*****Robicheaux

Bayou, Louisiana, swamp

photo: Bart Everson, creative commons license

By James Lee Burke – For an American story setting that immediately and richly evokes a colorful geographic, cultural, moral, and culinary milieu, it’s hard to beat the hot, humid Cajun country of southern Louisiana. James Lee Burke has made Iberia Parish the primary home for his literary works, and it continues to serve him well. This new novel is his twenty-first featuring now semi-retired but perpetually on-call sheriff’s detective Dave Robicheaux.

If you’re a fan, you will expect Burke’s newest crime fiction to serve up a gumbo thick with oddball characters, history, philosophy, current crises, people trying to do right, and others not caring to. You won’t be disappointed. From corruption to an unhinged serial killer, this book has it all.

At the outset of the story, most of which is told by Dave in first person, he sees the ghosts of Confederate soldiers marching through the swamp. The scene enables a meditation on mortality, a reexamination of grief over his wife Molly’s death in an automobile crash, and a way to get at truths “that have less to do with the dead than the awareness (that life is) a continuum in which all time occurs at once, like a dream inside the mind of God.” Heavy stuff for a man soon to be facing some nightmarish characters more likely spawned by the devil’s imagination. Burke’s Acadiana is a place where you can believe in such things.

About the plot, suffice it to say that it is complex, with perhaps four main threads that Dave must tease apart and reweave into a coherent set of motives and opportunities. An unexpected subplot involves Dave’s daughter Alafair (the name of Burke’s real-life daughter), a mystery writer (again, as in real life).

Although the narrative follows Dave Robicheaux through the steps of his investigations, to call this a police procedural would shortchange the essence of the book. It more resembles a philosophical probe of the circumstances in which crimes can occur. An example are two of Burke’s quintessential Louisiana characters, sons of old southern families, who are deeply involved in the story’s events: Jimmy Nightingale and Levon Broussard.

Dave notes “an existential difference between the two families. For the Nightingales, manners and morality were interchangeable. For Levon Broussard and his ancestors, honor was a religion, . . . the kind of mind-set associated with a Templar Knight or pilots in the Japanese air force.” Such reflections on the psyches of his characters provide the sense that you’re reading about living, breathing individuals, with all their baggage and capacity for the unexpected.

As the mayhem of the story winds down, Dave’s best friend gives his assessment of their situation in south Louisiana: “There’re no safe places anymore. Everyone knows that except you.”

 

Hollywood in the White House

LBJ - Harrelson

Woody Harrelson as LBJ (2017)

Most of the time, Hollywood moguls and the pols inside the Washington Beltway hold each other “in mutual contempt,” said film historian Max Alvarez in an entertaining talk this week at the Princeton library. Yet politicians need Hollywood’s money and clout, and filmmakers need the government for such things as copyright and First Amendment protections and favorable trade regulations. And occasionally, they look to Washington—and the White House—for juicy story lines.

Screenwriters don’t overlook our Presidents who’ve been tragic characters worthy of Shakespeare. Lincoln has been most often portrayed, with Nixon second-most. Alvarez showed three clips back-to-back from movies about our 37th President: Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, and Kevin Spacey in the comedy Elvis and Nixon. Hopkins was the smarmiest, Langella the most tightly wound, and Spacey (I know, I know)—hilarious.

At least until recently, films about presidents and the presidency mostly flopped at the box office, and early on, not many were made. There was a bit of a burst in World War II, in films that had a propaganda message. If a president did appear in these early films, he was an upstanding, respected figure. That’s sure changed.

Alvarez suggested that because Presidents Kennedy and Clinton were younger and “cooler,” the creative types in Hollywood were drawn to material that included a president or presidential candidate in the early 60s and again in the 90s. (Note that the industry insider—Ronald Reagan—did not spark such ideas.) Television contributed, too, with 156 episodes of The West Wing from 1999 to 2006. Now we have Veep.

The movies have stopped treating presidents as paragons, with Wag the Dog, Primary Colors, Absolute Power, and Clear and Present Danger examples Alvarez cited. Why the shift? A scene from the Netflix program The Crown suggests an answer. In an episode set in 1957, Lord Altrincham, a small-time newspaper publisher, editorializes against Queen Elizabeth for being priggish and out of touch. In a meeting with her, he explains that the root of the problem is that, since the war, everything has changed, but the monarchy hasn’t. “What’s changed?” she asks, and he replies, “Deference.”

House-of-Cards

Kevin Spacey’s bloody hands in House of Cards.

Does exposure to charismatic, but dysfunctional characters on, say, House of Cards (not to mention such shows as Dexter, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men) normalize dysfunctional behavior? Alvarez thinks it may. Not that we have to go to the cinema or watch tv for that.

From the Department of Free Association . . .

