Tag Archives: WPLongForm

Give Me One Quick Glance*

Authors build suspense in many different ways, depending on the story, the (sub)genre, and a lot more. One way that some authors do this is by referring to a pivotal incident without actually detailing it, at least at first. When it’s done well, this strategy can invite the reader to engage in the story to find out more about the incident. But it’s not easy to do well. And when it’s done poorly, it simply annoys readers, many of whom don’t want to be strung along like that. That said, though, we do see this strategy in crime fiction.

For instance, in Claire McGowan’s The Lost, forensic psychologist Dr. Paula Maguire returns from London to her native Northern Ireland. She’s been persuaded to help set up a cold case review team in her home town of Ballyterrin. She’s reluctant to return, but her father has recently broken a leg, and this will give her the opportunity to help take care of him. Professionally, she gets involved in the search for several young girls who’ve gone missing. But at first, we’re not told why she left Ballyterrin in the first place. It was a pivotal incident, and it’s referred to here and there, but it’s not detailed until later in the novel. We get hints of it as the story goes on, but we’re not told everything right away.

Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys begins with references to a shooting that takes place in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park. We are not told who’s been shot, nor what led to the shooting. What we do learn is that several police officers were involved, and there’s going to be an internal investigation into what happened. The novel then goes on to tell the stories of those officers. It seems that they regularly gather in the park for what they call ‘choir practice’ – drinking, venting, commiserating, and occasional sex with a couple of cocktail waitresses who stop by from time to time. The group has gotten the name ‘the choirboys,’ and they’re the main focus of the investigation. The novel follows these officers in the days and weeks and months before the shooting as they make arrests, work together, and so on. The, we learn of some key events that take place just before the shooting. The story of what actually happened in the shooting isn’t laid out until close to the end of the book, and then the story moves to the impact it all has on those involved.

In a slightly similar way, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy mentions a line-of-duty shooting incident from very early in the novel. Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck has just returned to work after being badly wounded in this incident, and it’s still impacting his mental as well as his physical health. In fact, he’s become so difficult to work with that he’s ‘volunteered’ to head up a new department – ‘Department Q’ – mostly to get him out of others’ way. This department is charged with looking into cases ‘of special interest,’ which are unsolved cases that need attention. The idea is to show that the police are not ignoring them. The first case that Mørck and his new assistant, Hafez al-Assad investigate is the five-year-old disappearance of up-and-coming politician Merete Lynnggard. It was always believed that she went overboard in a terrible ferry accident, but now, new evidence hints that she is still alive. If she is, the team may not have much time left to find her. The shooting incident that left Mørck injured, one colleague dead, and another with paralysis is not detailed until later in the novel. Then, we learn what led up to it and why Mørck feels as he does about it.

Spencer Quinn’s The Right Side is the story of U.S. Army Sergeant LeAnn Hogan. She’s been very badly wounded in a bombing in Afghanistan and has been in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland. While she’s at Walter Reed, LeAnn befriends her roommate, Marci Cumming, who’s dealing with her own injuries. Then, Marci unexpectedly dies. With that important support system gone, LeAnn decides to leave Walter Reed. She takes a road trip across the US to Bellville, Washington, Marci’s home town. She arrives too late to attend Marci’s funeral, but she does at least want to pay her respects to the family. That’s when she learns that Marci’s eight-year-old daughter, Mia, has gone missing. LeAnn wants to help find the child if she’s still alive, but she soon learns that not everyone is enthused about that. In fact, she encounters some hostile reactions. That doesn’t really deter her, though. In the meantime, LeAnn hears from Captain Gerald Stallings, who’s investigating the bombing that wounded her. There are several things about the incident that aren’t what they seem, and Stallings wants her help, since she was there. LeAnn doesn’t want to get involved for a number of reasons, but she’s not given any other option. So, very reluctantly, and in exchange for Stalling’s help finding Mia, she agrees. It’s not until later in the story, as Stalling’s investigation continues, that we learn the details of what happened in that bombing.

