About Victoria

Born in Detroit. Lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, D.C., and Princeton, New Jersey. Degrees in Journalism (U. of Michigan) and Public Health (U. of Pittsburgh). Alumna of U. of Michigan and U. of Pittsburgh. Favorite authors: Neal Stephenson, Frederick Forsyth, Alan Furst, Charles Dickens--they all know how to tell a good story! Best book read so far in 2012: Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies. Favorite TV: The Wire; Treme.

Successful Reading Experiments: 2021 Edition

I read a lot.  Forty to fifty just-published books a year that I review for the U.K. website CrimeFictionLover.com, Audiobooks of prize-nominees and winners. And books that have been out a while picked by my mystery readers book club. And a few books that have nothing to do with crime or espionage or the Dark Side.

Here are a half-dozen authors, debutantes and established, that I “discovered” last year. Maybe you would enjoy them too.

Two New Jersey writers who not only write with style and precision, they offer a nice dose of humor are Bill Baer, who has two books in his New Jersey Noir series, and experienced writer but new-to-novels Fabian Nicieza, with Suburban Dicks.

The unlikely team of characters in Chris Brookmyre’s The Cut—an elderly woman who spent her career devising grisly stage makeup for horror films and a young Black guy who’s the consummate horror fan—were a delight to chase around Europe with.

If you asked, I’d say I’m not a horror fan, but Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians presented horror in a way that made it work for me. One of the best books I read last year. (If you can, listen to the audio version, narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett. Genius.) Jones has a number of others, including My Heart is a Chainsaw, which NPR picked as a best book of 2021. Will have to get to that!

Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, nominated for a number of prizes, is the painful story of two sisters—one a cop, the other a drug addict—and the corners they’re forced into. She has more where that came from too.

About once a year, I scrub sentimentality out of my brain with the caustic prose of authors like Cormac McCarthy. The book that accomplished that job this year was Australian author Paul Howarth’s Dust Off the Bones. This year, maybe his Only Killers and Thieves.

Did you find a favorite new author last year?

The Short Story Four-Minute Mile

Sherlock Holmes

Half-finished in a Word file on my computer is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche story, the second one I’ve written. What I hadn’t realized is that my two stories follow a very well-trodden path laid by Arthur Conan Doyle and followed by Holmes acolytes ever since.

In a Sisters in Crime webinar last week with short story dream team Art Taylor and Barb Goffman, Art presented the classic seven-part structure of a Sherlock Holmes story (which he credited to the apparently out-of-print book, Sherlock Holmes for Dummies). Through some process of osmosis, it seems I’d absorbed and followed at least the first few of those parts: Part 1 – cozy domestic scene; Part 2 – Sherlock shows off; Part 3 – the problem is presented. In my first Holmes story, the problem arrived by letter; in the new one, via a distraught Mrs. Hudson. Structural awareness greatly simplifies the writing job and prevents wandering about in rhetorical left field. I know what needs to get done.

In a short story, emphasized Barb, the writer has to focus. As she puts it, “A short story is about one thing,” even if that thing is unclear at the start. If you’d asked me what my story “Burning Bright” in Busted! Arresting Stories from the Beat was about, I would have said, “Two Wisconsin ne’er-do-wells plan to rake in a lot of money by having a tiger fight a bear.” I would have added, “and it’s also about an outraged deputy sheriff trying to stop them while trying to persuade her dad to move into assisted living.”

So, would Barb say “Hey, that’s two things”? Only after I wrote “The End” did I realize the story was only superficially about those two things. What it was really about was respect for autonomy.

Art cited six steps in a typical short story, and they usually, though not necessarily, appear in order: 1- Introduce the character, 2- express their desires, 3- action (what the character does about those desires), 4- factors that impedes obtaining the desires (3 and 4 can repeat several times), 5- the climax, 6- resolution. In the classic analysis of Cinderella (below), action and impediments trade places many times (nothing to wear? fairy godmother).

Art pointed out that the six steps are useful as a tool for planning a story, and for diagnosing why it isn’t working. Barb pulls several of the steps together and recommends starting a story is by asking, “what’s the conflict?”

