To Warn or Not To Warn

Author Jamie Beck has written an excellent post for Writer Unboxed summarizing the arguments for and against putting trigger warnings on novels. Does the novel deal with crime, violence, bad childhoods? If so, some people feel potential readers should be warned. Does the warning need to describe so much of what happens in the book (airplane crash, page 73; dog dies, page 159) that it gives the story away? Surely not.

But where’s the middle ground? And, is there one? There’s no single answer that can possibly fit every case, much less every reader. To customize their approach to the actual text of a manuscript, writers (and their publishers) have come to employ “sensitivity readers” when a book is about a culture or a disability that is not the author’s own (and sometimes even if it is). The goal—to avoid stereotypes, mischaracterization, bias and other problems—seems laudable. This issue blipped loudly onto my radar during the dust-up over Jeanine Cummins’s 2020 novel about Mexican migrants, American Dirt.

But authors have been quick to point out that the issue of “standing” can be a slippery slope. Can ONLY a Black person write about Black characters? Or ONLY a person with a mental disability write about a character with one?

In Nita Prose’s excellent mystery The Maid, the protagonist, Molly, has difficulty reading people, can be overly literal, and has more than a touch of OCD (not a totally bad thing, if she’s cleaning your hotel room). Some readers thought the author should have spelled out that Molly is on the autism spectrum. But is she? Should Prose have given Molly an actual diagnosis, one freighted with a lot of extraneous stuff? She didn’t, instead merely describing Molly’s thoughts and reactions in a very straightforward way.

I sympathized with the approach Fabian Nicieza took in his first highly comic mystery, Suburban Dicks. His acknowledgements express thanks to his multicultural reading group, by name, “for providing their thoughts on the cultural portrayals contained in the book and their understanding that its intent was to be an equal opportunity mocker.” An intent at which he most certainly succeeded. A reader would have to be extremely thin-skinned indeed to take his jibes seriously, but then we do seem to be in such an era.

Jamie Beck lays all this out, then reveals the conclusion she came to for her own recent book. Not only is her essay thought-provoking in itself, it’s prompted excellent comments from a range of other writers and readers. Take a look!

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The Pain Tourist by Paul Cleave

What I like about the two Paul Cleave thrillers I’ve read is how he ties social behavior into the story of a crime and investigation. In his work, Internet frenzies make bad situations worse, leaving me thinking, “Oh, yeah. I can see that happening.”

In the first book of his I read, The Quiet People, a couple suspected of harming their child is besieged by angry would-be vigilantes camping out in front of their home. Suspicions inflamed by social media are enough to produce a crowd edging toward violence. The Pain Tourist touches on people’s fascination with true-crime stories and their willingness to believe they are competent and informed enough to become investigators themselves. You’ve seen this in action if you watched the discovery+ channel’s 2021 series Citizen P.I. In the official confusion and near-vacuum of information after the recent killings at the University of Idaho, the amateurs stepped in.

Amateurs have provided helpful information in a number of instances. They’re good at code-cracking, occasionally find missing persons, and willing to delve into cold cases. But more ambitious self-assigned tasks, such as identifying pedophiles and targeting presumed perpetrators can get dangerous for both the citizen and the accused, who may, in fact, be innocent. This is particularly so when accusers decide to take action.

Authorities worry they can jam up an investigation, overwhelming police with “tips” that need to be checked out (more than 6,000 in the Idaho case in the first three weeks after the crimes). In Cleave’s writing, these true crime devotees are pain tourists.

Taut. Twisty. Propulsive. You can trot out all the cliches regularly used to describe thriller fiction and use them with abandon for The Pain Tourist.

A home invasion leaves Frank and Avah Garrett dead. Nine years later, their 19-year-old son, James, remains in a coma with a bullet wound to the brain, and their 14-year-old daughter, Hazel, is trying to piece a life together. The three men seen running from the Garrett home have never been identified.

While Christchurch Detective Rebecca Kent investigates a serial murderer case, alternating chapters provide insight into what’s going on inside James’s head. A lot, and it’s fascinating. His mind is constructing an alternative reality – one in which his parents don’t die and he and Hazel carry on their lives as they would have been. Eight years and 10 months after the attack, in the now of the novel, James wakes up.

As he describes his memories during those years, Hazel and his doctor see correlations with real-life events. James calls what’s in his head Coma World. In Coma World, he had adventures that drew from the books Hazel read to him. The dates he believes certain events occurred match reality. Naturally, the police want to talk to him to find out whether this amazing memory contains clues from that fatal night. He agrees to try. It’s an intriguing possibility, with loads of implications.

Detective Inspector Rebecca Kent is assigned to James’s case, and because her old friend, retired Detective Inspector Theodore Tate, worked the original case, she gets in touch. He’s now working as a technical advisor for true crime television shows, and Cleave nicely portrays the rise in true crime ‘entertainments’, the dark side of the audience obsession and the shamelessness of the media.

