Sue Grafton: Thank you for the inspiration

Sue GraftonThe recent death of crime queen Sue Grafton caused me – and I’m sure many other crime writers – to take pause and reflect on the influence her Alphabet series had on me, both as a reader and a writer. I first encountered her books when I was an undergraduate, poring through the tiny fiction section of the independent bookshop at my university, resolutely ignoring the chunky textbooks I should have been buying. A is for Alibi, in the UK Pan edition, was small, almost pocket sized, with tiny print; it had been out for about 4 years when I bought it, and I remember being struck more than anything by not the synopsis on the back cover, nor the stellar review quotes, but what Grafton had written in her biographical profile on the very first page:

“For months I lay in bed and plotted how to kill my ex-husband. But I knew I’d bungle it and get caught, so I wrote it in a book instead.”

Most writers are asked ‘where do you get your ideas from?’. And most readers and fans would no doubt have been struck momentarily and delightedly dumb by Grafton’s candid explanation above. But the delight for me as a writer in Grafton’s work is not the myriad of clever plots from A to Y dreamed up of death, deceit and danger, but the quality I love most about these books: Kinsey Millhone’s character and voice.

Sequential, serial novels present a huge challenge to the writer not only to keep up the quality of plotting from volume to volume, but also to show both constancy and growth in the central characters. From a creative point of view, one might argue that Grafton set herself a tall order in planning to write 26 sequential stories in Kinsey’s life. And yet we all live complex, entangled lives within five years, the same amount of time spanned by the Alphabet books up to Grafton’s last published volume, Y is for Yesterday, set in 1989. That should easily provide enough fodder for what ought, in theory, be a background narrative, not a foreground one.

And yet – and this surely says more about me as a reader than Grafton as a writer – what I remember most are Kinsey’s experiences around the cases: the ship-like interior of her garage apartment rebuilt after the bomb blast in E is for Evidence; her bowls of breakfast cereal and pappy sandwiches; her long love affair with Henry Pitts and his cinnamon buns; the quirky menu inflicted on her at Rosie’s; her case notecards; her VW; her runs in the Santa Teresa fog. For a writer, I am remarkably dimwitted about plots, happy to re-read the same book once every 12-18 months without any recollection of whodunnit, but as a writer I am equally enchanted by how memorably and powerfully Grafton encases us in Kinsey’s world.

And that is exactly why I pick them up every 12-18 months and read them all again. Thank you, Sue Grafton, for creating  a world we can so memorably inhabit with Kinsey. The stories are wonderful, the crimes clever, but the imagination made fictional reality will live with me always.

EJ Knight is the author of Broadway Murder of 1928

Crime Novel Review: Holy Island by LJ Ross

After a long absence enforced by having to read a lot of non-fiction, EJ Knight returns with a review of the bestselling Holy Island by LJ Ross, whose author has been described by one reviewer as ‘the queen of Kindle’.

I’m always interested in other writers who have mastered the direct or independent publishing route, not least to see whether they have used the route to circumvent agency/publisher processes with strong genre material, or used the independence to try something startlingly innovative that a commercially-minded publisher would not have the guts to take a risk with. LJ Ross falls into the former category, embracing the geography well known to readers of Ann Cleeves’ Vera series, with a series starring Detective Chief Inspector Ryan.

The first in the series, Holy Island, is set around the winter solstice on the mystical and historic Holy Island of Lindisfarne, its intense community cut off twice daily by the sea that swells over the causeway. DCI Ryan, sequestered there with demons of loss from a recent case, finds his unsettled isolation brutally disrupted by the murder of a local teenager, whose body is arranged in a clinically ritualistic manner. Ryan gets himself reinstated on the grounds of geographical convenience, but must negotiate with the input of a former island resident and expert on paganism to whom he becomes reluctantly attracted. As another murder is committed and the ritualistic elements become more complicated, Ryan encounters the complexities of a community that has one face for the outside world and another that looks inwards.

