Come with Me by Erin Flanagan

In the new psychological thriller Come with Me by Erin Flanagan (cover pictured), a woman, put simply, is forced to grow up. She hasn’t realized she needed to until circumstances make her come to terms with her responsibilities. Taking charge of your own life, when you’re accustomed to letting others make the important decisions for you, isn’t easy. In her case, not doing it might prove deadly.

Gwen thinks she has what she’s always wanted, a devoted husband, a lovely daughter, a nice life in Boulder, Colorado. The tiny cracks are only at the edges, and at least she’s far from the confines of Dayton, Ohio, where she grew up.

Once, just out of college she did briefly strike out on her own with a four-month internship at a Dayton media company. While the other two interns paired up as leader and acolyte, Gwen stayed outside their circle, preoccupied with her upcoming wedding.

Ten years later, but early in the story, her husband Todd has a fatal heart attack, leaving Gwen bereft. His death isn’t the only blow. Solely in charge of their finances, Todd has sunk all the couple’s money into his start-up business and run up huge debts. Gwen now has no husband, no money, no house, and no job experience. She’s forced to move back to Dayton into the home of her increasingly debilitated, prickly mother.

One lucky thing, though. Online research reveals her fellow intern from a decade earlier, Nicola, the leader in their little trio, is still at the company, and, better yet, is still a leader. She’s moved up smartly in the organization. When Gwen calls her to explain her plight, Nicola starts throwing out lifelines.

If you have ever had a manipulative friend, if you’ve learned the hard way that favors often come with strings attached, and if you recognize the signs someone is seeking power and control, you will wish fervently that Gwen were more aware. But even she has limits and a mother’s instincts for danger. Watching her complete trust in Nicola crumble ever so gradually is one of the chief pleasures of this story. And, while we might wish it would happen sooner, that’s not who Gwen is.

The story is focused pretty tightly on a small cast of women: Gwen, her daughter, her mother, and, of course Nicola. In a few interspersed chapters, Nicola’s own difficult upbringing. By the time of the internship, Nicola has developed five rules for living and Gwen knows them well: Don’t let anyone make you feel small; know your friends (that’s a biggie for Gwen); trust your instincts (ditto); never look back; and truth, not facts.

Author Erin Flanagan lives in Dayton, Ohio, and writes about life in the town with great authenticity. She is also a professor of English at Wright State University in Dayton and won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for her debut novel, Deer Season, which I thought was wonderful—complex, well imagined, indelible characters.

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Two 5-Star Thrillers: Her, Too and Sleepless City

Her, Too
Perhaps inevitably, the Me, Too movement would uncover complicated situations that go beyond simply punishing sexual predators (which is hardly simple in itself), and in Bonnie Kistler’s new thriller, Her, Too, she reveals a bundle of them.

When the story opens, Boston-based defense attorney Kelly McCann has just won a major case. Scientist George Carlson Benedict—the beloved Dr. George—is a pharmaceutical researcher whose discoveries related to Alzheimer’s Disease have short-listed him for the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Could such a valuable and visible member of society be guilty of raping a subordinate? In the trial just concluded, his former colleague Reeza Patel said yes. And so did three other women whom Kelly silenced with payoffs and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). Benedict is a toad, really, but Kelly doesn’t consider him an actual rapist, until his next victim—her.

Kelly sets out for revenge. And she knows who can help. The three women who signed the NDAs, except that they hate her.

The story lays bare the manipulative and inequitable way NDAs are handled. A former executive at Benedict’s company received more than a million dollars, the office cleaner only $20,000. Kelly doesn’t draw Reeza Patel into the group’s sketchy plans—the way Kelly eviscerated her on the witness stand is just too recent, too raw. Soon, there’s no choice: Patel dies from a drug overdose. Was it really suicide? And her death is just the first.

You might think Kelly is pretty unlikable, someone who’s taken advantage of women at their most vulnerable. But the author takes pains to show she isn’t a monster. In other parts of her life, she bravely faces difficult issues involving care, caring, and letting go. These are big subjects, and in this provocative, well-written novel, the author doesn’t shrink from them.

In so many ways, the Kelly McCann you meet on page one is not the same person you leave on page 304. Go with her as she works her way through some of the most consequential social issues of our times. Bonnie Kistler is a former trial lawyer whose previous books were The Cage (or Seven Minutes Later) and House on Fire.