Cleave has a special talent for misdirection, which you don’t fully appreciate until near the book’s end, when several investigations start to come together most satisfactorily. Kent and Tate share one serious concern, that the men who killed James’s parents will come back to finish the job.

Rebecca Kent and Theodore Tate are solidly written characters. Hazel and James’s relationship is especially close, a cup of kindness in a vat of cruelty. James and his prodigious abilities form a completely believable, highly sympathetic character. And, along the way, numerous minor characters are given enough detail for plausibility. Maybe the bad guys are a bit too irredeemable, though that merely raises the stakes. This is a fast-moving, engaging story that has something to say and is hard to put down.

Read more:
The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, by Deborah Halber – “Part whodunit, part sociological study . . . The result is eminently entertaining.”

Favorite Literary Detectives–Who’s Yours?

Last month The Guardian asked a number of today’s best crime writers to ID their favorite literary detectives. This is what they said:

John Banville became a crime novel devotee when he met Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in the pages of The Big Sleep. He admits Marlowe is “his creator’s dream version of himself: tough, but tender too, wised up but not cynical, a private eye who has read a book.” Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, favorite of author Dreda Say Mitchell, seems to me to similarly represent authorial wish-fulfillment.

Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder—ex New York cop cum private eye—was the choice of Ian Rankin. He says Scudder is a detective with all of the conventional baggage, yet achieving “the perfect hardboiled mix of grit and poetry: cool jazz with surface noise.” Rankin’s own protagonist John Rebus would get this.

Mark Billingham credits Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade with launching the American hardboiled private eye genre in The Maltese Falcon. Yet, the book’s “most enduring mystery” is Spade himself, a character with much more going on than what is revealed on the page. Perhaps this contributes to the perennial appeal of Sherlock Holmes, too (what is going on in that head of his?), the choice of author Saima Mir.

Australian author Chris Hammer’s detective Nell Buchanan is the pick of Ann Cleeves, while Val McDermid’s favorite is Scottish writer Josephine Tey’s chameleonlike Inspector Alan Grant, who appeared in six novels from 1929 to 1952. He’s featured in Tey’s 1951 novel, The Daughter of Time, selected by the British Crime Writers’ Association in 1990 as the greatest crime novel of all time. OK, I’m ordering it.

Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and even Jessica Fletcher were cited by several of the authors and are beloved by readers of all ages. I most resonated with Stella Duffy’s choice, Trixie Belden, a pre-teen favorite at my house. “almost always fierce and brave, confronting what she saw as injustice.”

David Baldacci picked Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, popular heir to the Los Angeles mean streets of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. He says “Archer brought to the table a heart and a soul, and a way of making sense of the world that was deeply, viscerally connected to the reader.”

In general, these were safe choices. Mostly they represented series—that is, a body of work. Ten years from now, who’d be your nominees? I’d hope to see Joe Ide’s Isaiah Quintabe, Nick Petrie’s Peter Ash, and Mick Herron’s Slough House team in the mix.

Where Crime Goes, Fiction May Follow

Photo: Vasanth Rajkumar

A recent lecture on the country’s dramatic drop in crime rates and “the next war on violence” dovetailed nicely with a Mystery Writers of America discussion on where crime-writing is headed.

Patrick Sharkey, author of Uneasy Peace, is a Princeton Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs. As you undoubtedly know, from the early 1990s to the mid-2010s or so, all across the country, in urban and rural areas, in large communities and small ones, crime rates—especially violent crime rates—dropped dramatically, with the greatest drops in the most disadvantaged communities.

Much as this decline was a cause for celebration, Sharkey says, this progress was always precarious because the go-to policies used to respond to crime—more prisons and police, more aggressive policing, and increased surveillance—weaken communities and build resentment and unrest in the population as a whole, especially in the populations most affected. These feelings boiled over most dramatically after the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Unfortunately, punitive strategies, Sharkey believes, are an ineffective response to the core problems.

Now, as we’ve read, the murder rate is increasing again (see the stats) from its low-points of a few years ago. What can be done to avoid the Bad Old Days? A different body of research that Sharkey has examined in detail shows that community-based organizations that focus on building stronger neighborhoods make a big difference in local rates of murder and crime of all types. He believes ample evidence exists to support a new model of crime prevention emphasizing community investment rather than individual punishment.

But will that happen? The covid epidemic has intensified the difficulty. It caused people to withdraw from public spaces and to return to them uneasily. It contributed to a notable rise in incivility. Also during the pandemic, gun sales exceeded any preceding levels (stats here). Confrontations and angry flare-ups happen; firearms make them more lethal. Covid and the associated isolation is also linked to unaddressed mental health problems in children, teens, and adults, some of which play out violently.