As other KDP success stories Rachel Abbott and Mel Sherratt have shown, the direct publishing market is a really effective one for genre crime, whatever that expression really means now with so many sub-strands, and LJ Ross has certainly taken her place in that roll call. Is this novel fluent and readable? Yes. Is it a pageturner? Mostly yes. Does it break new ground? Not really. The attraction between Ryan and the pagan expert Anna Taylor feels inevitable and its final consequences are predictable. The layers of interpersonal complexity and the impact of a tight-knit community on social identities and people’s choices are also not particularly surprising, and the small tragedies of village life are not unexpected. As the novel unwinds in the last third and the emotional relationships tighten up, I felt the plot became increasingly diffuse and with it the resolution of the murders.

There are some clever twists, but oddly the one thing that kept bothering me throughout was that this novel would somehow damage the reputation of Holy Island as a beautiful and restorative place. I can see Ross’s motivation for undoing the mysticism with reality and deconstructing the myth of spirituality with the liberal brutality of human motive (I’m sure my fellow allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore would also have something to say on that). But the pagan ‘expert’ doesn’t actually offer that much to Ryan’s understanding of what’s happening on the island, nor does Ross use Anna’s specialist knowledge to exploit the slippery interface between the predictable and the unpredictable. Furthermore, Ryan keeps control throughout the case because Ross remains in police procedural territory; Ryan surely should be much nearer the edge of his comfort zone but instead Anna is essentially his safety net which, given her personal situation in the novel, felt unlikely to me.

 

I can absolutely see why this has been successful, and with regard to a very early post that Evie made about pricing, I don’t think that does any harm either. Will I buy another? Probably not. But many people have enjoyed this book, because it is what it says it is. Solid crime fiction.

***

EJ Knight is the author of Broadway Murder of 1928.

Restoring the equilibrium

When you write for a living, sometimes you forget that not all writing is the same. I’ve spent much of the last 24 months writing non-fiction for work, creating masses of new material for lots of different contexts.

It’s all had a lot in common with writing novels in many ways: strong voices, understanding your audiences, great structure, readability, distinctiveness, imagination. But even for someone who writes as quickly as I do, it has felt mechanistic, process-based, and – paradoxically – very uncreative despite the enormous amount of innovation involved.

But I have missed my own writing so much. So much it has almost broken my heart. And although I have retreated to the short form of songs to keep assonance, rhythm and, above all, storytelling in my words, there is nothing to replace the all-consuming encompassing soul-enriching obsession of writing a novel.

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Writing fiction has always been a matter of equilibrium for me. I have written for so many years alongside other work that it has always balanced out my service to others in my job with my service to myself in writing. It has been my sanity, my passion, my escape, my sense of perspective, my abandonment of logic, my beliefs, my cynicism and my way of working out what matters. Does that mean that when I was writing only for others that I lost those things? Well, the songs gave me back my sense of perspective and a way of working out what matters. And, to be truthful, when things have not gone well of late the first thing I have done is write a song.

But now it’s time to go back to novels. It is time to prioritise my sanity, my passion, my escape, my sense of perspective, my abandonment of logic, my beliefs, my cynicism and go back to my way of working out what matters. As a writer, I have lost my equilibrium by writing for others and by prioritising their stories in my life.

Is writing for myself, my themes and my stories selfish? Perhaps.

But am I a better person when I write for myself? Oh yes.

Lucille, where have you got to after all this time? I hope you’re still around, because I’m coming home now.

EJ Knight’s Monthly Crime Reviews: October 2015

This month, EJ Knight kicks off a series of crime novel reviews with a diverse selection of serial characters.

When do you finish writing a popular series? Sue Grafton appears to have made her decision from the first novel as she gently winds our way with Kinsey Millhone and the alphabet series to ‘Z’; Janet Evanovich seems destined to go on forever and may be, even now, pondering what adjective or adverb to go with infinity; while Lindsey Davies took the clever step of a spin-off from the Falco novels. I found myself pondering ‘the end’ while I was reading The Survivor by Kyle Mills. Mills has been brought in to continue the Mitch Rapp series after Vince Flynn’s death. And, he almost pulls it off. The Survivor picks up immediately from where The Last Man finished and the race to find top secret material before it is posted on the internet. The action, as one would expect from the series, is unrelenting and the story, although predictable, is exactly what one reads this type of book for. But, for me, the characters were just not quite right – too introspective whilst, at the same time, being too flat. I’d completed the book before realising that Flynn had died and Mills was taking on the series and, as I read the last page, I wondered if it had been a book too far in the series. There is only one Mitch Rapp; and there was only one Vince Flynn to give him the right voice.

