Better Lock the Door

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The Hardboiled Mystery

Hard Boiled Detectives The classical mystery story came to its heyday in the 1920s and 30s. World War I had just ended, and the world was coming through the 1918 flu pandemic that infected a third of the world’s population.

In England, the classic mystery had already been established by Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The stories showed the reader a very upper society, very proper, with tea being served often. The detective often had a tie to police, but were intellectually superior. They were often given a reluctant acceptance by the local law enforcement officer. Sometimes, the police would call them in because they couldn’t solve the case, but more often the detective burst onto the scene, showing up the helpless officer.

But in America, we saw the emergence of a different type of detective in the hardboiled detective mysteries. In another kind of society, Dashielle Hammett and Raymond Chandler introduced us to the private eye. Often a lone wolf, who tried to dispense his own style of justice in a world with few rules.

[bctt tweet=”The hardboiled American detective was much more cynical than his English counterpart. It wasn’t a game or puzzle to him, but a more personal battle against evil, even of life or death. ” username=”httpstwittercomTimSuddeth”] Continue reading

2021 Edgar Award Nominees

The 2021 Edgar Awards nominees were announced yesterday by the Mystery Writers of America. The Edgar Awards take their name from Edgar Allan Poe, considered to be one of the inventers of the detective genre. The winners will be presented in New York City later this year.

The nominees come from usually around 2000 submissions from publishers and writers, representing the best in mystery fiction in novels, young people books, short stories, and television.

This year the Grand Masters are Jeffery Deaver and Charlaine Harris.

You can find the link to the nominees here.

Dashiell Hammett

The Golden Age of Mystery refers to the period between World War I and World War II. In America, writers created the hard-boiled detective. They portrayed the detective, a male, usually as a loner, facing the violence and nihilism of the post-WWI world. Often cynical, tough, hard-boiled, they lived with an internal code of right and wrong. Unlike the English detective, the American private eye is from the common people. They don’t use their great minds to solve puzzles. Instead, they use hard work and a willingness to get dirty to catch their criminal, or not.

This hard-boiled detective fiction is also called noir. Because of the time period, I always think of the films as being in black-and-white.

Although Dashiell Hammett only wrote five novels, he is known as one of the pioneers of detective fiction. He brought us Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, and the Continental Op. Many of the best-selling mystery writers, including Raymond Chandler, say that they were influenced by his style and stories. Continue reading

What’s Your Genre?

Shelf of mysteries

So many books to get to.

Every year, over 650 million books in print are sold. So, how can you find a book similar to the one you just enjoyed? If you have ever tried to find a book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, you know what an impossible task it seems as you glaze at the rows and rows of bookshelves. Most of them spine out, which is a pet peeve of mine. Even after you learn where the mystery/suspense section is, you are still looking at a large section of the store. And that isn’t even talking about shopping on Amazon, where you can’t even see how the books grouped together.

Say, I like the The Cat Who books, but I’ve read them all and I want someone a little different. What should I do?

This is where it is helpful to break a large category, like mysteries, into smaller sub-categories or genres. A genre is a category of artistic composition, like literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter. It allows us to group similar books or separate books by their differences.

I can look at the book’s category, Cozy with cats, and then look for another book in that genre, say one by Rita Mae Brown in her Mrs. Murphy series. Or if, instead of cats, I would rather have dogs, or llamas, I can look for those, too.

Over the next few months, we will look into many of the different genres that mysteries have been broken int. We will, also, discover representative writers and classics within them. Because there are so many types of mysteries, there is no one standard list of genres. Some lists break them down by time period, type of sleuth, type of investigation, location, and a myriad of other ways.

Some of the more popular genres are classic, hardboiled, police procedural, true crime, noir, Scandinavian, and cozies. As you can see, there can be a lot of overlap in many these.

Like a pecan pie, there are many ways you can cut it. I look forward to studying the different genres with you and, maybe, discovering some new favorite writers and books.

Critical Review of The Last Mile

The Last Mile by David BAldacci

The Last Mile by David Baldacci

The Last Mile is the second entry in David Baldacci’s Amos Decker series.

Amos Decker is a former NFL football player who, just as his pro career started, received a traumatic brain injury. The injury not only knocked him out of football but, also, left him with a disorder in which he remembers everything, including the painful events he would rather forget like the murders of his wife and daughter.

