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.

Cut Your Losses?

How much time should you invest in a book that you really, really don’t like? In The Guardian recently, novelist Mark Billingham is quoted as saying, “twenty pages.” Every time this issue comes up in social media (or Amazon reviews) a few extraordinarily patient people say, “I can’t not finish a book. I have to read to the end, no matter what.” If so, you’re in company with almost forty percent of readers, while only about 16 percent give up as early as Billingham.

I used to always read to the end, but now . . . life is short. Every year, I read and review (or start to read) 60-plus mysteries and thrillers. I try to give new and unfamiliar authors a chance, if the premise sounds good. Alas, one or two books a year simply are not ready for prime time. If the book came by way of the author and not a publicist, I thank them and say I won’t be able to write a review after all.

If the story is good, even if the execution isn’t quite up to par, I will keep reading. But if a book is boring, I stop. I figure if it can’t hold my interest when I am excited by the premise and predisposed to read and like it, that’s a fail.

If I encounter numerous typographical and grammar errors in the first few pages, I stop. Because such slip-ups distract readers, authors should care about them. A lot. As people who purportedly care about words, they should know the difference between diffuse and defuse, between pique, peak, and peek. And on and on.

These days, an occasional typo crops up even in books from big publishing houses, and I speculate that some homonym errors are due to spellcheck’s “help.” But if it looks as if the author couldn’t be bothered, I can’t help but wonder what else wasn’t attended to. Research? Historical references? Geography? The way guns work? The million little details that distinguish an immersive reading experience from a first draft.

I reached the “throwing the book across the room” stage of frustration recently with an audiobook. (No, I did not throw my iPod.) That was a first. Usually, having somebody read to me is pure pleasure. But this book, by a popular author, just didn’t grab me. I didn’t like the whiny main character. I didn’t like the bratty children she was nanny for. And, a teenage daughter was about to enter the story, and I just knew she’d be insufferable.

So I did something I’ve never done before: I went to the Amazon one-star reviews to see if I was the problem, or did other readers suffer too? Oh, boy. Got an eyeful, including a lot of complaints about the ending. So I did something else I’ve never done before; I found a website where the ending was discussed in detail. If, as they say, “getting there is half the fun,” not only did I not want the journey, but I didn’t want to arrive at that particular ending. Saved myself another ten hours of listening time. What about you? When you don’t like a book, do you stick with it or cut your losses?

A Question of Identity

pumpkin, book art

Our house is full of masks. They’re from 19th century China, modern Venice, the Northwest Indians, Mexico, Ecuador, Indonesia, and most of all, Africa. They make a dramatic display and watch television with us in our family room.

So, as I cast my attention forward to forthcoming holidays and focused on Halloween, the theme of masks—what they hide, what they reveal, and their impact on wearer and viewer—came naturally to mind. I’m so pleased that Kings River Life has included this story in its MysteryRatsMaze page—a great place to find new short stories any time of year!

The jumping-off place for this story was wondering what would happen if children’s families recognized them by their Halloween costumes and not their true selves? How confusing would that be? In my story, Jen and Tamika, nine-year-old best friends, play a trick on their parents and switch costumes—costumes that arrived mysteriously in the girls’ rooms, no one sure where they came from, but part of busy families’ “whatever.” And the parents don’t notice: right costume, wrong girl. Now, that’s confusing. Jen and Tamika don’t know what to think. Do their parents know what’s going on and have turned the tables on them?

When they put that bit of confusion to rights, Jen and Tamika display evidence that these costumes have some other, potentially darker powers as well. You, the reader, will have your own “what happens next?” ideas, and they may not be pretty. It all does take place around All Hallows Eve, after all, when all manner of strange events can occur.Read “A Question of Identity” for free here.

tiger, mask

Touring James Dean’s Home Town

Taking a trip to central Indiana? Consider a detour to the two-stoplight town of Fairmount, Indiana, boyhood home of actor James Dean. Maybe he’s not the household name he was fifty or sixty years ago, but even younger generations know about—or through the magic of video streaming—have seen the three movies where he had a leading role: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant.

It was near the end of the Giant filming that he had the car crash that killed him at age 24. Filming of Giant was still under way when Dean died, which devastated his co-star and friend, Elizabeth Taylor, a year younger than he was.

