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!

Ellery Queen Strikes Again!

The short stories collected for the bimonthly editions of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine are always entertaining and diverse. The current issue has some classics as well as brand spanking new ones, though I don’t recall any actual spanking. That must be some other magazine. Here are some of the stories I enjoyed best:

“Pink Squirrel” by Nick Mamatas – Stories with clever Lithuanian grandmas are always entertaining. “Welcome to America! Where you can drink ice cream and alcohol simultaneously!”

“Stray” by debut author Ken Lim – What if what you’re running from isn’t really after you?

“The Interpreter and the Killer” – There’s a big international drug-trafficking case that takes an unexpected courtroom twist for Jeff Soloway’s Spanish-language interpreter. The plot hinges on a single word.

“Boo Radley College Prep” – Karen Harrington’s heartfelt tale about how a young boy learns not to make assumptions about people. This one will stay with me a long time. Excellent characters.

“Curious Incidents” – Steve Hockensmith devised a clever girl who is a Sherlock Holmes devotee, of course, for his latest Holmes on the Range story about Big Red and Old Red and a disappearance out west. Funny and true to the master of detection.

Many of the authors in this issue write novels as well. You can get the flavor of the way they think and write in these short, pleasurable bites.

Forgiving Stephen Redmond

Sidransky, Forgiving Stephen Redmond

By Alan Sidransky – In 2008, workmen tearing down a clutch of derelict Washington Heights rowhouses make a grim discovery: Behind the plaster of an upstairs bedroom is the body of a man sitting in a chair, wearing a hat. To the dismay of the demolition foreman, the NYPD detectives called to the scene—Tolya Kurchenko and Pete Gonzalvez—intend to make a serious investigation. No matter that the corpse has been entombed for at least forty years, and no matter that everyone who knew the victim is probably dead.

Kurchenko and Gonzalvez, partners and best friends, have appeared in two previous police procedurals by Sidransky, and their easy camaraderie is balanced by meticulous investigative work. They’ll need some time to do the digging required for such a cold case, and their captain grudgingly gives them a few days. The detectives are intrigued. This is their neighborhood, they’ve known those houses for years. What happened there?

Property records reveal that the house was then owned by Máximo Rothman and his best friend and business partner Ernest (“Erno”) Eisen, Jewish immigrants from Europe by way of the Dominican Republic. (Max was murdered three years earlier, and these same detectives investigated.) Max and Erno met in the coastal Dominican town of Sosúa, one of the few places in the world that welcomed Jewish refugees as World War II threatened Europe.

Erno, now quite elderly, admits flat-out that he killed the man sealed up in the wall. This surprising confession could wind the case up rather neatly, but it needs some follow up, which leads the detectives deeper into the past.

The detectives hope Rabbi Shalom Rothman, Max’s son, can provide insights about what went on in the rooming house four decades earlier, and their questions bring back memories and feelings Shalom thought were buried forever. Author Sidransky uses the character of Shalom to explore the obligations of love between fathers and sons, not just between Shalom and Max, but also between Shalom and his autistic son, Baruch.

Another appealing aspect of the story is its demonstration of friendship based on mutual respect that exists between Pete, a Dominican, and Tolya, a Russian Jew. Amidst all the teasing and day-do-day banter, the subject of friendship rarely comes up. It doesn’t need to. It’s in their every interaction.

Sidransky’s description of life for the refugee Jews both before and after coming to New York make an evocative back story, but change and the need to adapt didn’t end with their arrival in the United States. Gentrification, displacement, cultural conflict, changing markets and institutions are an effective backdrop for urban characters facing not only who they are, but who they think they are. Forgiving Stephen Redmond offers a timely, immersive mystery and a powerful family story.

The Short of It

On the Writer Unboxed blog last week, publishing guru Porter Anderson speculated about reasons the changeover from the old year to the year always seems to generate news about short-form fiction. Perhaps, he suggests, the end/beginning of a year is a time writers have short fiction on the mind, intending to try out ideas they might spend the rest of the year working up into a larger project—that is, a book. Maybe so.

