*****Say Nothing

By Brad Parks – After these powerful opening lines, you pretty much have to keep reading this new thriller:

Say Nothing, Brad Parks, cell phone

photo: Japanexperterna.se, creative commons license

“Their first move against us was so small, such an infinitesimal blip against the blaring background noise of life, I didn’t register it as anything significant.
“It came in the form of a text from my wife, Alison, and it arrived on my phone at 3:28 one Wednesday afternoon:
“‘Hey sorry forgot to tell you kids have dr appt this pm. Picking them up soon'”

With these few words, the deep anxiety all parents feel for the safety of their children bubbles up. The reader anticipates the next shattering revelations, and from there, the plot follows multiple tracks: part legal thriller, part financial thriller, and a big part psychological thriller, as a family confronts its horrifying challenges.

Most of the book is told in first-person, from the point of view of Scott Sampson, a judge for the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting in Norfolk. He, his wife, and six-year-old twins Sam and Emma live on the York River in rural Gloucester County, Virginia, “many steps off the beaten path.”

The kidnappers’ goal, it first seems, is to blackmail Judge Sampson into convicting a clearly guilty drug-dealer and murderer. At the last minute, his instructions change: “Let him walk.” It’s not an exercise in thwarting justice; it’s to show how much power they hold over him. One order the kidnappers are consistent about is, of course, the source of the book’s title, “Say nothing.”

Soon you realize the criminals have their sights on a much bigger, more consequential case—a patent dispute involving a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical product. To accede to their demands, Sampson must throw away his professional integrity and much else, which he does with an enormous sense of loss. Once he has unshackled himself from the basic tenets of the legal system, how far will he actually go?

Parks believably portrays the dynamic between the parents, showing all the anger and sadness and second-guessing and mutual doubts such a high-stress game would generate. Alison’s mother, two sisters, and their families live close by and it’s impossible to keep from them what happened to the children. The family wants to help. That could be risky. Yet, their support gives the couple one solid thing to hang onto as events sweep on.

Parks does an especially good job describing the courtroom action and the interactions in the judge’s chambers. Although you probably have a pretty good idea who is manipulating Judge Sampson’s strings—and why—there are surprises in store. There’s also an unnecessary plot twist at the end that muddies the mother’s motives. Those are minor quibbles for a book whose writing is, on the whole, deft and a pleasure to read.

Parks’s earlier books, like The Good Cop, demonstrate a wicked sense of humor, which he says he deliberately excised from Say Nothing. This book shows he also can grab hold of your heart and keep squeezing.

****The Accusation

North Korea, flags

photo: (stephan), creative commons license

By Bandi – Dubbed “the Solzhenitsyn of Pyongyang,” Bandi is the pseudonym of a dissident North Korean author, and these are the first published stories written by a person still living under that repressive regime.

The seven stories in this collection were written between 1989 and 1995, a particularly bleak period at the start of a severe five-year famine, when Great Leader Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and father ruled the country. Like the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram, the stories share commonalities both in the psychological challenges their protagonists face and in the external environment they must negotiate. These common themes create an indelible impression of Bandi’s world.

Paranoia is prominent. A person who deviates from expectations in any way or complains about anything, significant or trivial, risks being observed, reported, and denounced. The actor in the story “On Stage” titles Act One of his satirical—and dangerous—skit: “It Hurts, Hahaha,” and Act Two: “It Tickles, Boohoo!”—to underscore how people must act according to expectations and contrary to their true feelings. This stunt, predictably, ends in disgrace.

Denunciation can lead to banishment from the city to a life of extreme privation in the country, even death. But death does not end a family’s downfall. A father’s error curtails the educational and occupational prospects for his children and grandchildren, as described in the collection’s first story, “Record of a Defection,” in which a family risks everything to try to escape this collective fate.

Winters are bitter, food is never plentiful, and loudspeakers harangue the population. Their constantly blaring messages from the government are full of “alternative facts.”

The stories were translated by Deborah Smith, winner of the Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Bandi’s writing style is markedly different from that of Western fiction, with little description and with character development mainly through action and dialog. This bracing style fits material with so much implicit drama and heartache. (For a more immersive approach, you might read the richly plotted Pulitzer Prize-winning Adam Johnson novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, which also puts North Korea’s absurdities and ironies on full display.)

