan attends Haworth’s funeral. There, she meets the victim’s parents and other people close to the victim. She also witnesses something that turns out to have some significance later in the novel.

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Finger Lickin’ Dead features her sleuth, Lulu Taylor, who owns and runs Aunt Pat’s, one of Memphis’ most popular eateries. She gets drawn into a case of murder when food critic Avery Cawthorn is murdered. One of the suspects is Lulu’s friend, Evelyn Wade, so she has a personal interest in finding out the truth about the murder. And there are plenty of possibilities, too, as Cawthorn had been merciless in his criticisms, and not exactly a ‘model citizen’ in his private life, either. Several of the people involved in the case attend his funeral, and it’s interesting to see how people’s reactions to it and one another provide clues.

And that’s the thing about funerals of murder victims. As harrowing as they are for family members, they can provide interesting opportunities for the police (or other sleuths) to find out information. These are only a few examples. Your turn.

Thanks, Vicky, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Band of Horses’ The Funeral.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Jane Casey, Riley Adams, Scott Turow, Vicky Blake

Put Under the Pressure of Walking in Your Shoes*

Famous ParentsOne of the big challenges that young people face is finding their own paths in life, and becoming their own selves, separate from their parents. That sort of individuation is hard enough as it is; it’s even more difficult if those parents are well-known, or even famous. There are all sorts of expectations, and of course, there’s the insecurity about following in well-known footsteps.

It adds up to a lot of pressure, and that can add an interesting layer of tension and conflict to a crime novel. It can also make for a solid plot thread of family dynamic as well as character development. Little wonder that we see this dynamic in the genre.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, we are introduced to sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She feels the awkwardness that’s common to many teenagers, and it doesn’t help matters that she has a famous stepmother, Arlena Stuart Marshall. Arlena is a well-known and somewhat notorious actress, who’s beautiful, graceful, sophisticated – in short, everything Linda feels she’s lacking. And although she’s not cruel to Linda, Arlena certainly doesn’t pay her much attention or support her in any way. One day, during the Marshalls’ holiday on Leathercombe Bay, Arlena is found strangled on a beach not far from the hotel where the family is staying. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the killer is. As he does, it’s interesting to see the role that that family dynamic plays.

In Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, we are introduced to Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich, who in this novel is a prosecuting attorney for fictional Kindle County. He gets drawn into a very difficult case when a colleague, Carolyn Polhemus, is murdered. It’s important that the case be solved as quickly as possible, and ‘by the book,’ especially since the victim is part of the prosecution team. It turns out that Sabich had an affair with Polhemus – a relationship he doesn’t mention at first. When that’s discovered, he’s removed from the case. Then, little pieces of evidence begin to suggest that he himself might be guilty. He’s indicted and soon finds himself on trial. One of the sub-plots in this novel (and, actually in Innocent, too) is the relationship Sabich has with his son, Nat. It’s not as though Nat and his father don’t care about each other. But there’s certainly awkwardness in the relationship. And part of it comes from the fact that Sabich is first a successful attorney, then a successful judge. Nat himself becomes a lawyer and, in Innocent, we see how that plot thread of following in famous footsteps plays out. In that novel, Sabich is once again accused of murder – this time of his wife, Barbara.

One of the plot points in Gail Bowen’s The Endless Knot has to do with the relationships between Canadian celebrities and their children. Investigative journalist Kathryn Morrisey is doing an exposé of these families, and there are plenty of people who are upset about it. In fact, Sam Parker is so infuriated that he shoots (but does not kill) Morrisey. Parker hires Zack Shreve to defend him in court, and that lands Shreve and his partner, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, in the middle of this controversial case. As the story unfolds, we see how having a famous parent has a real impact on some of these young people, whether the relationship is dysfunction or not.

Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) features the de Poitiers family. CC de Poitiers has achieved a great deal of celebrity as a life coach and, if you will, lifestyle guru. Her book Be Calm has created a lot of interest and eager fans. CC’s daughter Crie faces enough challenges, being both brilliant and socially awkward. She’s also not what you’d call beautiful or graceful. So having a mother who’s good-looking and famous is awfully hard for her. Matters are made worse by the fact that CC is selfish, malicious and cruel. She’s very hard on her daughter, taking every opportunity to belittle her. CC makes plenty of other enemies, too. So when she is murdered during a Boxing Day curling match, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team have more than one likely suspect.

And then there’s Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing. Singapore Police Inspector Singh is called in on a very delicate case. Susan Tan is First Secretary to the Singapore Embassy in Beijing. Recently, her son Justin was murdered, and his body found in one of Beijing’s older, run-down blocks. The official police theory is that this was a robbery gone wrong. But Susan doesn’t believe it, and she wants Singh to look into the matter. Singh travels to Beijing, with the idea being that he’ll review the police report and probably come to the same conclusion. But when he gets there, he begins to believe that Susan Tan was right: this murder was planned. And it turns out there’s more than one suspect, too. For one thing, Justin had a romantic rival. For another, he was involved in research with Professor Luo Gan, who has opposed certain land development plans for Beijing. There are other possibilities as well. As Singh investigates, we see a gradually-developing portrait of a young man who was trying to find his own place, and of the challenges he faced being the son of a well-known diplomat.

