Category Archives: Sue Grafton

Just Picture a Great Big Steak*

One of the things I love about crime fiction is the way it shows how we’ve changed over time. As society changes, so do social attitudes and customs. One of the many kinds of changes we’ve seen is in our diets and the way people eat.

I got to thinking about this after an interesting comment exchange with Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog. By the way, if you like to read crime fiction, especially classic and Golden Age crime fiction, you don’t want to miss Brad’s richly detailed and informative blog. I learn every time I visit. Every time.

Brad and I were mentioning Fritz Brenner, who, as Rex Stout fans know, is Nero Wolfe’s chef. He is world-class, and always creates gourmet eating experiences for his boss. But, by today’s standards, we’d probably say that his cooking is far too rich and too full of calories, fat, and so on. Our views about what people should be eating have certainly changed since Stout was writing. Today’s top chefs know that there are healthful ways to cook that are also unforgettably delicious and beautifully presented. And many restaurants now offer vegetarian/vegan options, smaller servings, and low-fat/low-calorie dishes.

Choices such as low-calorie foods or vegetarianism haven’t always been seen as mainstream as they are now. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing when one of its prominent residents, wealthy Emily Arundell, unexpectedly dies. At first, her death is put down to liver failure, but soon enough, it turns out that she was poisoned. And that wasn’t the first attempt on her life. Not many months before, she had a fall down a staircase that was deliberately engineered. There are several suspects in this case, since Miss Arundell’s relatives are all in need of money. And there’s the fact that her companion, Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Lawson, has inherited most of her fortune. Two of the witnesses that Poirot talks to are Isabel and Julia Tripp, who are friends of Minnie Lawson, and who were there on the night Miss Arundell died. These are eccentric ladies, to put it mildly. They have many non-conformist beliefs and are avid spiritualists. To add to this, they are vegetarians. While that fact isn’t the reason for Miss Arundell’s murder, it offers a glimpse of how such a diet might have been viewed at the time. Certainly, Poirot, who is a gourmand, is not exactly excited about the prospect of having dinner with the Tripp sisters…

Just because our views of what ‘counts’ as an appropriate diet have changed, doesn’t mean that all fictional sleuths eat healthfully. For instance, Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel isn’t particularly concerned with keeping to a healthy diet. He’s not stupid; he knows that it’s a good idea to limit fat, salt, and so on. But he likes his pub grub and has no intention of cutting things like bacon out of his diet. The same goes for Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and for Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. It’s not that they don’t know what they ought to be eating. Fans of Dexter’s series, for instance, know that Morse’s doctors have told him often enough. But that’s not the way they live their lives. What’s interesting about these sleuths’ attitudes is that they go against the proverbial tide. It’s now considered perfectly normal – even healthy – to eat less meat, less salt and fat, fewer fried foods, and so on.

We see another interesting example of that change in attitude in Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant series. Quant is a Saskatoon-based PI who does enjoy the occasional ‘not-good-for-you-but-delicious’ meal at his ‘watering hole,’ Colourful Mary’s. Still, he tries to watch what and how much he eats. That becomes difficult when his mother, Kay, comes for a visit in Flight of Aquavit. She is a farm wife, who’s spent her life making heavy-duty meals for hard-working farm people. So, her idea of what ‘counts’ as breakfast, for instance, are quite different to her son’s. It’s not that Quant doesn’t enjoy her cooking; he does. It’s delicious. But he also knows it’s got many times more calories, fat, salt, and so on than he should be having. This difference in views isn’t the main plot of the novel, but it does show how our attitudes about diet have changed. It also shows (but this is perhaps the topic for another time), how lifestyle, culture, and other factors influence diet.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss is Göteborg police detective, whose squad investigates murder and other violent crimes. In Night Rounds, we learn that Huss’ daughter, Jenny, has decided to become vegan. In fact, in one sub-plot, Jenny goes out one night with a militant vegan group to do what she thinks will simply be putting up vegan posters. It turns into something far more than that, and things quickly turn ugly. Fortunately for Jenny, Huss has suspected there might be trouble, and is able to get Jenny out of harm’s way. Jenny’s choice to become vegan does set up a conflict with her father, Krister, who is a well-regarded chef. But neither veganism nor a more conventional diet is portrayed as ‘right.’ It makes for an interesting discussion of what we think of when we think of ‘good’ food.

