Crime Drama: British vs American

 

Crime drama has been a television staple for decades. I’m old enough to remember the original 1950s Dragnet, with low-key Sgt. Joe Friday, and the show’s documentary approach. I also remember with fondness Colombo with its equally low-key and seemingly bungling eponymous detective.

However, in the 60s and 70s American crime drama took a turn down Sensational Lane. It’s almost as if explosions and sexual tension became more important than the mystery.

Now I admit I don’t watch a lot of TV. I prefer a good book. Consequently, I may miss some good shows along the way. However when I am looking for a good detective show to watch on Netflix, why do I invariably go British? It’s for the story.

Recently I was visiting my sister and her family and watched several episodes of Castle. In my opinion, the show was typically American. Opposite sex partners for loads of sexual tension. A focus on pyrotechnics. The deeply scarred detective, who has trouble getting close to people – especially the partner. Trope after trope after trope. In all honesty, I didn’t care much for the show.

The other day, I started watching Foyle’s War. And fell in love immediately! And the show hadn’t gone beyond the theme music! Foyle, in some ways, reminds me of Colombo or Joe Friday. He’s low-key. The show deals with common wartime crime (the show is set in World War II). The storylines are character-driven and less formulaic than American crime shows, although all mysteries are formulaic to some degree. It’s the nature of the beast.

The same can be said for Midsomer Murders. The program has its personal touches. Detective Barnaby, the happy family man, goes about unraveling sometimes quite involved murders. There are no big explosions. There is no sexual tension. Just a good mystery with fascinating characters.

Inspector George Gently is another British police procedural that I like. The time is the 1960s and the shows are dark and gritty. Yet, once again, the focus is on the characters and the crime. No pyrotechnics. No fast car chases. No sexual tension. Just the battle of wits between criminal and detective.

Bones is an American crime drama I enjoyed, although a touch far-fetched with its focus on uber-forensics. The show is typically American: fast-paced, glitzy, somewhat goofy, with plenty of sexual tension, firearms and explosions, and a tendency towards exotic criminals. I enjoyed the program for the realistic forensics, the cast of characters, and the love interest. However, after a big cast change and the getting together of the principals, the episodes lost a lot of their uniqueness.

All in all, I think British crime drama tends to be slower paced. More focus is placed on the characters and the characters are more like real people than their American counterparts, where stereotypes hold more of a dominant sway.

For me, the appeal of the murder mystery is the interplay of the characters. The detective versus the killer. Why the murderer committed the crime and what was it that pushed him or her to do the deed. How the detective uses his or hers special skills to unravel the web of deceit and misinformation. What, if any, personal demons does the detective have that might help or hinder him or her.

Ray Bradbury once advised writers to create their characters, let them do their thing, and thereby get the story.

I find British crime drama tends to follow the Bradbury formula. It’s character-driven, for the most part.

American crime drama, on the other hand, is much more plot-driven and therefore in my opinion much more formulaic. Check off the items on the plot checklist and playing the boxes are all marked — the show’s good to go.

As a reader, I’m much more interested in character-driven stories then I am in plot-driven stories. For me, plot-driven stories come across as contrived and formulaic. The people in the story are paper dolls being moved around by the author to fit the needs of the plot.

The character-driven story, on the other hand, is organic. The story grows from who the characters are, because the characters are like real people. The protagonist and antagonist on a collision course because of the choices they’ve made. And even within the confines of the rather formulaic murder mystery, the character-driven story will always transcend its plot-driven counterpart.

Let me know what you think. Do you prefer American or British crime drama, and why? Until next time, happy reading!

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TV Review: Murdoch Mysteries

murdoch-mysteries

 

Steampunk is alive well. Not only as a sub-genre of speculative fiction, but also as a lifestyle movement and a musical genre.

A few weeks ago, while looking for something to watch on Netflix streaming, I stumbled upon the retro-detective series Murdoch Mysteries. I fell in love immediately. I mean who wouldn’t love a show that features Nikola Tesla in the first episode? I’ve been binge watching ever since.

Some people might not call Murdoch Mysteries steampunk. And in a very real sense it isn’t. At least it isn’t traditional steampunk. However there are many steampunk elements that the writers incorporate in the episodes, so I call it steampunk light.