Lest you think these are recommendations to write to a formula, they are not. The variety and rearrangement of parts is practically infinite. Someone once said to crime writer Donald Westlake that writing genre fiction was easy: All you have to do is follow the formula. And he responded, “I’ll give you a formula for running a four minute-mile. Run each quarter-mile in less than a minute.” (Art’s talk and his slides will be in the members section of the Sisters in Crime website.)

Making Contact: Octopus

octopus

Watching the replay of the PBS Nature documentary last night about an Alaska professor with an octopus in his living room reminded me of the other great books I’ve read about these amazing creatures. Their facility for mimicry, their distributed brains, their obvious intelligence. Such a good explanation of how far back came the divide on the evolutionary tree that led to, well, us, and to them.

Sy Montgomery’s book, Soul of an Octopus, goes even further into their fascinating behavior and how she befriended a particular octopus at the New England Aquarium. That review also has a link to my post, “Why I Don’t Eat Octopus.” I’m guessing you know the reason already!

Have a wonderful weekend.

Your Family Coat of Arms

The study of family history—of little interest to many people and of intense interest to others—has innumerable byways and sidelines. Curiosity about your forebears almost naturally leads to questions about where they lived and how they lived.

Scampering down any number of who-where-how rabbit holes has been delightful. I found out, for example, that in the late 1700’s, my great-grandmother’s family established “the gentleman’s sport” of horse-racing in both Virginia and Maryland. No wonder I gave my husband a trip to the Kentucky Derby for his recent “big birthday!” And SO much more (stop me now).

The latest byway I pursued was a 3-part introductory course on heraldry from American Ancestors. Now, it isn’t that I believe any of my family came from European gentry so distinguished they were granted “the right to bear arms,” but in writing my family history, I’ve succumbed to using purported family coats of arms as occasional graphic elements. Oops!

Hearing the scorn with which the researchers view “arms by name,” I’ll have to stop doing that! Discover the problems for yourself by researching my family name “Edwards coats of arms” (better yet, substitute your own family name) and see the wild variety. But which of these belongs to your family, and can you prove it? In the past, family historians weren’t especially particular about documentation, so you cannot rely on an old family history.

Nevertheless, coats of arms of towns and counties are relatively stable (County Tyrone, Ireland, is shown), and I’ll still use Lord Baltimore’s arms in a chapter about early Maryland relatives, because they became the basis for Maryland’s distinctive state flag (below).

Did You Know?

  • Coats of arms began around the 12th century, used in seals and on tombs, and, especially, battle flags.
  • The English king sent his representatives (called heralds) into the countryside to make sure people using coats of arms were entitled to do so and were paying the associated taxes. These visitations, made from 1530 to 1688, resulted in extensive notes about lineage invaluable to genealogists today.
  • First sons could adopt their father’s coat of arms unchanged; second sons generally added a small crescent and third sons a star. But there are many exceptions. A daughter could become a “heraldic heiress” if she had no brothers.
  • All official coats of arms use only five colors: red, blue, black, green, and purple, plus gold and silver. Rules about use of color assured good contrast and visibility on the battlefield.
  • Even today, people like to look back in time and establish their right to their family’s ancient heraldic arms, with Colin Powell’s father one of the most notable of these aspirants.

In America, educational and other institutions frequently adopt some type of heraldic emblem and are free to use it without engendering a visit from the Homeland Security Herald.

Interested to know more? For the traditional approach, try the UK College of Arms, a government agency. Or, for something more American and do-it-your-own-way, the nonprofit American College of Heraldry.

The Last Mona Lisa

Art crimes are an intriguing branch of the international crime tree, and in The Last Mona Lisa Jonathan Santlofer ably fulfills their potential. He begins with a real crime that took place in 1911, when a man named Vincent Peruggia was fired from his job at the Louvre, then hid in the museum overnight and stole the Mona Lisa. The destitute but patriotic Peruggia wanted to return the painting to his native Italy, and doubtless make a little money too. The painting resurfaced two years later in Florence whereupon the Italian police arrested him.