. . . and so we have this recent Atlantic article about how continued exposure to the perfidies of the current administration is causing ‘outrage fatigue.’ Say it isn’t so.

 

****White Bodies

strangers-on-a-train

Farley Granger & Robert Walker, the “Strangers on a Train”

By Jane Robins – This is a fun read that puts a 21st century twist on the premise of the famous 1951 Alfred Hitchcock movie, Strangers on a Train. That’s the one where two strangers fall into conversation and agree to murder a person of the other’s choosing. They convince themselves that, since there is nothing to connect murderer and victim, the crimes will be easy to get away with. Right.

But, how would you effect such an anonymous encounter today? Where would you look for such a willing accomplice? The Internet, of course! “The internet is where psychos find each other,” says character Tilda. And Robins makes good use of the strengths and weaknesses of social media in crafting her tale.

The protagonist in this London-based domestic thriller is Callie—a bit socially awkward, insecure about her looks (and everything else), a librarian. The relationship between her and her glamorous twin sister Tilda is explored in both the current time and a succession of flashbacks. Callie increasingly believes that “the perfect man” Tilda has become involved with—the wealthy, handsome, larger-than-life and more than a bit obsessive-compulsive American, Felix Nordberg—is actually quite dangerous.

Desperate to help Tilda, Callie becomes involved with a website called controllingmen.com, where all the classic signs of a relationship headed toward abuse are spelled out, just the way she sees them in Tilda and Felix’s relationship.

But Tilda dismisses her sister’s concerns, and you’ll understand Callie’s bafflement at how to proceed without creating a rift between them. At times you may want to wring her neck for the way she can’t stop herself from blurting out her suspicions. Moreover, she can’t seem to see how her obsession with Tilda and Felix is interfering with her own life.

We know from the first pages that Felix is dead. But was he murdered? The medical examiner says he died from natural causes. Although I thought I understood how Felix died, I hadn’t reckoned with Jane Robins’s diabolical imagination. I had to reread some of the last bits to be sure I understood the extent of the duplicity. That sense of something happening behind the scenes that I hadn’t quite grasped really kept the pages turning.

Robins has written several true-crime and non-fiction books and has a straightforward style that is a nice counterpoint to the emotions rampaging through Callie, and every one of the main characters in White Bodies is believable.

As a side note, a disadvantage to book reviewing is the “promotional cover.” The White Bodies review copy bore a temporary cover with a quote in tall, all-capital scarlet letters, “Everyone wants someone murdered.” Not the kind of thing you can put on an empty train seat beside you for a stranger to see.

****The Missing Girl

junk shop

photo: anyjazz65, creative commons license

Written by Jenny Quintana – In this debut psychological thriller, narrator Anna Flores returns to England after her mother’s death to do what needs to be done—quickly—before returning to her life she’s made in sunny Greece. The gloom and wet of approaching winter practically seep into her bones, and making her escape turns out to be much more difficult than she hopes. And, like all villages (at least in mysteries!), Anna’s childhood home has its dark secrets.

She finds herself burdened by the house and all its memory-filled contents, the divestiture of her father’s second-hand shop, the House of Flores, the encounters with friends and neighbors from her youth.  Though she has been away for three decades, the house, the shop, the people remind her incessantly about the one thing she will not find: her sister Gabriella.

Anna was 12 and her sister 15 in the autumn of 1982 when Gabriella disappeared without a trace. The chapters alternate between the current day and the year Gabriella went missing. You don’t learn much about the decades in between; it’s as if Anna’s life went on pause when she lost her sister.

Anna’s mother, who had been a so-so manager of the shop after her husband’s death, has inexplicably contracted to do a house clearance for Lemon Tree Cottage, a dwelling with painful memories for Anna. In part out of guilt over abandoning her mother for so long, she resolves, with some reluctance, to finish up this last job for her.

Quintana gets the psychology of the piece just right: the dynamic between the two girls, Anna’s adoration of her sister and obsession with finding her, the differing relationships the girls have with their parents, the grief that haunts them after Gabriella disappears, and the lengths Anna will go to in order to deny the possibility Gabriella is dead. The voice of the youthful Anna and the 40-year-old Anna are handled believably.

Long after the police gave up the search, little Anna persisted. One focus of her ill-conceived investigations was Lemon Tree Cottage and its mysterious occupants. Now, decades later, she has a chance to go through every scrap of belongings from the cottage, and she is drawn back into her researches, knowing and expecting she will find nothing.

Quintana has a smooth, absorbing writing style that carries you deeper and deeper into the complicated past of the Flores family. Instead of graphic violence, she chooses to explore the long tail of evil.

