Ian Rankin’s 30th Year of Rebus

Ian Rankin

photo: wikimedia

In Daneet Steffens’s recent interview for LitHub with Scotland’s crime fiction star Ian Rankin, he says, “All crime fiction boils down to ‘Why do we keep doing these terrible things?” Go back to Shakespeare, to Euripides, and the combination of natural proclivity and circumstances has produced people who destroy not just their enemies, but also the people they love.

Rankin says his early books were more typical whodunits, “but as I got more confident about the form and about what the crime novel could do, I thought, ‘Well there’s nothing it can’t do.’” Writers who want to talk about politics can do that, like author David Ignatius. Those who want to talk about race relations can emulate Bill Beverly. The environment, Paolo Bacigalupi. And, those who want to explore domestic tensions can stake out territory alongside Gillian Flynn or Megan Abbott. In that way, choosing to write about crime is not a limiting factor for authors, but one that gives their story about politics, race relations, the environment, domestic life—whatever—an extra urgency.

You may have read Rankin’s short stories, or be familiar with his best-known work, the award-winning Detective Rebus series (21 books!) set in Edinburgh, or seen one of the several television series made from them. The most recent series title, out earlier this month, is Rather Be the Devil, in which the retired detective takes on a cold murder case, and finds it tied up with a complex money laundering scheme and an aging rock star.

Rebus also has aged and represents some values and a black-and-white view of the world that Rankin says he doesn’t share. It’s Rebus’s partners—the books secondary characters—whose job involves “trying to change his mind on things.” After 30 years of writing the same character and his consistent opponent, Big Ger Cafferty, an old-fashioned gangster up against an old-fashioned detective, the world has changed around them, but the series has “no signs of wearing out,” says a CrimeFictionLover.com review.

You can hear Rankin for yourself at a three-day Rebus festival in Edinburgh, June 30 to July 2. Or in New York at The Center for Fiction, 17 E 47th St., which will host Rankin for a Crime Fiction Master Class on Tuesday February 7th at 7 pm. He’ll be interviewed about his career and the Rebus series by author Jonathan Santlofer. Free and open to the public.

A Thin Gruel of Words

Do overused words run out of steam like a runner at the end of a marathon of meaning?  This Jonathon Sturgeon article from Flavorwire, lurking in my pile of “gems to re-read,” asks that question. It’s of renewed interest, in light of conflicting views on the robustness of the word “fact” and whether it means anything at all any more. A “fact” used to be something you could hang your hat on; now we’re all like Alice in Through the Looking Glass.

Humpty Dumpty

image: public domain

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be the master—that’s all.”

Sturgeon cites data on the use of four descriptive words with literary origins that have gone in and out of fashion over the decades: Quixotic and Byronic were used in the 1800s, with Quixotic peaking around the middle of that century and Byronic—a word I have never used—in the 1930s. In the 20th century, these two were joined by Orwellian—still the most popular—and Kafkaesque, both of which may be destined for increased use. (There’s no source cited for these data, so I can’t find out how they were compiled—probably by text analyzing software.)

Do words like these presuppose at least some passing knowledge of their origins? Presumably a person can understand that a quixotic effort is whimsical and doomed to failure or that an orwellian environment is “antiutopian” and “totalitarian,” as the dictionary would have it. Probably more people understand and use the word kafkaesque than have read—or want to read—The Trial. But do they lose their punch when applied too freely, as people believe the word “nazi” has, by being applied here, there, and everywhere?

Then Sturgeon asks a deeper question, one Humpty Dumpty would appreciate: “Do words mean what the dictionary says they mean, or do they gain meaning through the way we use them?” The answer, he says, is “both.” By using words where they only sort-of apply, their meaning expands, even to the point of meaninglessness.

“The idea that a word could lose its meaning because people use it is both funny and politically scary,” he says. “And so is the idea that a word could mean nothing at all.” I suppose the best way to guard against diluting the meaning of words must be our own vigilance in how we use them. Unless we want the word “fact” to mean just what the user chooses it to mean, we must guard it carefully.

