This is My Quest*

QuestsOne of the timeless of plot contexts in literature is the quest – the purposeful journey. That journey may be literal or figurative; the purpose of it may also be literal or figurative. Either way, quests promise rewards that, at least for the protagonist, make the journey worth the effort. And they pose great risks. That combination can make for suspense, conflict and character development, all of which are elements of a high-quality crime novel. So it really shouldn’t be surprising that there are quests all through the genre. You could even argue that investigating a crime is a quest, and you’d have a solid basis for that argument. But even leaving that aside, many crime novels involve quests.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the murders of Enoch Drebber, a recent arrival to London from the US. At one point, his secretary Joseph Stangerson is suspected. But when he, too, is killed, it’s clear that someone was actually targeting both victims. And so it proves to be. As Holmes and Watson learn, this case has its roots in the past. Both Drebber and Stangerson had something to hide – something for which the killer wanted revenge. And it all has its start in a quest for a place of safety.

Agatha Christie’s short story Manx Gold also involves a quest, this time for a treasure. Engaged couple Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker learn that Fenella’s eccentric Uncle Myles has died. They travel to the Isle of Man to hear the reading of his will, only to learn that he’s arranged a competition. According to the will, there is buried treasure on the island. Each of the possible heirs to the fortune will receive the same clues to the treasure’s location. The one who finds the treasure first gets to claim it. Very soon several potential heirs are off on the quest for the treasure. Then there’s a murder. Now Fenella and Juan begin to wonder whether someone might be targeting the heirs in order to be assured of a win. Interestingly, Christie wrote this story on commission to increase tourism to the island. Visitors were given copies of the story, which was printed in instalments. Their quest was to find four identical snuffboxes, each of which contained a Manx penny. The prize for the person who could succeed on this quest was to be £100, but no-one was ever able to claim it.

Jonathan Gash’s The Judas Pair introduces readers to antiques dealer and expert Lovejoy. The last thing on his mind is to become a detective (other than hunting down antiques), but everything changes when he meets George Field. Field is looking for a particular pair of antique dueling pistols called the Judas Pair. They’re the stuff of legend among antiques dealers and collectors, and most don’t even think the pistols exist. Certainly Lovejoy doesn’t. But Fields says they do; in fact, one of them was used to shoot his brother Eric. Fields believes that if he can find the Judas Pair, he’ll find his brother’s killer. So he asks Lovejoy to track down the pistols. Lovejoy isn’t overly drawn to the case by the thought of catching a killer, but the pistols themselves are another matter altogether. So he agrees to start looking. The quest for the pistols takes Lovejoy through the antiques and collecting communities, and puts him in very grave danger.

Arnaldur Indriðason’s series features Reykjavík Inspector Erlendur and his team. Fans of this series will know that Erlendur is haunted by a tragedy that occurred when he was a boy. He and his brother Bergur were caught in a blizzard one day. Erlendur survived, but Bergur was never found. No-one has even discovered his body. On one level, Erlendur feels a powerful sense of guilt over not protecting his brother, and over surviving when his brother did not. On another level, he wants to know what happened to his brother. So, in one story arc in this series, Erlendur goes on a quest to find out anything he can about that day and about what might have happened to Bergur

There’s a different sort of quest in Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride). Gundar Jormann has lived all his life in the Norwegian village of Elvestad. He is no longer a young man, but he’s still presentable. He’s also hardworking and reliable – the steady kind. So he sees no reason why he shouldn’t be able to find a wife. His sister Marie is shocked when Gundar tells her that he is going to travel to India to find a bride. He goes to Mumbai, where he meets Poona Bai, who works in a café there. The two are soon taken with each other, and it’s not long before Poona agrees to marry him. The plan is for Gundar to return to Norway, where Poona will join him soon, after she finishes up her life in India. On the day of Poona’s arrival, Marie is involved in a terrible car crash, and Gundar cannot leave her. So he asks a friend to meet Poona at the airport. The two miss each other, though, and Poona never makes it to Gundar’s house. When her body is found in a field not far from the house, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate. They find that they have to penetrate a proverbial ‘wall of silence’ in order to find out the truth about that day.

