Friday, May 13, 2011

I'm Movin' Out!*

Hello, All,

Just wanted to let everyone know that Confessions of A Mystery Novelist… has moved!

I really like my new home, and I hope you will, too!

Come on over!

Visit me at my new home:

I’d also really be grateful if you’d update your RSS feed and blogroll.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

And Different Strokes for Different Folks*

One of the great things about crime fiction is that it comes in all sorts of forms. Two of the most common written forms of crime fiction are novels and short stories (but of course, there are a lot of other forms, too, such as films, games and plays). This variety gives the genre a lot of versatility and makes it appealing to lots of people who might not otherwise be interested in crime fiction. There are advantages and disadvantages of novels and short stories for readers and authors, and in terms of which one is the better form, it’s probably most productive to think of novels and short stories as complementary.

Short Stories

Short stories have a lot of advantages, both for authors and readers. For the reader, a short story gives one the chance to sample the work of an author one hasn’t “met” before without investing an awful lot of time and effort. For instance, Agatha Christie’s The Labours of Hercules, Partners in Crime and The Tuesday Club Murders are collections of short stories featuring her most famous detectives, respectively Hercule Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and Jane Marple. Those collections allow new readers to see what they think of Christie’s sleuths, one story at a time.

Although Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes made his debut in the novel A Study in Scarlet, many people have actually been introduced to Holmes through one of the 56 short stories in which he appears. I know that’s true of me (my introduction to Holmes was The Adventure of The Red-Headed League). And I’m sure you can think of other authors, too, whose work you first read in short story format. That’s one of the benefits of short story anthologies such as 100 Malicious Little Mysteries, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg and Joseph Olander. Since a group of writers contribute their work, the reader gets to sample all sorts of “new” authors.

Short stories also allow the reader to experience a whole crime story – from start to finish – in just a few pages. For example, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s Cutbacks, from her collection Liquorice Twists, tells the story of a fateful decision that a man makes when his financial advisor warns him that he’ll have to make drastic cuts in his business expenses. It’s only four pages long, but it provides background, builds up to a dramatic dénouement, and gives closure.

And then there’s one of my personal favourite short stories, Roald Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter, which tells the story of Mary Maloney, who’s six months pregnant, and her police-officer husband Patrick. When Patrick comes home from work one day and gives Mary some drastic news, he sets in motion events that he couldn’t have foreseen. This story is less than 4,000 words; yet it gives background, tells the story of a crime and its investigation, and provides a famous plot twist.

For the busy reader or the reader who’s not sure that he or she will enjoy crime fiction, short stories are a very appealing alternative.

Short stories give the author advantages, too. They allow the author to introduce new characters and try them out. They also allow the author to stretch his or her writing and experiment. And they allow new authors to get some name recognition. Many authors who haven’t yet had novels published have been able to have their stories included in magazines and anthologies.


For all of their advantages, short stories don’t fit the bill all the time. Many readers, for example, prefer the character, setting and plot developments that are sometimes best done through the novel format. For example, Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night tells the story of mystery novelist Harriet Vane’s return to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford. When she first receives an invitation to the college’s annual Gaudy Dinner and celebration, Vane is reluctant to attend. She’s gained a certain amount of notoriety because she was on trial for the murder of her former lover (events that are detailed in Strong Poison). So she’s not sure of the welcome she’ll receive. And yet, for the sake of an old friend, she decides to go. When she arrives, Vane is received much more warmly than she’d expected, and all goes well. Then, two months later, Vane receives a letter from the Dean of Shrewsbury College. Some disturbing events, including anonymous “poison pen” letters and vandalism, have been taking place at the college. College authorities don’t want the police involved, so the Dean asks Vane to investigate. Vane agrees and goes back to Shrewsbury, this time under the pretext of doing research for a book. She and, later, Lord Peter Wimsey, look into the matter and find that the upsetting events at the college (which include an attack on Vane herself) are the work of someone who’s holding an old grudge. This story would have been very hard to tell in short story form. There’s too much important backstory, and there are some interesting sub-plots (including Vane’s developing romance with Wimsey) and those couldn’t be told effectively in a short story.

