Crime Fiction

"Oh, you write detective novels?" laughed the lady at the literary cocktail party.  "No wonder I've never heard of you;  I haven't time even for good fiction."

If geniuses diverse as T. S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett can be avid fans of detective fiction, then I need make no further apology.  The anecdote above comes from the intro to a collection of Charlotte Armstrong's novels that I read in seventh grade; my love of the genre goes back a bit further than that, to the "Alfred Hitchcock presents" series of teen detective novels.

I write a general overview in an article, Guilty Pleasure in Crime Fiction.  Considering James: Henry and P. D. together, I explore some limitations in the crime genre.

Working with actors to create murder mysteries from scratch, I've had fun learning the genre from the inside.  I guided my eighth grade drama classes when they chose to create scary murder mysteries.  Read about those processes in articles From Zero to Murder Mystery in 21 Hours and Crime Drama Reset: 8th Graders Find Their Story.  With adults at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, GA, I've developed four comedy-murder mysteries that required  serious thinking, despite the mandate to be funny.  Besides, we heard the question, is murder something that the church should treat lightly? I reflect on the process behind each script: Church and Theatre: Laughing Matter?, Mystery Dinner Theatre for Episcopalians, Post Mortem: What Slays in Vegas and Death in Stitches.

I'll add to this list as I add articles.  For each author, I plan to list titles in order of publication.

Tony Hillerman's Joe Leaphorn series gives us "tension between Navajo traditions and modern life."
  • About Skeleton Man, I write less about the story and more about what I learned from Hillerman about constructing a detective story.
  • Skinwalker shifts focus from "whodunit" to "will the killer succeed?" 

Sue Grafton's alphabetical mystery series.   Alphabetical order draws attention to a problem of keeping the work fresh within a rigid form.  Because that's also the challenge facing every composer, Sue Grafton's books often bring to mind musical analogies for me.  Skipping first to I is for Innocent,  I read the books mostly in order, so I pay special attention to what she (and we) learn about writing as the series progresses.
 Spencer Quinn's Chet and Bernie series.
Raymond Chandler: It's About the Driver, Not the Drive is my detailed reflection on the collected Philip Marlowe novels.  But here's the succinct summary, from a description of Marlowe brought to mind by C. J. Sansom's historical crime fiction:  "[Marlowe] thinks of himself as tough and cynical, but he's never cynical enough to mistrust the right person.  By the time I reach the end of a Chandler novel, I've long forgotten what Marlowe was looking for in chapter one, and I don't care:  Marlowe's toughness, integrity, and naivety make him a great companion for the journey into darkness."

C.J. Sansom's Shardlake series.   Henry VIII's appetites and ruthlessness in establishing the shaky Tudor dynasty  threw England's people into political, social, and spiritual turmoil.  Our detective is a lawyer in a time when law was under attack.  He's Shardlake (a literal translation of "Sherlock," I'm guessing).  The plots are gripping, the atmosphere relentlessly dark, the history skin-crawlingly vivid, the detective a bit of a whiner.
 Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series.  I didn't have a blog when I read the first several books in the series!
  • Mosley's Cinnamon Kiss is considered in my apologia for crime fiction.
  • Black, White, and Noire considers Mosley's Blonde Faith alongside The Ivory Grin written by Ross MacDonald in 1952.  This essay begins, "In one of the throw-away lines that make Walter Mosley's novels so rich, detective Easy Rawlins reflects that he is no more a private eye than . . . any soul sitting in that [black dive, ca. 1966]. Each and every one of us was examining and evaluating clues all the time, day and night (98)."
  • One Plot, Two Thrillers finds one-to-one correspondence of outline between two successful thrillers that are otherwise entirely different, Mosley's Little Green and Dean Koontz's Odd Hours.  This article quotes Mosley's striking insights on race in America and on 1967.
Henning Mankell's Wallander series.  Everything I know about Sweden comes from reading these books.  I feel like I've been there.  The series arouses acute feelings from time to time, and a general feeling of unease -- not surprising where the sun doesn't rise half the year
  • One Step Behind 
  • The Vulnerable Detective considers The Man Who Smiled (1994) and Firewall (2002).  I conclude, "There really is very little mystery in any of these novels.  [We] have a pretty clear idea early on of what's up and who's doing it. Our sympathy is with Wallander as we root for him to figure out what we already know."
  •  Meaning of Life:  Detectives' Perspectives.  Mankell's first Wallander book Faceless Killers is contrasted to the sunny world of Alexander McCall Smith's Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. This essay goes on my list of "personal bests," where I write,  
If "catch a killer" is on your to-do list, is your life more meaningful than one spent answering emails and preparing for committee meetings?  Comparing the daily routines of fictional detectives Kurt Wallander and Mma Ramatswe, I find solace in Mma's comment, "Our concern should be what is happening right now. There is plenty of work for love to do, you know".
  • When Plot Isn't Enough rolls Return of the Dancing Master and The Troubled Man into a mix with a novel by Ellery Queen and the movie Chinatown to draw some general conclusions about plot in crime novels.
Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.  I respond to these easygoing, delightful novels all in one article, A Precious Detective:  Agatha Christie's Opposite.   See also Meaning of Life:  Detectives' Perspectives.  For a reconsideration of Christie, see What Mr. Suchet Saw:  Christ in Agatha Christie.

