****Swing Time

Swing Time, children dancing

photo: cavalier 92, creative commons license

By Zadie Smith – Yes, I do read good books that are not crime fiction, and this is one of them! The term “frenemies” could have been coined to describe the long relationship between the book’s unnamed first-person narrator and Tracey, drawn together by being the only mixed-race children in a dance class. They meet, play, pirouette, and study in council housing in North London.Tracey is the talented one, accepted into a selective performing arts program, her future seemingly assured.

“Unnamed, unsure, neither black nor white, the narrator is fittingly indistinct in this brilliant novel about the illusions of identity,” said Annalisa Quinn in an NPR review. The story swings back and forth between present-day events and flashbacks about the girls’ childhood, their growing up, and their sporadic encounters over the years. Later the narrator sees her in minor roles in classic musicals—Guys and Dolls, Show Boat, ironically—before her career fades from view.

The dance theme is present throughout, a universal uniting characters through time and across cultures: “a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any age may recognize him. Picasso would be incomprehensible to Rembrandt, but Nijinsky would understand Michael Jackson.” Late in the book, dance even becomes a weapon.

The narrator, meanwhile, has landed what seems like a plum job: assistant to Australian pop star Aimee. Aimee and her team divide their time between London and New York. Aimee’s peripatetic lifestyle, kids and nannies in tow, means perpetual rootlessness for the narrator, a disconnect not just from her past—her childhood friend, her parents—but also from a future of her own.

Aimee gets the notion to establish a girls’ school in rural West Africa, and some of the novel’s most heartfelt passages involve the narrator’s yearning to connect with the Africans and the disconnect between the rich pop star and her entourage and the people she wants to help. Aimee’s motives are genuinely kindly, but implementing them on the ground is far more complicated than she imagines.

The narrator certainly is a perceptive observer, but will she grab hold of life and learn to dance to her own tune?

Fictional Female Investigators

Helen Mirren, Jane Tennison

Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison channeling Hamlet

“A bit of a boys’ club,” says Kristen Lepionka about the place of women detectives in the world of crime fiction. In her new novel, The Last Place You Look, she took on the task of creating a credible female private investigator and immediately discovered the female point of view involves “much more than just a difference of chromosomes.”

Women’s life experiences, and their interaction with crime (either as police, private investigators, or  amateur detectives) is just so different from men’s. In detective fiction, she says, they battle “rampant sexism, being underestimated, excluded, and harassed.” Oh, and they also must solve cases.

This lesson is oh-so-clear to me having just read a crime novel with a female protagonist, written by a man, which would have been much better had he named his main character, say, Sam instead of Samantha, and recognized he was writing a man. This character never seemed like a woman to me, though he gave her one annoying trait meant to symbolize the feminine sensibility. Every other page, she started crying.

Lepionka created a list of ten fictional female detectives she thinks really work and they’re written by both men and women. From her list, I’ve read books featuring: Antoinette Conway (a character created by Tana French); Alex Morrow (Denise Mina); and Smilla Jasperson (Peter Høeg). To her list, I’d add Nikki Liska (Tami Hoag), Maisie Dobbs (Jacqueline Winspear), and Karin Müller (David Young). And, never forget Lynda LaPlante’s development of feisty, put-upon DCI Jane Tennison: “Don’t call me Ma’am; I’m not the bloody queen.” Now I’m excited to read crime-master Michael Connelly’s new book, The Late Show—his first to feature female detective Renée Ballard. Can he do as well as he does with Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller?

Thirty-five years ago, Sara Peretsky faced the same issues as Lepionka in creating her iconic female detective, V.I. Warshawski. In a recent LitHub essay, she describes imagining a new type of detective, one who would be “neither victim nor vamp,” one “who would reflect the experience of my generation . . . who could have a sex life without it defining them as wicked. Women who could solve their own problems.”

Peretsky took her character’s ardent spirit a step further. In 1986, speaking at a conference on “Women in the Mystery,” she spoke out about the disturbing increase in explicit violence and sadism against women. Her remarks fell on receptive ears, coinciding with growing awareness of women writers’ ignored role in the mystery/crime genre, despite the continuing quality of their work. Thus was the organization Sisters in Crime—of which I am a member—born.

Not that essays like these nor a single organization can overcome all the ingrained attitudes and expectations. Perhaps it isn’t a surprise that the same new book I mentioned above with the weak female characterization includes a graphic, sadistic, and totally unnecessary threat to the investigator. More work to do. Write on!

***Know Me Now

Scottish Highlands

Scottish Highlands photo by Paul Wordingham, creative commons license

By CJ Carver – This is the third in a crime thriller series featuring former MI5 operative Dan Forrester and Yorkshire-area Detective Constable Lucy Davies. It takes place in the Scottish highlands, where, as a youth, Dan spent his summer vacations. His father and three university friends reunited there each year, and their four children, all approximately the same age, grew up together.

The children now have well-established careers of their own. Gustav created a clinic in Isterberg, Germany; Christopher took up genetic engineering of superstrains of rice and has a lab near Duncaid; audacious former-tomboy Sophie does something for the government in London; and Dan joined MI5. Although this rundown suggests a large number of core characters, Carver does a good job of making them distinct enough to avoid confusion.

Though Christopher and his wife are having a rough patch, their situation grows tragically worse when their thirteen-year-old son Connor dies, in what the police seem too hasty in labeling a suicide. Dan persuades his friend Lucy to take a few days off and join him in Duncaid to look into the case. Carver does such a good job describing the damp, oppressive, grey highland atmosphere, you may feel compelled to put on a jumper—or two—while you ponder why a doctor’s patients are dying too young.

Then news arrives that Dan’s father has been murdered in Germany. The unlikely coincidence that two family members of this tight-knit group died within days of each other strikes them all. What is the connection? Someone is determined that Dan not discover it, and his probing soon puts himself, his wife, and his newborn son at risk. In light of the very tangible threats, his motivation for continuing to investigate—and some of the other characters’ motivations as well—aren’t as believable as they might be.

Lucy has a form of synesthesia, and in situations of high emotion sees certain colors. She’s a bit of an oddball, trying to hide what she views as dysfunctions in her personality. Dan also has a quirk, in that his memory has gaping holes from his past work with MI5. Although Carver tends to provide a dump of backstory about characters that becomes a drag on the narrative, I wish she’d more fully explored these two interesting mental conditions, which could bear strongly on Lucy and Dan’s ability to do their work, for good or ill.

This entry into the crowded Scottish crime fiction field (Tartan Noir!) employs a straightforward, clear style, and the plot clicks right along. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for literary flourishes and subtext, which the book lacks, and it includes perhaps a few too many coincidences. However, it raises questions about biomedical technology and its possibilities well worth thoughtful consideration.

30-Second Book Reviews

book gift

photo: pixabay

My book reviews have lagged behind my reading ever since this website was down for a month in September. I’ll never catch up! This week and next you’ll get brief reviews of a few books to inspire your holiday shopping. One good thing about books as gifts—they’re easy to wrap!

P.S. If you click on links here to buy any of these books, as an Amazon affiliate, I receive a penny (or so).

Non-Fiction

Once in a Great City by David Maraniss – For the history-lovers on your list, here’s a fascinating social history of my home town, Detroit, in the pivotal 18 months from fall 1962 to spring 1964, when forces were at work that would shape the city irrevocably. Some were invisible, some were not seen. Pulitzer-Prize-winner Maraniss starts his 2015 book with the conflagration that destroyed the Ford Rotunda—a structure first built for the 1934 Chicago Exposition—where every fall my family and thousands of others went to preview the new Ford models and where every December I sat on Santa’s lap. It was a shocking loss, incomprehensible to me at the time, and a lesson transience. The first of many. His discussions of the auto industry and the stellar success of the Mustang, Detroit’s role in the nascent Civil Rights movement, the rise of Motown, and so much else captures “the precarious balance” of that era, in which the fate of a great American city hung.

The Ford Rotunda

photo: wikimedia

Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life by Sarah Kaminsky – Kaminsky’s daughter has told her father’s story as his first-person account, and it is fascinating (featured on 60 Minutes this past October). An Argentinian Jew in Paris during World War II, a peculiar set of experiences prepared him to help the French Resistance provide identity documents for people on the run from the Nazis. He quickly expanded his skills and, working in secret, prepared forged papers that saved the lives of thousands. After the war, he did similar work for Algerian freedom fighters, then other leftist movements over a thirty-year career. He never took any money for this work, instead supporting himself—hardly making ends meet—through his photography. It’s an nerve-wracking tale, in which every day, every transaction held the risk of betrayal and imprisonment, or worse. If people on your holiday list gravitate to inspirational, heroic stories, Kaminsky’s your man.

Short Crime Stories

Black Cat Mystery Magazine – It’s always exciting to see a new publication, and issue #1 of BCMM suggests this will become a good one. For its debut, the editors played it safe by requesting submissions from some of the country’s leading mystery/crime short story authors. The result is a knockout! I particularly enjoyed the sly humor of many of the authors—including Alan Orloff, Josh Pachter, Meg Opperman, and Barb Goffman, whose story is appropriately titled, “Crazy Cat Lady.”

Just to Watch Them Die – This collection, “inspired by the songs of Johnny Cash,” is grittier than Black Cat, and the connection to the songs is at times somewhat tenuous. Quite a few are set in Cash country, south and west. If you have Cash fans on your list, they’ll appreciate the homage.

Switchblade – This is the collection for anyone on your list who thinks they have it bad. These are stories about people so down on their luck the reader’s situation perceptibly brightens. I couldn’t help but think of Dennis Lehane’s distinction between tragedy and noir. In tragedy, he’s said, the hero falls from a great height (think Macbeth). In noir, he falls from the curb. Lots of curb-falling here. Maybe just the thing for a grousing in-law.

****Kompromat

newspaper headlines

CC BY-SA HonestReporting.com, flickr/caseydavid

By Stanley Johnson – If you’re one of the millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic who look back on the elections of 2016 and say, to yourself or at the top of your lungs, “What just happened?” this satirical new political thriller is for you.

Its characters are such thinly disguised versions of today’s leading political figures, you can be forgiven for thinking you’ve inadvertently picked up a recent copy of The Times. Much-needed is the list of its many characters—from the US, Russia, Germany, China, various other countries, four “key animals” and, most numerous of all, leaders of the UK. “Kompromat” is a Russian word—a portmanteau meaning compromising material, and in this novel—as, possibly, in real life—most of these countries hold plenty of it on each other.

As the book opens, a 2016 US presidential candidate is participating in an international wildlife expedition that hopes to radio-collar a tiger. Events go wrong almost immediately. The candidate ends up in a hospital where the Russians plant a bug in his body. The CIA, ever on the ball, figures this out, and replaces it with their own bug. And they’re not the only ones. By the book’s end, America’s new president unwittingly has unwittingly become another “Voice of America.”

Meanwhile, the British have problems of their own. Its Secretary of State for the Environment is approached by the Russians, who have singled him out as a leading light of the “Eurosceptic wing” of the Conservative Party. He learns the Prime Minister agreed to the Referendum on EU membership (the “Brexit” vote) for a reason no more complicated than money. Apparently, the PM believed the vote would never actually occur and, even if it did, it wouldn’t succeed, and the Party would receive money for doing nothing.

Author Johnson devises numerous amusing and convoluted scenarios in which the hapless politicians become entangled. In his scenario, these byzantine schemes are organized and carried out by the Russian Security Service—the FSB, heir to the KGB—“ to change the whole structure of international politics.” The book is not only entertaining, it makes you think “what if?” and, as more news drifts out of world capitals, perhaps “why not?”

Johnson is a former politician and member of the Conservative Party, and a former employee of the World Bank and the European Commission, who has held a number of prominent environmental posts as well as being an environmental activist. In the time preceding the Brexit vote, he co-chaired Environmentalists for Europe. Although he’s on record as opposing the Referendum, his son Boris was a key leader of the “leavers.” The book is in development for a six-part television series too.

A Fresh Crop of Movies Based on 2017 Books

Los Angeles, Hollywood

photo: James Gubera, creative commons license

I wish a bang-up movie would be made from James Joyce’s Ulysses, so I could watch it and no longer feel guilty I’ve never read this nearly 700-page classic. OK, I’m a heretic.

As for lesser works, this same time-saving compulsion makes me glad Paula Hawkins’s new book, Into the Water, is among the 2017 novels being prepped for the tv or the movies. Having seen the film of her so-so debut, The Girl on the Train, I don’t want to spend more than two hours on the new story, if that.

Shayna Murphy in the BookBub Blog has compiled a list of 22 recent books en route to screens large and small. No surprise that Stephen King’s 700+ page Sleeping Beauties, written with his younger son Owen, is on the list, despite tepid reviews. Ditto James Patterson and David Ellis’s Black Book, whose protagonists and plot Kirkus Reviews deemed “more memorable than Patterson’s managed in quite a while.”

I’m delighted that Reese Witherspoon’s production company snapped up Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere for television. Like her remarkable earlier mystery, Everything I Never Told You, it’s about family secrets under the deceptively placid surface of suburbia. I’m also excited about plans for a movie of Artemis—another futuristic tale by Andy Weir, whose book The Martian translated so effectively to film in 2015—and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, set in our Civil War past, which won this year’s Man Booker Prize. I hope Hollywood doesn’t make a hash of them.

Some critics considered Don Winslow’s disappointing book The Force to have been a victim of early interest in making a movie out of it. The characters turned to cardboard and the complexity of his much better The Cartel went out the window. In his story, Manhattan reveals itself to be top-to-bottom corrupt, unbelievably so. And, yes, that movie is coming 3/1/19. Maybe playwright David Mamet can save it.

Two fine literary authors are in the movie mix: Alice McDermott for The Ninth Hour and Jennifer Egan for Manhattan Beach. About this book, Alexandra Schwartz writes that, to Egan, 9/11 felt “like the end of something—the United States’ sense of itself as king of the world” and the new book, set in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 40s, was a backwards look to “what was the beginning of that something.” My book group loved Fredrik Backman’s A Man called Ove, which I didn’t have a chance to read (or see on film), and now a television series is planned for his book, Beartown.

All in all, some tantalizing screen-time coming up.

A Mysterious Affair & the Ur-Story

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

Last Saturday the Princeton Arts Council hosted an afternoon conference featuring an impressive gang of mystery and crime writers who ply their trade between New York and Philadelphia. A first of its kind, in my memory at least, it drew around a hundred writers and readers and fans.

Panels talked about writing stories set in a region—does it matter whether you’ve actually been there? Or, when is Google Earth not enough?—and stories where the author can’t have been there, because they’re set in a different historical time—how much research do you really need? Even stories set in the future, in the case of some thrillers—is research even important? Don’t you just make it up?

Audience members asked the burning question: how do people react when the find out you write about murder? And, while this prompted some humorous replies, in fact, most people are fascinated. They often say they would like to write a mystery themselves, though few end up doing it. Panelists encouraged them to. As to how they manage writing, other jobs, families, and so on, panelist Jeff Cohen (who writes as E.J. Copperman) had the best reply: “If you can swing it, it helps to have a wife with a full-time job.”

Guest of Honor S. J. Rozan, a mystery writer with 15 novels, more than 60 short stories, and  multiple awards on her c.v., gave the keynote. She talked about how genre writers—crime (including mystery and thrillers), romance, Westerns, science fiction, and she’d include coming-of-age—are still disparaged as “not literature,” yet remain wildly popular.

Why is that? She said genre writing can be distinguished by having an ur-story, a fundamental story line. Readers (and moviegoers) expect and take comfort in those ur-stories and in their very predictability, and writers violate the established genre conventions at their peril. The ur-story in the romance genre is “love conquers all”; in science fiction, it’s “what it is to be human.” Mysteries and thrillers, despite their uncountable variations, have ur-stories too, she maintains. In mystery, it’s “here’s why this happened”—attractive in a world where so much seems inexplicable—and in thrillers, it’s “is there time?” This last manifests itself in the frequently encountered literal “ticking clock” that thriller protagonists are trying to beat.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell maintained there is a single ur-story underlying all fiction, ancient to 21c. This has led to the “hero’s journey” school of story construction, in which a protagonist is marched through a call to adventure, begins a quest, overcomes trials, brings home the goods, and so on. That fundamental storyline can be detected in Rozan’s more descriptive genre-specific ur-stories. Whatever it is, however it’s aggregated or subdivided, we love hearing and seeing the ur-story over and over in books, on stage, and in the movies.

The event, sponsored by Princeton’s Cloak & Dagger bookstore, was co-hosted by the local chapters of two organizations I belong to: Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime.

*****The Never-Open Desert Diner

Utah Highway

photo: Bhanu Tadinada, creative commons license

By James Anderson – This debut novel is masterfully travels a remote strip of high desert highway to all the important destinations of the human heart. Recommended by the fine folks at Scottsdale’s Poisoned Pen bookshop, it checks a lot of genre boxes. It isn’t typical crime fiction, though there are crimes in it. It has a nice dose of both mystery and romance. It’s inescapably a Western, as it takes place in a desolate section of Utah. The one genre it doesn’t draw from is science fiction, though strange things certainly do happen out there in the back of beyond.

I would put this unforgettable 2015 book on my short list of “must-reads.” Reviewer Patrick Anderson in The Washington Post calls it “outstanding in every regard—writing, plot, dialogue, suspense, humor, a vivid sense of place.” Agreed, whole-heartedly.

Ben Jones owns a business as a short-haul truck driver whose route takes him back and forth along a hundred-mile stretch of Utah highway 117, between Price and the fictional former coal-mining town of Rockmuse. (For purposes of the novel, Anderson has relocated this highway about 40 miles east of its IRL location.) He makes deliveries for FedEx, UPS, and other companies to the scattered residents along the route, and, if they put out a red handkerchief by the road, he stops to get their orders for goods to be delivered from town.

Anderson sets up the isolation and the harsh conditions so effectively that Ben’s description of his clients—“Such folks were a special breed”— is almost superfluous. You anticipate meeting some real characters hidden away out there, and you do. Chief among them is Walt Butterfield, owner-operator of The Well-Known Desert Diner, though locals have amended that to the more accurate “Never-Open Desert Diner.” Walt is an angry geezer who restores old motorcycles. He lost his wife years earlier after an episode with some violent customers, and the extent to which he hasn’t recovered becomes apparent only over time. Each time any of Anderson’s characters wander into a scene, something interesting happens.

Ben happens upon a barely started housing development across the road from the diner, hidden by a rise, and containing only one house. Inhabited. The woman who lives there plays a cello with no strings, except, it transpires, those of Ben’s heart. About their initial prickly contacts, Ben gives one of his typically colorful and insightful comments: “I knew from experience that if you’re about to do something you probably shouldn’t do, the best advice you can give yourself is not to think about it too long. It ruins the surprise when the worst happens.” Soon odd events begin, and the strong plot unfolds like the road in front of Ben, going toward a place not particularly desirable, but barreling toward an ending.

Ben is a likeable and perceptive narrator, with especially acute radar for bullshit. Yet he looks upon the troubled and eccentric people he encounters with a nonjudgmental, compassionate eye. He respects their desire to be left alone. All of them are struggling, him included. When the world starts to open up for him, is it real or just another desert mirage?

This is the kind of story that really couldn’t take place anywhere but in such a remote location. The isolation engenders insights as well as eccentricity. It has those quality of literary genre work that inspire closing the book for a moment for reflection and a head-nod. The lyrical language in talking about such a dusty and forlorn place elevates the story and makes it unforgettable: “The highway ahead lolled in sunlight. It was mine and it made me happy. It didn’t bother me that it was mine because no one else wanted it.”

