Category Archives: Tony Hillerman

Suddenly I Don’t Remember the Rules Any More*

crime-fiction-rulesThrough the years, there’ve been several sets of rules for detective fiction, among them S.S. Van Dine’s 20 rules, and Ronald Knox’s 10 rules. In some ways, it can be very helpful for the crime writer to have some guidance for creating a well-written story. This might be especially true for the first-time crime writer.

That said, though, we could also ask whether these rules really are relevant, especially for today’s crime fiction. Is it possible to write an excellent crime novel without each of those rules being followed?

Here’s one example. Both Van Dine and Knox wrote that the solution to a mystery should not be supernatural or otherworldly. They claimed that, to be credible, a mystery has to have a prosaic solution. Most readers seem to agree with this. In fact, one of the major ‘pet peeves’ that I’ve read is when a book lacks credibility, especially if there’s some sort of ghostly or paranormal solution. Some authors (Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, to name just two) have played with this rule. They’ve included characters who believe in the supernatural, for instance, or written stories where the culprit makes the murder look as though it has a supernatural explanation. But there’s nothing otherworldly about the real solution.

Closely related to this, both Van Dine and Knox claim that fictional detectives should not solve crimes through accident, intuition, or other means (Van Dine included unmotivated confession) besides logical deduction. And that was Arthur Conan Doyle’s main argument in creating Sherlock Holmes. He wanted a detective who solved crimes through logical, scientific means, not intuition. Crime fiction fans want their stories credible. That includes the means by which the sleuth gets to the truth. Too much coincidence takes away from that credibility. Seemingly magic intuition does, too. In real life, detectives solve crimes by making sense of evidence and putting the pieces together logically. That doesn’t mean they can’t have creative ideas. Great detectives do. But I think most of us would agree what we don’t want crimes to be solved through a series of happy accidents.

Another rule that both Van Dine and Knox mention is that the detective should not also be the killer. This, to these writers, is not ‘playing fair’ with the reader. What’s interesting about this rule is that there’ve been several novels (I won’t mention them because of spoilers) where the protagonist is, indeed, the killer. And some of those novels have gone on to great success and acclaim. Does this mean this rule isn’t relevant? What do you think? Have you read excellent crime novels where a detective is also the killer?

One rule that really is relevant (at least from my perspective – yours may differ) is that in whodunits, all of the clues have to be there for the reader to find. That is to say, both Van Dine and Knox refer to the need to give the reader the same opportunity as the detective has to solve the murder. I’m sure you can think of at least one novel you’ve read where you thought, ‘Well of course I’d have known who the killer was if I’d known that!’ I think most of us would agree that we want the author of a crime novel to ‘play fair’ and show us all the clues. In fact, the ‘Queen Team’ included asides to the reader in some of the Ellery Queen novels, to the effect that all of the clues are now in the reader’s possession. In a well-written whodunit, the clues may not be glaringly obvious, but they are there for the reader to find.

Van Dine has an interesting rule to the effect that there must be no love interest in a crime novel. He saw a romance angle as ‘cluttering up’ the intellectual exercise of solving a crime. On the one hand, I think most crime fiction fans would agree that too much emphasis on a romance can be a distraction. And, of course, every reader is different with respect to how much romance is ‘too much.’ That said, though, I can think of several highly-regarded crime novels that do include romances. One, for instance, is Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Fans of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series will know that his romance with detective novelist Harriet Vane is a story arc that ends with their wedding just before Busman’s Honeymoon. Romances are woven into some of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels, too. And those are by no means the only examples. What do you folks think? Was Van Dine right that romance should not figure into crime novels?

One of the other rules that Van Dine (but not Knox) proposed was that there should only be one detective – one main character. This one arguably hasn’t held up. If you look at series such as Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, or Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, or Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series (to name only three), you see how successful fictional partnerships can be. And a quick look at Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, or Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series, is all you need to see how well ‘ensemble’ series can work.

What about some of Van Dine’s and Knox’s other rules? Knox for instance, claimed that there shouldn’t be twins involved, unless the reader has been prepared for that. Van Dine said that there absolutely must be a corpse:
 

‘Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder.’
 

He also said that all crimes must have a personal motive, among other things.

What do you think of these rules? If they don’t apply, should there be other rules? If you’re a writer, do you follow ‘rules’ as you write your crime fiction?

 
 
 

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

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Dorothy Sayers, Ed McBain, Elly Griffiths, Fred Vargas, Reginald Hill, Ronald Knox, S.S. Van Dine, Tony Hillerman

Listen to the Auctioneer*

auctionsHave you ever been to an auction? They can be a lot of fun, whether or not you’re actually bidding on something. And sometimes, you can find a very good deal on something you really like. Auctions have their own kind of tension, too, as the items are described and the bidding starts. That’s one reason they can be such good backgrounds for scenes in novels, or even for contexts.

