Toronto: Backdrop for Mystery

Park Bench, snow

Trang Pham, pexels license

Two very different mystery/thrillers from authors based in Canada, where everyone is supposed to be so nice. !

*****Bellevue Square

By Michael Redhill – A compelling contemporary psychological thriller set in Toronto, Bellevue Square won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award and is now out in paperback.

Narrator Jean Mason runs a downtown bookshop. When customers begin mistaking her for Ingrid—a woman they know from Kensington Market—Jean decides to track down this supposed doppelganger.

She stakes out a bench at the market’s heart, Bellevue Square, and observes the comings and goings of the folk living and trading nearby. The richly described life of the square becomes the center of the novel and of Jean’s attention. The Bellevue Square regulars are “a peculiar collection of drug addicts, scam artists, philanthropists, philosophers and vagrants.” Author Redhill gives them distinctive personalities and preoccupations that are occasionally comic, yet never cruel.

As Jean gets to know them, she likes them and they her. She lets them know she will pay for information about Ingrid and they come up with sightings and information, but should she trust it? Her husband Ian, a policeman, insists on knowing where she’s spending her days, and when she takes him there, his fresh and unsentimental eyes see a collection of loonies. “So this is how you’ve been spending your time? With these kinds of people?”

You hope Jean is successful in her quest for Ingrid, even as its likelihood dwindles. Redhill says Bellevue Square “is a literary novel but has one foot in mystery and a couple of toes in psychological thriller,” and Jean’s reality cracks and splinters around you in unique and unexpected ways. Well worth a read.

P.S. Until recently, the Bellevue Square of the novel was a real location in Toronto. In the spring of 2017, reports Redhill in his acknowledgements, the city’s Parks, Forests and Recreation division razed it. He says, “My regards to the City of Toronto for enthusiastically illustrating some of the themes in my work.”

 ***The Language of Secrets

By Ausma Zehanat Khan – Now also out in paperback, is Ausma Zehanat Khan’s second Toronto-based thriller featuring Esa Khattak,  head of the Community Policing Section, and his sergeant and chief sounding-board, Rachel Getty. As winter sets in, the Canadian authorities are trying to thwart a rumored New Year’s Day terrorist attack and Khattak’s friend, Muslim intelligence officer Mohsin Dar, has infiltrated the plotters. Then he’s murdered.

Khan vividly describes the icy, remote location where key scenes take place, as well as the cramped urban mosque where the police believe the plotters meet. Their putative ringleader is a charismatic but evasive man named Hassan Ashkouri who speaks in riddles and poetry.

Khattak is tasked with finding Dar’s killer. For personal reasons, Inspector Ciprian Coale, who heads the team trying to stop the terrorists, is determined to thwart Khattak’s investigation at every turn. He’s not above suggesting that Dar may not have been playing straight with him and hints Khattak may be equally unreliable.

Politics is thus intertwined with many aspects of this story, and every move Khattak makes is subject to political interpretation by his rivals, the news media, and the minority communities he serves. This slant on police work give his investigation an appealing timeliness. However, the author occasionally stops writing fiction in order to provide a lecture on political topics.

Khattak’s sister Ruksh has a new man in her life, one she plans to marry—coincidentally, the terrorist leader Hassan Ashkouri. In her reflexive hostility toward her older brother and her defiant determination to pursue the relationship she acts more like a sulky teenager than a grown woman. By contrast, Rachel Getty, Khattak’s sergeant, is an appealing character. Khan gives her an interesting background as a competitive hockey player with an important all-star game imminent, yet she doesn’t go to hockey practice once during the entire novel.

Although the desire to learn the fates of these characters kept me reading, Khan’s prose is murky at times; at others, she telegraphs too much, announcing, that a character just made a big mistake, for example. Show, don’t tell.

As a bottom line, this book contains unusual characters and situations that should carry you through the uneven patches in the writing.

Name That Color

DressAuthor Rowan Hisayo Buchanan asks an intriguing question about perception in her recent Catapult article, “Is the Green You See, the Green I See?” The answer to that one is “probably not,” given the 2015 social media uproar over  the question “what color is this dress?” The controversy generated some 10 million tweets, as people variously perceived a washed-out photo of a horizontally striped dress as white with gold lace or, as it really was, blue with black lace. (For the record, I’m a white-and-gold gal).

