Fictional Female Investigators

Helen Mirren, Jane Tennison

Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison channeling Hamlet

“A bit of a boys’ club,” says Kristen Lepionka about the place of women detectives in the world of crime fiction. In her new novel, The Last Place You Look, she took on the task of creating a credible female private investigator and immediately discovered the female point of view involves “much more than just a difference of chromosomes.”

Women’s life experiences, and their interaction with crime (either as police, private investigators, or  amateur detectives) is just so different from men’s. In detective fiction, she says, they battle “rampant sexism, being underestimated, excluded, and harassed.” Oh, and they also must solve cases.

This lesson is oh-so-clear to me having just read a crime novel with a female protagonist, written by a man, which would have been much better had he named his main character, say, Sam instead of Samantha, and recognized he was writing a man. This character never seemed like a woman to me, though he gave her one annoying trait meant to symbolize the feminine sensibility. Every other page, she started crying.

Lepionka created a list of ten fictional female detectives she thinks really work and they’re written by both men and women. From her list, I’ve read books featuring: Antoinette Conway (a character created by Tana French); Alex Morrow (Denise Mina); and Smilla Jasperson (Peter Høeg). To her list, I’d add Nikki Liska (Tami Hoag), Maisie Dobbs (Jacqueline Winspear), and Karin Müller (David Young). And, never forget Lynda LaPlante’s development of feisty, put-upon DCI Jane Tennison: “Don’t call me Ma’am; I’m not the bloody queen.” Now I’m excited to read crime-master Michael Connelly’s new book, The Late Show—his first to feature female detective Renée Ballard. Can he do as well as he does with Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller?

Thirty-five years ago, Sara Peretsky faced the same issues as Lepionka in creating her iconic female detective, V.I. Warshawski. In a recent LitHub essay, she describes imagining a new type of detective, one who would be “neither victim nor vamp,” one “who would reflect the experience of my generation . . . who could have a sex life without it defining them as wicked. Women who could solve their own problems.”

Peretsky took her character’s ardent spirit a step further. In 1986, speaking at a conference on “Women in the Mystery,” she spoke out about the disturbing increase in explicit violence and sadism against women. Her remarks fell on receptive ears, coinciding with growing awareness of women writers’ ignored role in the mystery/crime genre, despite the continuing quality of their work. Thus was the organization Sisters in Crime—of which I am a member—born.

Not that essays like these nor a single organization can overcome all the ingrained attitudes and expectations. Perhaps it isn’t a surprise that the same new book I mentioned above with the weak female characterization includes a graphic, sadistic, and totally unnecessary threat to the investigator. More work to do. Write on!

***Know Me Now

Scottish Highlands

Scottish Highlands photo by Paul Wordingham, creative commons license

By CJ Carver – This is the third in a crime thriller series featuring former MI5 operative Dan Forrester and Yorkshire-area Detective Constable Lucy Davies. It takes place in the Scottish highlands, where, as a youth, Dan spent his summer vacations. His father and three university friends reunited there each year, and their four children, all approximately the same age, grew up together.

The children now have well-established careers of their own. Gustav created a clinic in Isterberg, Germany; Christopher took up genetic engineering of superstrains of rice and has a lab near Duncaid; audacious former-tomboy Sophie does something for the government in London; and Dan joined MI5. Although this rundown suggests a large number of core characters, Carver does a good job of making them distinct enough to avoid confusion.

Though Christopher and his wife are having a rough patch, their situation grows tragically worse when their thirteen-year-old son Connor dies, in what the police seem too hasty in labeling a suicide. Dan persuades his friend Lucy to take a few days off and join him in Duncaid to look into the case. Carver does such a good job describing the damp, oppressive, grey highland atmosphere, you may feel compelled to put on a jumper—or two—while you ponder why a doctor’s patients are dying too young.

Then news arrives that Dan’s father has been murdered in Germany. The unlikely coincidence that two family members of this tight-knit group died within days of each other strikes them all. What is the connection? Someone is determined that Dan not discover it, and his probing soon puts himself, his wife, and his newborn son at risk. In light of the very tangible threats, his motivation for continuing to investigate—and some of the other characters’ motivations as well—aren’t as believable as they might be.