They’re quite varied, too. There are charity auctions, fun auctions (at street fairs, for instance), and silent-bid auctions. There are also, of course, extremely exclusive, high-bid auctions for ultra-expensive items. So, an author has flexibility when it comes to weaving an auction into a book.

Auctions bring a lot of disparate people together, and that can be part of their appeal, both in real life and as a tool for the writer. Wherever you have a group of people, you can have conflict and tension. And that can add much to the suspense of a story.

For instance, in Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Going, Going, Gone, an auction turns out to be murderous. Atwood Taylor’s sleuth, Asey Mayo, takes his cousin, Jennie, to a local auction. Wealthy John Aiden has died, and the story is that he hid a lot of cash among his things. If that’s true, any of the items up for bid could have a lot of money in them. Aiden’s brother, Gardner, pays the unusually high price of three thousand dollars (the story takes place during WWII) for an old chest that’s supposed to contain books. But the key’s gone and the chest is locked. Mayo, being a local handyman, among other things, has a lot of different sorts of keys, and he’s asked to help open the chest. When it is finally opened, everyone’s shocked to see the body of Solatia Spry, who is said to be the local antiques ‘eyes and ears’ for a wealthy California client. Now, Mayo gets drawn into the investigation, and it turns out that more than one person had a very good motive for murder.

John Grant, who wrote as Jonathan Gash, wrote a series of mysteries featuring Lovejoy, an antiques expert and dealer. He’s got more than his share of faults, but Lovejoy knows an antique’s value. He what he does, and is passionate about antiques. And he’s gotten to know many of the other people in the field, as it’s a small community, so to speak. He attends his share of auctions, where he picks up on a lot of the gossip going around that community. In fact, in The Judas Pair, that’s one strategy he uses to try to track down a mythical (or is it?) pair of flintlocks called the Judas Pair. George Field wants Lovejoy to find these guns, because one of them was used to shoot his brother, Eric. Lovejoy’s not even sure they really exist, but he agrees to see what he can do. He puts the word out among his friends in the business, and starts going the rounds of the auctions. He soon learns that the guns actually do exist, and that someone really did use one of them to kill Eric Field. The closer Lovejoy gets to the truth, the more danger there is for him.

Tony Hillerman’s People of Darkness features his sleuth, Navajo Tribal Police Officer Jim Chee. In one part of this novel, Chee is looking for a man named Tommy Charley, who may have information on a case he’s investigating. He’s told that Charley will be attending a rug auction at a local elementary school, so he changes plans and goes. The auction itself doesn’t solve the case, but Chee does get some information. And, he meets a teacher there named Mary Landon, whom fans will know as Chee’s love interest for part of the series. The auction scene also gives readers a look at smaller, local auctions where you can find truly beautiful, handmade items that you can’t get at more ‘touristy’ or big-budget places.

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide features a charity dinner and art auction hosted by Memphis-area socialite and beauty pageant coach Tristan Pembroke. The evening is to be a benefit event, but Tristan is hardly a kind, generous person. She’s vindictive, malicious, and motivated only by self-interest. Still, plenty of people attend. One of the artists whose work will be featured is Sara Taylor. She’s already had a serious argument with Tristan about one of the paintings, but she can use the recognition (and money) that comes from being featured at the auction. When Sara’s mother-in-law, restaurant owner Lulu Taylor, discovers Tristan’s body that evening, Sara becomes the most likely suspect. Lulu knows she’s innocent, so she starts asking questions. And, as you’d imagine, she finds plenty of people who are not upset by Tristan Pembroke’s death.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s The Gifted, which features her sleuth, political scientist and (now-retired) academician Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. Her daughter, Taylor, has real artistic talent and passion, and has been invited to include some of her work in an upcoming charity art auction to be held in aid of Regina’s Racette-Hunter Centre. She’s only fourteen, and her parents aren’t entirely sure she’s ready for all the recognition this event could bring her. But they give permission for her to go ahead with her work. Taylor’s already shown her parents one of the pieces that she’ll present at the auction. The other, though, she keeps secret. And that painting proves to have tragic consequences for several people.

Auctions bring together people from all over, and they can be fun and exciting. But they can also be tense, and full of suspense. Little wonder we see them in the genre.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REM’s Auctioneer (Another Engine).  

