Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Do You Hear Me? Do You Care?*

Books are the creations of their authors. So, most books reflect their authors’ views and opinions, experiences and backgrounds. Readers don’t just read a story; they often get a sense of what the author is like as well, and that can be interesting. Many readers are curious about the people who write books, and they want to know about the authors. More than that, though, readers want good stories. Crime fiction fans want interesting cases, intelligent mysteries and believable, logical stories. They may be curious about the author, but mostly, they want well-written stories. That said, one can often learn about an author through a well-written novel. The author’s background, views and so on do come through.

For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle said that he wasn’t happy with detective stories of his day in which the sleuth magically comes to the right conclusion about a case with no deduction – no evidence to really support that conclusion. So he created a sleuth who used deduction from evidence, and the rest is, well, history. Sherlock Holmes does have a certain amount of intuition, but mostly, he uses logical deduction from the evidence he finds to solve cases. In the Holmes stories, we see Conan Doyle’s admiration for science and for logic.

Readers of Agatha Christie’s novels can see her background, views, etc. coming through her work as well. For instance, she worked as a hospital dispenser and from that experience, learned a great deal about medications and poisons. That background comes through in many of her novels in which poison figures into the case. Just a few examples are The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Sad Cypress, Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect) and The Mirror Crack’d. In each of those cases (and several others), at least one victim dies by poisoning, and we can see as we read Christie’s knowledge of the topic.

Christie also created a fictional detective novelist, Ariadne Oliver, who was said to be Christie’s way of poking fun at herself as well as her way of expressing herself. Oliver’s fictional detective, Sven Hjerson, is a vegetarian Finn who has several idiosyncrasies and in more than one novel, Oliver mentions her personal dislike for her own creation. And yet, as she admits, other people like Sven Hjerson very much, so she keeps writing novels that feature him. In Ariadne Oliver’s love/hate relationship with her sleuth, we get a glimpse of how Christie may have felt about Hercule Poirot, one of her most famous creations. Christie is said to have gotten very fed up with Poirot, who certainly has his own set of oddities and idiosyncrasies. And yet, Poirot has millions of fans, so Christie felt compelled to keep writing stories featuring him.

In the broader sense, Christie arguably used her novels to comment on the many social realities of her world, and the many social changes that came, especially after World War II. In several novels, she describes the social class structure of her society (Sad Cypress and The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours) are just two examples). She also discusses such phenomena as the wartime hardships people endured, and the changes in everyday life after World War II (The Mirror Crack’d offers a strong example of this).

Christie’s by no means the only author whose “self” we can glimpse in a novel. Ngaio Marsh’s enduring love for the theater is evident in several of her novels, including Enter a Murderer and Opening Night. Even in novels where the main plot and setting don’t focus on acting, many of Marsh’s characters are involved in some way in arts or the theater.

Dorothy Sayers created mystery novelist Harriet Vane, whose life in some ways mirrors Sayers’ own. Like Sayers, Vane fell in love with a man and was persuaded to live with him without marriage, although at the time that was a scandalous thing to do. Like Sayers, Vane felt betrayed when her lover revealed that he was willing to marry her, and she felt that her public honor had been ruined for no reason. That’s in fact, one reason Vane’s charged with and tried for the murder of her former lover in Strong Poison. Sayers’ Oxford experience comes through in Gaudy Night, when Vane returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford, and discovers who’s been responsible for vandalism and other frightening occurrences at the school.

Readers of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series can see this writing team’s social critique in those novels. In their choice of plots, kinds of murder, victims and murderers, Sjöwall and Wahlöö commented on socialism, capitalism, Swedish society and the roles of the people in that society. More modern Swedish writers such as Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson have done the same. In novels like these, readers get a sense of the authors’ views on politics, government, the roles of men and women, crime and punishment, immigration and many more themes.

Donna Leon’s love of Venice is clear in her Guido Brunetti series. The novels, by and large, take place there, and in the books we get to “travel” all over the city. Leon is not afraid to explore Venice’s many problems, such as pollution, racism, illegal immigration and corruption. However, it seems clear in the novels that Leon brings up these problems because of her love for the city and her desire for it to be improved. We see that mostly through the way Leon’s sleuth, Commissario Guido Brunetti, reacts to the Venice around him. He doesn’t give up, despite the corruption, “officialdom,” and general seaminess he encounters in his job. He deeply loves his Venice, enjoys speaking Veneziano, and every day, returns to what his wife, Paola, refers to as the Augean Stables to do his part to improve the city.

As we read Martin Edwards’ Lake District series, we can see clearly Edwards’ fondness for that part of England. The novels, which feature DCI Hannah Scarlett and Oxford historian Daniel Kind, show the rugged beauty of the Lake District and the appeal that it has for its residents. In fact, in The Serpent Pool, Kind returns to the Lake District after a trip to the U.S. on a lecture tour. When Scarlett asks him if he wasn’t tempted to stay there, Kind replies,

I love the States, but I’d never move there permanently. I can’t scrub the Lakes out of my system. And I don’t want to.”

The Serpent Pool, in which Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the six-year-old case of the drowning death of Bethany Friend, is a crime fiction story. But in it, we can also get a sense of Edwards’ attachment to small towns and the sense of community they build.

My own current work in progress, the third in my Joel Williams series, takes place mostly in and around Philadelphia. Among other reasons for my choice of setting, I love Philadelphia and consider it my home. It’s a real pleasure to write about it, and I hope readers will be able to sense that.