Sujata Massey’s Rei Shimura is a half-Japanese/half-American antiques dealer who’s originally based in Tokyo (although her adventures do take her to several other places). She likes and respects some of the Japanese traditions she’s learned, but in many ways, she has a very modern outlook. And that includes her choice to be a vegetarian. What’s really interesting about that is that it doesn’t even raise an eyebrow as a rule. It’s simply accepted. And that shows something, at least to me, about the way our views about diet have changed.

That makes sense, too, since society is always changing. Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration. Now, folks, if you’ll be kind enough to go visit Brad’s blog, I’ll excuse myself. It’s time for lunch!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart’s Food, Glorious Food.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Colin Dexter, Helene Tursten, Reginald Hill, Rex Stout, Sue Grafton, Sujata Massey

We Ain’t no Delinquents*

Fictional police officers and PIs come from all sorts of different backgrounds. Not all of them come from steady, stable homes where the law is respected (although there are plenty of fictional police detectives whose parents were also police officers). In fact, it’s interesting to see how many of them started out as juvenile delinquents, or close to it. In some ways, it doesn’t make sense for someone who’s used to flouting the law to enforce it.

But there is some logic to it, if you think about it. For some of these fictional characters, finding a place in law enforcement gives them a sense of purpose. For others, it gives them a pseudo-family. Or a chance to make things right. Whatever the reason, it can make for an interesting layer of character development to have someone make the choice to move from breaking the law to being ‘on the side of the angels.’

Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer is that sort of character. He was a troubled child from what seems to have been an abusive home (he mentions taking the strap away from his father in The Doomsters). As he got older, he became a petty thief. But a veteran cop befriended him, and Archer changed his perspective. He joined the Long Beach (California) Police but saw too much corruption there. Now, he’s a PI, who does what he can to make things right.

There’s another, slightly similar example in the case of David Whish-Wilson’s Frank Swann. As a young person, he committed his share of petty crime, and got into his share of trouble. He didn’t really have a sense of purpose until he met Marion Monroe. When they started dating, he got the chance to meet her father, George Monroe, who was a police officer. Monroe treated Swann with dignity and found ways to reach out to him. Ultimately, that helped lead Swann to choose a career as a police officer. He’s hardly perfect and doesn’t always do things ‘by the book.’ But he’s got a sense of purpose, and he’s developed a core of integrity.

Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone also had a difficult start in life. After the death of her parents in a car wreck, she went to live with her aunt. Aimless in high school, she became a delinquent. Still, she finished high school and tried community college. That wasn’t a success, though, and it wasn’t until she became a PI that Millhone found a sense of purpose. Fans of this series can tell you that she doesn’t always walk the proverbial straight and narrow. But her life has focus, and she’s ‘on the side of the angels’ now.

Carol O’Connell’s Kathy Mallory started out as a homeless child who’d fled from her native Louisiana to New York City. When she was eleven, NYPD detective Louis Markowitz caught her stealing. Instead of turning her over to the juvenile justice system, Markowitz took her in and raised her as his own. As they’ve gotten to know each other, he’s learned about her past, and it’s a dark one. In fact, she’s a nearly-feral ‘baby sociopath.’ But they’ve forged a bond, and Mallory respects her surrogate father. When Markowitz is killed in a line-of-duty incident, Mallory takes it upon herself to find his killer. Later, she enrolls in the police academy and begins a law enforcement career of her own. Her mentor (and Markowitz’ former partner) Sergeant Riker, does his best to help her. It’s not always successful, since Mallory still has plenty of ‘baggage.’ But she’s working at making a life on the right side of the law.

Jean-Claude Izzo’s Fabio Montale grew up in a not-very-nice part of Marseilles. He and his friends, Manu and Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini, committed plenty of petty and sometimes more serious crimes. They probably would have continued this way, and even done worse things, but everything was changed by a tragedy. Montale left Marseilles and joined the military. In Total Chaos, he’s returned, and is now a police officer in the very area where he grew up. It’s not spoiling this trilogy to say that Montale gets fed up with a lot of what he sees on the police force, and that has a real impact on his own choices. But he’s made the choice not to get drawn into the criminal underworld.