Fairmount hasn’t forgotten him. When we visited in mid-September, the town was gearing up for the annual James Dean festival. Although he graduated from high school in Fairmount, he soon relocated to California attended Santa Monica City College and UCLA, majoring in theater, then to New York and the Actors Studio. The James Dean Gallery (a private museum in town) shows clips from the several dozen live television dramas where he had small parts. He also appeared on Broadway.

A certain amount of mythology grows up around someone who dies so young, so tragically, and many people believe he wrecked his car by driving way too fast. Not exactly true. Late afternoon, Friday, September 30, 1955, he was driving his new rear-engine Porsche Spyder to a race to be held the next day. In the car with him was his mechanic. Yes, he was driving about ten miles over the speed limit, but who hasn’t? A 1950 Ford Custom Coupe in the approaching lane turned left just in front of him. Dean was killed. The mechanic was thrown clear and survived.

Sedans in those days were not the aluminum and plastic vehicles we have today. Steel, baby. One and a half tons of it. Engine in the front, of course. The Porsche never had a chance.

You can visit the Gallery, see the farm where he grew up, the cemetery where he’s buried, and other modest sites, all in and around Fairmount, 70 miles north of Indianapolis. Take the country roads. One reason we went is because James Dean is my sixth cousin, with our common ancestors being our 5th great-grandfather. I had the list of intervening generations with me and asked the historian at the museum whether it looked right to him. “Those are all familiar names,” he said. A certified genealogist wouldn’t be satisfied, but I am!

Dust Off the Bones

By Paul Howarth – Responsibility, redemption, and squandered chances are among the themes in Paul Howarth’s second novel, which will live in your memory long after turning the last page. Just as indelible is the portrait of the Australian outback—the dust and drought—and the hardness and hardiness of the people who take up residence in such a hostile environment.

Billie and Tommy McBride, ages sixteen and fourteen, respectively, arrive at their remote home to find their mother and father shot dead, and their younger sister Mary, dying. The Native Police arrive to investigate, headed by a sociopathic white inspector named Noone. The police claim to believe that the crime was committed by an aboriginal group called the Kurrong, and set off in pursuit, taking the teenagers with them.

Eventually, they find the group and slaughter them—men, women, and children alike, upwards of a hundred people, except for a few women they keep alive for other purposes. The boys are made complicit in these depredations and the subsequent revisions of events. The rest of the novel is about how the McBride boys cope with that guilt and horror.

Noone remains a dominant presence in their lives, even though they rarely see him. He has insisted the boys split up and have nothing to do with each other or he will return and kill them, any family they have, and everyone they care about. They believe him.

Billie marries successfully to a widow with a sizeable station. Tommy, with his black companion Arthur, has a job on another distant station, where he’s putting up fencing under the thumb of a vindictive overseer. In a confrontation Tommy inadvertently kills the overseer. He and Arthur flee, and, with the telegraph likely one step ahead of them, lie low.

What modest successes either young man achieves are tainted by the anxiety that the annihilation of the Kurrong will come to light, that Noone will decide they are a risk to his position and he and his minions will track them down, and, in Tommy’s case, that the murder he committed will come out. If you’re familiar with the writing of Cormac McCarthy or Donald Ray Pollock, you may find Howarth’s bracing writing style similar. Reading this book is like having all your veins and arteries cleaned out, cleared of everything easy and soft. While the writing is hard as a diamond, it’s also beautiful and properly paced to magnify the weight of the men’s actions.

Her Sister’s Shadow

If you’re a fan of books with an unreliable narrator, you’re in luck with Catherine Wimpeney’s debut thriller. She draws on her experiences and insights as a psychotherapist to create a nuanced portrait of a woman with profound and initially unappreciated mental health challenges.

Kay is a Senior Investigating Officer in the Manchester police force, a bit uneasy with her partner, DI Matt Anderson, whom she believes is too ambitious (wants her job), and with their commanding officer, Barbara Dean (may give it to him). Granted, Kay seems more than a bit paranoid when she sees Matt and Barbara talking with each other. But she’s been in a shaky mental state since her older sister Helen’s suicide.

About ten months earlier, Helen jumped to her death from a parking structure. Helen suffered from depression for many years, but Kay never anticipated she’d do this. Kay knows she played a role in Helen’s troubled psychiatric history, which contributes to her grief and guilt over Helen’s death. Kay has missed a number of appointments with the therapist her department hoped would get her back on track. That, combined with Kay’s current somewhat erratic mental state, convinces Barbara to require that she take some time off.

