The Lineup: The World's Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives
by Otto Penzler
Reviewed by Chris Bolton
Writers are invariably asked where they find their inspiration, and consistently answer that story ideas come from every which direction. But where do characters come from? While most authors only have to concoct a character who's compelling enough for a single novel (and maybe a sequel), series writers have to create an indelible protagonist who can carry multiple books without growing predictable and stale.
The Edgar Award-winning anthology The Lineup collects almost two dozen essays and stories by some of the crime and thriller genres' brightest lights on the origins of their best-known characters. Most are anecdotal, detailing the strange circumstances, coincidences, and influences that came together to bring a character to life. Some get more creative; for instance, Robert Crais actually interviews his characters Elvis Cole and Joe Pike.
The essays began as pamphlets written for Otto Penzler's Mysterious Bookshop in New York, to help keep the store upright in the midst of a perpetual economic landslide for independent booksellers. Fortunately, Penzler decided to share these informative and inspiring pieces beyond his customer base -- and so, we get priceless insight into the creative processes of authors like Lee Child, Michael Connelly, and Ian Rankin.
It's only natural that a reader will flip right to the author he or she likes the most. (I lunged to Connelly first, then bounced to Rankin, and roamed from there.) Reading about the crime stories Connelly reported for the Los Angeles Times that influenced the plot of his first novel, The Black Echo, is certainly interesting. But the recollection of a tunnel in the front yard of his childhood home, which served as a rite of passage for the kids in his neighborhood, elevates Connelly's piece well above mere list-making, drawing a personal connection between the author and his best-known series hero, Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch. (And yes, he explains the name.)
Even more intriguing were the pieces by authors whose books are less familiar to me. For years I've heard people rave about Lee Child's hugely popular Jack Reacher novels, but it wasn't until reading Child's essay on creating the ultimate off-the-grid lone wolf that I became interested in reading the books themselves. The synopses always reminded me of The A-Team, but Child's description of his character makes Reacher sound like a lot of fun.
Gems abound in this volume. David Morrell describes how, for his novel First Blood, he created Rambo to be the ultimate anti-war figure, only to watch the hit movies turn him into a jingoistic icon for Reagan-era politics. Two decades later, Morrell watched in fascination as the most recent incarnation of the character brought him back to his roots as a reluctant warrior.
Ken Bruen writes about how his own violent rage fueled the creation of his series character, Jack Taylor, and the sometimes-violent reactions of his Irish readers (one of whom broke his jaw at a reading, using a hurly -- Taylor's weapon of choice). Bruen's piece is written in short, fast, brutal bursts, much like his novels.
There are many others, including Laura Lippman, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, writing a faux newspaper profile of her private eye, Tess Monaghan. The late Robert B. Parker has his long-running P.I. Spenser narrate his own, somewhat more elusive, encounter with a fictitious reporter. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child trade viewpoints to relate how Aloysius X. L. Pendergast came to life -- and where the least likely hero name in history came from.
The Lineup is a pure joy for writers, fans of series characters, or anyone who loves a good story. Perhaps the only greater pleasure comes from reading the actual series in which the characters star. I guarantee everyone who picks up this book will walk away with a list of new titles to investigate.
Chris Bolton co-created the all-ages webcomic Smash, about a ten-year-old superhero, and created the web-series Wage Slaves, the second season of which premieres in May 2010. His short story set in Powell's City of Books, "The Red Room," was published in Portland Noir from Akashic Books.