Norman at Crime Scraps and Rob at The View From the Blue House have developed the intriguing idea of an international set of crime fiction baseball teams, composed of each country’s finest crime fiction authors. Well, I think that’s a very interesting idea, and I’d love to see what happens with it. However, having a background in linguistics, it occurred to me that it’s as well to take a look at what that would mean for some of the terminology used in baseball. That way, each country’s team would operate using the same terms. So, here, for the benefit of this international league, is a proposed set of crime fiction baseball terms:
In crime fiction, this is a debut novel that wins international recognition and acclaim – and actually deserves it. There are many examples of this; I’ll just mention one or two. Louise Penny’s Still Life was considered one of the finest debuts of 2007. In that novel, Inspector Armand Gamache investigates the death of Jane Neal, a beloved local teacher. At first, her death looks like a tragic bow-hunting accident. Soon, though, Gamache begins to suspect that Jane Neal was murdered. As he learns about the people of Three Pines, the rural Québec town where Neal lived, Gamache finds that several of the residents are hiding very dark secrets, and that there’s much more to Neal’s death than a misfired arrow.
Alexander McCall Smith’s 1998 No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is another debut novel that’s gotten quite a lot of international acclaim. That’s the story of Precious Ramotswe, a Botswana woman who makes the decision to open her own detective agency when her father, Obed Ramotswe, dies, leaving her money from the sale of his cattle. Mma. Ramotswe soon gains popularity, clients, and millions of eager followers.
This refers to a very sub-par novel that’s released solely because the author has a following and is famous. I’m sure that all of us can think of examples of crime fiction “walks.” What’s heartening, though, is that there are authors who consistently write high-quality novels. Perhaps one or another of their novels are less than their best, but never really sub-par. There are plenty of examples of that kind of author, too. For example, Agatha Christie wrote for over fifty years. Admittedly, not all of her work was her very best. Still, she is one of the most respected novelists there’s ever been, and her work has been justly admired – from 1920 to 1976 and since then.
Michael Connelly’s another novelist whose work has been consistently highly regarded. From The Black Echo to 9 Dragons, his work has been almost always very well-written. Again, many people would argue that not all of his novels have been his best work. In the main, though, he’s never been “walked.”
A crime-fiction knuckleball is a “red herring.” Many, many talented crime fiction authors use “red herrings” to distract the reader. The more plausible the “red herring,” the harder it can be for the reader to figure out whodunit. Agatha Christie was a genius at “red herrings.” For instance, in Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is faced with lots of very tempting “red herrings” as he works to solve the stabbing death of American businessman Samuel Ratchett. Ratchett’s been murdered on the second night of a three-day journey on the famous Orient Express, so it seems clear that one of the passengers must have committed the crime. Each clue, though, seems to lead no-where, since all of the passengers have alibis. In the end, Poirot figures out which clues are the real ones, and which are the “red herrings” in one of his most famous cases. Incidentally, Christie gave spoilers to this story in some of her other stories (Cards on the Table, for instance).
Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table also gives us an example of the sacrifice fly, which in crime fiction refers to a suspect who takes the blame for a crime in order to protect the guilty party. In that novel, Poirot and three other sleuths investigate the murder of the eccentric Mr. Shaitana. Shaitana has the bad sense to invite to dinner four murderers who’ve gotten away with their crimes, and four sleuths. During dinner, Shaitana drops obvious hints about the crimes, putting all of his guilty guests on alert. After dinner, while everyone’s playing bridge, Shaitana is stabbed. What’s interesting is that each of the successful murderers has a motive; the question is which one is mostly likely to have committed the crime. At one point, one of the characters summons Poirot and confesses to the crime. Poirot knows that this character didn’t commit the crime, and says as much. Then, the character breaks down and admits to lying in order to cover for another character. In true Christie fashion, though, there’s more to the story than that…
Crime fiction curve balls are plot twists, especially well-written unexpected ones. There are so many of these that there’s no way I could mention them all. I’ll use one example here. In Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder of Dr. Felix McClure, a retired Oxford don. As the two sleuths look into McClure’s background, one of the suspects looks to be Ted Brooks, McClure’s former scout. He has a motive, too, as McClure was on the point of exposing Brooks as a drug supplier. The trouble is, Brooks had a heart attack on the night of McClure’s death, so he’s got an alibi. Then, in one plot twist, Brooks disappears and later turns up dead. In another, Morse meets Ellie Smith, a prostitute who counted McClure as one of her clients. As Morse looks into Ellie’s background (she, after all, is a suspect, too, since she had a relationship with McClure), there’s another plot twist as he finds out who Ellie Smith really is. After a few more twists and revelations (and some classic Colin Dexter “wrong turns”), Morse figures out who really killed McClure and Brooks.
Swing and a Miss
Dexter’s also famous for the swing and a miss, where the sleuth gets the wrong suspect – at first. Inspector Morse frequently follows a line of thinking that doesn’t lead him to the right solution. Of course, he’s always willing to start over, if that’s what it takes. And that’s what it takes in The Jewel That Was Ours, in which Morse and Lewis find out who stabbed Dr. Theodore Kemp, curator of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Morse and Lewis have connected Kemp’s murder to the disappearance of the Wolvercote Tongue, a valuable piece of an Anglo-Saxon belt that’s on display at the museum. At one point, Morse thinks he’s got the right suspect, and he’s grilling this character. In the middle of the interrogation, Lewis ‘phones Morse, giving him vital information to prove that Morse’s “pet suspect” is innocent. To his credit, Morse listens to Lewis, and is able to find out who’s behind the theft and the murder.
Relief pitchers are often called in when the starting pitcher isn’t having a good game, or is getting tired. That happens in crime fiction, too. Many sleuths take cases when the police aren’t having much success finding out whodunit. That’s quite often the reason that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is called in. For instance, in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, the police have arrested young James McCarthy for the murder of his father, Charles. It seems the case against him is quite clear, too: he’d argued with his father and he was the last one seen with his father. Young McCarthy’s fiancée, Alice Turner, believes McCarthy is innocent. She pleads his case to Inspector Lestrade. Lestrade believes the police have the right man, but asks Holmes to look into the matter. Holmes takes over, and before long, is able to show who really killed McCarthy and why, and frees McCarthy’s son.
There are other terms, too, that crime fiction teams should be aware of; if you’ve any to share, I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, are we clear on these terms? Thank you. Play ball!!