Buchanan, author of the novel Harmless Like You, describes the challenge of finding the precise term to describe a color, because it makes a great deal of difference whether a “red dress” is described as scarlet (suggesting something about the wearer) or the maroon of dried blood (suggesting something else entirely). My writing coach loves the example of an old, decaying house with shutters of “fungal green.” “Fungal” not only describes the shade of green much more exactly (I see lichen) but conveys something important about the house itself.

In my short story set during the Revolutionary War, an eight-year-old boy sees a frightened woman “go white.” But how to describe that in terms a boy of that age, education, and era would use? “White as chalk” is a cliché, “white as paper” was possibly anachronistic, parchment being ivory. I settled on “white as milk.”

Buchanan’s quest for color enlightenment led her to Sanzo Wada’s A Dictionary of Color Combinations from the 1930s, which describes hues in charmingly evocative Japanese and English. Ivory Buff in English is White Tea in Japanese. Grenadine Pink is Washed Red. And my favorite of her examples, Light Brown Drab is Plum Mouse.

Ballard consulted several other color classification books too, including Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1821) which, she says, “hoped to bring together science and art.” Out in a new facsimile edition, the publisher calls it “a charming artifact from the golden age of natural history and global exploration.” Darwin took it with him to the Galapagos.

In Werner’s, each color was given an animal, mineral, and vegetative reference. For example, Prussian Blue (one of my favorite colors) was specified as “The Beauty Spot on Wing of Mallard Drake,” “Stamen of Bluish Purple Anemone” (vague in itself), and “Blue Copper Ore,” in case you have any of that lying around. However, it does widen the field of people who can appreciate this blackish-blue color, which included the folks outfitting the Prussian Army and Vincent Van Gogh. He used it predominantly, along with other blues, when painting his “Starry Night.” Philip Kerr’s excellent thriller Prussian Blue was not referring to color, but to the compound’s use as an antidote to heavy metal poisoning. What a truckload of associations!

Tomorrow’s Post: “Color is More Than a Shade” talks about why these allusive color descriptors are important.

Your Next Thriller: Idea Goldmine

The July 2018 issue of Wired is a treasure trove of ideas for thriller writers. Here are the ones that got my creative juices flowing.

satellite 2

photo: Alexas_Fotos, creative commons license

Space Wars and Daily Life
“The Outer Limits of War,” by Garrett M. Graff, which bears the provocative subhead “a new arms race is threatening to explode—500 miles above our heads.” A parenthetical factoid declares that 14 out of the 16 “infrastructure sectors designated as critical by the Department of Homeland Security, like energy and financial services, rely on GPS for their operation.” Things you might not expect, like ATMs, cellular networks, and credit card systems depend on GPS. And the satellite array that makes GPS possible is highly vulnerable to deliberate attack, not to mention the 500,000 pieces of debris, marble-sized and up, currently orbiting earth at up to 17,000 mph.

The All-Seeing Eye
In Steven Levy’s “The Wall,” Palmer Lucky’s portable surveillance towers use radar, cameras, and communications technologies to identify moving objects up to two miles away. The virtual reality component of the system tags objects as people or coyotes. Then it reports in to those who will do something about it. Such systems would have military uses, scanning the battlefield, and are being tested at the U.S.-Mexico border. Lucky’s virtual wall would cost about one-fiftieth of the proposed 30-foot high concrete structure under consideration at the border, with all its security, wildlife disruption, aesthetic, and property infringement downsides.

Bitcoins

photo: Mike Cauldwell, creative commons license

Cryptocurrency
“The Blockchain: A Love Story; The Blockchain: A Horror Story,” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. How the Tez went bad. Leaving aside the particulars of this long piece, a good thriller writer can expertly decode the most opaque problem. So I hope you’re working on a novel about cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, so I can finally understand it.

Mission Possible?
Oh, and the Mission Impossible movie franchise technologies that have—and have not—achieved reality. Gecko gloves, yes. Covert subdermal implants, no.

That Plastic Gun Isn’t a Toy
Finally, check out this chilling video on the Wired website headlined “Legal Win Opens Pandora’s Box for Weapons.” Forget age requirements. Forget background checks. Forget gun control altogether. Thank you, DoJ.

