History Mysteries – Part 2

New Orleans-based author Michael H. Rubin attended the Deadly Ink! Conference around the time his historical, The Cottoncrest Curse, was published, and I met him there, then read and reviewed his book. His academic publisher, LSU Press, insisted on historical accuracy of the book’s two time periods, 1893 and the 1960s Civil Rights era. To make sure, they had “a bevy of historians” vet the manuscript. That sounded like a nail-biter to me, because historical events don’t have a single interpretation, and we’re always learning more. Think how, after 3400 years, we’re still making new archaeological discoveries in Egypt!

In the current issue of Mystery Readers Journal, Paul Vidich’s essay, “A Personal Historical Murder Mystery,” struck a chord with me. His novel, The Coldest Warrior, was inspired by the death of his scientist uncle who “jumped or fell” from his 13th floor hotel room in New York City. Only years later did the family learn he’d been given LSD in one of the CIA’s ill-considered experiments. He had several false starts in trying to fictionalize this story, mostly because he was too close to it.

It wasn’t until he took a step back and examined the events not from his family’s point of view, but from that of the CIA officers engaged in—“murder, cover-up, and a power struggle over the repercussions of the case”—could he make headway. Ultimately, the story showed the psychological burdens on them, and Vidich makes the broader point that “Honorable men who work in covert operations inevitably bring some of the darkness into themselves.”

This resonated with me after a failed attempt to write a short story that would bring in highlights from the fascinating (to me) genealogy of my great-great grandmother. Like Vidich, I was much too close to the subject, so I sent an early draft to my editor, Barb Goffman, more than a little embarrassed because I knew it was awful! All the elements that engaged me came out, and a completely different story resulted. It’s “The Unbroken Circle,” published last summer in Pulp Modern. Despite the magazine title, this story is a historical, set in the late 1800s. The editors must have found its evergreen themes of family loyalty and connecting to the past “modern” enough.

History Mysteries – Part 1

To be considered a “historical” mystery, a story’s events don’t have to have occurred in ancient Athens or Rome, as long as they happened at least 50 years ago. Lou Berney’s award-winning November Road, involving the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, Play the Red Queen set in the early days of the Vietnam War, and Kate Quinn’s new Bletchley Park spy novel, The Rose Code (World War II), certainly qualify.

In some ways, the difficulty of mastering the historical details—especially for near-past milieus where readers actually remember fashions, transportation, and pop culture references and may be delighted to ding an author who gets it wrong—is balanced by not having to deal with today’s instant communications and surveillance tools.

It’s hard to maintain tension when your reader is thinking, “Why didn’t he just pick up the phone?” This explains why characters are always leaving their cell phones in the truck or losing signal or battery. “Why didn’t he just Google it?” Having to devise plot workarounds for these difficulties makes a writer occasionally long for simpler times, in technology terms, at least. The stories of 12th century Brother Cadfael suddenly gain appeal.

Janet Rudolph’s current highly entertaining issue of Mystery Readers Journal (Spring 2021) takes on Historical Mysteries with author perspectives, articles, and reviews. Rhys Bowen’s essay “Why I Write Historical Mystery” made a number of thought-provoking points. She opts for glamour in her long-running Royal Spyness mysteries and the lure of romance in the popular standalone, The Tuscan Child.

About World War II as a setting, Bowen says it was “the last time when we had a clear sense of good versus evil.” (True, at least, for Eurocentric countries, less so in other parts of the world, I fear.) As Rose Code author Quinn explained in a lively interview with the Princeton Public Library, the main reason she’s not tempted to turn her mountains of research into some even-handed non-fiction account is that in fiction, “you get to pick a side.”

The MRJ essay by Renee Patrick (nom de plume of married couple Rosemarie and Vince Keenan) discusses their series of Hollywood golden age mysteries in “Crimes of Fashion.” The protagonists, New Yorker Lillian Frost and legendary costume designer Edith Head, embody “tenacity, hard work, and an uncanny ability to read people,” which also make an ideal sleuth. It wounds like the duo’s experiences prove once again that “clothes make the man.” Third in the series, Script for Scandal, came out last December.

