Best Mystery, Crime, and Thriller Fiction – May 2017

books

(photo: wikimedia.org)

Because reading a bad novel seems, well, criminal, we can thank Bill Ott at The Booklist Reader for wading through the enormous output of crime, thriller, and mystery fiction to come up with his list of top books of the year, 5/1/16-4/15/17. He admits to ignoring some long-running series, in favor of bringing to light less familiar authors and work. So, from his list, in alphabetical order:

  • The Boy Who Escaped Paradise, by J. M. Lee, translated by Chi-Young Kim – part of a growing shelf of fiction set in North Korea—home base for alternative facts—where the mechanisms of the state purposefully distort the lives, minds, and hearts of the people. Gil-mo has escaped, following an adventurous trail through several countries. Now he sits wounded in a New York City jail cell, while the authorities try to answer the question, is he a murderer and a terrorist or a mathematical genius?
  • Celine, by Peter Heller – Celine is nearly 70, a private investigator with an oxygen tank, who specializes in missing persons. A “captivating, brainy, and funny tale” full of suspense, it’s set in the beautifully described Yosemite National Park. As in so many investigations, her quest is for more secrets than the fate of a nature photographer presumed killed by a grizzly.
  • Dark Side of the Moon, by Les Wood – Ott compares the zingy dialog of this novel about the theft of a diamond to that of Donald E. Westlake (author of the classic jewel-theft caper, The Hot Rock). It’s told from the  point of view of one of Glasgow’s notorious crime lords. Wood honed his crime-writing skills concocting detection challenges as a teaching tool for his physiology students at Glasgow Caledonia University.
  • Darktown, by Thomas Mullen – Set in post-World War II Atlanta, the story follows an unauthorized murder investigation by two newly hired black cops, at a time when “one-quarter of Atlanta policemen were, in fact, members of the Ku Klux Klan,” said Mullen in an NPR interview. They were supposed to patrol only the black neighborhoods, many of whose residents “saw them as toothless sellouts.” This story of men under pressure is already in line to become a television series.
  • Let the Devil Out, by Bill Loehfelm – “The most compelling, complex patrol cop in the genre” is Loehfelm’s New Orleans rookie Maureen Coughlin, on the trail of a white supremacist militia. This is Loehfelm’s fourth book featuring his smart and strong protagonist, with the gritty, corrupt, fascinating city of New Orleans her frowzled co-star.
  • Razor Girl, by Carl Hiassen – another laugh-out-loud story displaying “Hiaasen’s skewed view of a Florida slouching toward Armageddon.” The super-cool Merry Mansfield may be a scammer, whose trade is phony auto accidents, but when she rear-ends the rental car of the agent to a TV reality star, a high-profile mess ensues, richly peopled with Florida characters, including disgraced detective Andrew Yancy, eager to redeem himself.
  • Revolver, by Duane Swierczynski – Set in 1965, 1995, and 2015, this three-generation crime story is a “bleak, powerful tale of corruption,” Ott says, and shows how long a family will persist in trying to resolve a tragic murder. Crimespree Magazine likens the book’s style and its portrayal of the city of Philadelphia (“a character unto itself”) to the master, Dashiell Hammett.
  • What We Become, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte – In 1928, Max works ocean liners as a tango dancer with an eye for the ladies and their jewelry. Pérez-Reverte “drinks freely from many genres: historical epic, Hitchcockian thriller, and deliciously sexy love story,” Ott says. His affair with the beautiful but married Mecha Inzunza flares, then fades. Eleven years later their paths across again in France, when Max becomes involved in a risky espionage and her husband away, fighting in Spain.

Edgar Winners 2017

The Mystery Writers of America recently announced its 2017 Edgar winners. As last year, none of the nominees for “best novel” were in Ott’s list, which to me is evidence of the quantity of good writing out there. Awarded an Edgar for “best novel” was Before the Fall by Noah Hawley and for “best first novel” was Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry. Two other truly excellent novels in the latter category, reviewed here, were Dodgers by Bill Beverly and The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie.

Be sure to check out the “Book Reviews . . .” tab above to find more in the crime/mystery/thriller genre.

Salman Rushdie on The Role of the Writer

pregnant woman, reading, Kindle

photo: Ed Yourdan, creative commons license

In a Princeton talk last week, Sir Salman not only discussed the role of the novel in, as he said, “a world of lies,” but also how writers must work in the modern world.

The fast pace of today’s world suggests that literary writers cannot be too topical without risking irrelevance in the near future. Shakespeare’s plays have survived four hundred years because they were about universal human truths, even if his characters bore the names of actual historical figures.

Nor can writers choose too large a theme (“everything”) without risking violation of the human scale at which the novel form excels. Thus it may be difficult to take on large-scale issues, as noted author  Amitav Ghosh encourages literary authors to do, especially around the central challenge facing humanity today, climate change. Another way of saying this emerged in a recent Rebecca Mead profile of Margaret Atwood. “A novelist necessarily imagines the fate of individuals,” Mead says, in harmony with Rushdie. “The human condition is what the novel was made for exploring.”

Yet in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood put her characters in a story with a huge theme: radically changed power dynamics in an American society that has become a fundamentalist theocracy. Imagining such alternative realities should be the literary fiction-writer’s strength, Gawande believes. I’d love to hear the three of them discuss this issue together. I think they’d agree that, regardless of the novel’s scope, it’s the characters that make it resonate with readers.

Another feature of modern life affecting authors is the loss of space between public and private action. He said that Jane Austen’s books, though replete with soldiers, never referred to the Napoleonic wars. Nor did Dickens ever mention the British Empire. The characters in these books lived unimpeded and unaffected by world events. Such is no longer true. “The history of the United States is now the history of everywhere else,” he said. We live in a world where we are barraged by outside forces, many of which can change our lives. It is not only our character that shapes our destinies, or those elements of chance and randomness that have always entered in, but the world around us (another point of agreement with Ghosh).

Today, it seems people try to narrow their identities to one feature of themselves—Republican, feminist, Asian-American, computer nerd—which makes it harder to find common ground with others. The novel has always understood that we’re all a collection of selves, he said, and which comes to the fore depends on circumstances. I’m reminded of a conversation between Winston Churchill and portraitist Graham Sutherland in the TV series The Crown, when Churchill asks (paraphrasing here) “Are you going to paint me as a venerated statesman or as a sturdy English bulldog?” and the painter responds, “I imagine there are quite a few Churchills in there.”

Art tries to increase our awareness of what is possible for us to see and know. For that reason, artists must push the boundaries, despite inevitable opposition. Meanwhile, it’s the duty of everyone to work to protect our culture, the products of art. The power of art to outlast tyranny is great, but the power of artists, not so much, he said. They need to be defended too.