Sleepless City
Reed Farrel Coleman’s new crime thriller Sleepless City is for readers who like their noir black as ink and thick as pitch. You can’t really call it a police procedural, although the main character—Nick Ryan—is a detective working in the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Bureau, because he doesn’t follow any procedures learned in the Academy or that the higher-ups would publicly condone. Early in the story, he’s recruited to do exactly that—help the city solve intractable situations by, you might say, coloring outside the lines.

The department is beset by difficulties. The city’s waiting to erupt into chaos with the next cop-on-civilian killing. An investment fraudster has stolen billions, including police pensions, and won’t reveal where the money is. A reptilian right-wing podcaster is intent on sowing social discord and anti-police feeling with wacko conspiracy theories. Nick’s bosses would like to clear up these messes through normal channels, but it’s impossible.

Someone, Nick never knows precisely who, approaches him to use his creativity, initiative, and fearlessness to work out difficulties such as these. He’ll get whatever weaponry and manpower he needs plus access to files and security footage. Like a latter-day 007, he has a license to kill. I’m guessing, the powers-that-be hope he’ll use it.

This set-up creates a no-holds-barred fantasy of vengeance, a “simple” answer to complex questions. Although I used the word fantasy, Coleman’s writing is anchored in a gritty reality. Blood is shed. Bones are broken. Explosions dismember victims. Dirt is smeared.

Yet Nick doesn’t simply march through the city brandishing weapons and mowing down bad guys. He takes into account the consequences of his actions, their moral aspects, and selects his approach based in part on the lesson it will impart to other malefactors. In other words, he seeks justice more than revenge. Seeing his various clever plots unfold—and how he has to think on his feet when something goes awry—is one of the story’s chief pleasures. Plus, I chuckled to notice Coleman’s discreet nod to his fellow NYC crime writers Tom Straw and Charles Salzberg.

As a reflection of breakdowns in the social order, crime writing deserves the kind of attention to what makes the social order actually work that Coleman gives it here. Nick Ryan may be a fantastical creation, in terms of his deeds, but in terms of engaging with the quandaries facing big-city policing, he’s wrestling with modern reality. Sleepless City leaves you wondering, is this what it takes? Sounds to me like a series in-the-making.

Two Novels that Couldn’t Be More Different

Between Two Strangers by Kate White

Skyler Moore can’t escape the past in Kate White’s new psychological mystery, Between Two Strangers. The disappearance of her younger sister twelve years earlier not only haunts her, but forever damaged her relationship with her mother.

This psychic blow ended her graduate studies. She left Boston for New York, and she put her art studies behind her. Now nearing her mid-thirties, increasingly isolated, she has no promising relationship that would get her the one thing she really wants—a child. You may think as I did that she isn’t a very promising maternal figure for any number of reasons, but a child is what she wants.

At least she’s started creating art again. She’s good too, and a small gallery in lower Manhattan is organizing a show for her. As the show’s opening approaches, a call from a lawyer in the tony suburb of Scarsdale changes everything. He’s the estate administrator for a recently deceased pharmaceutical executive whose name she doesn’t recognize. He’s left her a bequest. How much? $3.5 million. It’s a life-saver, but unraveling the dead man’s motive will take some work.

If you are as skeptical of coincidence as Sherlock Holmes and most police detectives are, you may think Skyler is a bit slow to realize there’s a relationship between her windfall and the harassment she’s newly subjected to. But once she finally tumbles to it, White keeps the story twists coming.

Chapters alternate between Skyler’s current life and the fateful weekend Chloe disappeared. Each leaves you on the brink of learning something critical, giving time to develop your own theories (all of mine were wrong!). With the story’s nice pacing, it’s a highly entertaining page-turner.

White is the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine and author of several previous thrillers.

Back to the Dirt by Frank Bill

If you imagined the full spectrum of crime, mystery, and thriller stories, you might slot tidy Miss Marple and the cosies on the left extreme. Well, hang onto your hat, because Frank Bill will shoot you all the way to the right, literally Back to the Dirt. His story is reminiscent of the late Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Donald Ray Pollock’s The Heavenly Table in giving no quarter to sentiment.