And then there’s Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom. British agent Daniel ‘Danny’ Swann is given a very difficult assignment. He’s told to go to Thailand and recover a lead-covered black box from the Andaman Sea. Apparently the box was on board a ship that was sunk, and is still under the water. This is going to be an especially challenging quest for Swann. The last time he was in Thailand, he was involved in another operation where he had a dangerous encounter with powerful crime boss ‘Tuk-Tuk’ Song. Although he saved Tuk-Tuk’s life that day, he ended up killing Tuk-Tuk’s son Arune, and wounding his ‘right hand man’ Choy Lee. So he will not be welcomed warmly in Thailand. He can’t avoid Tuk-Tuk, either because the man is too powerful. If Swann is going to launch the kind of operation he’ll need to recover the box, he’ll need people, material and support that only Tuk-Tuk can guarantee. So he’s going to have to make his peace with the crime boss. This quest takes on a whole new dimension when there two attempts on Swann’s life. Then two of his friends are brutally murdered. Now he’s up against an enemy he didn’t really know he had, and whom he can’t even identify.

And that’s the thing about quests. They can get very dangerous at times. But they do add suspense to stories, and they are an important part of the human experience. They’re a part of our literary heritage too.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s The Impossible Dream.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Grant, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jonathan Gash, Karin Fossum

You Take Your Pension in Loneliness and Alcohol*

Dysfunctional DetectivesWe’ve all read and talked about them: fictional sleuths who can’t seem to get (or keep) their lives together. Because of trauma or something else, they don’t seem to be able to manage their lives.

Dysfunctional sleuths may show that dysfunction in any number of ways (e.g. drugs/alcohol, a series of ruined relationships, psychological instability). None of this means that these characters can’t solve crimes; some are brilliant. And many (I’m looking at you, Inspector Morse!) are beloved. But they have blind spots, if you want to put it that way, that they just can’t seem to overcome.

Some people don’t mind severe dysfunction in their sleuths. Others dislike such sleuths, or are at the very least tired of them. It all got me to wondering just how prevalent this dysfunction is. So I decided to take a look at this question.

I chose 278 books from among those I have read. For each book, I noted whether the protagonist was or wasn’t functional. People define functionality in different ways, so I admit that my thinking may be different from yours on some cases. But I also think there are enough clear cases (I’m thinking of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor, for instance, who is dysfunctional; and of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache, who is functional) that I might get some meaning from this data.

Here’s what I found.

Functional vs Dysfunctional Detectives

Overall, 68 of the books I looked at (25%) feature dysfunctional protagonists. Overall, 210 (75%) feature functional protagonists. So on the surface, it looks as though most of the protagonists have their lives together.

If that’s true, then why does it seem that so many protagonists aren’t functional? I decided to look at my data a little more closely to get at that question. I divided the books in the data set into four categories based on year of publication: Classic/Golden Age; 1950-1990; 1990-2000; 2000-Present. In doing this I was hoping to see whether the proportion of dysfunctional protagonists has increased over time. Here’s what I found.

Functional vs Dysfunctional Protagonists Over Time

As you can see, the proportion of dysfunctional protagonists in the Classic/Golden Age books in the data set is very small (2 of 38, or 5%). Things change quite a lot in the period between 1950 and 1990. Here, we have 13 of the 54 books (24%) featuring dysfunctional protagonists. Why the change? I’m no psychology expert, but there was a great deal of increasing knowledge about and interest in psychology and psychopathology during these years. There’s no reason that shouldn’t be reflected in the books of the time.

Now, let’s consider the period between 1990 and 2000. I chose this decade deliberately, because I had the feeling that that’s when the rise of the modern dysfunctional detective became more marked. As you see, 11 of the 34 books in that data set (34%) feature dysfunctional protagonists. It’s important to note here that this doesn’t prove a whole lot; there aren’t enough books in this set to make that much of a leap. But I did think it markedly interesting that this is when we see a lot of such detectives making their entrances.

Finally, there’s the last fifteen years (2000-present). Of the 142 books in this category, 42 (30%) feature dysfunctional protagonists. It’s interesting that there are still plenty of unhealthy protagonists out there. But if you notice, the proportion seems to be dropping, at least among the books that are in my data set.

Admittedly, as ever, this set is limited. By no means have I read all of the crime fiction out there. The books in this set don’t include every book I’ve read, either. So in those important ways, we don’t see the whole scope of what’s happening on the crime fiction scene.

But I think this data may suggest a few things. One is that the mentally stable, functional protagonist is still alive and well, thank you very much. Such protagonists certainly have their share of trouble – even tragedy. Once in a while they drink more than is wise; or, they may stray in their relationships. No-one is perfect. But overall, they have their lives in healthy places. I wonder if this data also suggests that the dysfunctional protagonist, who cannot make a wise decision, or who never stays sober, is becoming less popular. This is a tentative conclusion, of course. I haven’t researched people’s opinions. And as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the definition of what ‘counts’ as functionaal or not varies. But I do wonder whether that is a trend we’re seeing.