So as one series hits the ‘do not buy again’ list, I’ve discovered two new series this month which I would definitely read again, one which I’ll consider, and one which I may have caught as it finishes. Cover Shot by LynDee Walker is the fifth in the series featuring Nichelle Clarke, a journalist in a local newspaper who, in the pursuit of the full story, finds herself investigating murder, hostage-taking, and fighting for her own life. It’s the usual plot of an amateur detective but that would be to undersell what is a really well-written, well-paced and compelling story. I liked Nichelle and I wanted her to find out who had killed the doctor and why. I really did. And so what if I thought it was a little derivative of Evanovich? It was still a great read and I’ll read the earlier ones in the series now. The same is true for Rose Strickland in Diner Knock Out by Terri L. Austin. This time the main character is learning how to be a private investigator and, out of pique with her employer, takes on a case without telling him. Surprise, surprise – it turns out to be more complicated than she realised and she needs his help to solve the murder(s). As in Cover Shot, there is a criminal boyfriend whose heart is in the right place and there are side-kicks who are also colourful friends. But, again, it really works and I found myself rooting for Rose, wanting her to sort out her love life and solve the murder. And survive the threats to her life so that there would be more books in the series.

By coincidence, the fourth book in this review is also set in the US. Brother can you spare a dime by Jack Martin is set in the Depression. The main character, Henry Bierce, is an enigmatic member of the FBI, with a twist which is strongly alluded to but never quite stated clearly. I’m not going to say more because Martin introduces the hints with great subtlety and a very deliberate pace and, it would give away much of the suspense to know the twist before reading the book. In trying to identify the conspirators behind an attempt on FDR’s life, Bierce has run-ins with Bonnie and Clyde and other gangsters of the period – all of which give an interesting twist to the known stories of the time. This is the first in the series and it doesn’t quite work in places – I found some of the pacing uneven and there was sometimes too much setting up of series story-lines at the expense of successful novel resolution – but I am certainly looking forward to the next in the series and getting to know more about Henry.

And will I ever get the chance to know more about Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May without going back to the previous 11 in the series? The Burning Man is number 12 and, given the way it ends, it has a sense of finality to suggest that Fowler has decided to call it quits. Or has he? Because the Kindle edition suggested that there may be more to come. If there are, I shall be reading them. Bryant and May may not need much introduction since they were introduced in 2003 in Full Dark House. The two members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit live and work in London and, in this novel, rush to find an arsonist and murderer before anarchy spills over from the City to the rest of London. I read this with that feeling of being the newbie to the meeting – the person who has to learn who is who and ‘why things are done this way’ but it didn’t detract too much from the clever and contemporary plot.

*****

All the books reviewed here were free from NetGalley in exchange for impartial reviews.

EJ Knight will be publishing a monthly review of crime fiction. If you would like your book to be considered, please email at allonymbooks@gmail.com. EJ Knight’s novel Broadway Murder of 1928 is available from all Amazon websites.

Crime Novel Review: A Man of Some Repute by Elizabeth Edmondson

This week, allonymbooks author EJ Knight reviews Elizabeth Edmondson’s period crime novel, A Man of Some Repute.

Period tone is always a controversial area for writers, actors, directors, filmmakers and musicians. We pursue authenticity relentlessly, and yet sometimes only hindsight makes it possible for certain stories to be written. An opera buddy of mine refuses to see any productions of operas which are set in ‘modern’ productions, hating the reinterpretations of what he sees as classic stories and music against the framework of anachronistic contemporary values. In a similar vein, a piece about British actor Benedict Cumberbatch in The Guardian quoted director Marilyn Imrie on Cumberbatch’s uncannily accurate and rare grasp of the post-war vernacular in both movement and dialogue style: “he has that rare thing in a younger actor – he can summon up that quality of post-war Englishness that a lot of actors under 40 really can’t capture.”

