Category Archives: Thomas Harris

I’ve Seen the Film, I’ve Read the Book*

As this is posted, it’s 77 years since the release of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. There are differences between the film and the Dashiell Hammett story on which it’s based; and, for many people the film has eclipsed the story. When a lot of people think of Sam Spade, they think of Humphrey Bogart, and the events in the film, rather than the original story. And there are, of course, many people who’ve seen the film, but haven’t read the original story. For them, the film is the story.

And that’s not the only case where that’s happened. There are many stories and novels where the film adaptation has become at least as well-known and well-regarded as the original story – in some cases, even more so. In the hands of a skilled director, the characters can come alive for viewers. And, if the director evokes the story effectively (even if some things, or a lot of things, are changed), the effect can be a very strong film. For those who prefer to experience their crime fiction on screen rather than in a book, this can make some of those classic stories more easily available.

For example, Alfred Hitchock’s 1963 film The Birds is based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story of the same name. While many people have read Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and perhaps some of du Maurier’s other work, that particular short story was arguably eclipsed by the film. Millions of people have seen the film, and some consider it one of Hitchock’s best efforts. It’s said that du Maurier didn’t like the adaptation at all, and the adaptation is quite different to the original story. Even though it isn’t much like the short story that inspired it, there was something about that screen version that captured people’s attention. And Hitchcock fans know that that’s not the only example of his paying tribute to a novel or a short story.

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film The Godfather is, as you’ll know, based on Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel of the same name. The Puzo novel was very well-received and remained a top seller for quite a long time. The film adaptation had, perhaps, an even wider reach. It’s been said that it’s one of the greatest films made, and it’s certainly become a part of our culture. For many, many people, when they think of Michael Corleone, they think of Al Pacino. When they think of Don Vito Corleone, they think of Marlon Brando. That’s especially true if they’ve seen the film, but not read the book.

We might say a similar thing about Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel, The Silence of the Lambs, and Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film adaptation of the same name.  The original novel was well-received, to quite a lot of critical and commercial acclaim. But, for many people, Hannibel Lecter ‘came alive’ when they saw the film. Arguably, the film medium allowed for several ‘jolts’ and visual impact that the book didn’t. And plenty of people believe that Anthony Hopkins had the role of his career as Lecter. And perhaps that’s part of the reason for which the film, as much as the novel (perhaps more?) has become a big part of our culture.

Several of Stephen King’s novels (Carrie, The Shining, and Misery, to name just three) have been adapted for the screen. Of course, the novels themselves have been critically praised and commercially successful in and of themselves. But the films have also garnered very wide audiences. This might be one of the cases where the film and the book are about equal in terms of their followings. Even so, it shows how much reach a well-done film can have.

I’m sure that you can think of many other examples – more than I could – of films that equal or eclipse the book in terms of reach. Even if, like me, you generally prefer the book to the film, there are some cases where the film medium allows for nuances that the book may not. There are also cases where the film gets to the heart of the story in the way that the book may not.

But there may be other factors, too. For example, an actor may be an inspired choice to play a character and may carry off the role brilliantly. I’ll bet you can think of several cases where a particular actor is a character to you. I know I can. This has a way of making a film memorable. Or, there may be a certain scene in a film that’s a bit harder to depict in writing, and that makes a film stay with the viewer.

What do you think? Are there films you’ve seen that eclipsed the book for you (if you’ve experienced both)? Have you seen films that then inspired you to read the book? Certainly, The Maltese Falcon is an integral part of film culture, and it’s gotten woven into the larger culture, too. How do you think that happens?


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


Filed under Alfred Hitchcock, Daphne du Maurier, Dashiell Hammett, Francis Ford Coppola, John Huston, Jonathan Demme, Mario Puzo, Stephen King, Thomas Harris

Everything Has Got a Little Price*

Witnesses and suspects don’t always want to give police information they may have. There are many reasons for that – more than there is space for in this one post. So, I’ll just focus on one: a witness or suspect may want to get something out of any agreement to give information. In other words, information is a commodity to be traded.