The Last Mile begins with Decker headed from Burlington, Ohio to Quantico, VA to take a position with a newly-formed team at the FBI. The team combines combining FBI agents with civilians who have their own special gifts.

Fate intervenes when Decker turns on his radio and listens to a PBR broadcast. He hears the story of Melvin Mars who had been on death row for twenty years for the grisly murder of his parents. Some of the details of the case reminds Decker of his own life. As Mars was on the way to be executed, he learns that he has just received a pardon. A man in another state has confessed to the murders. The catch is he is to be executed within a few days.

Decker asks an obvious question. After twenty years, why should the real killer come forward now?

He convinces the new team to investigate the case, only to learn that there is much more involved than first thought. When the case begins taking some unexpected turns, the FBI team is told to drop the case and return to Quantico.

Leaving Decker determined to continue without the FBI.

David Baldacci leads us on a captivating adventure with many thrills and twists. The characters are diverse and well written.

Some Takeaways to Consider in Our Stories

The Last Mile left me with a couple of thoughts about the choices a writer has to make about their characters. It is hard to give someone a special gift like Decker’s memory and make the reader appreciate both its strengths and weaknesses. We don’t see him struggle with unwanted thoughts coming at the wrong time and hampering the case. That might be wise because it could have bogged down the story. But if you give a character a gift, like Superman’s strength, you can lose the tension of how he will get through this.

Decker’s reticence also plays to this. Readers like the quiet, strong guy. But like his frustrated girlfriend, the reader can have a problem knowing and connecting with such a character.An author has to find the balance between being strong and being vulnerable. You can have both. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the determination to slog through it.The tough, quiet guy can have a big following, like Lee Cobb’s Reacher, John D. MacDonald’ Travis McGee, and, I am sure, Amos Decker. Showing more vulnerability, on the other hand, might increase the tension and help the reader identify with the character.

The Last Mile is a strong entry into what I hope is a long series. Amos Decker is a character who leaves us wanting to get to know him better.

 

How Scott Turow Got His Start

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40769964

It is always interesting to hear how a bestselling writer worked their way into their career. Some writers knew they wanted to write in grade school. Others didn’t pick it up until much later. And often there are many starts and restarts as a writer struggles to find their niche.

In My First Thriller on the Crime Reads blog, Scott Turow tells about how he became the author of multiple best selling novels, capped off by his blockbuster hit, Presumed Innocence.

Turow had dreamed about being a writer in school, even having some articles published in college. Then life happened. He became a lecturer at Stanford before going to law school and becoming the Assistant US Attorney in Chicago. Part of that time, he worked on a novel during his thirty-minute commute to work.

We are glad he can now make more time to write stories that thrill, entertain, and make so many of us think.

Here is Rick Pullen’s article on his interview with Scott Turow. I hope you find it as informative and encouraging as I did.

 

 

Ellery Queen-a mystery himself

Whether it’s from his novels, films, radio, short stories, or TV, Ellery Queen is one of the premier names in the world of mysteries. He has been read, watched, or listened to all over the world. But answering who Ellery was, that is a little more complicated.

Ellery Queen the Character

Ellery and His Father on teh 70s TV Series

Ellery and Father from the 70s TV series

Ellery Queen was the main detective character in over thirty crime novels and short story collections from 1929 – 1971. He first appeared in The Roman Hat Mystery in 1929. He was the adult son of Inspector Richard Queen of the New York Police Homicide Squad and was an author who spent most of his time with his nose stuck in a book. His father leaned on him to help solve the murder.

It is hard to describe Ellery with one description as he changed over the course of the series. He began as a bookworm assisting his father in New York. His mother had passed away and there was no interest in women, in fact they both lived a decidedly bachelor lifestyle wanting only to spend their evenings in the apartment they shared.

In the late thirties, Ellery, like his authors, moved to Hollywood to begin writing movie scripts. He no longer assisted his father on police cases. And he found time for women. In Hollywood. Who would have guessed. The cases became less police procedurals and took on more psychological elements.

Beginning in 1942, Ellery Queen moved to a fictional New England town called Wrightsville. This let them loosen the structures even more and allowed more emphasis on relationships and less on the details of the case.

Ellery Queen the Author(?)

In 1932, Ellery Queen was invited by Columbia University to present a lecture on mystery writing. The catch was that Ellery wasn’t a person, but a pseudonym for two cousins and they didn’t want to reveal that Ellery wasn’t a real person. To decide who would address the school, they flipped a coin. The loser addressed the college wearing a mask.