The main character, Miles Knox, is a Vietnam vet living in rural Indiana who saw some horrible things perpetrated there, and not just by the enemy. These episodes and his dead comrades haunt him, and when he’s under stress, they come roaring back into his head in sounds, smells, and sensations. He’s tried counselling with little apparent success. The only thing that relieves the stress is pumping iron. Since he’s no longer young, he has to jack himself full of steroids, which take their own toll. Maybe somewhat more responsible than a loose cannon, don’t get him angry.

His friend Nathaniel shows up with his eight-year-old nephew, Shadrach, who just saw his parents murdered. They were big-time drug dealers, but when the cops arrive, the trailer is clear of both drugs and money. Nathaniel  takes Miles on a long, drug-fueled night of pursuit and frustration. Whatever bad stuff happened that day, it’s only going to get worse.

Author Bill paints a bleak picture of rural America, swamped with opioids, fully stocked with guns, and overtaken by despair. (This is the theme of Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Demon Copperhead. An author has to find a way into such a morass, and Kingsolver chose Dickens’s David Copperfield for inspiration; Bill chose the Vietnam War and PTSD. Worlds where there are no easy answers.).

I wouldn’t recommend this book for the faint-hearted or easily offended, but if you are up for a bracing look at a segment of society rarely described so unflinchingly, this will do.

It took a while to get into the rhythm of Bill’s writing. He writes characters’ thoughts and dialog not just phonetically, but the way the characters perceive\s the words, adding considerable color to the text. Just when you think there should be an end to the legacy of Vietnam—a war that ended for the politicians some forty-five years ago—you are reminded that for many of the men who fought there, the war is a daily reality.

The Lost Americans

If you’ve ever traveled to Egypt, Christopher Bollen’s fast-paced new thriller, The Lost Americans, will take you back there. And, if you’ve never been, when you finish this book, you may feel as if you’ve made the trip. The Sahara dust settling on everything, the smells of baking bread and dirty camels, the competing cries of the muzzeins, the golden, dust-laden light of late afternoon, and the vicious, inches-to-spare traffic.

Manhattanite Cate Castle has never visited Egypt, so it’s all new to her, overlaid with a pall of grief and anxiety after the shock of her older brother’s death in Cairo. He reportedly died in a fall from the balcony of his room in the Ramses Sands Hotel. In the country on business, Eric was not yet forty and working for a boutique international arms supplier called Polaris. Egypt is one of Polaris’s best customers.

Back in New York before this trip, Eric’s death doesn’t sit right with Cate. She doesn’t believe the emerging official line that Eric committed suicide and insists on asking questions. She even enlists a retired forensic pathologist to examine his body. Defensive wounds. Injuries on both sides of his head, which a fall wouldn’t produce. Not to mention that his hotel room was only on the third floor. A fall from that height would likely be survivable. If you think Cate is becoming a little obsessed, you’ll also agree she has plenty of reason to be—especially when Polaris offers her family a multi-million-dollar settlement.

Thus, the trip to Egypt. She’s a fundraiser for an arts organization, not any sort of investigator, but what she lacks in experience she more than makes up for in motivation. Where to start that won’t get her in trouble? Let’s just say that she doesn’t need to go looking for it. From the moment she sets foot in the Cairo airport, it seems she’s in danger, and the pace of the novel never slackens.

Everyone seems to be lying to her, including Eric’s former work colleagues, his boss’s wife, the hotel staff, Eric’s embassy contact. It’s a cinch they’re not telling her everything. Cate stays busy finding people to interview and doesn’t spend much time sightseeing. But the sights and exoticism of Egypt are all around her. Her Grand Nile hotel is on the banks of one of the world’s longest and oldest rivers, which not only cleaves the country, it makes it possible. A few miles east or west is basically desert. To someone like Cate, who grew up in the sylvan Berkshire mountains of Western Massachusetts, the compression of so many people, so much living, and so much history into this narrow strip of land feels almost claustrophobic.

Bollen has an admirable literary writing style. He conveys ideas and feelings in ways that are both inventive and quite on point. From that standpoint and the fact that he’s willing to assume some cultural awareness on the part of his readers, the writing stands out. On the negative side, from time to time, he goes on too long with backstory.