What do you think? Do you think we’re seeing fewer dysfunctional detectives? Do you see that as a positive trend?

ps. A special thanks to FictionFan, who blogs at FictionFan’s Book Reviews. You definitely want this excellent blog on your roll if you enjoy crime fiction. Top-notch reviews, wit, porpentines and little green men await you there. And Mr. Darcy. It’s a must-visit for me. It was an interesting comment exchange with FictionFan that got me thinking about this whole question.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Squier’s Everybody Wants You.


Filed under Uncategorized

I Thought You Were Nice*

Håkan Östlund författareDiscovering a ‘new-to-you’ author is one of the real privileges of reading crime fiction. Those great new finds add zest and interest to one’s reading life (I know, and books to the TBR…). That’s why I’m so pleased that Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise has created a terrific New (to me, anyway) Authors meme. Each quarter, crime fiction fans are invited to share blog posts about authors whose work they’ve discovered for the first time. Sound good? Do join in if you’d like! And while you’re at Kerrie’s excellent blog, have a look around. It’s a top source of great crime fiction reads, and one of my must-stops.

This quarter, my choice is Håkan Östlundh. Östlundh was born in Uppsala, and raised in Stockholm, where he still lives, except for summers, which he spends in Gotland. His background is in journalism and television, and he’s written for Sweden’s most well-regarded paper.

Östlundh is the author of the (thus far) seven-novel Fredrik Borman series. I first got to The Intruderknow him through The Intruder, the fifth in that series. Borman is a police detective based in Gotland. Unlike many modern sleuths, Borman is functional, and has stable, loving relationships with his wife Ninni and his two sons, Joakim and Simon. In this novel, he and his police partner Sara Oskarsson investigate a bizarre case involving professional blogger Malin Andersson and her husband, photographer Henrik Kjellander. When they and their children travel for two months, they sub-let their home to temporary residents as a way to make some extra money. But they regret that choice very soon when they return. First, they find several dishes and utensils missing. There’s trash everywhere, several sticky messes, and much worse. At first, they put it down to sloppy, rude tenants. But then, Malin finds that one of the family photographs has been mutilated. Others are missing. Now it seems clear that this is some sort of personal attack, so Borman and his team are called in. As they look into the case, other, more frightening, things happen, and it’s clear that the police are going to have to find out who’s responsible very quickly, before worse happens. In the end, it’s all connected to past events, and to a complex family history.

This is a series that hasn’t all been translated into English. I know that Fredrik Borman #4 (The Viper) has (at least in the US), and I am hoping that more of this series will be available in English.


Want to know more about Håkan Östlundh? His website is here. His Goodreads author page is right here.

Want to know more about The Intruder? It’s right here.

Want to know more about The Viper? Here it is.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Softies’ About You.


Filed under Uncategorized

Once Upon a Time in the Land of Misty Satin Dreams*

Fairy StoriesEvery culture has fairy tales and legends that are passed along from generation to generation. Because they’re such an integral part of our culture, it’s not surprising that fairy tales are woven into our daily references and allusions, too. If I mentioned that I knew someone with hair as long as Rapunzel’s, you’d probably know exactly which fairy tale I meant, and how the story goes. That’s how much a part of culture fairy tales and legends are.

We also see them in crime fiction, both in subtle and less-subtle ways. Agatha Christie, for instance, included several references to fairy tales in her stories. One of them is in The Murder on the Links. That story begins with Captain Hastings returning to London after a trip to France. He meets a fellow passenger who, so she says, is going to meet her sister. The two get to talking and end by striking up a friendship. When he asks her name, she tells him it’s Cinderella. Shortly after Hastings returns to London, he and Poirot get involved in a strange case of murder when Poirot receives an urgent letter from Paul Renauld, who lives in the small French town of Merlinville sur Mer. ‘Cinderella’ has a role to play in this story, so we meet up with her again. And at one point she and Hastings have this conversation:

‘‘Cinderella married the Prince, you remember. I’m not a Prince, but—’
 She interrupted me.
 ‘Cinderella warned him I’m sure. You see, she couldn’t promise to turn into a princess. She was only a little scullion after all—’’

Perhaps ‘Cinderella’ doesn’t have evil stepsisters in this story, but the references to that fairy tale are clear.