I went the other direction. To reduce the word-count of a novel, I cut way back on secondary characters’ stories. I liked these guys, but . . . These cutting-room floor episodes became three short stories, all of them now published. While possibly a commendable exercise in prose recycling, there were unanticipated pitfalls. First, they had to be real stories, not “excerpts.” That was relatively easy. Second, once those stories were out there, I had to take them into account when I made further changes to the novel itself. Probably not one reader in a million (should I have that many) would go back, find those stories and object to any discrepancies. Of course, that one would have an active online presence and a snarky temperament.

Anderson cites four international developments bearing on the status of short fiction:
1. A new independent publisher in France (L’Ourse brune) focusing on short stories written in French. Formidable!
2. Later this week, London’s Costa Short Story Awards will reveal the voting public’s favorite among three unpublished short stories.
3. The 16th BBC National Short Story Award program opened for submissions last week; cash prizes to be announced in early October
4. Spain’s Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize consists of cash, an artist’s residency in Umbria or the Writers’ House of Georgia, plus publication opportunities and more.

There’s (fairly recent) U.S. news in the world of short fiction, as well. You’ll remember that the long-running annual Best American Mystery Story anthology has moved from the purview of its founding editor, Otto Penzler, to the guiding hand of author and editor Steph Cha (Your House Will Pay), starting with next fall’s edition. It will have new title, too: The Best American Mystery and Suspense.

Penzler’s Mysterious Press reportedly will launch a competing anthology this fall: The Mysterious Bookshop Presents: The Best Mystery Stories of the Year. The attendant kerfuffle was covered by J. Kingston Pierce in The Rap Sheet.

Finally, the annual Best New England Crime Stories anthology, previously published by Level Best Books, will henceforth be published by Crime Spell Books, with Susan Oleksiw, Ang Pompano, and Leslie Wheeler as editors. Write on!

Photo: Pexel for Pixabay

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.)

The Huntress

The Huntress, Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn’s 2019 thriller is a real page-turner—good thing too because there are a lot of pages. Soon after World War II, widowed Boston antiques dealer Daniel McBride meets Austrian refugee Annaliese Weber and falls for her. She has a four-year-old daughter and a bit of a murky past whose pieces don’t quite fit. Daniel is in love and oblivious, but his teenage daughter Jordan is not. In the chapters where she’s the center, you feel her love for her father, as she tries to reconcile her stepmother’s affectionate behavior and her doubts about the woman.

Over in Europe, two Nazi-hunters—a sophisticated Englishman and a Polish-Hungarian former GI—have teamed up to track down war criminals overlooked by the Nuremberg trials. Ian, the erudite Englishman, received a solid education, but it’s Tony, from polyglot Queens, who “could talk to anyone, usually in their native language.”

By 1950, they have a good track record, despite the shoestring nature of their operation. A woman they would really like to find is die Jägerin, The Huntress. She had been the mistress of a high-ranking SS officer, now dead. During the war, she murdered numerous people, including six refugee children, and one of her victims was Ian’s brother Sebastian.

Ian first heard about Seb’s death from a young woman, “all starved eyes and grief,” whom he encountered in a Polish hospital. Nina Borisovna Markova is the third leg of this sturdy triangle of point-of-view characters—Jordan, Ian, and Nina.

Nina grew up in a tiny village in Siberia—the youngest of several children, with no mother, siblings who fled, and a violent alcoholic father—dreaming of escape, but where and to what? The answer comes the day she sees her first airplane. She heads west to a city where she learns to fly, becoming a member of the first Soviet women’s flying squad, and active in bombing the German invaders. It’s a perfect life for her until her father’s drunken denunciations of Stalin reach the wrong ears. Unless she escapes the Soviet Union, she’s likely to be rounded up and imprisoned too. The Siberian legends and superstitions of Nina’s childhood are woven into all these experiences, and the result is a complex, prickly, utterly unique personality.

Quinn’s characters are passionate about their concerns, though Nina’s passions are at best only half-tamed. Because die Jägerin tried to kill Nina, she wants to find the woman just as much as Ian does. And, she knows what die Jägerin looks like. When Tony stumbles on a faint clue that leads them to Boston, they hope to pick up the murderer’s scent. They have no idea she’s living as a respectable housewife right under their noses.

