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.

Our Kind of Traitor

Our Kind of Traitor

McGregor & Skarsgård, Our Kind of Traitor

Our Kind of Traitor is my kind of movie (trailer). A political thriller that avoids the eye-rolling tropes of so many films in the genre—the relentless testosterone-fueled special effects, vehicular mayhem, and beyond-evil bad guys. Instead, it relies for tension on the attachment it craftily develops between viewer and character, thanks to an excellent script and solid acting.

Based on the 2010 John Le Carré novel, as adapted by Houssein Amini, and directed by Susanna White, Our Kind is a movie about trust. While it shows that people at the highest levels of public trust may not necessarily have the public’s good at the top of their agendas—no news flash in this genre—trust at the personal level is still possible. And trust is entails risk. Life-and-death risk.

Low-key London academic Perry Makepeace (played by Ewan MacGregor) and his wife Gail (Naomie Harris) are in exotic Marrakesh trying to revive a fading relationship. When she leaves him alone in a restaurant, he’s befriended by a Russian at a neighboring table, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård, brilliant!), who convinces him to go to “a Russian party” extravagant even by oligarchical standards. The next day Dima persuades Perry and Gail to drop in at his daughter’s 16th birthday party, where it’s just the usual—you know, bands, fireworks, sword swallowers, bejeweled camels.

At the party, Dima pulls Perry aside and confesses he’s the chief money launderer for the Russian mafia and in imminent danger of being murdered in an internecine war. He gives Perry a flash drive and asks him to get it to MI6. He says a big bolus of dirty money is about to land on British shores by way of a shell bank headquartered in the Mediterranean. Dima wants to defect, and he wants the Brits to protect him and, most of all, his family.

Plots featuring the “average man” work because you inevitably wonder, “what would I do?” The operational guys in the British security services (sly Damian Lewis, especially) like Perry’s information, but the big bosses don’t want them to follow up, for reasons of tangled agendas noted above.

After that it’s cat-and-mouse, with Dima and Perry two little mice and pretty much everyone else in the role of fat cats. Says critic Scott Marks of the San Diego Reader, “The mid-summer release of an adult, effects-free British thriller relating to the collapse of Europe’s global financial system timed out perfectly. You’ll Brexit knowing that your entertainment dollar was well spent.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 67%; audiences 57%. The principal complaint seems to be that not much blows up (exactly what I liked about it!). Except of course, for people’s lives. Don’t believe the naysayers. It’s a subtle gem.

****The Bitter Season

Samurai

photo: David Pursehouse, creative commons license

By Tami Hoag – The Bitter Season is Hoag’s latest crime thriller featuring the Minneapolis, Minnesota-based team of police detectives Sam Kovac and Nikki Liska. This time, the pair is split up, because Liska has joined a new Cold Case unit, hoping for more regular working hours that will let her spend time with her teenage sons.

The first case she’s assigned is the 25-year-old murder of a fellow detective, Ted Duffy, a star in the department’s sex crimes division, was shot to death in his back yard. The man’s family is less than enthusiastic about dredging up the details of the crime again. Repeated investigations over the years have plowed the same unpromising ground, unearthing nothing more than painful memories.

Meanwhile, Kovac has a new partner, newbie Michael Taylor, who is not only easy to look at, but actually knows a few useful things. An adolescence spent watching martial arts movies comes in handy when Kovac and Taylor are assigned to a brutal new murder case. Lucien Chamberlain, a University of Minnesota faculty member in the running for the chair of the East Asia studies department and his wealthy, socially connected, alcoholic wife Sondra have been viciously murdered in their home. They were slashed and stabbed with items from the professor’s collection of martial arts paraphernalia—a collection that is, the medical examiner’s investigator says, “a homicidal maniac’s wet dream.”

Out of the woodwork comes a parade of victims. Or are they suspects?

Despite working on separate cases, Kovac and Liska interact fairly often, and the banter between them and their teams’ other detectives is lively. They’re experts at bringing in a spot of erudition, too. “Shakespeare would have had a freaking field day with these people,” Kovac says, and another detective responds, “ʻThou hast spoken right, ʼtis true. The wheel is come full circle . . .’”

But are Kovac’s and Liska’s cases truly separate? Through fast-moving chapters written from alternating perspectives, you see these skilled detectives work their way through to the core of their respective cases, culminating in a surprising confrontation that demonstrates how skillfully Hoag has laid out her clues.

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

*****Redemption Road

rural church

photo: Wayne Stadler, creative commons license

Written by John Hart, narrated by Scott Shepherd. You’d never guess this crime thriller is award-winning author John Hart’s first novel with a female protagonist. He writes from her point of view compellingly and expertly slips himself into her high heels where gender perspective makes a difference—as a detective partner, as a daughter, and as unofficial guardian to two troubled teens.