Up on Our Housetop

Naughty or Nice

photo: Mobilus in Mobili, creative commons license

What with new snow on the ground in parts of the country, there’s a remote possibility you can tolerate another morsel of Christmas. Below find the sum total of my non-culinary creative output for late December! I wrote it for the children in our family—Lincoln (age 8), Indiana (almost 7), and Irving (age 5), plus their mom, Alix (age redacted). Sing it to that familiar holiday tune!

“Up on Our Housetop”

First comes a present for Mr. Lincoln
A Chemistry Set? What was Santa thinkin’!
Next thing we know, a big explosion,
Police cars, fire trucks—what a commotion!
(Chorus: Ho ho ho, who wouldn’t go,
Ho ho ho, who wouldn’t go-o
Up on the housetop, click, click, click
Down through the chimney with good Saint Nick.

Next is a talking doll for Indie,
She’s so pretty she names her Cindy,
But all Cindy says is “Wash up!” and “Clean!”
And Indie says she’s just too mean!
(Chorus)

Then there’s a deck of cards for Irv,
Boy, that Santa’s really got some nerve,
Irv plays so well, he’s never beaten
And Lincoln says, “It’s ʼcause he’s cheatin’!”
(Chorus)

Last there’s a present for Alexandra,
Oh, what’s this? It’s a movie camera!
She films all the toys that have caused such tears
And writes Santa, “Please do better next year!”
(Chorus)

(Applause and pass the hot toddies.)

Santa Claus

photo: Bill McChesney, creative commons license

Lee Child is a Pantser

Superman

graphic: Kooroshication, creative commons license

Someday I hope I inspire a reader as enthusiastic and indulgent as Lee Child has in John Lanchester. Lanchester’s fanboy article in the 14 November New Yorker delves into both the form and process used by Child to create his literary child, Jack Reacher. I’ve read only the first one in this long-running series, The Killing Floor, and didn’t see what the fuss was all about.

Lanchester—a contributing editor at The London Review of Books—was untroubled by my big gripe: I just couldn’t believe in the character. First of all, Childs’s hero, he says, “isn’t just tough; he’s supertough. He is exceptionally good with all manner of weapons. His expertise as a sniper is regularly called upon . . . He routinely gets into fights with multiple opponents” and in a climactic combat, Reacher will be pitted “sometimes against vastly superior numbers, sometimes against an opponent of superhuman size or strength of inability to feel pain, sometimes against all of the above.”

But Lanchester has devised a clever test for whether a novel exceeds his ability to suspend disbelief. He calls it the Superman test: “Is what I’m being asked to believe less likely than the character’s being able to fly?” Everyone has a set-point for their own personal Superman test, and mine must be lower than Lanchester’s.

He likes Reacher, even when he skates perilously close to Superman territory. He says it’s because Child balances Reacher’s extraordinary skills with realism. The fighting seems “realistic within its implausibility”; Reacher fights for the good guys, but he’s a realist, he’ll fight dirty.

Reacher’s given up everything and travels around the country, righting wrongs, carrying no more than a folding toothbrush. To every cube warrior who longs to get out from under, this sounds pretty good. Even if such a life isn’t really possible, “The alienated possessionless freedom of Reacher has a core of emotional truth,” Lanchester says.

Another seductive aspect of the books for Lanchester is Reacher’s thought process as he tries to decipher what’s going on, who the bad guys are. Turns out, Child is a pantser! He doesn’t write the books with the whole plot worked out in advance; he writes by the seat of his pants. He captures Reacher’s figuring-out activity so well, because he’s figuring it out at the exact same time.

This way of working was revealed when author Andy Martin—another Jack Reacher devotee—literally sat with Child as he worked on his recent book Make Me. Martin turned his observations into Reacher Said Nothing (2015), a “genuinely enlightening” literary biography that’s one of a kind.

Reacher’s work-it-out-as-you-go method is the way I write, too. Although some writers storyboard each scene and conversation ahead of time, that would take all the fun out of writing—the thrill of discovery—for me. This faint kinship is why I’ll give old Jack another go. I think I’ll read Persuader. Lanchester says it’s Reacher at his best.