And then there’s Jane Woodham’s Twister, which takes place mostly in Dunedin. A nasty ‘flu virus has decimated the ranks of the police, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. Five days of rain soak the city, and then a twister comes through. In the aftermath of the storm, the body of Tacey Wenlock, who’s been missing for two weeks, is discovered in Ross Creek. Detective Senior Sergeant Leo Judd is tapped to head the investigation into her death, and he wouldn’t have been the first choice. He’s a skilled detective, but his own daughter, Beth, went missing nine years earlier, and has never been found. He and his wife are still devastated, and no-one would have asked him to handle a case so ‘close to home’ as the Wenlock case if there were any other option. Judd and his team dig in and start looking for the truth. Beth’s disappearance is mentioned early in the book, but not detailed. It’s only as the story goes on that we learn what led to it, how that day played out, and what really happened to her.

And there are times when referring to a pivotal incident like that without detailing it can work quite well. If the author gives enough information so that the reader doesn’t feel cheated (but not so much that the reader isn’t curious), the strategy can work. But it’s tricky and can easily fall flat if it’s not done well.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Cramps’ What’s Behind The Mask.


Filed under Claire McGowan, Jane Woodham, Joseph Wambaugh, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Spencer Quinn

In The Spotlight: Paul Thomas’ Death on Demand

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Indigenous fictional detectives bring interesting perspectives to criminal investigation. Among other things, they give the author the opportunity to explore a society from a point of view that’s not always represented. Let’s take a look at one such sleuth today, and turn the spotlight on Paul Thomas’ Death on Demand, the fourth in his Tito Ihaka series. Before I go any further, my apologies if you were very much hoping for a spotlight on Thomas’ Inside Dope. Please see the programming note from my previous post for an explanation.

Death on Demand begins with a few, seemingly disjointed scenes: a young man leaving rural Greytown, New Zealand, for Auckland; four friends who get together each year for a ‘lads’ weekend;’ three other murders. Then, the story’s focus turns to Tito Ihaka. Five years earlier, he investigated the case of Christopher Lilywhite, who was suspected of hiring a paid assassin to kill his wife. Lilywhite’s lawyers maintained that the killers were young people who stole a car and committed the murder in a hit-and-run incident. And the police investigation didn’t turn up much to contradict that. But Ihaka always believed Lilywhite guilty. For that, he was banished from Auckland to Wairarapa and demoted to the rank of Sergeant.

Now, his former boss, Finbar McGrail, wants him to come back to Auckland. It seems that Lilywhite has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and wants to talk to Ihaka before he dies. Ihaka returns to Auckland and meets with Lilywhite. And what he learns is disturbing. Lilywhite confesses that he arranged for his wife’s murder. Then, he says that he thinks the killer is still out there, committing other crimes. The next day, he himself dies. And Ihaka is soon on the trail of a skilled and ruthless professional killer.

This is, in many ways, a police procedural, so there’s a focus on evidence, witness interviews, and so on. Police politics also play an important role. There’s new leadership among the Auckland Police, and Ihaka is not one of the ‘in crowd.’ In fact, he’s got quite a few enemies on the force. But he has friends, too, especially Finbar McGrail. And Ihaka is not at all one to back down from a challenge, so he doesn’t exactly stand by and let himself be pushed around, figuratively or otherwise. Among other things, this is an interesting look at power plays on the force.

The threads of the case are complicated on the surface, especially since the victims don’t seem to have had much in common. But, little by little, we learn how the different facets of the case are tied together. It’s a complex story, but once Ihaka gets to the heart of it, he sees how the various pieces fit together. The story isn’t told in a strictly linear, sequential way. Readers who prefer only one plot line, and a linear unfolding of the truth, will notice this. Without spoiling the story, I can strongly suggest paying attention to the characters and the action right from the beginning, so as to keep track as the plot unfolds.