What are your favorite historicals? Mine include the Maisie Dobbs series (WWI), the early novels of Alan Furst (WWII) and the stories of Ben Pastor from inside the Third Reich and, and, and . . .

Insights from more historical mystery writers in Part II tomorrow!

The Place in Your Book

Shaker Heights, Ohio

Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the leafy suburb just east of Cleveland where she grew up. In a vintage interview with David Naimon for the late lamented lit mag Glimmer Train, he asks about the particular characteristics of Shaker Heights that come through so strongly in her novel.

Ng explains that she lived there from age ten until she went to college, and the way life is organized there was normal to her. With a little distance and time, like all of us, she came to recognize (and in her case, appreciate) the unique characteristics of her community. Shaker Heights was one of the nation’s first planned communities, a garden-style suburb built on land once owned by the North Union Community of Shakers. That group of utopians inspired the later property developers, a pair of railroad moguls, and the suburb’s name.

The quest to create a perfect environment ultimately led to a lot of rules. Strict building codes and zoning laws restricted what color you could paint your house, the requirement to keep the yard tidy and mowed. (I don’t know whether the town fathers imposed the rule in my parents’ gated community that you had to keep your garage door closed. Who wants to see all that junk?) Ng explained that the community even used a fleet of tiny garbage trucks the size of golf carts that travel up and down every driveway, in order to collect the trash from the back of the house. No unsightly curbside obstacle course on trash day. In the old days, this was the function of the alley.

More important, and salient to those who’ve read the book or seen the television version with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, a strong thread in the community has been support for racial integration. It was the community’s deliberate response in the era of  blockbusting and “white flight,” Ng says. Community leaders believed that encouraging diversity among residents—in other words, embracing change—would, ironically, be the best way to keep the community the same, stabilizing it against the potential destructiveness experienced in so many other locales.

White residents went through a period of self-satisfied delusion, claiming a person’s race didn’t matter to them. They believed they were race-blind, suggesting that they, as one of Ng’s characters says, “don’t see race.” Many of us have heard people say things like this at some point or other.

Ng says the problem with such statements is clear, in Shaker Heights and elsewhere. “If you don’t see a huge aspect of someone’s life and experience, you are devaluing all the experiences they’ve had walking around in that skin.” In Little Fires Everywhere, despite articulated good intentions, the “little fires” of racial tension are flaring up, marking out the well-known road.

That idea, of people seeking to understand others, even other family members, and failing to do so permeates Ng’s work, including her 2015 debut novel, also set in Shaker Heights, Everything I Never Told You (my review here).

One of the chief values of fiction, she believes, is that “it actively asks us to empathize with other characters, with people are aren’t like us.” Even in a community ostensibly committed to bridging divides, understanding can be elusive.

Tennessee Williams: In His Own Words

(Very) recently I discovered a thing called Quote Cards, which seem to be used in Facebook posts, to create cards for book promotion, etc., etc., etc.

So many times I read a powerful/beautiful/resonant sentence that inspires a “Wow!” You probably spot those too. Was there a sentence in the last book or story you read that stopped you in your tracks? That meant something powerful to you in that moment? Put it in the comments! I’ll compile a list for all of us. And I’ll bet you get lots of likes!

Meanwhile, here are quotes from a master. The Zoom class on Tennessee Williams I’ve been taking ended last week, and if you’ve read the previous posts about it (links below), you’ll know how interesting it was. The class was led by Bonnie J. Monte, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. The theater’s next session is on Shakespeare’s Henry V.