Detective William Murdoch, of Toronto Constabulary’s Fourth Station House, is an amateur inventor and a scientific sleuth worthy of Sherlock Holmes’s shoes, Inverness cape, and deerstalker hat. But Murdoch wears none of those. Just a conservative 1890s suit and Homburg, the classic hat worn by Winston Churchill, among others.

The show begins in the mid-1890s and in season six enters the new century. Numerous inventions are featured that were either invented or discussed at that time and some of them Murdoch himself invents to help him solve crimes. Also a feature of the show are the famous personalities who appear as part of the storyline; people such as Tesla, Henry Ford, Winston Churchill, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, and HG Wells.

The episodes are filled with humor and historical puns, such as when Constable Crabtree claps his hands to activate a sound activated switch (the Clapper of modern day fame), which makes the series almost a comedy were it not for the seriousness of Murdoch and the murders he’s trying to solve.

I believe the success of this series lies in the interaction of the main trio of characters: Detective Murdoch, Constable Crabtree, and Inspector Brackenreid. Murdoch is unrelentingly serious and conservative, in spite of his love of science, technology, and invention. When he invents “Silly Putty” to capture newsprint he can’t read on the inside of a wallet, Brackenreid wants to take some home for his boys because they would love the silliness of it. Murdoch rebukes him that the putty is not a toy.

Crabtree aspires to be like Murdoch, but has an imagination that enables him to see practical applications of Murdoch’s and other inventors’s inventions that they themselves don’t see or dismiss. When a microwave machine shows up in Murdoch’s office, having been used as a weapon, Crabtree envisions it could be used to bake potatoes. When told the machine would have to be the size of a room, Crabtree goes on to imagine homes being built in the future with potato baking rooms. Eventually in the course of the series, Crabtree puts his imagination to use and writes a novel.

Brackenreid is an old school cop who in the beginning has little toleration for Murdoch’s odd methods. He’s a blustering blowhard, who is really a marshmallow on the inside.

Of course no series would be complete without a love interest and that we have between Murdoch and the very progressive coroner, Doctor Julia Ogden.

The series also explores many social issues and can therefore be seen as a commentary on our own age, which in many ways isn’t much different from Murdoch’s.

As I noted above, many might not see Murdoch Mysteries as steampunk. But whatever genre you decide to call the series, the series is riotously good fun. Very highly recommended.

As always, comments are welcome and until next time — happy reading!

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Interview with J. Evan Stuart!

One of the best books I read last year was Entangled, the debut novel of J. Evan Stuart. I enjoy character-driven mysteries and Entangled fits the bill to a T. And today, I’m excited to bring to you this interview with a very talented up and coming writer. Without further ado, meet J. Evan Stuart!

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Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’ve always been a reader. From the time I was young I always had a love for books and would look forward to escaping into make believe worlds. I can’t say I’ve always wanted to write and just kind of started on a whim. For awhile I was tutoring students and a boy I was working with had an assignment to write a story beginning and the focus was on conflict. We came up with an initial scene taking place in a restroom where two boys confront each other and an iPod ends up being dropped in a toilet. For whatever reason the scene stayed with me and a year later I took pen to paper and wrote it out. Once I got started that was it. I have been writing for about six years now.

What is the name of your latest book and what inspired it?

My debut novel is Entangled. About three years ago I found a small news article in the newspaper. It was no more than a couple hundred words about a thirteen year old boy in a small Kansas ranching and farming town who was accused of murdering his parents and shooting his siblings. The article struck a chord with me, so I cut it out and saved it. Months later I wrote what would be the first chapter. It was a year after that I began to write the story.

How would you categorize your book?

It is a police procedural mystery with strong thriller and suspense elements. Because one of the dual protagonists is an eighteen year old accused of killing his parents and is on the run, it could easily crossover into YA. I think it would also appeal to those who like to read romantic suspense, as long as they want a story that is heavy on suspense and want a romance that is subtle. Minus bulging muscles and various other body parts.

Introduce us to your lead protagonists.  What is it about these character(s) that appeal to you as a writer?

The story starts with the reader being introduced to Connor Evans. He’s a high school kid who hates ranching and small town life in Ashlin, Nebraska. While his father expects him to follow in his footsteps of carrying on the family ranch, Connor has no interest in ranching which often puts him at odds with his father. The only escape he has from the boredom and his strained relationship with his dad is sneaking out to drink with his friends which often leads to them getting in trouble with the local authorities. When his parents are murdered all the evidence points to him and he finds himself on the run trying to deal with his grief and avoid being caught.

