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.

*****His Bloody Project

Scottish Policeman - 1882

Original photo, c. 1882 by Peter Swanson, reproduced by Dave Conner, creative commons

By Graeme Macrae Burnet, narrated by Antony Ferguson. This remarkable faux “true-crime” thriller was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and an immersive, inventive fable it is. The conceit is that the author, in researching his family history, uncovers a 17-year-old relative named Roderick Macrae, who in 1869 stood trial in Inverness, Scotland, in a notorious triple murder case. In trying to get to the bottom of this episode, the author has assembled a variety of original documents. He presents this evidence, and the reader must weigh it along with the court.

After some prefatory remarks, the story picks up steam in the longest section of the book, a confession written by Roddy himself. Opinion at the time, the author notes, held it was entirely unlikely that a barely educated crofter, living in desperately reduced circumstances, could write such a literate account of himself and his life.

Roddy freely admits he committed the murders. The nub of the case is whether he was in his right mind when doing so and whether the then rather new insanity defense is appropriate. His victims were Lachlan Mackenzie, the autocratic and vindictive constable of the area, who seems, for various reasons and an inherent meanness, intent on breaking apart the Macrae family; Mackenzie’s 15-year-old daughter Flora, whom Roddy has gone walking with a few times and hopes to romance; and Mackenzie’s three-year-old son Danny.

In describing life in the tiny, poverty-struck village of Culduie, Roddy’s memoir recounts a great many petty tyrannies visited on the family by Mackenzie, which might (or might not) be sufficient motivation for murder. Since Roddy’s mother died in childbirth, the Macrae family has lurched through life, bathed in grief and laid low by privation. From Roddy’s confession as well as other testimony, readers gain a detailed picture of daily life and the knife-edge on which survival depends. Fans of strong courtroom dramas will relish the way the courtroom scenes in the book both reveal and conceal.

The audiobook was narrated by Antony Ferguson. He gives sufficient variety to the speech of the characters to make them both easily identifiable and compelling individuals, from the engaging Roddy to the condescending psychiatrist and prison doctor, whom author Burnet based on the real-life J Bruce Thomson, to the ostensibly straightforward journalistic accounts.

The format of this book makes it unusual in crime fiction. It is a more literary version of the dossier approach used by Dennis Wheatley, in such classics as Murder Off Miami and The Malinsay Massacre, which our family loved to read and solve.

****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)

 

Solace in True Crime?

In Cold Blood, Truman CapoteEditors of The Guardian gave a topping headline to a Rafia Zakaria story about the attractions of the true crime genre: “Reading a genre where the worst has already happened is an odd comfort.” There’s truth in that. A few years ago, I was struck low by life circumstances and in a rare (for me) state of malaise sat down in front of the television in the middle of a Saturday afternoon to watch The Pianist. Oddly, when the end credits rolled, I felt better. When I told my daughter about this, she said, “Ah. A movie about someone with real problems.” Exactly.

Zakaria suggests true crime as a corrective, even for political angst. “No other genre is a more apt testament that our evil, primal, fearful selves linger just beneath our calm, civilised exteriors, that life goes on even after the worst has happened, and that all catastrophe, central or marginal, has to be understood and confronted before a future becomes possible.”

In our household we’re stuck back at the first stage: probing the calm, civilized exteriors, looking beneath Victorian London with our six books on Jack the Ripper—each with its earnestly promoted theory of the villain’s identity—our five books about the Lizzie Borden case, six about the 1930s Lindbergh kidnapping, and more.

The distance afforded by time provides a bit of psychological insulation, and weighting the theories about these “unsolved” or “unresolved” cases have enlivened many a dinnertime conversation. Perhaps if you visited Cleveland, you went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or even a ballgame at Progressive Field. Not likely you made a pilgrimage to the 1954 home of Dr. Sam Sheppard and his soon-to-be-late wife, Marilyn (LMGTFY). We did.

If in these trying times, you want to test the true crime palliative, Truman Capote’s 1966 book In Cold Blood still sets the standard. (Both the Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones movie versions are riveting as well.)