Do Bandi’s stories give the impression that the North Korean people recognize the peculiar nature of their system and its injustices? Absolutely. And if the people are called upon to fulfill some outrageous government edict, will they break their backs trying to do so? Absolutely.

The story of how the book came to be smuggled out of the country and ultimately found its way into print is an exciting tale in itself, included as an afterword. For that heroic effort alone, the book is worthy of attention. It also can’t hurt to foster greater understanding of the suffering that ensues when totalitarian leadership proceeds to its natural end-state. The North Korea Bandi describes is one Westerners may have difficulty comprehending, yet the fact that in 2017 it exists at all proves it is not impossible.

Oscar Shorts Nominees 2017: Live Action

SingEvery one of these five Live Action Oscar nominees was a winner! A diverse group in subject matter and national origin, though all European, this was one of the consistently best live action collections we’ve seen. Here they are:

  • Sing – a Hungarian film (trailer) directed by Kristóf Deák—what happens when a choral teacher bent on winning an important prize tells some of the children “just don’t sing.” Elementary solidarity (photo)! Charming. (25 minutes)
  • Silent Nights – from Denmark (trailer), directed by Aske Bang. A young Danish woman working for the Salvation Army falls for a poor Ghanian man, who neglects to tell her about the wife and kids back home. Wise words from her boss save her. Generous. (30 minutes)
  • Timecode – a 15-minute film (trailer) from Spain, directed by Juanjo Giménez. The day and night shift security staff at a parking garage exchange the barest civilities as they change places, but find an innovative way to communicate. Hilarious! (15 minutes)(watch it here)
  • Ennemis Intérieurs – this French film (trailer), directed by Selim Azzazi, is a chilling display of how a suspicious government can twist even the most innocent statements into accusations. It takes the form of an interview between a determined policeman of Algerian descent and a French-born Algerian man seeking citizenship in the 1990s, during the Algerian civil war, with obvious application to today’s tensions. Powerful. (28 minutes)
  • La Femme et le TGV – in this Swiss film (trailer & “the making of”), directed by Timo von Gunten and shot in one week, an older woman (Jane Birkin) waves at the TGV train morning and evening before heading to the desultory bakery she owns. When the train engineer tosses a note out to her, a correspondence begins. One day, the train does not come, and she must go in search of a less lonely future. Sweet. (30 minutes)

My favorite? Timecode was the most fun, La Femme the most beautiful, and Ennemis Interieurs the most significant, and the winner, Sing, the sentimental fave.

Coverage of the documentary shorts here.

A Thriller Reading List for the Trump Administration

Mar-a-LagoDear New Trump Administration Members, Friends and Hangers-on:

I propose an easy, entertaining way to enhance your understanding of how the world of secrets actually works. Read (or watch) a few of the many highly regarded thrillers for key lessons. They may spare you more of the embarrassments of the past few weeks.

Trust no one.
The initial reaction of ousted Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to the possibility he’d engaged with Russian spies—“It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian Intelligence officer’”—was LOL funny to thriller fans. When you’re dealing with a power whose aims differ from yours, anyone may be a spy. To get his paranoia up, Manafort shoulda read:
The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry
The Increment by David Ignatius
John le Carré’s “Smiley” novels, newly relevant

There are no secrets.
If Manafort caused chuckles and head-shaking, the allegations against ousted National Security Agency Director Michael Flynn was jaw-dropping. Not because Flynn had premature conversations with Russians, not because he lied about them, but because he apparently didn’t know his conversations would be monitored, recorded, transcribed, and become fodder for a political debacle. Surely the head of the NSA would understand the reach of the nation’s security apparatus.