Fate seems to play a cruel trick on Kay when she spots another woman at the top of a parking structure, looking prepared to jump. She rushes to the woman’s aid. If she couldn’t save her sister, perhaps she can save this woman. The woman’s name is Ava, and Kay finally talks her down. Ava’s reveals she’s being tormented by her ex-husband, Adrian McGrath, a wealthy property developer. She is terrified of him and the men he has following her. To Kay’s surprise, she knows McGrath, whom she holds partly responsible for the torture death of a young boy.

Kay planned to pursue her mental health recovery in Scotland at a vacation home that’s been in her family for generations. Quiet. Fabulous views. Now, she invites Ava to join her. No one will have a clue that’s where she’s hiding.

Author Wimpeney delves into a lot of backstory, not just about Kay, but Adrian too, and I’m not sure all of it was necessary. She made a good choice in letting Kay narrate most of the story in first-person. You get a strong sense of her perspective, which makes the book work. A few very short chapters take other points of view, but make the narration feel choppy.

When Kay finds Helen’s journal in the vacation house and begins to read, her mental state is stressed almost beyond endurance. The pressure on Kay continues to mount—protecting Ava, salvaging her career, repairing relationships, dealing with Adrian, heading off a nosy reporter.

Her Sister’s Shadow is unquestionably a psychological thriller, and you may conclude it emphasizes the psychological elements at the expense of the thriller elements. Yet, the unpredictable consequences of Kay’s mental state will keep the pages turning.

Order here from Amazon.

Or here through IndieBound.

One P.I.’s Life

Sheila Wysocki, a death investigator based in Nashville, talked about her work a few weeks ago at the Killer Nashville Conference, and it was full of ideas to start crime fiction writers’ juices flowing.

Although she lives in central Tennessee, she doesn’t work cases based there; for safety reasons, the work she does is all out-of-state (a couple of stories right there).

Her clients are the families of victims. All of the victims are cold cases. Some of the victims died many years before, and some have grown cold because the police have stopped investigating. Sheila apparently believes some of them weren’t very thoroughly investigated from the outset.

No matter how much family members miss them and want a resolution, they can be powerless to make that happen.They are often financially strapped, some because they were poor to begin with, and others because they have been repeatedly taken advantage of by unscrupulous investigators. One of Wysocki’s first tasks is to establish trust.

Several factors influence whether she will take on a specific case. One is whether it’s a case she can take to the public—in other words, will it be effective in ginning up some public sentiment toward reopening the investigation? The families will have already tried to persuade the police to keep up their efforts and have gotten nowhere. Public pressure can’t hurt.

She assesses whether the family includes some strong personalities the police won’t want to tangle with, or whether it has the money to sue the police, which could result in a court order to investigate further. It takes from $300,000 to $500,000 to take a police department to court, she said, which is out of reach for most families. This is where cable tv dollars can help. The popularity of cold case programming means producers are looking for interesting stories, and the network will underwrite the necessary investigation.

These lawsuits enable Wysocki to gain access to official documents and reports, and she reads all of them. She said she often finds that the police haven’t interviewed anyone. She called her approach “crowdsourcing” justice, because she involves families, volunteer investigators, and a variety of other experts in fields like 911 call analysis. She may produce a podcast, which has sometimes proved an effective way to get tips.

She started on this career path after solving the murder of her former college roommate, a case that had gone unsolved for twenty-six years. Thinking about all the pain involved in that murder, she must have pivoted to the 266,000 other unsolved murders in the United States—a number that grows by about 6,000 per year—and found her calling.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

I suppose at some point I must have known more about the downfall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker other than the broad outlines I remember: wildly popular televangelists who fell from grace in a financial scandal. Tip of the iceberg, it turns out.

The one specific I remembered was that I went cold-turkey on the blue eyeshadow. The new movie, written by Abe Sylvia and directed by Michael Showalter (trailer) is unexpectedly moving, as you realize many of the couple’s difficulties are the result of Tammy Faye’s own blind spots.

Televangelists are not top-of-mind for me, and my default opinion is that they’re all con men. Jessica Chastaine as Tammy Faye and Andrew Garfield as Jim do such a good job that, OK, yes, they’re making money hand-over-fist, but there seems to be some sincere belief under all the trappings and on Tammy Faye’s side, real compassion for others. You can’t say the same for Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) or Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds). In interviews, Chastain said that in her decade of research for the film, “I looked for a really seedy side that I thought was true, and I just couldn’t find it.”