For our last class, each of the 45 or so students submittedthought-provoking quotations from Williams’s plays, stories, and poems that particularly struck us. Here’s a sampling:

“I tell you, there’s so much loneliness in this house that you can hear it.” (Vieux Carré)
“Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence.” (“The Timeless World of a Play,” essay)
“I’m not living with you. We occupy the same cage.” (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)
“Caged birds accept each other, but flight is what they long for.” (Camino Real)
“A prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages.” (Stairs to the Roof)
“Every time you come in yelling that God damn ‘Rise and shine! Rise and shine!’ I say to myself, ‘How lucky dead people are!’” (The Glass Menagerie)
“Mendacity is a system that we live in. Liquor is one way out and death’s the other.” (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)
“The girl who said ‘no,’ she doesn’t exist anymore, she died last summer—suffocated in smoke from something inside her.” (Summer and Smoke)
“There’s a time for departure even when there’s no certain place to go!” (Camino Real)
“Make voyages—attempt them—there’s nothing else!” (Camino Real)
“I think that hate is a feeling that can only exist where there is no understanding.” (Sweet Bird of Youth)
“The only difference between a success and a failure is a success knows an opportunity when he sees it and a failure doesn’t.” (Night of the Iguana)
“All of us are in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars!” (Summer and Smoke)
“If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.” (Conversations with Tennessee Williams)
“Why did I write? Because I found life unsatisfactory.” (Tennessee Williams)

Previous posts in this series:
The Deep Dive (2/10)
How to See (2/17)
The Actor’s Challenge (2/24)

Image by sonseona for Pixabay.

Beyond the Human Gaze: Writer Jeff VanderMeer

octopus

Now that every issue in my complete set of the literary short story journal Glimmer Train is on its way to true vintage status, I’m taking a look at some of the essays the editors provided over the years—content I’d skip over to get to the stories!

In the fall 2018 issue, David Naimon interviewed Jeff VanderMeer, an award winning author in the vast realm of fantasy and science fiction, plus the landmark writing guide Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Consider adding that to your list of possible birthday presents for author-friends.

Their conversation began with a discussion of VanderMeer’s post-apocalyptic novel Borne, which includes a character that is a piece of biotechnology. Writing about non-human creatures, including animals, is a big blind spot in fiction of all types, VanderMeer believes. Writers do plenty of research to create a fictional world that’s believable, but, when it comes to animal behavior, blow it completely. We perpetuate the folklore that owls are wise; he says they’re not. (Don’t tell Harry Potter fans.) If an animal is cute, or if we believe it’s intelligent, it’s considered more worthy of attention, at least for fund-raising. We think of sharks as loners (not loaners, that’s something different), when some are quite social. “We do, I think, have to get beyond the idea of trying to find human-like intelligence in other animals, because their intelligence is very different.” Whoops! There’s my cue to mention octopuses.

Ursula K. Le Guin believed scientists’ reluctance to anthropomorphize animals’ behavior and emotional state has backfired. While we shouldn’t ascribe human motives and feelings to them, sure, we shouldn’t go too far in the other direction either, presuming they have no intention or emotional component to their actions. “It’s an act of empathy and imagination to at least try to get beyond the human gaze,” VanderMeer said.

VanderMeer is a believer in the ineffable. The more you explain about the science imbedded in a story, “the less the reader usually believes it.” Over-explaining signals a lack of confidence in what the story is saying. I personally like technothrillers with a generous amount of precise explanation, at least of things I can understand—the assassin’s requirements for the gun in Day of the Jackal, for example. But if the science is beyond lay understanding, best to assume the reader will accept the outcome and move on, VanderMeer said. A miracle happened. Now that’s something people will believe.

Tennessee Williams: How To See

“The Fugitive Kind” is the framework Bonnie J. Monte, is using for her “Book Club” discussions of Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) and his work. Monte is the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, and the next Book Club discussion group will focus on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, both parts, and Henry V, the stirring encomium to the Battle of Agincourt.

She chose “the fugitive kind,” because she believes what she calls Williams’s “vast and complex universe” is liberally peopled with a tribe of broken spirits. You can find one—or more than one—in every play: Rev. Shannon in Night of the Iguana, Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, practically the whole cast of Camino Real. The Fugitive Kind is the title of the award-winning film starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, and Joanne Woodward, which was made from Williams’s play, Orpheus Descending. Williams perfected a certain kind of character—drifters,  misfits, people out of sync with society, often through no fault of their own. We know such characters in daily life. We believe in his drinkers, his womanizers, his people who hide behind religion or lust after the unattainable, because we know people like that too—the people we call “their own worst enemies.”

Williams’s older sister Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Treatments in the 1940s for mental disorders were limited, and Rose (like Rosemary Kennedy) was subjected to a lobotomy,  which left her institutionalized. Later in life Williams felt great guilt about Rose’s fate and was a loyal, financially supportive brother. Rose’s shadow is cast across many of Williams’s most memorable characters, including, of course, Laura in The Glass Menagerie and even Blanch DuBois in Streetcar.

Not only did he create a vast body of work, he expanded the form with experimental (albeit not popular—yet!) plays and covered subjects not openly addressed on stage before: homosexuality, blasphemy, and the like. Monte calls him “a connoisseur of language,” as he sets brutal violence alongside his poetic form.

Marguerite from Camino Real: “Oh, Jacques, we’re used to each other, we’re a pair of captive hawks caught in the same cage, and so we’ve grown used to each other.”

John in Summer and Smoke: “You—white-blooded spinster! You so right people, pious pompous mumblers, preachers and preacher’s daughter, all muffled up in a lot of worn out magic!”

His lines are delivered in a very specific visual world. Williams’s stage directions and descriptions of his sets are detailed and precise: “(T)he sky should be a pure and intense blue (like the sky of Italy as it is so faithfully represented in the religious paintings of the Renaissance),” and, in the night sky, which constellations to project. (Examples from Summer and Smoke.)

Williams fell out of favor in the 1970’s, and Monte says the theater community was downright cruel about him and his work. His later plays were not well received, and many critics and academics thought his reputation was in permanent decline. A dab of homophobia may have contributed and (like Edgar Allan Poe) the machinations of a poorly managed literary estate, a fate shared with Edgar Allan Poe, whose reputation was damaged for decades. But the plays speak for themselves. And, his later plays remain capable of getting audiences to think new thoughts and see the world in new ways.

An Attention Span of More Than 5 Minutes

Erica Obey, president of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America, had some preparatory thoughts about our panel on New Jersey crime/mystery writers, taking advantage of having Mally Becker with us. Just last week, Becker published her first novel, The Turncoat’s Widow, set in the Revolutionary War period. Aside from Malley, we were Jeff Markowitz, me, and discussion leader RG Belsky, and Obey wondered how each of us connects with the past.

This was an interesting question. My public school education included very little history, none of it presented in an interesting or memorable way. It really wasn’t until I married Neil, who trained in history, that I learned what I was missing.

But history didn’t come to live in my heart until I started working on my family genealogy. In 2012, I extended my stay at Killer Nashville, and my cousin from Texas joined me for a two-day excursion to Wilson County, just east of the Music City. We wanted to see if we could learn anything about our great-great grandparents who’d lived there two hundred years ago. As it turned out, we learned a lot (patient people there, at the Wilson County historical society).

The artist Jeff Koons advises people to “take your history on board,” and I’m still working on it. One of the chief benefits of genealogy is recognizing more acutely how my ancestors’ lives were affected by where they lived and when they lived there. It gives me a specific, personal reason to become aware of the movements and events of the past. It isn’t all pretty.

When you start asking “why,” you come up with some powerful answers. Why did my family end up in Central Texas? Because the ruin and devastation of the Civil War was so great in Central Tennessee, my great-great grandparents and their eight children became part of the GTT (Gone To Texas movement). They had to start new lives with nothing but each other. Why were they so badly affected? Their homes and farms and animals were collateral damage in the Civil War Battle of Stones River (Murfreesboro), just twelve miles south of them and involving more than 78,000 soldiers. (The abandoned cannon pictured is from the Stones River National Battlefield.) So, why were they in Tennessee in the first place? Because the men served in the Revolutionary War and were given settlement land in western North Carolina (now central Tennessee). Lots of drama and passionate feeling there for sure.