The Role of the Novel in a World of Lies

reading, apple

photo: Greg Myers, creative commons license

Last week Sir Salman Rushdie gave a humor-laced talk to a packed house at Princeton University, on a topic of profound interest to every writer and reader. In the old days, say two hundred years ago, one purpose of the novel was to “bring people the news,” he said. People who read novels learned about issues they had no direct experience or knowledge of: Charles Dickens and the exploitation of children, the impact of indifferent schooling, and the depredations of the poor-house; Harriet Beecher Stowe and slavery. (Rushdie repeated the apocryphal comment of Abraham Lincoln upon meeting Stowe, “So you’re the little woman who started this great war!”)

Today, with so many media outlets providing so many opportunities for people to get news, that purpose for novels has been supplanted. At the same time, “we,” he said—possibly meaning Princetonians, Americans, or citizens of the world—are more suspicious of the news we get. The attack on truth has gained traction because people are disillusioned with the news media; accusations of “fake news” fall on receptive ears. This, he agrees, is a dangerous development for the republic.

So what can literature do? “Should we be writing fiction when the world is full of lies?” he asked. While you can anticipate his answer, he gets there in an interesting way. He points to the Pakistani genocide of the educated class in Bangladesh shortly before the latter country’s independence, a well documented episode routinely denied by Pakistan. You may be reminded of the Armenian genocide, and the persistent Holocaust deniers. In writing about events such as that which occurred in Bangladesh, which is in Rushdie’s living memory, even “the act of remembering is politicized.” The difference between this world of lies and the novel, is that “fiction tells you it’s a lie.”

I’m watching the superb televersion of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and I find it so disturbing, so seemingly possible. Even though its underlying truth resonates, I know it flows from a work of fiction—something made up—and that it is not a reflection of objective reality as the purveyors of alt.right dogma contend with their false fictions.

Over many generations, artists (and scientists) find themselves in frequent conflict with politicians because “politicians want to control the narrative.” The more authoritarian they are, the more control they want.

Here he did not explicitly describe Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for his death, issued after publication of his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, but that dramatic episode was clearly on the minds of his audience. (In case you’ve forgotten, Rushdie went into hiding for a few years, and a further fatwa against anyone involved in the novel’s publication apparently resulted in the murder of his translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, and assassination attempts against the book’s Italian translator and its Norwegian publisher, while its Turkish translator was a likely target in an arson attack that resulted in 37 deaths.)

The current crisis in America, he said, arises out of the desire not just to control the narrative, but to totally rewrite it. The recent threats to defund the arts and public broadcasting were transparently not based on the politicians’ stated aim—cost-cutting, which was dubious on its face, since in the federal budget context, these programs are miniscule—but on a much more fundamental hostility to the arts and artistic expression.

In the end, Rushdie said, it is the arts that help us understand the culture of the past: how do we know what went on generations and millennia ago absent the writing, paintings, sculpture, architecture, and other artistic expressions of those former times? While the authorities may control the present, artists’ legacy controls what future generations will think of us.

WEDNESDAY: Rushdie and the Role of the Novelist

****The Owl Always Hunts at Night

Owl at night

photo: Jacob Spinks, creative commons license

By Samuel Bjork, translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte BarslundBjork is yet another name to add to the pantheon of Nordic Noir authors. In this second solidly written police procedural featuring Oslo detectives Holger Munch and Mia Krüger, their strong working relationship continues, even as they themselves are at risk of breaking apart.

Munch—overweight and troubled by his failed marriage—leads a team of detectives investigating the ritualistic murder of a teenage girl, whose naked body was found posed on a bed of owl feathers in a pentagram formed by the candles that surround her. The pathologist’s report reveals she was strangled and highlights the grazing to her knees and elbows, the blisters on her hands, and her emaciated condition.

This case is just too weird, and Munch reaches out to Krüger, on leave from the department for mental health reasons. Short on emotional reserves and long on intuition,  Krüger is considered practically a genius at penetrating the murky depths of a case. Though Krüger agrees to help with the investigation, she’s fighting a battle she may not win with alcohol and pills and the overwhelming desire to follow her parents and twin sister to the grave. Mia Moonbeam, as she’s nicknamed, has a dreamy quality to her thinking, that sharpens to a point whenever she focuses on a detail of the case.

Munch’s involvement in the lives of his daughter—a single mom who may have found a new love—and six-year-old granddaughter periodically brings him in painful contact with his ex-wife. One minor confusion in the book (series?), which Bjork could easily have avoided, was naming the ex-wife, daughter, and granddaughter Marianne, Miriam, and Marion.

The dead teenager, Camilla Green, had gone missing from a group home for troubled teens. In this multiple point-of-view novel, you see some of the other girls in action and know they are hiding important information—information that may put one of them at risk too.

At the book’s end, a few threads remain untied, and I don’t understand why the detectives used a character’s cell phone records—not passport control information—to establish whether he was out of the country, when those data indicate only where the phone was. The book’s setting and atmospherics were utterly convincing, though if you’re tired of the torture-of-beautiful-young-women trope, beware.

What you can easily envision is Munch’s daughter’s attraction to Ziggy, the new man in her life. He’s part of an animal rights action group that involves her longtime friend Julia and others, and the fact that he turns out to be super-rich is a pleasant bonus. But, suspicious you, you have your doubts.

A longer version of this review appeared on crimefictionlover.com, and the affiliate link is below. I received an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

****Beatlebone

John Lennon

painting by Ryan Oyer; photo: Melissa Bowman, creative commons license

By Kevin Barry – Last Friday, award-winning Irish novelist Kevin Barry was in Princeton to read from his novel Beatlebone. You may recall, as I did not, that John Lennon bought a small island off far Western Ireland and made two visits there. Beatlebone describes a fictional third visit in 1978, two years before he was murdered.

He’s being hounded by media and his own creative demons, and he just wants to get away to this unpeopled dot in the ocean, though heavily and loudly populated by gulls and terns, and slick with guano. He has a driver, Cornelius O’Grady, who began, Barry said, as a peripheral character, but as sometimes happens, became vitally important to the book. He’s John’s guide to the mysteries of Ireland, his goad, and his sounding board.

Much of the book is their dialog, which Barry delivered deliciously:

About my situation, Mr. O’Grady?

Yes?

I really don’t need a f— circus right now. The most important thing is no one knows I’m out here.

Cornelius fills his mug from a silver pot and runs his eyes about the room.

John, he says, half the newspapermen in Dublin are after piling onto the Westport train.

Oh for f—sake!

But we aren’t beat yet. The train’s an hour till it’s in. We’ll throw a shape lively.

The lack of punctuation requires a little extra reader attention, but it isn’t difficult to follow. What you have is a surreal picture of a 38-year-old man who’s known incredible highs and inevitable lows, seen-all, done-all, who just needs to get out from under the weight of himself for a while. He’s a creative genius tied up in his own knots. On the island, he hopes to find inspiration for his next great album, Beatlebone.

