Category Archives: Sue Grafton

The Landlady Said, ‘You Got the Rent Money Yet?’

Landlords and LandladiesIf you rent your home, rather than own it, then you have a landlady/landlord, or perhaps there’s a company that owns the property. Either way, there’s a certain relationship between property owners and tenants; in fact, there’s a whole branch of the law dedicated to landlord/tenant matters. When there’s a person to whom you pay your rent, and to whom you go if you have a property maintenance issue, there’s an even closer relationship, because you see that person on a regular basis. And, since so many people do rent, it’s a relationship we see a lot in real life. We see it, of course, in crime fiction, too – again, not surprising, since so many people rent.

One of the best-known of fictional landladies is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mrs. Hudson, who rents rooms to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. We don’t learn an awful lot about her in the course of the stories; but she is a regular presence. Here’s what Dr. Watson says about her in The Adventure of the Dying Detective:

‘Not only was her first-floor flat invaded at all hours by throngs of singular and often undesirable characters but her remarkable lodger showed an eccentricity and irregularity in his life which must have sorely tried her patience.’

Still, Mrs. Hudson and Holmes have a good relationship. She even helps him set a trap for a killer in The Adventure of the Empty House.

Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is told from the point of view of Ellen and Robert Bunting, who have retired from domestic service. In order to supplement their income, they’ve become landlord and landlady, and have opened their home to lodgers. Their plan isn’t very successful at first, mostly because Ellen Bunting is particular about the kinds of people to whom she is willing to rent. But their luck changes one day when an eccentric man calling himself Mr. Sleuth arrives. He is quiet, has the ‘right’ bearing, and pays well and in advance. So the Buntings willingly accept him as a tenant. At first, all goes smoothly enough. Besides, the Buntings are preoccupied with a series of murders that have been taking place in London. The police haven’t arrested anyone, and the papers are full of the lurid details. Then, Ellen Bunting begins to have some concerns about Mr. Sleuth. He’s been behaving oddly, and she slowly begins to wonder, to her horror, whether he might be the killer. If he is, then the Buntings themselves could be in danger. If he’s not, then she could be giving up an important source of income. It’s an interesting example of a landlord/landlady’s point of view.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her unpleasant tenant James Bentley. There’s evidence against him, too. In fact, he’s already been convicted, and is scheduled to be executed. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence isn’t convinced of Bentley’s guilt. So he asks Poirot to go to the village of Broadhinny to investigate. As it turns out, Mrs. McGinty was a little too curious for her own good about her clients’ secrets, and someone didn’t want her telling what she knew. Although it’s not the main focus of this novel, Christie does have a few things to say about the relationship between Bentley and his landlady. On the one hand, she could be irritating. On the other, he was concerned about her because he knew she kept money in her home, instead of safely at the bank. It’s an interesting insight into their interactions.

Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home offers a different perspective on landlords and landladies. In that novel, DI Dushan Zigac and DS Mel Ferreira investigate the murder of a man whose body is found in a burned-out shed on the property of Paul and Gemma Barlow. The Barlows claim that he was a squatter, and that they don’t know who he was; and in any case, they say he wasn’t there for very long. So Zigac and Ferreira try to trace the victim’s last days and weeks. He is soon identified as an Estonian immigrant named Jaan Stepulov, and the police start with that name. The trail leads to Fern House, a home owned by Joseph and Helen Adu. They do what they can to provide a decent home for their tenants, but they are overwhelmed by the work involved. Zigic and Ferreira then learn that Stepulov might have gotten involved in a fight with Andrus Tombak. If that’s true, then Tombak may know something about the murder. It turns out that Tombak, too, is a landlord, but of a very different kind. He has at least a dozen immigrants living in squalid conditions in his home, and has no compunctions about bribing whoever he has to in order to keep from losing that source of income. The Adus and Tombak don’t provide ‘the vital clue’ about the victim’s death. But they do show the kinds of tenant conditions that immigrant workers often have.

Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, which takes place in 1922, shows the way that rentals sometimes worked in those immediate post-war years. Frances Wray and her mother have fallen on hard times since the end of the war. For one thing, her father has died, leaving the family without his income. For another, her two brothers were lost in the war. With little other choice, the two women have decided to open their home to ‘paying guests’ – tenants. For them, it’s an admission of economic difficulty and, therefore, a source of shame. But they try to make the best of it. Len and Lilian Barber take an interest in the place and before long, are installed as the Wrays’ tenants. It’s very awkward at first, but everyone tries to adjust. It turns out, though, that this landlady/tenant arrangement is the start of a tragic chain of events.

And of course, no discussion of landlords and landladies in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Sue Grafton’s Henry Pitts, who is landlord for Grafton’s PI sleuth Kinsey Millhone. He’s not just the person to whom she pays her rent; he’s also a friend. He’s an interesting person in his own right, and Millhone finds him good company. She also sees him as a sort of father figure.

For a chilling look at a crime-fictional landlady, there’s Roald Dahl’s short story The Landlady. In that story, Billy Weaver has just arrived in Bath to start a new job. By chance he comes upon a B&B with rooms available; so on impulse, he checks in. What happens next is…well…you can read it here.

As you can see (and you probably knew it already), landlords and landladies come in all types. Some are to be avoided at all costs, and some are wonderful people. But all of them can add to a good story. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from George Thorogood’s version of One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer. It’s an interesting mix of the original John Lee Hooker version, plus another Hooker song called House Rent Boogie.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Eva Dolan, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Roald Dahl, Sarah Waters, Sue Grafton

Are You Talking to Me?*

Directly Addressing the ReaderMost crime stories are told either in the first or third person, as a narration of events. Readers follow along and (hopefully) are drawn into the tale. But every once in a while, the author addresses the reader more directly. That strategy, when it’s done well, can invite the reader to engage in the story. It’s a bit like someone telling you about something and then asking what you think or whether you agree. You’re more drawn into the conversation when you’re addressed directly.

Fans of ‘the Queen team’ will know that they use this strategy in some of the Ellery Queen stories. For example, in The Roman Hat Mystery, Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, investigate the murder of attorney Monte Field. The murder occurs during a theatrical performance, so the Queens have two logistical tasks. One is to find out how Field was killed, with so many people around. The other is to narrow down who, exactly, was close enough to him to commit the crime. There’s also of course the question of who would have a motive. That field’s open, since the victim was in the habit of blackmail. There’s a section in this novel titled: Interlude: In Which the Reader’s Attention is Respectfully Requested. In that section, the narrator figuratively turns to the reader and lets the reader know that all of the evidence, suspects, clues and so forth are now ‘on the table.’ The reader is then invited to make sense of them and solve the case. The narrator than returns to the story in the next section. Those who’ve seen the TV series starring Jim Hutton will know that Hutton, as Queen, does the same sort of thing in that series.

Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal begins this way:


‘My dear fellow, it’s all perfectly simple and clear. I detest discussing such a gory thing, but I must do so. Otherwise, I fear you’ll receive your only knowledge of the episode from those lurid newspaper accounts, which are written for scandal-hungry human animals of the lowest order.’


The narrator, staid banker Horace Croyden, then goes on to tell his story. A quiet, very respectable man, he’s always prided himself on living a quiet, completely scandal-free life. He craves stability and order, and that’s all he’s ever known. Then, he meets his boss’ cousin Althea. After an appropriate time of courtship, they marry. Almost immediately, Croyden finds that he’s made a dreadful mistake. Althea isn’t the quiet, old-fashioned, respectable sort of woman he’d thought she was. She begins by making some (to her) minor changes to the décor of their home, which is bad enough from her husband’s perspective. But then, she destroys some of his beloved ciphers (a hobby he’s had for a while). That proves to be too much for Croyden, who decides to take his own approach to solving his problem.

There’s also Fredric Brown’s short story Don’t Look Behind You. Here’s how that story begins:

‘Just sit back and relax, now. Try to enjoy this; it’s going to be the last story you ever read, or nearly the last. After you finish it you can sit there and stall awhile, you can find excuses to hang around your house, or your room, or your office, wherever you’re reading this; but sooner or later you’re going to have to get up and go out. That’s where I’m waiting for you: outside. Or maybe closer than that. Maybe in this room.’ 


The narrator then continues to address the reader directly, telling the story of a printer named Justin and a suave man named Harley. Things turn ugly when they get involved with some dangerous people, and the end of the story has a real twist in it. The effect is all the more eerie because the reader is directly addressed.

John Burdett’s series featuring Royal Thai Police officer Sonchai Jitpleecheep also includes comments made directly to the reader. These novels take place mostly in Bangkok, and are told from Sonchai’s perspective. As the stories go on, Sonchai occasionally breaks the narrative just a bit to address the reader. Here, for instance, is a bit from Bangkok Tattoo. In this scene, Sonchai is discussing Thai attitudes towards prostitution:


‘These are all country girls, tough as water buffalo, wild as swans, who can’t believe how much they can make by providing to polite, benevolent, guilt-ridden, rich, condom-conscious farang [foreigners] exactly the same service they would otherwise have to provide free without protection to rough, drunken, whoremongering husbands in their home villages. Good deal? Better believe it. (Don’t look at me like that, farang, when you know in your heart that capitalism makes whores of all of us).’


It’s an interesting way to share cultural/religious information, which occasionally happens in this series. It also serves to show Sonchai’s particular world view.

Sometimes, the author puts the reader in the story, if you will, almost as a character. For instance, in Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair, we meet Gilbert Hand, junior partner in a bookselling/publishing firm. Hand is devastated by the sudden death of his wife Rachel, and decides to make a major change in his life. He sells their home and moves to a quiet, respectable hotel in London. When he settles into his room, he discovers that the previous occupant left behind a long coil of dark hair, wrapped in a silk bundle and hidden in the davenport.  Hand becomes curious about that occupant, whose name is Freddie Doyle, and starts to ask questions. When Doyle tries to get the hair back, Hand refuses and becomes even more curious. In fact, he becomes obsessed with Doyle and with the woman whose hair Doyle left behind. Hand’s obsession begins to take over as he starts to believe that Doyle is a murderer. As is the case with many obsessions, this one leads to very dark places. Throughout the story, Hand addresses the reader, starting with the first sentences:

‘I’m not going to give explanations and make excuses. I’ll tell you what happened, and you can draw your own conclusions.’ 


In the end, we find out what role the reader is given in the novel.

Sue Grafton’s ‘Alphabet Mysteries,’ featuring her sleuth, PI Kinsey Millhone, don’t address the reader quite as directly as do Burdett’s. Still, the novels end with epilogues signed,


Respectfully Submitted,
Kinsey Millhone


In those epilogues, Millhone occasionally steps out of the role of narrator and addresses the reader just a bit more directly than she does in the stories themselves.

What do you think of that strategy of directly addressing the reader? Do you feel more engaged in a novel when its author uses it? Does it pull you out of the story? If you’re a writer, do you use that tactic?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s What Was it You Wanted?


Filed under Charlotte Jay, Ellery Queen, Fredric Brown, John Burdett, Sue Grafton, Talmage Powell

Behind You Another Runner is Born*

RunningDo you go jogging or running? If you do, then you know that running can be a terrific form of exercise. Studies suggest that running also helps lower stress levels and builds cardiovascular strength. And it’s not expensive to take up running, since there’s no need to join a club or purchase equipment. All you need is a pair of trainers and comfortable clothes like track pants or shorts. What’s more, you can run at nearly any time of day. You’re really only limited by the weather. It may not be for everyone, but it’s not hard to see why running has become such a popular form of exercise in the last decades.

It’s little wonder really that we see running pop up so often in crime fiction. Not only is it common in real life, but it’s also a very handy tool for authors who want characters to find bodies (I’m sure you could think of lots more examples than I could where that happens!). Authors can also use running to describe a particular setting (i.e. readers follow along as the character runs). Space only permits a few examples here, but I’m sure they’ll suffice to show what I mean.

There’s an interesting jogging scene in Ian Rankin’s The Black Book. In one plot thread of that novel, Inspector Rebus is working to bring down a moneylender associated with Edinburgh crime boss ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. Fans of this series will know that Rebus and Cafferty have an unusual sort of relationship. On the one hand, they are on opposite sides of the law, and neither trusts or really likes the other. At the same time, they sometimes find they have common enemies or a common goal. And they have learned to respect each other. At one point, Rebus and Cafferty go for a jog together. It’s an effective way to have a conversation without being overheard. During that run, Cafferty and Rebus share information, and it’s interesting to see how Rankin uses that scene to build tension.

Fans of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone will know that she is fond of running along the beach near her home in fictional Santa Teresa. She stays in shape that way and it gives her the opportunity to de-stress. Here’s how she puts it in D is For Deadbeat:

‘Sometimes I awaken uncomfortably aware of a low-level dread humming in my gut. Running is the only relief I can find short of drink and drugs, which at 6:00 a.m. don’t appeal.’

Millhone doesn’t pretend to be a health fanatic. Fans will know, for instance, that she’s certainly not overly concerned about her diet. For her, running helps with stress relief and is a form of self-discipline.

Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski is also a runner. She likes to keep in shape, and running clears her head. It also gives her the chance to give her dogs exercise. Here’s what Warshawski says about running in Burn Marks:

‘I know that, however unappetizing it seems, running is the best antidote for a thick head. Anyway, a big dog like Peppy depends on running for her mental health.’

So does Warshawski, although she admits she often doesn’t physically feel like running.

In Karen Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, the small Norwegian village of Granittveien is badly shaken when the body of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland is found by a local tarn. Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre are called to the scene and begin the investigation. On the surface of it, it seems that Annie was well-liked and successful. She was an avid runner, logging in twenty miles a week. Until recently she’d played handball too. She had a boyfriend with whom she had no obvious problems, and wasn’t mixed up in drugs or other dangers. So at first there doesn’t seem a real motive for her murder. But as Sejer and Skarre dig deeper, they discover that more is going on in the village than it seems. As it turns out, Annie wasn’t killed during a run. But her love of running was an important part of her character.

And then there’s Kate Rhodes’ Crossbones Yard. This novel introduces readers to psychologist Alice Quentin. For reasons having to do with her childhood, Quentin tends towards claustrophobia. In fact, she has a special dislike of elevators/lifts. That’s one reason for which she finds a great deal of release in running:

‘At seven I changed into my running gear and headed for the best part of the day. Soon I was running down the stairs so fast that it felt like flight…[later] I made my way home at a slow trot, enjoying the rush of endorphins – nature’s reward for nearly killing yourself.’

One evening, she’s taking a long run when she discovers a recently-murdered young woman at Crossbones Yard, a former graveyard for prostitutes. It turns out that this murder may be connected to another, earlier series of murders. The only problem with that theory is that the person responsible for those earlier murders is in prison. Is there a ‘copycat’ at work? Or is the criminal somehow engineering more murders? Perhaps there’s even another explanation…

Lots of runners swear by the ‘runner’s high’ that can come from the release of endorphins. And running can be very good for one’s health, not to mention one’s physical condition. Some people even say that going for a run with a friend or partner is a good social activity too. With all of that going for it, it’s little wonder that a lot of crime-fictional characters run. I’ve just given a very few examples. Over to you.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sheila Ferguson and Giorgio Moroder’s The Runner.


Filed under Ian Rankin, Karin Fossum, Kate Rhodes, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton

When Sleuths Buy Gifts ;-)

When Sleuths Buy GIftsHave you ever taken part in a ‘Secret Santa’ gift exchange? Sometimes it’s called a ‘Kris Kringle,’ and sometimes a ‘Pollyanna.’ There are other names for it too. Whatever you call it, the way it generally works is that a group of people put their names into a hat, a box or some such thing. Each one draws the name of someone else and gets a gift for that person.

It sounds like a wonderful idea, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t always work out as planned. Don’t believe me? Let’s see what happens….

When Fictional Sleuths are ‘Secret Santas.’

I. Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)

Hastings: Whose name did you draw, Poirot?
Poirot: I have drawn…(Glances down at the slip of paper) Mlle. Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton).
Hastings: Any idea what you’ll get for her?
Poirot: I think, mon ami, that I will have Georges make an appointment for her at a dressmaker’s shop. Les femmes, they all love beautiful dresses, do they not?
Hastings: Er…well…I suppose so.

II. Rebecka Martinsson (Åsa Larsson)

(Having a coffee with Inspector Anna-Maria Mella)
Rebecka: So I got talked into this Secret Santa business.
Anna-Maria: Well, it might be fun. Whose name did you get?
Rebecka: Her name’s Corinna Chapman (Kerry Greenwood).
Anna-Maria: So what will you buy?
Rebecka: At this time of year? A heavy parka. If I rush it, she’ll get it before Christmas too. Hmm…. I don’t know her size. Well, I’ll just get her an average-sized coat – one I might wear. That ought to be safe. Can’t miss!

III. John Rebus (Ian Rankin)

Rebus: Shiv, you doing this Secret Santa thing?
Siobhan Clarke: Yeah, sure. You?
Rebus: Don’t have much choice, I don’t think.
Clarke: Who’d you get?
Rebus: His name’s Inspector Morse (Colin Dexter).
Clarke: Ah, fellow copper. What are you getting him?
Rebus: Everyone loves music, right? Think I’ll get him tickets to a Rolling Stones concert.
Clarke: (Looks down at her cup of tea) Maybe you ought to find out what kind of music he likes first?
Rebus: Who doesn’t love the Stones?

IV. V.I. ‘Vic’ Warshawski (Sara Paretsky)

(Having a glass of wine with Lotty Herschel)
Vic: So I’ve been thinking about this whole Secret Santa thing.
Lotty: That’s good. It’s coming up soon.
Vic: I know, and I think I have just the thing. I got this guy Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout). He’s never been to Chicago. So I’m going to take him bar-hopping! Really show him a Jack Daniels night. Then we’ll go to the Maxwell Street Market for some kielbasa. Ha! I might even get him a Cubs hat! What do you think?
Lotty: If you really think he’d like it.
Vic: Can’t go wrong!

V. Armand Gamache (Louise Penny)

(Having breakfast with his wife Reine-Marie)
Reine-Marie: So, have you decided what to do about this Secret Santa name draw?
Armand: Actually I think I have. I drew Lisbeth Salander’s name (Stieg Larsson). She’s from Stockholm, so I thought it would be nice to give her a real Québec welcome, with Christmas right here in Three Pines.
Reine-Marie: What a lovely idea! I’m sure she’d love a small-town holiday after living in the city. We can ask them to give her a room at the B&B, we’ll make sure she meets everyone, and she can come to Midnight Mass with us.
Armand: Good thinking. No-one does gourmet bistro better than Olivier and Gabri. She’ll love it!

VI. Nick and Nora Charles (Dashiell Hammett)

Nora: I’ve got it, Nick!
Nick: Got what?
Nora: The perfect idea for the Secret Santa draw, of course.
Nick: Oh, that. Who’d we get anyway?
Nora: His name’s Walt Longmire (Craig Johnson). He’s from Wyoming.
Nick: So what’s your brilliant idea?
Nora: Well, we’re going to be in New York for the next couple of months. Why not get him the best Broadway tickets we can? We’ll put him up at the Plaza for a few days.
Nick: Sounds great! I’ll bet he’s dying to get out of whatever one-horse town he lives in.

