Category Archives: Tana French

There’s a Million Different Voices*

Authors of series use several strategies to keep their series interesting over time. One strategy some authors use is to have different protagonists within the same series. It can be a challenge to balance those different protagonists’ voices with the need for a consistent context for the series. Some authors, though, have done it quite successfully.

Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series makes use of several protagonists’ voices, and that makes sense, as the Garda Síochána’s Murder Squad is a team of people. The first novel, In The Woods, features Rob Ryan. That novel also includes Cassie Maddox, although she plays a less central role. But she takes the ‘starring’ role in the next novel, The Likeness. And, as different members join the squad and leave it, different characters are featured in the novels. And that’s realistic, as in real life, people do join units, transfer, and so on. Among other things, this strategy has allowed French to develop different characters, and provide different perspectives on the crimes that are investigated.

The central protagonist in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Reykjavík series is Inspector Erlendur. He works with a team that includes police detectives Sigurdur Óli and Elínborg. While Erlendur makes many of the decisions, he relies a great deal on his colleagues, and they know that. As the series goes on, they feature more strongly in the novels. In fact, in the ninth and tenth novels in the series, Erlendur doesn’t even appear. His colleagues do the investigation. This strategy allows readers to get to know those characters better, and it allows for story arcs and character development that might otherwise be more difficult. What’s more, it arguably adds interest to the series.

We see a similar thing in Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren series. At the beginning of the series (the first novel is Mind’s Eye), Van Veeteren is the leader of his investigation team. So, several novels feature him in the lead role. But he works with a team of other people, whose work he trusts. As the series goes on, Van Veeteren decides to retire from active police work, and he buys a bookshop. This means that the investigating now needs to be done by other people. And that’s what happens, for instance, in The Unlucky Lottery. In fact, that book’s original title is Münsters Fall (Münster’s Case). In the novel, Intendant Münster does the primary investigation when Valdemar Leverkuhn is murdered in his own bed, just after winning a lottery prize. Later, in The Weeping Girl, another colleague, Ewa Moreno, is the featured protagonist. The original title for that novel is Ewa Morenos Fall (Ewa Morenos’ Case). In it, eighteen-year-old Mikaela Lijphart goes missing. Moreno had met her once and hasn’t forgotten her. So, she gets involved in the case. And she finds that it’s connected to the disappearance of Mikaela’s father, two murders, and some very dark secrets from the past. It’s not that Van Veeteren completely disappears; the other detectives consult with him on a regular, if informal, basis. But the baton is passed, if I may put it like that.

S.J. Rozan has an interesting approach to featuring more than one sleuth as the main protagonist. Her series features two New York PIs. One is Chin Ling Wan-ju, who usually goes by Lydia Chin, the American version of her name. The other is Bill Smith. They’ve got very different backgrounds and are twenty years apart in age. As the series starts (with China Trade), Chin is twenty-seven. She’s from a traditional Chinese family; in fact, her mother would very much rather she give up investigating, meet a Chinese husband, and settle down like a ‘proper’ daughter. Still, she knows Chin will find her own way. For her part, Chin is just as American as she is Chinese. Yet, she respects several of the old traditions, and she works to maintain a solid bond with her mother. Smith is from a military family, so he doesn’t have deep roots. He has his own PI business, and teams up with Chin for some cases. Some of the novels in this series are written from Chin’s point of view, and some from Smith’s. This allows Rozan to explore both characters, and let readers see each from the other’s point of view. It also allows for different sorts of cases and clients.

Fans of Robert Crais’ work know that his main series features two sleuths: Los Angeles PIs Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. They have very different personal styles, communication styles, and outlooks. But they complement one another, and each respects the other’s skills. In the first novels, Elvis Cole is the main protagonist. The stories are told from his perspective, and we see Pike through his eyes. In several of the later novels, though, the stories are told from Pike’s point of view. Readers follow his movements, and Cole is less in the limelight. This strategy has allowed Crais to explore different sorts of cases, and to let his characters develop. Not everyone likes both sets of stories equally, but they have allowed Crais a lot of flexibility.

And that’s an important reason for using different protagonists in a series. It allows flexibility. What’s more, the author can develop characters, introduce a variety of cases, and keep a series engaging.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Traffic’s Hidden Treasure.

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Filed under Arnaldur Indriðason, Håkan Nesser, Robert Crais, S.J. Rozan, Tana French

Sleeping in That Old Abandoned Beach House*

There’s something about abandoned places. They have a certain allure, especially for people inclined to explore. And they often have good stories to tell, too. Since they’re abandoned, such places are also very appealing for people who want to hide evidence of a crime – namely, a body. Perhaps that’s why abandoned places are so appealing for crime writers…

For instance, in John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, we are introduced to Tad Rampole, an American who’s recently finished his university studies. He’s been encouraged by his mentor to visit Dr. Gideon Fell, so he decides to go to the UK. When he gets there, he meets Dorothy Starberth, and the two take a liking to each other. Soon, Rampole finds out more about the Starberths from Fell. It seems that several generations of Starberth men were Governers of nearby Chatterham Prison, which is now disused. The prison is abandoned, but it still plays a role in a Starberth family ritual. On the night of his twenty-fifth birthday, every Starberth male spends the night in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. Now, it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother, Martin. He’s anxious about it, because there seems to be a curse on Starberth males, several of whom have died in strange circumstances. Still, he goes through with the plan. Late that night, Martin Starberth dies in what looks like a horrible accident. But Fell discovers that this death was no accident at all, and works to find out who the killer is.

Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow is the first of his novels to feature Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police. In this novel, he is called in when a body is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. The body is very possibly that of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine, who disappeared five months ago. Cardinal investigated that disappearance, but was never able to find out what happened to the girl. When the body is positively identified as Katie’s, Cardinal has the thankless task of informing her mother, and of re-opening the investigation. In the end, he finds out the truth about Katie and about other disappearances, too.

In Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders, retired Florida judge Sylvia Thorn accompanies her mother and a group of other retirees on a sightseeing trip to Laughlin, Nevada. The group (they call themselves the Florida Flippers) gets involved in a case of murder when the body of an unknown man turns up in the bathtub of one of the group’s hotel rooms. Matters get more complicated when another Florida Flipper goes missing, and is later found dead in an abandoned mine. Now, the Flippers are ‘people of interest’ in a double murder, and Sylvia works to keep them out of trouble, and to find out who the real killer is, and what the motive is.

Tana French’s The Likeness is the second in her Dublin Murder Squad series. In it, a young woman is found stabbed to death in an abandoned house. Cassie Maddox, who’s recently returned to the Murder Squad after some time away, is shocked to discover that the woman is identified as Lexie Madison, an alias Maddox once used. The victim bears a strong resemblance to Maddox, too. Now, the squad has two serious questions. One, of course, is, who killed the victim? The other is about the victim’s identity. Since there never really was a ‘Lexie Madison,’ the squad has to find out who the woman really was, and why she hid her identity. Maddox is persuaded to go undercover as Lexie Madison to find out the truth.

One of the plot threads in Peter James’ Not Dead Yet concerns an unknown man whose body is found in an abandoned chicken coop. The only part of the body that’s been discovered is the torso, so identifying the victim will be a challenge. Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove Police and his team trace the man through his clothes, and find out who he was. And, in the end, they connect this murder with another case they’re working: a superstar whose life’s been threatened. It turns out that someone is willing to stop at nothing to ‘win.’

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? Dublin Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle investigates when the body of an unknown woman is discovered in an empty apartment. Boyle and her team try to trace the victim’s identity through the apartment’s manager and owner, but they don’t get very far at first. Then, another possibility arises. Yvonne Mulhern and her family have recently moved to Dublin from London. She’s a brand-new mother, and at first, has no real support system. She doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, and her relationship with her husband’s family isn’t particularly good. She soon finds solace in Netmammy, an online forum for new mothers. Then, she notices that one of the members has gone ‘off the grid.’ She’s concerned enough to contact the police, but there’s not much they can do. Boyle, though, starts to wonder whether there is a connection between the case she’s investigating, and the disappearance of Yvonne Mulhern’s online friend. If there is, this could have real implications for Netmammy.

There are a lot of other novels, too, in which bodies are found in abandoned houses, apartments, warehouses, and other places. And that makes sense. Hiding a body in an abandoned place gives the fictional killer time to hide any connection with the murder. And it gives the author the opportunity for a really creepy setting.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Backstreets.

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Filed under Giles Blunt, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Stoltey, Peter James, Sinéad Crowley, Tana French

Just the Few of Us*

There are only so many ‘regular’ characters an author can weave into a series without confusing readers. That’s why, even in crime fiction series that are set in large cities, there’s a relatively small group of ‘focus characters.’ That’s just as true of police procedurals as it is of other sorts of series.

