Category Archives: Lawrence Block

Words of Wisdom*

You might not think of crime novels as sources for ‘words of wisdom.’ But they can be. In fact, there’s a surprising amount of everyday wisdom in lots of crime novels. Sometimes, those gems come from the sleuth; sometimes they don’t. Either way, though, you can learn some interesting lessons when you read in the genre.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing in response to a letter from Miss Emily Arundell, who lived there. She wasn’t specific in her letter, but referred to a delicate matter on which she wanted to consult Poirot. By the time Poirot and Hastings get to Market Basing, though, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died. At first, it’s put down to liver failure. But Poirot is not convinced, and he decides to look into the matter. One of the people he and Hastings consult is Miss Caroline Peabody, who’s known the Arundell family for a very long time. She tells the two men about Miss Arundell’s sisters, saying that one of them had ‘a face like a scone.’ Here’s what she says next:
 

‘There’s something to be said for marrying a plain woman; you know the worst at once and she’s not so likely to be flighty.’
 

Now, admittedly, that might be seen as a dated way to think about a woman’s value. But it does hint at the importance of character as opposed to outward appearance. And it’s an interesting perspective on the times.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has learned some important lessons in his time first as a police officer, and now as a private investigator. And, although Block’s novels aren’t necessarily what you’d call philosophical, they do offer some of Scudder’s hard-won wisdom. In The Sins of the Fathers, for instance, successful business executive Cale Hanniford hires Scudder to find out about the death of his daughter, Wendy. There seems no doubt that she was murdered by her roommate, Richard Vanderpoel. In fact, the case has already been closed. But Hanniford had been estranged from his daughter, and he wants to know more about the person she had become. Scudder agrees to find out what he can, and he starts asking questions. He slowly traces Wendy’s last weeks and months and learns more about her. And, in the end, he finds out the truth about her death, too. At one point, here is what he says about getting information:
 

‘You have to know when to stop. You can never find out everything, but you can almost always find out more than you already know, and there is a point at which any additional data you discover is irrelevant and any time you spend on it wasted.’
 

It’s not easy to know where the right stopping point is, but it’s interesting to consider that there is one.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger is the story of Fabien Delorme. When he is informed that his wife, Sylvie, has died in a car crash, he is, of course, sad at her loss. But their marriage hadn’t been a good one for some time. What upsets him even more is that she was with someone else at the time of the crash. Her lover, Martial Arnoult, also died, and Delorme learns that he left a widow, Martine. Delorme finds out more about her, and slowly becomes obsessed. That obsession draws both of them into a spiral of events, and the end result is real tragedy. At one point, Delorme reflects on their marriage, and how happy they were at first. In fact, he thinks that they were so happily wrapped up in each other at that time, that their friends started avoiding them:
 

‘Everyone knows that excessive happiness is as off-putting as excessive misfortune.’ 
 

That’s a very cynical point of view, of course, but there’s a grain of wisdom in there about constant cheerfulness without the acknowledgement that misfortune happens, too.

One of Kerry Greenwood’s sleuths is Melbourne-based baker, Corinna Chapman. At one point, she was an accountant. But she has discovered that baking, especially breads, is her passion. In Trick or Treat, though, she is in great danger of losing the bakery. In one of the plot threads of that novel, some of the local supply of flour has become poisoned with ergot. In fact, there’s already been an ergot-related death. Now, all of the bakeries have to be temporarily closed until they can be shown to be ergot-free. There are other plot threads, too, that threaten Chapman’s, and the bakery’s, peaceful existence. When the danger is past, here’s what Chapman thinks about it:
 

‘I had come very near to losing all the things I valued and I valued them more now that I knew how very much I would miss them.’
 

It certainly offers a perspective on the things we hold dear.

And then there’s the list of Solomon’s Laws. They are the creation of Paul Levine’s Steve Solomon, a Coconut Grove (Florida) lawyer. He’s not afraid to push the limits of what’s accepted in the courtroom, and some judges do get annoyed at his antics. But he is completely dedicated and tireless when it comes to defending his clients. And he’s good at what he does. He’s developed a series of laws that guide the way he lives. Here are a few of them:
 

When the law doesn’t work…work the law
In law and in life, sometimes you have to wing it.
I will never compromise my ideals to achieve someone else’s definition of success.
Lie to your priest, your spouse, and the IRS, but always tell your lawyer the truth.
We all hold the keys to our own jails.
 

The novels have a lot of wit in them. Still, there is some real wisdom in some of these laws.

And that’s part of what makes crime fiction such an interesting genre. Yes, there are characters, plots, and so on. But there’s also a lot of wisdom. Who’d’a thunk?

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Kerry Greenwood, Lawrence Block, Pascal Garnier, Paul Levine

But I Got These Short Stories in My Bag*

Agatha Christie’s The Big Four started life as a series of short stories that were drawn together. And, as you’ll know, several of her sleuths (the Beresfords, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot) feature in both short stories and full-length novels. That’s not easy to accomplish. Short stories require a different form of writing to novels. That may be part of the reason for which some authors are better known for (perhaps even better at) short stories or novels.

Many authors who do both short stories and novels use their novels for ‘regular’ sleuths, and short stories for different sleuths, different styles of writing, and so on. Other authors, though, feature their main protagonists in both formats. There are advantages to doing this. Readers who are new to an author can ‘meet’ the author’s sleuth in short stories, and then move on to novels. For the author, a short story or a collection can be an effective way to keep a featured sleuth active while a new novel is in the works.

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. That’s the format for which he is perhaps most famous. But he also wrote four Holmes novels, including Holmes’ first appearance in A Study in Scarlet. Many people (certainly not all) think the short stories are better. Aidan at Mysteries Ahoy has an interesting discussion about A Study in Scarlet and the novels vs the short stories. You’ll want to check that out for a more in-depth look at that novel. And you’ll want to have a look at Aidan’s blog. Rich discussions and thoughtful reviews await you.

John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole actually started life as a television character. As you’ll know, he is a barrister who is completely dedicated to defending his clients. He doesn’t always like them, and he doesn’t always really think they’re innocent. But he always does his utmost for them. The move from television to short stories and novellas makes sense, when you consider the television episode format. The content of a short story or novella is often appropriate for the length of a television episode. It’s harder to fit the content of a full-length novel into a one-hour or ninety-minute television episode. Still, there are a few Rumpole novels. Rumpole’s Return, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, and Rumpole and the Reign of Terror are three of them.

Ellery Queen appears in a number of novels, beginning with The Roman Hat Mystery. And, most people think of those novels when they think of Queen. But he also appears in a number of short stories and collections. For example, there’s the Ellery Queen Omnibus, which contains nineteen short stories. The Adventures of Ellery Queen, which includes eleven short stories, and The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, which includes nine short stories and the novella The Lamp of God. Like Christie’s short stories, some of these are reprinted in more than one collection. But the net result is a variety of different ways for readers to experience Queen.

Lawrence Block has been quite prolific. Perhaps his most famous sleuth, though, is Matthew Scudder, the former police detective who’s become his own sort of private investigator. Scudder’s appeared in a number of novels (e.g. The Sins of the Father, Eight Million Ways to Die, and When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes). Many readers know him mostly through those novels. But Scudder has also appeared in several short story collections (e.g. The Night and the Music).

So has Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. He’s a Southern California PI who first appears in 1949’s The Moving Target. There are sixteen other novels in which he features. But he also appears in short story form, too. There are three Lew Archer collections: The Name is Archer; Lew Archer, Private Investigator; and, Strangers in Town. There aren’t as many Archer short stories as there are novels. But those stories allow readers a chance to get to know him. In fact, it was through a short story, The Singing Pigeon, that I first ‘met’ Lew Archer.

Elly Griffiths has also been versatile in her writing. Her Ruth Galloway series features Galloway, who is a forensic archaeologist. Thus far, there are ten novels in that series, and many people have become acquainted with Griffiths’ writing through them. But she’s also done a short story, Ruth’s First Christmas Tree. It’ll be interesting to see, as time goes by, whether Galloway appears in other short stories at some point.

And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus. Rebus has featured in a number of full-length novels, beginning with Knots and Crosses. And those novels have allowed Rankin to explore quite a lot about Scotland, about history, and about Rebus. Fans of the series have followed the various story arcs and gotten to know the characters through those novels. But Rankin has also written several short stories featuring Rebus. They’re all collected, if you’re interested in The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories.

There are, of course, many other examples of authors whose main characters appear in both novels and short stories; I know you can think of many more than I could. How do you feel about this? Do you have a preference for novels or short stories about the fictional characters you like best? If you’re a writer, do you write both novels and short stories about your main character(s)?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Current Swell’s Short Stories.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Elly Griffiths, Ian Rankin, John Mortimer, Lawrence Block, Ross Macdonald

When I Looked It Wasn’t There*

In real life and in a lot of crime fiction (especially whodunits and howdunits), the sleuth depends on evidence that’s discovered. It may be footprints, a paper or electronic ‘trail,’ or something else. But sometimes, it’s just as important to consider the evidence that isn’t there. That, too, can give the sleuth important information, or even solve a case.

One of the most famous examples of this lack of evidence comes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze. In that story, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the disappearance of a famous racehorse, Silver Blaze, and the death of his trainer, John Straker. London bookmaker Fitzroy Simpson is considered the most likely suspect; the theory is that he abducted the horse to rig the race. But there are pieces of evidence that also point elsewhere. For example, there’s the clue of what the stable dog did on the night the horse went missing. Scotland Yard’s Tobias Gregory points out that,
 

‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’ 
 

And that, says Holmes, is precisely what’s interesting about the case. The dog would have been expected to bark but did nothing. And that fact points Holmes in the right direction.

The real action in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts) begins when famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright hosts a cocktail party. He invites several people, including the Reverend Stephen Babbington and his wife. During the party, Babbington suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. There seems to be no motive for the murder, as Babbington had no enemies, and certainly no fortune to leave. There’s nothing in his past, either, that would suggest him as a victim. Then, there’s another murder. And another. Hercule Poirot gets involved in the case, in part because he was present at the cocktail party. He learns that what one of the witnesses can’t tell him is just as important as what any of the witnesses can tell him.

In Lawrence Block’s first Matthew Scudder novel, The Sins of the Father, Scudder gets a visit from successful executive Cale Hanniford. It seems that Hanniford’s daughter, Wendy, has recently been murdered. The police have arrested her roommate, Richard Vanderpoel, for the crime, and they have overwhelming evidence against him. In fact, Hanniford’s not even asking Scudder to find the murderer. Rather, he wants to know more about Wendy’s life. He and his daughter had been estranged, and he wants to know the sort of person she was, and what led to her death. It’s a strange request, but Scudder agrees to ask some questions. One of his stops is to visit Vanderpoel in prison. He meets with the young man but can’t get much information from him. Then, unexpectedly, Vanderpoel commits suicide. The police think it’s a case of remorse, but Scudder isn’t so sure of that. So, he keeps asking questions. And it turns out that what Vanderpoel didn’t or couldn’t say is at least as important as what he did say.

Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt a Whirl introduces readers to Sea Haven, New Jersey, police officer Danny Boyle. In this novel, he’s a ‘summer cop’ – not a full-time member of the police force. One day, he and his boss, John Ceepak, are eating breakfast at a local restaurant when they are interrupted by a tragedy. Twelve-year-old Ashley Hart stumbles up the street, screaming incoherently about her father. Ceepak and Boyle manage to get her to calm down a bit, and she tells them what happened. She and her father, billionaire Reginald Hart, were on the Turtle-Twirl Tilt-a-Whirl ride at the local amusement park. While they were there, a strange man with a gun shot her father and ran off. The girl’s description matches a local homeless man nicknamed Squeegee. He sometimes works at a local car wash, but he hasn’t been there lately, so a search is made for him. There are other possibilities, though, and Ceepak and Boyle follow up a number of leads. They do get to the truth about the murder, but not until they make sense of some evidence that wasn’t there…

And then there’s Robin Blake’s The Hidden Man. In that historical (1742) novel, attorney and town Coroner Titus Cragg and his friend, Dr. Luke Fidelis, investigate the murder of local pawnbroker and would-be banker Philip Pimbo. On the surface, it looks very much like a case of suicide. But Fidelis isn’t so sure that’s the case, and Cragg is inclined to believe him. If it was murder, there are certainly suspects. The killer could be a member of Pimbo’s household. There’s also the fact that not long before his death, Pimbo had backed a ship called The Fortunate Isle. A few weeks before Pimbo’s death, his business partner, Zadok Moon, launched a claim against the company that insured the ship, saying that the ship and all its cargo were lost. Craig tries to track down Moon to get more information about this claim, but Moon has gone missing. This, too, might be a murder. If it is, there’s a chance that it could be related to Pimbo’s business dealings. It’s a difficult case, and Cragg and Fidelis don’t get all the answers until they learn about some evidence that they should have had access to, but wasn’t there.

Sometimes those pieces of evidence, or witnesses, or other aspects of a case that should be there, but aren’t, really are important. In fact, they can be at the heart of the solution to a mystery. These are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of others.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Moody Blues’ The Day We Meet Again.