Santlofer’s novel features an American named Luke Perrone, fictional great-grandson of Peruggia. Since childhood, Luke has researched his notorious ancestor and the rumors he kept a diary during his months in prison. Luke is a frustrated painter and college history of art professor, and an upcoming school break gives him a chance to follow up a new lead. Apparently, his great-grandfather’s journal was donated to Florence’s Laurentian Library among the papers of a recently deceased art scholar.

Other people are just as interested in the diary as Luke is. Another library patron, the luscious Alexandra Greene, is just too friendly, except when she’s not. Interpol analyst John Washington Smith suspects the painting in the Louvre may not be authentic. During the Mona Lisa’s two-year disappearance, several copies were made and sold as originals. Perhaps the one hanging in the Louvre is one of these. Smith knows about Luke’s new lead and the trip to Florence, and if it pans out, it could revive his sagging career. A stop-at-nothing collector is also keenly interested and believes Luke can tell him whether “his” Mona Lisa, hidden in a vault, is the real thing.

Maybe I read too many thrillers, but I thought Luke was a bit slow to realize he’s experiencing too many coincidences and too many people dying around him. Chapters about Luke and Smith in the present day are interspersed with Vincenzo’s story, as told in his diary. These atmospheric historical chapters give resonance to Luke’s quest.

Santlofer also grounds the present-day of his tale with reference to the real-life controversy surrounding another Leonardo work, the Salvator Mundi, dubbed “the male Mona Lisa.” In real life, this painting was bought in 2005 from a New Orleans auction house for $1,175 and sold 12 years later for $450,300,000, even though art experts disagree about its authenticity. This saga was subject of a top-rated 2021 documentary by Andreas Koefoed.

Linking the two stories underscores not just the amazing sums involved, but also the tangled motivations of people in the world of stolen and fabricated art. Craziness happens when you are dealing with objects that are, essentially, priceless. If you are fascinated by art world intrigue, this book is for you!

Santlofer is himself an artist of some note. As well as his award-winning mystery novels, he has created more than 200 exhibitions worldwide. His short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, and he was creator and director of the Crime Fiction Academy. He resides in New York.

Order here from Amazon.
Or here from IndieBound.

Amazon: All About Customer Experience?

Millions of people have benefited from Amazon’s single-minded quest to create frictionless commerce. Pretty much everything it might occur to us to want—from a book to laundry detergent to a snow blower—arrives, if not overnight, well before we’ve forgotten ordering it. Customer reviews, price comparisons, and Q&As guide our choices and let us weigh in with praise or complaints.

Behind that wall of customer-facing information is a lot of other information. About us. Information we have trusted the company with. Yet it seems Amazon has done a remarkably poor job minding that particular store. In the current issue of Wired, Will Evans writes about “Amazon’s Dark Secret”—one that’s been obscured by Amazon’s disingenuous assertions that privacy is “sewn into” everything the company does. (Read the full eye-popping article from Reveal and Wired here.)

Too many of the company’s 575,000 employees worldwide have access to customer data. This has allowed low-level employees to snoop on purchases made by celebs, to use customer data to help third-party sellers sabotage their competitors, to mess with Amazon’s product review system, and to enable sale of low-quality knock-off products.

Our data were so readily available that, for years, Amazon didn’t even know where the relevant databases—including credit card numbers—were. Funny, hackers could find them. If a design team wanted a database, it was readily available to them. If they made a copy, no one in the company security apparatus knew. In short, “Amazon had thieves in its house and sensitive data streaming out beyond its walls.”

Management for years turned a blind eye to these problems. Raising a red flag was a good way for an employee, including members of the too-small security staff, to get shut down or shut out. The whole edifice became shakier when the EU established its General Data Protection Regulation, and Amazon, like every other company dealing with EU members’ citizens, had to comply by the May 2018 deadline.

Amazon spokespeople deny the general tenor of the article and emphasize progress that’s been made, but you might want to read the whole electrifying saga. Bits and pieces of this story have been coming out for several years, but like Gerald Posner’s excellent God’s Bankers, pulling all these stories together in a coherent narrative, as here, makes for a compelling indictment.

