Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Where We'll Plan Our Escape*

One of the reasons many people read is to escape. After all, life is not always easy, and even when things are going relatively smoothly, it’s nice to step out of our own worlds for a while. Sometimes, of course, we read to learn something, or we read work from an author we know will make us think. Those are very good reasons to read and in fact, crime fiction fans quickly get fed up with books that have no substance to them. But crime fiction fans also enjoy the chance to take a break from their own lives, and crime fiction can do that, too.

Even fictional characters enjoy escaping. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot investigates the shooting death of his dentist Henry Morley. At first, Morley’s murder is assumed to have a personal motivation, but it’s soon proven that Morley’s death was part of something larger. One of the witnesses Poirot interviews is Morley’s page-boy Alfred, whose duties are to answer the door at the practice, escort patients in and out and inform Morley and his partner when patients arrive. When he’s not on duty, Alfred enjoys reading detective stories. In fact, he’s reading one when Morley is shot. As he later tells Poirot,

It's an American detective story. It's a corker, sir, it really is! All about gunmen."

In Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we meet Miss Russell, housekeeper for wealthy retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd. One day, Miss Russell visits Dr. James Sheppard, local doctor in the village of King’s Abbott. After consulting him on the medical business she says has brought her there, Miss Russell begins to ask Dr. Sheppard about rare poisons:

“‘Ah,’ I said, ‘You’ve been reading detective stories.’

She admitted that she had…

I should never have suspected Miss Russell of a fondness for detective stories. It pleases me very much to think of her stepping out of the housekeeper’s room to rebuke a delinquent housemaid, and then returning to a comfortable perusal of The Mystery of the Seventh Death or something of the kind.”

Miss Russell’s visit to the doctor takes on a different meaning when Ackroyd is found stabbed to death one evening in his study. Hercule Poirot, who has moved into the house next door to Dr. Sheppard’s home, is persuaded to take the case, although he had planned to retire. He finds that, like just about all of the suspects in the murder, Miss Russell was hiding something. In the end, Poirot finds out who is hiding the fact of being a murderer.

Eugene “Huge” Smalls who stars in James W. Fuerst’s Huge, enjoys escaping through reading, too. He’s a twelve-year-old misfit who’s highly intelligent but has few social skills. To make matters worse, he’s on the small side and has trouble managing his temper. He’s a little awkward, too. The one thing Huge enjoys doing is reading about famous detectives such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He’s caught up in those characters and wants to be a detective himself. Huge gets his chance when his grandmother hires him to find out who’s defaced the sign at the retirement home where she lives. Huge takes the case and ends up learning about himself as he finds out who’s responsible for the vandalism.

Of course, in real life we like to read for escape, too. Sometimes, we escape through thrillers. Fans of Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon, for instance, enjoy being caught up in the crosses, double-crosses, excitements and chases of Allon’s work as a member of an exclusive and top-secret Israeli Intelligence group called The Office. For most of us, our daily lives don’t involve catching terrorists and being paid to carry off assassinations. So it can be an enjoyable escape to follow along with someone whose daily life does involve those things.

And then there’s Lindy Cameron’s Redback, which I’m savouring right now. That’s the story of Redback, a crack retrieval team led by Bryn Gideon. The team gets involved early in the novel in the rescue of a group of people who’d attended a conference on Laui Island in the Pacific. But their work is far from done once that rescue’s been pulled off. American journalist Scott Dreher is investigating the way governments use computer games for recruitment. That research, plus a series of murders and other attacks shows that there’s a dangerous international terrorist plot to use those recruitment games for very nasty purposes. Now Dreher, the Redback team and the intelligence forces of several nations get swept up in the effort to quell the terrorist plot and stop the “bad guys.” I confess, I’ve not finished the novel yet, but I’m enjoying the ride! Part of the appeal of well-written thrillers like this one is that we can believe the events could happen. There’s just enough reality in them to catch our attention. And the pace and action keep readers turning pages and leaving the regular life of work, dishes, commuting and so on behind.

Of course, not everyone is a fan of thrillers. Some people like to escape into other historical times. And there are lots of good historical mysteries that allow the reader to experience what it’s like to live in another time. That’s part of the appeal of novels like Shona MacLean’s Alexander Seaton novels, which take the reader to 17th Century Scotland and Ireland. Seaton is a teacher, first in a grammar school in Banff and then as a university teacher in Aberdeen. As Seaton gets involved in solving crimes and unravelling mysteries, we get to see what life was like for those who lived in that place, in that time. MacLean’s novels stay focused on the mysteries at hand, but we also learn about customs, lifestyles and even language patterns of the time in which the novels are set. That’s also the appeal of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series and Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel novels. Both of those series take place in 1930’s Germany and in them, readers can experience what life might have been like for ordinary people during that time. The novels are focused on the mysteries at hand, but we also get a look at the times during which they take place.

Still other readers escape through comic capers or light cosy reading. Our “escape” novels may not leave us with a great deal of new information, or a lot of “food for thought.” But if they have solid plots and can whisk us away, maybe that isn’t such a problem. But what do you think? Do you read just for escape? Or do you prefer reading that has more “meat” to it? If you read for escape, what’s your preferred “getaway vehicle?” If you’re a writer, do you write with “escape” in mind?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rupert Holmes’ Escape (The Piña Colada Song).