Sonya Reisler is a newly promoted detective with the Nebraska State Patrol. She wants to credit her ambition and dedication as the reasons for her promotion but, when she finds her new partner is her former mentor and lover, she has her doubts whether she truly earned her promotion. Sonya is sent to Ashlin to look over a murder investigation case before it is sent to the DA. She begins to notice small things that make her question whether Connor Evans committed the crime and gets the okay to conduct her own investigation. The nature of the crime hits close to home for Sonya and has her facing memories and demons she’s spent a lifetime burying. When her path crosses with Connor’s, professional lines become blurred. What starts out as an opportunity for her to prove to herself she earned her promotion, quickly escalates into something that could end her career altogether.

I think readers will find Connor the easier of the two to understand. Through flashbacks and his actions in the present, we see a teenager trying deal with his world being turned upside down and the aloneness he feels. Sonya is more of a mystery. She has a past that readers only see glimpses of, but we really only see her in the present. Something is fueling her desire to solve the case but we don’t know what it is until the very end. I think Sonya and Connor play off of each other well throughout the entire novel.

How did the book come to be titled?  Or, how does the title relate to the story?

Entangled is a good description of what happens to Sonya when she lets this case become personal and gets so deeply involved it becomes impossible to free herself from it.

Tell us more about the cover design.  How involved were you with creating the cover?

I was very involved in the cover design and sketched out how I wanted the characters positioned and what elements needed to be present. I sent my sketches to Ronnell Porter who expanded on my ideas and created the final product. I think his addition of the yellow police tape across Connor was a great idea. Connor, in many ways, is a danger to Sonya, causing her to cross many lines when it comes to this case. I think the cover really conveys what readers will find in the story.

Describe your writing process.

In a word? Chaotic. I work in scenes, usually starting with the dialogue that occurs between characters then slowly fleshing it out. I often don’t know the exact setting or even where in the story that particular scene will take place. I just picture it and know it will happen somewhere in the story. As more scenes form and are fleshed out, I continue to build on them, rearranging them until the story starts to come together. Then it’s a matter of stitching everything together. This method tends to give me more flexibility than if I were to work in a linear fashion.

How much research did you put into your book/series?

I ended up doing quite a bit of research for this story starting with the setting. I looked at many states where cattle ranching is done and Nebraska seemed to fit the bill for the other story elements I needed. While Ashlin is a fictional town along with some other features, many other places mentioned are real. I also had to do some research on the Nebraska State Patrol and some legal elements. My main goal was to make the story plausible and believable as possible.

What is the best advice received as an author?

I’ve been very fortunate in that I have had good support in my writing journey and have gotten a lot of good advice along the way. One of the best pieces of advice I received was to trust your readers. As a novice I was guilty of overwriting and over explaining because I was unsure of myself as a writer and wanted to make sure my readers understood what I was saying. Once I trusted that the readers would get what I was saying without my spoon feeding them, my writing greatly improved.

What specific authors or books influence how you write today?

This is a tough question. I think everything I read, good or bad, becomes part of the collective. I can tell if I really like a book because I will want to reread it again immediately. With the subsequent read I will really try and figure out what it is the author is doing that makes me love the story. One author that does come to mind that I found particularly interesting when it comes to writing style is Lisa McMann. In her book Wake, I was really taken with the brevity of her writing and how she used very short sentences that packed a lot of punch. I think that tends to stick with me when I write.

What types of genres do you read now for pleasure and do they influence what you write today?

I’m still a huge fan of YA and MG (middle grade) literature and I also love fantasy. For the most part I will read anything that sounds interesting.  I’m partial to character driven stories, so as long as I like the characters it really doesn’t matter the genre. As for what I write, I started with writing fantasy and paranormal because that was what I read most. Writing a police procedural mystery came as kind of a surprise for me since that is the genre I read the least.

What is next for you?

Currently I am working on the second book in the series entitled Enmeshed. I am hoping to complete it sometime in 2016.

Where you can buy Entangled and get in touch with J. Evan Stuart!

Entangled on Amazon!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/jevanstuart

Website: http://jevanstuartauthor.blogspot.com/

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