****They All Fall Down

caramelized sugar

photo: Serene Vannoy, creative commons license

By Tammy Cohen – Hannah is a new patient in a women’s low-security psychiatric facility called The Meadows outside London, the result of an incident Cohen takes some time to reveal.

In the several weeks before this psychological thriller opens, two of the facility’s dozen or so patients have committed suicide. In fact, the first line is, “Charlie cut her wrists last week with a shard of caramelized sugar.” Hannah doesn’t believe Charlie killed herself. She believes both of the so-called suicides were murder. But who will believe her?

Most of the short chapters are told in either Hannah’s first-person point of view or that of her mother Corinne, in third-person. Corinne isn’t sure what to make of Hannah’s accusations. She wants to believe her daughter, but Hannah’s done some strange things lately that weaken her credibility.

At the same time, Corinne is desperate to believe her daughter is safe at The Meadows. And the director, Dr. Oliver Roberts, and the art therapist, the supportive Laura, as well as most of the other staff seem capable and conscientious, don’t they? Are these people who they say they are? Their contention that their patients are high-risk, with histories of suicide attempts, never quite reassures her.

Author Cohen has assembled an interesting group of patients: Odelle, thin as a stick with serious eating disorders; Stella, whose otherworldly appearance results from too many cosmetic surgeries, including removal of a rib to achieve a smaller waistline; and Judith, who says she’s just being “honest” when she makes her intentionally cruel remarks. As events unfold and confidences are shared, these patients form a kind of lamenting Greek chorus.

The characters are mostly well developed; however, it was jarring when the patients’ ages would be mentioned. They were in their mid-thirties or so (Hannah is 32), but they came across like teenagers. Perhaps this is because they are highly dependent, vulnerable personalities.

Throw into the mix a lurking filmmaker and his cameraman working on a “fly-on-the-wall” documentary. The filmmakers were a nice touch (with the director Justin “doused in self-absorption like cheap cologne”), since an underlying theme of the book is perception. What does the “neutral” eye of the camera perceive? What do each of the characters perceive about each other, and do they trust each others’ perceptions—they certainly share doubts about Hannah’s—and does she even trust her own?

In general, the writing style is effective and the pace is good and varied. Cohen uses cliffhangers to keep you reading “one more chapter”—mysterious items and messages turn up in the hospital, a red baby hat on Corinne’s doorstep. Eventually these are all explained, but the repeated technique begins to feel artificial. On the whole, an intriguing psychological thriller.

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

Where Are Your Story’s Characters?

road trip, map, travel

photo: rabi w, creative commons license

Occasionally a book review will comment on the strong sense of place an author has evoked, so much so that the city or country almost becomes another character in the story.

Many details about the way a place looks, feels, smells, and how its denizens behave make up that reader impression.It starts with a clear—or clearly imagined—geography. Get the bones of the place right and you can attach all those memorable details to it. Create geographic confusion, and your reader may be lost.

I love maps, so imagine my delight to discover a kindred spirit in author Barbara O’Neal,  who wrote a fascinating Writer Unboxed essay titled “The Complex Power of Mapping the World of Your Novel.” It isn’t surprising that many science fiction and fantasy writers who create “new worlds” create physical maps of these places as a writing aid. My two novels-in-progress are set in real places—places I’ve been—and yet I rely on numerous maps, both paper and electronic, to plot my characters’ actions. O’Neal has connected with other writers who also need “that physical representation of the world of our imaginations,” she wrote.

Some authors go so far as to create a map on the flyleaf of a book–or on the back cover as in a “locked room” mystery I recently read—to keep the reader in the picture. That book, Hake Talbot’s The Rim of the Pit, contained a map of the grounds as well as the layout of rooms in the hunting lodge.

Why It Matters

Without a firm sense of place, fantasy authors risk confusing their readers, but my readers would be writing angry letters: “You should know it’s impossible to walk from the Piazza del Popolo to the Colosseum in Ten Minutes!?” Either problem distracts the reader from the story and diminishes its believability. And it is a problem because, as author consultant Chris Roerden explains, “We humans have a primal need to orient ourselves in our surroundings.”

