Thursday, December 31, 2009

Entrances, Debuts, New Beginnings...

As we begin 2010, I’m sure that many of you are focused on new projects you’ll be starting and new books you’ll be reading. I know that I am. So it seems a very good time to take a look at the way authors have started their crime fiction series. Very often, it’s in the first novel of a series that we get very interesting backstories on characters, and the first novel often sets the tone for a series. In fact, in many series, the books are meant to be read in order, so the first one is quite important.

Agatha Christie’s first novel featuring Hercule Poirot was The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In that novel, Poirot finds out who killed Emily Inglethorp, a wealthy philanthropist. The novel opens with Hastings’ arrival at Styles Court, home to Emily Inglethorp, her husband Alfred, her stepsons, John and Lawrence Cavendish, and John Cavendish’s wife, Mary. Late one night, Emily Inglethorp is poisoned. While her husband is the primary suspect, the other members of the household fall in for their share of suspicion, too. Hastings finds out that his old friend, Hercule Poirot, is living nearby, and asks him to help investigate. Here’s where we first earn that Hastings was injured in World War I and was invalided out of the army. We also learn a little about Poirot. He’s a former member of the Belgian police force who’s also been injured and, as a result of World War I, became a refugee. It’s because of Mrs. Inglethorp’s generosity that Poirot has been able to start a new life in England, and it’s as much for that reason as for anything else that he takes such an interest in the Inglethorp case.

Christie’s Miss Marple makes her debut in The Murder at the Vicarage, in which she helps Inspector Slack find the murderer of St. Mary Mead’s local magistrate, Colonel Protheroe. Protheroe’s daughter, his much-younger wife, and his wife’s lover are among the many suspects in the murder, and it’s Miss Marple’s knowledge of St. Mary Mead’s locals, as well as her keen insight into human nature, that help her sort through the clues. In this novel, we learn that Miss Marple is a keen gardener and bird-watcher, and that she takes a great deal of interest in others’ lives. In fact, some critics have said that Miss Marple comes across as quite nosy in this novel. Certainly she’s not as beloved by her fellow villagers here as she becomes later in the series. Still, we learn that she’s observant and that she’s got a strong insight into human nature.

We first meet Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in 1922’s The Secret Adversary. Thomas Beresford and Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley are young, poor and adventuresome, so they decide to hire themselves out as The Young Adventurers, Ltd., willing to take on any adventure. Their plan is overheard by a Mr. Whittington, who wants to hire Tuppence to go to France for a few months. But, when she gives her name as Jane Finn, Mr. Whittington withdraws his offer and gives her fifty pounds not to tell anyone what she knows. It’s clear that there’s more to Mr. Whittington – and to Jane Finn - than the young people think, so they decide to find out who Jane Finn is. In the process, they meet a Mr. Carter, who’s with British Intelligence. He tells them that Jane Finn disappeared with the sinking of the Lusitania, and that she had with her a secret treaty. The current situation in England means that treaty has become critical. Now Tommy and Tuppence must find Jane and the treaty before their enemy, Mr. Brown, does.

Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax, who makes her debut in The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, is, in her way, just as adventuresome as the Beresfords are. Mrs. Pollifax is a New Jersey widow who’s found that her life is dull and meaningless. She’s inspired by a newspaper article to “start over,” so she goes to Washington, D.C., to fulfill a childhood dream of working for the CIA. Due to a case of mistaken identity, the CIA’s Mr. Carstairs thinks that Mrs. Pollifax is already a newly-hired CIA agent, and assigns her to pick up some microfilm in Mexico City. He thinks that she’ll be perfect for the job, because she has an elderly, unassuming manner that won’t attract attention. The job turns out to be much more complicated and dangerous than anyone realizes, and Mrs. Pollifax ends up captured and locked in an Albanian prison. She’s able to use her wits and “safe” persona to free herself, though, and goes on to “star” in several more adventures.

We first meet Ellery Queen in The Roman Hat Mystery, in which he and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, solve the murder of shady attorney Monte Field. Field goes to the theatre one night and is poisoned while the play is going on. There are several suspects, too, since Field was, among other things, a blackmailer. As the Queens investigate, we meet their houseman, Djuna, and their assistant, Sergeant Velie, who figure in later Queen novels. We also get a look at Queen’s more cerebral approach to solving mysteries. It’s a fascinating introduction to the “mental puzzle” sort of mystery that characterized many of the Queen novels.