Elizabeth Black is a detective in a mid-sized North Carolina city who over 13 years has proved herself a good cop, though the men around her seem anxious to dismiss all that as soon as she encounters difficulties. And she encounters them by the bushel.

When a radio call leads her to an abandoned house where a missing 18-year-old girl, Channing Shore, might be hidden away, Elizabeth doesn’t wait for backup. A few hours later, Elizabeth and Channing walk out. In the basement are the bodies of Brendan and Titus Monroe with 18 bullet wounds. Bullets lodged in the floor suggest at least some of the shots occurred after the men were down.

There’s no question Channing was raped and tortured for 40 hours and that Elizabeth saved her. But the case has drawn the attention of the North Carolina attorney general, who sends state police investigators to determine whether the brothers’ death involved police brutality. A newspaper headline says it all: “Hero Cop or Angel of Death?”

As a rookie, Elizabeth looked up to and perhaps even loved a detective named Adrian Wall, a detective’s detective whom other cops and the media admired. Wall has spent the last dozen years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He’s released just as the pressure on Elizabeth Black is mounting, but he’s no sooner out than a second woman’s body is found killed in the same way. Then a third.

From that point on, the two stories—Elizabeth’s quest to clear her reputation and be reinstated on the force and her desire to prove Adrian Wall’s innocence of the women’s murders are intertwined.

One consistent ally is retired lawyer Faircloth “Crybaby” Jones, nearly 90, who unsuccessfully defended Wall during his trial and has regretted that failure ever since. Crybaby is a wonderful character who combines the courtliness of the Old South with a fox’s wily instincts.

In a post-book interview, author Hart revealed that he’d basically written the book—some 300 pages—before discovering that the protagonist was not whom he had chosen. He found that the center of the book, its heart, was Elizabeth. Changing the point of view of a novel involves a lot more than changing “he’s” to “she’s.” That was a decision with time-gobbling consequences that has really paid off for readers.

Actor Scott Shepherd does a brilliant job narrating this novel with its range of characters. Often a female narrator is selected for a book with a female protagonist, but his rendering of Elizabeth is perfect. She’s female, but not in any clichéd way. The same goes for Channing and the several other women. He has just the right amount of easygoing South in his voice and avoids caricature. Amazing how one talent can produce all these different people! Just terrific.

The Night Manager

Tom Hiddleston, The Night ManagerHere at Tom Hiddleston Central this week, we’ve not only seen the Hank Williams biopic, I Saw the Light, but on Tuesday at 10 pm, AMC began its six-part series starring Hiddleston in John Le Carré’s, The Night Manager. The tv show is punctuated by Jaguar ads [DO watch!] starring a Hiddleston who looks awfully like a shoe-in for that rumored James Bond role. (But should he want it? Possibly not.)

Having seen episode 1 of The Night Manager, I eagerly look forward to more. The conceit is that Hiddleston’s character, Jonathan Pine, works as the night manager in upscale hotels—in the updated AMC version, in Cairo during the Arab spring, then in Switzerland—with ample motive to bring down a British arms merchant (Hugh Lorrie), “the worst man in the world,” who tends to stay in such posh places. A delightful surprise is Olivia Colman (she is police detective Ellie Miller in the UK mystery series Broadchurch) as head of an obscure London arms control agency.

Le Carré’s original, published 23 years ago, also began in Cairo in a much less turbulent era, though the double-dealing and “whom can you trust?” elements created excruciating tension in both the book (which I read ages ago) and now in the AMC version, which has a fresh new, LeCarré-approved ending. Says Judith Warner in the New York Times, the new version is “deeply appealing, and in substance and style, for this viewer at least, moved the book forward in a number of fortuitous ways.” For this viewer too. Loved it!

The 21st Century Spy Novel

spy, espionage, reading

(photo: David Lytle, creative commons license)

Some readers may long for the (fictional) days of the Cold War—a nostalgia fueled by the brilliant movie Bridge of Spiesand the dark-soul novels of John LeCarré and Graham Greene. At least then, we knew who the enemies were. After the disintegration of the iron curtain that protected Soviet secrets, the spy novel became a bit of an anachronism, but now it’s surging back in popularity and creativity, 21st century style.

While the antagonists may have changed—or, with what’s going on in Russia these days, be cycling back again—clandestine operations persist among countries that are enemies. And, as Wikileaks has reminded us, spying even occurs among friends. “As a piece of news, this surely sits alongside the Pope’s status as a Catholic,” said Christopher J. Murphy for CNN last year. As a consequence, the espionage writer has a lot of conflicts to choose among.