 

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Chris Grabenstein, Lawrence Block, Robin Blake

I Prefer You*

Many crime writers have more than one series. This lets them explore different characters and plot lines. Having more than one series gives authors other options, too. It also lets them reach out to different audiences.

And that’s what’s interesting. Even ardent fans of an author usually prefer one of that author’s series over the other. While I have no hard data, my guess is that there are several reasons for that, and those reasons interact with one another.

One of the reasons might be that there are simply more novels in one of an author’s series than in the other. For example, Agatha Christie wrote 33 novels, a play, and more than 50 short stories featuring Hercule Poirot. She wrote 12 Miss Marple novels and a few short story collections. By contrast, she wrote only 4 novels and one short story collection featuring Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. It’s not surprising, if you think about it, that fans of Agatha Christie would prefer either Poirot or Miss Marple. It’s not necessarily because they are better stories (although some would argue that they are). It might also be that the Beresfords don’t get the ‘press’ that Poirot and Miss Marple do.

A similar thing might be said of Reginald Hill’s work. He wrote 24 novels featuring Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe, and many people know him from those stories (and the TV series based on them). But he also wrote 5 novels featuring Joe Sixsmith. There are people who like them better, but my guess is, most people think of Dalziel and Pascoe when they think of Hill.

Sometimes, an author’s different series features two very different contexts and/or main characters. So, a reader’s preference might have to do with the setting or the characters. For instance, Kerry Greenwood has two successful series. One features the Honorable Phryne Fisher, a 1920’s socialite who becomes a private detective. That series has been adapted for television, with Essie Davis in the role of Phryne Fisher. Greenwood’s other series features former accountant-turned baker Corinna Chapman. She’s quite a different sort of character to Phryne Fisher, although both are independent, intelligent, quick-witted women. The two series are quite different, too. One takes place in the 1920s; the other is contemporary. One is told in third person (past tense), the other in first person (also past tense). There are other differences, too, and readers certainly respond to them.

That’s arguably also the case with Ann Cleeves’ Jimmy Perez series and her Vera Stanhope series. They’re both contemporary series, and both feature a police detective. But, as fans know, they have different settings. The Perez series takes place in Shetland, while the Stanhope series takes place in Northumbria. The two characters are quite different as well, even apart from their genders. So, it’s not surprising that some readers prefer the Vera Stanhope novels, and some prefer the Jimmy Perez series

There are also authors who have written very different types of series. For example, consider Donald Westlake’s work. He was a prolific author, so I’ll only focus on two of his series. Under his own name, he wrote a series featuring professional thief John Dortmunder. Under the name of Richard Stark, he wrote another series featuring another professional criminal named Parker. Although both main characters are professional criminals, the series are quite different. The Parker series is gritty, and Parker himself is ruthless. He doesn’t hesitate to kill if the need arises, and he is capable of being quite violent when pushed to it. There is wit in the series, but it’s not at all a light ‘comic caper’ series. The Dortmunder series, on the other hand, is lighter (although it, too, isn’t really a ‘comic caper’ series). Dortmunder isn’t a coward, but he prefers to avoid violence if he can. He’d rather make the right plans so that violent confrontation isn’t necessary. Of course, fans can tell you that Dortmunder’s carefully-laid plans seldom work out the way he hopes that they will. Many readers find his character more sympathetic than that of Parker. Others, though, prefer the grit and cool, logical efficiency of the Parker character.

Lawrence Block, also a prolific writer, has created two very different series in his Matthew Scudder novels and stories, and his Bernie Rhodenbarr novels and stories. Scudder is a former NYPD officer who’s become a PI. The stories featuring him tend to be dark and gritty, and fans know that Scudder goes through some very difficult times as the series goes on. And in it, Block explores the dark side of human nature. So, the endings aren’t usually neat, ‘everything will be all right now’ sorts of endings. By contrast, his Bernie Rhodenbarr novels are lighter, even comic. Rhodenbarr is a professional thief and lock picker who doesn’t set out to be involved in murders. But he does come across bodies in his line of work, and he is highly motivated not to be arrested for home invasion or theft (or murder!). So, he investigates as much to keep himself out of trouble as for any other reason. This is a very different sort of series to the Matthew Scudder series, so it isn’t surprising that some fans like one series better than the other.