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Filed under Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, John Grant, Jonathan Gash, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Riley Adams, Tony Hillerman

Let Me Make My Final Stand*

good-guy-bad-guyEven if you’re not thoroughly familiar with the story, you may very well have heard of the famous gunfight at the OK Corral, in Tombstone, Arizona. It’s a classic story of the famous 1881 showdown between Sheriff Wyatt Earp and his friend, Doc Holliday on one side, and Ike Clanton and his gang on the other. And it’s a legendary story of ‘good guys’ versus ‘bad guys.’

Of course, that particular gunfight isn’t the only showdown between the ‘hero’ and the ‘villain,’ either in fiction or in real life. But it highlights the tension that builds up with that sort of confrontation. That suspense can add a great deal to a crime novel, too, so it’s little wonder we see so many examples of this plot point in the genre. There are far too many for me to mention here; I’m sure you could think of more than I could, anyway. But here are just a few.

One of the most famous crime-fictional confrontations comes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Final Problem. In that story, Sherlock Holmes is up against his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Holmes is, of course, formidable, but Moriarty has plenty of his own resources. In fact, things get so dangerous for Holmes that he and Watson temporarily leave their London lodgings and end up in Switzerland. As Holmes fans can tell you, he and Moriarty have a dramatic confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls. Conan Doyle had intended this to be his last Holmes story; but fans wouldn’t hear of it. Still, it’s a ‘power-packed’ story with plenty of buildup.

There are a few tense final showdowns in Agatha Christie’s stories and novels. We see one of them in The Murder on the Links. Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to France at the request of Canadian émigré Paul Renauld. He wrote to Poirot, claiming that his life was in danger because of a secret that he possessed. Poirot doesn’t usually take kindly to being summoned, but somehow, this letter is different. By the time he and Hastings get to France, though, it’s too late. Renauld has been murdered. Poirot and Hastings slowly find out the truth about who the murderer is, and it all comes to a head one night in a dramatic way. It’s one of those times when Poirot doesn’t announce the solution to a drawing room full of suspects. I know, Christie fans, there are lots of other great examples of this sort of drama in her work.

In Tony Hillerman’s The Blessing Way, readers are introduced to Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police. In the story, Leaphorn works with ethnologist Bergen McKee, who’s worried about the disappearance of his friend, Luis Horseman. It seems that Horseman went missing after getting into a drunken quarrel, and hasn’t returned. Later, his body is found in Many Ruins Canyon; and at first, it looks as though his death is the result of Navajo witchcraft. But Leaphorn isn’t superstitious, nor does he follow Navajo spiritual traditions. So he looks for a more prosaic solution, and that’s what he finds. In the novel, there’s a dramatic scene as Leaphorn and the killer face off in a place that’s very much ‘in the middle of nowhere.’ That geographical setting adds to the suspense of the confrontation, too, as it’s got its own very real dangers.

You could say the same thing about the confrontation between National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon and a killer in Nevada Bar’s Track of the Cat. Pigeon has been assigned to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, in the Chihuahuan Desert of western Texas. One day, she comes upon the body of another ranger, Sheila Drury. At first, it looks as though Drury was killed by a mountain lion, and that’s the explanation the authorities want. But Pigeon isn’t sure it’s true. Besides, she’s afraid that, if word gets out that a mountain lion killed a person, then all of the park’s mountain lions could be in danger. So Pigeon starts looking into the matter more closely. As she does, she finds that there are other possibilities, and several people who could have had a motive to murder Drury. Finally, Pigeon finds out who the killer is, and one night, she has a final confrontation with that person. It’s very dramatic, and not least because of the physical setting.

A final confrontation doesn’t have to take place in a remote area to be dramatic, though. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets involved in investigating the murder of a colleague, Reed Gallagher. His body is discovered in a cheap rooming house, and it looks as though he was living some sort of double life that got him killed. But it’s not as simple, or as complex, as that. As Kilbourne starts looking into the matter a little more, she finds that more than one person might have had a motive for murder. And when she finally discovers who the real killer is, she confronts that person. Then, there’s a very tense final scene between them in an elevator. It’s a small, enclosed space, and that adds to the suspense.

Some dramatic fictional final showdowns take place in lonely, outdoors spots. Others can be as close as the sleuth’s front door (I’m thinking, for instance, of Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic). There are many other settings, too, including some very famous film scenes. Whichever way it’s done, that ‘good guy’-against-‘bad guy’ final scene can add a strong layer of tension to a story. Little wonder the story of the gunfight at the OK Corral has become iconic. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jon Bon Jovi’s Blaze of Glory.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christine Poulson, Gail Bowen, Nevada Barr, Tony Hillerman

Takin’ Suzy to the Church Bazaar*

social-eventsFor many people, places of worship aren’t just for prayer and ritual. They also serve an important social function. People come together at church halls, synagogues, mosques and temples for films, talks, celebrations, meals, and sometimes secular events like book sales. Even those who aren’t observant sometimes enjoy the company and the social experience.

