As kids, no one ever wants a curmudgeonly neighbor who’s regularly chastising them to “stay off my lawn.” That messes up all the games of kick-the-can and hide-and-seek. And what happens when your baseball accidentally goes in their yard? Lost. For. Ever.
But in other realms, the curmudgeonly characters are often some of the most well-loved. They’re the comic relief, the unfiltered voice, the personality we secretly hope we’re brave enough to embrace one day. And typically, there’s a pretty good heart buried deep inside as well. TV is full of these grouchy personalities: Leroy Jethro Gibbs from NCIS, Dr. Gregory House as the title character in HOUSE, and for those who can remember, Jonathan Higgins in MAGNUM, P.I.
Crime fiction also claims a number of delightfully cantankerous characters.
Louise Penny, whose new audiobook in the Three Pines series is GLASS HOUSES (and an Earphones Award winner), has crafted an excellent curmudgeonly specimen in Ruth Zardo. Penny’s expletive-spewing poet may walk around with a rain cloud over her head, but she brightens every scene she enters. Both Ralph Cosham in the early recordings and now Robert Bathurst illuminate her cranky disposition with aplomb, allowing that hidden softie to peek out just around her sharp edges.
Last week I wrote about Partners in Crime—people who co-write their books. Some of the partners on that list were related to each other: P.J. Parrish is a pair of sisters and Charles Todd is a mother-son writing team. The crime genre also boasts families that have more than one writer, but they aren’t necessarily writing together. Do you suppose it’s something in their DNA? Or are you a supporter of the nurture school of thought—they learn to love it from exposure? Regardless of how they get there, plenty of great writers are apples from the same tree . . . chips off the same block . . . birds of a feather. O.K., I’d better stop.
One of my favorite writing families is the Burke family. James Lee Burke and his daughter Alafair Burke write in significantly different styles but they both possess tremendous talent. The elder Burke’s sense of place in the Southern locales is vibrant and alive, as integral to his plots as his emotionally damaged characters. Meanwhile, Alafair’s sense of place is also central to her novels, but her strong female characters are found in more urban settings—Portland, Oregon, and New York City. Spanning the country, the Burke family has a little something for any mystery fan. Read more…
It’s back-to-school time, and August is National Crayon Collection Month. I didn’t know about this until I started researching blog topics—don’t ask, my mind works in scary ways sometimes. Anyway, there’s this cool non-profit organization aptly named Crayon Collection that gathers gently used crayons and distributes them to schools in high-poverty areas. This does two things: keeps perfectly good crayons out of landfills and puts them in the hands of children to encourage their creativity. Who knows, they may be the masterminds writing our mysteries of tomorrow!
Based on titles in the genre, our past and current scribes were likely influenced by the wax art supplies of their childhoods. Although they don’t get quite as creative as the marketing gurus at Crayola—laser lemon?—crime writers (and their publishers) make use of color frequently in titles. John D. MacDonald started the themed series fad using color names for his Travis McGee titles (THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY, A PURPLE PLACE FOR DYING, etc.). David Handler followed suit with his Berger and Mitry mysteries (THE COLD BLUE BLOOD, HOT PINK FARMHOUSE), while many other crime writers had single titles featuring a veritable rainbow of color names.
Yesterday (August 6th ) was National Friendship Day, and Wednesday (August 9th) is National Book Lover’s Day. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than to recognize great friendships in crime fiction audiobooks!
Of course classic mysteries offer friends working together to discover whodunit, such as Sherlock and Watson or Nero and Archie. These characters influenced other writers, who in turn influenced the next generations and on and on, and thus the tradition of crime-fighting pals exists almost everywhere.
The lone wolf protagonist is certainly a common trope, but even some of crime fiction’s most dysfunctional characters manage to hang on to good friends. James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux struggles to keep the women in his life breathing, but Clete Purcell is as dedicated as they come in the friend category.
Sometimes the pairings are a bit unusual. Caleb Carr’s THE ALIENIST features a newspaper reporter and a psychologist taking on the role of investigators. And John D. MacDonald’s “salvage consultant” Travis McGee works with his best friend Meyer, a respected economist. Numbers can be a mystery to us all. Read more…