To sum up this story in a single word, it would be “satisfying.” All Quinn’s characters and their concerns are compelling, and their rich experiences support the plot. There’s more than a touch of romance, and the good-humored banter provided by Tony is an effective counterpoint to the seriousness of the hunters’ quest. In short, I really enjoyed this book and recommend it highly.

Foreign Object(ive)s

origami, frog

Three short novels from international authors, all under 175 pages, showing you can do a lot to tell a great story, evoke reader emotion, and, by the way, garner significant critical praise in about half the length of the average American novel.

Ramifications by Daniel Saldaña Paris, translated by Christina MacSweeney – A young boy in Mexico City is obsessed with folding and refolding origami frogs. This is one of the rituals he developed to fill his mind and his time after his mother walked out on him, his older sister, and their rigid father. She couldn’t take their stifling middle-class life and vowed to join the revolutionaries in Chiapas. But did she? After a time of youthful doldrums, he takes dramatic action to find her and doesn’t. Then word comes she died in an auto accident. But did she? Now an adult, her son appears irredeemably “lost in the woods of machismo and social revolts ” says reviewer Alejandro Zambra.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori – Thirty-six-year-old Keiko Furukura found work at a convenience store when she was in her late teens and, despite her likely abilities, has never left that job. The daily rituals and predictable rhythms of the convenience store soothe her, and she has a talent for the needs of the job—customer support, upselling, store display. Her family wants her to aspire to more, to return to the university, to find a husband, but life at the Smile Mart is what satisfies this “defiantly oddball” woman. Named a “best book” by numerous publications.

A Hundred Million Years and a Day by Jean-Baptiste Andrea, translated by Sam Taylor – You can brace yourself for winter by reading this highly praised adventure involving the hunt for an intact dinosaur skeleton high in a remote Alpine wilderness. It’s the late summer of 1954, and three palaeontologists and their taciturn mountain guide have only a limited time to search before winter closes in, and close in it does. The guide insists they leave, but Stan, the organizer of the group, won’t go. Eventually, they leave him and he braves the elements so as to get an early start on the search the next spring. All alone, in the cold and dark, the boundaries between waking and dreaming, the now and the past blur. “Spare, elegant and poetic, this slender novel is quietly devastating” said the Daily Mail.

Photo of frog origami by Hanne Hasu for Pixabay.

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – Nov/Dec 2020

Santa Claus, reading

What fun to review this issue of “the world’s leading mystery magazine” and have the chance to reexamine its amazingly diverse stories, in numerous sub- and maybe even sub- sub- genres. In this issue there’s a nice mix of brand new and newish authors, as well as some of today’s best writers of crime and mystery fiction.

Picking favorites is hard, but these stories particularly struck me.

“Killer Instinct” by Doug Allyn—a perennial reader favorite. Not only is his story set in my home town, Detroit, his first sentence made me laugh out loud. It’s perfect for EQMM: “The traffic was murder.”

“My People” by Liza Cody – Her protagonist, an undercover London cop, is participating in a huge protest about climate change, sussing out the demonstrators’ intentions. They welcome her; her fellow police are dismissive. As a result, she engages in an entertaining mental back-and-forth about which group is “her people.”

“The Man from Scotland Yard Dances Salsa” by John Lantigua. His Miami-based Cuban private eye is always interesting. Once again, he cleverly negotiates that tropical world of people with lots of dough and the bad guys who want to grab some of it.

“The Cards You’re Dealt” by Michael Z. Lewin – satisfying comeuppance of a full-of-himself police lieutenant, aided by some smart detective work and a sharp boy and his bike.

“The Man at the Window” by Pat Black—an intriguing police procedural about a dead mom, suspiciously swinging neighbors, and a tidy three-year-old.

Photo: Creative Commons License

Story Endings – Part Two

ending, finish, party

Last week Washington Post book critic Ron Charles’s recent essay about book endings that disappoint was reviewed on this website. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one intrigued by this account. Says Post editor Stephanie Merry, his essay let loose a torrent of reader comments that aired “their personal grievances about the endings that still haunt them.” The result, she says, was a funny, eclectic, and, not surprisingly often contradictory view of how we want our books to conclude. She reports on that outpouring here.