Lots of crime fiction fans like the character evolution that can best take place in a novel or better yet, a series. For example, in the course of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller series, we see how both protagonists grow and change and cope with what life brings them. That’s also true of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. It’s hard to get the full flavour of a character’s growth and development within the space of one short story, or even several short stories.

Novels also allow the reader to truly get immersed in a story. That can be especially enjoyable when one’s reading stories that take place in different places and times. For example, Ellis Peter’s A Morbid Taste for Bones and Philip Kerr’s If the Dead Rise Not both transport the reader to a different time; the former to 11th Century England and Wales, the latter to Germany just before the outbreak of World War II. Particularly for readers who aren’t familiar with the times and places mentioned in this sort of novel, it’s very beneficial to have the length of the novel to provide the background needed to enjoy the story.

For the author, novels allow for a variety of characters, plots twists and so on that are more difficult in short stories. Novels also allow the author to build suspense more slowly, take more time with details, and add layers to a story.

There’s a good argument that in order to really get a sense of the crime fiction that’s out there, it’s perhaps best to read both short stories and novels. But what do you think? Do you read both forms of crime fiction? Do you have a preference? If so, what is it? If you’re a writer, do you write both short stories and novels? Which do you prefer writing?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jeff Buckley’s Everyday People.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

In The Spotlight: Laura Lippman's Baltimore Blues

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Well-written crime fiction series need, of course, to have strong plots and well-developed characters. But a sense of location helps, too, and can actually attract readers. Some series have a very strong and effective sense of place – so strong that readers feel they wouldn’t get lost if they were set down in the series’ location. That’s the kind of series Laura Lippman has created with her Tess Monaghan novels. Let me show you what I mean as we take a closer look today at Baltimore Blues, the first in the Tess Monaghan series.

Tess Monaghan is at what you might call loose ends. She’s a former newspaper reporter whose employer, the Star, has folded. The Star’s only competitor is the Beacon-Light, but that newspaper hasn’t hired her. So Monaghan has had to find other ways to make ends meet. She works part-time in a Baltimore bookshop owned by her Aunt Kitty, and lives in an apartment above the store. She also works part-time for her Uncle Donald, Baltimore’s Director of the Office for Fraud and Waste (a job not nearly as high-profile or important as the title would indicate). Part of Monaghan’s problem is that she hasn’t sorted out what she wants to do with her life, much to the dismay of her parents.

One day, Monaghan gets an unusual request from Darryl “Rock” Paxton, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University and a friend Monaghan met through their common interest in rowing. Paxton’s worried that his fiancée Ava Hill may be in trouble. Ava won’t confide in him, and he wants to know what the trouble is. So he asks Monaghan to try to find out. At first, Monaghan is very reluctant. For one thing, she’s not a licensed private detective nor a police officer, so she doesn’t feel qualified. For another, she doesn’t want to get involved in Paxton’s personal business. As if that weren’t enough, she heartily dislikes Ava Hill, and thinks Paxton would be well rid of her. But, Paxton’s a friend, and Monaghan very much needs the money he’s willing to pay her. So she agrees to find out what she can.

Monaghan soon learns that Ava Hill has been having secret meetings with Michael Abramowitz, her boss at the law office where she works. It’s not long before Monaghan concludes that Hill and Abramowitz are having an affair. When Monaghan confronts Hill about what she’s found out, Hill claims that Abramowitz has been forcing her to sleep with him in exchange for help in passing the Maryland Bar Exam. Upset at this betrayal of her friend, Monaghan tells Paxton what she’s learned. That night, Michael Abramowitz is shot in his law office and it’s not long before Daryl Paxton is arrested for the crime. Paxton claims he isn’t guilty, and Monaghan wants to believe him, although she has her doubts. Before she knows it, Monaghan finds herself working for Paxton’s attorney to try to find out who else would have wanted to kill Michael Abramowitz. It turns out that there are several suspects. Abramowitz had defended some very unpleasant people whose victims resented him. There’s also Ava Hill, who might have killed her boss. And there are some powerful people whose secrets Abramowitz might have found out. In the end, Monaghan finds out the truth about Abramowitz’ murder, but not before there’s another death, and not before Monaghan herself almost becomes a victim.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the Baltimore setting is an extremely important element in this novel. From the city’s Inner Harbor and Camden Yards tourist areas to center city to all sorts of outlying areas, readers are placed unmistakeably in Baltimore:

“It was about eight miles from Joey’s rundown row house to the West Baltimore home of Frank Miles, the custodian who had discovered Abramowitz’ body. Statistically, it was a more dangerous place – a once-middle-class neighborhood undone by white flight, further undone by black flight. But Tess felt comfortable here. She had grown up not far away, a straight shot down Edmondson Avenue.”