Perhaps after all it’d be just as well for these sleuths to stick to solving crime… ;-)


Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Colin Dexter, Craig Johnson, Dashiell Hammett, Ian Rankin, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Sara Paretsky, Stieg Larsson, Sue Grafton

But Try at Least to Pick a Selling Title*

BookTitlesWhen it comes to getting readers’ attention, a well-chosen book title can be at least as important as the cover is. So I thought it might be interesting to take a bit of a closer look at the titles of crime novels. After all, when we read a review and put a book on the TBR or wish list, it’s the title and/or author we try to remember.

Most authors know that a good title has something to do with the the story, and sometimes that’s done very cleverly. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s title The Adventure of the Dancing Men is attention-getting on the surface. It also has everything to do with the story. This adventure is about a woman Elsie Cubitt, who starts to get mysterious cryptic messages in the form of stick figures posed in various positions, as though they were dancing. The messages clearly frighten her, but she won’t tell her husband Hilton what they mean or why they’re being sent. So Cubitt asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate. The solution involves decrypting the messages, so the title turns out to be very much related to the story.

Sometimes titles are a little (or even very) unusual. For instance, Christopher Brookmyre’s title Quite Ugly One Morning isn’t your typical title. It has to do with an investigative journalist Jack Parlabane, who returns from Los Angeles to his native Edinburgh. He locks himself out of his flat one morning and ends up stumbling onto a brutal crime scene. That gets him drawn into the crime’s investigation and deeper into a web of greed and coverup than he imagined. What’s interesting is that although the title is unusual, it’s also closely related to the story itself. Admittedly, there are titles that are a lot more unusual than that one, but it should serve to show you what I mean.

Some authors ‘brand’ their series (or their publishers do) through the titles. I’m thinking for instance of Sue Grafton’s ‘alphabet series’ and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, which uses a different colour in each title. There there’s ‘Nicci French’s’ series in which each title includes a day of the week. I’m sure you know of other examples of this sort of ‘branding.’ That can make it easy for a reader to look for the next title in a series, and keep track of a longer series.

Authors are often advised to keep their titles short and fairly easy to remember, and that’s logical when you think about it.
Shorter titles can often look much neater and less ‘cluttered’ on a cover, and it’s easier for readers to keep them in mind. For a similar reason, authors are usually advised not to use subtitles, although of course, they’re out there.

As I thought about that, I wondered how long titles of crime novels actually are. So I decided to look more closely at that question. I looked at the titles of 215 crime novels – books that I’ve used for my ‘spotlight’ feature. So as you read on, do keep in mind that this is a limited data set. The total population of crime novels might show something different. I divided the books into three categories: books with two or fewer words in the title; books with three to five words in the title; and books with titles longer than five words. Here’s what I found.


Length of Book Title

As you can see, the great majority (131, or 69%) have titles of between three and five words. That includes words such as at, of, and the. And 70 (32.5%) have one- or two-word titles. Of my data set, only 14 (6.5%) had titles longer than five words. It makes sense to have short, crisp titles, so that finding didn’t particularly surprise me.

Crime novels of course deal with, well, crime, at least most of the time. And very often that crime is murder. So you’d think that most of the titles in the genre would reflect that, and that there’d be a lot of titles with crime-related words in them. So I decided to look into that question. I looked at the titles of 215 books that I’ve used for my ‘Spotlight’ feature to see what kinds, if any, of ‘murder-related’ words there were in the title. Here’s what I found.

Words in Titles


You can see clearly that most of the titles actually don’t mention murder, killing, bodies or weapons. In fact, 79% of them (169 books) don’t say anything about crime. Some of the titles (19/9%) do mention death, die, dying or another variant of that word. But as you’ll notice, comparatively few mention crime-related words such as blood, murder, knife, and so on. I wonder if that’s so that crime writers and readers can be a bit less obvious about our interest in these devious doings… ;-)

What’s your view about titles? Do you find yourself attracted to very unusual titles? Do you notice when a title is really short or long? Does that affect your interest? If you’re a writer, how do you decide what title you’ll choose for your work?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Concretes’ Fiction.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christopher Brookmyre, John D. MacDonald, Nicci French, Sue Grafton