These are only a few examples of fictional sleuths who started out as delinquents (or worse). And it’s an interesting question why they make the choice to enforce the laws they flouted. Each sleuth has a different pattern of reasons for that decision, and it adds to that sleuth’s character.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Gee, Officer Krupke!

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Filed under Carol O'Connell, David Whish-Wilson, Jean-Claude Izzo, Ross Macdonald, Sue Grafton

The Rest is Still Unwritten*

The PI novel has taken many forms over the years, and been influenced by several different writers. And that’s a good thing, since it makes the genre broader and more interesting. One of the most influential authors of PI series in recent decades has been Sue Grafton, who passed away yesterday, as this is posted.

Grafton was among a group of authors who created a new type of fictional PI – the ‘hardboiled’ female investigator. Her Kinsey Millhone arguably helped to pave the way for today’s fictional female PIs, such as Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc, Robert B. Parker’s Sunny Randall, and Zoë Sharp’s Charlie Fox, among others. Was Grafton the very first to create a female PI? No. But her work helped to bring the female PI into the reading mainstream, and to make this sort of character more popular.

Not everyone is a Kinsey Millhone fan. That’s fair enough; I don’t think any book or series is beloved by all readers. But it’s hard to deny the role Millhone and her creator have played in adding to the crime fiction genre and taking it in new directions. And Grafton’s millions of fans will tell you that she created strong, memorable plots, interesting characters, and effective settings.

It’s not just that pioneering that I will remember about Grafton. Between 1982, when A is For Alibi was published, and early 2017, when Y is For Yesterday was released, Grafton wrote 25 ‘alphabet’ books, as well as other books and stories. I respect that dedication to the genre, and the effort it took to bring out new Kinsey Millhone adventures on a regular basis. That takes a lot of work and plenty of writing discipline. Trust me; it’s hard to even write one book. Grafton took her writing very seriously, and I respect that, too.

I never had the privilege of meeting Grafton in person. But I’m told she was friendly, accessible to readers, and courteous. You can’t ask for more than that. And she didn’t take herself overly seriously. Here, for instance, is her answer to one reader’s question about Kinsey:
 

Q: Who is Kinsey patterned after?
A: Yours truly. Who else? Unless you hate her, of course, and then I disavow any connection.

 

Love her, hate her, or otherwise, Kinsey Millhone had a major impact on crime fiction as a genre, and on the PI subgenre. She was among those fictional PIs who showed us that it’s possible to be a capable, gutsy, determined PI who happens to be a woman. For that, we’re grateful. We will miss you, Ms. Grafton. The alphabet will have to remain incomplete…

ps. The ‘photo shows Grafton wearing the famous ‘little black dress.’ I’ll miss that dress.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Natasha Bedingfield’s Unwritten.

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Filed under Sue Grafton

Been Caught Stealing*

One of the big challenges that a lot of retailers face is shoplifting. I got to thinking of this after I read a fascinating post by K.B. Owen, author of the Concordia Wells historical mysteries. Her post is an interesting reminder that shoplifting has been around for a long time. It’s well worth the read. And so are the Concordia Wells stories, so you’ll want to try them.

Shoplifting shows up in a lot of crime fiction, as you can imagine. Sometimes, it’s a sub-plot; sometimes, it’s a major part of the main plot. Either way, it’s interesting to see how it’s been treated over the years.

In Agatha Christie’s short story, The Veiled Lady, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from Lady Millicent Castle Vaughn. She says she is being blackmailed over an indiscreet letter she wrote several years earlier. The blackmailer – a Mr. Lavington – will send her letter to her wealthy, titled fiancé if she doesn’t pay. She wants Poirot to try to get the letter for her. Poirot manages that feat in a very creative way. And, he and Hastings find that the letter is connected to the audacious daylight robbery of an upmarket jewelry store.