From humble beginnings in Michigan and Minnesota, the Jim and Tammy Faye built an empire on Jim’s preaching and Tammy Faye’s singing that included a satellite broadcasting network, their PTL (Praise the Lord) headquarters, and a theme park in South Carolina. These expansions and the couple’s lavish lifestyle were funded by an estimated $1 million a week in contributions from viewers of the PTL club worldwide.

The movie is based on a 2000 documentary of the same name. Massive credit needs to go to the make-up department and the magicians who made Chastain go from slender to zaftig as the film’s time passes. While televangelism may make many viewers shake their heads in puzzlement, and, while it trods a path well-worn by other biopics, the fantastic performances of the two principals make it well worth seeing. “this exceptionally well-cast version of Tammy Faye’s story does manage to tap into a cultural moment with reverberations we continue to feel today,” says Alissa Wilkinson of Vox.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 65%; audiences 88%.

Diverse Diversions: 3 Entertaining Crime Stories

Gunslinger: Killer’s Requiem

By AW Hart, pen name of Michael Black. I miss good stories about the Old West, which were such a feature of American life a half-century ago and before. Take a trip back there with this new novel, featuring Hart’s gunslinger character, River Hicks. Hicks is returning to the Oregon home town where he’s wanted for murders he didn’t commit. In tow are teenage twins Connor and Abby, whom he rescued from an abusive situation in Texas. The trio faces a deadly opponent in Hicks’s brother, the town’s wealthiest man, exploiter of lumber-mill workers, and, secretly, father of the twins. A whole corral of colorful and memorable characters head toward a showdown between Hicks and his allies and anti-union hired guns. Amazon link here.

That Darkness

By Lisa Black – I enjoyed her informative presentations at Killer Nashville, but had never read one of her books. Her experiences as a crime scene investigator really comes through in 2016’s That Darkness, as her protagonist, Maggie Gardiner, ekes every bit of information out of the scant clues (look out for those cat hairs!) in a series of unexplained murders of men with impressive violent crime rap sheets. You’ll know from the beginning that the killer she’s pitted herself against is Cleveland detective Jack Renner, fed up with the justice system’s failure to get these violent characters off the streets and taking matters into his own hands. Maggie soon begins to suspect a police vigilante, but who is it? She sets up quite an interesting cat-and-mouse game between herself and Renner, and both are challenged to reconcile the differences between law and justice. Amazon link here.

Queen’s Gambit

By Bradley Harper – No, not the tv movie, but a 2019 thriller set in England in 1897, in which a pair of sleuths try to foil an assassination attempt against Queen Victoria. Margaret Harkness is called upon by an old friend—Professor Joseph Bell, who in real life was an inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes—to help identify a German anarchist bent upon killing the queen, an act the anarchist deems “propaganda by deed.” The story, set at the colorful time of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, offers a prime opportunity for royal pomp and for the anarchist’s dark doings. Can Harkness and Bell outwit the determined killer? Masterfully entertaining and with a helpful map. Amazon link here.

I Saw It at the Movies

Bernie

My original impetus for seeing Richard Linklater’s 2012 movie Bernie (trailer) was that at least some of it was filmed in Smithville, an east Texas town named after my great great grandfather, William Smith (as was Smithville, Mississippi). Smithville is in Bastrop County, where a lot of movies made in Texas are filmed. Add to that, it’s based on a true crime My interest was piqued.

Cleverly filmed like a Cold Case documentary, it uses interviews with the principals and various townspeople to gradually build up the story. Many of them are outrageously hilarious.

Jack Black does an impressive portrayal of the small town’s genial, much-loved assistant funeral director, Bernie Tiede. Reviewer Roger Ebert said his performance “proves that an actor can be a miraculous thing in the right role.” Out of compassion or greed (depends who’s talking), Bernie takes up with a truly nasty elderly woman (Shirley MacLaine), and is accused of murdering her. Bernie’s nemesis is ambitious district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), determined to prosecute, no matter what the townspeople think about the crime. These are the kinds of roles where you can go over-the-top, and the cast does.

Rotten Tomatoes’ critics rating: 88%; audiences: 73%.