ICYMI: American Folk Art Museum

American Folk Art MuseumThe free American Folk Art Museum at 2 Lincoln Square, shares its modestly sized space with the Manhattan temple of the Church of Latter Day Saints, across from Lincoln Center on Columbus Avenue at 66th Street. This location is one of the Museum’s two outposts. The other, in Long Island City, displays items from the permanent collection, whereas the Manhattan space has  rotating exhibitions.

When we visited recently, the exhibit was a fascinating display of “self-taught” art, along with the artists’ written commentaries about their work. Twenty-one artists from the United States and numerous other countries are represented, and the exhibition will be on display until May 27.

What the works have in common, over space and time, is the intensity and focus of the artistic vision applied. Many of the artists struggled with mental illness and art may have been a way of coping with and an expression of their challenges. Collectively, the exhibition catalog says, the artists through both their works and what they say about them demonstrate the “idiosyncratic structure of their lifelong, intricate, and nonlinear narratives.”

The first set of pencil drawings we examined, by artist James Edward Deeds, Jr. (1908-1987), was mounted so you could see both sides of the paper on which his drawings of steamboats, horse-drawn carts, and circus wagons were created. The paper on which they were created was unused forms from the state mental institution where he lived for 37 years. A few years after Deeds’s death, a curious teenager rescued the artist’s 283 drawings from the trash.

I was drawn to a display of more than a hundred 8 x 10-inch topographical drawings and paintings fitted together like a map—“Journey to Another Dimension” (photo below)—by Michigan artist Jerry Gretzinger, The full set of almost 3500 of these panels could cover the floor of a basketball court and has been shown in its entirety only once (on the floor of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). A fascinating video shows Gretzinger talking about his elaborate, random process for revising individual panels, which allows for organic change in the set.

There’s a group of 80-year-old drawings of children by Henry Darger (one is featured on the Museum website) that at first look playful until you read the captions; Spanish artist Josep Baqué’s fantastical creatures; and a pattern on paper that looks like dots. The museum conveniently offers a powerful magnifying glass to let you see the dots are very, very teensy words.

It’s fair to say that all the works were intriguing, some even startling, but perhaps not as much as the inspired minds behind them. I hope to go back regularly to see what this museum is up to! A fantastic gift shop, BTW.

Gretzinger Map

photo: Nicholas Helmholdt

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Austin Blunk, Courtney McGowan, & Vanessa Morosco; photo: Jerry Dalia

This staple of outdoor summer stages—Shakespeare’s most frequently performed play—is on view in a delightful production from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through July 30. STNJ’s annual outdoor productions are performed in the beautiful Greek amphitheatre of the College of Saint Elizabeth in Florham Park, N.J. (take cushions).

STNJ artistic director Bonnie Monte directed the production, and she must have had a very precise idea in mind, because she served as the set and costume designer as well, inspired perhaps by Shakespeare’s own words in the play:

“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream,
past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”

A Midsummer Night's Dream - 2

Felix Mayes; photo: Jerry Dalia

The sets on the outdoor stage are always fairly simple, but the costumes were knock-your-socks off. Creative recycling was the theme, with iridescent CD’s forming a glittering backdrop for both the forest outside Athens—the fairy world—and a scaly cape for fairy queen Titania. Puck was gleefully porcupinish with headgear and epaulets sprouting colorful chopsticks? pens? A bathtub was filled with wine corks. More than thirty individuals and families received recognition in the program for aid in collecting the hundreds of “items of refuse” that went into the production. This made sense, actually, fairies being notorious pilferers.

We went to a matinee where numerous children were in the audience—an outdoor theater is one venue where sitting still and silent in your seat is not an absolute requirement, particularly for a comedy. Some of the complicated plot—the two sets of characters, the two sets of lovers, the play-within-a-play—may have been difficult for the youngest audience members to follow precisely, but there was such effective physical comedy and so many hilarious touches, like the performance of Ian Hersey as the ass, Bottom, they stuck with it happily.

The cast had many suitably antic performances, including the aforementioned Hersey and Felix Mayes as Puck, Courtney McGowen as Lion, Vanessa Morosco as Titania, and all of the fancifully costumed fairies.

STNJ produces an excellent KnowTheShow guide. Call box office for tickets (973-408-5600) or email: BoxOffice@ShakespeareNJ.org

****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.

Thriller Writer Exposes U.S. Security Gaps

railway tanker carsReading up on how the nation’s security apparatus actually works would have spared the Trump Administration and several of its appointees some embarrassment in their first weeks in office. However, a failure of security imagination has a much darker and more dangerous side.