It’s easy enough when a series takes place in a small town. Such places may only have one police station with a relatively small number of people who work there. It’s a bit trickier for series that take places in larger cities. Readers couldn’t, for instance, keep track of every fictional police officer in Sydney, Toronto, London, Los Angeles or Moscow. So, how do authors face this challenge?

Some focus on one geographic area. For example, Ed McBain’s long-running police procedural series mostly features the police who serve in the 87th Precinct of Isola, a thinly-disguised New York City. That precinct has a limited number of officers, and serves a limited geographic area. Fans of the series know that there are occasional forays into other parts of the city. But, because the 87th is a finite group, it’s easier to keep track of Steve Carella and the rest of his team. The reader isn’t faced with the challenge of trying to remember the thousands of fictional police officers who might actually serve in such a large city.

Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series also has a geographic focus: New York City’s Chinatown. Yu was born and raised in that part of the city, and in Chinatown Beat, he’s stationed there. The series does see him temporarily assigned to other places, but he basically stays in Chinatown. This allows readers to get to know the area, as well as the various characters with whom Yu usually interacts. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Jean-Baptsite Adamsberg will know that that series, too, focuses on one small geographic part of Paris.

That’s certainly not the only way to address the challenge, though. Some authors focus on just one department (such as Robbery, Homicide, etc.). That’s what Michael Connelly does with his Harry Bosch novels. Fans of this series will know that Bosch has been a member of several L.A.P.D. departments. He’s been a part of Robbery/Homicide, Open/Unsolved, and Homicide Special, among others. This choice has given Connelly (and his readers) some real advantages. One is that, as Bosch works with one team (say, Open/Unsolved), readers get to know that team, and don’t have to try to remember the many other members of other teams. As the series has gone on, and Bosch has been with other departments, it’s kept the series from being restricted to only one small group. This has allowed for different sorts of plots and characters.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss also works with a departmental team. She is a member of the Göteborg/Gothenberg Police‘s Violent Crimes Unit. It’s a relatively small unit, with a focus just on murder and other violent crimes. This choice has allowed Tursten to develop her characters over time, as different members of the department evolve. It’s also allowed (as happens naturally) for members to leave and join.

The same thing’s true of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad. That team, has a small number of members. So, we get to know them. And different members of the squad ‘star’ in the different novels of the series. So, as members leave, join, and so on, we get to see how the team operates in the real world of a large city like Dublin.

Sometimes, police teams are gathered for a specific purpose. For example, at one point, P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh heads up a squad set up specifically for investigations that are likely to attract a lot of media attention. That’s the case in A Taste For Death, when Crown Minister Paul Berowne is murdered. He’s well known and ‘well-born,’ so of course the media take note when he’s killed. The squad, which consists of Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham, and DI Kate Miskin is assigned to the case. They slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together, and find that this is as much about the victim’s private life as it is about his public life.

There’s also Jussi Adler-Olsen’s ‘Department Q.’ Part of the Copenhagen police force, Department Q is tasked with cases ‘of special interest.’ It was set up in part to appease the government’s (and the public’s) demand that the police show they’re looking into all cases, even those that have ‘gone cold.’ This group is headed by Carl Mørck, a homicide detective who has a reputation of being difficult. In fact, he’s so hard to work with that that’s the reason he was given the department in the first place – to keep him off others’ teams. Mørck is crusty and sometimes truculent. And the department has few resources and only a very few members. But the team gets the job done.

And then there’s Christopher Fowler’s London-based Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). That group, led by Arthur Bryant and John May, is tasked with solving strange crimes that the regular police homicide units haven’t been able to solve. It’s a very small group, but that makes it easier for readers to follow the team and get to know the members well.

These small units, whether they’re based on geography, on department, or on special assignment, allow the author to develop characters. And they make it much easier for readers to follow along and keep track of those characters. I’ve only mentioned a few; which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s It Takes Two.

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Filed under Christopher Fowler, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, Henry Chang, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Connelly, P.D. James, Tana French

Standing on My Own Two Feet*

One of the writing projects I’m working on right now is a standalone that features one of the characters from my second Joel Williams novel, B-Very Flat. It’s a bit of a risk. After all, it’s one thing for a character to appear – even to have an important role – in a novel. It’s quite another for that character to feature in the lead role.