This is not at all a light story. The solution to the mystery is a dark one, and even when the truth is revealed, it doesn’t bring back the dead, as the saying goes, or make everything all right again. It’s dark in another sense, too. Especially when it comes to his colleagues, Ihaka has learned to be cynical and not very trusting. And it’s as well he’s like that here. Several people are not what they seem, and there are some real questions as to who can be trusted and who can’t.

As you might expect with a story like this, there’s violence, and some of it’s ugly. It’s not drawn-out, or described in minute detail, but it’s there. And there’s quite a lot of very explicit language. Readers who don’t like a lot of profanity will want to know that.

All of that said, though, there is some wit in the story, mostly of the ‘gallows’ sort. Here, for instance, is Ihaka’s feeling about talking to witnesses:

‘Ihaka attached a fair amount of significance to a suspect’s reaction to his unheralded appearance. They didn’t have to s**t themselves, but blithe unconcern was a downer.’

And he has a habit of turning up just when suspects and witnesses think they’re rid of him.

That tenacity is an important part of Ihaka’s character. So is his ability to put the pieces of a puzzle together. He is a brilliant detective, and there are times when that’s the only reason his colleagues put up with him. He refuses to play politics, he is outspoken, and he’s not one for snappy dressing, social ‘small talk’ or any of he other things people do to ‘get along.’

Another aspect of Ihaka’s character is that he is Māori. He doesn’t observe all of the traditional customs of his people, but he is proud of his cultural identity. And he does have close connections with his extended family. It’s interesting to see, too, how he is treated because of it. Most of the people he’s in contact with are not obviously, consciously racist. And everyone is aware that it’s not acceptable to behave in obviously racist ways. Ihaka himself would like to put the past in the past, and just deal with people as, well, people. But race does figure into the way some react to him, and there’s an occasional race-related comment.

Death on Demand is a hard-hitting, sometimes darkly witty, police procedural that mixes police politics with a difficult criminal investigation. It has a distinctive North Island setting and features a tenacious sleuth who’s much more concerned about learning the truth than he is for political niceties. But what’s your view? Have you read Death on Demand? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 20 August/Tuesday 21 August – In a Dark, Dark Wood – Ruth Ware

Monday, 27 August/Tuesday, 28 August – Faces of the Gone – Brad Parks

Monday, 3 September/Tuesday, 4 September – Bats in the Belfry – E.C.R. Lorac



Filed under Paul Thomas

But This is Where I Start*

Many people might like (or even prefer) to read a series in order. But there are plenty of good reasons one might not do that. For example, the first novel(s) in a series might be out of print. Or, might not be translated into a language a reader speaks. Or, a reader might have been gifted a book that falls later in a series. Or, a reader might try a later book because it’s conveniently available in a library, and the reader wants to sample the author before buying a book. There’s also the issue of geography and publishers’ decisions about where to make books available.

There are lots of other reasons, too, for which readers don’t follow a series in strict order. So, if an author wants to win (and keep) fans, it’s wise to be aware of this, and try to welcome readers wherever in a series they start.

One way to do that is not to include information later in a series that spoils an earlier novel. Much as I am a fan of Agatha Christie (and anyone who knows me, knows that’s true!), I must admit she’s done that a couple of times. I try to warn people, for instance, not to start their explorations of Christie with Dumb Witness or Cards on the Table. Both contain spoilers to other novels. Now, to be fair, Christie doesn’t specifically, say, refer to someone as a killer (e.g. ‘X, who killed Y.’). But at the same time, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to join the dots, especially if you happen to remember those two books later when you read the earlier ones. Avoiding spoilers can be a challenge if one writes story arcs. But it is worth the effort.

It’s also worth the effort to remind readers of the major characters’ backstories. For instance, fans of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee know that his boat, The Busted Flush got its name because he won the boat in a card game. Those who’ve followed the series don’t need the full-length version of that game. But new readers who start later in the series might not know anything about The Busted Flush’s history. MacDonald addresses this by mentioning the card game in later novels. But it’s said more or less in passing, without going into all of the details. In this way, new readers are told about it, but those who’ve followed the series aren’t told the same story again and again.