Detectives (well, at least fictional ones) make all sorts of arrangements with sources of information. Some are formal, as in cases where a suspect makes a plea bargain to give information in order to get a reduced sentence. A lot, though, are less formal (e.g. ‘You know, I’d really love a beer right about now.’) And we see them all through crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker. On the surface of it, there seems no reason for anyone to kill her, so this isn’t going to be an easy case. As a part of the investigation, Poirot visits the Tucker family, where he speaks with her parents. As he’s leaving the house, he has a conversation with Marlene’s younger sister, Marilyn. Among other things, she tells Poirot that Marlene had extra money to buy things she wanted. Here’s what happens next:

“Tell me, how did Marlene get the money to buy these things?’
Marilyn looked with close attention at a drainpipe.
‘Dunno,’ she muttered.
‘I think you do know,’ said Poirot.
Shamelessly he drew out a half-crown from his pocket and added another half-crown to it.
‘I believe,’ he said, ‘there is a new, very attractive shade of lipstick called ‘Carmine Kiss.'”
‘Sounds smashing,’ said Marilyn, her hand advanced towards the five shillings.’

With this ‘agreement’ made, Marilyn tells Poirot what she knows about Marlene’s source of money, and it helps in solving this case.

In Michael Connelly’s Echo Park, Raynard Waits is arrested for two brutal murders. There’s no question that he’s guilty, as he was caught with the grisly evidence of what he’d done. Now, he’s in prison facing execution. He offers to trade the police information on other cases in exchange for his sentence being commuted to life in prison. One of those cases is the disappearance of Marie Gesto, who walked out of a Hollywood supermarket one day, and never made it back home. LAPD detective Harry Bosch investigated the Gesto case but was never able to get the evidence he needed to go after the right suspect. He’s always felt guilty about the fact that he didn’t solve the case, so he decides to work with Waits.

In Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lamb, the FBI is looking for a killer they’ve nicknamed ‘Buffalo Bill,’ and they think they have a way to find him. His former psychiatrist is Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and he could provide very helpful information. But Lecter is imprisoned in the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane. And he’s there for very good reasons. FBI trainee Clarice Starling is chosen to go to the hospital and try to get Lecter to help with the investigation. She’s by no means universally accepted as the right choice, but she visits Lecter. He agrees to help the FBI, but he asks a high price. For everything he tells Starling, she must reveal a personal secret. It’s a risky psychological undertaking, and it doesn’t help matters that there’s a killer out there. But Starling goes through with the agreement. And the ‘cat and mouse’ game between her and Lecter adds to the tension in the novel.

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo features journalist Mikael Blomqvist. In one plot thread, he’s been successfully sued for libel by Swedish industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. With his magazine, Millennium, in danger of folding, Blomqvist needs financial support. Then, he gets a very tempting offer from Henrik Vanger, who’s also been very successful. Vanger offers to give Blomqvist information that will bring down Wennerström and put Millennium back on solid financial ground. In return for that information, he wants Blomqvist to solve the forty-year-old disappearance of his grand-niece, Harriet. It’s not going to be an easy task, since so much time has passed. And several people who might know something are unwilling to talk. But Blomqvist agrees to the deal, and he and his research assistant, Lisbeth Salander, look into the case.

And then there’s Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart. In it, we meet Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty, an ex-pat American who’s now living in Bangkok. He makes his living as a rough travel writer. But he’s also quite good at finding people, whether or not they want to be found. And that’s what Clarissa Ulrich hires him to do. She hasn’t heard from her Uncle Claus in several months, and she’s concerned about him. Rafferty agrees to look into the matter and starts to ask questions. The trail leads to an intimidating, enigmatic older woman named Madame Wing. She agrees to give Rafferty some of the information he needs. But this comes with a price. He must agree to do a job for her. Madame Wing claims that some valuable property has been stolen from her. She wants Rafferty to find that property, and to locate the man who stole it. Rafferty needs the information Madame Wing has, so he agrees. This adds another case to his burden, and a great deal more danger to his investigation.