You may recall how, after 9/11, the Bush Administration’s CIA brought in Hollywood scriptwriters—professional speculators—to help them imagine terrorist scenarios. Using airplanes-as-bombs was not a new idea, not even an “unthinkable” one to thriller writers.

Right after 9/11 the momentum for developing anti-terrorism technologies was strong, some money was wasted, and some real improvements were achieved. (Here’s an excellent Atlantic article summarizing our post-9/11 security gains and gaps.) But that momentum has largely faded.

Along comes Matthew Quirk, author of the thrillers The 500, Cold Barrel Zero, and the recent Dead Man Switch, who thinks about our vulnerabilities a lot. He says, “We should spend our time and money addressing the obvious risks, not the hypothetical or concocted ones.” And he cites plenty of these risks. “I like to think my books are pretty tense, but they have nothing on reality,” he wrote recently in the Washington Post. “More than 15 years after 9/11, we have failed to take basic steps to address glaring threats that have already cost American lives.”

One example he cites are the risks from manufacturing, storing, and transporting deadly chemicals. The security of these facilities, he says, is simply “not adequately covered by the current mishmash of loophole-filled rules.” Rules facing potential rollback, it should be noted.

True security for our nation involves not just reducing our vulnerability to terrorism, of course, but also prevention and response preparation in the case of system breakdowns, emergence of new diseases, and, of course, severe droughts, flooding, wildfires, and other disruptions resulting from, oh, climate change.

The number and variety of these threats is huge, but for most Americans the most visible national security effort boils down to seizing manicure scissors from grandma during an airport screening. However, even the TSA faces significant cuts in the proposed Trump budget, with the “savings” diverted to building the wall at our southern border. The wall will neither improve security nor prevent illegal immigration. It’s a costly symbolic gesture that diverts attention and resources from real security risks.

A Failure of Imagination about Climate Change

India, dawn, village

photo: Mario Lapid, creative commons license

Will future generations look back on the people of the 21st century and think we were deranged? According to revered Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, that may be the only way future generations can explain humanity’s feeble collective action in the face of climate change, global warming, and the violence of their likely consequences: drought, fire, famine, extreme storms, rising sea levels, extinction.

In a recent Princeton lecture, Ghosh said climate change is not just a problem of politicians, business leaders, and scientists, it is also a crisis of culture and thus of the imagination. His new book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, makes the case that literary novelists, with a few exceptions, are failing to recognize and address the coming cataclysm, the most profound challenge of our day, in their work. Thinking about such a future is left to the margins of the literary world—science fiction, fantasy, and other genre fiction. Here’s an example. Even the Venice-based novels of Donna Leon have picked up the cause, in a subgenre dubbed “eco-detective” fiction.

Fundamental to the carbon economy—in fact, so fundamental we don’t even notice it—is that it is a manifestation of power. Not electrical power, the “might makes right” kind. Ironically, while some U.S. military leaders are more candid than our politicians with regard to the security risks posed by climate change, the military is a huge energy consumer. While the generals and admirals may talk about the risks of climate change, they contribute mightily to it, as, he says, the U.S. military consumes more energy than Bangladesh, a country of some 157 million people. Changes in the international power dynamic may be some of the most disruptive and far-reaching.

By framing climate change questions as economic ones, he says, we mask the reality that they are an exercise of power. Economic frameworks emphasize personal choices and desires, just as discussions of climate justice boil down to “how much are you willing to sacrifice?”As long as people in developing nations want to live as Americans (especially) do, a desire fueled by consumerist media, their leaders can’t and won’t suggest these sacrifices come from them. “Why should we cut back? You’ve had your turn. Now it’s ours.” Yet the changes needed go beyond recalibrating the desires of individual citizens of any nation.

Ghosh says only Pope Francis is willing to talk about breaking this cycle of desire and the impact it has on the poor. This should be a matter of significant interest, if Ghosh is correct that “People living at the margins of society will be the first to experience the future.” It’s one very different from that depicted by our politicians and literary leaders.

His was a dense lecture with many innovative and compelling arguments. Only a reading of the book can give you an adequate understanding of his vital points!