Between Author and Reader: Amazon

A recent New Yorker article by Parul Sehgal that asks “Is Amazon is changing the novel?” sure sounds like a must-read for authors. There’s some history in there and some juicy stuff about the company some writers call “The Great Satan.”

The struggle writers face in meeting the demands of the book marketplace (versus readers) is not a new phenomenon. Sehgal cites an 1891 novel, New Grub Street, as an example of “pitiless portraits of the writing life.” A character in that book asserts that “literature nowadays is a trade,” and how many versions of that have you heard in recent years? The term potboiler was coined to reflect books created without regard to craft, but just to keep the stew pots boiling.

A hundred thirty years ago, the Amazon of book distribution was Mudie’s Select Library. Mudie’s market power–along with publishers’ financial incentives—demanded hefty three-volume works, much as publishers today like series books and for much the same reason. One popular book in a series sells the others.

But nine-hundred pages (roughly) were a lot to fill, then or now, and writing styles and habits developed to support that requirement. Victorian writers larded in subplots, created large casts of characters, and wrote desperate cliffhangers to carry readers (and themselves) through that long slog. Toward the end of the 19th century, new publishing forms began to take hold, notably less expensive books printed on cheap pulp paper, which opened book purchasing to new markets. As night follows day, new forms of reader enticement emerged, including the development of popular genre fiction—crime novels, Westerns, and the like.

Now, Amazon controls almost three-fourths of U.S. online book sales to adults and almost half of all new-book sales. In that river of print are the company’s own book imprints—16 of them. Do authors write a different kind of book when they know readers have power over not only their own book purchases, but can influence others, as well? Not one-on-one, either. Success or failure is right there on screen, thanks to reader-posted stars.

Kindle Direct Publishing takes reader feedback even farther, right to authors’ wallets. KDP writers are paid based on the number of pages read—increasing the financial incentives for producing lots of pages, new books every three months, and littering them with cliffhangers to keep readers hooked.

Whether all this has an impact on book quality, I’ll leave to you. In my opinion, it helps account for the increasing violence in crime novels, and the bizarre and gruesome nature these crimes. The frequency of plots with “girls” (usually not a child) and children as victims is simply used to raise the stakes. Do you see other evidence of Amazon’s effects? on you? on other writers? on readers?

Random Story Ideas

Buried in newspapers (online, of course), news magazines, advice columns, and every other account of real-life people and situations is a motherlode of story ideas. Here are a few I’ve been  hoarding that gave my internal story manufacturing machine a jolt.

Story Generator #1

“In 2001, following the accounting scandals at Enron and other companies, a publication called CFO Magazine quietly abandoned its annual Excellence Awards, because winners from each of the previous three years had gone to prison.”

Story Idea: Final meeting of the CFO Excellence Awards committee, harassed by pleas NOT to receive the award, nicknamed “Kiss of Death.”

Source: Evan Osnos article about white-collar crime, The New Yorker last August.

Story Generator #2

In response to employee work-at-home demands, designers envision a virtual representation of an entire office showing who is “at work,” wherever they are. It “tracks key team members and contacts based on (meeting room) reservation systems to ensure they are ‘showing face’ even when absent from their desk.” [sic]

Story Idea: The flowering of system gaming strategies; or, the Return of Big Brother.

Source: The Perkins Eastman Design Strategy Team “dream office” article in Metropolis, Sept/Oct 2021.

Story Generator #3

An obituary describing the deceased’s high school baseball career at length, naming team members, and recoungting highlights from notable games. Family gets a mention; career a sentence. Deceased is 76.Story Idea: If an eighteen-year-old knew that, 60 years later, tonight’s game would be the high point of his life, what would he do?

KGB Banker

This financial thriller by William Burton McCormick and John Christmas was inspired partly by the real-life experiences of whistleblower Christmas, who worked for the corrupt Latvian bank, Parex. (Follow that link for a “truth is stranger than fiction story!) When the bank collapsed, information about its billions in bad assets was suppressed, and the Latvian government (i.e., taxpayers) covered enormous losses.