Here are four more excellent possibilities:

****What Remains of Me

Los Angeles, Hollywood

photo: James Gubera, creative commons license

By Alison Gaylin , narrated by Ann Marie Lee – If, as the Bible says, the sins of the fathers will be visited on their children (or more colorfully “The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”), this story is the proof of it. It’s set in two time periods—1980 and 2010—among a small group of Hollywood teenagers. They’re about 17 in 1980 and nearing 50 in 2010, with a whole lot of water under the bridge in between.

The three friends—Kelly, Bellamy, and Vee—come from vastly different backgrounds. Kelly, the principal point-of-view character, is barely middle class, while Bellamy and Vee are children of “tinseltown royalty,” rich kids whose actions bring few consequences. They all smoke, drink, use drugs, and skip school. Gaylin dwells on the substance abuse and resultant bad decision-making more than necessary, as there was not much new there. But even so, it’s the parents whose problems run deepest, under the shiny surface.

Teenage Kelly Michelle Lund—as she is forever known in the media—after ingesting more than a few illegal substances, goes to a movie wrap party at Vee’s home. Before the party ends, his director-father is murdered—shot three times, once right between the eyes. Thanks to a weak defense effort, Kelly is convicted of the crime.

After a quarter-century in prison, Kelly has been out for five years and is trying to rebuild her life. When Bellamy’s father is murdered in much the same way Vee’s was, the media and the police immediately suspect Kelly. In Gaylin’s twisting plot, every significant character has secrets, and they are ingeniously linked, While the plot mostly holds, a late confrontation between Kelly and Bellamy felt excessively contrived.

Hollywood is the perfect backdrop for a story in which nothing is as it seems—a place where you shouldn’t peer behind the curtain or, perhaps, for your own good, you’d better!. Throughout the story, characters repeatedly suggest that powerful Hollywood folk can do whatever they please, without consequences. That certainly was true when the studios’ star system was in place and bad behavior was aggressively covered up, but it’s less true since (with Bill Cosby a prominent exception). Yet that presumption makes so many characters’ secrets easier to keep.

Ann Marie Lee’s narration nicely evokes both the teens and the parents. She might have used more mature voices for Kelly and Bellamy at age 47, but that’s a minor quibble regarding an overall fine reading.

****Triple Crown

horse-racing

photo: Tsutomu Takasu, creative commons license

By Felix Francis Carrying on his late father’s series of horse-racing mysteries, Felix Francis has now written his fifth about the most famous set of horse races in the world, the U.S. Triple Crown. The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs is the first of the three, and the most prestigious. The Preakness Stakes at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course is the oldest, dating back to 1873. The mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes at New York’s Belmont Park, which takes place exactly five weeks after the Derby, is the most demanding—an insurmountable hurdle in many Triple Crown quests. Francis effectively captures the excitement, behind-the-scenes anxiety, traditions, and pageantry of these iconic meets.

Protagonist and narrator Jefferson Hinkley is an investigator for the British Horseracing Authority invited to the States by a colleague from the fictional U.S. Federal Anti-Corruption in Sports Agency (FACSA) on a secret quest to identify a mole in the agency. Horse owners and trainers are being tipped off before FACSA raids. Hinkley, who misses his adrenaline-fueled days working undercover, is grateful for the change of pace.

A few days before the Kentucky Derby, the timing of a FACSA raid on barns at Churchill Downs is moved up several days, surprising even the agents and certainly the suspect trainer, and one of them shoots the trainer dead. It’s evident the mole is still at work, but worse is about to happen.

Two Derby favorites come down with equine influenza, leaving only one favorite, Fire Point, who wins both the Derby and Preakness. To speed up his investigation, Hinkley poses as an Irish groom, and gets himself hired by Fire Point’s trainer at his Belmont Park stables. Oddly, since author Francis is from the U.K., Hinkley’s speech doesn’t seem especially British, nor particularly Irish in word choice or rhythm when he’s acting as the groom.

Before long, there isn’t much mystery as to who’s is tampering with the horses and how they’re doing it—Francis provides a clue as big as Secretariat’s legendary 31-length win in the Belmont Stakes. Nor is there a puzzle regarding motive. Any Triple Crown winner will generate many millions in stud fees, well beyond his potential racing purses. But if a horse has had equine influenza, his stud career is over before it starts.