  1. After a flu-ridden week I have definitely gone for easy get-away reads, and my current book is a perfect example: Colin Bateman´s Mystery Man is light and funny, and the narrator & owner of a bookshop seems to have read more than his share of crime fiction :D

    Recommended for anyone who needs a light laugh (as funny as Declan Burke, but easier to follow)

  2. Dorte - I think being that sick for a week is as good a motivation a any for wanting a little escape. And thank you for the suggestion of Mystery Man. It sounds like a terrific escape, and I am a sucker for a bookshop owner :-).

  3. I almost never read for escape. That's what movies and TV are for. Books require more concentration. Love Colin Bateman though

  4. Patti - Oh, that's interesting! I hadn't thought about it, but you are quite right. Books really require more (and a different kind of) concentration than movies and TV do. But yes, Colin Bateman has a lot of talent! I haven't read Mystery Man, but what I have read of his is great.

  5. I like both light and heavier reading, depending on my mood. Sometimes I need one kind of an escape, sometimes another.

    "Redback" sounds interesting...I'll have to check that out. :)

  6. Though I don't read a ton of crime fiction, I do use books as my ultimate escape (okay, books AND movies). When I was young, I loved historical fiction. I lived as The Witch of Blackbird Pond on The Island of the Blue Dolphins until I watched The Phoenix Rising.

    I'll stop, I promise. :)

    Great post!

    Marie, http://marierearden.blogspot.com

  7. Elizabeth - I'm glad you mentioned mood. I think that has a lot to do with whether people choose an "escape" read or something "meatier." I know that's true of me.

    And I think you'll like Redback. It's unique and it's got (at least in my opinion) the right pacing and timing for the kind of novel it is, and I have to admit, I liked the wit in it. It's not "family style" humour, but I couldn't stop chuckling here and there. And the plot lines seem to be drawn together quite effectively (I'm not at the end yet, but it seems that way from where I stand).

  8. Marie - Thank you:-) LOL! I know exactly what you mean about historical fiction. It's a wonderful way to escape, isn't it? And there's no reason to stop, either ;-).

  9. I love the escape of mystery reading. It allows you to live in a different world--one where everything comes out right in the end. It's like listening to Mozart. There is always resolution.

    Marie--when I was a teen, the Witch of Blackbird Pond was my favorite escape, too.

  10. Anne - What an interesting comparison between mystery novels and Mozart! There are some mystery novels I've thoroughly enjoyed that didn't have a real resolution at the end, but in general I like the pieces to all come together in my crime fiction, too. And there's no doubt that well-written mystery fiction lets the reader experience a different reality.

  11. If I happen to get some education or information along the way I'm happy to have it but with my fiction reading I want to be entertained first and have my thoughts provoked as a by-product of that. Sometimes I don't even want my thoughts provoked at all - I just want to be whisked away to another world somewhere and have someone tell me a good story that I enjoy while I'm in it and don't need to think about afterwards. I get annoyed by the literary types who look down on that kind of reading - it's not as easy as they think to tell a story that is entertaining from beginning to end.

    Glad you are enjoying Redback.

  12. Bernadette - Thanks; I'm enjoying Redback a lot. I actually first got interested in reading it because you recommended it. I'm glad you did :-).

    And I know exactly what you mean about wanting to be told a good story that keeps you interested. Good fiction is, first and foremost, just that - telling a good story. There's no harm if the reader learns something, too, or thinks about something differently. But the story comes first. And you're right; it's not easy to tell an entertaining story. Trust me.

  13. I mainly enjoy reading for the escape. Sometimes it is a cozy mystery in a tea shop, sometimes it's a cozy about families and barbecue, other times it's about murder and knitting. Then there are times it's fun to escape to a different time or country and get lost in a romance. Just so many ways to escape.

    Thoughts in Progress

  14. Mason - There are lots of different ways to escape through mysteries, aren't there? Whether it's through a cosy, a "travel" mystery, historical mystery or some other kind of novel, a well-written book can take the reader away. And that can be almost like a mini-vacation ;-).

  15. I think reading is the best escape! After ploughing through dusty history tomes, I'm quite likely to pick up something light and fun as a breather. Sometimes it's great just to *read* and not have to be constantly thinking about the significance of whatever.

    And thanks for using a line from "The Pina Colada Song" as a title; it started playing in my head the second I saw it! It's a good thing; that song makes me smile.

  16. Elspeth - Thanks for saying that; it's good to know you got a smile from my constantly-playing mental musical score.

    And you make a well-taken point. It's not always necessary to plumb the depths of the human condition when we read. Of course it's important that a book have a plot, characters, something sturdy to keep the reader turning pages. But that "something" can be light and still be good.

  17. I just did a review for Sayer's Whose Body where Whimsy is always mocking the detective novel. Obviously he reads them... or should I say the writer?

  18. Clarissa - Interesting point! Wimsey does read detective novels; he's a connoisseur of rare literary books, though, and it's not really until he meets Harriet Vane in Strong Poison that he learns the power of the mystery novel ;-).