****The Underground Railroad

Cotton

photo: Kimberly Vardeman, creative commons license

By Colson Whitehead – I was glad my book group chose this winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, which made the longlist for the Man Booker Prize AND was chosen by Oprah’s Book Club. I searched vainly for hours for the photo I’d seen of President Obama carrying it. Thinking he too had read it also gladdened my heart.

Now that I’ve actually read it, I am triply gladdened. Certainly it raises painful issues and reminders of our country’s difficult history (Make America Great Again?). Those issues are worth confronting repeatedly and anew, society-wide, and as individuals who read books. Their consequences are still with us and all around us. The Civil Rights era did not erase the past, confer respect or opportunity on all our fellow-citizens, or assure a conflict-free future, just as giving women the vote did not solve the problems of inequality and sexual harassment for women.

The experiences of Whitehead’s protagonist, the slave Cora (Cora was an alternative name for the goddess Persephone, queen of the underworld; or was Whitehead thinking “heart”?), property of a cotton plantation-owning family in Georgia, are not unfamiliar. Yet Whitehead gives his writing an immediacy that powers the story forward and makes it painfully fresh, as Cora encounters one difficulty after another. Her mother is the only slave to have successfully escaped the Randall Plantation, and Cora, alternately admiring her mother’s gumption and hating her for her abandonment, is determined, somehow, to follow her.

In a device best termed magical realism, Whitehead’s underground railroad is a real railroad. It runs in darkened tunnels and has rails and locomotives. Yet, this initially awkward metaphor brings the actual conditions of slave escape to light in a new way, when we learn it’s a railroad with no fixed schedule, uncertain destinations, and ambiguity about whether routes or stations are even open.

As it’s usually used, the term “underground railroad” conjures what we know about railroads and timetables and reliably running trains and certainties at the other end of the line. In Whitehead’s metaphor, those certainties are upended. If a stationmaster has been found out, a station may be closed. And he is gone. Whether he was black or white, helping a runaway slave was deadly business.

Whitehead’s writing is straightforward, yet evocative: “Cora didn’t know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.”

Not unexpectedly, America comes in for some sharp criticism for the discrepancy between its high ideals and low practices—not only slavery, but also the massacre and theft of American Indian lands. To someone like Cora and her friend Caesar, core American notions of equality and justice were irrelevant to their lived reality. “All men are created equal,” the white man thinks, “unless we decide you are not a man.”

A year ago, Amazon announced plans for a mini-series based on this book. It may be true to the book, but who knows? The book pulls no punches, and reading it is a much more complicated experience than learning Cora’s story.

****Stasi Child

Berlin Wall

photo: Department of Defense

By David Young, narrated by Julia Barrie – In a sense every person in this novel is a candidate to be the “Stasi Child” of this book’s title, so pervasive is the influence, the spying, and the danger posed by the Stasi, the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic. This is Cold War fiction at its most chilling.

Not even Karin Müller, the book’s main protagonist, a detective in the murder squad of East Berlin’s Kripo, is exempt. (The Kripo is the nickname for the Kriminalpolizei.) In fact, she is very much in the Stasi’s sights for several reasons. Closest to home, her math teacher husband has been fraternizing with “fascist elements,” risking a spell in jail, or worse. Already he was sent for a time to teach at a remote youth detention center as a warning. One he hasn’t heeded.

Mysteriously, detective Müller has been called on to investigate the death of a teenage girl whose body was found in a cemetery at the foot of the Berlin Wall. Dead bodies near the wall were not uncommon in winter 1975, when the story is set, as would-be escapees were shot on sight, but it appears this girl was shot in the back while attempting to escape into East Germany, not out of it.

The case is a minefield of political elements, as well. Müller is told that Stasi agent Klaus Jäger will actually be in charge of the investigation, though Müller and her Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner will do the work. Moreover, their remit is confined to discovering the girl’s identity, not seeking to find out who murdered her.

Whether the Stasi knows they are violating the terms of their assignment, whether they know she and Tilsner have been indiscreet, whether her husband is in jeopardy—everything could become a threat. Author David Young is an expert at ramping up these tensions, with one or two too many twists and turns nearing the end.

Interwoven with the chapters about the investigation are first-person chapters, set seven months earlier, told from the point of view of Irma Behrendt, a fifteen-year-old inmate at the youth work camp where Müller’s husband was sent. She dreams of escape and wants to take her best friend with her. It would be dangerous, of course, but desperation breeds courage. Eventually, the two narratives converge. Irma’s tale has been, all along, vital backstory.

With a female protagonist and first-person narrator, Julia Barrie was chosen to narrate the audiobook. Perhaps to give the many male characters distinctive audio personalities in her lower registers, she pitched Karin’s and Irma’s voices rather high. That sort of works for Irma—she’s young, after all—but not for Karin. She sounds too light, too immature, not forceful enough to be heading a murder squad. A benefit of audio is that Barrie handled all those multisyllabic German words with admirable ease.