Fictional detectives often need information that others might be unwilling to provide. And sometimes, they make all sorts of arrangements to get it. These are only a few examples. I know you’ll think of lots more.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Master of the House.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Michael Connelly, Stieg Larsson, Thomas Harris, Timothy Hallinan

I Can’t Do What Ten People Tell Me to Do*

An interesting comment exchange with crime writer and fellow blogger E. Michael Helms has got me thinking about the sorts of stories authors write. On the one hand, authors have ideas for stories they want to tell, and ways in which they’d like to tell them. On the other, there’s the reality of what publishers, editors, and readers want.

For understandable reasons, many publishers concentrate on themes and sub-genres that are selling well. And that can mean that there’s pressure on authors to write books in those sub-genres and with those themes. For instance, after the success of Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, the serial killer novel became very popular, and a number of writers created books that featured serial killers. And there are plenty of readers who enjoy serial killer novels. There’d been novels featuring serial killers since long before the publication of Harris’ novel. But after that novel became a best-seller, it’s no surprise that publishers saw what the market was buying, and that most likely had an impact on what authors wrote.

At the beginning of the Golden Age of crime fiction, there were established ‘rules’ (S.S. Van Dine, anyone?) for writing a whodunit. Some of those rules (such as the ones related to ‘playing fair’ with the reader) still make sense. But those rules arguably made for the expectation of a certain sort of plot, certain sorts of suspects, and the like. And books like that were (at least at the time) successful. Some of Agatha Christie’s first work, for instance, followed the expectations publishers and readers had for whodunits. Of course, as Christie fans can tell you, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd flouted those rules. And so did several other novels she wrote. What’s interesting is that she got a lot of criticism at the time for not writing the sort of novel everyone expected her to write.

There’ve been many highly talented Scandinavian writers whose work’s been out there for a while and been well-regarded. But with the success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, Scandinavian crime fiction became more and more popular worldwide. This arguably meant that a lot of Scandinavian authors who hadn’t gotten as much notice were now getting more attention, and in that sense, the push for more Scandinavian crime fiction was a positive thing for the sub-genre. It also meant more pressure for translation, and that’s had an impact, too.

With the success of novels such as Julia Crouch’s (e.g. Cuckoo and The Long Fall), publishers began to see that people wanted to read what we now call domestic noir.  There was an eager market for novels that explored the dysfunction that can take place in families. This meant that people who wrote domestic noir had more opportunities for sales and visibility. And it wouldn’t be surprising to me if it also meant that there was more pressure to create that sort of a plot. After all, lots of people do enjoy reading domestic noir.

We might say a similar thing about some of the other trends that we’ve seen in crime fiction. For instance, once publishers saw that dysfunctional main characters (I’m thinking, for instance, of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor) were selling well, there might easily have been pressure on authors to create characters like that. And many people do enjoy reading about them.

And that’s the thing. When publishers offer books that people want to read, we could argue that’s a very positive outcome of paying attention to what sells. And, of course, it’s good for business. So, on several levels, certain kinds of pressure on authors isn’t at all surprising.

I wonder, though, what sort of impact that has on people who don’t write books that follow best-sellers’ models? If an author is already very successful, it may not have as much impact. But for ‘no-names,’ it may very well mean that there’s a lot of pressure to do a certain sort of character, or novel.

It’s important to note that, no matter what sub-genre, main character, or plot line an author chooses, the key is to write an engaging story that readers want. That’s arguably the secret behind the success of authors like Christie, who created well-enough written stories that people stopped caring whether they followed the ‘official’ rules. I’m sure you could list dozens more authors, both classic/Golden-Age and more modern, who’ve done the same thing. A well-written story is a well-written story.

That said, though, I do think about the impact of best-seller topics and lists on writers. After all, if you want to sell a lot of books, you need to write books that publishers want to market. And you want to write what people want to read. Does that influence what you write?