All sorts of Baltimore restaurants, customs, politics and even speaking patterns are woven into the novel so that the reader feels the novel wouldn’t easily have taken place anywhere else.

The mystery itself also keeps the reader’s interest. Abramowitz was killed for a believable reason, and the second murder, too, is committed for a reason that makes sense. As Monaghan follows up the clues and puts the pieces together, we follow along and the conclusions that she draws are logical, given what she knows and finds out. We don’t know whodunit right from the start (at least I didn’t), but the clues lead to that person once they’re put together. The pacing and timing also help keep the reader focused on the mystery. The story moves quickly enough to stay engaging, and there are some moments of real suspense. But it doesn’t move at what you’d call breakneck speed, and there are enough quiet moments that we also get to know Tess Monaghan.

And Tess Monaghan (at least in my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do) is a likeable character. She’s got plenty of flaws and insecurities, and in many ways she’s at odds with herself. She’s feminine, but hardly dainty; she’s insecure, but not fearful; she’s smart and resourceful, but sometimes acts before she thinks things through. She’s loyal, too, and tries to do the right thing. Another important thing about Tess Monaghan is that she loves her hometown and couldn’t really imagine living and working anywhere but Baltimore. She’s an appealing sleuth whom it’s easy to root for as she tries to do her best for Paxton and straighten out her own life, too.

Teamwork and friendship play a role in this novel, too. Monaghan knows that she can’t find out all of the answers or do all of the work by herself. So she relies on help from people she knows, even though doing so makes her uncomfortable at times. For instance, at one point, she wants to get into Abramowitz’ office to get some information. For more than one reason, she knows she won’t be warmly welcomed there, so she decides to go at night. She reluctantly takes with her E.A. “Crow” Ransome, her aunt’s assistant, and that turns out to be a wise decision. She gets other valuable assistance from Jonathan Ross, star reporter of the Beacon Light, as well as help and important information from her Uncle Donald. This teamwork makes the story more realistic, since in real life, few cases are solved by just one person.

Although the novel is not exactly what you’d call light reading, there is an undertone of humour to it. For instance, at one point, Monaghan decides to pay an unannounced visit to Ava Hill. The only problem is, Hill’s apartment building is secured, and the only way to get onto the elevator to the apartment is to have a key. So Monaghan bluffs her way on to the elevator by telling another resident that she’s new in the building and studying opera. Unfortunately, it turns out that this resident is very knowledgeable about opera, and Monaghan ends up compounding what she thought was a “little white lie.” The other resident actually ends up asking for Monaghan’s autograph and she obliges – by writing a faked name.

Baltimore Blues is an interesting character study and an engaging mystery against a distinctive Baltimore backdrop. But what’s your view? Have you read Baltimore Blues? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 16 May/Tuesday 17 May – Whip Hand – Dick Francis

Monday 23 May/Tuesday 24 May – The Withdrawing Room – Charlotte MacLeod

Tuesday 31 May/Wednesday 1 June – The Stepford Wives – Ira Levin

Monday, May 9, 2011

Come on, Let's Twist Again*: A Guest Post by Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen

Hello, All,

I’m honoured and excited today to be hosting my friend fellow crime fiction writer and fellow blogger Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen! Dorte has just released a new collection of deliciously creepy short stories called Liquorice Twists. She’s also published two other collections: Candied Crime, also in English, and Blandede Bolsjer, a collection in her native Danish. She’s also published a standalone short story, Heather Farm. Not only is Dorte a talented author, but she’s also a terrific blogger whose posts are full of excellent reviews, lovely ‘photos and some great flash fiction. She blogs in both English and Danish (which is more than I can say about my own blog) and her blog is one of my absolute must-stops on my daily blog rounds. So please offer a warm Confessions of a Mystery Novelist... welcome to... Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen!