Nele Neuhaus’ Snow White Must Die features police detectives Pia Kirchoff and Oliver von Bodenstein. In this novel, they investigate a terrible accident in which Rita Cramer falls (or was she pushed?) off a bridge onto a car passing underneath the bridge. As the detectives start to look into the case, they naturally begin with people who know the victim. This leads them to an insular sort of town, where everyone is keeping secrets. It also leads them to a puzzling coincidence (or is it?). It turns out that Rita Cramer’s son Tobias had spent the last ten years in prison in connection with the disappearance of two seventeen-year-old girls. Now he’s been released and has returned to the village. Was he guilty? Then another young girl goes missing. Now the detectives have to ‘fight the clock,’ as the saying goes. This case turns out to be connected to the story of Snow White, and to a play that tells that fairy tale.

Carin Gerhardson’s The Gingerbread House makes, I admit, a less direct connection to the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. But it’s still present, if you look. Stockholm police detective Conny Sjöberg and his team investigate when real estate professional Hans Vannerberg goes out to look at a house for a client and doesn’t return. His body is found at the home of Ingrid Olsson, who was recovering from surgery at the time of the murder, and couldn’t be guilty of it. Since she’s not guilty, the team look among Vannerberg’s family and friends, but there seems to be no motive. Then there’s another murder. And another. Now it looks as though someone either has a personal vendetta, or there’s a serial killer at work. In the end, the answer lies in the past, and in people’s relationships years earlier. This story doesn’t, as I say, directly mention the Grimm Brothers’ story of Hansel and Gretel. And I don’t know for a fact that Gerhardsen took her inspiration from that story. Still, it’s arguably a subtle influence in the novel. There’s even a sort of fairy-tale reference at the beginning of the novel:

‘The brown, Queen Anne-style villa is a stately structure, perched at the top of a grass-covered hill, surrounded by tall pine trees. The white corner posts and window casings, with their rounded corners, give it an inviting, fairy-tale shimmer.’

Despite that almost magical beginning, the story turns out to have anything but a fairy-tale happy ending.

There’s also Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm series, which features Sabrina and Daphne Grimm as youthful sleuths. The novels are intended for young readers, and take place in the world of Everafter, which combines real and fantasy characters. Perhaps this series isn’t targeted at adult readers, but it’s an interesting look at how fairy tales and mystery fiction are woven together.

In Ruth Rendell’s Gallowglass, which she wrote as Barbara Vine, we meet Joe Herbert. He’s despondent and in fact, is about to throw himself under a train. But he’s saved at the last minute by Sandor Wincanton. What Joe doesn’t know at first is that Sandor has plans for him. He wants Joe to be his ‘gallowglass’ – the servant of a Chief. Joe is blindly loyal to Sandor, and is easily groomed for his role in Sandor’s plans. And Sandor uses a very effective means for winning Joe over. He tells the boy a fairy tale about a prince, a kidnapped princess, and the prince’s quest to rescue her. What Sandor’s really planning, though, is something quite different. He is obsessed with supermodel Nina Abbott, and intends to ‘rescue her’ from the heavily guarded home in which she lives. His use of a fairy tale is essential in getting Joe’s cooperation in a quest that turns horribly wrong.

Of course, fairy tales and legends come from many cultures, and we see that in crime fiction too. For instance, Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger features the Ute folktale of Ironhand, a Ute who was able to slip in and out of canyons magically. This allowed him to steal sheep from Navajo (the Utes’ traditional enemy) and confound Navajo attempts to catch him. This tale proves useful when a band of right-wing militiamen pull off a robbery at a Ute casino. It’s suspected that Deputy Sheriff Teddy Bai was an ‘inside person’ who helped the robbers, but Navajo Tribal Police Officer Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito doesn’t think he is guilty. When she tells Sergeant Jim Chee about her concerns, he starts to ask questions. It turns out that the truth about this robbery is related to that Ute folktale.

Fairy tales and folk tales may be dismissed as fantasy. But they have permeated our cultural consciousness. And it’s interesting to see how they also permeate crime fiction.



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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Carin Gerhardsen, Michael Buckley, Nele Neuhaus, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman

You’re Living in the Present Tense*

Stories In the Present TenseHave you noticed that there seems to be a trend in crime fiction towards telling stories in the present tense? Using the present tense is not a brand-new phenomenon in the genre. Still, it seems that many modern crime writers make that choice. Some writers claim that using the present tense conveys more immediacy, and allows a certain character depth. Other writers choose it for other reasons.

Use of the present tense is by no means universally popular though. Traditionally, publishers have frowned on that choice, requesting instead the use of the past tense. And lots of readers dislike reading books told in the present tense. It’s certainly not a settled question.