I’ve been asking myself whether Cate is a plausible female protagonist. She’s certainly plucky and determined. Perfectly likeable. A little irrational, in that she broke up a good relationship back home through her own infidelity. But does she act like a woman would act when she wants information someone doesn’t want to share, or the way a woman would act in a tight situation? Or does she act more like a man with a woman’s name? I can’t put my finger on what bothers me about her, but just the fact that the question occurred to me makes me think she doesn’t exactly ring true, but it’s a small point in an otherwise well-conceived, extremely evocative thriller that respects the reader’s intellect. I liked it a lot.

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Damascus Station

So many former CIA analysts turn to writing fiction, you have to wonder whether real life outside the agency seems to lack sufficient drama. Whatever, their willingness to lay bare their former lives often redounds to the benefit of fans of realistic spy fiction, like me. David McCloskey’s debut thriller, Damascus Station, is one of the best. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Andrew B. Wehrlen, and found it utterly engaging.

In the early days of the Syrian uprising, around 2011, Americans are determined to infiltrate the multi-pronged and highly paranoid security apparatus of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It’s a challenging task but certainly well worth doing.

CIA case officer Sam Joseph is helping his colleague and friend, Valerie Owens, exfiltrate an important Syrian asset. Assad’s agents are everywhere, and the panicky agent misses his meeting with Joseph and Owens. When their safe house is attacked, Joseph escapes, and Owens is arrested. Because she has diplomatic protection, they believe she will be safe. Not so. Evidence eventually emerges of her torture and death.

Joseph has plenty of motivation to return to Syria. Not only does he want to avenge Owens’s death, he must find and recruit another Syrian to help undermine the shaky Assad regime. Though student rebellions and terrorists’ assassination campaigns are doing their bit to destabilize the political situation, plenty of ruthless bad guys lead Assad’s security forces. Their anxieties and rivalries create a situation as stable as a bowl of nitroglycerine in an earthquake. The Americans need a fearless, highly motivated mole to go up against them.

Joseph finds the kind of person he’s looking for in Mariam Haddad, daughter of a commander in the Syrian Army and niece of a colonel in Assad’s chemical weapons program. Haddad works in Assad’s Palace—effectively Assad’s personal office. She is in a position to learn secrets. For family reasons, she’s vulnerable to Joseph’s outreach. McCloskey creates a nice balance between Mariam’s fear and self-doubt, on one hand, and her determination to bring down the evil men leading the security forces, on the other.

I wish McCloskey hadn’t chosen to raise the stakes by having Joseph and Haddad break one of the iron rules of clandestine work and fall in love, even though that makes the situation more dangerous for them both. Despite the cliché overtones, McCloskey manages to keep their relationship real. The tension keeps building as what he needs Haddad to do becomes increasingly difficult, and as evidence accumulates about an unthinkably deadly plot.

David McCloskey is a former CIA analyst whose writing bears the stamp of authenticity, and the book has received much praise by former Agency personnel. It was a finalist for the International Thriller Writers’ Best First Novel Award in 2022. Narrator Andrew Wehrlen makes Sam Joseph a convincing American character and creates distinctive voices for the many Syrian bad-guys as well. Highly recommended.

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Great Listens of 2022

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The UK website CrimeFictionLover.com recently published my report of the five books I reviewed for them in 2022 that I liked best. The pool from which these excellent books were selected has some idiosyncracies. CFL covers new (more or less time-of-publication) crime fiction. A review of a book that’s a few months old is rarely accepted, which unfortunately is often when I get around to listening to the audio version. As a result, while I reviewed about 30 books for CFL in 2020, I read almost 80. I troll the list of award finalists for audio suggestions and find many good ones like:

Razorblade Tears: A Novelby SA Cosby – Not only an action-packed thriller full of story and steeped in compassion, but a remarkable narration by Adam Lazarre-White. Two men come to terms with their dead sons’ gay lives and with each other across America’s racial divide (nominated for multiple awards).

The Diamond Eye: A Novel by Kate Quinn – A fascinating WWII story, inspired by true events, of an unforgettable young woman: eagle-eyed Russian sniper, emissary of the Soviet government in its quest for US military support, and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Lots of interesting detail about how snipers work. Nicely narrated by Saskia Maarleveld.

Deer Season by Erin Flanagan – an intellectually disabled farmhand is suspected of a gruesome crime, and the couple who employs and looks out for him faces painful dilemmas (award nominee).

Trouble Is What I Do by Walter Mosley – Need I say more? Interesting people, good plot, fantastic narration by Dion Graham.

