Category Archives: Tony Hillerman

And I’m a Little Bit Older Now*

One of the important decisions that authors of series need to make is whether, and how quickly, their main characters will age. There are some good reasons not to have characters age. But there are also some strong arguments for letting characters age in more or less real time.

For one thing, we all age. So, we can identify with main characters who get older – it’s realistic. For another thing, as we age, different things happen in our lives (from beginning of career, through height of career, through retirement; from newlyweds, through raising children, through having grandchildren). This gives the author a number of possibilities for adding plot points, characters, and so on.

Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford age in real time, and that makes for several possibilities for plots. In The Secret Adversary and in the Partners in Crime collection, they are young, energetic, and adventurous. And that’s part of what draws them into the espionage business. In N or M? and By the Pricking of My Thumbs, they’re middle-aged. They’re more experienced, their children have grown, and they go about their cases differently. In Postern of Fate, they’ve retired. They’re older, with grandchildren, and take a different attitude towards life to what they did as a young couple. Fans of this series like the fact that they can see how the Beresfords change over time as they age. It adds appeal to their characters.

That’s arguably also true of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. When we first meet her, in Deadly Appearances, she’s middle-aged, the mother of a university-bound daughter and two younger sons. She’s moving to the top of her career as an academician and political scientist, and still coping with the death of her husband, Ian. As the series goes on, Joanne ages, as we all do, in real time. Her children grow, leave home, and make their own lives. She adopts another child, who also grows up and gets ready to leave home. She marries again, moves into retirement, and learns the joys of grandparenting. Other things happen in her home life, too, and they all fit in with what happens as people move in life and get older. That natural aging process makes Joanne an accessible, realistic character; her life reflects what happens to real people.

Tony Hillerman’s Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn ages, too, over the course of the novels that feature him. In the early novels, such as The Blessing Way, Leaphorn is a young man. He’s active, he has stamina, and so on. And the cases he investigates fit with that sort of a detective. As the series moves on, Leaphorn ages. As he does, he rises a bit in the ranks of the Navajo Tribal Police (now the Navajo Nation Police). He and his wife, Emmy, approach middle age together, and later, he copes with her death. In the later novels, Leaphorn has retired from active duty, but still occasionally lends his expertise. It’s an interesting transition through the course of the novels, and it makes his character believable.

Michael Connelly has made more or less the same decision about his main character, Harry Bosch. As the series begins, he’s about forty, and a veteran with the LAPD. He’s had relationships, but he’s not married or particularly tied to one person. As the series goes on, he goes through several changes professionally. He also marries and is later divorced. He also becomes a father. In more recent novels, he sees his daughter, Maddie, grow up and begin to think about becoming a police officer like her father. Although Connelly doesn’t place a big emphasis on Bosch’s age, he does address issues such as retirement age. You’re absolutely right, fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus.

There are also authors such as Donna Leon and Ruth Rendell, whose main characters have aged over time, but perhaps not as quickly as real time. Leon’s Guido Brunetti and Rendell’s Reg Wexford are both married fathers of young-ish children at the start of their respective series (‘though Wexford’s daughters are a bit older – in their teens). As both series go on, their children get older (Wexford becomes a grandfather). They begin to face the issues that people face as they get towards middle age, too. And, although, neither author places a great deal of emphasis on this ageing process, it’s going on in the background.

On the one hand, having characters age in real time can be limiting for an author. On the other, it’s a very natural process, so readers can identify with the characters. And it allows the author to work in different sorts of characters and plots. Do you prefer to see your characters age in real time? If you’re a writer, what choices have you made about your main character’s ageing process? Why?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s As I Come of Age.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman

Give Me the Simple Life*

As this is posted, it’s 164 years since the publication of Henry David Thoroeau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. As you’ll know, one of the important messages in this book is the value of simplicity. Thoreau advocated for living close to nature and rejecting consumerism and materialism. And there’s something to be said for that perspective. If you’ve ever moved house, then you know how having a lot of ‘stuff’ can make everything all the more complicated.

There are a lot of crime-fictional characters who like to live very simply. And it’s interesting to get their perspectives, especially as they contrast with what a lot of people value. It’s just as interesting to see how they’ve been viewed in different places and at different times.