I asked Barry how he captured Lennon’s voice. He said it was a real job of work and it took him about a year. He listened to and transcribed an awful lot of You-Tube videos. Lennon “could go from light to dark, from playful to paranoia, all in one sentence.” And because readers of the book are likely to have some sense of Lennon’s manner of speaking, that voice had to be convincing. And, he said, “the difficulty of the project created part of the attraction.” That perverse Irish nature at work, bringing us gifts.

As Steve Earle said in a laudatory review in The New York Times, “Only a literary beast, a daredevil wholly convinced he was put on this planet to write, would ever or should ever attempt to cast a person as iconic as John Lennon as a character in a tale of his own invention.”

Kevin Barry’s previous novels have all won awards, and Beatlebone won the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize for literature that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities for the novel form.” Although he lives in County Sligo, currently he’s teaching creative writing as the Burns Scholar at Boston College. His presentation was part of the fine series sponsored by Princeton University’s Fund for Irish Studies.

***Freefall

cyberspace

photo: openDemocracy, creative commons license

By Brian Lutterman – Pen Wilkinson has appeared in two previous books in this contemporary amateur sleuth series, and author Lutterman gets points for creating a protagonist who uses a wheelchair. Pen has solid contacts in law enforcement and strings she can pull when she needs investigatory assistance, but everyday issues are a challenge. Lutterman acknowledges the practical aspects of her disability, as well as its impact on her relationships with others.

Pen lost her mobility as an adult, the result of an auto accident, so is acutely aware of how people treat her differently than before. Fine, empathetic work. Pen is a get-on-with-it kind of gal and, at least in this novel, has come to terms with her situation.

Pen was driving when the accident occurred, and her sister’s young daughter was killed. Although she was not held responsible, she blames herself. And so, apparently, does the girl’s mother, Pen’s older sister Marsha. The rupture between them has brought to the surface Marsha’s longstanding resentment of Pen, and guilt over this resentment has led to hostility. Now Marsha needs Pen.

About a year before the book begins, Marsha’s son Kenny, a computer prodigy, left Marsha’s Tampa home to live with his father and stepmother. He then convinced them to move to Minneapolis. Why people would leave sunny Florida for the notorious icy winters of Minnesota, Marsha can’t understand and no one has adequately explained. Now Kenny has gone missing.

Given the settings he’s chosen—Minnesota and Tampa—Lutterman had considerable opportunity to explore how such vastly different urban cultures shape people and events, but this story could have played out just about anywhere, only changing the street names.

Pen agrees to help find him, since the police—and his father—seem unconcerned. It appears Kenny was doing some hacking for a mysterious person called Z. Z is well known to Pen’s old friends in the banking industry for a string of ransomware exploits, but has been strangely quiet of late. The book takes advantage of the growing appreciation of the vulnerability of systems and institutions to cybercrime, financial institutions in particular.

This is a multiple point-of-view novel, and you know Z is planning something big. The risks to Kenny are coming from at least two directions, since Z believes Kenny is expendable and a highly trained team of mercenaries is on his trail.

Lutterman’s complex plot is peopled by members of the Russian mafia, the mercenaries, the hackers, banking insiders, the FBI and local law enforcement, plus Kenny’s friends and family. Many of them are not behaving as Pen would expect them to. Yet she repeatedly arrives at conclusions without much indication of how she reached them.

If you like cybercrime plots and don’t think too hard about it, Lutterman’s fast-paced story will carry you forward. However, the book would greatly benefit from more realistic dialog. The heart of the book is Pen, Lutterman’s captivating protagonist, dealing with her significant challenges and urgent desire to reconnect her family.

A longer version of this review appeared in CrimeFictionLover.com.

Breadcrumbs – By Vicki Weisfeld

farm, snow, winter

(photo: M Pincus, creative commons license)

Why would a city girl like Becky Tailor—that was what she called herself when I met her—give up a life in Washington, D.C., for one here in the sticks? No movies, no museums, and a library the size of a mini-mart? In D.C., she was a teacher at an exclusive private academy. Why would she move to a community whose schools can barely afford textbooks? And take a typing-and-filing job in a three-lawyer office specializing in matrimonial fiascos?

Easy answer: her husband.

How sweet. She gave up everything to be with her man.

Nope. She gave up everything to get away from him.

As a Michigan state trooper, I hear a lot of crazy stories. So the night she came in, I mostly listened.

Becky told me she moved to this flat part of southwest Michigan because it’s so different from life inside the Washington Beltway. On her way out here, she spent one night in a motel where she cut her hair and dyed it black, threw away her contact lenses, and put on a baggy Salvation Army trench coat and cowboy boots that made her look taller. Around town now, she looks like everybody else.

She said her closest family is her mother and younger sister June. She’s almost never in touch with them. She said, “Mom and June understand the only way I can be safe is if no one knows where I am, and they’d rather believe I’m safe than have me calling every week.”

I could see Becky was telling me all this because she was desperate. But did I think she might be a little nutty? You bet.

Here’s what she told me.

Becky met Kevin Arthur in college. Her name was Laura Getz then. Surrounded by his fraternity brothers, Kevin was always laughing and joking. She saw a future full of high spirits and good friends with a man who said he couldn’t live without her. So, in 2011, they graduated from the University of Maryland one week and tied the knot the next.

They were still receiving wedding presents when Becky started to notice little things, rough patches. She tried to explain them away by thinking Kevin was in a bad mood, had a hard day, or drank a couple beers too many. Not until later did she understand they were the early signs of a pattern.

She said, “At first I was flattered this handsome guy wanted to spend so much time with me, but, actually, he wanted me to spend all my time with him, so he did that thing of gradually cutting me off from my friends.” He insisted they move from College Park to the far western edge of Georgetown, telling Becky this was “for his work,” even though it gave him a longer commute—an hour on a good day—from home out to Ft. Meade and the NSA. He told her his work was top secret, high-stress, vital. No details, and it was a trump card he played whenever he wanted to.

According to her, they ate at home every night. “If I suggested we invite someone over, he always had some reason we couldn’t. His job mostly.” So, while Becky’s college friends developed traditions of Friday nights out and Sunday potluck brunches, she and Kevin were never part of that. “Right after dinner, I had to clean up. A dish sitting in the sink or even in the drainer drove him crazy. Everything had to be put away, all the time, like the house was ready for inspection.”

One Saturday when he was heading over to Ft. Meade, she volunteered to drop him off so she could take the car to visit a friend.

“I need the car,” he said.

“But I want to see Megan’s new house.”

“I need the car.”

“She’s my best friend, and we missed her wedding.”