You might argue that churches and other houses of worship used to serve a more important social function than they do now. But even today, they’re important in many communities. So it’s only natural that they show up in crime fiction, too. Whether you have a set of religious beliefs or none at all, it’s hard to deny the social role of churches and other such places.

As fans know, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple lives in the village of St. Mary Mead, where the church serves important social functions. Of course the vicar leads services on Sundays, but there are also teas, craft and artwork sales and other events. And Miss Marple makes use of them all to hear the local talk, ask questions and get to know people when they’re off their guard.

We also see that side of the local church in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, the first in her series featuring retired English teacher Myrtle Clover. Although she’s in her eighties, Myrtle has no intention of being ‘put out to pasture.’ But her son, Red, who’s the local police chief, has other ideas. He loves his mother, but he’d like to see her take her ease, watch soap operas, and fill in crossword puzzles like other retirees. He thinks he can help her along by ‘volunteering’ her to serve on the local church’s Altar Guild, as well as signing her up for the United Methodist Women’s social group. Needless to say, Myrtle isn’t happy at all about this, and comes up with a creative way to express her disapproval. Still, she goes to the church. When she gets there, she discovers the body of real-estate developer Parke Stockard. Myrtle wants to prove that she’s not ready to be shunted aside yet, so she decides to find out who killed the victim. And she soon learns that there are plenty of possibilities. Parke was both arrogant and malicious, and had made plenty of local enemies.

Churches also serve as important social support groups. For example, in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, Carl Lee Hailey is arrested for the murders of Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard. On the one hand, he’s clearly guilty. There are witnesses, including a sheriff’s deputy who was wounded in the incident. On the other, there’s a lot of sympathy for Hailey. The two victims had recently beaten and raped his ten-year-old daughter, Tonya, and left her for dead. Plenty of people privately think they’d have done the same thing Hailey did. Still, he’s committed murder. So Hailey asks his friend, attorney Jake Brigance to defend him. In one plot thread of the novel, the Hailey family gets a lot of social, financial, and other support from their church, even from those who have very little money themselves.

Places of worship also provide a sort of cultural as well as social connection that goes beyond the ritual. We see that, for instance, in several of Tony Hillerman’s novels. His two main protagonists are Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, both of whom are Navajo, and both of whom are members of the Navajo Tribal Police. For the Navajo Nation, gathering for ritual also involves a lot of social interaction. Traditional Navajo rituals can take several days, so there are shared meals, catching up with people one hasn’t seen, and more. Many rituals are undergone in people’s homes, but there are also events at local Navajo chapter houses. Whether the occasion is a rite of passage or a secular event, it’s an opportunity to connect with people who may be otherwise very far-flung. And for Chee and Leaphorn, these gatherings offer the chance to talk to people and find out all sorts of information.

Many synagogues have social halls where people meet for book discussions, lectures, holiday parties, or to break ritual fasts together. We see those social gatherings in Faye Kellerman’s series featuring Rina Lazarus and Detective Peter Decker. For instance, in The Ritual Bath, here’s how Rina’s son Jake describes Purim (the Feast of Esther):
  

‘You get to dress up in a costume and the shul [synagogue] has a big Purim party after they read the megillah [the story of Queen Esther].’
  

The synagogue isn’t just a place for worship, although that’s an important aspect of it. It’s also a place for social gatherings and the development of a sense of community.

In Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, we are introduced to Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty of the Community Policing Section (CPS) of the Canadian federal government. They are called in to investigate when the body of Christopher Drayton is found at the bottom of the Scarborough (Ontario) Bluffs. The CPS is generally concerned with hate crimes and community relations; so, at first, there doesn’t seem a reason for the CPS to be involved. But Khattak has learned that Drayton may actually be Dražen Krstić, a notorious war criminal who was known as the butcher of Srebrenica. If he is, then there’s an important question of how and why Canada admitted a war criminal. There is evidence that Drayton was Krstić, so one lead for Khattak and Getty is the local Bosnian mosque. In this way, they get to know a little about the members of that community. The mosque serves not just as a place for worship for them. It also serves important social and cultural purposes.

And that’s the thing about places of worship. Apart from their importance as places for religious ritual, they also serve social and cultural functions as well. And that means they can be important for fictional sleuths.