Francis’s plot effortlessly and admirably engages the ticking clock device that has become such a staple of thrillers. The rapidly approaching Belmont Stakes means some of the world’s most valuable equine athletes are at risk. And that mole is still out there.

In an unconvincing subplot, a young Puerto Rican groom is overtly hostile to Hinkley, which only adds to his unease as he works around the barns. Plus, there’s the risk he’ll be recognized, and he is well aware of the lengths to which people will go to make sure Fire Point becomes a Triple Crown winner.

If you liked Francis’s other novels or if you just love the pulse-pounding Sport of Kings, you should enjoy this latest entrant in a storied bloodline. Or watch the excellent television series Luck, starring Dustin Hoffman, alas, only one season.

***Combustion

combustion, fire, wildfire

The King Fire; photo: US Forest Service Region 5, creative commons license

By Martin J. Smith – I guess it’s some kind of progress to see the growth in the number of crime novels and television series that give hardworking male police detectives a woman boss. And, perhaps it reflects even more progress that these female supervisors are allowed to have flaws, unlike the ever-understanding “Ma’am” in the Inspector Lewis shows.

In Martin J. Smith’s new police procedural, Detective Ron Starke works for the police department in the city of Los Colmas, in giant San Bernardino County, California’s Inland Empire. His new chief—grabbing a job he expected would be his—is Donna Kerrigan, recently divorced from a rich husband and an inveterate micromanager, who Starke thinks has “the people skills of a rattlesnake.”

Starke is a likeable detective, diligently trying to unravel what befell wealthy property developer Paul Dwyer. Dwyer’s body was found at the bottom of a rapidly evaporating pond adjacent to his most recent upscale housing development. He had a bullet in his brain and evidence suggested he’d been tortured. Starke has a history with the widowed Mrs. Dwyer, the magnate’s second wife, that goes back to high school and a brief romance.

When he interviews Shelby Dwyer and her daughter Chloe in their magnificent home, it’s quite a contrast to his down-market residence above the Suds-Your-Duds laundromat. Any number of people turn up as serviceable murder suspects. In fact, there may be too large a stack of possibilities, because the motives of them all can’t be developed to the extent that would make them truly credible.

There’s even a whiff of DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) concern about money-laundering for the Sinaloa drug cartel. This possibility prompted a couple of authorial essays about how the cartels work—interesting stuff that you might want to know about, but not necessary to the plot of this book, especially since that line of inquiry soon evaporates like the water in Dwyer’s containment pond.

Because this is a multiple point-of-view novel, you know things Starke does not. You know Shelby has sought relief from her unhappy marriage online, establishing a chatroom relationship with someone who calls himself LoveSick—ever supportive, ever kind, ever romantic. But who is he, really? Shelby has every urgent 21st century reason for wanting to know. I especially enjoyed Smith’s descriptions of the computer geeks Starke eventually deals with, as he tracks down Shelby’s missing hard drive. Those guys were entertainingly totally on their own wavelength—broadband, of course.

The blind forces of nature help bring matters to a head. A massive wildfire, driven by the Santa Ana winds, is bearing down on Los Colmas and the Dwyer development. In the middle of that fiery maelstrom, Smith’s protagonists face their ultimate challenges.

The fire proves unequivocally that, no matter how “in control” you think you are, some things are beyond you. I wish the author hadn’t overstuffed the narrative with tantalizing suspects and a couple of brief, early scenes with Starke’s ailing father, in care because of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He was an interesting character and that was a relationship worth developing. Sequels?

Keep the Gimmicks Coming

Adrian Monk, Tony Shaloub

Tony Shaloub as Adrian Monk

What do agents and publishers most look for in a crime/mystery novel? “Gimmicks matter most,” said long-time literary agent Evan Marshall at the recent “Deadly Ink” conference.

Evidence supporting his claim comes from Sisters in Crime’s monthly list of members’ book deals. In the list are numerous examples of novels and series with distinctive premises, including books featuring the sleuthing activities of:

  • A wine club, “where drinking wine and solving crimes go hand in hand” (where do I sign up?)
  • A small-town knitting club
  • A “centuries old alchemist and her impish gargoyle sidekick”
  • A dowager duchess (I’m thinking Violet Crawley. You?) and
  • A bed-and-breakfast owner and her deceased husband’s ghost.