Agatha Christie:  When I was in sixth grade, she was my first crime writer for grown ups.  I later learned to scorn her.  Now, I'm reconsidering her work again.
  • I write an apology to Agatha Christie in my article "What Mr. Suchet Saw: Christ in Agatha Christie" about Murder on the Orient Express, reconsidering book and two filmed versions.
  • I appreciate what I find in two novels late in the Jane Marple series, The Mirror Crack'd Side to Side (book and 1980 film) and At Bertram's HotelWith Marple's debut in 1930, Murder at the Vicarage, Christie allowed herself room to grow!
  • Terror and Powerlessness4:50 to Paddington (or What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw) and The Moving Finger each start with a deeply unsettling situation before settling into comfortably familiar patterns. Was Christie afraid to go too deep into her darkest ideas? 
  • Worst Title, Best Book: Five Little Pigs considers the novel, David Suchet's video production, and what he writes in his memori Poirot and Me.
P.D. James grabbed my attention for all time when I heard her read a passage from A Taste for Death. Though I've read many novels from earlier in her career, and many since, I've written about only a few of them on this blog.

Dorothy L. Sayers was someone I wanted to like more than I did when I was enamored of C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. They shared an Oxford background, Christian faith, love of the classics (I mean, real classics, Dante and before), and probably a lot of alcohol.  I've re-read The Nine Tailors, her novel most explicitly concerned with churchly matters, and, older and considerably more familiar with the Anglican tradition, I enjoyed it more. See See Bells Resonate in The Nine Tailors.

Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas series.  When the series started, young Thomas, named "Odd" by a quirky parent, operated as a kind of Philip Marlowe for the dead.  Even as the plots have strayed from city streets into an alternate universe (Hell?) and signs of impending apocalypse, there's a thread of detective work binding the story together, as Odd discovers that certain characters are not what they first appear.  So, I include the series here.
  • Dean Koontz Keeps Reader Up Late  First in the series was simply titled Odd Thomas, and it's wonderful.  It's also the basis for a Hollywood film Odd Thomas that's funny and emotional, sent directly to DVD because of a legal dispute.  
  • Wit and Wisdom from Brother Odd. Third in the series, set in a monastery.  (I skipped the second in the series on reader recommendations.) My article isn't a review, but a compilation of passages that display great turns of phrase and/or insight to life.
  • Odd Hours is reviewed side by side with Walter Mosley's Little Green to highlight differences in tone and effect despite similarities in basic plot.  This book includes a memorable scene with the spirit of Frank Sinatra. 
  • Dean Koontz's Uneven Odds reviews two of the final books in the series, Odd Apocalypse and Deeply Odd.  Apocalypse is set up like a gothic romance: Young couple stay on sprawling country estate with accommodating but strangely cool staff.  Deeply Odd involves missing children and a cross-country pursuit of a sinister truck.  Nearly ecstatic about the novels' fun and eeriness, I express unease about some conspiracy-theory whackiness that threatens to tip a delicate balance in tone that Koontz has maintained 'til now.  
  • As it was in the beginning, Saint Odd returns the affable hero to his home town, while the author returns to the human-scale action of the early books in the series.  I quote from Koontz's interview at to relate the series to theology. Koontz works a little theology and art education, too, into his stand-alone novel The City, something I appreciate in a little article called Art Doesn't Have to be Great to be Good.
Ann Cleeves
  • Ann Cleeves and Mary Higgins Clark are contrasted for a "lesson" in mystery writing 9k Words into Raven Black 
  • There's more about the first four books of Ann Cleeves' series in She Knows Her Place:  Ann Cleeves' Shetland Thrillers
  • My post about Cleeves' fourth book in the Shetland series compares it to Agatha Christie in one important respect: Blue Lightning.   
  • Dead Water put me in mind of how crime novelists are like sports commentators: they focus on character and texture, because there isn't a lot of latitude in the way the game is played. 
  • Thin Air: Thick Atmosphere
  • My introduction to Cleeves' "Vera Stanhope" series comes through the novels Silent Voices and Harbour Street.  
  • Vera Stanhope seems to enjoy pulling together pieces to solve a bizarre double murder in The Moth Catcher, and I wonder if it's akin to the joy that her literary creator composing her story?

Martin Cruz Smith 
  • Stalin's Ghost updates the Moscow-based series that began in the early 80s with Gorky Park.  Martin Cruz Smith writes memorable characters and creates a very strong sense of some exotic places.  Years later, I can picture the places I visited in my mind with Arkady, his detective.
  • Arkadya:  Place in Wolves Eat Dogs enlarges on how Martin Cruz Smith takes us to places we haven't been.  In this case, it's Chernobyl, still radioactive. 
Detective Fiction on Screen.
What Mr. Suchet Saw:  Christ in Agatha Christie takes off from adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express of 1974 and 2010 to reflect on Christie's work in general.  I apologize to her for denigrating her work for shallowness.
Sondheim's Murder Mysteries reflects mostly on The Last of Sheila, a whodunit movie he wrote with Anthony Perkins, but I include what else I know about Sondheim and the genre -- with some news that may be an exclusive scoop, since I've never seen it repeated elsewhere!

  • Mary Higgins Clark is contrasted to Ann Cleeves for a "lesson" in mystery writing 9k Words into Raven Black.   
  • A tag-team mystery novel Heads You Lose by Lisa Lutz and David Heyward raises the question, "What happens when you have to suspend your suspension of disbelief?"  The essay is called "Mystery Novel From the Sidelines."
I may get to write appreciations for other authors whose works I've devoured:  Ngaio Marsh, George Simenon, Colin Dexter, Ellis Peters's "Brother Cadfael" series, and a special one, Teri Holbrook, whom I met when she was about to escape from her five-novel contract.  After years of ambition to be a crime novelist, she found the reality of it to be a huge burden, and she longed to be a full-time teacher instead.

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