In KGB Banker, we meet Chicago banking executive Robert Vanags who is fed up with corner-cutting in the financial industry. Recently widowed, he’d like to make a fresh start. An unexpected opportunity to do so arises when a head hunter recruits him for an executive position with the $70 billion Turaida Bank in Riga, Latvia, where his family was from. This new job sounds like the perfect professional and personal fit.

His interviews go well but as he’s leaving the bank he meets an employee named Ēricks Helmanis in the elevator. Helmanis has one word of advice: “Run.” Bob ignores this puzzling admonition, along with a few other signs that all is not as it should be, and takes the job.

Bob doesn’t know that someone’s monitoring his office, apartment, phones, computer, and even his 17-year-old son David. His watchers know about the elevator conversation and that Ēricks is hoping to meet with a young reporter for an obscure newspaper named Santa Ezeriņa.

His fourth day in the new job, Bob and a large bank contingent attend the funeral of Ēricks Helmanis, who apparently committed suicide. There, he meets Agnese Avena, an executive at the International Development Bank, with which Turaida often partners. He also meets Latvian politician Dāvids Osis, a true national hero, member of parliament, and champion of the European Union. Bob named his son after him.

While Bob becomes uneasy about some activity at the bank, he’s also distracted by an affair he’s started with Agnese. He chooses to reveal his misgivings at a meeting that will determine whether the international banking community should regard Turaida as solid. He tells the group that most of the bank’s loans are made to only a dozen shell companies owned by Russian oligarchs prohibited from receiving loans from EU banks.

From here on, Turaida officials are highly suspicious of him. The only insider Bob can trust is his elderly assistant, Evgeny, and on the outside, the legendary David Osis. Before long, not only is his information discredited, it’s apparent his life is on the line. His last hope is to trust that crazy reporter, Santa Ezeriņa, who is never one to swallow the official story.

Bankers and their secrets, oligarchs and their dirty dealing, politicians and their agendas, reporters and their dangerous probing. In a sea of betrayal, it’s all Bob can do to keep himself and David safe. As this intriguing story spools out, that goal seems less and less likely. William Burton McCormick and John Christmas have both lived in Latvia and establish the setting convincingly. Before you think some of the financial shenanigans are a little far-fetched, recall what has actually taken place there in recent decades, and you’ll conclude the set-up for this fictional story is not far afield. Plus it’s a cracking good adventure for both Bob and the journalist Santa, who sees the flashing neon warning signs that Bob tries so hard to ignore.

A Writer’s New Year’s Resolutions

2022. Already. The start of a new year feels like the opportunity to roll up our metaphorical sleeves and “this year get it right.” Time management, nurturing the creative spirit, supporting other writers, finishing that poem/story/novel—they’re all aspects of practice and productivity for members of the (you might say “storied”) profession of writers. My own 2022 resolutions:

  1. Finish stuff. When I work on a story, maybe for quite a while, and it’s Just. Not. Perfect, I hesitate to let it go. At that point, I resolve to assess whether additional changes I’m making are true improvements or just a rearrangement of the deck chairs.
  2. Stephen King says something like, “put the cat out.” This is a 2022 resolve I’ve already violated (blame in on William and Charles, pictured below). What he’s getting at it is avoiding distractions. It’s hard to eliminate them, what with cell phones, covid brain, life. Still, going to that private place in my mind is essential.
  3. Take more breaks. This seems to contradict resolution #2, but by giving myself a break—a walk around the block, a feline purr-fest, whatever—may burn up some distraction energy and fit me for unencumbered travel to that private place.
  4. Send stuff out. I will continue to review the list of short stories I’m actively trying to place or re-place every Monday. I keep a list of the stories, where I’ve sent them, yea or nay, and where I might send them next. Keep that list growing!
  5. Put my book promotion plan in order. My first novel is scheduled to come out in April, and a whole year yawned by without meaningfully tackling this impending challenge!

Someone I once worked for displayed this motivational poster: “It’s not enough to be busy, it’s what are you busy about?” If I keep these resolutions, I’ll surely be busy in the most productive way.