We Are All the Same in the Dark: A Novel by Julia Heaberlin – A cold case heats up in a small Texas town when an abandoned teenager is discovered. Lots of secrets. Lots of atmosphere. Solid female characters. I always enjoy Heaberlin. Multiple narrators, all good.

Black Hills by Nora Roberts – For me, the main character’s involvement with a large animal sanctuary was irresistible. Even if the romance was predictable, the big cats rarely were.

Joe Country by Mick Herron – The Slow Horses team is back in book 6, and in my opinion, Herron hasn’t put a foot wrong yet. Narrated by Gerard Doyle, a pleasure in itself.

Big Easy, Big Stories

The familiar traveler’s dilemma—what books to pack?—was easily solved for a recent trip to New Orleans. I had already set aside two ideal reads: my friend Tracie Provost’s New Orleans-based Under the Harvest Moon (book two in her under the moon series) and a collection of short stories about the Crescent City published by Akashic. As it turned out, both were entertaining late-evening companions.

Under the Harvest Moon

Tracie Provost’s books are packed with paranormal events, with vampires and werewolves and mages. Not at all the kind of book I usually read, so kind of thrilling as a result. Provost is so skilled at creating a consistent world for her unusual characters, with their unusual talents, that I’m never caught up short, thinking “Wait a minute . . .” Her heroine is Juliette de Grammont, a healer and a magic-using vampire, who had been staked for centuries and only recently revived. Still a young beautiful woman, Juliette’s occasionally dated ideas and struggles with technology amuse her millennial assistant, Jaime.

When the story begins, a New Orleans police detective who understands Juliette’s special powers calls her in to analyze a crime scene where a vampire and his girlfriend are both dead in a ritual killing. What has taken place, who is doing it, and why become more mysterious and more important as the number of killings increase.

There’s intrigue among the various covens in the city. Juliette’s coven has been reduced to her and Jaime, as its other members recently staged an unsuccessful coup against the City’s Grandmaster. A few from her coven were killed, but most are still out there . . . somewhere . . . As the risks mount and the evil motivation behind the killings gradually emerges, Juliette and her lover Josh must look for help from unusual sources—including the pack of werewolves living outside the city—for protection and help.

Provost makes the interactions among the characters quite real, almost ordinary—well, almost. She makes them eminently practical. For example, there’s someone they can call who comes with an after-crime clean-up team (he used to work for Al Capone) in order to hide various crimes. In fact, there’s a whole group of mages whose job it is to keep the paranormal world secret—the Gatekeepers. Even select members of the NOPD are in on it.

When you finish Under the Harvest Moon, you can be sure there’s a Book 3 on the way, and will await it eagerly! (You may want to use one of my affiliate links to find it on Amazon, as several books have this title.)

New Orleans Noir: The Classics

This collection, edited by Julie Smith, is a bit different than the usual Akashic collection, in that the 18 stories are not all contemporary. In fact, the earliest is from 1843. They include entries from revered authors like O.Henry, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams, as well as modern masters like James Lee Burke and Ace Atkins.

Overall, they provide a rich portrait of the city, its contrasts and its corruptions, its amusements and its shenanigans, as seen through these different eyes, with their very different, if precise ways of seeing. Quite a nice collection!

Tried the New Shepherd.com Reviews?

Shepherd.com is a book review site that wants to make the search for a new book part of the fun. One of their ways is asking authors to recommend five books that fit a theme. The themes can be broad or incredibly niche. As an example, you might want to check out “the best mouthwatering reads for foodies” (I know I do!) or “the best books about historic Coney Island.” Hmmm. There could be a possible duplication there, if there’s a book about Nathan’s Famous.

The theme I picked is one of my favorites: “ordinary people in extraordinary situations.” Shepherd gives me the chance to explain why I picked it and to describe my own recent book, Architect of Courage. If you’ve read it, you’ll know it’s definitely built on that theme.

Here are five terrific thrillers that also show the kind of unexpected trouble people fall into and how they fight their way out of it!