First I want to express my gratitude to Margot, not only for your invitation to visit you during my blog tour, but also for your never-wavering support of my writing. Though I have never met you in real life, you have become a highly valued friend!

As this headline and the title of my new collection Liquorice Twists suggest, most of my flash fiction stories could just as well be called twist fiction. Flash fiction stories come in all genres, and most writers have their own ideas about what works; still I´d like to share a few of my tricks of the trade with you today. (Most of the examples are from Candied Crime, published in February, and Liquorice Twists)

1) The all-important ending.

It is not all writers of flash fiction who agree on this, but I am very much in favour of a final twist. That is why I nearly always begin with the ending. Now I won´t spoil any of my stories for you, but if you jump to "Every Day Fiction" for a minute or two and read the first story I ever sold, Lollipop, I can tell you that when I had written the last sentence, around twenty words, it was very easy to set up the scene which lead to that conclusion. In my opinion, this is ´real´ flash because the story wrote itself in less than an hour and was only edited slightly afterwards.

2) Obviously, a good opening sentence is another must. If you have not captured your readers´ attention, they may never read the twist you thought was so clever.

"Poor Betty lost her little dog and her husband on the same night." This is how I open Casualty, and now you may think I have spoiled the ending for you, but there is more than one way of twisting a story.

"She came home a couple of hours earlier than usual, and as soon as she opened the door she knew there was someone in the house." This story is called In a Flash, a story where I practised keeping the narrative pace very slow by adding a wealth of details. The idea was to let the reader experience the creepy feeling of knowing there is a stranger in the house while they move further inside it together with the main character.

3) A good way of saving space is using a context your readers are already familiar with.

Once in a while I have written a flash story inspired by a fairy tale, e.g. The Princess on the Pea. I am sure my English readers will remember Hans Christian Andersen´s tale when they meet my somewhat triumphant girl who has just married her Frederick. No further introduction is needed; we can jump to a few bits and pieces good old Andersen left out.

A similar example is End of Christmas in which the reader meets the corpse, a red-and-grey-clad old man in the first sentence. I think you know who so don´t let innocent little children read this one.

4) You will also need the ability to draw your main characters in a few sentences.

Grammy is both the title of a story and the name of the main character. My inspiration was one of my own German teachers. "During most of fourth form Martha Gramstrup was our German teacher. Grammy was the thin and nervy type, a walking skeleton with rattling necklaces and bracelets." You can all see her now, can´t you?

And here is ´the wife´ of Take-Off: "She flopped down on a chair and kicked her shoes off before she began rummaging for a mirror in her voluminous handbag to check that her curls and the plum-coloured three-piece suit sat where she left them in the morning."

5) Finally, if you are at a loss for ideas, you may use writing prompts - or ask your blog readers what they want in a story.

Once in a while I have posted a picture on my blog, asking my readers what they want to see in the story. I am afraid I tend to take those stories less seriously, probably because I look at my readers´ contributions and think ´no one can ever make a coherent puzzle out of these pieces´, or perhaps it is just because I have so much fun writing them. Nevertheless, they are excellent opportunities to practice your writing skills - and I suspect stories like The Red Shoes and Heather Farm are among my readers´ absolute favourites.

Thanks so much, Dorte, for sharing your insights about writing flash fiction. I must admit that’s a style of writing I haven’t mastered, so I know I learned a lot. Folks, be sure to visit Dorte’s terrific blog, DJ’s Krimiblog, and check out Liquorice Twists on Smashwords!

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chubby Checker's Let's Twist Again.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Ellery Queen's The French Powder Mystery

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme has been making admirable progress on our treacherous journey through the letters, thanks to our tour leader Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Today we make our 17th stop, at the letter “Q.” My contribution for this stop is Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery, first published in 1930. What you see in the ‘photo is a 1942 Pocket Books paperback edition; it was given to me by a friend and I have to confess I’m proud to have it. I admit it; that’s one of the reasons I chose this book for this letter; I wanted to share this with you. Oh, and it’s not that easy to find an author/title beginning with “Q” ;-).