We see that in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourne Shreve series, too. She is an academician and political scientist (in later novels, she has retired from her university work). She’s also the mother of four children. The youngest, Taylor, is adopted, and Bowen tells the story of her adoption in Murder at the Mendel. The story is referred to in later novels, so that new readers can ‘meet’ Taylor properly and can understand some of the things that happen in those later novels. But Bowen doesn’t go into full details in each book. That series provides a balance between welcoming new readers, wherever they start a series, and keeping existing fans interested.

If I may say it, I’ve done a similar thing. In my first novel, Publish or Perish, my sleuth, Joel Williams, works with the police to solve the murder of a promising graduate student. At the end of the novel, Williams inherits the victim’s dog, Oscar. And Oscar makes appearances in my other Joel Williams novels, too. From time to time I mention that Williams adopted Oscar after the dog’s prior owner was killed. But I don’t go into the details about who the person was, how he was murdered, and so on.

Sometimes, it only takes a few words to welcome new readers. For instance, fans of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels and of his Mickey Haller novels will know that those two men are half-brothers. Their father was a prominent attorney, and they had different mothers. Later in life they meet, and occasionally work together. The Black Ice tells the story of how Bosch discovered his father’s identity, and about his meeting with his father, and a few other details. Later novels refer to the fact that Bosch and Haller are half-brothers, but Connelly doesn’t go into long descriptions in each novel about how the two men met, what their father was like, and so on. Fans already know that information, and new readers get enough background to engage themselves in the story and, perhaps, go back to an earlier novel if they wish.


Programming Note

All of this thinking about the structure of a series came about because of something that happened to me quite recently. If you’re kind enough to follow my ‘In The Spotlight’ series, you’ll know that I had planned to spotlight Paul Thomas’ Inside Dope tomorrow (Monday, 13 August). It’s the second of Thomas’ Tito Ikaha series, and it’s one that I didn’t have myself, so I ordered it (it’s not as easy to get as you’d think!). Without going into the details of it, it was hard to find the title, and it proved far more complicated to get than I thought it would. I didn’t receive it until far, far too late to go over it properly and spotlight it. But….I still wanted to share Paul Thomas’ work with you. So… I decided to spotlight Thomas’ Death on Demand, which I already had, instead. It’s the fourth in the series. My apologies in advance for any annoyance and/or inconvenience. Fortunately, Thomas welcomes new readers to his series wherever they start, so I suppose all’s well that ends well. But it just goes to show that there might be any number of reasons that a reader might start a series with a later novel. And readers appreciate it when the author welcomes them wherever they start.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, John D. MacDonald, Michael Connelly, Paul Thomas

Find Out the Truth*

As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, most criminals aren’t eager to be caught. And there’s not always enough evidence to bring charges against someone. So, at least in crime fiction, the sleuth sometimes has to use some creativity to get the criminal to confess.

There are limits to what fictional police sleuths can do. For instance, entrapment – enticing someone to commit a crime she or he would not otherwise commit – is not allowed. And there’s a very fine line between a ‘sting’ operation (which is permissible) and entrapment. And even if the sleuth is not a cop, there’s still the credibility factor. Still, sleuths can be innovative, and sometimes have to be.

In Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat mystery, for instance, Inspector Richard Queen investigates the poisoning death of an attorney, Monte Field, who was also a blackmailer. He was killed in a theatre, so it’s hard a first to narrow down the list of people who could have committed the crime. And, even when the Queens do work out who was responsible, they don’t have the sort of evidence needed to pursue the case. So, they devise a ruse that, today, might be considered entrapment. They entice the killer into attempting another murder in the same way, using the same poison.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that, more than once, her sleuths find creative ways to catch killers, even without a lot of evidence. For instance, in The Moving Finger, Miss Marple helps to solve the mystery of who’s been writing a series of vicious anonymous letters to the residents of the small town of Lymstock. Several of the villagers take those letters very seriously; there’s even a suicide (or was it a suicide?) associated with one of them. Then, there’s an obvious murder. Miss Marple works out who the killer is, but there’s not a lot of proof. So, she sets up what you might call a trap, and ‘baits’ it with another character, to flush the killer out. Fans of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series will know that Beck and his team use a rather similar sort of ‘trap’ in Roseanna. They know who the killer of twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw is, but they don’t have the proof they need. So, they lure the killer into trying for another victim. And it works.

Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes introduces readers to John ‘Duke’ Anderson. He’s recently been released from prison, and has a legitimate job working in a print factory. But, then, he gets a chance to visit an exclusive Manhattan apartment building. Impressed by the luxury he sees, Anderson can’t resist the opportunity to set up a heist – and not just of one apartment, either. His scheme is to rob the whole building. For that, he’s going to need some help. So, he contacts several people he knows to get supplies, a getaway truck, and so on. What he doesn’t know is that the FBI and various other agencies have been interested in several of Anderson’s contacts for some time. And they know full well that those criminals are not going to be easy to catch. In order to get the proof they need, these agencies have gotten clearance for wiretapping and other surveillance. They’re hoping this will get the evidence they need to convince the people they’ve targeted. So, much of what Anderson says to these people is recorded. The question is: will they learn of Anderson’s scheme before he and his team have the chance to pull it off?

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Precious Ramotswe gets a new client, Happy Bapetse. Like other members of her culture, Happy has been taught that caring for elderly relatives, especially parents, is her responsibility. So, when a man shows up at her home claiming to be her father, Happy welcomes him and starts to take care of him. But she slowly begins to suspect that the man is not her father at all, but someone who wants to take advantage of the fact that she’s done well in life. So, she goes to Mma Ramotswe to get some help. Mma Ramotswe soon sees that she isn’t going to get this man to admit his scam. So, she sets up a ruse that forces his hand, as the saying goes. And it works.

And then there’s Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands. In it, twelve-year-old Steven Lamb takes a very risky decision. His family has been devastated for a long time by the loss of his uncle, Billy Peters, who went missing nineteen years earlier. Steven wants his family to heal, and he believes that finding his uncle’s body, assuming he’s dead, will at least allow his family to start that process. It was always assumed that a man named Arnold Avery, who’s currently in prison for another child murder, killed Billy. So, Steven decides to write to Avery, and try to find out from him whether he killed Uncle Billy, and if so, where the body is buried. It’s a very daring ploy, since Avery has never admitted to that murder. And it begins a dangerous game of ‘cat and mouse’ between the two. And the stakes get higher as time goes on.

It can be very risky to try to get a criminal to admit wrongdoing, especially if it’s a serious crime like murder. But, few criminals are eager to tell what they’ve done. So, sometimes, a fictional sleuth has to come up with a different approach to getting the truth.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Love and Money’s Axis of Love.  


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Belinda Bauer, Ellery Queen, Lawrence Sanders

The Children, They Know*

A few days ago, I did a post on fictional interrogations, and the leaven that they can add to a story. When the subject is an adult, there are all sorts of possibilities, depending on what the author wants to achieve, and on the circumstances in the story. An interrogation can be gentle, verbally rough, or more.

Things are quite different when the subject is a child. For one thing, children don’t have an adult’s perspective or knowledge. So, they may have seen something without understanding what it all means. And, they may think they’ll get deeply in trouble for something if they tell what they know, even if they had nothing to do with the crime at hand. There’s also the issue of betrayal. Children may feel that, by telling what they know, they’re betraying a friend or an important adult. And that’s to say nothing of the trauma a child might feel after witnessing a crime. All of this means that interviewing or interrogating a child can be an extremely delicate, and tricky, matter.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, for instance, Hercule Poirot works with the police to find out who strangled famous actress Arlena Marshall. She was taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel, with her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, and her stepdaughter, Linda Marshall, when she was killed. And, as it turns out, more than one person at the hotel could have murdered her. As a matter of course, the police and Poirot talk to sixteen-year-old Linda. Like most teens, she’s awkward and not comfortable in her own skin, as the saying goes. At first, she says she liked her stepmother, and that Arlena was quite kind. But that’s not exactly how she really feels, and it’s not long before Poirot works out that there are things Linda’s not saying. It’s interesting to see how both he and Colonel Weston (who’s investigating for the police) handle questioning Linda.