And yet, there are cases where it’s done successfully. And sometimes, that character has enough backstory, personality, and so on to make a novel (or even a new series) interesting. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

K.B. Owen’s historical (end of the 19th Century) series (which begins with Dangerous and Unseemly) features Concordia Wells, who teaches at Hartford Women’s College. It’s not so much that she’s overly eager to investigate and solve crimes. And in her world, ‘proper’ ladies do not interest themselves in something as sordid as murder. But she is curious, and she does want to see justice done. So, she gets drawn into mysteries. One of the characters we meet in that series is Penelope Hamilton Wynch, a former operative for Pinkerton’s. She serves as a mentor for Concordia, but she doesn’t ‘star’ in that series. Still, she’s an interesting character in her own right. So, Owen decided to give Penelope her own series. That series, which begins with Never Sleep, starts some thirty years before the Concordia Wells series. It tells the story of Penelope’s work with Pinkerton’s and details some of her cases.

Henning Mankell is perhaps best known for his series featuring Ystad police detective Kurt Wallander. Fans of that series will know that Wallander has a daughter, Linda, with whom he has a complicated relationship. As the series goes on, she begins to come into her own as a character. In fact, Mankell planned a three-novel series in which she was to be the protagonist. The first novel, Before the Frost, was published in 2002. But, tragically, Johanna Sällström, who took the role of Linda Wallander in the Swedish television series, died in 2007, probably by suicide. Her death had a real impact on Mankell, and he never finished the trilogy. It would have been interesting to see Linda’s character develop over time if he had.

Michael Connelly took a very interesting approach to giving a character a ‘spinoff’ series. Fans will know that Connelly’s Harry Bosch is a homicide detective for the L.A.P.D. He is the son of Marjorie Lowe, who was a prostitute, and prominent attorney J. Michael ‘Mickey’ Haller. Bosch never met his father, and his mother was murdered when he was a boy. So, he grew up mostly in a children’s home. In The Black Ice, Connelly shares a flashback in which Bosch discovers who his father is, and learns that he is dying. He decides to pay his father a visit, and, later attends his funeral. Bosch also learns that he has a half brother several years younger:
 

‘The half brother was now a top defense attorney and Harry was a cop. There was a strange congruence to that that Bosch found acceptable. They had never spoken and probably never would.’
 

That half brother turns out to be Mickey Haller, whom we later meet in The Lincoln Lawyer. He has his own backstory, including two ex-wives, a daughter, and his own history with his father. Since The Lincoln Lawyer, Haller has appeared in eight other Connelly novels, and ‘starred’ in five of them. He’s certainly become very much his own character, and fans will tell you that he carries that series quite well.

Tana French has also taken an interesting approach to giving some of her characters their own stories. Her Dublin Murder Squad series includes (thus far) six novels. The first two feature Cassie Maddox (although In the Woods really ‘stars’ Rob Ryan). In the second, The Likeness, we’re introduced to Frank Mackey, who is the main protagonist in the next novel, Faithful Place. That sort of shifting of main characters happens in the other novels, too. In real life, police detectives do move in and out of assignments. They join and leave squads, and so on. It makes sense that that would happen in this series, too, and that’s how French has chosen to write it.

And then there’s Kathy Reichs’ Temperance ‘Tempe’ Brennan. She’s a forensic anthropologist who’s moved from North Carolina to Montréal, where she’s called in when the bodies of murder victims can’t easily be identified. Fans will tell you that, along with her professional work, Brennan also has family issues that sometimes come up. And one of those family members is her grand-niece, Tory. Tory doesn’t really play a role in this series, but she does in another series that Reichs has written with her son, Benjamin. That four-book YA series, called the Virals series, tells the story of a group of young people who live in South Carolina. The novels have elements of the speculative (the young people, for instance, acquire special powers through a mysterious infection they get in the first novel). The focus, though, is on the mysteries that they solve.

There are all sorts of ways in which a character in one novel or series can end as the main character in another. It is a bit tricky to do that, as that character has to be strong enough to take the lead. When it works, though, it can make for an interesting new direction for an author.

ps. The picture shows just how well spin-offs can work on television…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jean Beauvoir.

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Filed under Henning Mankell, K.B. Owen, Kathy Reichs, Michael Connelly, Tana French

In The Spotlight: Tana French’s In the Woods

>In The Spotlight: Carl Hiaasen's Skinny DipHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Tana French has gotten international acclaim for her series featuring the Dublin Murder Squad. It’s about time this feature included one of her novels, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on In the Woods, the first in this series.

