Friday, October 14, 2011

Fabulous Fiction: The Gum Shoe Gun Show

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.

My favorite fun read is crime fiction.  Whether Ms. Scarlet in the Library did it with a gun or the real estate moguls in Florida killed the competition or Nazis in rural Sweden drove a girl to Australia, I’ll give the book a try. I love to solve a mysteryalthough, in the interest of full disclosure, I am one among many who read the ending when I just cannot bear the suspense any longer. Then I settle in to watch how the author winds his way to that ending. Sometimes I believe I’ve guessed who done it so I must read the last pages to check my wit; alas, I am wrong about as often as I am right.

Anyway, give me the philosophical ruminator who, over a cup of tea, brushes away the red herrings to solve the unsolvable crime. The great Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s invention, is a ruminator. Alexander McCall Smith has created two more: Precious, owner and operator of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana, and Isabel Dalhousie, editor and occasional sleuth in Edinburgh, Scotland. Both are delightful women, women that I’d like to knowwomen with sharp minds like the one Galileo must have had, a mind that discerns the real center of things and things oft overlooked by everyone else.

I will walk with the lawyer and his minions, too. Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and several John Grisham books, including A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Client, The Runaway Jury, and The Rainmaker, have become great movies after being good reads. Stieg Larsson’s third book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, belongs in this category, too for it is as much about legal procedure as it is about governments gone wrong and sick, twisted men.

For books that focus upon governments gone wrong, books by John LeCarré, the Bourne books by Robert Ludlum, or The Eiger Sanction by Trevanian are excellent examples and good reads. From these, we realize that: “Ideologies have no heart of their own. They're the whores and angels of our striving selves” (LeCarré).  Entire nations and the men who fight for them, most often in secret (spies), are both whores to the causes and angels facing down enemies. Their stories are both gripping and deadly.

Equally gripping are the psychological suspense versions in crime fiction. I was one of thousands who could not put down Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs and Stieg Larsson’s first, The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo. Protagonists Clarice Starling and Carl Mikael Blomkvist invest as much time in developing a profile of the suspect as they do in pursuit of the murderer. These books also present, often in morbid detail, the horrifying things done to their victims and the horrifying things done to transform a human into a monster. One classic movie in this genre is Psycho. We watch the blond leave behind law-abiding in favor of law-breaking in the name of love, only to stumble into a stunted boy broken by his mother’s betrayal. The twists and turns of the human mind make the outcomes terrifying.

Another category I adore is the cop. The first three seasons of The Wire (HBO) provide a university degree in police procedure as McNulty, Daniels, Freamon, and Kima Greggs try to take down the Barksdale Baltimore drug cartel. Parallels between the rules by which police live and rules by which drug dealers live are, at times, mirror images of each other.

P. D. James, Robert Parker and Joseph Wambaugh also wrote crime fiction featuring policemen, often world and work weary, frequently conflicted and disconnected from hearth and home. Like David Simon’s police in The Wire, Parker’s and Wambaugh’s are just one very fine line away from criminality. The best of them, Spencer and Jesse Stone or Lester Freamon and Adam Dalgliesh, pull themselves back before crossing the line.

Police drama draws advertisers to TV programming like hummingbirds to nectar. Law and Order and all its descendants are one part police procedural and one part legal thriller; they've been entertaining us since 1990. Currently, a version still runs on BBC, and Law and Order: SVU is still in production. Masterpiece Mystery on PBS has given us numerous police procedurals, including Zen, an Italian detective; Wallander, who solves crimes committed in Sweden; Inspector Lewis and DS Hathaway working the Oxford, England beat; and Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, a tortured British woman working an urban beat.

Sherlock Holmes is a quintessential figure for the puzzle genre of crime fiction. When no other witness or investigator can understand how the crime was committed, Holmes can. He is keen for detail, possesses encyclopedic knowledge of all things, and presses to uncover the truth regardless of consequences. His mind and the crimes he solves with it have been brought to life by countless actors. PBS distributed a version with Holmes and Watson in modern times while the Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law incarnations show us the nineteenth century in all its grit and glory.

My personal favorite is the hard-boiled genre. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, John D. McDonald are just three authors who invented tough, jaded detectives. Often, they were  once policemen, but their inability to place nicely with others has forced them to become Private Eyes. They know the streets of whatever city they work. They have contacts on both sides of that fine line, criminal and law-abiding. They frequently answer the siren call of some dame, only to regret the path on which lust set them. They can lock up the dame just as easily as the mope. Best of all, they can knock back of shot of whiskey right before being gut-punched without losing a drop. Even after a pummeling or gunshot, concussion and blood loss notwithstanding, they can chase the evil-doers on foot and bring him to justice or send him to the morgue without breathing too hard. These guys are superheroes without any gimmick. Spidey did not bite their hands, bats never haunted their dreams, and iron suits were just too cumbersome. Still they fight with might for right.

Elmore Leonard and Walter Mosley are two more terrific authors in the hard-boiled genre, and both season their books with irony and wit. Leonard’s Chili Palmer in Get Shorty or Mosley’s Easy Rawlins in Devil in a Blue Dress are uncharacteristic detectives who move along the fringes of society, but they excel at solving mysteries.

Crime fiction is a rich, long-lived genre, and those that I have listed here are just a few of my favorites. Consider fifty more listed as “50 Crime Writers to Read Before You Die” at You may also wish to see three more categories for crime fiction and representative titles at Whatever you do, read several. Reading makes good writing, and you can challenge your inner problem-solver as you read.

Reading Challenge:

The entire post is a reading challenge so make a list and begin.

Writing Challenge:

After you have read at least one title from one category in the crime fiction genre, make a list of the protagonist’s characteristics. By becoming mindful of the conventions, you can make better use of them or invent one or two new ones of your own.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Capitalization

As the seasons shift from summer to spring, let’s review when and when not to capitalize a word referring to a season. See if you can infer the rule from the statement below.

In the middle of Winter Break, which falls between semesters, I will enjoy winter sports similar to those celebrated through the Winter Olympics competition.

If the word for the season is part of an official title, as it is in Winter Break or Winter Olympics, then capitalize the word. Otherwise, small letters will suffice.