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.

*****Conviction

By Denise Mina – In her new deftly plotted crime thriller, Denise Mina uses a compelling story-within-a-story to draw you in. First-person narrator Anna McDonald lives in Glasgow with husband Hamish and two young daughters. Early one morning, she’s listening to a true-crime podcast about the sinking of the Dana, a private yacht moored in France’s Île de Ré. The boat suffered an explosion below decks and sank, drowning a father and his two grown children.

Anna is a dispassionate listener to this story until it mentions the yacht-owner’s name, Leon Parker. She knows him. Years before, when she worked as a maid at an exclusive Scottish holiday resort, Parker was a guest, and she remembers him fondly. “Oh, God, Leon’s laugh. So dark and wild you could drown a bag of kittens in it.”

Anna can’t reminisce forever, though, she has to awaken the children and her husband and start their day. In a frenzy of morning preparations, Anna finally answers the knock at the door. Her best friend Estelle is there with a roller bag, and Hamish is at the top of the stairs, his own roller bag beside him.

Hamish is leaving her for Estelle. He’s keeping the house and the girls. Anna will get money. Throughout this roller-coaster of a story, Mina effectively conveys Anna’s erratic state of mind, and while her character doesn’t always make the best decisions, you can believe in her. She’s prickly and charming.

And she has secrets. She wasn’t always Anna McDonald. She was Sophie Bukaran until she was raped by four footballers. The case attracted unwanted notoriety, the fans never forgave her, and team owner Gretchen Tiegler tried to get her killed.

Soon Estelle’s husband Fin Cohen arrives. He’s an instantly recognizable member of a popular band who is as well known for being anorexic as for his music. Without thought of logistics or consequences, Anna and Fin launch into a road trip to flee the reminders of their abandonment. As they listen to the podcast episodes in the car, Fin also becomes intrigued with the Dana’s sinking and its reputation of being haunted.

Eventually, the two begin their own series of podcasts, asking new questions about the crime. Thanks to Fin’s celebrity and the almost immediate outing of Anna as Sophie, their forays into pseudo-journalism attract an improbably large audience. Sophie is afraid the attention will spark renewed risk from Tiegler and her minions—not only to her. Her daughters are vulnerable too. Fin tells her she’s being paranoid, until he has a fright of his own. “Now that Fin was scared too, my paranoia never came up again.” Love Sophie’s sly humor!

You’re in for quite an adventure, at times a deadly one, with Mina’s intriguing tale.

For a quirkier side of Glasgow crime, I’d also recommend the entertaining adventure of book store clerk, inadvertent murderer, and fugitive crime-fighter Jen Carter in Russell D. McLean’s Ed’s Dead.

Photo: Jan Alexander from Pixabay.

Weekend Movie Picks

The Biggest Little Farm

This charming documentary records John and Molly Chester’s epic attempt to create a sustainable farm an hour outside Los Angeles (trailer).

They say early on that they found a sponsor who believed in their vision of a farm that, with a multitude of animals and kinds of crops, captures the power of biodiversity. That sponsor had deep pockets, because, while what they’re doing is a beautiful thing, it looks expensive.

The first challenge of Many was bringing back the soil from its status as moonscape. You follow them over seven years of trials and successes, and now their egg business (ravaged by coyotes killing the chickens) and fruit business (ravaged by hungry birds) are thriving. The farm gives tours, because it’s a beautiful place to see. And a gift shop.

Although the Chesters’ approach has a lot of intellectual and emotional appeal, he’s realistic enough to recognize that Mother Nature isn’t charmed by good intentions. Staying on top of it isn’t easy or inevitable. Still, you’ll leave the theater happier.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 91%; audiences: 97%.

The White Crow

The plot of this movie is well known, how brilliant Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West at the Le Bourget airport in Paris (trailer) at the end of a visit by the Kirov ballet, then became the greatest ballet star of his generation. This wonderful movie, written by playwright David Hare and directed by by Ralph Fiennes (who also plays Nureyev’s teacher, ballet master Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin), tells his early story in black and white flashbacks.

The early story is important, because Nureyev’s poverty-stricken childhood in a Tatar Muslim family, with an absent father, may help explain the enormous chip on his shoulder. Let’s just say he’s not Mr. Congeniality. He knows he can succeed only if he excels, and his default assumption (a correct one, it appears) is that the Soviet system of training, work assignments, and so forth do not share his goal. The 23-year-old Nureyev’s ultimate defection in 1961, not without its dangers, is not prompted by politics, but by the desire for freedom to practice his art.

Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko looks and moves with Nureyev’s assurance and projects his charisma. He barely struggles to be likeable; he’s a man on a mission, weighed down by the oppressive handlers sent with the company to Paris. The critics are lukewarm, but audiences sense the film’s appeal, “full of small pleasures,” says Moira MacDonald in the Seattle Times—and big ones too, when Ivenko dances.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 67%; audiences 85%.

****The Better Sister

wedding rings, rose

By Alafair Burke – Which is the better sister? An interesting question, but not one their husband Adam can answer, because he’s dead. In an intriguing plot complication, both women were married to the same man, just not at the same time. Nicky married him first, almost twenty years ago, but her increasingly erratic behavior finally forced Adam to seek a divorce and custody of their toddler son Ethan. Soon he moved to Manhattan where Chloe lives, and for a number of years he worked happily and successfully as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Chloe, now his wife, urged him into a much more lucrative job, a partnership at a white-shoe law firm. Adam hates it. Not only that, something’s gone wrong in their relationship, though you can’t quite put your finger on it—yet.

A bit of a control freak, Chloe doesn’t reveal the cracks in her armor right away. She’s also a bit of a modern hero, using her magazine to let not just media darlings, but everyday women tell their sexual abuse and harassment stories. Misogynistic Twitter trolls make her a target—an unpredictable, persistent threat lurking in the background.

When Chloe arrives home late one night, Adam has been murdered, which brings Nicky to Manhattan, hoping to reconnect with her now sixteen-year-old son and taking up residence in Chloe’s home office. These temperamentally opposite sisters circle each other like newly introduced housecats. At least Nicky has stopped the drugs and the drinking, and she’s started making jewelry to sell on Etsy. In an unexpected rebalancing of the scales of likability, you may find yourself more sympathetic to Nicky than Chloe, who works so hard at being perfect.

The police detectives clearly hope to pin Adam’s death on Chloe, but when they realize Ethan has lied about where he was the night of his father’s death, they focus laserlike on him. A third strong woman enters the story in the character of Olivia Randall, Ethan’s lawyer. Chloe would like to manage the case, Nicky would like to do something rash, but Olivia stays in charge. But if Ethan didn’t kill his father, who did?

Author Burke’s real-life experience as a prosecutor serves the story well, and the details of the trial and the strategies of the attorneys make for excellent courtroom drama. The pressures of the trial bring forth a few “I didn’t see that coming” surprises too. It’s is an engaging, well-told tale that benefits from Burke’s clear writing style.

Photo: Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

From Author’s Page to Your Ear

earphones

The spring crime/thriller/mystery award season is for me means listening to the many nominees I’ve missed. Below are four recent listens. Good books, all, but these reviews focus on their strengths as spoken-word products. Listed in order of preference, my favorite at the top.

1 – Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens (12 hours, 12 minutes) – I fell under the spell of this engrossing novel and Cassandra Campbell’s placid narration. Yes, Owens glosses over the serious difficulties that would be faced by an eight-year-old girl living alone in the North Carolina marsh. With the help of her friend Tate, Kaya teaches herself to read and to record her detailed observations of the marsh’s plant and animal life. In the background, Owens weaves in the investigation of a murder that takes place when Kaya is in her early twenties and, the plot being what it is, you know she’ll be accused of the crime and totally unprepared to defend herself. I was with Kaya’s story all the way up to the end. Though Owens laid the factual groundwork for it, it didn’t make emotional sense. Nevertheless, the story is a fine ride, sensitively and beautifully read.

2 – The Liar’s Girl, by Catherine Ryan Howard (10 hours, 26 minutes) – A nicely plotted thriller about Alison Smith, whose boyfriend, in her first year of college, confessed to a string of murders of young Dublin women. He’s been in a psychiatric institution ever since, but now, ten years on, the murders have started again. The Dublin police visit Alison in the Netherlands where she now lives, saying her boyfriend may be able to help with the current investigation. But he will only talk with her, and they guilt-trip her into returning. Solid reading by a trio of actors: Alana Kerr Collins (mostly), Alan Smyth, and Gary Furlong.

2- (Yes, a tie) – Down the River Unto the Sea, by Walter Mosley (7 hours, 44 minutes) – Loved the narration of this New York tale and its diversity of voices. Disgraced NYPD detective Joe King Oliver, now a private detective, sees a chance to redeem himself and his career with the takedown of a group of crooked cops. And he has the chance to rescue another possibly falsely accused black man. But, it’s New York, so it’s complicated. He finds himself an unlikely ally in a dangerous character named Melquarth Frost whom I liked a lot. Great narrating job by Dion Graham, capturing all the humor and subtleties of Mosley’s wildly colorful characters.

3 – The Witch Elm, by Tana French (22 hours, 7 minutes) – I hadn’t realized this book was so much longer than the others. It sure felt that way. French is such a greatly admired author, I must be missing something when I find her tedious. Only after you’ve invested  several hours does evidence of the crime at the book’s center emerge. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how well she wrote the dialog of twenty-something Toby and his cousins—snarky, whining, self-absorbed—or the pitch-perfect rendition narrator Paul Nugent gives it (“Toe-beeee!”), but listening to their endless talk was like fingernails on a blackboard.

CrimeCONN 2019: Writers’ Inspiration

chalk outline, body
(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

There’s a buzz from just being in a room packed with crime writers and hearing topics discussed that consume your waking brain (but are of negligible interest to your kids, your running buddy, and pretty much anyone else). Then there are the ideas the discussion sparks. Oh, for the luxury of time to follow all those ideas to their dramatic conclusion and to absorb into my bones the writing advice provided by panelists Jane Cleland, Steve Liskow, and Hallie Ephron.

Here are 10 ideas and tips that struck me at last Saturday’s CrimeCONN at the beautiful Ferguson Library in Stamford, Connecticut. (Yesterday’s Post: Lawyers, Guns, and Money!)

1. Themes and variations. How a case is investigated and handled in court varies across jurisdictions. Envision a clutch of short stories in which similar crimes have very different handling and outcomes.

2. The case of the gentleman prosecutor. When a defendant’s mistress was about to be called to testify, the prosecutor let his wife know she might be happier waiting in the hallway. What other courtesies might a prosecutor extend?

3. Is that your best argument? An appellate lawyer advised, “Put your best argument first,” while people are still listening.

4. If you’re reading crime fiction to assess the state of the market, “don’t go back farther than five years.” There was a lot of nodding and murmured assent to the notion that Agatha Christie couldn’t get published today.

5. Coincidences happen in real life all the time. But in fiction, forget it. At least, “have no more than one,” advised Hallie Ephron, who for a similar reason nixed twins as a plot device. (We won’t mention that Louise Penny based a plot on the Dionne quintuplets.)

6. American English is tightly connected to rhythm, said Steve Liskow, which is why reading a manuscript aloud exposes problems in the language that are invisible on the page. Readers will stumble over the same awkwardnesses you do.

7. No need to write in dialect. In fact, don’t. Mention a character’s accent once and use word choice and the rhythms of subsequent speech to reinforce it.

8. Jane Cleland said great heroes are not afraid to act, though the panelists agreed they have a flaw or failing that must be overcome.

9. Put the important information at the beginning or end of a paragraph. Bury your red herrings in the middle.

10. And keynote speaker Peter Blauner repeated advice from legendary journalist Pete Hamil: “When doing an interview, listen very carefully to the last thing someone says to you.” You’re on your way out the door, your interviewee’s guard is down. This could be the juicy stuff.

See you at CrimeCONN 2020!

Lawyers, Guns, and Money: CrimeCONN 2019

lawyer

Organizers of this year’s CrimeCONN—led by Chris Knopf and Charles Salzberg—truly delivered. Their MWA-NY sponsored committee put together excellent panels and presentations, followed by entertaining keynote speaker Peter Blauner, whose resume includes the award-winning novel Slow Motion Rider and several seasons of Law & Order.

Lawyers as Characters

Authors who are lawyers or are writing legal thrillers peopled several panels. Some of them use their lawyer-character as a nexus of the story’s conflict. The conflicts may be external to their character and arise because of the inherent contentiousness of situations they set up, essentially because of the conflict between the lawbreakers they represent and orderly society. They also use characters who are advocacy lawyers—say, working for an environmental or women’s rights group—to raise issues without clunky exposition.

By contrast, other authors said their emphasis is on the character they are developing, and the fact the character is a lawyer is almost incidental to the story. These characters’ conflicts are often internal, when their needs and values conflict with the actions required of them.

Either way, writers and lawyers are professional storytellers following a loosely analogous process. A lawyer starts a case with the facts (novel set-up), makes arguments (development of the novel’s plot), and arrives at a conclusion/summation (denouement).

Attorney-author Connie Hambley said when she writes, she envisions her reader as “very smart opposing counsel,” answering in one way or another all the objections that reader might make. A variation on this point was the observation that lawyers are logical, accustomed to preparing their cases in a logical way, and a crime story also generally follows a trail of logic, through its accumulation and interpretation of evidence.

What Goes Wrong?

We remember the things that bug us, and though novels/tv/movies get a lot of details right, panelists had a long list of pet peeves. These included stories in which: surveillance is easy (and affordable); extradition happens almost overnight; judges make snap decisions about motions; and if it’s an organized crime case, there’s lots of electronic evidence. IRL, organized crime figures know what our politicians haven’t figured out: no emails, no texts, no Instagrams. And here’s one of my eye-rollers: DNA evidence that comes back in 24 hours. At the same time, panelists agreed that a story that strictly followed what happens in an investigation or in the courtroom would be unreadable (and cited this article).

They said witness testimony is often presented as too black-or-white. Either a witness is a truth-teller or a liar, when, in real life, witnesses do a bit of both. What’s more, they may not be intentionally lying, they may misinterpret something, they may misremember or simply forget.

Topic Pivot: CIA Fun

For what goes wrong (and right) with spycraft in the movies, see this entertaining video with Jonna Mendez from Wired. It’s a followup to her previous film of CIA tips on developing an effective disguise.

Tomorrow: Tidbits that might make good plot points

Photo: “Bewigged man.” by gappa01 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

***Envy

window blind

By Amanda Robson –The suburban London borough of Twickenham is home to the upwardly mobile young couple Faye and Phillip and their two daughters. Thirty-four year old Faye cuts a striking figure, walking the older girl to school and dropping in on the agent who occasionally finds her modeling jobs. She’s beautiful, thin, and, to all appearances, has her world well put together.

Those appearances are carefully noted by Erica, a neighbor in a rental flat who is overweight, insecure, and has little going on in her life. Before long, Erica’s preoccupation with Faye moves beyond watching; she begins following her.

Divided into short chapters, the novel is told from the alternating points of view of Erica, Faye, Faye’s husband Phillip, and their architect friend Jonah who’s in charge of Faye and Phillip’s loft conversion.

Early on, we learn about cracks in Faye’s façade when she visits the modeling agency and learns she’s been turned down for a job because the client wants someone younger. At a party where she meets a top modeling agent, he won’t even take her card. He says over-contrived looks are out of fashion. Faye is devastated until friend Jonah appears.

In his first-person sections, Jonah makes clear his motive is not friendship, but seduction. He plies Faye with alcohol and flattery, soothing her insecurities. In a ‘why doesn’t she see this coming’ moment, he persuades her to go home with him and they have an uninhibited night of sex. When she wakes in the morning, Faye is horrified and slips away unobserved—except by Erica, that is. Erica becomes convinced Faye is irresponsible and a bad mother and that she can be the young girls’ savior. Despite her delusions, she remains a sympathetic character, with a nice character arc.

Faye is aghast at what she’s done and determined to keep Phillip from finding out. Ah, once again, secrets are the fuel that propel the plot forward. Jonah is not backing off.

Lots goes wrong from here on out, as the pressure on Faye increases to an excruciating point. While Erica is a convincing adversary, as a young woman without advantages who lets herself be inhabited by a foolish fantasy, Jonah is not. You may not fully believe in him and his smarmy descriptions of the sex he and Faye had. It would be a stronger book if his character inspired the kind of divided loyalty Erica does. You still kind of root for her, despite her missteps.

Photo: yeniguel for Pixabay.

Skylight

McCarter Theatre Center closes its 2018-2019 season with David Hare’s Tony-award winning play Skylight. Directed by McCarter artistic director Emily Mann, the play opened May 11 and runs through June 2. I’d seen the Bill Nighy – Carey Mulligan version, in which the acting was great, but I actually think I got more out of this current one.

When it premiered in 1995, Skylight was a timely exploration of a clash of values between wealthy restaurateur Tom Sergeant (in this production, played by Greg Wood) and his former lover, now a teacher in a bottom-of-the-barrel school, Kyra (Mahira Kakkar). Now in 2019, gulfs between people in terms of income, attitudes, and basic values appear even more unbridgeable. Can anyone still believe love conquers all?

The play takes place in Kyra’s very downmarket apartment (exquisitely tatty, by way of Beowulf Borritt), deprived of most luxuries, including heat. Unexpectedly, she’s visited by Tom’s 18-year-old son Edward (Zane Pais), who comes bearing dubious gifts (beer and rap music). He wants to tell her how much he’s missed her since she moved out of the family home three years earlier. She decamped when Tom’s wife discovered Kyra and Tom’s long-running affair. Edward feels abandoned by Kyra and by his mother, who has subsequently died of cancer. His immediate problem, though, is with his father, who in his unresolved guilt and grief makes his son’s life miserable.

Edward leaves and Tom arrives. Tom and Kyra circle each other, the magnetic waves of their attraction so strong they’re practically visible. Yet, like magnets with matching poles aligned, they repel each other with their words.

Witty and voluble, Tom can’t accept that Kyra lives the way she does, devoid of comforts, teaching in a school where a student spit on her, a dinner lady was mugged, and the head teacher’s cat was baked in her oven. Kyra retreats to the high-ground arguments that she’s helping society, helping the most needy kids, even if only one. While Tom acknowledges, on the surface, the nobility of her effort, he can’t stop his scorn for her choices from breaking through. “You don’t have to live this way.”

Ultimately, their attraction is too powerful, and Act One ends in a satisfying clinch. But are their differences really irreconcilable? Can they adjust, recalibrate, soften? That’s Act Two.

Wood and Kakkar , with Mann’s direction, keep the dialog blazing. Wood is all over the stage, flopping in a chair, pouring a drink, never still an instant, until something makes him alight like a dragonfly, only to dart away again. Kakkar is the steady one, not as amusing, but just as passionate. (Also, she makes a spaghetti dinner onstage, in a kitchen about three feet by three.)

For centuries, stories of impossible love have been a theater staple. This compelling McCarter production lets us confront its contemporary face. A highly satisfying theater experience!

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

Author Lynne Olson drew a standing-room-only crowd at the Princeton Public Library this week to hear her discuss her latest book, a biography of a mostly unheralded Frenchwoman, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. Fourcade ran a loose network of 3,000 spies within Vichy France during the Nazi occupation, and Olson calls it the most influential organization spying on the Nazis in the war.

Born in 1909 to wealthy parents and raised in Shanghai, she married a military intelligence officer at age twenty, and ultimately had three children. During the war, she sent the children to Switzerland for safety and did not see them for years at a time. Sometime in there, Olson says, she had an affair with pilot hero and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Le Petit Prince, et al.) She survived the war and many harrowing experiences and died in Paris in 1989.

The French Resistance movement, uncoordinated and spotty though it was, came in three flavors. Two have received considerable attention in films. First, sabotage—blowing up train tracks and the like (the Sebastian Faulks novel and film Charlotte Gray depict this nicely). Then there were the heroic efforts to help downed British and American pilots escape. The third, less cinematic job of the Resistance was intelligence gathering. Where are the troops headed, the armaments stored, the ships docked? This is the kind of information the Allies badly needed and Fourcade’s huge network collected and passed on.

You’ll recall that de Gaulle was in London during the war, but when Fourcade’s brother traveled there to offer the network’s services, characteristically, he would not cooperate. But MI6 would, not realizing for quite a while that the group’s leader, code name “Hedgehog,” was a woman. She was arrested several times and escaped twice. After D-Day, she was again captured, but that night she stripped down, held her dress between her teeth and wriggled through the bars of her cell, put her dress back on, and walked away.

She and one notable young woman who worked for her were able to get the information they did from unsuspecting Germans because, for the most part, no one took her seriously because she was a woman. She’s nearly forgotten today, Olson believes, for the same reason. After the war, de Gaulle created an organization to honor the war’s heroes—1032 of its 1038 members were men.

Olson’s conclusion is reinforced by the experience of another unheralded WWII spy, American Virginia Hall. One of the several new books (movies in the making!) about her is titled A Woman of No Importance.

Is Somebody Following Me?

Crime-writers (and moviegoers) are attuned to that staple of adrenalin-pumping action, the car chase. It doesn’t matter whether the pursuit is from the perspective of the follower or the followee—“That red car’s been behind me since Cleveland!”—they can be fun to write and nerve-wracking to read or watch.

Alas, chases that are little more than special effects demo reels (thanks, Hollywood), bear little relationship to how actual people would behave and strain readers’ credulity. If your characters are ordinary citizens, they’re unlikely to notice they’re being followed in the first place. If they do notice, they won’t know what to do about it. You have to find the sweet spot between over-the-top demolition-derby mayhem and dull cluelessness.

This renodadsblog post, written by two former CIA operatives, gives some tips on how non-professionals can detect surveillance. It’s basic stuff, but if you’ve been on a steady diet of The Fast and the Furious franchise or reruns of The French Connection, and you want to get back in touch with the reactions of the typical American distracted driver, here you go!

Story characters can be followed on-foot too, of course. The Art of Manliness guide on What to Do If You’re Being Followed gives common-sense advice on detecting and eluding people following you—assuming they are everyday muggers and not trained espionage agents, of course.

 It all starts with being aware of your surroundings and policing your social media, two tactics your characters may—or may not—follow. Is there some reason your character is hyper-aware? Characters make mistakes (aren’t they fun?) but they also are resourceful.

This related post from last summer received lots of good feedbackt: Writing about Risky Encounters.

Photo: “Driving in my car” by de Luque, creative commons license CC BY-NC 2.0