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), for instance, we are introduced to Julia and Isabel Tripp. They live in the small town of Market Basing where they are friends with Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Lawson. When Miss Lawson’s wealthy employer, Miss Emily Arundell, suddenly dies, it’s put down to liver failure. But Hercule Poirot thinks differently. He had gotten a letter from Miss Lawson, asking him to investigate a ‘delicate matter’ that she didn’t detail. He and Captain Hastings didn’t follow up until Miss Arundell was already dead, but he still feels an obligation to his client. So, he begins to look into the matter to find out who would want to kill the victim. There’s no lack of suspects, as she had a large fortune and financially strapped relatives. Surprisingly, though, it’s Miss Lawson who inherits the bulk of the money. So, she also could have had a motive. Since the Tripps are friends of Miss Lawson’s, Poirot and Hastings naturally want to talk to them. They find that the Tripps are dedicated to living a very simple life, with few possessions and very much ‘back to nature’ food. After their conversation, they invite their guests for lunch:
 

‘…some shredded raw vegetables, brown bread and butter, fruit.’
 

Needless to say, Poirot quickly finds an excuse for the two men to leave. The Tripps’ lifestyle is not the reason for Miss Arundell’s murder. But it’s an interesting look at then-contemporary perspectives on the ‘back to nature’ lifestyle.

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil begins as Queen is trying to get some writing done. He’s taken a house in the Hollywood Hills to do just that, and he’s hoping for some peace and quiet. Such is not to be, though. Laurel Hill finds out that he’s there and wants him to investigate the death of her father, Leander. It seems he died of a massive heart attack, which his daughter says was deliberately brought on by a series of macabre ‘gifts’ left for him. What’s more, his business partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving bizarre ‘gifts.’ Against his better judgement, Queen finds himself intrigued, and starts to ask questions. Along the way, he meets Priam’s wife, Delia, and his stepson, Crowe ‘Mac’ McGowan. Mac is convinced that the world is on the brink of destruction from nuclear weapons, and he wants to be prepared to survive. So, he lives in a treehouse he’s built, and wears as little as possible – often nothing at all. His aim is to be able to make his way in a world where all of the things we take for granted are gone. Mac’s commitment to a ‘back to nature’ life isn’t the reason for the strange packages, nor Leander Hill’s death. But it adds leaven to the story and a layer to his character.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation. He is also a member of the Navajo Tribal (now the Navajo Nation) Police. In many ways, Chee is a traditional Navajo. He’s very much attuned to nature. More to the point, he’s not particularly interested in material things like a big house or a new car. He has the things he needs, but they’re quite simple. For instance, he lives in a trailer, and he doesn’t have a large wardrobe or the latest in sound systems. His wants are few, and he’s basically content with that.

Fans of Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson novels will know that, at the beginning of that series, she is a Stockholm lawyer. She’s not greedy, or even overly ambitious. But she wants to get ahead. Circumstances return her to her hometown of Kiruna, and she ends up staying there. As time goes on, she becomes more and more attuned to nature, and lives more and more simply. She does almost everything on her own, too, and isn’t really interested in the trappings of modern consumerism. In fact, as time goes on, her simple lifestyle brings her more contentment, in its way, than would a very high salary and a plush lifestyle.

John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitplecheep also lives a very simple life. He is a member of the Royal Thai Police, and mostly works in and near Bangkok. He is also an observant Buddhist. As such, he tries to live by the Buddhist tradition of putting aside cravings. That includes wanting things like a fine house, a good car, and so on. So, he has very little. He lives in one room and keeps only what he needs. He eats simply, too. For Sonchai, though, it’s not important to have a lot. In fact, one’s better off with less. So, he’s not, in general, discontent with his lifestyle.

Not everyone is content to live very simply. But, for those who are, it’s interesting to see how their choices and lifestyles contrast with the focus a lot of people have on consumerism. These are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Rube Bloom and Harry Ruby.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Ellery Queen, Henry David Thoreau, John Burdett, Tony Hillerman

Distant Cousins From Down the Line*

When you think of the word ‘family,’ you likely think of your partner, your children, perhaps your parents and siblings. You might also think of aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins. But not everyone thinks that way.