The whole idea of ghostly crime-solving is a thing, apparently. CrimeFictionLover.com recently had a special article on novels narrated by the deceased. Talk about needing to have the last word!

Fanciful set-ups like these remind me of the 1984-1996 tv show, Murder, She Wrote, starring Angela Lansbury. Why would ANYbody in Cabot Cove, Maine, ever invite that woman to dinner? But they did, for 264 episodes. How many murders is a wine or knitting club or b&b owner likely to stumble across? Apparently, enough to keep a series going.

In fact, Marshall said, series is everything in mystery fiction these days, even for authors who are self-published. The popularity of series fiction derives in part from the attachment that develops between reader and dowager duchess or impish gargoyle. Also, readers can enjoy the mystery knowing that said duchess and gargoyle are never likely to be in any serious danger. Like Miss Marple, James Bond, and Jason Bourne, series characters will survive to appear in the next book.

Yet, stakes must be raised, so authors often threaten someone the protagonist cares about. Male protagonists may develop a disposable romantic interest, which also enables a lot of (invariably) fantastic sex. For women protagonists, a favorite niece or sister or former college roommate may be imperiled.

At another recent writers’ conference, best-selling author Lee Goldberg said authors can make even rather far-fetched gimmicks more acceptable to readers by balancing them with realistic elements. He should know. He published nine books and six short stories about a seriously germ-phobic, obsessive-compulsive, symmetry-fixated, former San Francisco homicide detective who unerringly solves crimes in his head. We know that wildly unrealistic character as Adrian Monk.

***The Bends

Woods Hole pier

photo: Andjam 79, creative commons license

By Leah Devlin – This current-day police procedural is the third mystery-thriller in a series that takes place in and around the picturesque village of Woods Hole, located on far southwest Cape Cod. Big water—Nantucket Sound, Cape Cod Bay, Buzzards Bay, the Atlantic—is never far.

The irony that young Detective Bill Bleach, pale as his name suggests, is prone to violent seasickness is not lost on him. Unfortunately, corpses have the same effect on his digestion, and he has to deal with them too.

Devlin effectively conjures up the Woods Hole environment and the preoccupations of several principal characters: Nobel laureates Lindsey Nolan and Sara Kauni, who are inventing a new dive helmet, and marine biologist Jessie McCabe (protagonist of Devlin’s previous book, Ægir’s Curse). Nolan’s adopted daughter, Maggie May, takes the lead in this story. She’s an accomplished diver and a talented student at the nearby Newbury College of Art, as well as a former drug user whom Nolan met in rehab.

When two murders at the College baffle the police, a small group of students is at the top of the list of suspects, Maggie May chief among them. Unfortunately for Detective Bleach, he’s seriously attracted to the chain-smoking, brittle young woman. His partner begins to doubt his objectivity, and Maggie May to doubt his intentions. He desperately wants to clear Maggie May, and protect her too, since it appears to him she may be the killer’s next victim.

Devlin’s characterization of the art college—the faculty politics, the student life, the manipulations and rivalries—struck me as quite believable. Less so was the architectural design of the place, built in the 1970s, with thick interior stone walls. In fact, these walls are so thick they allow a passage down the middle, and slits in the walls (apparently invisible to the users of the various studios and offices) allow every room to be spied upon.

No one knows about this building feature except the architect who designed it, Edward Gripp. As a wealthy benefactor of the college and donor of the campus buildings, Gripp keeps a small office there, which allows him secret access to his “Labyrinth.” He particularly enjoys spying on two married faculty members carrying on a torrid affair.

Devlin’s development of Maggie May as a young woman determined to stay sober, who faithfully attends her NA meetings, and in times of stress turns to the psychological supports they provide, makes her an interesting, unique character. Her roommate and occasional dive-partner Lily is the precious daughter of a fierce mother, determined that her daughter succeed in every endeavor—in other words, one of those delicious characters you love to hate.

While the book could have used a good copy-editing to resolve some grammar and usage problems, Devlin writes in a straightforward, unembellished style. You’ll find a little more plot (physical events) than story (emotional journey) in this novel, but it moves along briskly, with interesting characters, a well-created setting, and a satisfying surprise at the end.

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