Lucy has a form of synesthesia, and in situations of high emotion sees certain colors. She’s a bit of an oddball, trying to hide what she views as dysfunctions in her personality. Dan also has a quirk, in that his memory has gaping holes from his past work with MI5. Although Carver tends to provide a dump of backstory about characters that becomes a drag on the narrative, I wish she’d more fully explored these two interesting mental conditions, which could bear strongly on Lucy and Dan’s ability to do their work, for good or ill.

This entry into the crowded Scottish crime fiction field (Tartan Noir!) employs a straightforward, clear style, and the plot clicks right along. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for literary flourishes and subtext, which the book lacks, and it includes perhaps a few too many coincidences. However, it raises questions about biomedical technology and its possibilities well worth thoughtful consideration.

****Easy Errors

Auto Crash

photo: Marcus Sümnick, creative commons license

By Steven F. Havill – This is book 22 in Havill’s Posadas County (New Mexico) mystery series and is a prequel to the  earlier books.

Demonstrating how reader opinion is more than background noise to crime fiction writers, Havill says Easy Errors sprang from a reader’s request for more information about Sheriff Robert Torrez’s early career. It’s a testament to how well Havill knows and understands his characters inside and out that he can reach back in time and conjure their younger selves.

Havill begins this book, narrated in the first person by Undersheriff Bill Gastner, with Gastner relaxing one Wednesday night (with a book!), interrupted in the third paragraph with “the distant shriek of tires tearing rubber and the loud, dull whump that followed.” A motor vehicle has crashed disastrously somewhere nearby, so Gastner alerts the sheriff’s dispatcher and sets out to find the source of the noise.

It isn’t pretty.

What follows over the next few days is the meticulous reconstruction of events that led to this tragedy. You might think an auto crash could not sustain investigative—and reader—attention for an entire novel, but Havill’s skill lies in making this police procedural absolutely riveting. It proves that a crime story doesn’t have to trot out a demented serial killer or imperil the US President and all of Congress in order to have stakes worth caring about.

Each of Havill’s characters is intrinsically interesting, and it’s equally interesting to see how they work together as a team, which includes working around some spotty (and humorous) assistance from the police dispatchers.

The care that Havill takes in reconstructing the crime and establishing the officers’ logic in developing every last bit of evidence holds until near the book’s end, when the author has the prosecutor, speaking before the grand jury, claim a type of evidence the authorities do not actually possess. While the grand jury might reach the same decision with or without this information, its decision is based on a totality of evidence, and the total is flawed. In a novel so thoroughly grounded in the step-by-step accretion of facts, this slip-up is jarring, and the book’s title, Easy Errors, turns ironic.

Still, the rest of the book is so strong, this mistake isn’t enough to discourage me from wanting to read more Posadas County mysteries. As a fan of the Longmire tv series, based on Craig Johnson’s books, I warmed to this one immediately.

30-Second Book Reviews – Part 2

Reading

photo: Carlos Martinez, creative commons license

Recently Published

All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker – An thriller in which real and symbolic dark clouds hover menacingly over a tiny Alabama community. Young girls—young religious girls—are being murdered. When another goes missing, the town’s turned into a tinderbox, and the sheriff is hard put to control the situation. The sheriff, the girl’s twin sister, and a couple of outsider friends are captivating characters. Written from multiple points of view, this is a complex, compelling story.

A Cold Death by Marilyn Meredith – Another in the popular Deputy Tempe Crabtree series. A group of sniping acquaintances is snowbound at a mountain cabin and none too happy about it. Loyalties shift; suspicions rise; accusations cascade. Crabtree also must deal with the ghost of a former resident, and the light touch of paranormal is handled well.