  
  
  

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dion DiMucci’s Written on the Subway Wall/Little Star.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Faye Kellerman, John Grisham, Tony Hillerman

We Can Discover the Wonders of Nature*

natural-restorativeIf you’ve read novels featuring Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, you’ll know that she’s very fond of her garden. Admittedly, she likes the opportunity that gardening gives her to – erm – observe others. But she also likes being outdoors when the weather allows it.

She’s not alone. There’s actually credible research that suggests that we all benefit in many ways (cognitive, emotional, and more) from being in nature. In fact, research that a colleague and friend has done suggests that children learn better, have fewer mental and other health problems, and are more creative if they are out in nature. And that’s only a few of the benefits. That may be one reason so many of us were told to ‘run outdoors and play’ when we were young.

Certainly being outdoors, without electronics, can be a real restorative. So it’s not surprising that we see plenty of cases of sleuths who like their time in nature. For instance, in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is recovering from the traumatic experience of being charged with murder (read Strong Poison for the details of that). She decides to take a break from the world by going on a hiking holiday near Wilvercombe. And at first, she does find it both relaxing and restorative. It helps her get some perspective, as nature tends to do. One afternoon, she stops to take a rest near a beach. When she wakes up, the tide is out, and she sees the body of a dead man. She alerts the authorities, who begin the investigation. The man is soon identified as Paul Alexis, a Russian-born professional dancer who works at a nearby hotel. Before long, Lord Peter Wimsey joins Vane, and together, they work to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim. It turns out that there are several possibilities.

The central focus of Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage has to do with Framhurst Great Wood, which lies near the town of Kingsmarkham. There’s a plan to run a road through the wood, and plenty of people are upset about it. And that includes Inspector Reg Wexford. He’s resigned to the development, but he’s not happy about it:
 

‘When I retire, he had told his wife, I want to live in London so that I can’t see the countryside destroyed.’
 

He’s not alone. Many people love the forest, and don’t want to see it ruined. Several activist groups arrive in the area to protest the new road, and Wexford knows there’s going to be trouble. Matters get far worse when the situation disintegrates to a hostage-taking incident. What’s more, one of the hostages is Wexford’s own wife, Dora. Then there’s a murder. Now Wexford and his team have to solve the murder as well as try to find a way to free the hostages.

Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache enjoys spending time in nature, too. In fact, in A Rule Against Murder, he and his wife, Reine-Marie, travel to the Manoir Bellechasse for an annual getaway to celebrate their anniversary. It’s a time for them to get away from it all, and at first, it’s a wonderful trip:
 

‘One day rolled gently into the next as the Gamaches swam in Lac Massawippi and went for leisurely walks through the fragrant woods.’
 

They enjoy themselves thoroughly until they begin to get to know the dysfunctional Finney family, who are also staying at the lodge. Then, there’s a murder. Now Gamache finds that his peaceful, natural retreat is anything but.

Fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux can tell you that, in the first novels in the series, he lives in a small, rural home on a bayou where he operates a fish dock. Later, he lives in a house that’s a little less rural, but not far away from the bayou. Robicheaux often finds peace when he simply spends time out on a lake, away from ‘it all.’ Although he’s not an eco-warrior, he understands the value of nature’s rhythms, and some of nature’s healing power. And Burke’s descriptions share that natural beauty with the reader.

Many indigenous cultures are infused with the understanding of how important a connection with nature really is. Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, or of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte can tell you that those sleuths pay very close attention to nature, and are attuned to its rhythms. They connect on a regular basis with the natural world.

So does Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest. In Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs), we learn that she spent her childhood among her mother’s Aborigine people:
 

‘…my little mob and I would hunt in the hills, fish in the creeks, climb the skeletal trees, scour the countryside on horses borrowed from the stock camps.’
 

Emily ended up being sent away to boarding school in Adelaide, but she returns to the Moonlight Downs encampment and finds a place to belong. And she reconnects in this novel and in Gunshot Road with the natural world.

Even dedicated city dwellers know how restorative it can be to take a walk in a park, listen to birds, grow plants, or sit watching the sea. For instance, there isn’t a much more determined ‘city person’ than Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. But fans know that he gets his ‘nature fix,’ too. He spends a few hours each day with his orchids. If you find that being in nature calms you and helps you focus, well, the research supports you. Little wonder we see so many fictional sleuths who know that.

Speaking of nature…just for fun, can you spot the baby lizard in the ‘photo (You can click on the ‘photo to enlarge it if you like)?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Grateful Dead’s Sugar Magnolia.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Dorothy Sayers, James Lee Burke, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman