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.

****The Long Road from Paris

By Kirby Williams – A book with Paris in the title two weeks in a row? It’s enough to make you stock up on croissants. While the title of this one echoes Dov Alfon’s contemporary crime thriller, A Long Night in Paris, the similarity ends there.

This is Kirby Williams’s second thriller featuring New Orleans jazz prodigy Urby Brown, an expat living in Paris as the dark clouds of Naziism spread over Europe.

Author Williams, an expat himself, effectively conveys his love of the city where he has lived and worked for many decades in real life.

The book begins with Brown’s early years in New Orleans as a white-skinned octoroon, son of a woman named Josephine Dubois and a white Frenchman who skedaddled back to France after impregnating her. In 1895, Josephine left her newborn in a Moses basket on the doorstep of Saint Vincent’s Colored Waifs’ Home. She later pleaded with Father Gohegan, the priest in charge of the Waifs’ Home, to contact the baby’s father who she claimed was a Count. The priest refused, and Josephine committed suicide.

As a teenager, Brown played his clarinet at Madame Lala’s Mahogany House (flaunting both Louisiana law and Father Gohegan’s rules), an infamous bordello that brought together top jazz players. These connections were renewed once he moved to Paris, joining the many musicians escaping U.S. Jim Crow laws.

Along with his mentor and fellow clarinetist Stanley Bontemps and his live-in girlfriend, Hannah Korngold, Brown lives in Paris in relatively peace and prosperity into the 1930s. Hannah helps Brown run his nightclub, but she is an American Jew whose future under the Nazis will be just as precarious as his own.

Williams writes Brown’s first-person story with an emphasis on what happens, not why or how. He doesn’t engage in lengthy descriptions of people, places or events and will even slide past significant dramatic opportunities. This spareness is both bothersome and energizing—bothersome because you don’t always know why Urby Brown does what he does. At the same time, it establishes a powerful narrative energy. The author apparently assumes readers have a pretty solid mental picture of the fascists and the threat they pose his characters and of Paris between the wars, and he relies on our imaginations to fill out the picture.

Within that general atmosphere of risk are the very specific risks to Urby Brown. His father, to whom he bears a remarkable likeness, is indeed a count, a confidant of Marshal Philippe Pétain, and leader of the Oriflamme du Roi, a group of right-wing thugs who parade around like stormtroopers in advance of the real thing. Murder, blackmail, and spying are their stock-in-trade.

With the arrival of the Nazis, Urby and Hannah desperately attempt to escape back to the United States, but every indication is they’ve waited too long.

****Stay with Me

By Ayobami Adelbayo – This superb debut novel is set in Nigeria, starting in the 1980s—a time of political upheaval following an aborted election and resurgent military dictatorship. With that as a backdrop, it focuses on the considerably smaller-scale politics within the household of a married couple, Yejide and Akin Ajayi.

Narrating mostly by Yejide, with occasional chapters from Akin, author Adelbayo presents an eloquent deconstruction of the social and family pressures on the couple to have children—a not-unusual problem that the author manages to make distinctly fresh. Difficult solutions are proposed and undertaken that have profound consequences, forever altering Yejide and Akin’s relationship.

While that central problem remains intensely engaging, the daily aspects of Yejide’s life, running her hair salon, remembering her childhood and its stories, and catering to relatives’ demands and expectations are rendered in vivid detail. The result is a novel nominated for numerous prizes, one with “remarkable emotional resonance and depth of field,” says Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times.

Adelbayo’s prose is deceptively straightforward, carrying you along easily, and you occasionally must stop yourself to reread a sentence or paragraph to fully appreciate its beauty or insight. An example is when Akin talks about a breast-milk stain on his wife’s blouse: “As I watched the milk stain spread downwards, I realised that the ground under our feet had just been pulled away, we were standing on air, and my words could not keep us from falling into the pit that had opened up beneath us.” 

It doesn’t take long to read—give it a try!

photo: .craig on Visual Hunt, creative commons license

St. Patrick’s Day is Nigh

Excuse me a sec, while I run into the kitchen and check the corned beef brisket.

Ahh…

Now, as the last year has whirled by and St. Paddy’s Day once again approaches, here are my three most recent dives into the wellspring of inspiration, imagination, and experience that is Ireland.

Earlier this year, we saw on Broadway, The Ferryman, which many reviewers said was “the ticket” for the winter’s season. From the promotional pictures (below), it looks like a multigeneration family sitting around the supper table, telling rollicking Irish tales, no? It turns out the IRA is involved, and, as everyone knows, the IRA is not The Clancy Brothers. Acting was super, especially the elderly Republican aunt who can’t give up her threadbare politics.

An Irish theme turned up unexpectedly in Angel Luis Colón’s Hell Chose Me (which I reviewed here). The American protagonist, Bryan Walsh, is AWOL from Afghanistan, and the only person he thinks can help him is his difficult and uncle Sean back in Ireland. IRA legatee Sean does give him a job for a while, as an enforcer and assassin, before Bryan returns to the United States (illegally). Lots else happens in this excellent thriller, but Uncle Sean’s menacing presence haunts Bryan evermore.

At the moment I’m reading (actually listening to) Tana French’s Dublin-based best-seller, The Witch Elm. I’m only a short way in, and while I know the book has received raves, am waiting for it to pick up steam. One of the characters is a genealogist, a profession I can relate to, who says that in the old days, people came to him out of curiosity about their Irish ancestors, and now with DNA evidence in hand, they come to him to find out who they really are.

Posts for past March 17s have focused on wonderful books from Irish writers, including the fantastic Irish crime/thriller writers, not only Tana French, but Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville too.

But, excuse me, the corned beef is done. Now have to spread a mix of brown sugar and dry mustard on top for a final twenty-minute bake while I stir the potatoes and cook up the onions, cabbage, and sour cream. In delicious anticipation . . .

And, check out Janet Rudolph’s list of St. Patrick’s Day Mysteries.

Graphic by Barbara A. Lane from Pixabay.

Short Crime Fiction – March Hare Edition

For a recent Chicago jaunt, my suitcase held short story magazines not getting read in the flurry of daily life. Since the temperature in my daughter’s house was 63 degrees (the furnace repair man threw in the towel and refused to charge anything), my preferred keep-warm strategy was to wrap myself in a comforter with a cup of ginger tea and catch up with what’s hot between the covers of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Mystery Tribune.

Ellery Queen (Nov/Dec 2018)

This issue is a perfect example of the diversity of story types the mystery/crime genre embraces, everything from the echoes of Raymond Chandler and his P.I.’s in Bill Pronzini’s “Smoke Screen,” to John H. Dirckx’s nifty police procedural, “Where the Red Lines Meet,” which every real estate agent should read. Ditto “Open House,” by Reed Johnson.

O.A.Tynan’s “Jenny’s Necklace” and Jehane Sharah’s debut story “The Screening” show people haunted by deaths that took place long ago. The future of crime prevention is secure too, as a couple of feisty kids help resolve some bad situations in Anna Scotti’s entertaining “Krikon the Ghoul Hunter” and Michael Sears’s “The Honest End of Sybil Cooper.”

“Bug Appetit’ by Barb Goffman, nominated for an Agatha Award, offers the author’s trademark comeuppance for characters too clever for their own good! (If you’ve read Barb’s story, you appreciate the Asian insect buffet in the photo. And, if you haven’t, you’ve got a pretty good guess about the connection right now.)

Mystery Tribune (Fall 2018) – Kindle edition available online

I love the mix of stories, essays and photo galleries that make this magazine unique. Naturally, you know you’ll get a good story from Reed Farrel Coleman, who leads off this issue with “The Devil Always Knows.” Joe De Quattro’s “Still Life with Stalin” was one of my favorites here, as were the photos by Philip Kanwischer.

Ellery Queen – March/April 2019 Kindle edition available online

I looked high and low for the Jan/Feb issue, because I wanted to read Art Taylor’s award-nominated story, “English 398: Fiction Workshop,” but that issue is buried somewhere. A pleasure to look forward to. This current issue nevertheless contains some gems.

“Life and Death in T-Shirts” by British author Liza Cody was fun, as was Susan Dunlap’s tables-turning “Aunt Jenna Was a Spy.” Paul D. Marks’s “Fade Out on Bunker Hill” and Robert S. Levinson’s “All About Evie” prove once again that Hollywood is the gift to mystery-writers that keeps on giving. Even though I saw what was coming, I especially enjoyed the Peruvian connection in John Lantigua’s “The Revenge of the Puma.” More great tales than I have room for here!

Did They Really Say That?

Making fictional dialog sounds like something people would actually say takes practice. Having spent so many years writing for think tanks, I have to be especially careful my characters don’t sound like they’re lecturing a roomful of dozing college students. As a result, a few lines of conversation can demand as much time and concentration as whole paragraphs of description.

Usually the key is subtraction, and you can get a master class on how few words dialog needs by reading Elmore Leonard. A guideline that should be emblazoned in neon, is “no tennis matches”! A conversational ball that goes back and forth, back and forth, each person responding to the other’s shot, is tedious. In real life, people change the subject, they answer a question with a question, they go off on a tangent, they reveal hidden agendas. In fiction, they can do this too, without real speech’s stumbling, imprecision, and grammatical tangles, like, you know?

But most of all, I try to make the conversation sound like anyone but me. Is the speaker male, female, old, young, ethnic, rich, poor, well educated or not, from the South, the Midwest, New England? Is the story set today or fifty years ago? What phrases, idioms, and slang does this character use?

Two New Tools

If you’re looking for insights into how people speak, the partnership between linguistics and Big Data provides some answers. Orin Hargraves at Visual Thesaurus has described Brigham Young University’s two new databases of conversation, based on dialog from English-language television and movies. TVCorpus has some 325 million words from 75,000 television comedies and dramas from 1950 to today. Movie Corpus compiles 200 million words from 25,000 movies from 1930 to 2019. These data sets let you compare British and American English, and the way speech patterns change over time.

I know, you’re thinking, screentalk isn’t how people really talk (though it’s better than it used to be). In fact, I sometimes wonder whether the influence goes in the other direction! Would people really be so reflexively snarky and would casual conversation be so laden with profanity if television sitcoms and the movies hadn’t paved the way? And Hargraves cites research showing that movie-talk better matches how native English speaker think we speak than actual speech does.

However that relationship works, these databases are a fascinating way to learn about “very informal language,” which is probably what most of your characters speak. At the very least, you can use them to check for clichés and archaicisms or to devise language to fit a particular era.

I did a quick scan of the phrase “perfect crime,” and found the TV database has recorded its use  203 times—a lot of times by Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Psych. Go figure.

(Meanwhile “go figure” appeared 427 times in the TV database, including a lot of “go figure it out,” while the movie database includes 224 examples, most of them like my standalone “Go figure.” Since the earliest use was from 1938, you could use it in a classic noir story without worrying you were introducing 21st century expression.)

“Perfect crime” appeared 91 times in the film database, with the first usage recorded in a 1936 film titled The Case Against Mrs. Ames: “There is no perfect crime because there is no perfect lie.” Nice!

photo credit: Jon Seldman on Visual Hunt.com, creative commons license

****A Long Night in Paris

Written by Dov Alfon, translated by Daniella Zamir – Lots of action is packed into Dov Alfon’s debut novel, A Long Night in Paris, Israel’s bestselling book of 2016-2017, now available in English. It’s hard to believe so much can happen in little more than twenty-four hours!

The story begins one morning when a gregarious Israeli software engineer disappears from the arrivals hall of Charles de Gaulle Airport. An irrepressible flirt, he peels off from a group of colleagues to link up with a beautiful blonde before the two seemingly disappear into thin air.

Police Commissaire Jules Léger grudgingly organizes an investigation, predictably hampered by too many cooks: airport security, the Israeli police representative for Europe, a mysterious Israeli security colonel named Zeev Abadi, and, most uncooperative of all, El Al security.

Abadi is a Tunisian Jew raised in the Paris suburbs. Not until midnight does he assume his official role as the new head of Israeli intelligence’s SIGINT unit. Temporarily in charge of the unit back in Tel Aviv, with minuscule bureaucratic power, is Lieutenant Oriana Talmor.

At the airport, Abadi uncovers footage showing the hapless Israeli attacked by a pair of Chinese thugs and thrown into a sewer pit where survival is impossible. Abadi soon realizes the attack was a case of mistaken identity. He must figure out who was the actual intended victim and calls on Talmor her team back in Israel for help. Separated by more than two thousand miles, the two try to uncover the identity of the intended victim, his current location, and the reasons he’s a murder target.

Although most of the short chapters are written from the point of view of Abadi, Talmor, or Léger, some are from clueless higher-ups in the Israeli and French governments, the various criminal operatives involved, and the real quarry of the killers, a young man named Vladislav Yerminski. What you mostly learn about him is that he’s checked into an expensive hotel with a suitcase full of electronic gadgetry. (I forget how that bag got through Tel Aviv’s airport security, if I ever knew.)

It’s a multinational cast of characters and you’re well along before you realize what game Yerminski is playing and who’s behind the mysterious gang of Chinese pursuing him. All the bureaucrats are busy trying to spin the first victim’s undignified death in a way that masks the shortcomings and errors in their own intelligence work. Even though I couldn’t quite believe in the criminal mastermind whose Chinese assassins murdered the wrong man, I totally believed that they work in a rogue system that does not tolerate error.

Alfon came to the writing of this book with the perfect resume. He knows Paris, having been born and raised there. He is himself a former intelligence officer in the Israeli Intelligence Corps’ Unit 8200, which is responsible for signals intelligence (SIGINT) and code decryption. His political acumen was honed as a former cultural observer and editor in chief of Israel’s major newspaper, Ha’aretz, and he served as an editor for Israel’s largest publishing house. The translation flows smoothly as well.

They Shall Not Grow Old

New Zealand director Peter Jackson has accomplished something of a miracle. At the behest of Britain’s Imperial War Museum, he and his team have created a documentary about World War I using archival footage—scratched, faded, juddery—and restored it nearly to today’s standards (trailer). The process achieves more than improving watchability, it brings these soldiers to life.

When he received the assignment, Jackson didn’t know what the film would be, his brief was simply to “do something creative” with the film archive in time for the 100th anniversary of the armistice last November 11.

He and his team melded the restored film with the voices of men who had served, interviewed by the BBC decades later. They went to war as ordinary soldiers, they were young (ages 15, 16, and 17, many of them), and their reminiscences of the war were quite different than what their officers’ would have been. This isn’t a movie with battle maps and arrows, strategy and tactics. It’s not about the unique or memorable incident. It’s everyday survival. Mud and lice and rats and cigarettes. I cried.

Stick around for the post-movie feature about how the film was restored. The before-and-after examples of changing the timing, fixing over- and under-exposures, how sound was added, and the colorization are fascinating. Their devotion to detail pays off. Speaking of paying off, the film has broken box office records for a documentary, and Jackson himself took no fee.

This isn’t a movie about heroes. It’s about everyday lads doing the best they can in the worst circumstances. In the most important sense, they’re all heroes.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 92%.

Reading at the KGB Bar

Last night a writing friend and I participated in an even that puts us right at the fringes of the fringes of New York literary society—a reading sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America at KGB Bar in the East Village. KGB Bar is hidden away on the second story of an old tenement, up a vertiginous flight of stairs.

Although this description doesn’t do it justice in terms of its fine balance of joie de vivre teetering on the edge of seediness, here’s what the founder, Denis Woychuk, says about it:

In the years since it opened in 1993, KGB has become something of a New York literary institution. Writers hooked up in the publishing world read here with pleasure and without pay to an adoring public . . . The crowd loves it. Admission is free, drinks are cheap and strong, and the level of excellence is such that KGB has been named best literary venue in New York City by New York Magazine, the Village Voice, and everyone else who bestows these awards of recognition.

He’s right about the pleasure part. It was attentive crowd, even though I was the final reader of five, when the audience had already enjoyed several of those drinks! Wanting to appear convivial yet be one-the-ball for my reading, I’d nursed one glass of wine all evening. “What white wines do you have?” I asked the bartender. “Pinot grigio.” “Oh. What red wines do you have?” “Cabernet Sauvignon.” “I’ll have that.” The barrel savage. How appropriate.

The other readers—P.D. Halt, Mary Jo Robertiello, James D. Robertson, and A.J. Sidransky—each read a scene from one of their novels. I read the opening of a short story to be published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. No idea when it will see the light of day, but if you’re a subscriber, watch for it! It’s called “New Energy.”

I’m so thankful to my writing group, Room at the Table, for organizing our twice-a-year public readings. (The next one is March 27! For details, see our Facebook page.) Great prep for my eight minutes at KGB–a former speakeasy and Lucky Luciano outpost, then h.q. for the Ukrainian Labor Home, a socialist hangout, which explains the Soviet memorabilia and the hammer-and-sickle matchbooks. It was fun!

Oscar and his Shorts

Academy Award, Oscar

It’s become increasingly easy to see the Academy Award-nominated short films—animated, documentaries, and live action, and I’ve enjoyed them a great deal.

The documentaries generally give an in-depth examination of some small aspect of life or interesting person, usually overlooked and often a moving testament to the human spirit. (I’m thinking about the former prison inmates taught to staff a high-end Cleveland restaurant in last year’s Knife Skills or Joe’s Violin from 2017.)  

The live action films explore myriad stories of the human condition—last year’s film about the deaf child who wanted to learn sign language—including lighter moments, such as the absurdly funny 2017 Spanish film, Timecode.

Not this year. The Academy process resulted in nominees of almost unrelieved bleakness. We skipped the documentaries (on racism, Nazism, dying, and the plight of refugees crossing the Mediterranean to Europe). The only film with a hopeful message was about young women in India trying to overcome the stigma of menstruation. That they needed to was discouraging enough. Maybe these films were truly outstanding, but the topics (except the last) are well-worn.

We had a similarly dubious assessment of the live action shorts nominees, noting the heavy “children in peril” theme, but made a last-minute decision to see them anyway. It would be a job of work to decide which was most depressing (links below are to trailers):

  • Madre (Spain) – the mother of a six-year-old has a shaky phone connection to her six-year-old son abandoned by his father and alone on a beach somewhere, he can’t tell her where. Great acting by Marta Nieto as the distraught and helpless mother. Director’s Notes.
  • Marguerite (Canada) – an elderly woman in failing health and her compassionate caregiver. Sweet acting, but breaks no new ground.
  • Fauve (Canada) – two children enter an abandoned, forbidden mine. Quicksand figures in. All I can say is, Why?
  • Skin (U.S.) – a heavily tattooed redneck, though a supportive father, lets his racism run rampant, which goes badly in an unexpected way. (Casting against type, FYI, the actor playing the dad is a ballet dancer.) Interesting, well-acted.
  • Detainment (Ireland)  – the most controversial of the films, it’s about a 1993 British case, in which two ten-year-old boys abducted, tortured, and murdered a two-year-old. The script is based on the police’s taped interviews with the boys. The actors playing the children and their parents do a remarkable job. It wasn’t easy for the detectives, either. The mother of the slain boy campaigned to have the film withdrawn from Oscar consideration because she hadn’t been interviewed for it; however, director Vincent Lambe wanted the actual police interviews to speak for themselves. The case has raised questions about the proper handling of juvenile defendants. In a chilling note, viewers are informed that the last two tapes from the interviews were deemed to disturbing to be heard by the jury and have never been revealed. Tough to watch but a strong contender.

Photo: David Torcivia, creative commons license

****Amsterdam Noir

Edited by René Appel and Josh Pachter – Fourteen of The Netherlands’ premier authors of crime and literary fiction contributed stories to this collection, with the editors—top-rated crime authors themselves—providing the fifteenth. Amsterdam Noir is the latest in Akashic Books’ long-running series of place-based crime anthologies.

If this enterprise is in part intended to impart a vision of the locale and its residents through the lens of crime, this collection is another success.

Whenever a story purports to represent a certain place, you can fairly ask yourself, could these events have unfolded this way anywhere else? Geography, history, and culture all affect what can and does take place in a city and the official and unofficial reactions to events.

Appel and Pachter assigned the stories to four broad headings inspired by classic film noir, and below I briefly describe a story or two under each of their headings. The collection includes both well established authors, like Theo Capel, and writers new to the scene, like Karin Amatmoekrim. Meet some of the very best Dutch crime writers, right here in these pages.

Out of the Past

Welcome to Amsterdam by Michael Berg is a story of revenge—a revenge the wronged man never thought he could achieve. It’s pretty strong stuff. Berg was the 2013 winner of the Golden Noose, the award for the best Dutch-language crime novel of the year. Herman Koch, who wrote 2013’s best-selling crime novel, The Dinner, contributed Ankle Monitor, which launches with a brilliant first line: “Maybe it was a mistake to go back to my old neighborhood on the very first day of a weekend leave.” No stopping reading there.

Kiss Me Deadly

All three of these stories are about ill-conceived love and all are written by women, interestingly. Silent Days by Karin Amatmoekrim proves that just because a woman is old and alone doesn’t mean she is helpless.

Touch of Evil

Here you have Satan himself, a pedophile, an alcoholic fratricide, and a man channelling Ted Bundy (for an international touch), plus a hard-working police detective who unexpectedly comes out on top in Theo Capel’s entertaining Lucky Sevens.

They Live By Night

Echoing that film’s theme of inescapable tragedy, most of these stories are from the victim’s point of view, but Abdelkader Benali’s The Girl at the End of the Line is told through the eyes of a Moroccan police officer assigned to find the killer of a Muslim girl. Winner of a top literary prize, Benali opens this story, “A farmer found her with her head facing southeast, toward Mecca, as if in prayer.” It’s an effective reminder of the pluralistic culture of Western European cities today and a strong intimation of the layers of social complexity the story will probe.