SRB: Five Crime Novels that Influenced My Writing
Auckland crime writer ANDREA JUTSON - author of the just published The Darkness Looking Back nominates five crime novels that have influenced her writing. The latest in the Scoop Review of Books'Five Books Series...
of Water – Andrea Camilleri
He might share his first name with me, but I can only marvel (and laugh, repeatedly) at Andrea Camilleri’s ability to weave a sparkling, tragic-comic mystery that truly breathes the spirit of modern Sicily.
Inspector Montalbano is a creation of genius, and The Shape of Water is the first of many times he appears in the fictional town of Vigata. The lone wolf detective with authority issues is a cliché, but Montalbano breaks the mould yet again – he’s not just any cop, but the boss of his small provincial station, and rules his hapless coterie of detectives with an iron fist. Yet at the same time he weasels his way out of any meeting with his higher-ups and loves nothing more than to play childish mind games with his poor colleagues to keep them in a state of perpetual bewilderment.
Here’s a sample of Montalbano’s dealings with the crime lab technician:
‘Montalbano, sorry to make you wait, but I was…’
‘On the toilet, in your element.’
‘Come on, what do you want?’
‘I wanted to let you in on something very serious. The pope just phoned me from the Vatican, really pissed off at you.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘He’s furious because he’s the only person in the world who hasn’t received your report on the Luparello autopsy. He felt neglected and told me he intends to excommunicate you. You’re screwed.’
‘Montalbano, you’ve completely lost your mind.’
‘Can you tell me something, just out of curiosity?’
‘Do you kiss arse out of ambition or natural inclination?’
At the same time, Montalbano is a genius when it comes to understanding how people work, and a man of great humanity. The tales are never straightforward, and human emotions are just as important as the comedy. Here, what seems like the scandalous death of a politician in a prostitutes’ hangout with his pants down – perfect comic fodder – turns into something much more puzzling, and more personal. The Shape of Water and the other Montalbano novels are proof that readers should never just stop at the traditional British or American crime series; there’s plenty of fabulous material in other places too. Like New Zealand, for instance…
Scaredy Cat – Mark Billingham
Mark Billingham’s books are dark, make no mistake about that, but in my opinion it’s hard to go past the first three books of the Tom Thorne series. I think Scaredy Cat is the best of the three as well – it’s got two killers acting in tandem, which is a bit outside the usual template, and a truly brilliant showdown at the end.
Of course, it is also leavened with generous dollops of tar-black humour, which I always require in a crime novel. It’s all very well to write something twisted and horrible, but it takes real skill to mix light and shade, which Billingham (a stand-up comic) does extremely well, without losing an ounce of the horror. I confess, of all authors I have tried to emulate with Senseless and The Darkness Looking Back, it’s Billingham I think of most, and if anyone tells me they can see a likeness, I will be greatly flattered. Tom Thorne is just what you’d expect of a hero in this kind of book: the battle-scarred London detective inspector often at odds with his superiors, divorced, a regular at local curry house The Bengal Lancer and disgusted with the way the world is heading.
All the other characters, even the fresh-faced DC Holland, are tarnishing at the edges too, as they come to grips with London’s dark side, but not in a way that makes you hate them. So many authors make their characters so distasteful, so “complex and interesting” that readers switch off because they simply don’t want to be around them anymore. At least in his first three novels, Billingham stays on the right side of the line, giving them depth without robbing them of their appeal. Gritty commentaries on life come with a punchline whenever it’s needed. This is most pronounced whenever Thorne meets up with his best friend, a gay Mancunian pathologist called Phil Hendricks, for a soccer match on TV:
‘You never rang Anne Coburn did you?’
Thorne shook his head and pictured the woman he’d been involved with a year ago.
‘Why don’t you call her?’
A question Thorne has asked himself often enough. ‘No, mate. Far too complicated.’
‘Don’t worry about it, you’re better off on your own.’ Hendricks made a wanking gesture. ‘That’s not complicated.’
‘Right, but the conversation’s awful.’
There are also little pieces relative to the real world that give this book extra realism – cops playing cops on The Bill, which made a stir in Britain, references to the murder of toddler Jamie Bulger and murderer Harold Shipman. Great stuff.
Live Bait – P. J. Tracy
P. J. Tracy is actually two people, a mother and daughter, and their second novel Live Bait shows how well ensemble casts can work. On the one hand you have Minneapolis detective Magozzi and his wise-cracking partner Gino Rolseth, and on the other you have a team of techno-freaks including a supertall string-bean with a penchant for Lycra, an obese sex-kitten, a motorcycle-riding programmer called Harley Davidson who also loves opera and antique furniture, and a buttoned-up beauty who even wears a gun to bed.
They’re all extremely funny, and the dialogue is as good as the best sitcoms. However, they’re not quite as off-the-wall as the novels of Janet Evanovich, creator of Stephanie Plum, whose books I also adore. There’s real feeling in this series, which starts with Want to Play? and ends with Snow Blind. Live Bait is the second, and the best so far. It concerns saintly concentration-camp survivors who are being bumped off at an alarming rate. But there’s a mystery surrounding these elderly people – they’re mixed up in something suspicious, and it’s all tied up somehow with the Nazi past.