In many cultures, ‘family’ has a different meaning. Anyone who’s related by blood (distant cousins, for instance) is a member of the family. And that bond can be extremely important. One’s clan membership, if I may use that term, is a critical part of one’s identity, and one owes loyalty to that group. That social structure certainly matters in real life, and it matters in crime fiction, too. There are lots of examples in the genre; here are just a few.

Most of Tony Hillerman’s novels feature Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. Both men are members of the Navajo Nation. Both are also members of the Navajo Tribal Police (now the Navajo Nation Police). In the Navajo culture, kinship is very important, and goes far beyond parents and their children. That concept of family is woven throughout the series. In more than one novel, for instance, Chee introduces himself to people using the Navajo tradition of identifying both his mother’s clan and his father’s clan. And in more than one novel, kinship ties feature in the cases that Chee and Leaphorn investigate. Members of the same extended family protect each other and help each other, and both Chee and Leaphorn know this.

Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire series takes place mostly in fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. Longmire’s jurisdiction is within striking distance of the Northern Reservation, which is home to the Cheyenne Nation, among other Native Americans. One of the members of that nation is Longmire’s good friend, Henry Standing Bear. He owns a bar/restaurant/local watering hole called The Red Pony, and he knows just about everyone in the area. He also has a strong and far-reaching group of kinship ties to many people on the Northern Reservation (and in other places, too). That network of family ties makes him a sort of community ‘hub.’

We see a similar concept of kinship ties in Stan Jones’ Nathan Active series. Active is an Alaska State Trooper. He is also a member of the Inupiaq people, although he was adopted by a white couple, and raised in Anchorage. In White Sky, Black Ice, Active is assigned to Chukchi, where his biological mother, Martha, happens to live. He soon learns how important kinship ties are among his people. In fact, one of the cases he investigates is the disappearance of Aaron Stone, who is a distant kinsman of Martha Active. Stone went on a hunting trip and hasn’t come back within a reasonable amount of time. Martha asks her son to look into the matter, and he agrees. Soon enough, Active finds the missing man’s body not far from one of his hunting campsites. On the surface, it seems that he committed suicide. But Active isn’t sure that’s true, and he looks into the case a little more deeply. In the end, he finds that Aaron Stone was murdered, and that his death ties in with another case Active is investigating.

Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney is an ex-pat Australian PI, based in Bangkok. In The Half-Child, she meets Rajiv Patel, who works in his uncle’s bookshop. Patel is from India, but he wants to have a chance to see more of the world. His family would have preferred him to stay nearby and settle down with a local wife. But that’s not his goal. As a way to avoid out-and-out conflict, Patel and his family reached a sort of compromise. The family agreed that Patel would spend some time in Bangkok. Patel agreed that he would live with his uncle and his family and help in the bookshop. It was assumed he’d be welcome in his uncle’s home as long as he stayed. It was also assumed he’d contribute to the family through his work at the shop. Everything changes, though, when Patel meets Keeney. Before long, the two begin dating, and they become partners in life as well as business partners. It’s very interesting to see the difference between the way Patel views family and the way that Keeney does.

One focus of Nicole Watson’s The Boundary is a legal battle between the Corrowa people and a development company. The Corrowa have filed a land title claim to Brisbane’s Meston Park. The development company wants the land for its own projects. Justice Bruce Brosnan rules against the Corrowa and is murdered just a few hours later. Then, there are other deaths, each of a person opposing the land claim. The murders are investigated by police officers Jason Matthews and Andrew Higgins, and they’re going to have a difficult time. The Corrowa people have strong kinship ties to each other and aren’t likely to help the police.

And then there’s Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons. In that novel, we are introduced to thirty-seven-year-old Finn Bell (yes, same name as the author), who’s at a crossroads in his life. His marriage is over, and a car crash has left him without the use of his legs. As a way of starting over, he buys a cottage in the small town of Riverton, on New Zealand’s South Island. He soon gets drawn into the mystery of what happened to the cottage’s former occupants, the Cotter family. In 1989, Alice Cotter disappeared and was never found. A year later, her father, James also disappeared. As Bell works to find some answers, he slowly gets to know some of the other people who live in the area. Several of them have kinship ties (cousins, second cousins, and so on), and over time, Bell gets to see how important these ties are.