And that’s the thing about having a well-known parent. It’s hard to escape the fame (or notoriety) and make one’s own way. And that can create an interesting context for a crime novel.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Linkin Park’s Numb.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Louise Penny, Scott Turow, Shamini Flint

Keep the Fire Burnin’*

Adding InterestIn an essay titled The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler wrote:
 

‘When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.’
 

He wasn’t offering this comment, really, as a piece of advice. Instead, it was written within the context of discussing his own writing process, and what he would do to move a plot along.

For Chandler, the ‘man with the gun’ was an effective way to move a story forward. He usually wrote hardboiled stories, in which a series of unexpected dangers (such as people with guns coming through doors) make sense. And we certainly see that plot point used effectively in lots of well-written thrillers. For instance, Deon Meyer’s Devil’s Peak features a thriller plot that weaves together the stories of former freedom fighter Thobela Mpayipheli; DI Benny Griessel, who’s got his own issues and challenges; and Christine van Rooyen, a prostitute who’s trying to free herself (and her daughter) from the unwelcome possessiveness of a client who’s from a dangerous and powerful family. Meyer develops the characters over the course of the novel. But the plot is also moved along by means of frightening and jolting events that keep the pace going.

Of course, not all authors write thrillers. And those ‘man coming through the door with a gun’ events don’t work in every kind of crime fiction. There are other ways, though, to move a plot along and keep the interest going. Many crime writers use the ‘second victim’ plot point. Certainly Agatha Christie used it. In novels such as Lord Edgware Dies, Three Act Tragedy, and several others, there’s a first murder. Then, another body is discovered (sometimes more than one other body). And by no means is Christie the only author to use this plot point. Colin Dexter used it in Death is Now My Neighbour, among others of his novels. And there are dozens more examples.

There are advantages to the ‘second/third/etc. murder’ plot point. It can add to the tension and build suspense. It can also make for a solid plot twist (e.g. the major suspect in the first murder is killed. Or the second murder is committed while the prime suspect is in police custody.). And it can fall out naturally from the plot, too. It’s logical to believe that someone who killed might then target a person who knows too much about the crime. It’s also reasonable to believe that a killer might target someone who’s blackmailing him or her. A killer could also target a specific set of people (say, all the other heirs to a fortune, or all of the people in the way of a top job).

There are disadvantages, though, to this plot point. It’s very easy for a high ‘body count’ to become gratuitous. And subsequent murders can take away from a story and pull a reader out of it if they do not contribute directly to a plot. Still, when used effectively, the discovery of that next body can add to a story.

Another way in which an author can move a plot forward is through a major revelation. A character’s real identity, or the discovery of certain information, or perhaps the discovery of a hidden relationship, can all add interest to a story, and can be used to move it along. For example, in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, Kindle County prosecutor Raymond Hogan has a very difficult case: the murder of one of the attorneys on his team, Carolyn Polhemus. The case has to be handled carefully, to avoid the appearance of bias or coverup. So Hogan chooses one of his best, Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich, to work with the police to build a case. But there’s an important fact that Hogan doesn’t know. Sabichwas was involved with Polhemus for several months. That revelation jolts the story, and changes everything. Hogan now takes Sabich off the case, replacing him with his nemesis. And later, when evidence suggests that Sabich may have committed the murder, the fact of their affair creates a possible motive. In fact, it’s enough to put Sabich on trial.

Those surprise revelations have to be handled carefully. Readers want the author to ‘play fair.’ What’s more, a surprise that pushes credibility too far will likely pull readers out of the story. So it’s important that if there is a major revelation, it makes sense given the story.

An interesting post from creative writing professor, writer, and fellow blogger Khanh Ho suggests another way to keep a story moving: have someone from the past make an appearance. Ho makes the well-taken point that a reunion like that can flesh out a character, add a layer of interest and create conflict. Peter May uses a reunion very effectively, for instance, in The Blackhouse. Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod grew up on the Isle of Lewis, but left years ago. Now he’s an Edinburgh police inspector. He’s seconded back to Lewis when Angel Macritchie is murdered. That murder closely resembles a murder that McLeod and his team are already investigating, and it’s hoped that if the two murders were committed by the same person, cooperation will help catch the killer. In the course of the investigation, MacLeod reunites with a number of people he grew up with, including old friends, an old flame, and old nemeses, too. Those reunions shed light on MacLeod’s character and history, create tension and conflict in the story, and add to character development.

There are a lot of other ways, too, in which authors can add interest – ‘zip – to their stories to invite the reader to stay engaged all the way through. These are only a few examples. Which ones keep your interest the most? If you’re a writer, how do you keep readers’ interest?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an REO Speedwagon song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Deon Meyer, Peter May, Raymond Chandler, Scott Turow