Three Classic Mysteries: Stout, Simenon, McDermid

Stout, Simenon, McDermid

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Inspired by Crime Fiction Lover’s “Classics in September” coverage, I’ve reacquainted myself with two favorite authors—Rex Stout and Georges Simenon–and finally read one I should have gotten to a long time ago, Scotland’s Val McDermid. Reading these older mysteries really shows how much the genre has changed. Today we generally have more realistic characters and motivations, more detail about procedure (thanks, CSI), more graphic violence, and more body fluids.

Rex Stout: The Doorbell Rang

Stout’s legendary private detective Nero Wolfe has an active fan base for his 33 novels and 39 short stories and novellas. Their hero is famous for several reasons: Wolfe loves good food and wine and, as a consequence, is not slim. Notoriously sedentary, he very rarely bestirs himself outside the office in his well-appointed Manhattan townhouse, where he tends his orchids. (When these were written, orchids were exotic, and not available in every supermarket!)

Wolfe’s wise-cracking assistant Archie Goodwin narrates the novels and does Wolfe’s

leg-work, as well as any necessary strong-arming. The stories are about a profession—the private eye with the Big Case—that barely exists today, in fiction or anywhere else.

The Doorbell Rang (1965) takes more than a few swipes at the FBI along the way as, from behind his desk, Wolfe pits wits against not just the NYPD, but J. Edgar Hoover and his men. Can he pull it off? Archie thinks not. Good clean fun.

Georges Simenon: The Misty Harbour

This 1932 story likewise involves a trademark detective, Inspector Jules Maigret, who appeared in 75 novels and 28 short stories from this French author and was reportedly second in world renown only to Sherlock Holmes.

The title of this novel was most apt, because I could never penetrate the fog surrounding what Maigret was doing in his investigation or why he was doing it, though in the end he pulled out a neat solution. It all starts intriguingly enough with an amnesiac wandering Paris with evidence of a memory-blasting gunshot wound to the head. But who is he? Why was he shot? And when he’s finally identified and returned home, why does someone immediately finish him off? Lots of suspects, no apparent motives. An evocative read.

Val McDermid: A Place of Execution

McDermied is interesting as a writer not only for the clarity of her prose and the complexity of her plots, but also for the care with which she pursues her craft. I have her writer’s guide, Forensics, which I keep at hand always.

In a recent interview with LitHub’s Daneet Steffens, McDermid says that writing her next book “doesn’t get easier, it gets harder! . . . With writing: one sits down with ambition, knowing in this little part of your head that you will not realize all that you want to achieve with this book.” That determination to “fail better,” as opposed to believing oneself a master of one’s genre and starting to coast, is what makes her books so compelling.

Compared to the above two short novels (less than 200 pages each), the 400-page A Place of Execution (1999), is a layered examination of interpersonal dynamics in a remote, claustrophobic hamlet (nine houses) where a young girl has gone missing. The secrets the community holds and the challenge to the police authorities in penetrating them make for thrilling reading.

While Stout and Simenon are entertaining, it’s McDermid, who published her 30th novel this year, who makes you truly care about the outcome.

“If you read my books and you’re not disturbed by them, then you probably need professional help,” McDermid said, at the recent Iceland Noir conference.

“Killer Women” and “Sisters in Crime”

 

woman writing

photo: Nick Kenrick, creative commons license

Don’t for a minute think the only books women want to read—or write—are chick lit and romances. London’s first crime-writing festival, organized by the all-female writing collective Killer Women, was held recently at London’s Shoreditch Town Hall. This creepy Victorian building was picked for a reason: it’s where the inquest for Mary Kelly was held—you know, Mary Kelly, Jack the Ripper’s last victim.

Killer Women (whose tagline is “criminally good writing”) was started a few years ago for many of the same reasons women writers in the US launched Sisters in Crime in 1987. SinC’s mission is to “promote the ongoing advancement, recognition and professional development of women crime writers.”

As the festival report points out, “women dominate crime fiction.” Women buy 80 percent of the 21 billion crime books sold annually. They outnumber both male writers and readers in the genre. So, what’s the problem? Why are groups like these needed?

Are Women Good Crime Writers?

Writers are attracted to the genre, one Killer Women founder says, because it “allows you to say almost anything and explore emotions that—particularly as a woman—are not acceptable to explore . . . and it allows you to give the bad guys their comeuppance.”