“I said, I need the car.” She said he got flat calm in a way that scared her more than if he was yelling at her.

“OK. Then I’ll take the Metro.”

He slapped her then, and his fraternity ring hit her cheekbone so hard tears came to her eyes, though she was too angry to cry.

After he left she looked in the mirror and realized she couldn’t go. Not looking like that, the side of her face swollen, and a thick red welt on her cheek.

I nodded, dreading to hear what came next.

Before things got too bad, three young teachers at her school sat her down for a heart-to-heart. They wouldn’t listen to her excuses, and they gave her a list of warning signs that would tell her whether she was in danger. Over the next weekend, with that list fresh in her mind, she saw all the signs.

I suggested Becky take a break in her story at this point, and fetched her a cup of coffee from the machine in the lounge. How Michigan State Police coffee manages to be both disgustingly weak and incredibly bitter is one of life’s mysteries. Didn’t matter to Becky. She cradled the hot paper cup as if it might help her hands stop shaking. We drank a lot of coffee that evening, while I got most of the story from her—not in this orderly, sort-of-chronological way, of course.

“After Kevin put me in the hospital the first time,” she said, “I followed the teachers’ advice and packed my ‘emergency bag.’ But he was very contrite, the sex was still good, and I hoped things would get better.”

Oh, here we go, I thought.

A few weeks later, Kevin found that bag. This time he took her to George Washington University Hospital. He said he didn’t like the care she’d gotten at Georgetown, but she knew he was afraid the emergency staff would recognize them. Like before, he said she’d fallen down some stairs.

“The emergency department nurse tried to get me to say what really happened, and so did the doctor. They sent Kevin out and said they’d call the police for me, but I just couldn’t. The doctor looked exasperated and stalked out, though he sent in a woman doctor who held my hand and urged me to trust her. I appreciated what she was trying to do, but I could hear Kevin across the room, complaining they were keeping him away from his wife. He was yelling at the staff, but his words were for me. ‘My wife.’”

Becky went home with him again and started back to work. On her lunch breaks, she had long conversations with her mother and sister using a new phone she’d bought. Paid cash. She went to a women’s shelter for help with paperwork and got a fake i.d. in a new name. She didn’t pack a bag again, but whittled down what she planned to take with her to five things, one of which was the phone.

“About a month after that second hospital visit, I told Kevin I had an awful headache and would have to call in sick. He said he’d stay home with me. He went to the kitchen to fix me some tea, and I made myself throw up in our bed. When he came back, I was crying and covered in vomit, and he decided he needed to go to work after all.

“I watched him drive away, then I cleaned up and put on some old clothes he’d never miss. I  left all my makeup and prescriptions, put a few things in a plastic grocery store bag—no one should see me leaving with a suitcase—walked out of the townhouse and disappeared.”

Because of Kevin’s job she was afraid he could find her if she made the smallest mistake. From my perspective in law enforcement, what I see as time goes on, I figured she was right. Then she asked a question that pierced my cop’s heart and my woman’s heart too:

“Am I safer, day-by-day, or is he one day closer to finding me?”

Here are the mistakes Becky didn’t make. She had a credit card in her new name for identification purposes, but she paid cash for everything. A wallet full of cash, with more from her mother, was another thing she brought with her. The car was the biggest thing. Her sister arranged for her to have an old Toyota that had belonged to her in-laws in Vermont. Becky’s fake i.d. would have been good enough to get her into a bar in College Park, and the notary public who approved the title change didn’t look too close.

Her employers here in town—the lawyers Gardiner, Gardiner, and Lee—helped with the really hard stuff: a new birth certificate so she could get a real Michigan driver’s license and insurance in her new name. Before she left Washington, Becky went back to the hospitals that treated her injuries and got copies of her records and a letter from the doctor who wanted her to call the police. This documentation of abuse was the fourth thing she brought with her.

It took Social Security a couple of weeks, but she got a new number. This is a small town, with a small-town bank. With her new job and the Social, she opened a checking account. She just had to remember to sign her checks “Becky Tailor.”

She stayed away from public places and didn’t eat in restaurants, because people always have their phone cameras out. Those pictures go on Facebook and Tumblr and Instagram. “I wouldn’t put it past Kevin to try to run the NSA’s facial recognition software on some massive basis,” she told me.

She didn’t keep any papers with either name at the Michigan house. Any papers she needed to keep went into a safe deposit box, and her mail went to a post office box. She never did anything personal on the computers at work, and when she needed a computer for herself, she stopped in at the library. Used the library’s shredder, too.

She didn’t pursue any of her former interests. She didn’t join a skating club, contribute to Save the Tigers, subscribe to a knitting magazine, take yoga classes, or buy stuff online.

“He’s probably set up a computer program to look for every scrap of information about people who have my interests. There’s maybe tens of thousands of them. Add in my age, and he could cut that list way down. If he assumed no kids, the number shrinks again. How long I’ve lived somewhere new, another big drop.” I nodded, but this level of data-mining, it’s called, is all theory to me. It works, just don’t ask me how.

Going back to teaching was out of the question. Background checks and Kevin. She described her job as “clerical,” and didn’t mention Gardiner, Gardiner, and Lee. It was no accident she was in this town, working for these lawyers. They’re law-school classmates and friends of a big national expert on spousal abuse, and they consulted with her about Becky’s situation. Finally, I started to feel a little better. I know these lawyers, though the circumstances when I met them were about the worst I’ve experienced as a state cop. I doubt they’ve forgotten. I know I haven’t.

I knew Becky was going somewhere with all this. Something had spooked her, and I let her get to it her way. I knew we were making progress when she said she’d been getting a little stir-crazy a few months back.

And started taking risks, is what I figured.

A new dance school opened up in town that offered a few aerobically oriented evening classes for adults, and she signed up for Spanish dance. “The instructor really worked us, so with the dance and the yoga CD I picked up at a yard sale, I thought I could get back in shape.” She looked in shape to me—if anything, too thin—but that was worry, not fitness.

“When I was a kid, I had a little doll”—she held her hand about ten inches above the table—“who had a green polka-dot flamenco costume—Rosa. Maybe that’s why this class appealed to me.” Rosa was the last thing she took with her, her only personal item. She said Kevin would roll his eyes at the small female army occupying her bookcase. “Their frizzy hair and stained dresses violated his neat-freak standards, so he ignored them. He’d never miss my Rosita.”

My own dusty dolls sit on a cedar chest in my bedroom, so I understood where Becky was coming from. It’s innocence, cherishing it. But that is one piece of personal information I would kill to keep the men around here from knowing.

“After the first few weeks of the dance class I had to give it up. The women would always be pulling out their cell phones to video the teacher doing the steps, and with those mirror-lined walls, there was no way I wouldn’t be in their pictures.