We’ve lost something with GPS giving us a mostly narrow view of where we’re going and what we need to do next in order to get there. The “big picture” orientation a full-sized map provides is gone. (I laughed when I read a millennial’s observation that some of his co-workers use GPS to get to the office and home again, every day.)

O’Neal cites a growing body of research that shows our brains are wired to ensure we have a connection to places—“to be oriented, very intricately, to place, time, and thus, emotion.” The blind child Marie-Laure in Anthony Doerr’s magical All the Light We Cannot See navigates the physical world through the map that exists in her imagination. How her father taught her that map was Doerr’s powerful evocation of finding her place—literally and metaphorically—in the world.

The maps O’Neal creates in parallel with her fiction, like the reference points I establish for my characters, help us establish a consistent geography, are the first step in establishing a strong sense of place, which is, she says, “one of the most powerful parts of writing.”

Further Resources

American Nations by Colin Woodard – maps eleven cultural strains in U.S. history and politics; fascinating! Great insights for establishing “sense of place.”
Don’t Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden – helpful guidance and refresher for authors; winner of an Agatha Award for best non-fiction

How to Write: Chair, Door, Goal . . . Truth

typing

photo: Kiran Foster, creative commons license

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft describes how this mega-best-selling author became a writer. Along the way, he gives common sense advice about writing that benefit anyone seriously interested in becoming a better author. The process he follows is just the start, and here it is.

Like most people who dispense advice to the novice, he emphasizes the virtue of writing every day, despite the pull of other responsibilities and distractions. Otherwise, he says, “the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people . . . the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade.” The excitement King talks about is what gets me out of bed every morning before six.

He also insists that you shut the office door, “your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business.” Eliminate distractions—phones, beeping email alerts, insistent cats—anything that takes you away from the page. In my case, cats.

Goals are important, King thinks, and he tries to write 10 pages a day—about 2000 words. I’m a fan of powering through and getting a completed draft. I try not to get mired in all the inevitable issues and lapses and problems, but fix them in rewrite. Maybe make a note of them, if I see them, so my mind lets them go, and I can move on.

Ass-in-chair, closed door, goal. Adhering to these basics, King believes, makes writing easier over time. “Don’t wait for the muse to come,” he says, write. So many would-be authors talk to me about needing inspiration, as if it sprinkles down from the clouds rather than up from the mind’s carefully plowed field. King says, “Your job is make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day.”

By the time we’re adults, lots of other people’s words, many not very good, have passed into our brains from books, tv, and movies. When a phrase or scene comes too easily for me, almost unconsciously, my mind is simply replaying someone else’s words—they’re not original any more. In my story, they’re false.

So now King gets to the hard part. You have to tell the truth. Your story’s truth. “The job of fiction,” he says, “is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies.” Even when we love the characters in a book and we really, really don’t want it to end, if the book has told the truth, we feel satisfied when we turn that last page.

Despite how hard it may be to find and express a story’s truth, King says that even the worst three hours he ever spent writing “were still pretty damned good.”

***The Force

NYPD Detective badgeBy Don Winslow, narrated by Dion Graham – For a while yet, perhaps every gritty, noir cop story set in urban America will be compared with the television series The Wire in terms of realism, character development, and sheer storytelling power. (Dion Graham, who narrates the audio version of Don Winslow’s much-anticipated new cop tale played a state’s attorney in that series.)

In both stories, the stultifying and morally questionable “powers that be” come up against a loose cannon Irish cop. In this case, Detective First Grade Denny Malone whose turf is Manhattan North, which includes Harlem and the Upper West Side. Malone, a chief detective on the Manhattan North Special Task Force—“da Force”—is a king. “Malone and the Task Force, they weren’t just any cops on the Job. You got thirty-eight thousand wearing blue, Denny Malone and his guys were the 1 percent of the 1 percent of the 1 percent—the smartest, the toughest, the quickest, the bravest, the best, the baddest.” So it’s no surprise that all manner of people want to take him down.

