Category Archives: 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

What Shall I Call You?*

If you’re kind enough to read this blog occasionally, you’ll know that right now, I’m working on revising my fourth Joel Williams novel. Revising can be a difficult process, especially if some fundamental things about a story need to be changed. But most authors have to make at least some revisions to their drafts.

One of the things I’ve discovered about this particular novel as I’ve been revising is that, of all things, the title I’d chosen no longer works. The plot has changed, and that means that the title doesn’t reflect it very well any more. So, I have to choose a new title.

Titles are interesting things, too. In some way, they have to catch the reader’s attention. Some authors do that by selecting unusual titles. For instance, the titles of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels are certainly inventive. There’s A Red Herring With Mustard, and I Am Half Sick of Shadows, just to name two. And Bradley’s by no means the only author to opt for such unusual titles.

Other authors, such as Sue Grafton and the ‘Nicci French’ team use titles to link the novels in their series. Fans can tell you that Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is sometimes called ‘the alphabet series,’ because each book begins with a letter of the English alphabet (e.g. A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc..). And the Nicci French Frieda Klein novels all have days of the week in their titles (e.g. Blue Monday).

Whatever title an author chooses, most people agree that it needs to be short enough to be remembered fairly easily. Too many words and it’s clumsy. That’s why there are so many crime titles that are one or two words (e.g. Elmore Lenoard’s Get Shorty, or Ruth Rendell’s The Vault). There are exceptions to this, of course. However, titles that are ‘crisp’ and not overblown generally seem to be more successful.

A title also arguably has a real advantage if it reflects something about the book. Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice has as one of its central plot points a dangerous new drug, known as ‘black ice.’ In this case, ‘black ice’ also refers more metaphorically to very dangerous situations that one might not see coming, and are all the more perilous if one’s not prepared. And Rex Stout’s Champagne For One is about the death of Faith Usher, who dies of poison after drinking a glass of champagne at a dinner party.

As you can see, the choice of a title can be a tricky business. It can’t be too long (but it has to be long enough to say something about the book). It can’t be too ‘cookie cutter’ (but not too ‘cutesy’ either). It has to be attention-getting (but not so strange that it’s off-putting). Little wonder that I’m really paying attention to this part of the revision.

But, you see, I have an advantage. I have you. You folks are all readers, and excellent judges of the titles of that get your attention or annoy you (or something in between). So, I’ve decided to ask you to help me and choose the title of my next Joel Williams novel. Below, you’ll see a poll with some possible titles. If you’d like a say, vote for your choice. The poll will be up for about a week, and then we’ll talk about it.

Now, to help you decide, here’s the tentative blurb (there may be some changes, but this is the basic story):
 

Research Can Be Deadly!

Criminal justice professor Joel Williams and two colleagues are studying Second Chances, a Philadelphia alternative school program that’s supposed to keep at-risk students off the streets and out of prison. But it hasn’t kept those young people out of danger. The research team is shocked when their work turns up a tragic death. One of the students, 15-year-old Curtis Templeton, fell from a building near the school, and everyone says it was a horrible accident. But if it was an accident, why isn’t anybody willing to talk about it? And if it wasn’t, who would want to kill Curtis?

To get answers, Williams and the team will step into the world of for-profit alternative schools, and into the lives of the people they’re meant to serve. And they’ll go up against someone who’s willing to do whatever it takes to keep certain secrets hidden.
 

What do you think? Which title says it best?

 


 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Thompson Twins’ Flesh and Blood.

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Filed under Alan Bradley, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, Nicci French, Ruth Rendell, Sue Grafton

The Pinkertons Pulled Out My Bags*

detective-agenciesPlenty of PIs, both real and fictional, work alone or with just one partner. There are some advantages to that, too, if you think about it. One of the biggest advantages is the flexibility (since the PI can choose which cases to take, what hours to work, and so on). And the lone PI doesn’t have to share the profits with anyone. So, it’s easy to see why a detective might want to go it alone.