  • The World at Night by Alan Furst – Reading Furst’s books was what made me think about how much this theme resonates with me. His thrillers are set in the months leading up to World War II, and his characters are trying for “business as usual.” Not a chance.
  • Disappeared by Bonnar Spring – In this new thriller, two American and two Moroccan women are trying to escape the country. For the Americans, all the social rules are upended. Not only are the authorities no help, they’re actually pursuing the women too.
  • Cover Story by Susan Rigetti – This is a jigsaw puzzle of a thriller, and I’ll bet you’ll be surprised when that last piece clicks into place. I was! The main character is a naïve young college dropout who wants to succeed in fashion publishing. You’d just like to shake her and wake her up.
  • Razorblade Tears by SA Cosby – A Black landscaper and white alcoholic ne’er-do-well find themselves an uneasy team when their gay sons are murdered. The police are getting nowhere in finding the killers, so the dads have to try. Awesome in audio.
  • Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips – A mom and her son have to hide in the zoo after hours, in the dark, because a pair of killers is stalking the grounds. Keeping a four-year-old quiet for hours challenges every maternal instinct this remarkable woman has!

You can read more about my five picks here or search for recommendations around your own favorite theme on the Shepherd website.

The Male Point of View

Kevin Tipple, on his wonderful Kevin’s Corner website, which includes mystery and crime fiction-related news, a blog, and book reviews, included the following guest post from me last Sunday. It covers an issue people often ask me about. Check him out!

Thank you, Kevin, for your willingness to host a blog essay related to my new mystery/thriller Architect of Courage. In it, protagonist Archer Landis is a successful Manhattan architect whose orderly life falls into disarray when the woman he loves is murdered. That’s just the beginning of a summer of disastrous events that befall him, which put him and everyone around him in danger. Events that, ultimately, he has to try to sort out.

I’m pleased with the reader response, and one question people often ask is, what was it like to write a book from the male point-of-view? First, I never considered having a woman protagonist for this story, so I had a male firmly in mind from the get-go. I took into account that he is a successful businessman and a lot of the story’s action takes place in his office, not at home. His role as the leader of a prominent architectural firm is essential to who he is, and fits his “let’s get on with it” personality. You see this in his interactions with his staff, helping them move forward through a variety of difficulties.

In thinking about this post for you, Kevin, I realized that, in fact, most of the principal characters in this novel are men: Landis’s two principal associates, his lawyer, the police detectives, his right-hand when situations become dangerous. Many conversations occur among these characters, and in them, especially, I worked on the gender issue. Women (at least women of my generation) were socialized to express themselves tentatively, “It’s just a suggestion, but would you like a roast beef sandwich? Or, maybe . . . something else?” whereas a man would say, “Let’s have a roast beef sandwich” and be done with it. Of course I’m exaggerating. (See how I did that? Tried to get you to go along with my example by using the “of course.”)

I reviewed all the dialog numerous times to make sure the “weasel-words”—the things you say to minimize importance or weaken a statement—were removed, except in instances where the speaker was genuinely unsure. I don’t know, what do you think? (See?) A document search found every instance of the word “need,” which I usually replaced with “want.” There’s a subtle difference between “I need you to finish that floor plan” and “I want you to finish.” Once you go on the hunt for weasel-words, they’re everywhere!

By excising that fluff from the men’s conversation, the women’s voices became more distinctive. Yes, there are women in Architect of Courage! One character readers single out is Landis’s receptionist/assistant Deshondra. She’s young and a practitioner of upspeak? You know what I mean? It makes sense that her conversation would be kind of (there I go again) a counterpoint for the men’s because of her youth, inexperience, and gender.

All this focus on how Landis expresses himself provides a window into the more fundamental issues of how he thinks, analyzes problems, and reacts to situations. Even though he doesn’t talk about feelings a lot, his behavior reveals what’s going on inside.

I have a second novel that includes chapters in alternating points of view, female (my protagonist) and male (a police detective). Compared to Archer Landis, I find the female protagonist harder to write. There’s too much “me” in there. She’s not me; I need her to bring her own self to the project. What I want to avoid is a book in which the main character seems to be the author projecting, what I call wish fulfillment literature. Action heroes are prone to this.

Thank you again, Kevin, and I hope your audience members who read Architect of Courage will enjoy it!

Have you read Architect of Courage yet? Order a copy here and check out that male point of view!