Among their Tennessee neighbors was the Huddleston family, ancestors of New Yorker and Atlantic writer George Packer, who says, “History, any history, confers meaning on a life.” I do know it’s affected my writing. Only two of my stories are overtly historical, but genealogy has taught me to think about more kinds of connections, past and present, as I write. It’s helpful grounding in this era of “nothing matters but the last five minutes” attention spans.

The State I’m In

Last week the New York chapter of  Mystery Writers of America sponsored a Facebook panel on “New Jersey writers.” It was a lot of fun, at least for me. On the panel, which was led by RG Belsky, whose books I’ve reviewed here, were Mally Becker, whose new historical mystery, The Turncoat’s Widow, is set in the Revolutionary War, Jeff Markowitz, past chapter president, also with a recent book, Hit or Miss, and me, who will have a book out later this year.

The first issue we dispensed with was “who IS a New Jersey writer”? There are people who live in and write about New Jersey (at least sometimes). There are people who live her but write about other places. And there are people who live somewhere else and write about New Jersey–wannabees. We can usually identify them.

Panel members agreed there’s a New Jersey sensibility—a bit of a chip on the shoulder, being constantly looked down upon by our near-neighbors across the Hudson, a lot of attitude, and a lack of shrinking violets. I complained (again, but I live in New Jersey, so why not?) about the Akashic book of short stories, New Jersey Noir, many of which for my money could have been written about almost anyplace. I didn’t get a chance to plug Bill Baer’s new book New Jersey Noir: Cape May, which hilariously captures several perfect specimens from the New Jersey ecosystem.

Some of the well-known crime/mystery writers who call New Jersey home are Harlan Coben, Joyce Carol Oates, and Janet Evanovich, whose protagonist, bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, works out of Trenton. Equally witty is Brad Parks, whose early books drew on his experience as a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger. A newspaperman like Belsky, he’s deserted the Garden State for Virginia.

The diversity of New Jersey crime writers is reflected in the day jobs they’ve held: Joe Hefferon (law enforcement), Steven Max Russo (advertising executive), N. Lombardi, Jr. (groundwater geologist, who has decamped to Cambodia), Nikki Stern (professional musician), Al Tucher (librarian), the aforementioned Baer (college professor and award-winning poet), and Sergio de la Pava (public defender). Their books are just as diverse! Me, I gave away money. Don’t call. That was a long time ago.

Even if these writers all chose New Jersey as the setting for their books, they still have a lot of choices—New Jersey Transit (a world unto itself), the notable universities scattered across the state, the honky-tonk and environmental treasures of the Jersey Shore, the densely populated north, self-contained communities of myriad ethnic groups, the Pine Barrens (where Markowitz likes to set stories. It’s the big green area in the southern half of the state), and the rural western and southern counties. No matter where you are, though, you’d be hard-pressed to escape the heavy Italian influence: pizza, pasta, and Sinatra.

Goalposts Moved for Spy Writers

Desmond Llewelyn, Q, James Bond, Spycraft

The Cipher Brief presentation this week from John Sawers, former Chief of the British Intelligence Service (MI6) covered a lot of ground, including how the world of espionage is changing in the networked age. John le Carré taught us how to understand the motives and tradecraft of Cold War spies, but those days are over. Writers about espionage, like those in the trade itself, must learn new skills.

Tradecraft Trends

Sawers emphasized the shifting importance of the data analyst versus the case officer. In the old days, case officers recruited, trained, and ran their agents. They were, in a way, laws unto themselves. Not any more. James Bond’s “Q” (pictured, as played by Desmond Llewelyn) is no more; agents don’t ask the technologists for help solving a problem, the data analysts and technologists help design the intervention from the outset.

This evolution takes place at a time when the domestic security services of target countries have upped their games considerably. They too may have sophisticated analytic capability, which changes how foreign agents must operate. An example Sawers gave is the availability of facial recognition software and biometric identification. The old methods of disguise—so integral to the spectacular television series, The Americans, set in the 1980s—are next to useless. “The technology is neutral,” he said, and security services have to make it an ally. Our fictional spies can’t put on a wig and run rampant in foreign nations any more.

Strategic Trends

Like many analysts, Sawers keeps a wary eye on China. The country’s behavior around the pandemic has led to “the scales falling from the eyes of EU countries” who’d been less prone to criticize it. While, as writers, we recognize that the Xi Jinping China of today is not the same China that Deng Xiaoping led just over thirty years ago, I admit to being a fan of Tang Dynasty China (700 AD), so I’m really 1300 years behind the times.

Sawers says Western nations are good at identifying security challenges originating from China, but it’s harder to counter Chinese economic strategies, like the Belts and Roads Initiative. Yes, that is an effort to improve the infrastructure of various low-income countries, but it’s also a way to tie the economies of these countries to China and attempt to influence their politics.

Despite recent bumps, the relationship between the US and the UK runs very deep, Sawers maintained, and the two countries’ intelligence agencies’ relationship is solid. The longer-term unease will be between the US and other countries with which it is not as close. Can they trust us not to whipsaw them every four years? That lingering tinge of suspicion should inspire some juicy plot points.

Sawers says the political upheavals and divisions that have occurred in both our nations are at least partly an aftershock of 2008’s economic collapse. This is especially interesting in light of a 2/10 Washington Post report that nearly 60 percent of people facing charges from the January 6 insurrection have a higher-than-average history of serious money troubles: bankruptcies, evictions and foreclosures, bad debts, lawsuits over money owed, or unpaid taxes. Something to keep in mind if these disaffected folk are characters in your new story!

Too Much of a Good Thing

scissors, blood, editing

If you read a novel like most people do, you try to picture the people, the scene, and the action as the story progresses, as if you were watching a movie. The details the author provides are, presumably, intended to facilitate not just the visualizing of the action, but your understanding of its importance. So more details are good, right? Not always. Details in and of themselves are not helpful; it’s their significance that matters.

A point-of-view character’s global state—physical, mental, emotional, and, at times, spiritual–changes as a story progresses. In novels where chapters alternate among different point-of-view characters, their “global state” helps readers differentiate among them. Yet, a moment-by-moment inventory of all these factors becomes tiresome. Worse is when authors pause the action in a tense scene or before a big reveal to give a rundown of a character’s feelings. If adequate groundwork has been laid, readers can guess how the character feels, anyway. Constantly interfering with the progress of the action makes readers stop caring—and reading.

Suppose a story provides a minutely detailed description of the appearance and state-of-mind of a man walking to a bus stop. And then suppose he’s hit by the bus and is only a walk-on in the story. Readers who followed the author’s lead and created a precise mental picture of a character they’ll never encounter again are justly annoyed. Still, the man did wear a mud-splattered overcoat with a missing button. Out of a lengthy description, those few details might be significant. Perhaps he was an inveterate jaywalker, which might be worth knowing, particularly when the bus driver goes to trial.

In other words, minimize the details that aren’t relevant to the story, and don’t merely strand readers on an island of facts. Here’s a good example:

“He was thirty-two years old, trim, a tough guy, six foot two, and, essentially, in your face. He was wearing one of his two-dozen identical black Armani suits, with one of this three-dozen identical navy button-downs, with one of his four-dozen thin black ties. . . . As for his hair, it was thick, the blackest black, and slicked-and-greased back like a Jersey guido.”

Every sentence raises questions. “A tough guy?” “In your face”—how so? What’s with the weird wardrobe? Is he a New Jersey guido? Questions like these keep readers reading. Which is what you want, and they do too.

(The excerpt is from William Baer’s entertaining new novel New Jersey Noir: Cape May.)