And these are by no means the only examples of authors who write more than one series. When that happens, fans often do go for one series or another. Is that true of you? If an author whose work you love writes multiple series, which is your preference? Why?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Monk Higgins, Harvey Fuqua, Morris Dollison, and Dave McAleer.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Donald Westlake, Kerry Greenwood, Lawrence Block, Reginald Hill, Richard Stark

I Had to Let it Happen, I Had to Change*

Don’t tell anyone, will you, but one of the writing projects I’m working on is a standalone (well, thus far a standalone) that features a character from one of my Joel Williams novels. By the time the book is ready for human consumption, it will have been a few years since we ‘met’ this character. And that means that (hopefully), the character’s done some growing and maturing. After all, as we get older, have experiences, and so on, we hopefully learn and become more mature.

That’s one of the advantages, really, of following (and writing) a series. Readers can follow along as characters grow, evolve, and mature. And authors can enrich their characters and explore them. This allows for all sorts of possibilities.

Agatha Christie’s main characters don’t really evolve and mature the way some other authors’ characters do. Hercule Poirot has aged considerably in Curtain, and Miss Marple becomes warmer, more compassionate, and less of a gossip in later novels than she is in The Murder at the Vicarage. But Christie didn’t really focus on character evolution over time in the same way that some other authors have.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has evolved considerably as the series featuring him has gone on. In the first novel, The Sins of the Fathers, he is still reeling from a tragic accidental shooting that caused him to leave the New York Police Department. He drinks far too much, he and his wife have parted ways, and he’s at loose ends, as the saying goes. Over time, Scudder slowly starts to pick up the pieces. He stops drinking and starts attending AA meetings. And, although his alcoholism is always a struggle for him, Scudder makes the commitment to stay sober. He finds love again, too. As you can imagine, he never ‘gets over’ the shooting that changed his life. That scar is permanent. But he learns to live with it, if I can put it that way.

When we first meet Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Grace Makutsi (in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), she is an overeager graduate of the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills. She is bright and hard-working, but she has growing to do (don’t we all!). Over the course of the novels, Mma Makutski gains some confidence and learns that sometimes, rules are made to be – erm – flexible. She also develops an interest in and talent for detection, so that she becomes an Associate Detective who investigates cases just like her boss, Mma Precious Ramotswe.

In Jane Casey’s The Burning, we are introduced to her sleuth, Met Detective Constable (DC) Maeve Kerrigan.  In The Reckoning, Casey introduces another regular character/fellow sleuth, Detective Inspector (DI) Josh Derwent. When we first meet him, Derwent has the reputation for being,
 

‘…obsessively hard-working and infinitely aggressive.’
 

He’s not overly pleased to be working with women (one of whom, Una Bart, ends up outranking him). And he’s not much of a ‘team player.’ Over time, he does do some growing. He slowly learns to pay attention to his colleagues’ views of cases. And he grudgingly starts to learn that women can be highly competent and professional colleagues. None of it’s easy for him, and he butts heads with Kerrigan quite often. But he does do some growing.

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant also does his share of growing as the series featuring him goes on. When we first meet him in Amuse Bouche, he’s recently hung out his shingle as a PI in Saskatoon. He isn’t really reckless or rash, nor is he completely immature (he’s in his thirties as the series begins). Still, he does have some growing and maturing to do, especially when it comes to personal relationships. Over the course of the eight-novel series, Quant matures in more than one way. For one thing, he learns the value of the friendships he’s made. I don’t want to spoil story arcs, but that’s an important part of his growth. He also learns sometimes-painful lessons about what it takes to form and keep an intimate partnership. Oh, and by the way, if you’re reading this, Mr. Bidulka, I think Quant has had a long enough hiatus. I would love to see another Quant outing! Hint, hint…  Just sayin’

And then there’s Vicki Delany’s Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith, whom we first meet in In the Shadow of the Glacier. In that novel, she’s recently started her work in the small British Columbia town of Trafalgar, where she grew up. When she finds the body of wealthy developer Reginald Montgomery in an alley one night, she and Sergeant John Winters get involved in a murky case of murder. Things are awkward for Smith at first in several ways. She’s just learning her job (and she makes her share of mistakes as the series goes on). She’s also working in the town where she grew up, and it’s a challenge to establish her identity as an adult there. Over time, she develops confidence, and ‘grows into her uniform.’ She also grows personally, as she copes with love and loss in her private life.

And that’s the thing about well-rounded characters. Like real-life people, they grow over time. Hopefully, they become more mature And part of the pleasure of a series is watching the characters develop over time. Space has only allowed for a few examples here. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthony Bidulka, Jane Casey, Lawrence Block, Vicki Delany