Classics Revisited

Theft: A Love Story by Man Booker prize-winner Peter Carey – In this 2006 novel, a flamboyant Australian artist struggles with a career past its peak, while dealing with his developmentally disabled (but entertainingly astute) younger brother, a conniving girlfriend who is always one step ahead of him, and an unforgiving ex-wife. “Witty, urbane, funny, and profound.”

Our Game by John le Carré – When one of the oldest friends of retired MI6 agent Tim Cranmer goes missing, along with Cranmer’s mistress, he sets out to find them. In this 1995 spy thriller, Cranmer’s bosses try to convince him his Cold War and thus his career are over, but his friend and fellow-spy appears to have identified some new mission, using the £37 million he’s stolen from the Russians to finance it. With this fast-paced, enjoyable read, you’re in the hands of the master.

The Directive by Matthew Quirk – There’s a short window of time between when the U.S. Federal Reserve makes its recommendations and when they’re made public. During that hour or so, they are one of the most closely guarded secrets in the financial world. The Ford brothers want that information, which is worth, well, millions. Clever plotting, persuasive, a fun read from 2014.

Audiobooks

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Prepare yourself to fall in love with Count Alexander Rostov, confined after the Revolution to Moscow’s famed hotel, The Metropol. The rich life he builds there never strays from elegance and civility, traits that the new Soviet power-brokers lack utterly. It’s a lovely story, and, as Ann Patchett says, “The book is like a salve.” Great narrator too.

The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr – Kerr’s tenth Bernie Gunther novel, this one has the Berlin police detective on a confidential assignment from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels—to track down the father of his favorite actress. Gunther meets the woman, and they begin a risky love affair. He does find her father, knee-deep in a bloodbath in Yugoslavia, but he and Goebbels decide to keep his murderous career a secret and tell her he’s dead. Like all secrets, this one has consequences. Gunther’s sly critiques and disdain for the Nazis is another dangerous activity, and you worry he’ll go too far.

A few more thirty-second book reviews are here. Enjoy!

****And So It Began (Delaney Book 1)

Child_beauty_pageant

photo: Lloyd Gallman, creative commons license

By Owen Mullen – Brave of a resident of Scotland and the Greek Islands to write a police procedural set in one of America’s most iconic cities, one with a strong and unique culture, history, and personality. Still, he’s chosen New Orleans for the first in his series featuring protagonist Vincent Delaney—former NOPD detective, now a private investigator.

For the most part the character of the Big Easy comes through in the details Mullen chooses to provide, though the deep trauma of Hurricane Katrina receives only a single mention. There’s maybe too little attention to food and the weather, some nice references to music (Delaney plays in a band), and directly related to the story, a reopening of the old wounds of NOPD corruption that have helped poison race relations in the city.

Delaney has three—make that four—issues on his hands. First is a background hazard in the form of Julian Boutte, a mentally deranged African American man whose brother Delaney killed a decade back when he was still an NOPD detective. Boutte has escaped from prison, and there’s no question that he plans to kill Delaney.

A group of African American small business people from the North Le Moyne area are having to pay protection money they can ill afford and seek Delaney’s help.

The third problem, and the one that takes up most of the book’s plot deals with a bizarre phenomenon of American life, the child beauty/talent pageant. Across the southern states, children who participate in these pageants are being murdered. One of the victims is a five-year-old boy, killed only minutes after winning with a memorable Charlie Chaplin imitation—inspiration for the paperback’s striking cover (below).

The FBI leads the investigation, but there are some 5000 such pageants in the US every year, and they cannot begin to cover them all, so bring in local help. Delaney’s niece is a pageant participant, which gives him an ideal opportunity to meet organizers, participants, obsessed parents, and, possibly, a killer.

While the culprit in Mullen’s tale is more obvious early on than the elusive true-life murderer of JonBenet Ramsey, still at large after twenty-one years, the child beauty pageant world is ripe for exploration. Mullen does a nice job highlighting the different motivations of several sets of parents and their young daughters.

If all these work challenges weren’t sufficient, Delaney has woman troubles, though he has a mostly good relationship with his sister and brother-in-law, as well as several friends still on the force. Mullen describes the interaction between Delaney and his family and friends warmly, and they feel real.