The real action in The French Powder Mystery begins at lunchtime one day in May at French’s Department Store in downtown New York City. A store employee enters the main store window to begin a daily demonstration of some furniture and accessories displayed in the window. One of the pieces of furniture is a wall-bed that can be pulled out for use. To the employee’s horror, and that of the onlookers, when she pulls out that bed to show how it works, she finds the body of a woman on it. Inspector Richard Queen is called in to investigate and he and his son Ellery are soon embroiled in this intriguing case.

The dead woman is identified as Winifred French, wife of Cyrus French, who owns the department store. The evidence is clear that she was shot twice, and it’s not long before Queen is able to show that she was not shot in the department store window. Instead, she was shot in her husband’s private office/apartment on the sixth floor of the department store. As if that weren’t enough, her daughter (and Cyrus French’s step-daughter) Bernice Carmody seems to have disappeared. There’s even evidence that suggests Bernice might have been involved in her mother’s murder. Queen doesn’t quite believe that, though, and begins to look elsewhere for the answers.

What he finds is a web of secrets beneath the surface of this well-to-do, respectable family and this popular, respectable store. For one thing, it turns out that Bernice Carmody is a drug addict who’s been trying to hide her addiction from her step-father, head of the local Anti-Vice Society and outspoken opponent of drug use. It also comes to light that the department store was being used to connect drug suppliers with local users. And then there’s the clandestine relationship that Winifred French had been having with one of the department store’s Board members. Bit by bit, Queen makes sense of the evidence, both physical and psychological, and figures out who killed Winifred French and why Bernice Carmody disappeared. In the end the evidence, if the reader follows it, leads directly to the person responsible.

More than anything else, this novel is an intellectual mystery. The focus is on the clues and on the logical deductions one can draw from them. There are seemingly disparate events and pieces of evidence from which Queen draws conclusions, and the reader follows along as he does. There’s even a secret code that leads Queen to the truth about the drugs gang. So readers who enjoy trying to “outguess the sleuth” will not be disappointed. And as is the case with some of the other Ellery Queen mysteries, there’s a little interlude right before the dénouement where the reader is directly addressed and invited to solve the mystery. The solution to the mystery makes sense and is believable and, even though I have to admit I didn’t guess whodunit when I first read the book, there is a straight path, so to speak, to the killer if one’s been paying attention.

The story takes place in an interesting setting, too. French’s is an old-style fashionable department store. Readers get a real sense of what department stores were like before the days of Tesco, “Marks & Sparks,” Sears and Wal-Mart.

“On the border-line between the more fashionable upper avenue and the office building district further downtown, it catered to a mixed patronage of wealth and penury. At the noon hour its broad aisles and six floors were crowded with shop girls and stenographers; in mid-afternoon the tone of its clientele improved perceptibly. It boasted at once therefore the lowest prices, the most modern models, the widest assortment of salable articles in New York.”

French’s has a leather goods department, a books department, a furniture department and so on, and the atmosphere is much more customer-oriented than the atmosphere of many of today's department stores.

There’s also a feel in this novel for the New York City of the time. We follow the police as they try to locate Bernice Carmody, track down the drugs gang and interview witnesses. There isn’t as much focus on the city itself in this novel as there is in, say, the work of Rex Stout. But one does get the feeling that this story wouldn’t likely have taken place anywhere else.

And then there’s the relationship between the Queens. As with most of the Ellery Queen novels, we see the attachment between father and son. They rely on one another and respect one another, although neither is particularly demonstrative. For his part, Ellery Queen is happy to give his father public credit for solving the mystery, especially since New York’s police commissioner has more than a passing interest in this case and has been following Inspector Queen’s progress. Ellery trusts his father and “steps back” to let his father handle the machinery of police investigation. At the same time, Richard Queen listens carefully to what his son says. He’s by no means stupid himself, but he knows his son has strong deductive skills and he depends on them. The two Queens complement each other and they both know it.

The characters in the novel are not its focus, so readers who prefer novels with a lot of character depth, evolution and development will be disappointed. It’s worth noting one or two things about the Ellery Queen character, though. In this novel, Queen is drawn as an educated intellectual whose interests are chiefly literary. Although he’s not entirely without humour and personality, in my opinion (so no need to agree with me if you don’t), his character is not fully developed. In later novels, he develops a more compassionate side and even finds love, but here he’s rather dispassionate except for his obvious devotion to his father.