It’s not all roses, though, as the saying goes. A lone PI can’t cover as many cases as an agency can. And an agency, complete with a staff, often has more resources, both financial and in terms of people. There’s also the possibility that a client might prefer to work with an agency, rather than just one PI, or a PI partnership. So, quite a number of PIs belong to an agency, at least at first.

One of the most famous of all detective agencies is Pinkerton’s (The Pinkerton National Detective Agency), originally founded in the US by Scottish immigrant Allan Pinkerton. It’s still in operation, although it’s now a subsidiary of another firm. Pinkerton’s plays an important role in K.B. Owen’s historical (end of the 19th Century) Concordia Wells series. Concordia is a teacher at Hartford Women’s College. She’s also an amateur detective. One of her friends (and a former mentor) is Penelope Hamilton, who is a Pinkerton’s agent. In fact, in Unseemly Haste, Concordia gets involved in one of Penelope’s cases as she travels across the country to visit her aunt. Agencies such as Pinkerton’s were very popular in the days before the FBI and other federal agencies changed the landscape of nationwide criminal investigation.

In Dashiell Hammett’s short story Fly Paper, Major Waldo Hambleton hires the Continental Detective Agency to find his daughter, Sue, who has cut off all contact with her family. She’s reportedly been mixed up with some very shady people, so Hambleton wants to be sure that she’s all right. Then, he gets a letter from Sue, asking for money. He has the agency send a representative to the address she gave – an address that belongs to Joseph ‘Holy Joe’ Wales, whom Sue has been seeing. She’s also been involved with a thug named ‘Babe’ McCloor. When the detective finally finds Sue’s own place, it’s too late: she’s dead of arsenic poisoning. Now this missing person case has become a case of murder – or perhaps suicide…

Fans of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone will know that she trained as a private investigator. At first, she worked as a police officer, but two years was enough to show her that police life wasn’t for her. Then, she worked for a detective agency for a short time, while she learned the ropes. After that, as happens with many PIs, she decided to hang out her own shingle. For Kinsey, the independence and flexibility of having her own agency is worth much more than the security that belonging to a larger agency might provide.

In Dick Francis’ Odds Against, we are introduced to Sid Halley. He’s a former jockey whose career was ended when his left hand was severely damaged in a racing accident. Not sure where to go or what to do after that, he got a job at Hunt Radnor Associates, a large detective agency. He worked there for two years until he was shot by a suspect in an investigation. His father-in-law (later ex father-in-law) Charles Roland can see that Halley is floundering, and offers him a way out. He wants Halley to investigate Howard Kraye, a shady businessman who Roland suspects is trying to take over his Seabury Racecourse. Halley agrees, and embarks on a new career as a racetrack investigator.

Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri is the owner of a well-respected Delhi agency, Most Private Investigators, Ltd. Although he’s the head of the agency, he depends crucially on the members of his team. Each of them has special skills and backgrounds that help the agency. There’s Tube Light, his head investigator, who has a special knack with computers. Facecream is a valuable member of the team who can blend in anywhere she goes. She often does undercover work. And there’s Flush, so called because his was the first house in his village to have indoor plumbing. And of course, Puri couldn’t get very far without Handbrake, his driver. Handbrake knows how to blend in with other drivers, street vendors and so on, which helps him get information.

While we often think of PI characters as ‘lone wolves’ – and many are – there are plenty who don’t work alone. Some work with just one partner (like Betty Webb’s Lena Jones). Others are slowly building (like Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe). But there are lots who work for a bigger agency. It’s not a bad choice, especially if you’re new to the field and don’t have your own reputation yet. Or if you haven’t (yet) got the funds to set up for yourself. Which fictional larger agencies have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Ballad of a Well-Known Gun.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Betty Webb, Dashiell Hammett, Dick Francis, K.B. Owen, Sue Grafton, Tarquin Hall