The Garda Síochána’s Murder Squad is called in when the body of twelve-year-old Katy Devlin is found at the site of an archaeological dig near the small town of Knocknaree, in County Dublin. Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox take the case and begin the investigation.

For Ryan, this is a homecoming, since he was brought up in the same town. It’s a homecoming in other, more chilling ways, too. Twenty-two years before Katy’s murder, Ryan himself was one of three local children who went into the nearby woods to play one evening. Only Ryan was found, injured, but alive, and he has no memory of what happened to the two other children who were with him. Despite a massive search, no trace of the other two children has ever been found, and Ryan’s never been able to be much help.

Maddox, who’s one of the few people who know about her partner’s past, wonders whether Ryan can be objective about the Katy Devlin case, but he insists he can do the job. So, the two get busy on the present-day investigation.

As you can imagine, Maddox and Ryan start with the Devlin family. Immediately they sense that there is something wrong with this family. On the surface, it seems like a normal (if there is such a thing) middle-class family, but several hints suggest something else. Still, there is nothing tangible to connect any member of the family with Katy’s death.

Besides, there are other possibilities. For instance, there is a local conflict over a motorway that’s planned for the area. The road will go right over the archaeological site, and there’s a lot of objection to its placement. In fact, Jonathan Devlin is the chair of the Move the Motorway campaign. He’s gotten his share of threatening telephone calls, and it’s possible that someone might have targeted Katy because of the campaign.

There’s also the members of the dig crew. Katy had been seen at the dig site, and two of the people who work it actually reported her body. So, the Murder Squad has to consider the crew, as well.

And then there’s the fact that there are very few murders in that area. There are even fewer murders of children. So, there’s the chance that the older disappearances – the ones that involved Rob Ryan – are related to Katy’s murder. This possibility has to be explored, too, and that means Ryan has to face his own past. He can’t remember much about what happened, so he tries to help himself to access those memories. Little by little, we find out what really happened to Katy. And the truth turns out to be more complex than Maddox or Ryan had imagined.

This is a police procedural, and that context is an important element in the novel. Readers follow along as Maddox, Ryan and colleague Sam O’Neill make sense of evidence, interview witnesses, and so on. We also see just how intense such an investigation is. Maddox and Ryan are already friends (‘though not lovers, as the gossip sometimes suggests). During this investigation, they and O’Neill spend days and nights together, going over the case, reading reports, and the like. Although it’s cliché, you might say they live and breathe the case, and it draws them into a sort of 24-hour relationship. There’s a lot of camaraderie between Maddox and Ryan, and some funny ‘inside jokes’ that they share.

It’s also worth noting that, as the Murder Squad series continues, the composition of the squad changes. There are personnel shifts, just as there are in real-life police squads. In that sense, the depiction of the squad over time is authentic.

Another element in the novel is the setting for most of it. The story takes place in modern small-town Ireland. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone has an opinion on the Devlin case. There are still people living there who remember the older case, too. As the team investigates, readers get a look at what life is like in a small Irish town.

The story is told from Ryan’s point of view (first person, past tense). So, we also get to know his character, as well as his perspective on Cassie Maddox. He’s been profoundly impacted by what happened to him as a child, although he doesn’t remember much. And yet, he’s not debilitated by it. Coming back to Knocknaree doesn’t send him into emotional paralysis, but it’s obvious that he feels both a connection to, and a real distance from, the place and its people. It’s not spoiling the story, either, to say that we learn about the events and the people involved from Ryan. And that’s only one perspective on everything.

This is a story about two cases involving children. Readers who dislike stories in which children are harmed, or at risk, will want to know this. That said, though, there aren’t drawn-out ‘on stage’ scenes of terrible violence.

This isn’t a story with what you’d call a happy ending. Knowing what really happened to Katy Devlin certainly doesn’t bring her back. And the truth doesn’t bring peace and healing to the community. Readers who prefer light, cosy mysteries will notice this. Still, we do learn Katy’s story, so there is closure in that sense.

In The Woods is the story of the devastation that a tragedy can bring to a family, and the effects, even years later, of trauma. It introduces a smart, dedicated group of police investigators, and takes place in a distinctive context. But what’s your view? Have you read In the Woods? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 13 February/Tuesday, 14 February – The Hidden Man – Robin Blake

Monday, 20 February/Tuesday, 21 February – China Lake – Meg Gardiner

Monday, 27 February/Tuesday, 28 February – River of Darkness – Rennie Airth

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Filed under In The Woods, Tana French