Legends of the Undead are . . . Undead

Cemetery, gravestones

photo: John W. Schulze, creative commons license

In Chicago recently, we took a nine-year-old to a theatrical version of Dracula (playing at the Mercury Theater through November 5). “Weren’t you scared?” several audience members asked him after the show, as he was the show’s youngest audience member by many decades. “No.” This was said with deadpan aplomb. And possibly an eye-roll.

Perhaps some of the edge was off Bram Stoker’s classic because of all the much more horrifying real-life shenanigans filling the daily news, or perhaps it was because this production veered occasionally—and entertainingly—close to camp. While it wasn’t terrifying, it had good acting and nice touches. Notably, the production credits include acknowledgment of the show’s “violence and blood/gore designer.” Which gives an inkling.

When the Stoker’s tale first appeared 120 years ago, The Manchester Guardian dismissed it with almost the same nonchalance as our young theater companion. “Most of the delightful old superstitions of the past have an unhappy way of appearing limp and sickly in the glare of the later day,” the reviewer said. “Man is no longer in dread of the monstrous and the unnatural, and . . . the effect is more often grotesque than terrible.” Tell that to Ann Rice and Stephenie Meyer and the legions of other authors who continue to resurrect “the ancient legends of the were-wolf and the vampire”!

The Next Generation of Mystery/Thriller Readers

Nancy DrewThe fiction that appeals to teen readers follows certain general principles (notably, lack of adult supervision) that will sound familiar to adults who grew up with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. In retrospect, these stories of mystery and adventure may seem weak broth alongside the themes popular now.  Today’s teens seem mired in a world of hurt: dystopian novels and series, like the Hunger Games and Divergent, vampires and werewolves, and, more recently suicide narratives.

Atlantic commentator Heather Horn suggests such books, rather than fostering a dark view of the world, reflect the view our youth already have. “The young are attracted to the genre because it so perfectly mirrors their experience of the at once vibrant and sinister world of middle school and high school.” There’s a chilling thought.

Since people sat around campfires listening to stories, they’ve taken pleasure in tales of mystery and adventure. Today’s teens are reading less and less, availing themselves of fewer narratives of success and accomplishment to pattern their own lives on. Can they be drawn back to reading with good stories? With plucky protagonists who figure things out, who solve problems, who cleverly elude dangers here in the real world?

I’ve read two new novels lately that I think manage this.

****League of American Traitors

Written by Matthew Landis – This debut YA thriller is set in the modern day, with one foot firmly planted in American history. The promising (but ultimately rather far-fetched) idea underlying the story is that the descendants of American heroes (from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and World Wars I and II) belong to a shadowy group called the True Sons of Liberty, while the descendants of history’s notorious traitors belong to the equally shadowy and eponymous League of American Traitors.

When a traitor descendant turns 18, he or she will be challenged to a duel and must accept the challenge or go into a lifetime of hiding. Descendants who choose the duel and survive are free to live in peace thereafter. Author Landis keeps the teens’ interactions at a slangy and superficial level; further, some of the adult portrayals are overly stereotyped and the dialog is a touch Hollywood. For the most part, there’s little exploration of the backgrounds of the characters’ ancestors, which seems like a lost opportunity. Perhaps it will interest teens in delving further.

The book nevertheless raises thought-provoking and unexpectedly timely issues. When discussing the impact on the duelist of actually killing another person, one of the hero’s friends admonishes him, “Don’t rationalize it. That’s what the Libertines do—use honor to make murder okay.” My longer review of this book is available at CrimeFictionLover.com.

****Trell

By Dick Lehr – Inspired by the true case of a Boston preteen’s murder and the false imprisonment of a young African-American father for the crime, this compelling first-person narrative recreates the efforts of the convict’s teenage daughter to exonerate her father and vividly portrays the allies and enemies she makes along the way. A highly engaging character, Trell has grown up without a father in her life, but by sheer willpower and a growing mound of evidence convinces a has-been reporter and a dogged lawyer to join her fight. Author Lehr is a former reporter for The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team (yes, that Spotlight team), which took on the case. The father was no saint, but he wasn’t a murderer, either.