Winslow’s novel starts with a spectacular heroin bust Malone and his team make, and the consequences of that flow through the city, the justice system, and the lives and careers of all his characters. The essential question of the book is, whom do you trust? And Malone questions even himself.

A good cop novel is a thing of beauty. It shows every side of human nature; people struggling against poverty, the odds, themselves; the human comedy and life’s tragedies; bold acts of selfless heroism; and, often, a meticulous deconstruction of how high-minded public servants go bad. This novel has all that.

Expectations for The Force are high. Winslow’s 2015 exposé of drug trafficking, The Cartel, was excellent. His plots snare and bind his characters ever more tightly. The main characters—not only Malone, but his partners—his best friend Phil Russo and Bill Montague, a.k.a. Big Monty—are people you want to root for, so what if they’re a little dirty?

Winslow shows how corruption works, in detail, from the inside. That’s why it’s puzzling that he brings the key officials together for a scene near the end of the book in which Malone climbs up on a soapbox and recites their malefactions. The author tended toward preachiness in The Cartel too, but there it seemed warranted, since so many Americans are oblivious to the problems he exposed.

But readers of The Force likely know plenty about official corruption. For starters, Winslow has just spent more than four hundred pages showing it to them. Bleak as The Wire was, some cops tried to do the right things the right way; some characters redeemed themselves after grievous errors; some city institutions actually tried to make life better for citizens. In The Force, everyone is compromised. Some good can only be accomplished by doing a lot of bad. While you may believe widespread corruption exists, it takes a high level of cynicism to think it is the only social force at work. This book should have been better.

Dion Graham’s narration provides distinct voices, good humor, and an urgent delivery that carried me through to the end, which probably would have been a little harder to accomplish in the print version. The book itself was a disappointment. An author of Winslow’s stature and gifts could have done better.

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

****Fateful Mornings

police car

photo: Highway Patrol Images, creative commons license

By Tom Bouman – Henry Farrell is the lone policeman who patrols the back roads of Wild Thyme township in rural northeastern Pennsylvania.

Mostly his job isn’t too demanding. He can park his vehicle and spend time enjoying the local lakes and forests without anyone much missing him. He can even take on an illegal after-hours job. He helps dismantle old barns and salvage the wood for new barns designed by his best friend, word-working genius Ed Brennan.

In Bouman’s fine descriptions of Henry’s world, you can just about smell the trees and ponds along with Henry, who narrates most chapters. In Henry and several other principal characters in this rural noir novel, Bouman has created well-rounded, complex individuals. Henry also plays fiddle in a roots music trio, for example.

These bucolic images coexist uneasily alongside the dirty business of hydraulic fracking and the even dirtier practice of drug dealing, which are ravaging the natural and human resources of Wild Thyme. As a result, law enforcement in the township is about to face some serious challenges. At first, it’s an uptick in burglaries and motor vehicle accidents, which Henry attributes to the rise in drug abuse.

But then a young woman goes missing. Penny Pellings is a sometimes heroin user who lives in a trailer with her boyfriend. The pair has lost custody of their infant daughter. Though they want her back, they aren’t on a road that can lead to that outcome.

The search for Penny Pellings requires the casting of a rather wide net, which takes Henry out of his jurisdiction. He has a thoughtful, amiable demeanor that helps him interact well with nearby departments that have many more resources than he does in Wild Thyme. So many crime novels focus on the turf battles and stonewalling between police agencies, it’s refreshing to see real cooperation.

Investigating Penny’s fate is an almost geological endeavor. Each layer excavated reveals another, with its own mysteries. In the end, the resolution of her story seems almost secondary to the 360-degree picture of the community of Wild Thyme that the author has created.

Bouman won an Edgar Award in 2015 for his first novel, Dry Bones in the Valley, also featuring Henry Farrell.

A longer version of this review appeared recently on CrimeFictionLover.com.