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe begins as Perry Mason and Della Street take refuge from a rainstorm in a department store. There, they witness a store security officer arrest Sarah Breel for shoplifting. It turns out to be a regular habit of hers; so usually, her niece, Virginia Trent, goes shopping with her to prevent any incidents. But this time, the two got separated for just enough time for Aunt Sarah to fall back into her usual pattern. Mason gets involved in this family’s problems when Virginia Trent comes to him with an even more difficult situation. Her uncle is a gem expert, who buys, sells, cleans, and custom-cuts gems on commission. When he’s away, Aunt Sarah runs the business, and now, a valuable set of diamonds has gone missing. And there’s every reason to believe she has it. Austin Cullens, the dealer who acted as ‘go-between’ for the diamonds, doesn’t think that Aunt Sarah stole the diamonds, though. Everything changes when Cullens is murdered, and Aunt Sarah becomes the prime suspect. Now, Mason goes to work to find out who the murderer really is, and what happened to the diamonds.

In John Dickson Carr’s Death-Watch, a police detective named Ames is found dead in a rooming house owned by Johannes Carver. He’s gone to the boardinghouse in the guise of a homeless man to investigate a rash of shoplifting incidents. He’d settled on one of Carver’s lodgers as the guilty party, and was ready to make an arrest. But this case doesn’t turn out to be as simple as a shoplifter who killed a police officer to avoid arrest. This is Carr after all…

The main plot of Martha Grimes’ The Old Contemptibles concerns the Holdsworth family. Inspector Richard Jury meets Jane Holdsworth at a marketplace, and they are drawn to each other. They begin a relationship, but then, Jane is murdered. Jury finds himself a suspect in the killing, but he knows (and so do the rest of us) that he’s not guilty. His friend, Melrose Plant, helps him look into the backgrounds of the other members of the family, to find out which one of them would have wanted the victim dead. And it turns out that there’s more than one possibility. One of the characters we meet in the story is a local shoplifter named Jimmy the Dip. Early in the story, Jury’s at the marketplace where he meets Jane, when he sees Jimmy, prowling for opportunities. In fact, he actually witnesses Jimmy ‘accidentally’ bumping into a customer who’s just made a purchase. He decides not to make the arrest. For one thing, Jimmy seems to make apologies, so it’s not clear he actually stole anything. For another, Jimmy is a valuable source of information on other criminals who,
 

‘…did more than just work the Passage.’
 

Finally, it’s not that Jury condones shoplifting; he certainly doesn’t.  But he does have a soft spot for Jimmy.

And then there’s Sue Grafton’s V is For Vengeance. In it, Marvin Striker hires PI Kinsey Millhone to find out the truth about his fiancée’s death. It seems that Audrey Vance (Striker’s fiancée) committed suicide, and that’s what’s on the official report. But Striker doesn’t think that’s the case, and he wants Millhone to investigate. She soon learns that the dead woman was a shoplifter and professional thief. In fact, she believes that Striker is wrong, and that his fiancée was conning him. The search for answers leads to a Los Vegas ‘private banker’ and a wealthy ‘attorney to the stars’ and his wife.

Even though it doesn’t usually end in violence, shoplifting costs retailers millions a year. And, of course, that cost ultimately gets passed on to the rest of us. So, in real life, it’s little wonder that shops want to do everything they can to reduce ‘shrink.’ In crime fiction, though, shoplifting can be an interesting sub-plot, or add an interesting layer to a character.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jane’s Addiction.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, John Dickson Carr, Martha Grimes, Sue Grafton

Hardly Anyone Has Seen How Good I Am*

Not long ago, I did a spotlight on Jane Haddam’s Not a Creature Was Stirring. And, as always seems to happen, the best thing about the post wasn’t the post at all. It was the discussion that followed it. In this case, a few of you commented about Haddam’s series, and wondered why it’s not much more widely read than it is.

And that’s got me thinking about other series that are like that. You know the sort of series I mean. They’re well-regarded, and may run to five, ten, or even more, books. But at the same time, they aren’t very widely read, and you don’t see them on a lot of ‘recommended’ lists.

It’s a difficult question to answer, really. After all, people differ greatly on what ‘counts’ as ‘widely read’ and ‘well known.’ That said, though, it’s interesting to consider why some series catch fire, as the saying goes, and are talked about a lot, and others aren’t.

Haddam’s is arguably one such series. For those not familiar with these novels, they feature former FBI agent Gregor Demarkian. He has an Armenian background, and is a member of Philadelphia’s Armenian community. In fact, most of the novels in the series are set in and around that city. Although he’s retired, he does consult with the police under certain circumstances. And a lot of the cases he investigates come through his best friend and local parish priest, Father Tibor. This is a 29-book series, so it’s not just a matter of a few books. And Haddam’s won awards for her work. And yet, plenty of people aren’t familiar at all with her series.

The ‘Emma Lathen’ writing team of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart created the very well-regarded John Putnam Thatcher series. As fans of the series can tell you, Thatcher is a vice-president for the Sloan Guaranty Trust. The Sloan is often involved in mergers, acquisitions, international banking, and so on. So, there’s plenty of opportunity for nefarious doings, including fraud and murder. This series is 24 novels long, and, like Haddam’s, has won awards. In fact, one of the entries, Murder Against the Grain, won the Crime Writer’s Association (CWA)’s 1967 Gold Dagger Award. And the team won the Malice Domestic Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1997. Admittedly, this series is arguably more widely known than Haddam’s. Still, it doesn’t always make the list of best-known authors and series the way, say, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series might.

The same might be said for the work of Marian Babson. Since 1971’s Cover Up Story, she’s had more than 40 books published. Interestingly enough, they’re all standalones (although some do re-use characters). They’re traditional-style mysteries, usually involving amateur sleuths. That said, though, they aren’t really what you’d call ‘cosy.’ While they tend to be low on violence (especially graphic violence), they aren’t ‘light, frothy’ books. Babson’s work is very highly regarded, especially among those who prefer traditional mysteries. She won the CWA’s 1996 Dagger in the Library Award for her body of work. And yet, a great many readers, including crime fiction fans, aren’t familiar at all with her work. And it’s not for lack of quality or high regard. Like Haddam and the Emma Lathen team, it’s also not because she only wrote a few novels.

There’s also the case of K.C. Constantine. He is the author of the Mario Balzic series, which takes place in the fictional Western Pennsylvania town of Rocksburg, where Balzic is Chief of Police. Beginning with The Blank Page, there are 17 novels in the series, most of which feature Balzic (two feature his protégé, Detective Sergeant Ruggiero ‘Rugs’ Carlucci, as well as other ‘beat’ cops). Rocksburg is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone, so, as the series evolves, we get to know Balzic, his wife, and several other people in the town quite well. And, in fact, character development plays an important role in the series. It’s a highly-regarded series, and fans will tell you it’s well worth reading. And, yet, you might easily be forgiven for never having heard of these books. In a way, that’s how Constantine likes it. He chooses to remain as anonymous as possible, and values his privacy, and that of his family, very much. So, even if you’re a crime fiction fan who goes to conferences such as Malice Domestic, Crimefest, Bouchercon, or other such events, you’re not likely to meet him.

And then there’s Jill McGown’s series featuring Detective Inspector (DI) David Lloyd, and Detective Sergeant (DS) Judy Hill of Stansfield CID. Beginning with 1983’s A Perfect Match, this is a traditional-style police procedural series. As the series goes on, Lloyd and Hill move along in their careers. They also continue their romantic relationship, eventually marrying and having a family. But the focus in these novels is on the mysteries. All in all, there are thirteen books in the series, and they’re well regarded. In fact, A Shred of Evidence was adapted for television film in 2001. McGown’s fans are devoted, too. And yet, this series is arguably not a ‘household word,’ the way, say, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is.

There are plenty of other series, too, that fall into this category. I’ll bet you could name far more examples than I could. And there are a number of reasons that a series might not be particularly widely known. Even if authors are willing to go to a lot of conferences, etc., to promote their work, there’s a lot of competition. And with today’s self-publishing and other digital publication, there are even more book choices. So, readers have to make decisions about what they’ll choose. So do publishers. Even if an author is talented, and gets professional acclaim, that doesn’t mean that particular author is a best-seller. And publishers are interested in promoting the work of authors whose work sells a lot.

There are other reasons, too. What do you think about this? Which authors do you feel deserve a lot more attention than they’ve gotten? Why do you think those authors haven’t ‘caught fire?’ Thanks to those who commented on that earlier post, and got me thinking about this!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Rosalinda’s Eyes.

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Filed under Colin Dexter, Emma Lathen, Jane Haddam, Jill McGown, K.C. Constantine, Marian Babson, Sue Grafton