That said though, there are a lot of writers who’ve used that option. For instance, Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind is told in the present tense. It’s the story of the Anderson family, whose lives are changed forever when four-year-old Gemma Anderson goes missing during a school picnic one terrible day. A massive search is undertaken, but no trace of the girl is ever found – not even a body. The Andersons try to move on as best they can, but they are left shattered. Seventeen years later, Gemma’s older sister Stephanie is a fledgling psychologist who lives and works in Dunedin. She begins working with a new patient, Elisabeth Clark, only to learn that she, too, had a younger sister who disappeared at a young age. Against her better professional judgement, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who is responsible for the abductions. Her journey takes her back to her home town of Wanaka; and as she finds out the truth, she also slowly begins the healing process.

Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin/Vincent Ruiz series is also told in the present tense. It begins with The Suspect. In that novel, the body of Catherine McBride is pulled out of London’s Grand Union Canal. DI Vincent Ruiz discovers that she was a patient of psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, and wants his help in the matter. Then there’s another murder; this time O’Loughlin is clearly implicated. Ruiz already had questions about O’Loughlin, and now it seems that those suspicions are confirmed. Since the story is told from O’Loughlin’s point of view, I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that he is innocent and is being cleverly set up. The question, of course, is by whom and why. It’s an interesting pairing of these two protagonists, and as fans will know, it’s a fruitful partnership.

Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, which takes place in 1981, is the story of Houston area lawyer Jay Porter. One night, he takes his pregnant wife Bernadine ‘Bernie’ out for a bayou cruise to celebrate her birthday. During the trip, they hear a woman’s screams and then gunfire. Then they see a woman tumble into the water. Almost by instinct, Jay rescues her and they return to the boat dock. The woman says very little about herself, and claims that she’ll be fine. But she does consent to be taken to the nearest police station. After she’s dropped off there, the Porters return home. The next morning. Porter learns of a fatal shooting in the area where they rescued the young woman. He doesn’t want to be involved, but ends up drawn into the case, which turns out to be a complicated web of corruption and greed at high levels. This story is told in the present tense; but, interestingly, its follow-up, Pleasantville, is not. That novel takes up Porter’s story fifteen years after the events of Black Water Rising.

Chris Grabenstein’s John Ceepak/Danny Boyle novels are also told in the present tense, from Boyle’s point of view. Beginning with Tilt a Whirl, this series takes place in fictional Sea Haven, New Jersey, and features Boyle, who starts out as an extra ‘summer cop,’ hired to help deal with the tourists. As the series goes on, he becomes a full-time member of the Police Department, and works under the supervision of John Ceepak. These novels are told in the way that you might tell a friend about something that happened to you (e.g. ‘So there I am, sitting at the café, when these two guys come in. They go up to the counter and order…’).

Another author who uses present tense is John Burdett, whose Sonchai Jitpleecheep series takes place in modern Bangkok. Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police. He is also an observant Buddhist who tries to live his life according to those principles. Beginning with Bangkok 8, the series chronicles some of Sonchai’s cases as well as his own personal development. The novels are told in the first person, so we see the events clearly from his point of view. Burdett also uses the present tense/first person as a tool to convey interesting information to the reader. More than once in the series, Sonchai figuratively turns to the reader and offers ‘asides’ on Buddhism, Thai society and philosophy.

And then there’s Ernesto Mallo. His Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano series takes place in late 1970’s Argentina. Lescano is a police officer at a very dangerous time. The far-right military government does not hesitate to silence any opposition, however illusory. And since everyone is trying to stay alive, very few people can be trusted not to ‘sell out’ others. Against this backdrop, Lescano is just trying to do his job and solve cases.  The series begins with Needle in a Haystack, in which Lescano investigates the death of a successful moneylender and pawn broker, Elías Biterman. Every effort is made to make his death look like an Army hit so that the police will leave the case alone, as they so often do. But enough things are different about this case that Lescano stars asking very risky questions.

There are many other novels and series, too, that are written in the present tense (I know, I know, fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels). Some people enjoy the use of that tense; some people really dislike it. Others don’t really notice, or care, one way or the other.

What do you think about this? I’ve put a little poll here so that you can speak up, and I’d love your input. After a week or two, I’ll do a follow-up post on your answers.


Writers, do you use present tense? Why or why not?

ps. A special thanks goes out to FictionFan, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews, for the inspiration for this post.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Geddy Lee’s The Present Tense.


Filed under Attica Locke, Elly Griffiths, Ernesto Mallo, John Burdett, Michael Robotham, Paddy Richardson