Backstory features strongly in our first meeting with Carol O’Connell’s sleuth, Kathleen “Kathy” Mallory. In Mallory’s Oracle, Mallory’s debut, we find out that Mallory is a New York police detective who was drawn to that profession by her adoptive “father” Louis Markowitz. Mallory was orphaned as a child, and made her way from her native New Orleans to New York. There, she was taken in by Markowitz when she was eleven. Eighteen years later, Markowitz is murdered and his body found next to that of the latest victim of what seems like a serial killer. Mallory commits herself to find the killer. She’s aided by Markowitz’ former partner, Detective Riker, who becomes a “regular” character in the later Mallory novels.

We also learn a great deal about Mma Precious Ramotswe in Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in which we first meet her. That’s the novel where we learn about her father Obed Ramotswe, whose memory she reveres, and her disastrous first marriage to Note Makoti, the musician. We learn how she meets and hires Grace Makutsi as her assistant, and we meet Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who owns Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and who later becomes Precious’ husband. That first novel sets the scene for the other novels in the series.

There are, of course, many other debuts that I could mention. Well-written ones give the reader a sense of the sleuth, the other “regular” characters and the context that will form the basis for the rest of the series.

And now….. I’d like to share with you some exciting debut novels that will be coming soon. Watch for them : ).

From Bobbi Mumm, watch for Cream with Your Coffin, the first of her Lucy Beam series. Lucy is an American event planner who moves to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Along with pursuing her career and raising twins, Lucy also has to try to fit in as best she can into her new community – not an easy thing. That process is complicated when first, her neighbor, and then a local vet, are murdered. You can whet your appetite with an excerpt here.

From Alan Orloff, watch for Diamonds for the Dead. That’s the story of Josh Handleman, who returns to his native Virginia to bury his father, Abe. Josh is totally shocked to find that his father was much wealthier than he’d thought; he also finds that his father had a stash of gems that’s now missing. Now Josh begins to believe that his father’s death was not natural. As he unravels the mystery of missing jewels, Josh also gets closer to finding out who killed his father. You can find out more about Diamonds for the Dead here.

Which are your favorite debut novels?

On Another Note……

My sincere thanks to Mason Canyon for this lovely Honest Scrap award. I was so surprised, and I am truly honored; this means a lot to me. I will display it proudly : ) The Honest Scrap citation is “for bloggers who put their heart on display as they write from the depths of their soul." As a part of this award, I’ve been asked to mention ten things about me. So….here goes:

1. I’m addicted to black coffee.
2. I’m a serious fan of Billy Joel. One of my “life highlights” was when I “sort of” met him at a 1996 Question/Answer session he hosted.
3. I’m proudly owned by two terrific dogs.
4. Besides being a mystery novelist and educator, I’ve also been a radio DJ.
5. The first mystery book I ever read was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. That was a very long time ago…
6. I love riding horses and would do so more frequently if I could.
7. Besides crime fiction, my favorite genre is historical fiction; I’m a fan of James Michener and Edward Rutherford.
8. The most memorable trip I ever took was to a conference held in the Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa. What a breathtaking place!
9. I love Philadelphia and consider it my home.
10. I collect watches. My collection isn’t very large but each one has a story.

So there you have it : ). Thanks again, Mason!! Folks, do check out Mason’s great blog. Solid book reviews, interesting thoughts on writing and a very helpful perspective on a variety of book genres await you there. So do some very nice giveaways.


  1. Gosh that's a hard question to answer - I've read so many great debut novels - I think the debuts - of the ones I read this year I loved the way Colin Cotterill introduced Dr Siri and his colleagues as well as providing such interesting back story on Laos in THE CORONER'S LUNCH - I certainly am looking forward to reading more of this series based on that debut. Denise Mina's GARNETHILL was another debut that I read (belatedly) this year - again introducing a wonderful character and surroundings.

    Congratulations on your well deserved award (and I share your enjoyment of Michener - THE SOURCE is one of my favourite books of all time - I first read it many years ago while backpacking through Israel and Egypt which was the perfect setting to read it)

  2. Bernadette - You are right; The Coroner's Lunch is a most promising debut. I really like the way Cotterill blends the story with the setting, and he does a fine job, I think, of helping us get to know Dr. Siri. I, too, look forward to more from Laos : ).

    How lucky you are to have read The Source when you were in the Middle East! You are absolutely right that that was the ideal setting. I had a similar experience when I read Chesapeake on a visit to Ocean City, Maryland. Again, a great setting for that book :).