 

Can Robots Write Science Fiction?

pen, writing

photosteve101, creative commons license

Canadian writer Stephen Marche presented the results of his recent experience with “algorithm-guided” writing in a short story published recently in Wired (December 2017). The algorithm was developed by the research team of Adam Hammond and Julian Brooke, who use big data to illuminate linguistic issues. We know automated processes have been writing newspaper stories for some time, so far only basic business and sports stories, using a program developed by another Hammond, Kris. But pure creative work, Lit-ra-ture?

In a nutshell, Marche collected 50 science fiction short stories he admires and gave them to the researchers. Their software analyzed the stories for style and structure, then gave Marche information on what they have in common.

Could this advice help him write a better story?

The analysts first presented Marche with style guidelines to bring the new story he was writing into closer sync with his 50 favorites. Examples of such general guidelines are:

  • There have to be four speaking characters
  • 26% of the text has to be dialog

From there, the analysts developed 14 very specific rules to govern the new story’s content. The usefulness of the rules, though, depended totally on the 50 stories he selected. One rule encouraged greater use of adverbs and even set a quota for the number of adverbs needed in every 100 words of text. That rule probably reflects that, among the 50 stories, were several from decades ago, when adverbs were less frowned upon by editorial tastemakers. Choosing only contemporary stories would probably eliminate that prescription.

Similarly, another rule limited the amount of dialog that should come from female characters—another artifact of an earlier era, one hopes. This, even though the late Ursula K. LeGuin’s story “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” was included and stories written by women divide dialog almost equally between male and female characters. Those by men (at least the ones he close) clearly do not. Marche was limited to 16.1%.

What did the algorithm “think” of his story?

Marche wrote a draft of his story, submitted it to his electronic critique group of one, and began to revise. As he worked on it, the software flagged areas—words even—in red or purple where Marche violated the rules, turning green when he fixed it properly. (Sounds soul-crushing, doesn’t it?) Marche says, “My number of literary words was apparently too high, so I had to go through the story replacing words like scarlet with words like red.”

I particularly admire Rule Number Six: “Include a pivotal scene in which a group of people escape from a building at night at high speed in a high tech vehicle made of metal and glass.” Could authors reverse-engineer these rules to help them avoid cliché situations and themes? Would it be possible to violate all of them, consistently? Bring new meaning to the phrase “purple prose”?

Submitted to two real-life editors, Marche’s story was panned as full of unnecessary detail (those adverbs again) and implausible dialog—I guess because the women didn’t speak—and pegged as “pedestrian” and “not writerly.”

Marche’s human editor was more upbeat: “The fact that it’s really not that bad is kind of remarkable.” You can read the results here and decide for yourself. But the fact the software could be helpful at all has me watching my back!

***The End of Lies

lock

photo: pug50, creative commons license

By Andrew Barrett – “How can you tell if you’re lying to yourself?” this crime thriller begins, and it’s a good question. Middle-aged protagonist Becky, a librarian and the first-person narrator of the story, and her husband Chris, a police investigator in the north of England, appear to have been lying to themselves for some time.

In Andrew Barrett’s telling, Becky and Chris have been planning a crime, if not a perfect crime, one they think they can pull off, that will allow them to escape to a well-heeled retirement somewhere warm. To accomplish this, Chris will sell a stolen list of police informants to a notorious crime boss, appropriately named Savage. The high likelihood such a scheme could go wrong in any number of ways hasn’t prevented their planning from proceeding apace. That is, until Becky arrives home one day and finds Chris dead on the living room floor and a team of gangsters ransacking their house.

The gangsters want the informants list, Becky’s tears suggest she wants her husband back, and her best friend Sienna is there to help. Becky learns that Chris received half of his £2 million payoff up-front, but where’s the money now? And where’s the list? If Becky doesn’t find one or the other—from her point of view, preferably both—she is promised a gruesome death.

This is one of those “things can’t get any worse, can they?” stories, in which they always do, and author Barrett provides it with a loudly ticking clock. Becky has one week to find the goods or be torn about by trucks, in a technologically advanced version of that classic British punishment for treason, drawing and quartering, though without the drawing part or, perhaps in a concession to modern sensibilities, the disembowelment.

Becky is an unusual character. Though she understandably works hard to meet the criminal’s demands, her behavior is erratic. She cries often, and she’s foul-mouthed and profane in a way not generally associated with librarianhood. (Read more about convincing female investigators here.)

If you like crime novels of the fast-paced, page-turner variety, you may want to join Barrett’s many fans. He’s a Yorkshire Crime Scene Investigator, who’s written almost a dozen previous novels in two series featuring CSIs. The End of Lies is a standalone and his first psychological thriller.

****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!