The two lead detectives are helped by a bevy of others, all delightful. There are a good nine memorable characters, which just goes to show that as long as the characters are drawn well enough, there’s nothing wrong with going beyond the usual two or three. And that pistol-toting woman, Grace McBride, has a sweet will-they-won’t-they relationship with Magozzi, as she tries to overcome the two attempts on her life that have severely damaged her ability to live a normal life. While being highly entertaining, the book also manages to examine how even the best of us are never completely pure, and whether an eye for an eye is really the right way to go. I’ll leave you now with a quote:
It was the kind of impromptu gathering you expected to see when a celebrity died, or a beloved public figure; not some average Joe nobody had ever heard of. The media had covered it, but mostly because it had snarled traffic on the boulevard. They’d never heard of Morey Gilbert either, and most of their attention was focused on the delicious, ratings-grabbing horror of another old man being tortured and tied to a train track.
Beethoven’s Fifth sang out from the pocket in Gino’s shorts. He ripped his pocket pulling out his cell phone before the irritating melody started again. ‘Dammit, I’m going to ground that kid. Teach her to have some respect for her father and classical composers.’
‘You should get one of those cell phone holsters for that thing.’
‘Oh sure. A cell phone in one holster and a gun in the other. I’d end up shooting myself in the ear.’
The Unquiet Dead - Gay Longworth
Gay Longworth’s two Jessie Driver books are not just good in themselves, they’re also great in having a strong female detective. While I’ve gone the Ruth Rendell road in being a female crime author with a male lead, (in fact, two of them), I do think it’s very important that the female characters come through as strongly as the male ones. Policing, especially in homicide, is a male-dominated world, so women have to be especially memorable. DI Driver is that. She rides a motorbike, she’s gorgeous and she dates a top British rock star.
Lest you think this is just girly crime, however, let me cure you of this assumption. The murders are grisly, Jessie has to fight a great deal of hostility from her male colleagues and female boss, and there are two distinct and sinister subplots winding through the main story that will keep anyone guessing. This concerns a 20-year-old body (not a 20-year-old person!) discovered in a derelict bathhouse in central London. The man was strung upside down and left to drown as the boiler room filled up with stormwater and sewerage. Jessie and her colleagues are forced to dig into the past to work out what happened – and it’s got something to do with a young girl who was kidnapped in the 80s.
Like all the other books in this list, The Unquiet Dead has wonderful flashes of humour, and great depth of feeling. Most pertinent to my own books, it brings up the subject of mediums, but not in a flattering way. I tried to choose the opposite of the woman portrayed by this passage in creating my own medium, James Paxton:
It was so obvious afterwards what had happened. She was in her mid-twenties. She was lost. She was unmarried. She probably had no kids. She was a professional but she wore a piece of jewellery that didn’t fit the time or her age. Clearly she’d lost her mother. Add on twenty odd years – unlikely to be motorbike crash, so statistically you’re looking at cancer. Your mother says she’s glad to have her hair back. Wham. Bam. Jessie reeled. She was furious with the pious woman who sat opposite her, she was furious with herself and she furious with her mother who’d refused treatment and died quickly, but with a full head of hair…
This book too has a media frenzy when Jessie’s complicated relationship with star P. J. Dean is outed, but I swear Paxton’s problems are entirely his own!
The Brother Cadfael Series – Ellis Peters
This might seem like an odd inclusion in this list. After all, the Brother Cadfael books were set in the 1100s, and their main character is a rather sweet old monk who doesn’t swear at all. Be that as it may, James Paxton owes his hometown to Brother Cadfael. It was through reading these books and their vivid descriptions of the lush countryside and medieval towns as a teenager that I was instilled with a love of Shropshire and Shrewsbury without even having laid eyes on it, and so when it came to look for a place to birth my psychic, it was to the Welsh marches that I looked. I saw a little town called Wellington on the map, just outside Shrewsbury, and that settled it. It fit too perfectly to be ignored.
That said, the Cadfael books are well worth a read, albeit a bit sentimental for my tastes. With his expert knowledge of poisons and human passions, Cadfael is rather like a medieval Miss Marple, and each of the books – also like Miss Marple – has a dollop of romance thrown in. Cadfael and local sheriff Hugh Beringar are a formidable pair, outwitting the most devious of murderers with gentle wit and quick intelligence. Political intrigue is often thrown in as well, given the upheaval of the times, when King Stephen has seized the throne from his cousin Matilda (or Maud) before she could return from France to claim it, and England is plunged into civil war. The warring pair are quite often connected in some way with the evil deeds that happen in Shrewsbury, an important frontier town.
Human nature being human nature, even in the Middle Ages, there is plenty of cruelty, jealousy, lust and wickedness to satisfy the crime lover. They’re whodunits, rather than serial killer thrillers, so fans of Agatha Christie will undoubtedly enjoy them hugely. As a returned crusader, Cadfael is a lot more open-minded than most of his cloister, and has a very impish sense of humour. There are 20 books in the Cadfael series, ranging from A Morbid Taste for Bones to Brother Cadfael’s Penance, and there are guaranteed not to be any more, because Ellis Peters is dead.
And of course, a quote, from what is probably my favourite of the series (the second, yet again), One Corpse Too Many:
‘So this is where you spend your more peaceful hours. A far cry and a pleasant change from harvesting dead men.’
Brother Cadfael finished the last corner of the bed of mint before he turned to acknowledge the presence of Hugh Beringar. ‘A pleasant change, right enough. Let’s hope we’ve finished with that kind of crop, here in Shrewsbury.’
‘And you found a name for your stranger in the end. How was that? No one in the town seemed to know him.’
‘All questions get their answers,’ said Brother Cadfael sententiously, ‘if you wait long enough.’
Andrea Jutson is a South Auckland crime writer, reviewer and journalist. Her most recent book was The Darkness Looking Back Random House.