And they really are. In many cultures, kinship goes far beyond parents and children. And it’s very interesting to see how those ties impact people’s lives and their motives.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Border Song.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Craig Johnson, Nicole Watson, Stan Jones, Tony Hillerman

I’m Just Beginning to Live*

When something tragic or traumatic happens, it can be hard to start over again. There are, of course, people who react to life’s blows by looking for comfort at the bottom of a bottle. But a lot of people find other ways to come back to life, so to speak, when something terrible happens. People’s ways of starting to feel alive again can vary quite a lot, depending on the person.

Those different ways of starting to heal can add an interesting layer of character development in a story. They’re realistic, too. People do try to start over again – and not always in self-destructive ways – when terrible things happen. And they’re a natural fit for a crime novel, since there’s often tragedy in those stories.

In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, for instance, Elinor Carlisle is arrested and tried for the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard. And there’s plenty of evidence against her, too. For one thing, Elinor’s former fiancé, Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman, had fallen in love with the victim (hence, the end of the engagement). For another, Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura had become very fond of Mary, and there was a real possibility that Mary might inherit the old woman’s fortune instead of Elinor. But local GP Dr. Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor and wants her acquitted. He asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. As you can imagine, it’s a horrible and traumatic experience to be tried for murder, and it’s not spoiling the story to say that at the end of it, Elinor needs desperately to start over. So, she decides to spend some time in a sanatorium, where she can have peace and quiet. The implication is, too, that she and Peter Lord will stay connected.

James Lee Burke’s police detective Dave Robicheaux sometimes wants peace and quiet, too, when he needs to heal – which is often. In A Morning For Flamingos, for instance, he and his police partner, Lester Benoit, are transferring two prisoners to Louisiana’s state prison at Angola, where they are slated to be executed. During the trip, the prisoners escape, and one of them kills Benoit and leaves Robicheaux for dead. Not only is Robicheaux badly injured, but he’s grieving the loss of his partner. He needs to heal, so he decides to take some time to go fishing, spend extra time with his daughter, Alafair, and do routine tasks at the police department when he’s physically ready for that.
 

‘My life became as bland and unremarkable as the season was soft and warm and transitory.’
 

Connecting with the outdoors, with his daughter, and with an almost humdrum routine helps Robicheaux start to put some pieces together. His healing time doesn’t last, though, as he’s recruited to help bring down a New Orleans crime boss named Tony Cardo.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation, and of the Navajo Tribal Police (now the Navajo Nation Police). Although he negotiates the dominant-culture world when he has to, Chee is, in many ways, traditional. In fact, at the beginning of the series, he is studying to be a yata’ali – a singer/healer. Even later in the series, when that study is less of priority, Chee follows many of the traditional Navajo ways, and that helps him heal when life hurts him. More than once, readers follow as he uses Navajo rituals to regain focus, heal, and reconnect with nature. They help him to feel the peace and harmony with the world’s rhythms that he needs to come back to life.

In a similar way, Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon feels the need to reconnect with nature. In Track of the Cat, the first in the Anna Pigeon series, we learn some of her backstory. She and her beloved husband lived in New York City, where she lived a socialite’s sort of life. Then, her husband was tragically killed. Devastated by her loss, she needed to find something to help her put herself back together. So, she connected with animals and the rest of nature, and became a US Park Ranger. As the series goes on, she starts to come back to life, and develops a real feel for nature’s rhythms. That focus helps her to feel alive again.

And then there’s Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons. In it, we are introduced to thirty-seven-year-old Finn Bell, who has come to a crossroads in his life. His marriage has ended, and he admits that a lot of the reason for that is his own fault. He’s also lost the use of his legs as the result of a car crash. He needs to start over, so he buys a cottage in the small town of Riverton, on New Zealand’s South Island. He soon gets drawn into a murder mystery when he learns about the history of his cottage, and how it’s related to a missing child and her father. One of the ways in which he starts to put the pieces together again is through a game called Murderball (wheelchair rugby). Through it, he meets others, gets some exercise, enjoys the competition, and finds a healthy outlet for his bitterness and anger. Playing Murderball doesn’t solve all of his problems. And it doesn’t solve the murder mystery. But it does help him start to heal.

And that’s the thing about gardening, or a sport, or nature, or….  When tragedy strikes, we all need to start over and find something to connect us again. And it’s interesting to see how that process happens in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Until the Night.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Finn Bell, James Lee Burke, Nevada Barr, Tony Hillerman

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.

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