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid has said that women writers may actually be better at scaring us, because “since childhood we have learned to imagine this”—the possibility for violence in our lives. We’re the ones careful when walking at night, watching the shadows, lying in bed listening for the squeaking stair tread. We read about violence as a way of processing that fear and, perhaps, preparing ourselves for the worst, as well as that satisfying bit of revenge (need some fMRI studies here!). Like the line from the Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango,” “if you’d have been there, if you’d have seen it, I betcha you would have done the same.”

Three-Dimensional Characters

Women writers are in a good position to create more believable female characters too. It’s a long-standing concern that too many women in crime fiction (and film/tv) are present only for titillation—as one Shoreditch participant put it, “running around in their panties, chased by a serial killer.” Their only role is become the victim of a grisly crime or to have (always steamy) sex with the male protagonist or both. Killer Woman member D.E. Meredith calls this sexualization of murder “morally dodgy.” And boring, I say.

Women as calculating protagonists—actors, not victims—has become a standout trend with the growth in popularity of the “domestic thriller.” The success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Megan Abbott’s recent You Will Know Me, and numerous variations on the theme have opened new territory.

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.

***Between You and Me

Mary Norris, punctuationBy Mary Norris – This book—part history of language, part grammarians’ bible, part punctilious punctuation-snob puncturer—by a veteran New Yorker copy editor attempts to explain why writers in English, particularly those whose work appears in The New Yorker, make the choices they do. Form, not content, is her subject. While that publication is notoriously picky about copy matters, Norris’s anecdote-rich text suggests how much elasticity actually exists within its seemingly constricting rules.

Particularly entertaining are the early sections that include a review of her checkered, pre-New Yorker work experience. (You can’t really call a stint as a milk-truck driver and costume shop clerk a career for a person who did graduate work in English.)

Norris took her title from the common grammar mistake people make in using “I” when “me” is required. I yell at the radio when I hear the awful “between you and I” or “He invited Tom and I . . .” I suspect Norris does too.

Several chapters cover the ongoing punctuation wars. No surprise, as the subtitle of the book is Confessions of a Comma Queen. In the comma skirmish, I find I fight on the side of “playing by ear,” dropping in a comma where I sense a pause. And in hyphen disputes, her emphasis on clarity of meaning seems a useful approach. Thus the hyphen in milk-truck driver above.

Some of the text on verbs got away from me and her suggestion for how to tell whether a sentence needs “who” or “whom” (for the straggling soldiers in that lost battle), her system was overly complex or not explained clearly. I’ll stick with mine.

pencils

photo: Vladimer Shioshvili, creative commons license

The very best chapter was devoted to Norris’s love of pencils. Extra-soft No.1 pencils, in fact. The kind of pencil that has also kindled a love of pencil sharpeners. (I’ve served time in innumerable meeting rooms over the years and can tell you that The Ford Foundation’s black pencils, embossed with its name, and the round ones of the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C., which come in easter egg pastels, are the best. Whenever I attended meetings there, I stocked up.)

Reading anyone’s description of something they are both passionate and deeply knowledgeable about—making wine, say, or 1950s automobiles—is always interesting, and you learn as much about the person as about their particular interest. I don’t ever have to read about pencils again, but I’m glad I did.

Genius

Jude Law, GeniusDirector Michael Grandage’s movie Genius (trailer) about the relationship between legendary Scribners & Sons editor Maxwell Perkins and flamboyant author Thomas Wolfe had received generally tepid reviews. (while I’m delighted an editor is finally receiving screen time!).

Wolfe was an author whose moods, enthusiasms, and output were not easily corralled, even by someone with Perkins’s experience. After all, he had already brought works to the public from other writers with outsized personalities and personal difficulties–notably Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

It’s easy to imagine the slammed doors that would greet an author today who showed up with a 5000-page manuscript as Wolfe did with his second book, Of Time and the River. The challenging task of turning this behemoth into a publishable manuscript epitomizes the editor’s dilemma: “Are we really making books better,” Perkins says, “or just making them different?” Getting 5000 pages down to a still-hefty 900 made Wolfe’s work different, for sure. And better, at least in the sense of more likely to be read.

Colin Firth, as Perkins, keeps his hat on during almost the entirety of the movie, symbolic perhaps of how his character tries to keep a lid on his difficult author. Jude Law as Wolfe is by turns outrageous, contrite, drunk, hostile, and sentimental. Pretty much like the novels, actually. His performance is consistently inconsistent and always interesting. He shows Wolfe as a man with a lot of words bottled up inside him who can’t always control the way they pour out.

It’s odd to see a mostly British and Australian cast playing so many titans of American literary history, including Perkins and Wolfe, Guy Pearce as Fitzgerald, and Dominic West as Hemingway. (The Hemingway scene required an ending credit for “marlin fabricator.”) The women in the lives of the protagonists are Laura Linney as Mrs Perkins, perfect as always, and Nicole Kidman, who believably portrays the obsessed Mrs. Bernstein. She’s left her husband to cultivate and promote the much younger Wolfe and has her own flair for the dramatic. The performances make the movie worth seeing.

The National Book Award-winning Perkins biography by A. Scott Berg was transformed into a screenplay by John Logan. New Yorker critic Richard Brody dings the script for its departures from the detailed and more richly peopled original, including the book’s fuller explanation for the rupture between Wolfe and Scribners. Brody says a lawsuit and Wolfe’s unsavory political views played a part, and leaving them out does seem a mistake.

Portraying in cinema an intrinsically intellectual and abstract enterprise is difficult (The Man Who Knew Infinity struggles with the same challenge). Like me, reviewer Glenn Kenny at Roger Ebert.com apparently had not read the book, so did not have Brody’s reservations. Kenny found “the exchanges between editor and author exhilarating. Logan’s script . . . is invested in the craft of words like few other movies nowadays, even those ostensibly about writers.”

Wolfe blasted onto the American literary scene like a runaway train and departed before he could accomplish a judicious application of the brakes. Yet, he eventually realized who’d kept him on course, as his moving deathbed letter attests.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 48%; audiences: 56%.

“Hush Now, Don’t Explain”–Part 2

Billie HolidayFiction editor Beth Hill has written excellent advice to authors in her Editor’s Blog essay, “Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain.” I covered four of her points here on Friday.

Here are two more and an example from Cormac McCarthy:

  • It isn’t necessary to stop the story’s action to define what something is or how it works, Hill says. These are digressions and most readers don’t like them. Many authors enjoy doing the research for a book (I do!). They aren’t just making stuff up, they’ve grounded their work in reality. They want to share. And probably shouldn’t. That said, readers of some types of sci-fi and techno-thrillers expect to be given an understanding of the science and mechanics behind the story. Authors who write in those genres get a little slack on the “how stuff works” front. I read a terrific military novel lately (The Empty Quarter), where Amazon reviewers criticized it for not explaining every acronym and term. I wasn’t bothered, thinking I’d figured most of it out, but reader frustration was great. So it may be that a careful balance is needed.
  • Hill says if a character speaks several languages, she doesn’t need to repeat her words or thoughts in more than one of them. Writers should pick phrases or opportunities to use the second language when the meaning will be obvious by word form or context. Cormac McCarthy uses a lot of Spanish in The Crossing, and even though a not-to-be-specified number of decades have elapsed since I had high school Spanish–which certainly never touched the topics McCarthy writes about–I had no trouble following. This exchange between several Mexican men and two young Americans takes place after an old man has drawn them a map of where they want to go and walked away (McCarthy does not use quotation marks):

When he was gone, the men on the bench began to laugh. One of them rose to better see the map.

Es un fantasma, he said.

Fantasma?

Sí, sí, Claro.

Cómo?

Cómo? Porque el viejo está loco es cómo.

Loco?

Completamente.

In this and in many different and subtle ways, McCarthy confirms the reader’s understanding of what is said without a mechanical translation of every phrase (or, by extension, technical term). By the time I finished this book, I was following so well, I thought I could actually speak Spanish!

Again, I encourage you to take a good look at Hill’s full essay. Avoiding overexplaining will help keep you in step with your readers, which is what every writer wants!