Tthe techno-thriller subgenre, so well explored in the past by writers like Frederick Forsyth (The Day of the Jackal) and Tom Clancy (The Hunt for Red October), has rapidly expanded fictional possibilities. Every day, it seems, more sophisticated technologies emerge that can be used to create political instability in other countries or groups and damage their military and economic security.

A recent Library Journal article said, “One needs look no further than today’s headlines to see the global issues available to present-day storytellers that weren’t there even 20 years ago.” A good case in point was the 2015 near-future thriller, Ghost Fleet (by P.W. Singer and August Cole) about the vulnerability of a U.S. military dependent on communication technologies—like GPS and wireless—and compromised by the computer chips that make them possible.

Recent popular espionage thrillers illustrate how diverse the threats are: Terry Hayes’s I Am Pilgrim, involves deadly biological warfare; cyberespionage in David Ignatius’s The Director; Close Call by Stella Rimington (first female director general of MI5) covers counterterrorism; and the agents in Todd Moss’s Minute Zero face political instability in Africa.

Books like these turn reading and watching the daily news into a quest for the story beneath the story.

UPDATE:  Great minds . . . Dawn Ius wrote about this same trend in The Big Thrill magazine, 1/31/16.

***Passenger 23

cruise ship

(photo: ed2456 on pixabay; creative commons license)

By Sebastian Fitzek, narrated by Max Beesley, with a cast of actors. Unless you read German, the only way you can enjoy psychological thriller-writer Fitzek’s latest book is through Audible.com, which is perhaps why it’s called “An Audible Original Drama,” though it is available in print and for the Kindle in its original language.

Passenger 23 is based on a horrifying premise that sent me straight to fact-checking: Yearly, about 23 people—crew and passengers—disappear from the world’s cruise ships IRL. The true number is unknown, because ship owners have a substantial interest in keeping these disappearances quiet and in portraying those that do come to light as suicides, even when evidence of suicide is nonexistent. And, when disappearances occur at sea, the only investigation may be carried out by a lone policeman from the ship’s often tiny country-of-registry. This investigator’s work will not be mistaken for that of Scotland Yard or the FBI. It’s a perfect set-up for criminal shenanigans.

In Fitzek’s novel, undercover detective Martin Schwartz is willing to take on the Berlin police department’s most dangerous cases, in part because he’s become less attached to his own life in the five years since his wife and young son died in an apparent murder-suicide aboard the cruise ship Sultan of the Seas. When he receives a mysterious invitation to meet an elderly woman aboard that same ship in order to find out what really happened to his family, he can’t resist.

Once aboard, he finds himself drawn into the woman’s theory that a serial killer may be loose on the ship. A young girl who disappeared from the ship some months earlier reappears, carrying the teddy bear of his drowned son. But she’s not not making sense. The girl’s mother disappeared at the same time, in a chilling echo of what happened to Martin’s own family.

Solving this puzzle would be sufficient for any book, but Fitzek also provides an early teaser-scene about a man, located somewhere in the ship’s bowels, who has consented to have his healthy leg amputated. Why, and whether this secondary (and far-fetched) story has anything to do with the principal plot, we don’t learn until the end of the book. It’s in an epilogue that, oddly, comes after the production credits—glad I didn’t turn my iPod off too soon!

For my taste, Fitzek tries a little too hard for the gruesome detail. In addition, the cluster of murder-suicides of single moms and their children has one glaring common denominator that even a police operative far from his tiny island redoubt ought to find suspicious.

As to how well this works as an audiobook, I was disappointed. Beesley had a formal, almost stiff style out of keeping with the material, and while the other actors were used only for the scanty dialog, which felt intrusive. Audible has added intermittent sound effects—feet running, doors clanging, ropes squeaking, and the like—that didn’t add to the experience. I’d just as soon let the author tell me the door slammed than having to think “What was that?” Audible has produced a short trailer for the audio version, available on YouTube.

A somewhat longer version of this review appears on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

****Hold the Dark

arctic wolf

(photo: myri-_bonnie, Creative Commons license)

By William Giraldi, narrated by Richard Ferrone. This crime thriller set in the remote villages and tundra of Alaska lays bare different visions of civilization. The inhabitants of remote Keelut have their own ways of doing things—of dealing with birth, and death, and grief—and no matter how strong the forces of conventional culture are, in the end, the old ways win. In the process, the book “peels away the thin membrane that separates entertainment from art, and nature from civilization,” said reviewer Alan Cheuse in the Boston Globe.

Russell Core is a nature writer and an expert on wolves, with a famous book about them. When wolves take two, then three children from Keelut, the mother of the third child, a six-year-old boy named Bailey, asks him to come help her understand what is happening. Untethered from family and any part of life he finds meaningful, Core responds to her plea, and is drawn deeper and deeper into the lives, ways, and secrets of the remote village. The child’s mother, Medora Slone is married, but her husband Vernon has joined the military, fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, this nation’s “desert wars.” Do not assume this has made a regular American of him.