The brains behind the great detective were two cousins from Brooklyn, New York. Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee were close cousins. They were both born in 1905, bore a close resemblance to each other, and often finished each others sentences during interviews. Together, they edited collections of short stories under the Ellery Queen name and founded the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine that still comes out bimonthly. Manfred was the loser of the coin toss and continued in the guise of Ellery Queen, wearing a mask.

Dannay and Lee were prolific writers. Not only did they produce over thirty Ellery Queen novels. They also wrote nineteen plays, a screen play, radio plays from 1939 to 1948, and numerous short stories. They wrote four novels about the detective Drury Lane under the pseudonym Barnaby Ross.

They were early pioneers in franchising when in the sixties they commissioned more than twenty-five crime thrillers from other writers. These were published as paperbacks under the Ellery Queen name. Many of them were outlined by Dannay.

The Ellery Queen Style

Ellery Queen mysteries fit the style commonly known as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Other writers of the style include Agatha Christie, Philip MacDonald, and Dorothy Sayers. It was very popular before World War II. Afterwards, the stories became grittier, less gentile.

Ellery Queens stories were looked at as games, puzzles. The writers were careful to give all the clues to the reader that the detective would have. A crime, usually a murder had to happen early. The murder had to be presented near the beginning of the book. Although there would be numerous ‘red herrings’, the clues could point to only one person as the criminal. “Fair play’ was important and taken very seriously. If other writers thought another cheated, say by introducing an identical twin at the last moment, they would be called out in reviews.

With many of the Ellery stories, the reader would find the following elements: a geographic title, an unusual crime, complex set of clues, and multiple possible solutions until the climatic reveal. In the early books, there would be a page near the end declaring that the reader has all the clues and challenging them to give the answer. This disappeared as the public became less interested in a puzzle and more interested in the characters and relationships.

Review of The Roman Hat Mystery

The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery QueenThe Roman Hat Mystery introduced us to Ellery Queen. Inspector Richard Queen is given the case of a murder in a crowded theatre during the play, Gunfire. Everyone was so intent on the actions and sounds from the stage that no one knew that a man had been killed until the police stopped the play. When the Inspector fails to come up with an answer, he is happy to see Ellery come in the door. The most suspicious thing about the crime scene was what wasn’t there. Where was the man’s hat?

In this day of men wearing shorts, jeans, and tee shirts, we don’t usually think of going to the theatre in formal wear. And the best most men can do is a work suit and their suit they wear to funerals. But a hat? This was a different time and Ellery immerses us in it totally. Back then, anyone wearing formal wear would have to have a top hat. But after turning the theatre over, they couldn’t find it. And they were careful to make sure no man left with two.

So, where was it? And why was it important?

The Roman Hat Mystery revealed a different time for policing. This was in the early days of forensic, toxicology tests, and fingerprints. The characters were diverse and well developed. Watching the Queens wade through the suspects lies was a lot of fun. We can see why the series lasted so long.

Judge Deborah Knotts

Tobacco field from Pixabay

 

The rural farmland of North Carolina is one of the last places one would go to find the lead in a modern mystery series. Yet that is exactly where Margaret Maron finds the lead of her Deborah Knotts series. The series lasted over 20 books and had a very promising start with the first book in 1992, Bootlegger’s Daughter, winning four of the top awards given out each year in the mystery field, the Edgar, the Anthony, the Agatha, and the Macavity.

I got in early on the series and felt like I had found a new family. I love studying the family dynamics in a story. One of the things I like about the Murder, She Baked shows on Hallmark is how Hannah Swenson’s mother and sister are always butting into her personal life. Funny and it comes off as so real.

Knotts’s family gives us a lot to study. She’s the youngest of twelve children. And the only daughter. Of course, all of the brothers feel they are responsible for her. At least that was what their parents told them when she was a child. And there’s one thing about families, we never let the younger grow up.

Several of her brothers are old enough to be her father and aren’t afraid to step into that role, whether she asks them to or not. With all the brothers, in-laws, nephews and nieces, cousins, etc., there are always things going on someone would rather kept hidden. The family dinners remind one of the closeness of the Ragan family on Blue Bloods on steroids.

But let’s be sure to not make one mistake, this is not a family of angels and Deborah knows it. She isn’t surprised when one of her cousins or other family member appears before her bench. And they know she will be fair, but she won’t be walked over either.