Behind the Scenes at Murder on the Orient Express

set model, dining car

3-D Printer Model of Dining Car, Beowulf Boritt; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

McCarter Theatre Center’s annual Backstage Tour was expertly timed this year. Participants got the inside scoop on the fantastic sets and costumes created for the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s Murder on the Orient Express, directed by McCarter artistic director Emily Mann.

Because McCarter does an elaborate version of A Christmas Carol every December, the production team couldn’t start creating the sets and costumes for Agatha Christie’s iconic story until early January, explained David York, the quiet genius who is McCarter’s Director of Production.

By then, they had the costume sketches from six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long, and the set designer, in this case Tony Award-winning Beowulf Boritt, had presented the production team with a highly detailed model of the set produced by a 3-D printer. Creating the sets and costumes involved  thirty-five crew members and some seven thousand hours of labor, first in the construction and costume shops, then, in a week of very long days, making everything work on stage.

Stage set

Portion of the stage set, Murder on the Orient Express, McCarter Theatre; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The production team built two and a half truly spectacular railway cars that travel back and forth across the stage, using a braided wire rope system, much like San Francisco’s cable cars. The production also required a gorgeous new curtain, which has moving panels that can mask portions of the set, as needed. (Four painters spent four {?} days stenciling the Turkish design on the curtain.) Once the timing of every aspect of the play was finalized, managing the rail car and curtain movement is computer-operated.

Prop Master Michele Sammarco described the high degree of authenticity the production crew strives for. In a brief scene, the railway conductor delivers a tray with a roll and coffee. The prop department decorated both sides of the cup with the period-correct Orient Express logo, a detail probably no one in the audience can see, but which conveys a sense of being “really there” for the cast. Similarly, eight characters need passports from different countries. All eight look different and include the correct cast member’s photo and information.

Getting both the big, splashy elements—like the railroad cars—as well as the innumerable small touches right makes a big difference in the quality of the theater-goer’s experience. They are why eighteen thousand people have rushed to see this show in its two and a half-week run. If you’re not one of them, you have until Sunday, April 2, to try to get tickets! Call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

Is It Over? Story Endings

No Country for Old Men - Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men

Writer Toby Wallis has written a thoughtful essay in Glimmer Train on story endings. He centers a lot of his argument on Cormac McCarthy’s chilling novel, No Country for Old Men, in which, as he says “the climax that the story appears to be building towards just doesn’t happen.” It (like the terrific movie made from it) may make audiences feel left hanging, and incomplete, at least until further reflection. One thing to consider is, whose story is it? The killer’s or the sheriff’s? Whether the ending satisfies depends in part on the answer to that question.

As Wallis says, “At first I was disappointed . . . like the rug had been whipped out from under me. Two hours later, I loved it.” Perhaps we’ve been led by fiction—and movies and especially television—to believe all loose ends must be, can be tidied up, there is an answer to all questions, the broken can be made whole or at least set on the path to mending. But that’s not how it is in real life, is it? We must all deal with ambiguity, incompletion, unravelings not to be reknitted. As troubling as an ending as McCarthy’s is, worse, may be the ending where you feel the author thought, “Holy crap! I’ve got to wind this up.” And does.

McCarthy’s approach leaves us pondering what happens next? Our curiosity about the story and its protagonists is not satisfied, it continues to tickle our imaginations, to stay with us at some level. Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You also ends ambiguously. She says readers are very firm in their conviction about what happened by the end, based on the evidence they gleaned in the novel. Yet their interpretations vary widely.

Genre fiction—and here I’ll speak of the genres I know best, crime novels and thrillers—approach endings differently. Thrillers generally adhere to the convention of restoring order to the world, so a tidy post-carnage ending is expected. Many crime novels are not so black and white. They leave room for doubt. Often they are critical of the status quo (corruption in city hall, incompetent police leadership, media on the take, etc.), so why return to it? A police detective may be able to solve a murder, but darker societal forces may be behind it. “That’s Chinatown.”

Outside of genre, in literary novels, Wallis says “stories are at their very best when they ask questions . . . at their didactic worst when they presume to answer them.” At least, when they presume to answer every last one of them. When I look back over the literary fiction of last year that I enjoyed most—Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Lily King’s Euphoria, Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, for example—every one of them leaves space for readers to speculate, to use their own imaginations, to engage with the author in the creative process.