Beach Reads for Shark Week!

shark, graffiti

photo: Alexis LêQuôc, creative commons license

We’re in the middle of Shark Week, and it’s prime season for heading to the shore. Beach vacations deserve beach reads. If you read the true story Close to Shore, you may decide to get your excitement sitting under an umbrella with your book and a piña colada, leaving the swimming to others. Even if it’s a staycation this year, these authors will leave you feeling sand in your shoes.

  • Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916 by Michael Capuzzo – from before New Jersey’s sharks congregated at the state house—reportedly an inspiration for Jaws
  • Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard – a West Palm Beach/Miami stewardess tries to secure her fortune ahead of the Feds and the mob—made into the film Jackie Brown
  • Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen – down in the Florida Keys, Hiaasen’s typically hilarious collection of oddballs comes together after a faked auto accident
  • The Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn – northern California surfing legends and an unsolved murder
  • Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon – sheer craziness with SoCal beach-dweller and P.I. Doc Sportello, who works in a marijuana haze with a 60s soundtrack—the movie is impenetrable
  • The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers – 1920s Hawai`i, Charlie Chan, and the murder of a proper Bostonian—an old-fashioned classic
  • The Place of Refuge by Al Tucher – the dangerous assignments for two Hawaiian police detectives converge
  • The Beach by Alex Garland – a tourist searches for Thailand’s “perfect” beach in this suspenseful tale; his mistake may be finding it

Or, if you’re into real sharks, you can name a shark, track a tagged shark’s meanderings, and see where tagged sharks have been hanging out recently (orange dots). GPS tags ping when the dorsal fin breaks the ocean’s surface.

reading

(photo: Nico Cavallotto, Creative Commons)

 

****The Nix

demonstration

photo: Pedro Lozano, creative commons license

By Nathan Hill, narrated by Ari Fliakos – A lot happens in the early pages of this multilayered novel set in the American Midwest: a woman throws a few bits of gravel at a right-wing presidential candidate; adepts play a round of the immersive multi-role-player game World of Elfscape; and untenured college professor Samuel Andreson Anderson debates how to handle plagiarizing student Laura Pottsdam.

Then the pieces start to fit. The professor is one of the gamers, indulging in his e-addiction when he should be doing something productive, like working on the book he’s contracted to write, and for which he received a healthy advance. Another piece clicks into place when Samuel meets with his impatient publisher, who reveals the gravel-thrower was his mother Faye, who abandoned her son when he was 11. If he will only write Faye’s biography—how she came to be such a dangerous radical terrorist—all will be forgiven, and he won’t have to return the advance, long-since spent.

The problem is, he knows nothing about his mother. Once he starts asking questions, though, he realizes how badly he wants some answers. At first the clues are scant. The novel spends time on Samuel’s childhood and the Norwegian legends his immigrant grandfather and mother passed on to him. The one that gave the book its title is the household spirit—the Nix—whose mission is to foil a person’s plans. The lesson of the Nix is: “Don’t trust things that are too good to be true.” Once a Nix latches onto you, it never leaves. “A person can be a Nix to another person,” his mother explains, and pretty much everyone in this book has Nixes to contend with. That includes Samuel’s best childhood friends, Bishop and his twin sister, the violin prodigy Bethany.

Samuel learns that his mother was briefly a student in Chicago in 1968, as the radicals and the Establishment prepared for the Democratic convention. For a while, his mother’s story takes over the narrative, and though her students days were short, they were filled with incident and the outsize personalities of the counterculture and its foes. Faye had a Nix too.

Jason Sheehan for NPR said the lives of both Samuel and Faye were filled with “the small mistakes that become a life’s great tragedies,” or you could just say their Nixes keep getting in the way.

With its sly and at time hilarious commentary on American culture of the Sixties and today, The Nix was chosen by numerous publications as a Notable Book of 2016. Though the book is hard to describe without becoming entangled in its richly conceived plot, it’s author Hill’s writing—“looping, run-on, wildly digressive pages,” Sheehan says—and the on-point humor that pull you in. An early scene in which the plagiarist student Laura explains why she shouldn’t be penalized for her poor performance is a LOL model of self-absorption and self-justification.