This novel was published in 1930, so there are some elements of it that would be quite offensive by today’s standards. There are several racist comments and there’s blatant sexism; even the dialogue reflects these “isms.” There are class issues, too; the French family is clearly well-to-do and well-connected, and there are sharp differences between the way they’re portrayed and the way some of the characters from other backgrounds are portrayed. I admit I found all of that irritating. That said, though, it’s important to remember when the novel was written and what the prevailing attitudes of the day were. One can look at it as a “snapshot” of the way people thought, wrote, spoke and acted at that time.

The French Powder Mystery is an intellectual puzzler in the classic sense that takes place against an intriguing backdrop. And Queen fans will find it interesting to see how both Queens’ characters are portrayed in this early outing (it’s the second of the Ellery Queen mysteries). Although the “isms” are annoying (at least they were to me), the story is believable and the solution makes sense. But what’s your view? Have you read The French Powder Mystery? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

It's Just a Fantasy*

Most of us have fantasies. They’re actually quite harmless most of the time, and some research even suggests that fantasies are part of healthy human development. Sometimes, though, fantasies, especially about people, can be dangerous, especially when the reality doesn’t turn out to be the same as the fantasy is. A look at crime fiction shows pretty clearly what can happen when someone becomes obsessed with a fantasy.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Crooked Man, Holmes asks Watson to take part in closing the case of the murder of Colonel James Barclay. Barclay’s wife Nancy is suspected of the murder; she and her husband had had a violent quarrel just before the murder, and no-one else seems to have a motive. But prior to that quarrel, the Barclays had seemed to be a happy couple with no resentment on either side. So it’s hard to see at first what led to Barclay’s death, and Holmes is convinced that Nancy Barclay is not guilty. Then, a friend and neighbour of Nancy Barclay’s gives Holmes an important clue. On the night of the murder, Nancy had a chance meeting with someone from her past. From that encounter, Nancy Barclay learned something about her husband that destroyed her fantasy of him. That past event led directly to Barclay’s death.

Fantasies play an interesting and important role in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow. In that novel, Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda are visiting Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell at their country home for the week-end. Christow’s former love, famous actress Veronica Cray, has found out that Christow often stays with the Angkatells, and has taken a nearby cottage so she can “accidentally on purpose” meet him again. On the Saturday night, she goes to the Angkatells’ home on a trumped-up excuse and whisks Christow away to see her home. Cray’s fantasy of Christow is that he still loves her, although he’s married to someone else, and that they should plan a future together. In fact, the next day, she asks Christow to come over to her cottage so they can talk about their future. Christow shocks her, though, and tells that he once loved her very much, but doesn’t any longer. In fact, he says,

“I’m a man fifteen years older. A man you don’t even know – and whom, I daresay, you wouldn’t like much if you did know.”

When Cray finally accepts that her “fantasy future” isn’t going to happen, she becomes furious and threatens Christow. Those threats come back to haunt her when Christow is shot later that day and she becomes a suspect.

In an interesting sub-plot of this novel, also staying at the Angkatell home that week-end is Edward Angkatell, a family cousin. He’s had fantasies for years of marrying famous sculptor Henrietta Savernake, and finds it hard to see her for who she really is. In the meantime, Midge Hardcastle who’s also a houseguest that week-end, has loved Edward Angkatell for a long time, but he hasn’t noticed it because in his fantasies, she’s remained “Little Midge,” a young teenager. It’s not until he sees both women clearly that he can find any happiness.

Fantasies also play an important role in Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down. That’s the story of Mix Cellini, a phobic young man whose job is repairing exercise equipment. That’s how he meets supermodel Merissa Nash. Mix’s real life is not particularly remarkable; in fact, he’s fairly neurotic. Once he’s met Merissa Nash, though, Cellini begins to have fantasies about her and becomes obsessed with those fantasies. In the meantime, Cellini also begins to have fantasies about his own life and sense of power and becomes obsessed with the life of notorious serial killer Dr. Richard Christie. As Cellini’s fantasies become more and more real to him, his life comes closer and closer to resembling Christie’s – with tragic results.