There are more books in the Delaney series to come, and especially if you like the New Orleans setting (I miss Treme!), they may just put the chickory in your coffee.

*****Maisie Dobbs

cup of tea

photo: Raheel Shahid, creative commons license

Though this book hasn’t acquired the patina of age, the legion of fans for the award-winning 13-book series would no doubt enthusiastically endorse its classic status. Having read the first one, I’m eager to read more.

Maisie’s story begins in London in 1929, when she opens her office as a “psychologist and investigator.” She’s enormously advantaged—not because she’s born to the upper classes, like the roughly contemporaneous Lord Peter Wimsey—but because of her own pluck, hard work, and keen insight.

Her first client is a man who believes his wife’s strange behavior hides a possible dalliance. Maisie shadows the woman and uncovers something quite different behind her mysterious disappearances. Before she will reveal the wife’s sad secret, she makes sure the husband is prepared to act on her findings and thereby to relieve his wife’s distress.

Maisie’s insights have been cultivated by the celebrated detective Dr. Maurice Blanche. Raised the daughter of a costermonger, financial straits require her to enter service at a young age, and in a long section in the middle of the book, we learn how Maisie’s employer, Lady Rowan, discovers her reading the Lord’s library in the wee hours of the morning. Her intellectual gifts recognized, Maisie’s education is turned over to Lady Rowan’s friend, Dr. Blanche. Hard work subsequently gets her into university. Her academic career, if not her education, is interrupted by World War I, and she serves as an aid station nurse behind the front lines of France.

Now it’s 1929, and though the world powers have signed a peace treaty, for many Britons, the Great War is not over. Both the client’s mysterious wife and Lady Rowan’s own son—suffering from what was then called shell-shock and today we call PTSD—have links to a murky organization called The Retreat, which purports to give veterans who simply cannot live in society a safe haven. But is it what it says it is? By combining a clandestine investigation of The Retreat with Maisie’s strong emotional connection to the experiences of war, author Winspear has created a truly compelling story.

What sets the series apart from the norm is the interplay of psychological elements and Maisie’s strong empathy. Take, for example, the interesting notion drilled into her by Dr. Blanche that, when you pry a story or a confession out of someone, you need to recognize that “the story takes up space as a knot in a piece of wood. If the knot is removed, a hole remains. We must ask ourselves, how will this hole that we have opened be filled?” In other words, investigators’ responsibilities don’t end when they’ve wrung a confession out of someone.

The book is written in an easygoing style, and the details of daily life, manners, and attitudes seem to perfectly fit the post-war era in which it is set. Never stodgy, it moves along briskly, in part thanks to strong secondary characters. The occasional clashes in social strata keep things interesting, as dramas like Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey exploited so effectively. In Maisie, I’ve found a terrific new literary companion!

Wind River

Wind RiverI know a lot of people who would not like this remarkable movie, written and directed by Taylor Sheridan (trailer). If you don’t like violence, you might as well stop reading now. If you oppose hunting, you can stop. If thoughts of a child being lost are too troubling, stop.

But if you want to see a powerful tale about achieving retribution despite the forces aligned against that possibility, you may appreciate Wind River. So many easy mistakes this movie could have made, but didn’t. There was no unconvincing romance, despite the respect and understated chemistry between the main characters. There were no long quasi-editorials about the plight of reservation Indians. The filmmakers show you that. There was no pretending that people simply get over soul-wounds by the next scene. These characters carry their pain with them and it helps shape who they are and what they will do.

What the filmmakers do give you is beautiful, treacherous mountain scenery (the Wind River Indian Reservation is in Wyoming, though the film was shot in Utah), where blizzards are blinding and it’s so cold that breathing can burst a person’s lungs. They give you snowmobiles racing across the fields, forests whose sounds could be branches breaking or a family of stalking cougars.

Best of all, they give you several profound cinematic moments, achieved not when the characters say a lot, but when they say almost nothing. “At times, Sheridan has his characters spell out a little too clearly what they’re thinking and feeling . . . but the words are so beautiful and come from such a place of deep truth, it’s hard not to be moved,” says Christy Lemire in her review for RogerEbert.com.