Alfred Hitchcock’s Romance

No, I’m not talking about the scandals involving the Master of Suspense and his fraught relationships with women, I’m talking about Hitch’s love affair with the United States. As you probably recall, Hitchcock was born in England almost exactly 123 years ago (August 13, 1899) and did his early work in silent films and talkies there. From the start, he was a keen observer with diverse interests: art history and true crime; he had an intense fear of law enforcement; and he called himself an Americaphile. As soon as he had the chance to direct, he began making thrillers, and his film Blackmail (1929) was the first British talking picture.

He had some familiar hits in Britain—The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938)—but the UK film industry was losing ground to Hollywood, so when David O. Selznick made a generous offer to bring him to California in 1939, Hitchcock jumped at the chance for bigger budgets, greater creativity, and better weather.

In Hollywood, Hitchcock had the chance to meld America’s promise and his own dark vision. The open spaces, the sunshine—these set up a contrast, a natural tension, with the nightmarish stories he wanted to tell, according to film historian Steven C. Smith, who talked about “Alfred Hitchcock’s America” in the New Plaza Cinema lecture series last week.

Selznick’s instincts were right. The first film Hitch made for him was Rebecca (1940), based on the Daphne du Maurier novel, and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. (Ironically, Hitchcock himself never won a best director Oscar, despite five nominations.)

Rebecca, though, was set in Europe, and Hitchcock’s first film set in America was Saboteur (1942), when war panic and fear of German spies was high. I saw it for the first time a few months ago, and the climactic scenes atop the Statue of Liberty remain thrilling today. Smith revealed how the illusions were done (decades before CGI, of course), following a pattern Hitchcock perfected: extensive storyboarding, so that every shot was defined beforehand; a surprisingly small number of location shots; and as much filming as possible on a sound stage, where he and the special effects cameraman could control every element.

The limited wartime production budget for Hitchcock’s personal favorite film, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), meant fewer sets, and much of it was perforce shot on location in Santa Rosa, California. That small town (then only about 30,000 people) had to stand in for a generic, idyllic America. His scenes of actual mid-century New York (and New Jersey) captured for The Wrong Man (1956) are a valuable visual record of that era.

Many of the locations used in Vertigo (1958), filmed in and around San Francisco, still exist: the Mission Dolores, the Brocklebank Apartments, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. The Mission San Juan Bautista where two important scenes occur still exists, but at the time the movie was filmed, the bell tower (from which falls occur) had already been demolished. Smith did a fascinating shot-by-shot analysis of the first fall scene, noting how each shot was filmed—alternating sound stage, miniature, on location, matte painting, combination matte painting and location, etc. (Any view including the “bell tower” is a matte painting.) Yet the artistry is so perfect, to the viewer the action appears seamless.

Perfection was a bit harder to achieve in the famous scene in North by Northwest (1959) in which Cary Grant is running across a field, while being buzzed by a crop duster. Supposedly this action occurred in northern Indiana, but the wide-angle shots were actually filmed in Bakersfield, and the scenes where he stumbles and hunkers in the dirt were shot on a sound stage, with a film of the airplane playing on a screen in the background. But, Smith said, the continuity director neglected to keep track of how much dirt Grant had on his suit from one shot to the next, so they had to do a lot of re-shooting. This is the movie that ends with the famous chase scene on Mt. Rushmore. The crew was allowed only two days at Mt. Rushmore to shoot still photos (no climbing!), which were used to recreate views of the monument. The rest was Hollywood magic. (An oddity I observed in the Mt. Rushmore footages was Eva Marie Saint wearing heels and carrying her handbag as she clambers around Thomas Jefferson’s nose.) In the previews for this film, Hitchcock looks at the audience and with tongue-in-cheek menace asks, “Have you had your vacation yet?”

Itʼs the realism of these sound stage creations that makes them so memorable and terrifying. Hitchcock believed that nightmares are very specific. Rear Window (1954)and Psycho (1960)—two of his scariest—were shot almost entirely at the studio. (It was years before I could take a shower without reliving Psycho.) For exteriors in The Birds (1963)(another contribution by Daphne de Maurier, a short story this time) Hitchcock chose Bodega Bay, not far from his home in Northern California, and well away from meddling studio executives.

As Smith pointed out, other films have made use of many of these same locations, but when we think of their star turns in the movies, Hitchcock’s films are the ones that come to mind.

Want more? Try these:

The DVD Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection with “how they did it” material and interviews
Award-nominated biography: The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock
The Hitchcock Zone,” a website with more than 9000 images and, and, and!