Category Archives: 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?

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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.

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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… ;-)

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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.

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

Take Out Some Insurance, Insurance Today*

InsuranceInsurance companies are very much like other businesses in one sense: they want to make money. And they don’t earn money by paying out claims. So most insurance companies want to make very sure that any claim against them is legitimate. The stakes can be very high, too, since some insurance policies include high payouts. So it shouldn’t be surprising that insurance companies and insurance investigators play a role in crime fiction. My guess is that you can already think of several examples of insurance carriers and investigators in crime fiction; here are a few that have occurred to me.

There’s an early example of a murder mystery involving insurance investigation in ‘Charles Felix’s’ The Notting Hill Mystery. Through a series of letters, testimonials and other documents, we learn that Ralph Henderson is an insurance investigator. He’s been assigned to look into the death of Madame R**, who died after drinking a bottle of acid during an episode of sleepwalking. Henderson begins to get some information on the case, and discovers that the victim’s husband Baron R** had taken out several life insurance policies on his wife. That immediately raises Henderson’s suspicions, but he can’t get any evidence of how the murder was committed. Still, it’s clear from early in the novel that the baron is guilty of the crime. Henderson’s even surer of that when he turns up evidence of three other murders. In this story, the ‘howdunit’ is more the focus than the ‘whodunit.’

In Agatha Christie’s short story The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor, the Northern Union Insurance Company carries the policy on the life of Mr. Maltravers. When he dies, company representative Alfred Wright asks his friend Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. A great deal of course is riding on whether Maltravers died of sudden illness, was murdered, or committed suicide. So Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to Marsdon Manor, where Mr. Maltravers lived with his wife, to find out exactly what caused the victim’s death. Poirot deduces the truth about Maltravers’ death, but at first he doesn’t have any proof. Then he works out a very unusual and ingenious way to get the proof that he needs.

One of the more famous stories featuring insurance companies is James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. In that novel, we meet Walter Huff, an insurance agent for General Fidelity of California. That company underwrites the automobile policy on a car owned by a certain Mr. Nirdlinger. When Huff visits Nirdlinger’s house to talk to him about renewing his policy, he meets Nirdlinger’s wife Phyllis. It’s not long before she begins flirting with him and he finds himself attracted to her too. Still, he has no illusions about her. She wants to take out a double-indemnity accident policy on her husband’s life and then arrange an ‘accident’ for him so that she can collect the insurance money. Huff’s been wanting to find a quick way to ‘beat the system’ himself, so he falls in with her plans, and the two work out a plan for insurance fraud. At first it seems that the plan will work well. But then, something goes wrong and before long, things quickly spiral out of control…

There are of course plenty of other novels and stories that feature plots involving insurance investigators and insurance money. There are also several sleuths who are or have been insurance investigators. One of them is Peter Corris’ Sydney-based PI Cliff Hardy. As we learn in The Dying Trade, Hardy once worked for an insurance company:
 

‘… – long hours, high mileage and pathetic incendiarists. The work had coated my fingers with nicotine, scuttled my marriage and put fat around my waistline and wits. The deals and hush-money made divorce work seem clean as riding a wave and bodyguarding noble and manly.’
 

Corris has long since parted company with his insurance employer. But he still occasionally uses his company business card when he thinks it’ll give him access to people who’d be reluctant to talk to a private investigator. He’s kept his share of contacts too, from those days, and taps them as a resource when necessary.

In many novels of Sue Grafton’s ‘alphabet series,’ her PI sleuth Kinsey Millhone does occasional insurance investigation work for California Fidelity Insurance. The arrangement is that the company allows Millhone office space on their premises so that she can meet her private clients and carry on her business. In return, Millhone looks into cases of possible arson, wrongful death and other cases where the company may have to pay a big claim. That relationship isn’t always a smooth one (saying more would give away a story arc that I don’t want to spoil). But several of Millhone’s California Fidelity cases come up as sub-plots in this series. And even though she’s not an ‘official’ full-time employee, we get to see how insurance companies went about investigating claims before there was the Internet and the ‘smart ‘phone.’

And then there’s Susan Slater’s Rollover. That’s the story of a bank robbery, a valuable haul, and insurance investigator Dan Mahoney. Mahoney works for United Life and Casualty, the company that insured a Tiffany necklace stolen from one of the safety deposit boxes at the First Community Bank of Wagon Mound (New Mexico). Needless to say, the robbers do not want Mahoney to catch them or to find the necklace… I’ll admit I’ve not (yet) read this one. But it was the review of this at Kittling: Books that got me thinking about insurance companies and insurance investigators. So…. thanks to Cathy at Kittling: Books for the inspiration. While you’re checking out her post, do look around the site. Among other things, you’ll find terrific reviews of all sorts of crime fiction.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to pay on my policies…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from J.J. Cale’s Take Out Some Insurance.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Felix, James M. Cain, Peter Corris, Sue Grafton, Susan Slater