Yet Slone is described as a renegade, and Core wonders how this squares with life as a soldier. His best friend, an Alaska Native named Cheeon says Slone can make himself look like he is doing what he is supposed to, but will be doing what he wants to, nonetheless. Cheeon did not join the military for that reason. He hadn’t that gift.

When Slone returns to find his son dead and his wife missing, well, in the classic crime novel vernacular, “all hell breaks loose.” Hell, in this case, plays out during the year’s longest nights—18 hours of darkness—and over a tundra so vast “whole states could fit on its frozen breadth.” The weather is practically another character in this frozen terrain: “Like grief, cold is an absence that takes up space. Winter wants the soul and bores into the body to get it.” Before this book is through quite a few souls fall to the cold, the wolves, and the people.

Richard Ferrone’s narration perfectly fits the other-worldliness of the Alaska Natives and the care with which residents of the far north must operate in their unforgiving environment. Giraldi is the fiction editor of Boston University’s literary magazine Agni.

****The Whites

crime scene tape

(photo: wikimedia)

By Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt, narrated by Ari Fliakos. This crime thriller received a splashy reception, in part because of the puzzlement over Price’s transparent attempt to write it pseudonymously (which even he gave up on), but more because—whatever name he adopts—the publication of one of his gritty novels is an event crime fiction aficionados celebrate. Price is the author of Clockers, Bloodbrothers, The Wanderers and numerous screenplays, as well as award-winning episodes of The Wire.

What has made Price so successful, as Michael Connelly points out in a New York Times review, is his belief that “when you circle around a murder long enough you get to know a city.” Says Connelly, Price is an author who “considered the crime novel something more than a puzzle and an entertainment; he saw it as societal reflection, documentation and investigation.”

The book’s title refers to the unsolved but unforgotten cases a tight group of young police officers confronted during their careers. Think the elusive target Moby Dick, not a racial reference.

They had all met their personal Whites, those who had committed criminal obscenities on their watch and then walked away untouched by justice . . . .
No one asked for these crimes to set up house in their lives, no one asked for these murderers to constantly and arbitrarily lay siege to their psyches like bouts of malaria.

At the time of the novel, most members of this formerly closeknit group are out of the NYPD because of injury, other opportunities, or sheer burnout, but Sgt. Billy Graves is still on the force. Billy knows his friends’ “Whites” like he knows his own badge number, and when they start dying in violent circumstances, he has to ask himself . . . Meanwhile, his family is the target of an unnerving and escalating series of threats, which he urgently needs to figure out.

The book, told from the point of view of both Billy and his antagonist, is full of characters from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, yet all are believable as individuals. The writing never falters and contains, as Connelly says, “a fierce momentum.” A favorite line of mine, about a witness smoking dope in his apartment, had him “blowing out enough smoke to announce a Pope.”

With recent events in Ferguson, North Charleston, Baltimore, and elsewhere, it isn’t good timing for a cop-as-hero book, and this novel’s moral dilemmas force Billy and the reader to consider the role of policing in our society and the differences between policing and justice.

Fliakos’s narration is excellent. Despite the large number of characters, I was never confused about whose voice I was hearing.

****Bloodmoney: A Novel of Espionage

Pakistan street scene

Street scene, Pakistan (photo: r12a, Creative Commons license)

By David Ignatius – narrated by Firdous Bamji. A friend recommended Ignatius to me, and I was lukewarm about the first book of his I read (The Director), but I’m glad I came back for a second try.The story in this 2012 spy thriller concerns a super-secret CIA offshoot working in Los Angeles under deep cover as a pseudo music-biz operation called the Hit Parade (a name the agents use without apparent irony). But something is amiss, because a key undercover agent disappears from the streets of Pakistan, followed by the assassination of three more agents in postings around the world. It’s up to agent Sophie Marx to try to discover the truth, the compromises, the torturous path of violence and deception that instigated and supported the Hit Parade’s enemies.

This plot is more persuasive than that of many thrillers, with startling authenticity enabled by Ignatius’s journalistic career. (He is an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post and writes about foreign affairs.) The NPR review quotes one of the book’s great lines: “Americans did not like lying to others. It made them uncomfortable. Their specialty was lying to themselves.”

As important, the characters are well-drawn. I was happy to see the crusty old CIA hand Cyril Hoffman reappear in this book. He’s a devil, but an entertaining devil. And he’s ours. Mostly. I especially liked Ignatius’s characterization of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence chief, General Mohammed Malik, trying to make sense of the Americans.

Mostly the narration is fine, but Bamji puts a slight whine in Sophie’s voice that’s not just annoying, but inconsistent with her dogged character.