According to Merry, there was “nearly universal agreement on a handful of books.” Perhaps readers were reminded of these loathed conclusions by Charles’s post, as the comments repeat many of the examples he highlighted. A “top contender for worst ending” was Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. After all the clever and powerful twisting back and forth between Nick and Amy, the consensus seems to be that it’s just too weak. Another popularly unpopular ending was that of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. I think I read that years ago, but maybe I just remember Rene Zellweger.

In contrast to Gone Girl, in which the ending just flopped, the disappointment with Cold Mountain seems to be a case in which readers didn’t like the ending the writer chose (my problem with Tess of the D’Urbervilles). People have been saying the same about Romeo and Juliet, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina for generations It’s almost as if we readers are saying, don’t make us care about these characters so much unless you plan to keep them alive long enough for a sequel!

As one reader (Javachip) wrote more eloquently, “There’s a difference between endings that crush you with their sadness or horribleness but still work, and indeed you hate them because they work, (he cites examples), vs. endings that feel like a cheat.” (Emphasis added.) In that category he puts Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett—the first of hers I ever read, years ago—and I do not remember the ending at all. Must not have made much of an impression. At least it didn’t make me mad.

A surprising number of readers confess to reading the end first. “I always enjoy a journey more if I [don’t] have to worry about where I am going,” said Post reader Alison Cartwright. Something I would never do, would you?

And then there were the contrarian readers who suggested nominees for best ending, including The Great Gatsby and The Underground Railroad. Lopezgirl5 is a fan of Charlotte Bronte’s ending for Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him.” That might make a good first line for a certain kind of story, as well.

Photo: pixel2013 for Pixabay

Coming to a Bad End

End, Finish

Washington Post book critic Ron Charles recently wrote about his reluctance to spoil the endings of the books he reviews, yet worried about “the propriety of burying my appraisal of a book’s conclusion.” It’s a conundrum for him, because endings are so critical to what readers come away with. I know many many fellow readers who adored Where the Crawdads Sing all the way up to the last pages, because they believe the ending (whatever it is; my lips are sealed) wasn’t true to the character. Put me in that camp too.

There’s lots of reasons not to like an ending, and a disconnect with the rest of the book is a good one. Critics and critical readers didn’t like the ending to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, because it felt too manipulative and artificially tidy. One of my favorite classics is Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but I hate the ending—not because it betrays the character, not because it doesn’t ring true, but simply because I don’t want it to end that way. No surprise, then, that in all my many repeat viewings of West Side Story, I’ve sat through the last half-hour in a state of increasing anxiety, hoping against hope that Chino won’t step out and shoot Tony at the end (Oops! Spoiler alert).

Wishing the ending the author chose were something different isn’t exactly the same as disliking the ending that was chosen. In the first case, the problem is internal to the reader and, in the second, it may be with the author.

Charles reports on an analysis by online retailer OnBuy.com of GoodReads reviews to identify the “Books with the Most Disappointing Endings.” Their methodology, he says, “feels a bit dubious,” but, nevertheless, here are the top five: Romeo and Juliet (you want it to end differently), Atonement (too neat), Requiem by Lauren Oliver (don’t know it), and The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray (don’t know it either). Two Harry Potter books are on the list: “Deathly Hallows” at spot 9 and “Half-Blood Prince” at spot 11. Weaknesses, if there be them, haven’t hurt sales, though. “Half-Blood Prince” sold 6.9 million copies in the first 24 hours and “Deathly Hallows” 8.3 million—before most readers got to their questionable endings, I’d wager

Here are the contradictory assessments readers provide about the endings they hate: they’re too rushed (that deadline is looming; wrap this baby up!) or too drawn out (enough already; The Goldfinch is a prime offender here); they’re too surprising (surprising? If no groundwork is laid, sure, but if it is . . . don’t we like plots with a twist?) or too predictable (thrillers, especially, have developed a too well-worn plot groove). And here, Charles notes, other readers bedsides me lament the fate of poor Tess.

Charles’s article prompted hundreds of WashPo readers to comment, “and the result was a funny, eclectic and often contradictory look at how we want our books to conclude,” wrote editor Stephanie Merry. More on that next week.

Photo: Alexas_Fotos for Pixabay.