Leaving aside the debate about whether Snowden should have snagged our stuff, what about the content of his revelations? What does Flynn think NSA’s $1.5 billion data storage facility at Camp Williams, Utah, is for, anyway? He should have read—and maybe somebody over there still ought to:
No Place to Hide – Glenn Greenwald (non-fiction)

The terrace of a resort isn’t the best place to strategize about national security. (See above).
Technology’s ability to “listen” by supersensitive microphones and by monitoring phone traffic and to “see” via miniaturized cameras and screen captures of compromised electronics far exceeds what participants in that meeting apparently supposed. Do all the Mar-a-Lago wait and kitchen staff have security clearances? Do the members? Are tested for common sense? Apparently not, since a number of them recorded the confab. Worst was club member Richard DeAgazio, who posted a picture on Facebook of himself with “Rick,” the service member who carries the nuclear launch codes for the President—the “nuclear  football.” One hopes Rick, now identifiable by millions, has a safe new assignment.
Eye in the Sky – film by Gavin Hood
Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer and August Cole

AND, WHILE YOU’RE AT IT, DEVELOP BETTER POLICIES, BECAUSE . . .

Climate change is real.
Dewy-fresh EPA director Scott Pruitt believes the debate about climate change is “far from settled.” While  recent heavy rains have alleviated most of California’s drought for now, the long-term trend persists. A fight over water in the U.S. Southwest is not inevitable, but its ugly consequences can be prevented only if the problem is squarely faced through regional strategies, which are what federal governments promote.
The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

The War on Drugs is a loser.
This ill-conceived “war” has led to untold misery in Mexico and created a strong motive for illegal immigration. No wall will stop the drug flow. Fix this.
The Cartel, by Don Winslow
Down by the River, by Charles Bowden (non-fiction, not new, but harrowing. We’ve learned nothing.)

There, that should get the Washington newbies started. What would you have them read?

Ian Rankin’s 30th Year of Rebus

Ian Rankin

photo: wikimedia

In Daneet Steffens’s recent interview for LitHub with Scotland’s crime fiction star Ian Rankin, he says, “All crime fiction boils down to ‘Why do we keep doing these terrible things?” Go back to Shakespeare, to Euripides, and the combination of natural proclivity and circumstances has produced people who destroy not just their enemies, but also the people they love.

Rankin says his early books were more typical whodunits, “but as I got more confident about the form and about what the crime novel could do, I thought, ‘Well there’s nothing it can’t do.’” Writers who want to talk about politics can do that, like author David Ignatius. Those who want to talk about race relations can emulate Bill Beverly. The environment, Paolo Bacigalupi. And, those who want to explore domestic tensions can stake out territory alongside Gillian Flynn or Megan Abbott. In that way, choosing to write about crime is not a limiting factor for authors, but one that gives their story about politics, race relations, the environment, domestic life—whatever—an extra urgency.

You may have read Rankin’s short stories, or be familiar with his best-known work, the award-winning Detective Rebus series (21 books!) set in Edinburgh, or seen one of the several television series made from them. The most recent series title, out earlier this month, is Rather Be the Devil, in which the retired detective takes on a cold murder case, and finds it tied up with a complex money laundering scheme and an aging rock star.

Rebus also has aged and represents some values and a black-and-white view of the world that Rankin says he doesn’t share. It’s Rebus’s partners—the books secondary characters—whose job involves “trying to change his mind on things.” After 30 years of writing the same character and his consistent opponent, Big Ger Cafferty, an old-fashioned gangster up against an old-fashioned detective, the world has changed around them, but the series has “no signs of wearing out,” says a CrimeFictionLover.com review.

You can hear Rankin for yourself at a three-day Rebus festival in Edinburgh, June 30 to July 2. Or in New York at The Center for Fiction, 17 E 47th St., which will host Rankin for a Crime Fiction Master Class on Tuesday February 7th at 7 pm. He’ll be interviewed about his career and the Rebus series by author Jonathan Santlofer. Free and open to the public.

****The Shanghai Factor

Shanghai, woman

photo: Fabrizio Maestroni, creative commons license

By Charles McCarry – This Shanghai-U.S. East Coast-based spy thriller is reminiscent of the early works of John le Carré, where the question always is, Whom can you trust? And the answer: no one. At least that’s how the unnamed narrator, a new CIA recruit, chooses to operate. Paranoia 101. Throughout, it’s McCarry’s wry observations of characters and their situations that make the reading such a pleasure.

Undocumented CIA agents, like the narrator,

. . . never carry official ID. This absence of proof that they’re up to no good is their protection. Otherwise, they are warned, they’re on their own. If they get themselves into trouble, they’ll get no help. If they do well, they’ll get no thanks. That formula is, of course, catnip to romantics.

McCarry gives his protagonist a deceptive openness and surface sociability. A Chinese languages major in college, he’s been sent to Shanghai to improve his language skills and cultural acumen and to keep a lookout for potential Agency recruits.

Early in his stay, a beautiful young woman crashes her bike into his, he buys her an expensive replacement, and before long, they’re lovers. It’s a fun way to learn the language not generally endorsed by Berlitz. From the beginning, he assumes she’d been sent by the Guoanbu, the Chinese intelligence service. Other than her name, Mei, he never asks her any questions about her background—what would be the point?—except to learn she was an exchange student in Massachusetts, which accounts for her American English. Nor does she ask such questions of him—ditto. Plus, he figures she already knows.

Through Mei, he meets wealthy, upwardly mobile young Chinese, disdainful of their stodgy Communist parents. Through one of them, he meets a prominent Chinese CEO and receives an employment offer he suspects is a feeler from Guoanbu. Such a placement could be invaluable to the CIA, if highly risky to him.

McCarry creates a number of entertaining secondary characters, especially lusty Mei, the hot-and-cold Chinese spy Lin Ming, and his mother’s former crack-addict cook, Magdalena. Are any of them what and who they seem? Then there’s his handler, the eccentric CIA director of counter-intelligence Luther Burbank (to the surprise of horticulturalists everywhere), who advises him take the job.

Burbank is the only man at the Agency who knows what he’s up to, and they talk only rarely. When they do, Burbank counsels that becoming a an effective espionage agent and undermining Guoanbu, will be a long game, vulnerable to exposure at every turn. They have to be content to wait for the payoff. He does take the job and, from there, life gets complicated.

McCarry’s writing is smooth and literary, and one of my favorite authors, Alan Furst, calls him “a master of intelligent, literate spy fiction.” If you like an old-fashioned spy story dependent more on agents’ wits than electronic wizardry and body count, you may enjoy this one too.

Glimmer Train Short Stories

tapas, small plates

photo: Ken Hawkins, creative commons license

Catching up with two back issues of Glimmer Train—one of the premiere U.S. venues for short story writers—with thoughts about writers to watch, based on these pages. The winter 2015 issue (#92, 13 stories) and fall 2016 issue (#97, 14 stories) are culled from a vast sea of literary output—some 32,000 stories submitted to the GT editors each year.

Most GT writers appear (from their bios) both youngish and frightfully accomplished. Their work and how the editors’ tastes have reacted over the years suggest an evolution in concepts of narrative and characterization, plot and story. Some stories in these recent issue push the envelope of narrative, depending less on scene and dialog. Others deliver their message in short bursts, perhaps thematically linked but otherwise superficially disconnected from what comes before or after. Some require a bit of figuring out. I like the challenge!

Among the stories I enjoyed most from Issue 92 were:

  • “Language Lessons” by Barbara Ganley, each section of which is a mini-story in itself. Ganley is the founder of Community Expressions, LLC, whose purpose is “to help small communities bring storytelling to civic engagements and change efforts”—an enterprise at least as interesting as her fiction.
  • The multiple point-of-view story “Keller’s Ranch,” by award-winning essayist Ming Holden, which includes the memorable line, “I knew that hope can be as sharp as our teeth.” Not an abstract danger, an incarnate one.

Several stories in Issue 97 deal with death, an ambitious topic for a young author and yet dealt with effectively by A. Campbell (“On Fleck/ Fleck On”), a debut author, Matthew Iribarne (“We Are Heaven”), and Lauren Green (“When We Hear Yellow”): “. . . if the heart were a lighthouse, I wouldn’t be able to count on mine. Mine would send out distress signals only after the shipwreck had taken place.”

I also enjoyed:

  • “Pepper,” dog-park action by Weike Wang, author of the novel Chemistry, forthcoming in May, and
  • “Jumping Doctor He Come in Future” by Karen Malley, a story whose good humor starts with the title. Fires and storms and recalcitrant cats.

Tap a source of fine short stories—find them in the magazine section of your big box book store and on many websites—for “small plates” that satisfy.

****What Remains of Me

Los Angeles, Hollywood

photo: James Gubera, creative commons license

By Alison Gaylin , narrated by Ann Marie Lee – If, as the Bible says, the sins of the fathers will be visited on their children (or more colorfully “The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”), this story is the proof of it. It’s set in two time periods—1980 and 2010—among a small group of Hollywood teenagers. They’re about 17 in 1980 and nearing 50 in 2010, with a whole lot of water under the bridge in between.

The three friends—Kelly, Bellamy, and Vee—come from vastly different backgrounds. Kelly, the principal point-of-view character, is barely middle class, while Bellamy and Vee are children of “tinseltown royalty,” rich kids whose actions bring few consequences. They all smoke, drink, use drugs, and skip school. Gaylin dwells on the substance abuse and resultant bad decision-making more than necessary, as there was not much new there. But even so, it’s the parents whose problems run deepest, under the shiny surface.

Teenage Kelly Michelle Lund—as she is forever known in the media—after ingesting more than a few illegal substances, goes to a movie wrap party at Vee’s home. Before the party ends, his director-father is murdered—shot three times, once right between the eyes. Thanks to a weak defense effort, Kelly is convicted of the crime.

After a quarter-century in prison, Kelly has been out for five years and is trying to rebuild her life. When Bellamy’s father is murdered in much the same way Vee’s was, the media and the police immediately suspect Kelly. In Gaylin’s twisting plot, every significant character has secrets, and they are ingeniously linked, While the plot mostly holds, a late confrontation between Kelly and Bellamy felt excessively contrived.

Hollywood is the perfect backdrop for a story in which nothing is as it seems—a place where you shouldn’t peer behind the curtain or, perhaps, for your own good, you’d better!. Throughout the story, characters repeatedly suggest that powerful Hollywood folk can do whatever they please, without consequences. That certainly was true when the studios’ star system was in place and bad behavior was aggressively covered up, but it’s less true since (with Bill Cosby a prominent exception). Yet that presumption makes so many characters’ secrets easier to keep.

Ann Marie Lee’s narration nicely evokes both the teens and the parents. She might have used more mature voices for Kelly and Bellamy at age 47, but that’s a minor quibble regarding an overall fine reading.

Lee Child is a Pantser

Superman

graphic: Kooroshication, creative commons license

Someday I hope I inspire a reader as enthusiastic and indulgent as Lee Child has in John Lanchester. Lanchester’s fanboy article in the 14 November New Yorker delves into both the form and process used by Child to create his literary child, Jack Reacher. I’ve read only the first one in this long-running series, The Killing Floor, and didn’t see what the fuss was all about.

Lanchester—a contributing editor at The London Review of Books—was untroubled by my big gripe: I just couldn’t believe in the character. First of all, Childs’s hero, he says, “isn’t just tough; he’s supertough. He is exceptionally good with all manner of weapons. His expertise as a sniper is regularly called upon . . . He routinely gets into fights with multiple opponents” and in a climactic combat, Reacher will be pitted “sometimes against vastly superior numbers, sometimes against an opponent of superhuman size or strength of inability to feel pain, sometimes against all of the above.”

But Lanchester has devised a clever test for whether a novel exceeds his ability to suspend disbelief. He calls it the Superman test: “Is what I’m being asked to believe less likely than the character’s being able to fly?” Everyone has a set-point for their own personal Superman test, and mine must be lower than Lanchester’s.

He likes Reacher, even when he skates perilously close to Superman territory. He says it’s because Child balances Reacher’s extraordinary skills with realism. The fighting seems “realistic within its implausibility”; Reacher fights for the good guys, but he’s a realist, he’ll fight dirty.

Reacher’s given up everything and travels around the country, righting wrongs, carrying no more than a folding toothbrush. To every cube warrior who longs to get out from under, this sounds pretty good. Even if such a life isn’t really possible, “The alienated possessionless freedom of Reacher has a core of emotional truth,” Lanchester says.

Another seductive aspect of the books for Lanchester is Reacher’s thought process as he tries to decipher what’s going on, who the bad guys are. Turns out, Child is a pantser! He doesn’t write the books with the whole plot worked out in advance; he writes by the seat of his pants. He captures Reacher’s figuring-out activity so well, because he’s figuring it out at the exact same time.

This way of working was revealed when author Andy Martin—another Jack Reacher devotee—literally sat with Child as he worked on his recent book Make Me. Martin turned his observations into Reacher Said Nothing (2015), a “genuinely enlightening” literary biography that’s one of a kind.

Reacher’s work-it-out-as-you-go method is the way I write, too. Although some writers storyboard each scene and conversation ahead of time, that would take all the fun out of writing—the thrill of discovery—for me. This faint kinship is why I’ll give old Jack another go. I think I’ll read Persuader. Lanchester says it’s Reacher at his best.

Three Classic Mysteries: Stout, Simenon, McDermid

Stout, Simenon, McDermid

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Inspired by Crime Fiction Lover’s “Classics in September” coverage, I’ve reacquainted myself with two favorite authors—Rex Stout and Georges Simenon–and finally read one I should have gotten to a long time ago, Scotland’s Val McDermid. Reading these older mysteries really shows how much the genre has changed. Today we generally have more realistic characters and motivations, more detail about procedure (thanks, CSI), more graphic violence, and more body fluids.

Rex Stout: The Doorbell Rang

Stout’s legendary private detective Nero Wolfe has an active fan base for his 33 novels and 39 short stories and novellas. Their hero is famous for several reasons: Wolfe loves good food and wine and, as a consequence, is not slim. Notoriously sedentary, he very rarely bestirs himself outside the office in his well-appointed Manhattan townhouse, where he tends his orchids. (When these were written, orchids were exotic, and not available in every supermarket!)

Wolfe’s wise-cracking assistant Archie Goodwin narrates the novels and does Wolfe’s

leg-work, as well as any necessary strong-arming. The stories are about a profession—the private eye with the Big Case—that barely exists today, in fiction or anywhere else.

The Doorbell Rang (1965) takes more than a few swipes at the FBI along the way as, from behind his desk, Wolfe pits wits against not just the NYPD, but J. Edgar Hoover and his men. Can he pull it off? Archie thinks not. Good clean fun.

Georges Simenon: The Misty Harbour

This 1932 story likewise involves a trademark detective, Inspector Jules Maigret, who appeared in 75 novels and 28 short stories from this French author and was reportedly second in world renown only to Sherlock Holmes.

The title of this novel was most apt, because I could never penetrate the fog surrounding what Maigret was doing in his investigation or why he was doing it, though in the end he pulled out a neat solution. It all starts intriguingly enough with an amnesiac wandering Paris with evidence of a memory-blasting gunshot wound to the head. But who is he? Why was he shot? And when he’s finally identified and returned home, why does someone immediately finish him off? Lots of suspects, no apparent motives. An evocative read.

Val McDermid: A Place of Execution

McDermied is interesting as a writer not only for the clarity of her prose and the complexity of her plots, but also for the care with which she pursues her craft. I have her writer’s guide, Forensics, which I keep at hand always.

In a recent interview with LitHub’s Daneet Steffens, McDermid says that writing her next book “doesn’t get easier, it gets harder! . . . With writing: one sits down with ambition, knowing in this little part of your head that you will not realize all that you want to achieve with this book.” That determination to “fail better,” as opposed to believing oneself a master of one’s genre and starting to coast, is what makes her books so compelling.

Compared to the above two short novels (less than 200 pages each), the 400-page A Place of Execution (1999), is a layered examination of interpersonal dynamics in a remote, claustrophobic hamlet (nine houses) where a young girl has gone missing. The secrets the community holds and the challenge to the police authorities in penetrating them make for thrilling reading.

While Stout and Simenon are entertaining, it’s McDermid, who published her 30th novel this year, who makes you truly care about the outcome.

“If you read my books and you’re not disturbed by them, then you probably need professional help,” McDermid said, at the recent Iceland Noir conference.