Peter Robinson’s first Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks novel is Gallows View. In it, we learn that Banks has recently moved with his family from London to the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. And it’s not long before he’s enmeshed in a few cases. One of them is a voyeur who’s been making the lives of Eastvale women miserable. There’s also a series of home invasions. Then, there’s a murder. Mixed up in some of this is Trevor Sharp, a teenager who doesn’t quite fit in. When he starts spending a lot of time with local hoodlum Mick Webster, you can imagine the consequences aren’t going to be exactly happy. Banks and his team talk to Trevor, and it’s interesting to see how he uses a very teenaged mix of bluster and lies to try to stay out of trouble.

Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness introduces Scotland Yard Inspector John Madden. He is called to the small village of Highfield when Colonel Charles Fletcher, his wife, Lucy, their maid, Sally Pepper, and the nanny, Alice Crookes, are found murdered. The only survivor is the Fletchers’ daughter, Sophy. But it’s nearly impossible to talk to her. For one thing, she’s only four years old. For another, she was hiding under a bed at the time of the murder and is coping with a great deal of trauma. In fact, local GP Dr. Helen Blackwell doesn’t want the police talking to Sophy at all. She and Madden clash a bit about this, but he finally accedes to Blackwell’s request that Sophy go away to visit relatives for a time. That doesn’t mean that the child isn’t of any help, though. She communicates in her own way, through art, and it’s interesting to see how the police and Blackwell use what they learn from her.

Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road takes place in the rural South Australia town of Tiverton. Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen has been transferred there from Adelaide, mostly as a punishment. He’s seen as a ‘whistleblower’ in an internal investigation, so to say the least, he is not popular among his new colleagues. Still, he does the best he can when the body of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan is found by Bitter Wash Road. As Hirsch tries to trace the victim’s last days and weeks, he learns about her best friend, Gemma Pitcher, who works at the local convenience store. If anyone knows what Melia might have been doing, and with whom, it’ll be Gemma. At first, Gemma does everything she can to avoid Hirsch. But he finally manages to talk to her. It’s not easy, as Gemma doesn’t want to be disloyal, or get herself in trouble. But she eventually tells him what she knows, and it proves to be useful information.

And then there’s Donna Malane’s My Brother’s Keeper. Wellington missing person expert Diane Rowe gets a new client, Karen Mackie. Karen’s recently been released from prison after serving time for the murder of her son, Falcon, and attempted murder of her daughter, Sunny. Now, she wants Diane to find Sunny (who’s now fourteen), whom she hasn’t seen for the seven years she was in prison. Diane makes no promises and warns Karen that she won’t reveal where Sunny is without the girl’s approval. Karen agrees to those terms, and Diane gets to work. Finding Sunny (who’s living with her father, Justin) turns out to be quite straightforward. But then, there’s a not-so-straightforward murder. And it turns out there is much more to this case than it seems on the surface. At one point, there’s an interesting bit, told from Sunny’s perspective, that takes place immediately after the incident in which her brother was killed. She’s seven at this time, and a police officer is asking her about what happened. What’s particularly interesting about this is that we see how a seven-year-old thinks and responds, and how the police adapt their interview/interrogation strategies when the subject is a child.

It’s not an easy thing to do. But it is important if the police are going to get information from child witnesses. These are jus a few examples. I know you’ll think of many more.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chuck Mangione’s Look to the Children.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Malane, Garry Disher, Peter Robinson, Rennie Airth