Shoemaker’s son Sigmundo Salvatrio, whom we meet in Pablo De Santis’ The Paris Enigma, has fantasies about what it would be like to be a famous detective, just like world-renowned Renato Craig. So he’s overjoyed when he is accepted into Craig’s Academy for Detectives. At first, Salvatrio maintains his fantasies about the “thrilling” life of a detective. Then, one of the other students is killed. And then, Renato Craig becomes seriously ill. His illness means that Craig can’t attend the Paris World’s Fair, at which he was to make a presentation along with other members of a world-famous society of detectives known as The Twelve. So he sends Salvatrio in his place. When Salvatrio arrives in Paris, he soon learns quite a lot about the real men behind the “fantasy detectives” he’d always read about. And then one of The Twelve is murdered. And then there’s another death. Salvatrio works with Viktor Arkazy, one of the founders of the group, to find out who the murderer is. In the process, he has to get rid of many of his fantasies about what it’s like to be a detective.

We also see the effect of fantasies in Teresa Solana’s A Shortcut to Paradise. In that novel, noted Catalán novelist Marina Dolç has just received a prestigious award: the Gold Apple Fiction Prize. She returns to her hotel room after the awards ceremony and dinner, only to be brutally murdered. Barcelona brothers Eduard and Josep “Borja” Martínez get involved in the investigation when Borja, who was at the dinner, makes up a story about having been hired to find the killer. The most likely suspect is Amadeu Cabestany, runner-up for the award, and a bitter rival of Dolç’s, for whom he has nothing but contempt. Cabestany’s literary agent is sure that he’s not guilty, and asks the Martínez brothers to find out who the killer really is. Before they know it, the brothers are looking for a murderer, despite not being “official.” In the end, they discover that Marina Dolç was murdered because of the killer’s fantasy life. In fact, at the end of the novel, readers get to see just how powerful that fantasy world is.

In my own B-Very Flat, university student and photographer Tony Ferguson has become smitten with gifted violinist Serena Brinkman. In his fantasies, she’s fallen for him too, and he begins to invent reasons for them to meet. Despite Serena’s honesty that she’s involved with someone else, and not interested in Tony, he persists in believing that they’re meant to be together. Then, on the night of an important musical competition, Serena suddenly dies of anaphylactic shock. At first, her death is thought to be a horrible accident. Soon enough, though, it’s proven that she was murdered and Ferguson finds himself a suspect in her death.

Fantasies are normal and probably even healthy. They can help us deal with stress, push us on to achieve and add colour to our lives. But like anything else they can get out of control. When that happens, the results can be disastrous. You could even say they make good servants, but very bad masters…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's Sometimes a Fantasy.

Friday, May 6, 2011

This Magic Moment*

Let’s be honest; life is not always easy. It can be annoying, difficult, even tragic. Even days where only little things go wrong (like having to drive behind a slow truck when one’s in a hurry) can be truly irritating. And when things are going seriously wrong, things can get even bleaker. That’s when little moments of happiness can mean even more. You know what I mean, I’ll bet: the first rain after a terrible dry spell; the smell of fresh coffee; an Email from a friend you haven’t heard from in a long time; a terrific book or movie; a rich conversation. Those little things give us the reserves we need to deal with life’s large and small blows. It works that way in real life, and it works that way in crime fiction, too. Well-written crime fiction can get quite bleak; after all, people die, usually by other people’s hands. That’s shattering for the people involved, and difficult for the investigating sleuth, too. Not to portray that would be unrealistic. On the other hand, those “magic moments” can add a welcome “lift” to an otherwise depressing novel. And even when a novel isn’t overly depressing, those moments can help us get to know a character better, develop sympathy for a character, and simply enjoy a good moment vicariously.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas), Simeon Lee invites all of the members of his family to spend the Christmas holiday at Gorston Hall, the family home. Simeon Lee is an unpleasant man who’s treated many of his family members badly; but, he’s also a very wealthy man with a strong personality, so no-one dares refuse his invitation. Everyone gathers at Gorston Hall, but tragedy strikes on Christmas Eve when Simeon Lee is brutally murdered. Hercule Poirot is spending Christmas with a friend nearby, and gets involved in the investigation. All of the guests come in for their share of suspicion, and not all of the family members get along. So the atmosphere is tense and uncomfortable. But in the midst of this atmosphere, two of the guests have one of those “magic moments.” Simeon Lee’s grand-daughter Pilar Estravados, and Stephen Farr, son of Lee’s old business partner, discover a storage closet where they find all sorts of Christmas decorations and treats that weren’t brought out because of the tragedy. One of the things they find is balloons. Like two children, they blow up balloons and start tossing them back and forth to each other up and down a long hall. It’s a fun little moment in the midst of an ugly murder investigation.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, mystery novelist Harriet Vane has been invited back to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford, to participate in its annual Gaudy Dinner celebration She’s not at all sure she should accept the invitation. She’s recently achieved a certain amount of notoriety after being on trial for murder (Strong Poison tells this story) and is not sure of her welcome. On the way to Oxford, though, Harriet has one of those “magic moments.” She’s very glad she’s got her own car, instead of having to go to Oxford by train as she did when she was a student:

“For a few hours more she could ignore the whimpering ghost of her dead youth and tell herself that she was a stranger and a sojourner, a well-to-do-woman with a position in the world.”

That drive to Oxford lifts Harriet’s spirits, and when she gets there, she finds herself much more warmly welcomed than she’d feared. After the celebration, Harriet returns home, only to go back to Shrewsbury a few months later when the Dean of the College asks her to help get to the bottom of a disturbing series of events at the school. In the end, with help from Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet finds out who’s responsible for the vandalism and other occurrences (including an attack on Harriet herself) that have upset everyone at the school.

Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby has one of those special moments in A Place of Safety. In that novel, Charlie Leathers is out late one night walking his dog when he sees what looks like a murder. Curate’s wife Ann Lawrence is struggling on a bridge with Carlotta Ryan, a troubled teen who’s been living with the Lawrences. Carlotta goes over the bridge and apparently drowns. All is not as it seems, though and very soon afterwards, Leathers himself is garroted. Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate both incidents, and find that they’re related to each other and that there’s more to Carlotta Ryan’s disappearance than it seems. In an interesting sub-plot, Barnaby and his wife Joyce are about to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary. There’s much discussion of gifts and so on, and at the end of the novel, the Barnaby family goes out to dinner. They arrive home when Barnaby discovers to his delight that his gift is a new lawn mower. He and Joyce are out in the yard when they hear that Barnaby’s daughter Cully and her husband Nicolas have put music on and are playing it for them. The very last words of the novel really show a special side of Tom and Joyce Barnaby:

“They stood quietly as more and more stars gathered, holding fast against the relentless movement of time that changes all things. And then they began to dance.”

In Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Smelled a Rat, newspaper columnist Jim Qwilleran investigates a series of suspicious fires at old mines. What’s making matters worse is that the area is suffering a terrible drought, so there’s an even greater than usual risk that the fires will spread and wreak havoc. In fact, everyone’s hoping for the arrival of the first major snowstorm of the year. Then a fire brigade volunteer is shot dead in one of the mine shafts. Qwilleran is sure that the murder and the arson fires are connected, and so they are. At the end of the novel, after the case is solved, the weather finally begins to co-operate and when the first lazy flakes of the coming storm fall, there’s an appealing “magic moment” scene when the usually-cynical Qwilleran, entranced by the scene, goes outside and sticks out his tongue to catch snowflakes.

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett has a “magic moment” in The Serpent Pool, in which she and her Cold Case Review team investigate the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. It turns out that this case is related to two more recent murders – the deaths of book collector George Saffell and attorney Stuart Wagg. Those two murders are being investigated by Scarlett’s friend and co-worker Fern Larter. The two agree to have breakfast one morning at the Beast Banks Breakfast Bar to discuss the cases and indulge in deliciously unhealthy food. The scene gives the reader some important information about the cases, but we can also see that that visit to the restaurant gives both women a needed lift. It’s a warm conversation between friends, and Fern, especially, lightens the mood of the story at that point.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe has learned a great deal about savouring those “magic moments.” In many of the novels in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, we see how Mma Ramotswe takes the time to relish a walk, a cup of bush tea, the view from a window or the taste of a meal. It’s an interesting perspective on life, and awfully appealing.

But what do you think? Do you reach out for those “magic moments?” Do you think they have a place in crime fiction, or do you think they take away from the story? Which are your favourite “magic moments” in the novels you’ve read?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman.