Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Novelist Kwei Quartey, Detectives to Remember, and Creating an Unforgettable Sleuth

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Kwei Quartey is a crime novelist (and physician) living in L.A.—and one of my favorite authors. He's written WIFE OF THE GODS, CHILDREN OF THE STREET, MURDER AT CAPE THREE POINTS, and we can look forward to his forth, GOLD OF THE FATHERS, coming in January 2016. Kwei's blog is is pretty darned amazing, too, and when I read his post on sleuths and archetypes, I had to ask Kwei if we could reprint it here on Jungle Reds. Readers, he said yes! He'll also be stopping by to chat with readers today.

Take it away, Kwei!

KWEI QUARTEY: A memorable detective in crime fiction stays with the reader long after the novel is completed, no matter to which one of the four archetypes the sleuth belongs:
  • The amateur (Miss Marple, Easy Rawlins): Not officially within the criminal investigation system, but having knowledge, curiosity, desire for justice, etc.
  • The private investigator (Holmes, Marlow, Poirot, Wolfe, Millhone): Working professionally in criminal investigations, but outside the official criminal justice system.
  • The police investigator (Dalgliesh, Morse, Wallander): Part of an official investigative body charged with solving crimes.
  • The forensic specialist (Scarpetta, Thorndyke): Contributing specialized forensic knowledge rather than solving the crime as a whole.
There may be some overlap, particularly the amateur and the PI. The examples above obviously don’t comprise an exhaustive list, but they are some of the most recognizable detective characters in crime literature over the decades and centuries. There is nothing new under the sun. Incorporating characteristics or features of these famous detectives into one’s own is not so much stealing as it is learning by emulation.
But one’s emulation must fit your creation. Agatha Christie‘s Miss Marple and Walter Mosley‘s Easy Rawlins are both indomitable in their quests for truth and justice, but they are radically different characters. In The Murder at the Vicarage, someone describes Marple as “a white-haired old lady with a gentle appealing manner,” while another condemns her as always knowing “everything that happens and draws the worst inferences.” Marple is somehow present even when she doesn’t appear to be, and that so-called “gentle appealing manner” belies her remarkable ability to dig up the truth. She solves mysteries within the rather stuffy confines of manners and modesty expected in the docile English village of St. Mary Mead.
Easy Rawlins, on the other hand, operates in the gritty environment of 1940s to 1960s Los Angeles. Mosley’s novels practically crackle with tension on every page, and we fear that the next time Rawlins turns down an alley off Slauson Avenue, he will run into either a cop with a grudge against him, or an equally unsavory gangster who would prefer Rawlins dead. But don’t fear too much. Easy is a tough customer as well.
Washington as Easy Rawlins in DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS (Photo: TriStar Pictures)
Just because your crime fiction is set in Iceland or Ghana doesn’t mean Rawlins or Marple are irrelevant to you. From Christie, you can learn the art of misdirection if you’re writing the classic mystery rather than a thriller (more about the distinction in an upcoming blog), and how to manipulate time and alibi in relation to the murder. With Mosley’s novels, study his tense style and the ability to weave multiple characters into a progressively tangled world of crime and corruption. If your detective is an amateur, notice how Easy believably knows many people, both honest and crooked, who can help him out. This is your chance to create a bunch of scary, creepy, slimy, or dangerous folks encountered along the way. Easy Rawlins is charismatic enough to have been played in film by Denzel Washington. When your character gets portrayed in the movies, you are probably doing well.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes is a transcendent and influential figure among detectives. He’s a singular creation, challenging enough to have been played on screen by multiple actors over decades. In the literary version, because he’s seen through the eyes of his companion Watson, who we sense does not always altogether understand Holmes, we as readers don’t ever get inside the great detective’s head or heart–well, rarely, at least. He is only what Watson reveals to us, and that makes Holmes wondrous in many ways. We want to follow him and his magical set of characteristics: an eerie ability to make deductions from keen observation, a nervous, excitable energy on the one hand, and a predisposition to depression and drug abuse on the other. He solves mysteries through logical, scientific reasoning and doesn’t go by gut feeling. “I never guess,” he says. “It is a shocking habit,—destructive to the logical faculty.”
Benedict Cumberbatch as the modern Holmes
Benedict Cumberbatch as the modern Holmes (Shutterstock)
Sometimes, his inferences can be a little improbable–as when, in The Sign of the Four, he deduced that his companion Watson had been to the post office that morning because Watson’s shoe had a speck of reddish mud found only opposite that post office, where the sidewalk was being dug up–but we are willing to accept these deductions and even marvel at them, no matter how implausible. That is Sherlock Holmes. In many instances, Holmes’s attention to detail foreshadows modern forensics (e.g. as in trace evidence), and it’s interesting that a BBC TV series has successfully portrayed a present-day Holmes.
Your detective can emulate some of Holmes’s powers of observation and deduction, or be as methodical (or not), or perhaps have some of his physical characteristics (unexpected strength for his thin physique), or failings like drug abuse and depression, but even if you use nothing Sherlockian at all, remember one vital principle from the master himself as he declared in The Sign of the Four: “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.” Here is the character giving advice to the mystery writer. Perhaps author Raymond Chandler once saw this powerful reflection and took it to heart, because he made a remarkably similar pronouncement in Casual Notes on the Mystery Novel, 1949: “The solution, once revealed, must seem to have been inevitable. At least half of all the mystery novels published violate this law.”
Ouch, Raymond.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Reds and lovely readers, do you find you have a favorite archetype of detective? I'm a big fan of the amateur, but also adore Sherlock Holmes. What about you? And who's your favorite example?

Kwei Quartey is a crime fiction writer and physician living in Pasadena, California. Having practiced medicine for more than 20 years while simultaneously working as a writer, he has attained noteworthy achievements in both fields. Dr. Quartey balances the two professions by dedicating the early morning hours to writing before beginning a day in his clinic.
Kwei Quartey attended medical school at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1990, he began practicing medicine in California with HealthCare Partners. Dr. Quartey later founded the facility’s wound care center while working as an urgent care physician.
As a crime fiction writer, Kwei Quartey made the Los Angeles Times Bestseller List in 2009. The following year, the G.O.G. National Book Club awarded him the title of Best Male Author. Having published Wife of the Gods (2009), Children of the Street (2011), Murder at Cape Three Points (2014), he anticipates publication of the fourth Darko Dawson novel in the series, Gold of the Fathers, in early January 2016. Death at the Voyager Hotel, a mystery e-novella not belonging to the series, was published July 2013. Dr. Quartey is also a member of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime, a fiction writers’ organization.
Kwei's web site is here and you can find him on Twitter and Facebook.


  1. I've always been a Sherlock Holmes fan, but I'm also quite enamored of Miss Marple. I enjoy police investigators, particularly Julia's Russ Van Alstyne and Archer Mayor's Joe Gunther.

  2. Interesting article. Thanks for letting Susan share it over here.

    I am a fan of the amateur, but I will follow anyone if the story is good enough.

  3. Wonderful article--thanks for visiting Kwei! Of course I love amateur detectives too. Just finishing Rhys Bowen's wonderful new book MALICE AT THE PALACE, which reminds me that often amateur sleuths in long-running series are asked to team up with the police. In this case, it's quite believable, but I'm curious about how other readers feel about that turn of events?

  4. This is a great essay Kwei. But I'm not surprised, since I too am a fan of your blog posts. Always something interested to be found.

    Lucy, I do often wonder about the amateur sleuth being asked to help the police. I don't think that happens nearly as much in real life as it does in books and on tv. Can you imagine?

    That said, when it is done convincingly, I don't mind suspending my disbelief for the sake of the story. Just not if it happens book after book.

  5. good essay. I like amateur detectives and yes, when asked, amateurs who have a working relationship with the police. I'm looking forward to the next Elly Griffiths book with her forensic archeologist sleuth Ruth Galloway.

  6. SO terrific, and so thought-provoking! Hi, Kwei!

    One of the things I always admire is when the amateur sleuth uses some knowledge that only they have-because of their specialization in cooking or horses or clocks (Hi Julie!) to solve the mystery. NOt that they are an amateur sleuth who happens to know about parrots (hi Donna!) but that the parrot-knowledge makes a difference to the case. SO they are the perfect person to solve it.

    ANd you know my favorite: Morse. And Rutledge. And Millhone!

    Yes, Lucy, sleuths helping the police. They wouldn't. Oh, well.

  7. Fascinating stuff, Kwei - welcome to Jungle Red.

    Misdirection is a wondrous thing. And one of my cherished "writing" books is not a writing book at all but "Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers" by Henning Nelms. The wonderful crime fiction writer Sarah Smith recommended it and my copy is dog-eared and yellow stickied.

    From that book: "...every conjurer is his own dramatist.... One of the dramatist's most important jobs is to relieve the audience of all mental effort." ... Confusion makes the interest curve drop sharply." Pearls of wisdom for the mystery writer.

    (Nelms also wrote "Thinking with a Pencil" -- another book that helps writers think outside the box.)

  8. Oh, and as for sleuths, I'm a huge fan of Walter Mosley's Ptolemy Grey... an elderly fellow who is succumbing to Alzheimer's. At another extreme, the dark and prickly Lisbeth Salander. At another extreme, Sue Ellen, the girl in Joe R. Lansdale's (Mark Twain meets Stephen King) brilliant "Edge of Dark Water." Hmmm... I guess I like my sleuths unusual.

  9. Welcome, Kwei! How do you think forensics plays into sleuthing these days? I would think it would be difficult to have a contemporary amateur sleuth with so much forensic science being used?

  10. Unless the amateur has specialized information (like an informant), sadly I don't think it happens much in real life.

    I like amateurs when the author has created a believable reason for, say, the owner of a bakery to investigate murder (something I've struggled with all my writing life). But I tend to drift toward either semi-pros (PIs and I'd throw Jane Ryland kinda in this category; she's looking for a story, but also the truth) and professionals. Love Holmes. Haven't read nearly enough Bosch, but I like what I've read. Morse was okay, but I adore the spin-off, Lewis (and the dishy Sgt. Hathaway). I really liked the show Endeavor though. Recently read Mark Pryor's Hugo Marston, not a pro any longer, but he has the background. And I'd like to read more of that.

    Julia's Russ and Clare will be fun to watch. And I love Annette Dashofy's Pete and Zoe.

    Hmm. Maybe what I really like is when you get a pro and someone else teamed up (Jane and Jake, Russ and Clare, Pete and Zoe). =)

  11. Whether a sleuth is pro or amateur, what I really love is a sense of genuine curiosity and determination. I also love when they're wrong and willing to readjust their investigation and priorities.

    Lucy/Roberta, as for amateurs helping the pros, I'm not sure I find it any different from any other source or informant, especially if the amateur sleuth has knowledge or connections to help and a previous relationship.

  12. Wait a sec, did I miss something? Are Julia's characters going to make it to t.v.?

    I like pro and non-pro teams as much as I like all-pro teams. It just depends on the characters themselves. If I like the characters then great -- I could care less how unrealistic the sleuthing scenario is. I don't read many cozy mysteries though--sometimes they're too cute.

    Thanks for a great piece, Kwei!

  13. First off, you have one of the best names ever, Kwei Quarty. Too bad it's your name, though, as it would make an awesome character name. Now, I must check out your blog. I owe it to the name.

    Your article here is so interesting, Kwei. I'm not sure that I have a favorite type of sleuth, but I do tend to read a lot of series where at least one of the two main characters is involved in law enforcement or connection to government security. Russ and Clare by Julia, Duncan and Gemma by Debs, Jane and Jake by Hank, Maggie Hope by Susan, Molly and Daniel by Rhys, Georgie and Darcy (he is involved in government assignments) by Rhys, Detective Sergeant Kathleen Doyle and Detective Chief Inspector Acton by Anne Cleeland, Louise Penny's Gamache, Sharon (S.J.)Bolton's Lacey Flint, Karin Salvalaggio's Detecive Macy Greeley, Rizzoli and Isles by Tess Gerritsen, and more. One of the first sleuths that I thought of was the same one Margaret mentioned. Elly Griffith's Ruth Galloway is a forensic archeologist who works with the police department, sometimes too closely, and is one of my favorite characters. I've always loved archeology, and so I especially enjoy that connection. Also, Jen J. Danna has a series out with a forensic anthropologist and a state police officer who team up, and I find the telling of bones most interesting. Of course, my first love was amateur sleuths, with Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and Miss Marple, so I continue to enjoy those. Lucy's Haley Snow is so much fun to follow, and Hallie is brilliant at amateur solved mysteries, too. Anna Loan-Wilsey has a great new series set in the 1890s with a traveling secretary who seems to always become involved in a murder. Oh, and I just finished Peter May's amazing Entry Island featuring a member of the Surete in Quebec. And, then there is Sherlock Holmes, the original and the different takes on him by different authors. He is indeed a true love of mine. Another private investigator is Kinsey Milhone, and I'm looking forward to X with great excitement. I must say that I like J.K. Rowling's/Robert Galbraith's new private investigator, Comoran Strike.

    Now, Kwei, I will have to check out Darko Dawson, which is another great name. I have a thing for alliteration, so I'm always happy with a name that uses it. Thank you for a great blog posting today, and I am off to visit your Web site.

  14. Hi Kwei! What an interesting essay. I don't think I have a favorite kind of sleuth. I read everything from amateurs to fairly hard-boiled cops. And although I write cops, they often get involved in their cases through a personal connection. Or they form a personal connection once investigating a case. I like getting forensics and procedure right but am most interested in relationships, and in the way people form connections. I do like amateurs to have a convincing reason to get involved. Susan does that very well with Maggie Hope, as does Lucy with Haley Snow and Rhys with Lady Georgie. Hank's Jane Ryland I would put in the borderline/professional category. It's her job to find out the truth.

    Hallie, I have read Mosley's Ptolemy Grey, but I love Chris Fowler's Bryant and May. Why is it we like cranky in fiction way more than we ever would in real life??

  15. I, too, like several series featuring a law enforcer paired with an amateur: Claire and Russ, Jane and Jake, Rina and Peter. I find I occasionally like mysteries featuring attorneys, such as Mickey Haller and Bobby Holloway. Those tend to appeal to my enjoyment of teasing out all the threads of a story. Then I like a lot of police procedurals that have a little extra to them: Duncan and Gemma, Armand Gamache, Lew Griffin, Rebus, Demarkian. But also amateurs like Lord Peter and PIs like Casey Jones! So I guess the genre is less important than having a well developed character who faces interesting challenges.

    Thanks for this interesting exposition of the qualities, and examples, of these different types!

  16. Thank you, Jim and Kathy!! I am smiling like mad being included in that august company! From the author's point of view, it's astonishing to think about other people knowing and caring about my characters. It always knocks my socks off.

  17. I like all of them, but the thing I find indispensable no matter what kind of story it is are the relationships and the supporting characters. I'm particularly fond of Deborah's DS Melody Talbot and Julia's Hadley Knox (though two more completely different female LEOs I can't imagine)!

  18. I love the classic, pre-forensic type of mystery such as Christie's Poirot, although I certainly have read my share of police procedurals (Wexford, Dalgliesh, Lynley, etc.).

    I think we'll see more historical mysteries in future (like Rhys's Georgie and Molly) because forensic science removes the "puzzle" component that made Golden Age mysteries so wonderful.

    But I also agree with Lisa Alber that the characters ultimately drive me. I read Elizabeth George because of Barbara Havers, and anything the late, great Ruth Rendell wrote because I never, ever want to meet any of her people (except perhaps Wexford and the dreamy Burden). I do, however, love a classic cozy country-house murder; they remind me so much of the beloved game of "Clue."

    What a great subject for a blog...thanks for posting.

  19. Thanks, Susan for posting my blog here. Always lively and fun response as always. Sorry for my late response--tough day at the clinic yesterday!

    Joan--never got as much into Miss Marple, although I did read her. Maybe a bit genteel for me. A problem in general that I have with Christie are the long narratives, something modern editors might restrain.

    Mark--although I love the police procedural, I've started to work on something with an amateur detective--in its very early stages yet.

    Lucy--thank you. I really must try Rhys Bowen. I think where the amateur teaming up with the police can be fascinating is if the amateur has extrasensory powers.

    Thank you for your kind words, Kristopher. So glad you read my blogs!

    Hank, thanks. When there's a PI, I love tension between him/her and the police. Morse is the subject on my next blog, BTW.

    Hallie I'm curious about that conjuring book. Is it easy to find, or is it out of print?

    Lisa--agreed, cozy mysteries often seem contrived.

    Susan--forensics has changed detecting a lot, but you know, it doesn't always clear things up any faster. I use the parallel of medical tests used to diagnose a patient's illness. The more mysterious the illness, the more tests are ordered, and from experience I can tell you it often causes an even more baffling picture, sending doctors in several directions down different paths. So in modern detective novels, the writer can use DNA and other sophisticated items to enhance the mystery--maybe the DNA is too denatured to be useful, maybe the rookie cop threw up on the bloodstain or smeared the footprint. In Ghana, where I set my Darko series, the issue is always the constant delay with DNA results. Until recently, the Ghana Police Service was sending (I think they still do to some extent, despite a new forensic lab in Accra) all DNA samples to South Africa to be analyzed. Imagine the delay involved in that. So most of the time Darko shrugs his shoulders and forgets about it. On TV, I just love the way those DNA tests come in so promptly. In real life, it's not the case. LAPD has something like 3 years of backlogged DNA rape cases!

    Deborah, I was loving Fowler's Bryant and May as far as I got. It was terrific, but I still haven't completed it because there aren't 56 hours in a day.

    Thank you Christopher--you might be right about the historical mysteries, but see my comments to Susan.

    Kathy, I'm awed by your reading prowess! Thanks for admiring my name. BTW there's an "e" between the "t" and the "y", QuartEy. It's like "Quarter" with a "y" on the end instead of an "r". Generally pronounced Quar-TAY on the West Coast and sometimes Quar-tee on the east coast, I'm not sure why.

    Thanks y'all, and I'll check back tomorrow