There are many other authors, too, of course, whose views, backgrounds and priorities we can see as we read their work. Crime fiction readers don’t get hooked on novels and series unless the plots, characters and mysteries are well-written. That, more than anything else, is the key to a memorable story. But it can also add to a novel’s interest if we learn about the author through the writing; that seems almost inevitable, anyway. What do you think? If you’re a crime fiction fan, do you enjoy finding traces of the author in his or her work? If you’re an author, how much of yourself do you express?

: The title of this blog is a line from Missing Persons' Words.


  1. Well, because you're reading my novel, I'll tell you what you can learn about me from that book.
    1) I love numbers and codes. Love them. If you go to the actual blog, on the side bar is code number on. A code I made up. Well, I make all the codes for my books.
    2) Theo isn't much like me and Dorland is nothing like me.
    3) Sophia, is very direct like me. I'm not as computer savvy as she is but I do like to play with coding.
    Love the post.

  2. Clarissa - Thanks : ). And yeah, I've guessed from your novel that you love numbers, codes, ciphers and so on. You do them quite well, too, in my opinion. And even though you and I have never met, I did sort of peg you as more like Sophia than like Theo, and certainly not like Dorland.

    Folks, what we're talking about is Clarissa's terrific crime fiction novel, The Sholes Key. Please do check it out!

  3. Patti - Very kind of you : ). Much appreciated : ).

  4. It always makes me laugh how Ngaio Marsh can manage to squeeze a thespian somewhere into her novels, even if they're not a major player, but I like that because it reflects her.
    You see it also in writers who reflect their original occupation - your Patricia Cornwalls and Kathy Reichs of the world whose novels reflect the forensic anthropology world, John Grisham with his legal thrillers. It's not just about writing what they know, but also what they love.
    As a reader I think it adds an extra dimension to the story if we know the author is commenting on or reflecting their personal experience or passion.
    I drop things in that reflect myself all the time. Most people would be oblivious, but those that know me are very amused!
    My prejudices sneak in too - I love Dunedin, so my protagonist loves Dunedin. I hate Auckland, so my protagonist...

  5. Vanda - I love that about Ngaio Marsh, too. It is very much a reflection of her, and I respect that - I really do.

    And you're absolutely right about people whose protagonists are in similar occupations. I've done that with my own Joel Williams. I'm in higher education and so is he. As you say, it allows the author to tap not just what s/he knows, but a real interest - even a passion. And I think that adds to the interest in a story. I know, for instance, that I have a lot of respect for the authenticity of stories where the author has some background. I like that about Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gears' work very much. They're in archeology and forensic anthropology, and you can really see their knowledge come through.

    I admit, I laughed out loud when you mentioned dropping things in your novels that reflect you. I do the same thing (perhaps all writers do). Anyone who knows me well gets the joke. Others may not. Even the name of my protagonist - well, people who know me will understand its genesis.

    I have to confess I have never been to Dunedin, although the times I have been in New Zealand, I've actually met some wonderful people who call it home. I shall have correct that egregious error on my part : ).

  6. I think when an author adds a little something of themselves to their writing, it's an added bonus for the reader. Great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. Mason - Thank you : ). I have to say I agree; when an author lets the reader see a bit of him or herself, that can be awfully engaging.

  8. Great post. It's always interesting to know why people write about certain locations and about particular topics. Love that you've shared this summary with us.

  9. Lou - Thank you! So glad you've enjoyed the post. I always think it really is interesting what's behind a novel - why it takes place where it does, and so on.

  10. When I use my work, it is not by putting English teachers into my manuscripts. I do use my knowledge about English literature, history and culture, though.

    And myself? The funny thing is that the ´serious´ Danish novel I just finished has a protagonist who is extremely different from me, but in the new, English cosy I think I put more nuts and bolts of myself into young Rhapsody Gershwin. She knows what she wants and is very determined (let´s just be honest and say stubborn), and as a vicar´s daughter she sometimes switches from her role as a sleuth into a confidante or ´church lady´. She is far from perfect, but I feel safe and comfortable around her.

  11. Dorte - You certainly do have a deep knowledge of English history, culture, etc., so I'm not surprised that you tap that rich resource when you write.

    Rhapsody sounds like a fascinating protagonist, and I really do like her name : ). Your background as a member of a vicar's family must be really useful as you "get into" her character. The more you let us know about what you are writing, the more eager I am to read it. Do get on with it, OK, so that we can all savour your book? ; )

  12. Great post, Margot. Picking up on one small part of it, I agree that it is great to read novels that have taken so much care over the setting, particularly in the case of your example of Donna Leon. However, I do find on average that there is no substitute from being from the country concerned for conveying authenticity of place and mindset. For example, if you compare Camilleri or de Luca or other native Italian authors with Leon or Nabb, I think there is a difference of authenticity even if Leon's books might be "better" in other ways (or not). It would be great if you could write a post about that sometime, as there are several authors who write about places they don't come from or necessarily live in. One recent example is Michael Ridpath setting his latest book in Iceland - compare with Arnaldur Indridason or Yrsa Sigurdardottir - fascinating!

  13. Maxine - You know, You really do have a very interesting point. And when you mentioned the difference between Leon and Camilleri (Both of whose books I admire), you can really see it. They both, for instance, "take the reader to Italy," but yes, one does get a different sense of a place. I think your point about mindset is just as well-taken. Each place does have a different culture and mindset. Being from a particular place allows the author to convey a mindset in a way that is different from the way an author from somewhere else conveys it. Yes, I most definitely do feel a new post topic coming on ; ).