The Lost Leonardo

Here’s a story rife with ideas for crime writers! The documentary follows the trail of a painting purchased in 2005 from a New Orleans auction house for $1,175 (trailer). After restoration, it was believed (by some) to be the much-copied “Salvator Mundi” by Leonardo da Vinci. Twelve years later, carrying that identity, it sold at auction for $450,300,000. Now presumed to have been bought by Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, some believe it’s headed for Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The Scandinavian documentarians, led by director Andreas Koefoed, never come to a conclusion about the work’s authenticity—how could they, when the art world remains so sharply divided?

However, it’s the middle of the story in which events become as murky as the overpainting of the possible masterpiece. In 2013, a Swiss art dealer, Yves Bouvier, purchased the painting for around $75 million and sold it to a Russian oligarch  for $127.5 million. The oligarch was displeased with Bouvier’s mark-up and sued. Interestingly, Bouvier ran an international company that specialized in the transportation and storage of art works, luxury goods, and other collectibles, and is currently under investigation in several countries. He exploited the concept of freeports, which rent space (and services) to art collectors and museums. These facilities are outside the control of customs and taxing officials and have come under increasing scrutiny for their possible role in the trafficking of looted Syrian artifacts, tax evasion, and money-laundering.

At present, no one knows for sure where the painting is. Some investigators believe it is in storage in one of Bouvier’s never-neverland storage facilities. Others, that it’s on bin Salman’s yacht. No one knows for sure. Prepare to be astonished!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 80%.

The Ubiquitous Plants

Plants are all around us, so it’s no wonder that crime stories occasionally take advantage of what’s right at hand and make them part of a story. The fascinating history of poisons is just one example, and the history of my favorite poisoner Mithradates Eupator is well worth a read. As a recent post mentioned, analysis of plant matter is a frequent part of crime investigations too—what pollen or bit of plant material is present that shouldn’t be? (Writers of ITV’s Vera frequently include such clues.)

How digested is a victim’s plant-based stomach contents? How did authors use that peat bog (Val McDermid) or giant witch elm (Tana French) to conceal a body? A reader commenting thatRuth Ware’s Turn of the Key was too far-fetched asked, “Whoever heard of a poison garden?” This is a person who doesn’t know her Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is one of my favorite Hawthorne stories! (Maybe the commenter knows her Marvel Comics heir, Monica Rappaccini.)

There’s another side to planting plant evidence too. Rather than obscuring the method, timing, and place of a crime, plants can be used proactively, to send a message, not hide it. Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel The Language of Flowers takes on this topic explicitly, and a young couple lets specific flowers say what they are reluctant to express directly. (How Victorian!) As one reviewer said, it’s “a captivating novel in which a single sprig of rosemary speaks louder than words.”

For a tutorial on the practice of floriography, remnants of which have survived thousands of years, Amazon has at least two well received books (The Complete Language of Flowers and Floriography), neither of which I’ve read. Both are well illustrated, though some others are not, which is a big disadvantage when you want to see whatever it is so you can describe it.

Online sources helped me decide which flowers a character deeply sorry about the way he’d treated his late wife and son should choose. He took pale pink roses to his wife’s grave and to their son’s, asphodel, the flower of regret.

Roses have many meanings including as a symbol for silence or secrecy (“sub rosa”) dating to the myths of ancient Greece. Red roses are associated with both courage and romantic love. Yellow roses, aside from the Texas association, symbolize friendship and new beginnings. White roses are linked to innocence and purity, explaining their frequent appearance in bridal bouquets. Pale pink roses, as in my story, are linked to sympathy. Have one character give another a black rose and you’ve sent a message.

Floriography has been practiced for thousands of years, and even though your readers may not know the details, carefully selecting which flowers you use in a story adds emotional resonance, and for the cognoscenti, a grace note of delight. Authors from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling have used flowers in this way. Ophelia’s flowers included rosemary (remembrance), pansies (thoughts), fennel (sorrow), columbines (affection), and daisies (innocence and purity). New meanings keep being added to our store of floriography too. One of the most compelling of recent years was London’s public art installation to commemorate the outbreak of World War I. Each of the 888,246 red ceramic poppies represented a British or colonial service member who died in the Great War. If you study the pictures, you’ll never forget the association.

poppy poppies Beefeater London
A small section of the 2014 London installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing a member of the British military who died in World War I (photo: Shawn Spencer-Smith, creative commons license)