“They said they only shared these videos with each other. OK, so video with my image is texted or emailed to a few Spanish dance students. They think that’s ‘private.’ What if one of their teenage kids finds the video and forwards it to all his friends, or posts it on Instagram or YouTube, saying ‘See what my crazy mom is up to now! Dance fail!!’” Becky said it gave her a bad feeling.

It sure gave me one.

She stopped talking, closed her eyes, and leaned back in her chair, exhausted. Keeping a lid on every single aspect of your life, 24/7, for three years takes a toll. Every time she began to feel safe, she’d see someone who looked like Kevin or a car like his or she’d get a dead-air call at the office and start dodging shadows again.

So that was Becky the night I met her: Monday, February 23. When she got home from work that day she took a look at her long driveway, six inches of new snow on top of ice on top of more ice on top of gravel, and parked down by the mailbox. It had started snowing pretty heavily around noon, and the odds of getting stuck up by the house were just too great.

She slipped and skidded as she walked up the drive. We had a heavy cloud cover and more snow coming, so it was nearly dark even though it wasn’t yet five o’clock. She had her house-key out, ready, when through the door’s half-window she saw all the way into the kitchen. The light over the sink was on. She thought she forgot to turn it off, but she hesitated. That may have saved her. She’d been in a  hurry that morning and left her coffee cup and cereal bowl next to the sink. They were gone.

Her voice trembled. “My heart started pounding, and I didn’t dare take a step. I saw the afghan I’d piled at the end of the sofa last night—neatly folded. It had to be Kevin.”

She didn’t hear any movement inside and hoped he hadn’t heard her come up. The snow muffled her footsteps, but of course she’d left plenty of tracks. She pulled a flyer about a concert at the Methodist Church out of her handbag and stuck it in the door handle. Maybe he’d think some church-lady going door-to-door made those tracks. She took off.

“I drove straight here. I didn’t go to the local police, I figured Kevin could talk his way around them, no problem.”

YBYA. Is that one of those abbreviations the kids use in texts? It ought to be. You bet.

Going back to the house was out of the question. Let me put it this way: She couldn’t have made herself do it, even if I gave her an all-clear. And, if he’d figured out where she lived, he’d know the name she was using and, possibly, where she worked, what kind of car she had, its license plate number. Her car was a problem. I drove it around in back of the post and parked it in our garage.

I called a friend in town who rents out a room or two—nothing as fancy as a B&B. Clare didn’t need much explanation—she caught on right away and said Becky could stay with her as long as she needed to. I dropped her off at the house on Glover Street, and Clare gave her a nice room in back, with a tray of dinner to follow. All good, but even better, Clare can keep a secret. I’m sure there’s stuff from high school that I still don’t know. And never will.

About ten that night I drove out to Becky’s house. Her story pushed all my buttons, and I had to keep telling myself that Becky Tailor was not Amber James.

The house was on an acre lot, heavily wooded in back, and the nearest neighbors were at least a quarter-mile away. The lights were off now and I didn’t see a car. Becky hadn’t noticed any fresh tire tracks, which meant that if Kevin was there, he’d arrived before the new snow started. Then sat in her house, waiting. Well, cleaning up and then waiting.

Did he fall asleep on her bed? Or had she forgotten she’d cleaned up and succumbed to an overdose of paranoia? I could see that happening, too.

I pulled up the drive, three tons of a Ford Utility Interceptor taking care of Becky’s footprints. I made a good job of scuffing my way to the porch too. I shoved the flyer she’d stuck in the door into my pocket—checking that for fingerprints would be too easy, and he’d have plenty of hers for comparison. I rang the bell.

With everything around dead quiet the way it is after a big snow, I heard the doorbell plain. I rang again. No movement inside, so I pulled out my flashlight and walked around back. The snow behind the house wasn’t packed into ice, and right away I saw the tire tracks crossing the yard to behind a big old shed. I would have checked it out, but a curtain moved inside the house, so I walked slowly around to the front again, waving my flashlight. I wanted to be seen, which was easy, with the clouds thinning against the half-moon and my dark uniform against the white snow. We don’t wear Smokey-the-Bear hats like troopers in some states, so I made sure the flashlight picked up the shine of my badge.

At the front door, I rang the bell again and pounded. I called out, “Mildred? You there? It’s Officer Knox. Mildred? I came by to see if your heat’s back on.” I saw a shadow move against the faint light outlining the kitchen window. “Damn electric company.”

The door flew open and a man stood there, a few inches taller than me, but lean. His sandy hair stood up in sleepy tufts, though his light eyes were sharp and ready to eviscerate my flimsy pretense for being there. One look from him, and I understood Becky’s fear.

“What the—?” he said.

“Who are YOU?” I pasted on a smile.

“This is my wife’s house.” Not in the mood for a long conversation.

“Your wife? Who’s that?”

“My wife.”

“What’s your name, sir?”

“I don’t have to tell you anything. There’s no reason for you to be here.”

“Then, what’s your wife’s name?”

He started to close the door.

“Where’s Mildred?” I said loud enough to stop him from swinging the door shut. “This is her house.”

His eyes flickered like he was thinking fast. I felt perspiration prickle under my arms, wondering whether Becky had been right when she said nothing at the house had her name on it. But I kept my impassive cop expression. Even if he knew who paid the rent on this house, I could see I’d planted a sliver of doubt about who really lived there. “Yeah,” he said, deciding to bluff it out. “My wife.”

“Mildred?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, sir, then I’ll have to ask for some identification. Because unless your wife is a 70-year-old, 350-pound black woman, this is not your wife’s house, and you have no reason to be in it. Turn on the lights, and get out your wallet.” Two can play the bluffing game. But if he’d checked out the clothes closet, I’d be busted. “Wallet.”

“In the other room.” He started moving backwards.

“Uh-huh. I’ll go with you to get it.” I pulled open the storm door, but before I could step inside, he slammed the front door shut and threw the deadbolt. I didn’t know whether his wallet was in the other room, but I was pretty damn sure his weapon was.

I was off the porch and running toward the big trees on the driveway side of the house before he could get organized. He might have expected me to return to my vehicle, but I edged around back. The trees were good cover, and so was an old chicken house. I could see his ride now, a dark-colored pick-up, but I needed to be close enough to call in the license plate. Ninety feet of open yard lay between me and it.

Right now, he couldn’t be sure where I was, but he’d spot me easy in an open-field run across that expanse of snow. It was the old dilemma: Do I call for backup and have the guys hassle me for months if it turns out to be a false alarm? Or not? I thought I knew who and what this guy was, but I couldn’t be positive. Yes, he was where he shouldn’t be, and yes, his behavior was evasive, but he hadn’t done anything really wrong. Still, I didn’t want to run across the yard to his truck. It was that bad feeling again. I called.

Meanwhile, I slipped in among the trees and watched. I’m good at waiting. Lots of people aren’t. Kevin wasn’t. He burst out the back door and ran to the woods on the other side of the house just as my ears picked up the faint wail of a siren from the direction of Niles, nearly ten minutes out.

He did just what I’d done, feinting into the trees, making it impossible for me to get off a shot—even if one were justified, which it wasn’t—with maybe twenty big oaks and a bunch of smaller stuff between us. I worked my way over to the chicken house and pulled out my gun. By this time he’d reached the pickup, and as he jumped in and got it started, I stepped out from cover. I aimed for his tires, and my slugs hit something, but didn’t slow him down. The pickup fishtailed across the yard with its lights off, skidded around my vehicle, and hit the road out front. I ran after him, but the house blocked my view, and I didn’t see which way he turned. Sounded like he went right, toward Lake Michigan and I-94. From there, Chicago or Detroit or the Turnpikes.

I couldn’t get the license plate, wasn’t sure which way he went, wasn’t sure who he was. I’d hear about this.

My fellow officers said what-the-hell, they’d been bored that evening, what with the snow keeping all the shit-for-brains people off the roads, so, no, they didn’t really mind being called out on a wild goose chase because I had an attack of nerves. Two cars showed up, so the guys had to outdo each other on what’s even worth getting nervous about. They did agree the guy’s tires had made some impressive ruts. All I could tell them was he drove a Ford F-150. Only about a thousand of them out here.

Once they got tired of rattling my chain and rolled out of there, I called Clare and told her to button up.

“OK, honey. I’ve got it.” She said she’d remind Becky to keep her curtains closed.

Later I found out she sent out Sean, her twelve-year-old, to walk their big dog and scout the neighborhood for cars with out-of-state plates or rentals and especially an F-150 with bullet wounds. Nothing. She sent him out again early the next morning, same result. I swear Becky was safer with two on-the-ball people like Clare and Sean than she would be in our lock-up.

In the morning, I shared all this with my sergeant. He said we could leave Becky’s car in our garage for now and gave me a dispensation from putting in any paperwork “for a few days.” Best we could do.  Paper—or its electronic equivalent—is a trail that could lead straight to Becky.

In the next couple of days, I drove by the house again in my own car, but saw no signs of life, nothing that would justify getting a search warrant. This was one time I actually hoped for more snow. Tracks. Sean picked up a laptop at the lawyers’ office, so Becky could work at Clare’s. They put her on a big database project that didn’t require her to communicate with them at all. No email, god forbid. Phone, either.

Becky needed more clothes, and Clare and Sean wanted to go to her house and pick some up, but I nixed that idea. What if he was around? What if he followed them back to Glover Street? So I drove the Interceptor over and pulled right up to the house. Before going in, I walked all the way around again and saw where we’d chewed up the yard pretty good the other night. No new tire tracks and no new trail of footprints leading to the house. If he was watching it, he’d be somewhere in the woods. The front yard was just lawn and across the road was a big farm field. No place there to hide.

If I felt clever before, standing at the front door and calling out “Mildred?!” I felt foolish this time. But I had to keep up the act. It might give him just a little doubt. “Millie?” Doubt might delay him a couple of seconds. “Mildred?” Seconds I might need. I tried the door. It swung open. I put Becky’s key back in my pocket.

“Hey, Mildred,” I hollered, stepping inside. “You home? Your daughter asked me to pick up some of her clothes. She’s got another court appearance tomorrow. You home?” As I talked, I took in the empty living room and peeked in the kitchen. It didn’t look like anyone had been there, but then Kevin wasn’t the kind to leave a half-eaten grilled cheese on the table.

Down the tight hallway I saw three closed doors: bedroom, bathroom, closet. I slipped my semi-automatic into my perspiring hand. I’ve never gotten used to facing the unknown and hope I never do. I had to rack that slide or my gun would be useless, and the tell-tale sound would warn anyone behind those doors to shoot first. I backstepped into the living room, hooked my foot around the leg of an end table and jerked the table over. The ceramic lamp on it hit the floor and shattered, masking the noise of gun-prep.

“Goddammit!” I hollered, and muttered loudly, “Mildred will be after me to pay for that damn lamp.” I made a brief effort to brush the tinkling pieces together with my foot then entered the hallway again. The doors on the right would be the bathroom and closet. On the left, with windows on the front of the house, the bedroom.

The bedroom seemed the most likely place he’d be, if he was there. And I’d might tip him off by opening those other doors first. Still, I’d feel better knowing he wasn’t coming up behind me. I tried the closet. I waved my flashlight around long enough to know no one was in there. One down.

Next the bathroom. I pushed the door open with my foot. It sighed, but didn’t outright squeak. Open shelves, no closet. No one behind the shower curtain. Two down.

I couldn’t hear anything over the thumping of my heart when I turned the bedroom knob. I kicked the door open all the way so no one could hide behind it and dropped into a low crouch, gun ready. Nobody. I checked that closet. Nope. I got down and looked under the bed. Nope again. Only one odd thing. In the middle of the bed stood a small doll wearing a green polka-dot flamenco dress. Rosa.

The clothes Becky wanted went into two paper grocery bags from under the kitchen sink. I tried to rearrange the hangers so that, if he came back, he might not notice some clothes were missing and realize the kind of help Becky had. Help that suggested she was still in the area. I felt Rosa’s sad little black eyes on me. I put her in a bag too.

I drove the long way back to Clare’s and was further delayed by a disabled car on U.S. 31. I waited with the driver to make sure the tow-truck arrived before she turned into a human popsicle. Anyway, leaving a woman by the side of the road just spooks me. I won’t do it. The two of us sat quietly—people don’t usually engage cops in small talk—with the Interceptor’s heat blasting. Watching trails of snow snake across the highway, I had plenty of time to be sure no one had followed me. I stopped home a minute, then drove over to Clare’s with the clothes.

“Here’s Becky’s stuff.” I handed Clare the bags. We stood in her front hall, surrounded by the wet wool smell of Sean’s hat and scarf, dangling on pegs. “Everything quiet?”

“So far. Sean takes Lucky for a long walk and checks the neighborhood three or four times a day. I’m telling you, that dog will be glad when this is over. And Sean’s also walking over to the Save-A-Lot for groceries. We don’t make a big deal of it, but I don’t want to leave her here alone.”

“You let me know if you need anything.”

“Should I see if someone from the women’s shelter at the Y would come up and talk to her? They might have some advice.”

“You mean from South Bend? I don’t know if they would. Anyway, organized programs keep records. That might be risky.”

Clare picked up her mail from the hall table and sorted it into piles as she spoke. “That’s how Amber’s ex found her, right? Through some document a homeless shelter filed with the state?”

“Yeah. She needed health insurance for the kids. Jason has bad asthma, and Big Jason, being a cop, found someone to get him into the state database. All he needed was Little Jason’s Social Security number to find out exactly where they were.”

Clare pressed her lips together and sighed. “I always liked Amber. Never thought—”

“The irony is, the state agency denied her application. She wasn’t divorced, and the family income was way too high.”

Clare gathered most of the mail and flung it into the wastebasket alongside the hall table. It looked like Becky’s situation was getting to her, too. We’d traveled this road.

I could have said, but didn’t, that I still feel Amber’s death was partly my fault. I knew Jason was losing it. Had lost it. We shared a desk, and I could feel it. As the only female trooper at the post then, I kept my mouth shut about a lot of stuff, but the way he talked about her, I should’ve seen it coming. Now she’s dead, the kids are scattered around in foster care in three counties, and he’s incarcerated. Not a safe place for a former police.

He lured her to a welfare office for a “special eligibility appointment” after hours. He drove there in a van the police had confiscated, pulled her inside it, and killed her. Amber didn’t die easy. That’s something I know all too well because, let’s just say, I picked up the pieces. I’ll never drive by that building again without thinking of her.

Kevin was in another league altogether when it came to tracking skills. With that in mind, I updated my Sergeant, and he gave me two more days. I hoped it was all I’d need.

That night,  a little past one a.m., I heard yard noises, the soft sound of snow crunching. I’d left the light on out by the barn. It reflected off that white snow like a full moon—brighter even—but it had gone out with a pop a few minutes before, and now it was as dark outside as in.

I sat on a kitchen chair in my hallway, where I could see the back door on my left and the front door on my right. I saw him try to peer in the kitchen window. It was too dark inside, and the lace curtains were closed. I’d thought I might have to spend a couple of nights like this, sitting in the chair, my 12-gauge across my knees, waiting. But Kevin—I was sure it was Kevin—was in a hurry.

Just keep on coming.

The storm door in back started to squeal and he immediately stopped moving, then gradually opened it super-slow. Now I edged into the kitchen and flattened myself against the wall facing that door, the light switch poking me between my shoulders.

The back door wasn’t locked—maybe he counted on that, we being country people and all—and he opened it so quietly, I didn’t know he’d done it until a blast of cold air gusted across the room. He eased the storm door closed behind him, and the draft stopped. He moved forward into the kitchen and hesitated, getting his bearings.

My eyes were accustomed to the dark, and I knew what I was looking at. He didn’t. I slid down the wall a couple of inches, then popped up, flipping the light switch with my shoulder. Before I fully registered that he had a gun in his hand, I fired that shotgun and ducked to the side, pumping the gun to load the next shell. For the longest three seconds of my life I expected to feel a hole blown in me somewhere. He did get off a shot, maybe because his finger twitched as he fell, which scared the wits out of me. But his aim was wild, and he made a hole in my ceiling.

When the guys got my call that included the words “shots fired,” they didn’t waste time kidding me about my last call. I hardly took my eyes off Kevin, waiting for them to arrive, but I think he was dead before he hit the floor.

 ♦

The next morning I was still feeling shaky inside. Never shot a man before, much less killed one. Naturally, I was assigned to desk duty, and Clare and one of the Gardiners took Becky to identify Kevin’s body. Clare said she practically had a nervous breakdown, the mixture of relief and regret and everything was so powerful. When they came to pick up Becky’s car, she still looked bad. I reached into my desk drawer and handed her Rosa. “I brought her with your clothes the other day, but she must have fallen out in my car.”

That being her only sentimental possession, she burst into tears again and hugged Rosa  close. For three years that poor little doll had stood in for mother and sister and every friend Becky had. Well, she could go back to them now.

Eventually, she wanted to know how he’d found her. I first-off reassured her that she’d been as careful as she could be. Except about one thing. Even though Becky thought the Spanish dance class was safe, Kevin must have missed Rosa after all. Those class videos the women thought were “private” weren’t. While I waited with Kevin’s body, I dug his phone out of his pocket and scrolled through his apps. I found one for downloading videos and took a look at his files. He had several videos from the dance class, Becky clearly visible until she hurried out of the frame. From there, well, this is a small town.

Postscript: The Powers That Be could understand me defending myself against an armed night-time intruder—thanks, Kev, for bringing that gun. If they were surprised I was so well prepared for it, they didn’t say.

Rosa standing in the middle of Becky’s bed was just too clever. I found the tracking chip in the flounces of her skirt and brought her to my house. Before I gave her back to Becky, I untaped that chip and tossed it into a big pile of slush somewhere along the highway.

When my fellow troopers congratulated me on the outcome of this case, you can bet I didn’t explain anything, since it involved dolls and dancing and high school girlfriends. Let them just think I’m lucky.

♦♦♦

“Breadcrumbs” was published in Issue 3 of the journal Betty Fedora, fall 2016. It won a 2017 Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

Cliff-Hangers: Learning from the Masters

Harold Lloyd, cliff-hangerLast Friday’s quick tips about writing cliff-hangers can help keep your reader immersed in your story. Today, here’s some of what we can learn from the masters. (Sources listed below). The Victorian novelists who published serials—like Charles Dickens—had to create chapter endings that would bring readers back the next week or month. The successful ones became experts at it.

  • Thus, clinging fast to that slight spar (her infant child) within her arms, the (dying) mother drifted out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world. Not: “She was dead.” By referencing the common fate of mankind, Dickens allies readers with the dying mother. Even in death, there is action; she is clinging and drifting.
  • And there, with an aching void in his young heart, and all outside so cold, and bare, and strange, Paul sat as if he had taken life unfurnished, and the upholsterer were never coming. Not: “What in the world was he going to do now?” Dickens gives Paul’s common dilemma an engaging and memorable treatment through a specific visual image, a metaphor for loneliness.
  • The Judge, whose eyes had gone in the general direction, recalled them, leaned back in his seat, and looked steadily at the man whose life was in his hand, as Mr. Attorney-General rose to spin the rope, grind the axe, and hammer the nails into the scaffold. Not: “Pronouncing a death sentence was never easy for him.” Dickens injects images of action, albeit fanciful—spinning, grinding, and hammering—into the reader’s mind. He doesn’t just describe the Judge’s passive mental activities: “pondering, contemplating, assessing.”
  • I put my light out, and crept into bed; and it was an uneasy bed now, and I never slept the old sound sleep in it any more. Not: “Pip tossed and turned all night.” Dickens lets you know something about Pip’s future here, but again, it is not all in his head, it’s tied to the physical reality of the light and the bed. It’s saying goodbye to childhood.

These are moments of high drama and great resonance with the reader. They are integral to the tale, not tacked-on contrivances. Note how specific they are. They contain physical actions, not just thoughts and feelings. And paradoxically, by being so specific, they achieve universality.

Modern writers don’t employ Dickens’s florid language, but they still can achieve an organic approach to cliff-hangers. By organic, I mean an ending that grows out of the story and gives it somewhere to go.

  • They respected him, stopped watching him all the time. But he never stopped watching them. (This plants a seed of menace and tells readers something important about the character.)
  • Ma snorted, her nose and chin almost meeting as she screwed up her face. “How can you sit there and look Ruth in the eye and say you searched the dale? You’ve not been near the old lead mine workings.” (Up next: lead mine workings.)
  • “You’re not a monster. Well, except when you wake up with a hangover. It’ll be fine, George,” Anne soothed him. “It’s not as if the past holds any surprises, is it?” (An almost painful foreshadowing.)

There’s a vast difference between this last example and the weak one cited previously (“she had the distinct feeling that this peace was about to be brutally shattered”). In the negative example, the author is simply reports a conclusion—head-work—of the protagonist. If readers have been paying attention to the story, they’ve already reached this same conclusion. And, if not, well, there are bigger problems . . .

By contrast, McDermid’s characters are engaged in conversation (action, not reflection). Their statements propel the story forward; readers know what the characters next will do (explore the lead mine workings) or be (surprised). They react with an Aha! Or even Uh-oh.

Don’t destroy your cliff-hanger’s value of by using it to tell readers what they already know. Let them run on out ahead of you. That’s what makes reading fun.

Sources:

The Dickens quotes, in order are from: Dombey and Son, end of Chapter 1, Dombey and Son, end of Chapter 11, A Tale of Two Cities, Book II, end Chapter 2, and Great Expectations, Chapter 18.

The modern quotes, are from: Bill Beverly, Dodgers, end Chapter 18; Val McDermid, A Place of Execution, Part 1, end Chapter 13; Ibid., Book 2, Part 1, end Chapter 3.

Better Natures vs. Worst Instincts

Clouds, storm

photo: Alias 0591, creative commons license

Were you, like me, puzzled by the preponderance of dystopian fiction in the young adult category a few years ago? I don’t know whether it started with the post-apocalyptic The Hunger Games trilogy or merely came to a head then, but it seemed adolescents couldn’t escape these bleak takes on their future world. Might they even give up on it?

Disasters, manmade or otherwise seem ever-more likely—an earthquake near the Pacific Coast,  coastal flooding up the Atlantic seaboard, asteroids hurtling toward Earth, Kim Jong-Un, the Rise of the Ultra-Nationalists. So many ways for our world to be royally screwed. In fiction at least, the frequent aftermath of calamity is a society that is, well, dystopian.

Recent analyses suggest that in the current world political climate, the political cataclysms that breed dystopias have put the genre on the rise again. Sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have increased 9500 percent since the inauguration of president Trump—and at least for a time, it topped the Amazon bestseller list.

Cory Doctorow in the April Wired argues that disasters don’t inevitably end in dystopias. “The difference between utopia and dystopia isn’t how well everything runs,” he says. “It’s about what happens when everything fails.” He suggests that here, in the nonfiction, disaster-prone post-election real world, “we’re about to find out which one we live in.” Do we respond by helping each other, or do we see survival as a zero-sum game, in which one person’s gain is another’s loss? He reminds us that, on many of the Titanic’s lifeboats, at least half the seats were empty, as people already saved did too little to help their drowning fellow passengers struggle aboard.

A dystopia can be created when we’re persuaded that our neighbors are our enemies, not our mutual saviors and responsibilities.

The belief that when the lights go out, your neighbors will come over with a shotgun—rather than the contents of their freezer so you can have a barbecue before it all spoils—isn’t just a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s a weaponized narrative. (Emphasis in the original)

Unfortunately, there’s all too much of that kind of thinking in today’s political narrative. Doctorow has thought extensively about what makes a better versus a worse future. In his new novel Walkaway (published today, affiliate link below), the questions he tackles underscore the importance of the narratives we tell ourselves. Do they lead us to work toward utopias or succumb to our worst instincts?

For Further Consideration

  • Many classic novels have described dystopias, as cautionary tales and authors’ predicates to a sentence that starts “If this keeps up . . . .” Here are 10.
  • A “spectacular” television version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale begins April 26 on Hulu.

*****Ill Will

Cemetery

photo: Andrew, creative commons license

Written by Dan Chaon – Past and present crimes haunt the two main protagonists of this beautifully crafted new literary thriller. In the present day, psychologist Dustin Tillman lives in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. One son is away at college, and his younger son, Aaron, is supposedly taking college courses locally. In truth, he and his friend Rabbit are heavy into the drug scene, and part of the story is told in Aaron’s spot-on voice.

Dustin grew up part of a closely knit family in small-town western Nebraska. Two brothers had married two sisters, and Dustin was the child of one pair, and his twin cousins Wave and Kate the daughters of the other. In addition, his parents adopted a teenager, Russell Bickers, whose previous foster family died in a fire. Rusty and Dusty.

Dusty is a dreamy, highly suggestible kid. Rusty and the twins entertain themselves with manufacturing Dusty’s memories, putting him places he hasn’t been, including him in scenes he hasn’t observed, making him not trust his own senses and memories.

Dustin’s parents are oblivious to all this, boozing and using, and the siblings may be careless about which spouse they sleep with. Early on, you learn that when Dustin was thirteen and the girls seventeen, all four parents were shot to death. Kate believed Rusty did it. Wave did not. And Dustin’s memories are, well. Thirty years later now, DNA evidence exonerates Rusty, and he’s released from prison to lurk on the fiery horizon of the story like a rising sun.

Interwoven with the exploration of these past events is a narrative about mysterious present-day deaths. Dusty’s patient Aqil Ozorowski—a police officer on medical leave—is obsessed with the accidental drowning of a series of male college students. Over a period of years, young men’s bodies have been found in lakes and rivers of the Midwest, some with what Ozorowski deems significant dates of death, like 10/10/10. The authorities are frustratingly unconcerned, saying the students simply fell into the water, drunk, but Ozorowski rails at the lack of proper investigation. Eventually he inveigles Dustin in some unofficial research.

Aaron thinks his dad is a fool. The whole family mocks the “astral traveling” when Dustin’s attention just . . . goes. Dustin suffered bouts of sleepwalking after his family’s murders, and in some respects, he still sleepwalks through life. Chaon typographically expresses the tendency of minds to wander, through blanks in the middle of         You get the idea. After a while, this technique establishes a dreamy disconnect that seems not just real, but really dangerous.

Chaon is a widely praised short story writer and was a National Book Award finalist for an early collection. He has no trouble here sustaining interest in the actions and fates of his fascinating, flawed characters. If you tire of thrillers where the characters are no deeper than the page they’re written on, you’ll find this richly presented family a welcome change.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com. You can order a copy with the affiliate link below.