I don’t want to say too much about the actual story, so as not to take away from your experiencing it fresh. Suffice it to say it’s about the investigation of a murder; it’s about gun culture and drug culture and their inevitable consequences; and it’s about survival. And it’s about loving and safeguarding your children. Once you have them, a father says, “You can’t blink. Not once. Not ever.”

Put everything else aside and concentrate on the fine acting. Jeremy Renner plays the protagonist, fish & wildlife employee Cory Lambert (“I hunt predators”) who has many reasons for trying to solve this killing; Elizabeth Olsen is the FBI agent who learns more in a week in the snow than in her FBI Academy training, that’s for sure; Graham Greene is the laconic, seen-it-all tribal police chief; and Gil Birmingham is the father of the murdered girl.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 86% ; audiences: 92%.

*****I.Q.

wild dog

photo: numb photo, creative commons license

Written by Joe Ide, narrated by Sullivan Jones – Japanese-American author Joe Ide grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and it’s obvious he kept his ears open. He has a remarkable ability to capture the cadences, the vocabulary, the put-downs, and the jiving of the mostly African-American characters in his debut novel, deservedly  nominated for numerous awards. Sullivan Jones’s stellar narration of the audio version truly does Ide’s rich dialog justice.

Growing up, Ide’s favorite books were Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and in his book’s protagonist, seventeen-year-old prodigy Isaiah Quintabe, he’s created a new kind of superbly logical Holmes in an unlikely urban California setting, East Long Beach.

The teen lives with his older brother and legal guardian Marcus, the only family member he knows. He idolizes Marcus, who badgers Isaiah to excel. When Marcus is killed in a hit-and-run accident right in front of him, Isaiah is so bereft he drops out of high school. Although he’s underage, he’s determined to keep Marcus’s apartment, in some sense to keep Marcus close and to avoid the foster care system.

The low-level jobs he can snag aren’t bringing in the income he needs, though, and he takes in a roommate—the irrepressible, dope-dealing, trash-talking, rap-music-loving Juanell Dodson, who is soon joined by his girlfriend Deronda . If you’re easily put off by four-letter words or black folks calling each other nigga, this is probably not the book for you, though the language is absolutely true to the characters.

Dodson comes to IQ with a proposal for a high-profile gig that’s fallen into his lap: to figure out who’s behind a strange attack on a leading rap star. They watch a security video of the night when the rapper is alone in his mansion and a huge and superbly trained attack dog bursts through the doggie door. The people are threatening enough, but this dog . . .

Dodson is a bundle of barely controlled emotions, while Isaiah maintains his calm demeanor, whether he’s dealing with the star-personality rapper and his entourage, the bad guys, the neighborhood lady whose daughter’s wedding presents were stolen, the former auto-racing owner of TK’s Wrecking Yard who teaches him to really drive, or high-maintenance Dodson and Deronda.

I.Q. was nominated for Edgar, Barry, Anthony, and Strand Critics awards for a best first novel, won a Shamus Award, and was named by numerous publications (New York Times, Washington Post, Amazon, Suspense Magazine), as one of the best books of 2017.

Narrator Sullivan Jones is a California-based actor who brings a gift for humor and a lively understanding of the characters in this novel that makes his reading both perceptive and entertaining. An excellent choice for audio.

A longer version of this review appeared on crimefictionlover.com.

Beach Reads for Shark Week!

shark, graffiti

photo: Alexis LêQuôc, creative commons license

We’re in the middle of Shark Week, and it’s prime season for heading to the shore. Beach vacations deserve beach reads. If you read the true story Close to Shore, you may decide to get your excitement sitting under an umbrella with your book and a piña colada, leaving the swimming to others. Even if it’s a staycation this year, these authors will leave you feeling sand in your shoes.

  • Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916 by Michael Capuzzo – from before New Jersey’s sharks congregated at the state house—reportedly an inspiration for Jaws
  • Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard – a West Palm Beach/Miami stewardess tries to secure her fortune ahead of the Feds and the mob—made into the film Jackie Brown
  • Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen – down in the Florida Keys, Hiaasen’s typically hilarious collection of oddballs comes together after a faked auto accident
  • The Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn – northern California surfing legends and an unsolved murder
  • Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon – sheer craziness with SoCal beach-dweller and P.I. Doc Sportello, who works in a marijuana haze with a 60s soundtrack—the movie is impenetrable
  • The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers – 1920s Hawai`i, Charlie Chan, and the murder of a proper Bostonian—an old-fashioned classic
  • The Place of Refuge by Al Tucher – the dangerous assignments for two Hawaiian police detectives converge
  • The Beach by Alex Garland – a tourist searches for Thailand’s “perfect” beach in this suspenseful tale; his mistake may be finding it

Or, if you’re into real sharks, you can name a shark, track a tagged shark’s meanderings, and see where tagged sharks have been hanging out recently (orange dots). GPS tags ping when the dorsal fin breaks the ocean’s surface.

reading

(photo: Nico Cavallotto, Creative Commons)

 

****The Last Meridian

Los Angeles, palm trees, night

photo: Alissa Walker, creative commons license

By Joe Hefferon – The author spent a quarter-century “in law enforcement” in gritty Newark, New Jersey. In this, his first full-length novel, he’s created an engaging female protagonist in a jam who turns to a private detective for help, and he set the story in and around Los Angeles. On the surface, his characters are savvy and confident—on top of the world—but underneath, well, it’s more complicated. The book’s brief prologue has a particularly engaging first line: “The coroner’s wagon had a flat tire.” Nothing good can follow.

Sixteen years before the novel begins, now-successful Hollywood interior designer Nina Ferrer lived in Chicago and gave up an illegitimate son because she was too young, too unready, and too unwilling to raise a child alone. She abandoned her child and the Midwest for a better, more glamorous life. It turned out she has a talent for perfectly divining the aspirations of her well-paying clients, making their homes an expression of their best selves. Her own home, however, is empty of love, as she and her wealthy businessman (and Cuban cigar-smuggling) husband have long since lost interest in each other.

Still, her life is reasonably well-ordered until she receives a telegram saying that her son back in Illinois has been accused of murder. His adoptive mother swears he is innocent, but she can’t afford a proper defense, and unless some kind of deus ex machina appears—most likely in the form of Nina herself—the boy is doomed to a lengthy prison term.

Nina’s husband is unaware of the boy and at this late date, she doesn’t want to tell him. So she travels all the way to dismal Bakersfield to find a private investigator and gets much more than she bargained for.

The short chapters toggle back and forth mostly between events early in 1965 and toward the end of that year. The later scenes are a series of journalist interviews with Nina that take place after she’s been incarcerated. You don’t know why she’s in custody or what is likely to happen to her until near the end of the story. Although Hefferon precedes each scene with the appropriate time stamp, this switching back and forth became a bit dizzying as the plot gains in complexity and the crimes that led to the boy’s arrest are investigated.

Hefferon’s engaging presentation of Los Angeles and its denizens, its petty criminals, and the detective Nina hires all seem plausible. Yet the novel has an occasional unevenness of tone that is jarring and which Hefferon will probably overcome with more writing experience. At times it seems he’s trying too hard to achieve a literary effect. Nevertheless, Hefferon is capable of pleasing on-point description. For example, “Whether it was (the reporter’s) inability to ask questions rapidly, or a natural gift for shutting up, he listened better than he talked, offering Nina a wide runway on which to land her story.”

You’ll enjoy spending time with these characters and may conclude this is an author who, when his literary skills catch up to his gifts of characterization and plot development, may become highly regarded in the crime fiction field. It’s gritty noir tinged with tinseltown glamour. And you may find these characters, especially the wise-cracking detective (whose wit is easily matched by that of Nina herself), modern incarnations of the types so well portrayed by Los Angeles literary icon Raymond Chandler and his progeny.