If you’re a writer, how do you balance writing what you really want to write with the reality of what publishers say and the market says? If you’re a publisher, how do you leave the proverbial door open for writers who do something different, but still respect your need to make smart business decisions?

Thanks, Michael, for the inspiration. Now, folks, speaking of good writing, may I suggest you check out Michael’s blog. And do try his ‘Mac’ McClellan novels. You won’t regret it.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay.


Filed under Agatha Christie, E. Michael Helms, Julia Crouch, Ken Bruen, S.S. Van Dine, Stieg Larsson, Thomas Harris

Many a Thing She Ought to Understand*

Many people begin their careers as trainees. They’re supposed to watch and learn, and they’re supposed to do as they’re asked. Of course, each situation is a little different; but, for instance, student teachers are limited in the amount of autonomy they have for much of their student teaching experience. Medical students are supposed to work only under the close eye of their supervising doctor. There are, of course, lots of other examples.

It’s not easy to be a trainee, if you think about it. You may have brilliant ideas, but you still have to learn how things are done, you still have to work with others, and you still have to be open to doing an awful lot of learning. It can be awkward, uncomfortable, and even disheartening at times, especially when you make a big mistake. But it’s a really important time in professional development. And it’s interesting how often this context shows up in crime fiction.

For instance, Robin Cook’s first major novel, Coma, is the story of a third-year medical student, Susan Wheeler, who is in training at Boson Memorial Hospital. When she discovers some patients went into comas during their surgeries, she begins to ask questions. She soon learns that this was the result of tampering with the patients’ oxygen lines and looks into the matter further. As she does, she finds herself in grave danger, as there are some ugly truths she uncovers. This is a thriller, but it also depicts the lives of medical students and their supervisors. Admittedly, the book was published in 1977, and there have been many changes in medicine in the last 40 years or so. But the essential roles the characters play, and the uncertainties and challenges of being a trainee, haven’t changed that much.

In Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, we are introduced to FBI trainee Clarice Starling. The FBI is looking for a serial killer they’ve dubbed ‘Buffalo Bill,’ and they think they have a way to find him. He is a former patient of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a noted, gifted psychiatrist. But Lecter is currently imprisoned in Baltimore’s State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. So, anyone who interacts with him may be at risk. Starling is chosen for the job, which does not exactly thrill some people who think that a trainee is not the right choice for this assignment. Still, she takes up her duties, and goes to visit Lecter. The two begin a dialogue, and Lecter agrees to help the FBI with the search for ‘Buffalo Bill.’ But he imposes a condition. For everything he tells Starling, she will have to share a personal secret. It’s a risky psychological game as the two pursue their agendas, and it doesn’t help matters that there’s still a killer on the loose.

Pablo De Santis’ Enigma of Paris introduces us to Sigmundo Salvatrio, son of a Buenos Aires shoemaker. He wants more than anything to be a detective, so he is thrilled to learn that he’s been accepted at the Academy for Detectives, run by world-famous detective Renato Craig. Craig is the co-founder of an international group of detectives known as The Twelve, and this group is scheduled to make a presentation at the upcoming Paris World’s Fair of 1889. Illness forces Craig to cancel his plans to attend the event, so he sends Salvatrio in his place. Salvatrio meets the other members of The Twelve, including the group’s other founder, Viktor Arkazy. Then, another member, Louis Dargon, is murdered, and Salvatrio works with Arkazy to find the killer. Throughout the novel, we see the roles that Salvatrio and the other detectives’ apprentices play, and how those roles are impacted by their trainee status.

We first meet Tony Hillerman’s Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito in The Fallen Man. In that novel, she is a rookie trainee in the Navajo Tribal Police’s Special Investigations Unit. In one plot thread of this story, the unit is tasked with getting to the truth about a series of cattle thefts. On the one hand, Manuelito knows very well that she is ‘the new kid,’ and has a lot to learn. On other, she learns some important things about the case, and decides to take some initiative. And, in the end, the unit learns who is responsible for the thefts. Manuelito’s need to balance her role as a trainee with her desire to solve the case reflects the dilemmas that many trainees may have. On the one hand, they’re supposed to watch, learn, take advice, and so on. On the other, they also need to learn to take initiative and make choices.

Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure begins as paramedic Carly Martens and her teammate for the day, Aidan Simpson, are called to the scene of what looks like a domestic dispute between Connor Crawford and his wife, Suzanne. They reassure the paramedics that all is well, although Suzanne has an injury. She insists that it’s minor, and that she’ll be fine, so the paramedics have little choice but to leave. The next day, Suzanne is brutally murdered, and Connor goes missing. New South Wales Police detectives Ella Marconi and Dennis Orchard investigate, and they find what the paramedics have to say is very useful. In one plot thread of this novel, we learn more about Aidan Simpson. He is a trainee, so he’s been assigned to work with different partners on a rotating basis to complete his training. But it’s not working out well. He is smug, arrogant, and unwilling to listen to what anyone says. What’s worse, he is inept. Both Martens and her regular partner, Mick Schultz, have tried to help Simpson fit in and learn his job. But he isn’t willing to try to learn. And that forms a thread in this novel.

And then there’s Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. Lucy Howard is a probationer with the Tasmania Police. She’s smart, and willing to do the work that it takes to learn the job. She’s lucky, too. Her boss is Sergeant John White, who wants her to do well. In fact, one afternoon, the police get called to the scene of a home invasion, and White taps Howard to go with him. For her, the prospect is nerve-wracking, but she is also flattered, and she wants very much to do the job well. Tragically, White is murdered at the crime scene, while he is at the back of the home, and Howard at the front. As the police deal with this death, and with the investigation, Lucy has to face her own feelings of guilt at not being able to save her boss.

It’s never easy to be a trainee. There’s so much to learn, there’s the social fitting-in, and there’s anxiety about doing the job well. That context can be challenging in real life, but it makes for a solid context for a crime novel.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Maria.


Filed under Katherine Howell, Pablo De Santis, Robin Cook, Thomas Harris, Tony Hillerman, Y.A. Erskine

I’m Shackled and Sentenced to the Ball and Chain*

There’s a good reason most people don’t want to go to prison. A prison record damages one’s job prospects (as well as other life prospects). And prison is not a pleasant place, even if it’s got decent living conditions, food, and so on. In fact, some prisons can be downright eerie.

Whatever you think of prisons and prison systems in real life, fictional prisons can be effective settings for novels, or for scenes in novels. For one thing, it’s realistic that a crime novel would have prison scenes. After all, crime and prison go together, if I may put it that way. For another, prison scenes allow for tension and suspense, as well as interesting interactions among characters.

Prison scenes play a major role in John Grisham’s The Chamber. The State of Mississippi is about to execute Sam Cayhall for the 1968 murder of Marvin Kramer. His case is taken pro bono by a Chicago law firm that sends one of their attorneys, Adam Hall, to handle the matter. Hall is actually Cayhall’s grandson, and he works as hard as he can to get a stay of execution. For him, Cayhall is a living link to the family history that Hall doesn’t know. As Hall visits his grandfather in prison, we get a look at what life on death row is like. And we also learn, bit by bit, the Cayhall family history.

There are some very eerie prison scenes in Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a noted, gifted psychiatrist who is also a dangerous serial killer. He’s imprisoned in Baltimore’s State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which is a prison in its own way. When another killer, whom the FBI has dubbed ‘Buffalo Bill,’ starts claiming victims, trainee agent Clarice Starling is sent to the hospital to interview Lecter. It turns out that ‘Buffalo Bill’ was once a patient of Lecter’s so it’s believed that he might be able to shed some light on this killer. There are some very eerie scenes as Starling goes into the prison and starts to talk to Lecter. He agrees to help in the search for this murderer, but he imposes a condition. For everything he tells Starling, she will have to share a personal secret. It becomes a dangerous psychological game, and adds to the stress of hunting for ‘Buffalo Bill.’

In Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink, we are introduced to Lucy Khambule, a Johannesburg publicist. She’s at a sort of crossroads in her job, and is trying to decide what her next steps will be when she gets a call from Napoleon Dingiswayo. He’s in a maximum-security prison after being convicted of a series of horrific murders. At first, Lucy is surprised to get this call. But then, she is reminded that she had written to Napoleon when he was first imprisoned (at the time, she was in journalism and wanted a story). Now, Napoleon wants to meet her, and asks her to consider writing a book about him. The opportunity to do a book proves irresistible, and Lucy agrees to the meeting. Things don’t go as planned, though, First, it’s soon clear that Napoleon is falling for her, which makes Lucy extremely uncomfortable, although she can see how he would be attractive to women. Then, soon after they start working together, some horrible, violent things start to happen. Napoleon is behind bars in a maximum-security facility, so there’s no way he could be responsible for what’s happening. But if he’s not, then who is? And what might he know that he’s not telling? There are several prison scenes as Lucy slowly starts to get to the truth. And some of them are eerie.

In Alison Joseph’s Line of Sight, Sister Agnes Bourdillon has been seconded to Silworth, a London women’s prison, where she’ll work in its Roman Catholic chaplaincy. She’s gotten settled in, and is getting to know several of the inmates and work with them. Then, one of her charges, Cally Fisher, gets the news that her father, Cliff, has been shot. The most likely suspect is her boyfriend, Mel, and there’s evidence against him. But Cally believes that he’s innocent, and asks Sister Agnes to help her clear his name. Sister Agnes agrees, and starts to ask some questions. She soon learns that there are several people who might have had a good reason to want to kill the victim. Throughout the novel, readers get a look at what a modern UK women’s prison is like. There’s the inevitable paperwork and bureaucracy, including the process for gaining access to the prison as a visitor. There are alliances and conflicts (some of them serious) among the women, and so on. It’s not a nice place to be, and Joseph makes that clear.

There’s also John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, the first of his Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels. Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police, and a devout Buddhist. In the main plot thread of the novel, he and FBI agent Kimberly Jones search for the killer of a former US Marine named William Bradley. It all starts when Sonchai and his police partner, Pichai Apiradee, tail a Mercedes. When they catch up to it, Bradley is already dead, most likely from the bite of poisonous snakes locked in the car with him. When one of the snakes also kills Pinchai, Sonchai is determined to find Bradley’s (and his friend’s) killer. At one point, Sonchai goes to visit the man who comes closest to a father figure to him. This man, Fritz von Staffen, is in Bang Kwan prison, which is,

‘A fortress with a watchtower and guards armed with machine guns, surrounded by double perimeter walls, the stench of rotten sewage as we passed through the first gate, and the spiritual stench of violence, sadism, and rotten souls as we passed into the inhabited part of the prison.’

And the prisoners, including Fritz, are deeply impacted by the environment.

David Whish-Wilson has experience teaching in prisons, and that comes through in Line of Sight. In that novel, Perth Superintendent Frank Swann searches for the murderer of an old friend, Ruby Devine. He finds the job difficult, though, because he’s called a Royal Commission hearing into corruption on the police force. So, he’s a ‘dead man walking’ as far as the police are concerned. And plenty of civilians don’t want to help, either. Still, bit by bit, Swann gets answers. At one point, he pays a visit to a prisoner named Ray Hergenhan, who he hopes will give him some ‘inside information. The prison Ray’s in is a very grim, hopeless sort of place. But Ray’s survived so far. He provides some useful information to Swann, too.

Prisons can be eerie and grim, but they are a part of the justice system. So, it makes sense that they would be a part of crime fiction, too. These are only a few examples. Over to you.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Dropkick Murphys’ Prisoner’s Song.


Filed under Alison Joseph, Angela Makholwa, David Whish-Wilson, John Burdett, John Grisham, Thomas Harris