One considers many of the same issues when reading Elizabeth Edmondson’s crime novel set in  1953. Hugo Hawksworth relocates to deeply rural Selchester Castle, still adjusting to an injury he received when undercover during the war. With his 13 year old sister, Georgia, he is seeking stability of a sort, and yet he is not a man to settle easily. Nor, it seems, are the bones of Lord Selchester which are found shortly after his arrival in the Castle, giving prospect to the solving of his disappearance – and, it seems, murder – six years ago. In the company of the last remaining resident of the Castle, Selchester’s niece Freya, Hugo explores the background to Selchester’s death, driven partly by Freya’s insistence that she is innocent, and partly by some murky business that he must undertake on behalf of Sir Bernard at The Hall, a local outpost of the intelligence community. Hugo, keen to prove his worth despite his injury, uses his natural investigative instinct, aided for the most part by the zealous and enthusiastic Georgia, and eventually by Freya who must face the fact that the Selchester she thought she knew had clearly made an enemy.

Making a story period is, however, about much more than just inserting period details. Edmondson is thorough with reference to the stringencies of post-war life, from ration books to clothes, rural poverty, switchboard telephony and modes of transport. There is also detailed historical framing, particularly with reference to social themes regarding sex, adultery, homosexuality, secrecy, and the financial independence of women, as well as the political landscape of post-war Britain, America and the Soviet Union. And it is here that the challenge for the historical novelist starts and ends. To what extent can motives, motivations and morals of a period be authentically employed by a contemporary writer?

It is easy enough for us to research and review what we know about lives lived before, and create plots from what we understand to be the complexities of life, but the truth is often that the sorts of themes we write about now would not have been written about then. The paradox of Edmondson’s novel is, to me, that she has written in a very authentic period voice, but that the plot itself is redolent of a more contemporary interpretation of social motivations and thus motives for murder. Indeed, the main opening of the novel is so period that I had to check that it wasn’t actually written in the 1950s, for it has the flavour of the style, a sort of Tommy and Tuppence scent to it. (I would note that Edmondson’s editor has let one or two verbal oddities escape: there is reference to ‘ultra casual’ which is surely a 21st century modifier, and a ‘soft drink’ which, if it is not an alcohol-awareness label, surely sounds anachronistic enough to stick out.) But if I have a criticism of this novel which otherwise flies along in dialogue terms, albeit with periodic down time for extensive description which does slow the pace, it is that it feels slightly forced from the plot point of view. And there is a faint hint of stereotype about the characters with motive for murder, all of whom stack up very plausibly in terms of motive, but whose secrets are so because they belong to the period. 

*****

EJ Knight’s historical crime novel Broadway Murder of 1928 is available from all Amazon sites for Kindle. Broadway Murder is the first in the Lucille Landau series.

In Admiration of…. Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels

In a timely addition to the series of occasional blogs about other crime writers, allonymbooks author EJ Knight ponders the crime novels by Lawrence Block from which the imminently released  film A Walk Among The Tombstones is drawn.

I’ve visited New York many, many times over the years and, much as my allonymbooks stablemate Evie Woolmore found Warsaw an inspiration for her novel Rising Up, so my slow wanderings around one of the world’s great cities inspired me in my writing. But unlike Evie, the majority of my visits to New York have not been by plane, car or train. They have been in the pedestrianised byways of my imagination, walking slowly, patiently, doggedly in the long shadow cast by Matt Scudder. For while the upcoming adaptation of Lawrence Block’s tenth Scudder novel is being widely praised already for Liam Neeson’s portrayal of Block’s complex ex-cop, for me the Scudder books feature another powerful and dominating character: New York City.

AWATTLNCities are notoriously as fickle as unfaithful lovers, as sparklingly delightful in summer sun as they can be menacing and unpredictable as the winter twilight encroaches. Yet New York is a faithful mistress to Scudder, much like Elaine, his ex-prostitute girlfriend. She knows him well, her constant presence a reassurance, even if he must share her from time to time with strangers. If man’s inhumanity to man continues to etch deeper marks in Scudder, if – despite all that he has seen and learned of the victims he helps – he still strives to take everything in his stride, it is not the city that will let him down, desert him, shock or betray him. Indeed, while Scudder rarely comments objectively on New York, Block’s characterisations of its inhabitants – racially and culturally diverse, corrupt and noble, timeless and rudely modern, drunk and sober – are New York as much as the basements of churches, the diners and bars, the streets of the Village and the hotel room on the 50s Scudder inhabits. Likewise, Scudder lives around the clock of the twenty-four hour city, as able to assume the respectable routines of the worker bees as he is to sit out the small, dark hours in bars where the truth glistens deep in a glass of honey-coloured bourbon. He is both constantly Scudder and compellingly desperate not to be him any more. And if New York is a city where one can be anyone one wishes to be, then Scudder’s strength is his silent empathy with the victims who surely wish this had not happened to them.

For Scudder is, it seems to me, in pursuit of the restoration of equilibrium. Nothing can alter the path taken by the wayward bullet that killed Estrellita Rivera. And if in solving the crimes he is not in pursuit of justice as such, then he is certainly watching both sides of the scales, minutely and patiently adjusting and arranging the weight of consequence that will restore some sense of balance to those destabilised by the crimes that happen to them. Over the course of the series of books, Scudder’s own scales are eventually quietly and minutely adjusted by those close to him: Elaine, TJ, Jim Faber. And if the ground beneath him creaks and stirs much as it does when the A Train rattles through columns of steel, then it soon settles again.

*****

EJ Knight is the author of Broadway Murder of 1928, available for Kindle from all Amazon sites.

A review of AWATT will appear shortly on this blog. In the meantime, check out Cadell Blackstock’s consideration of the pluses and pitfalls of adapting Scudder to the screen.

In admiration of….Ruth Dudley Edwards

In the latest in a series of blogs, new allonymbooks crime author EJ Knight discusses some favourite crime writers. This week, Ruth Dudley Edwards.

My next choice is a quirky one in that Ruth Dudley Edwards is more famous as a historian and journalist, including for The Economist and Financial Times. Since 1993, Dudley Edwards has also written a crime series based around the shenanigans of Robert Amiss and the memorable Ida Troutbeck.

In many ways, the series is less about ‘who-dunnit’, although each book has at its central story-line Amiss’ attempts to solve, or help the police solve, a vicious murder or murders, and more a vehicle for a funny, sharp and accurate satire on various pillars of the British establishment – from the civil service, to the Church of England, and to the British education system. In each book, Amiss is ‘persuaded’ to become involved by Troutbeck’s manoeuvrings and his own admiration for police detectives Milton and Pooley.

I read seven of the first eight in the series in the 1990s and remember vividly how upset I was that my copy of the second – The Saint Valentine’s Day Murders – had been printed so that I had the first hundred pages twice and no-more. My frustration was compounded by the fact that the bookstore had no more copies and all attempts to find another copy were fruitless. So, it was with great joy that I recently discovered that not only were all Dudley Edwards’ books now available on Kindle but also that, while I thought she had stopped writing fiction, Dudley Edwards had written another three in the series, with another on the way. Hooray!

Why do I keep coming back to these novels and why is Dudley Edwards my first choice for this blog? Because the books make me smile and keep reading. There are many great writers who have written elegant detective stories that could be considered great literary novels. But I didn’t enjoy reading them because they were so serious. Dudley Edwards is a wonderful writer – the plot moves with speed, the characterisation is sharp, and the dialogue is as real as it can be in written form – but what always stands out for me is that I feel happier once I’ve read her books. And it is for that reason that I will always keep them to read on a wet British afternoon (of which Dudley Edwards’ characters will know all too well).

*****

EJ Knight is the author of the Lucille Landaus series of historical crime novels, the first of which –  Broadway Murder of 1928 – is excerpted here.