  3. Do you think when someone ends up writing a series, that they have that in mind from the beginning? I find it interesting to contemplate how much back-story they reveal, and how much they save until later. Of course the other side of the coin is how much of the back-story they reiterate in subsequent books or are there some things that you only find out if you read the first in the series? You've raised some interesting issues, as usual, Margot.

  4. Kerrie - You've asked a good question! I would say that there are certainly authors who start a series with that in mind. I have several colleagues in the crime fiction writing world (for instance, Elizabeth Spann Craig) who've planned series from the start. I know that was my intention with my own debut. So I know I've thought about how much backstory to reveal.

    I'd say that's not true of everyone, though. I've read, for instance, that Tess Gerritson had not intended a series, but that's how it's turned out. Really fascinating thing to think about...

  5. Favorite That's hard. I have so many favorites! I'm looking forward to reading Bobbi and Alan's books. And now Alan has a brand new series that he's writing for Midnight Ink.

    Loved finding out more about you! A radio DJ would be a cool job. You must have a nice voice, then! You'll be good to do the podcast shows...

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. Elizabeth - You're right; there really are a lot of wonderful series debuts, aren't there? I had a tough time picking out some books to discuss. And I'm looking forward to Bobbi's and Alan's books as much as you are. So exiciting!

    I hadn't thought about doing podcast's a definite idea; I know they work for others. Thanks for reminding me of it.

  7. Margot, thanks for the shout-out about my upcoming book--that was very kind of you.

    Congrats on your Honest Scrap award, and Happy New Year to you and yours. Keep up the great blogging! I'm learning a ton!

  8. Alan - Thanks for the kind words : ). And it's my pleasure to pass the news along about your book. I'm very much looking forward to reading it, myself! May 2010 be a great year for you and yours.

  9. Just for once, I will also answer Kerrie´s question (because I have a million favourites, Margot). I have written two crime manuscripts: a stand-alone, and a novel with a female protagonist I hope have potential for development. My intention was to make her somewhat weak and indecisive so I could make her grow up a bit later, but apparently she is too much of a wimp. It seems I will have to make her grow up a bit faster than intended :O

  10. Dorte - Thanks for your input on Kerrie's question. The more of us writers who "chime in" on this kind of thing, the better perspective we all get. I'm grateful for your input. I would love to read your manuscripts, by the way. If ever you would like to send them along, it would be an honor to see what you've written.

  11. Loved the 10 items Margot. We both love coffee and horses. Can't remember the last time I rode and just got another new horse last summer. Thanks for sharing about Bobbi and Alan's upcoming books. Those both sound great. Looks like 2010 is going to be a great year for books. As always appreciate the kind words.

  12. Mason - I think you're right; 2010 is going to be a terrific year for reading, and I, for one, very much look forward to it. I noticed that we have horses in common, too; I really do wish I could ride more often.... Oh, well, that's on my "wish" list for this year; we'll see what happens. And it's my pleasure to mention your terrific blog : ).

  13. I am glad you would consider it an honour, but I am afraid it would also be quite a chore as I have not written any of my novel manuscripts in English ;) My English flash fiction is a sort of experiment; if I succeed in selling some of them, I may try to write (or rewrite) novels in English later.
    Thank you for your interest in my fiction, however.

  14. Dorte - OK, I admit that it would be hard for me to get the real sense of what you're writing if it's in Danish. Unless one's got a talented translator, it's a challenge to get the most out of stories not written in one's own language. Well, for now, I'll content myself with savoring your flash fiction and maybe someday, I'll get to read your other stuff.

  15. Margot, you are the sweetest person and deserve ten-fold the compliments given you. The Honest Scrap award is terrific and says so much about you as a person and as a hard-working writer! Well done. I love hearing that you worked as a radio D.J. You and Louise Penny both have the radio background (along with sharing a huge talent for crime fiction). I`ll bet you sound great on interviews. Thanks so much, Margot! Bobbi
    ps. I hear that your mystery "Publish or Perish" is winging its way to me at this moment. Rob couldn't get it in time for Christmas.I can't wait!

  16. Bobbi - Thank you for saying such kind things : ). Now, just a moment, please, while I stop blushing... I'm honored to have something in common with Louise Penny; her books are terrific, aren't they? I'm also very honored at this award - what a nice surprise it was. I hope you enjoy Publish or Perish, and please be sure and let me know when Cream With Your Coffin comes out, so I can get my greedy hands on a copy : ).