Narrator Ari Fliakos does a fine job inhabiting the characters—not just the principals, but also the entitled Laura, the self-satisfied Chicago protestors, the insufferable publisher, and the World of Elfscape-obsessed Pwnage (pronounced Pone-aj). At almost 22 hours, it is rather a long book for listening, yet I enjoyed it a lot.

Noir at the Bar: Manhattan

microphone

photo: Adam Fredie, creative commons license

I had to see for myself. Noir at the Bar (N@B) is a thing, a cultural phenomenon I’d never heard of until Canadian writer-friend June Lorraine Roberts told me about it. It’s simple in concept: crime writers occasionally get together at a local watering hole and read about ten minutes’ worth of their work to each other. I suspect the interpersonal dynamics can be more complicated.

Last Sunday, my friend Nancy K. and I met up at Shade Bar in Greenwich Village for the Manhattan N@B and found a noisy group laughing and talking. I yelled in Nancy’s ear, “Well, they are word people.” Mostly under 40, mostly male, and a notable prevalence of tattoo sleeves. We heard nine of the 11 scheduled presenters, ducking out early so I could catch the train back to Princeton.

What an entertaining evening! The quality of the presentations never let up. The authors read from printouts, books in hand, cell phones, tablets. E.A. Aymer included music (a first, we were told); Nik Korpon had memorized a piece in the style of a tent-revival preacher.

Although I had a friend in the audience (short story writer Al Tucher), the readers were all new to me, and they weren’t all from New York, coming from Washington, Baltimore, and California too. For the flavor of these events, here’s E.A. Aymer reading one of his stories at the Washington, D.C., N@B—he was the lead-off reader Sunday.

While each reader was entertaining in his own way, the most compelling for me was Danny Gardner’s gritty story about how black people in Chicago get guns. Maybe that’s because my family lives in Chicago, and I care about that city. Maybe it’s because I was in Chicago for the four-day July 4 holiday when 101 people were shot. Or maybe it’s because the story’s characters were just damn good. All three, I think.

Other readers we heard were Joe Clifford, Angel Luis Colon (Nancy won one of his books!), Rory Costello, Lee Matthew Goldberg, Nick Kolakowski, and one of the organizers of Sunday’s event, Scott Adlerberg.

Peter Rozovsky started the N@B thing about a decade ago in Philadelphia, and it has spread across this country and internationally, including to Canada and the U.K. Over the next few months June and I are going to report on conversations with some of these N@B organizers and participants about the enduring appeal of crime fiction, story trends, and the local crime writing scene.

Meanwhile, if you discover a Noir at the Bar near you, go, enjoy!

Spy Fic: “Freshly Relevant”

Spy

photo: Joshua Rappeneker, creative commons license

The old saw “truth is stranger than fiction” was never more apt than when applied to the Trump Administration. Back in February, its bull-in-the-China-shop approach to national security inspired me to create a recommended reading list—as a public service [!]—comprising a few thrillers that would illustrate how espionage works and how to behave in order to protect our country and its secrets. The books on that list provide a much more exciting and vivid curriculum than tedious daily briefings, for sure. Apparently, my post came too late for Don Jr. Ah, well, authors keep trying. And the parallels keep emerging.

Last Friday Dwyer Murphy in LitHub said he also finds spy literature “freshly relevant.” And apparently, Senator Tom Cotton agrees. Murphy’s essay, “10 Great Spy Thrillers That Could be New York Times Headlines” starts like this:

The cast of characters is almost too much to believe: a Russian pop star, a British tabloid veteran, an attorney with mysterious ties to the Kremlin, a Moscow-funded lobbyist running a White House campaign, a real estate scion married into political power, and the son of the soon-to-be President of the United States.

spy, espionage, reading

(photo: David Lytle, creative commons license)

Murphy contends that you can get “uncannily close” to the strategies and schemes filling 2017 newspapers—and understand how the U.S.-Russia relationship got to be what it was and is—all while lounging in your beach chair with some pretty exciting novels. I remember wondering what John le Carré would do after the Cold War ended. Now we know. Trot out his backlist.