Not only does Deborah come from a large family, she’s also in politics. She is a District Court judge in fictional Colleton County. She is constantly having to run for votes, keeping on her toes and with a smile pasted on her face. Her court cases can get her into quite a pickle, inside and outside the courtroom.

Add to all this, her father was a well-established bootlegger even beyond the county lines. ( I know, the title of the first book gave this away. But it’s still good.) Deborah is continually finding that old roots run deep. And grow into interesting places.

These are the kind of stories that you can lose yourself in. You don’t turn the page to get to the end of the book but to see what happens next. Coming to the end was always disappointing because I didn’t want to leave the community Maron makes.

I like how we are allowed to see Deborah age and mature. We watch as she goes through a lot of not-right relationships. When she does find the right one, will she get her brothers to go along with it? And we see how the cases change not only herself, but her family and those and her.

I also like to see a series that continue after the marriage. She does get married later in the series and their relationship, a judge and a cop, adds so much spice. So many stories seem to either never let the star settle on someone, or when they do, end the series. Writers seem to think that once they get married, there is no more romance and no more excitement. Oh, how little they know. And how much conflict we miss.

Bootlegger’s daughter book cover

This is only one of two series Margaret Maron has written. I like to think she brought a lot of herself in creating Judge Knott. She told, in an interview, how she “grew up on a modest  two-mule tobacco farm that had been in the family for over a hundred years.” She went home and lived on a corner of the family farm.

She wanted to character to be a “young woman with one foot in the agrarian past and one foot in the urban present.” You can see this in how Deborah feels the strength and history when she walks around the farm.

Having grown up on a peach farm in South Carolina foothills, I know the whisper of the land when you go back. Things have changed greatly, our orchards and her tobacco fields are gone, but there is more to that land than just the crops. You feel this in her books. And you can understand why so many issues concerning our farmlands affect Deborah and her family so strongly.

But the best thing I can say about  Judge Deborah  Knotts is she is the sister or sister-in-law many of us would love to have. To a point. She also isn’t going to let you get by with anything, which a lot of people in the stories are sad to discover.

Jennifer Dornbush’s Hole In the Woods

Hole In the WoodsSometimes, when you are reading a book, you realize that you are experiencing more than a story. I experienced it when I reviewed Hole In the Woods by Jennifer Graeser Dornbush for Killer Nashville (Read review here.).

Based on a true story, this book is about a police officer who investigates the cold case of the murder of a seventeen-year-old girl thirty years ago. Even after so much time, the small town was reluctant to let her probe into their long-buried secrets. But with a lot of determination and courage, she is finally able to dig to the truth.

What makes this book even more is the author’s empathy with the subject. She understands the importance to the family for solving a criminal case even after decades of silence. It’s easy to forget that, until a criminal investigation is completed, the family and friends are left hanging in limbo, buried in suspicions and often guilt. It often takes an enormous toil on them. Dornbush’s books are a testament to their struggle.

At the end of the book, She has a chapter about meeting with the father of the original girl. She includes a letter from him telling how he felt over the years. of not hearing anything new.

She also has information about the Cold Case Foundation, It is “an all-volunteer board and staff of law enforcement experts from the FBI, police branches, and investigators and forensic experts from around the nation.” They assist law enforcement agencies to help with the hardest cases at no cost.

Ms Dornbush is the daughter of a medical examiner. She is able to bring an authenticity to a crime scene as well as to the families and friends of the victim.

You can now find the book at your favorite book dealer.

Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Series

Part of the Cat Who Seriess

The Cat Who books

By Tim Suddeth

In the 1980s and 90s, I remember being one of the many readers caught up on the speeding train known as The Cat Who . . . series. Lillian Jackson Braun ‘s The Cat Who series introduced us to a former big-city journalist. Jim Qwilleran,  who had moved to a small town called Pickax, which was “400 miles north of everywhere.” Which was located in Moose County, no less. In total, she wrote 29 novels for the series. For many years, she had a new book coming out annually, usually just before Christmas. And I couldn’t wait for the next one to arrive. I’m cheap, but this was the one series I collected in hardback.

It was fun to curl up and read of the happenings in and around the small town, sometimes by the lake in the summer, but often with the threat of a town-closing snowfall in the forecast.

I have to admit, it wasn’t so much for the mystery that I was looking forward to.  No, her strong points were  the settings and the characters in the stories. Continue reading

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