Here are Murphy’s picks that I’ve read too:

  • The Ipcress File, by Len Deighton – “cynical, paranoid, and savvy”; and the 1965 Michael Caine movie was a winner too
  • Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst – The hero of this novel is caught up in the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, “a work on a grand scale”—I’m a big Furst fan.
  • The Human Factor, by Graham Greene – Like many of Furst’s books, Greene’s classic starts with the protagonist, an MI6 operative near retirement, taking a few slight actions to aid the Communists and, when he’s in too deep, finding out they have an altogether different game on. The film version had an all-star cast and a screenplay by Tom Stoppard.
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré – Murphy calls this the ne plus ultra of the Russian spy game. Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy is the favorite of other writers, including Philip Roth.
  • The English Girl, by Daniel Silva – Silva has cited this novel when discussing the Russian interference in the U.S. election. “KGB playbook 101,” he reportedly said.

If you still have room in your vacation suitcase, the other books on his list (which I have not read) are: Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews, David Downing’s Zoo Station, Mesmerized by Gayle Lynds, Martin Cruz Smith’s Tatiana, Seventeen Moments of Spring by Yulian Semyonov, and JFK’s favorite, From Russia with Love, by Ian Fleming. Read all these and you will be every bit as well prepared to manage our country’s security services as some of the people actually doing so.

****Jack the Ripper: Case Closed

Doyle and WildeBy Gyles Brandreth – London’s 1888 Whitechapel Murders have provided seemingly endless inspiration for authors’ speculation. Latest in this parade of theorists exploring the grisly deaths of five prostitutes is a former Conservative member of Britain’s Parliament, actor, and broadcaster who uses the real-life friendship between playwright Oscar Wilde and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle as his premise.

Six years after the Jack the Ripper murders, these two luminaries are brought into the investigation by another real-life character, Metropolitan Police CID Chief Constable Melville Macnaghten. Why them? Most of Macnaghten’s chief suspects are known to Wilde and, the detective says, “you are a poet, a Freemason and a man of the world. All useful qualifications for the business at hand.”

The police are resurrecting their failed investigation for several reasons. Because Macnaughten is writing a definitive report and would like to provide a conclusion. Because he wants to end speculation about the identity of the killer, which, in the absence of a definitive alternative, even occasionally extends to the late Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence and Avondale. And, because a new murder has occurred that bears all the hallmarks of a Ripper case, except that the body was found not in Whitechapel but in Chelsea. More particularly, in the alley behind Tite Street, where Wilde and Macnaghten have their homes.

Whether you fully buy into the plausibility of this notion, you cannot deny that it makes for an entertaining read, as Brandreth is able to draw on the wide and diverse acquaintanceships Wilde had among members of London society, high and low. He does a creditable job of eliminating Macnaghten’s weaker suspects—the suicide John Druitt, the spiritualist Walter Wellbeloved, and actor Richard Mansfield. He avails himself of opportunities to mention Wilde’s friend, the painter Walter Sickert, briefly considered a suspect in real life. (As evidence of the long half-life of Jack the Ripper theories, American mystery author Patricia Cornwell produced her second book attempting a case against him last February.) Brandreth then constructs a scenario in which the more unsavory suspects and some new players can cavort.

Brandreth has written six other mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde and his circle, sometimes including Doyle, and he knows his principal character and their London milieu well. If you’re familiar with Wilde’s plays, you’ll recognize various lines in the witty epigrams he’s constantly spouting. Brandreth liberally butters the narrative with other literary allusions as well. There’s even a character named Bunbury, and you know what happened to him.

As to the clever resolution and identification of “the real Jack,” this may not be so satisfactory. The motivation is weak and the method (which I cannot reveal as it would be a spoiler) is now discredited, though it was thought effective in the Victorian era. These issues, which would be serious in a contemporary crime thriller, are almost beside the point in this book. It’s a case of the journey being more important—and entertaining—than the destination.