When author-members of MWA-New York met online last week to talk about where we think crime fiction is headed over the next decade, Sharkey’s assessment of the shifts in society were a useful backdrop for me. The discussion, led by Gary E. Ross, raised a number of issues that seem on the cusp of breakout. Clearly, crime fiction authors may want to take into account the increase in number of guns and unaddressed mental health problems.

In the background are other worsening problems that fiction might explore, like electronic crimes, unwanted surveillance, implementation of artificial intelligence models, the downside of Big Data (just don’t make me try to understand Bitcoin).

On the science side, our authors foresaw the increased capacity to bioengineer viruses and produce chemical weapons as likely to appear in fiction. The military’s cautious acceptance of what we used to call Unidentified Flying Objects and now call Unidentified Aerial Phenomena opens a lot of intriguing story directions. But, here on earth, the persistent and growing political divisions, domestically and internationally, create social instability where crimes can occur. All these will affect what authors may want to write about and (we hope) readers may want to read.

Further Reading:

Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, The Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence (2019) Order it here.

Social Fabric: A New Model for Public Safety and Vital Neighborhoods, March 2021. Get a copy here.

Tales of the Red River of the North

Flannery O’Connor’s book Everything That Rises Must Converge comes to mind whenever life brings seemingly random stuff together around a common theme. It happens all the time. Recently, I’ve read two books about the same patch of land on the Red River of the North, which forms most of the border between Minnesota and North Dakota, then flows into Canada (pictured). You can’t even say that I gravitated to these geographically linked books out of personal interest—one was a pick of my book club and the other a gift. Both by prize-winning authors; both great.

The mystery Murder on the Red River, first of a series of three by Marcie R. Rendon, features 19-year-old Cash Blackbear who lives alone in Fargo, North Dakota, and drives trucks for local farmers. Her lifestyle choices leave room for improvement: too much beer, lots of cigarettes. She earns extra money playing competitive pool, often with her romantic partner, a married man. Playing pool isn’t destructive, per se, of course, but being out late at night in honky-tonk bars where the pool-playing events are held does expose Cash to certain dangers.

When she was a child, she fell under the watchful eye of Sheriff Wheaton, who can recognize an at-risk kid when he sees one. They are still friends. He thinks she’s the smartest person he knows and she has intuition so strong, it produces visions. When an Indian man turns up dead in a field, she helps the sheriff investigate, and an engrossing story is launched.

Multiple award-winner Louise Erdrich’s book The Sentence is wonderfully rich and evocative, not only of the cultural background and nuanced relationship of her main characters Tookie, an Ojibwe tribe member, and her husband Pollux, a Potawatomi. The ways—big and small—that they integrate tribal teachings with their present lives is fascinating. At the book’s outset, Tookie commits a crime that takes her to prison (one of the meanings of the book’s title), and the first chapter begins, “While in prison, I received a dictionary.” With that juxtaposition of unlikely elements, you just have to keep reading!

The dictionary was sent to her by a former teacher, and when Tookie’s sentence is commuted, the teacher hires her to work in her bookstore. (Erdrich herself owns a bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books). This story takes place in Minneapolis, with the occasional reference to Red River places and people—all very fresh in my mind, thanks to Marcie Rendon.

The bookstore’s most annoying customer dies on All Souls’ Day 2019, and the story takes place over the following year, one full of incident. In the wider world, there’s the pandemic, with employees having to figure out how to work, how to keep the business going, even how to live, in the face of that upheaval. A couple of months in, George Floyd is murdered, and social isolation seems not the right way to go, when conscience urges people onto the streets. Aggressive police tactics have affective the Indian community too, as the bookstore employees are quick to point out.

Tookie’s own life has its complications. The dead customer haunts the store, especially her. The staff try any number of stratagems to persuade the poor woman to go. Will they ever get rid of her? At the other end of the life cycle, Pollux’s daughter has come home, bringing her baby, and Tookie is smitten.

It’s a lovely book, and one where my interest never flagged. Can recommend this Red River excursion to whole-heartedly.

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Halloween Countdown: The Writing of Stephen Graham Jones

pumpkin, book art

It was a lapse when I ordered the audio version of Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians, brilliantly narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett. If I’d known in advance it was considered a horror novel, I probably wouldn’t have listened to it. Boy, would I ever have missed something spectacular.

A crime sets the plot in motion. It’s the kind of irresponsible daredevilry four young male buddies are prone to. As a big snowstorm starts four days before Thanksgiving, Ricky, Lewis, Cass, and Gabe decide they need to put some of their own game on the holiday table. They take their hunt to the portion of the Blackfeet reservation set aside for the elders.

Down below a cliff, they find a herd of elk. They shoot into the herd, killing far more animals than they can drag uphill and far more than their truck can hold. Doesn’t matter. At the top of the cliff, the game warden waits. One of the animals Lewis shot was a young doe. When he begins to field-dress her, he discovers she isn’t dead, and she is pregnant. Her calf is alive inside her, and several more shots are required to finally kill her.

Ten years have passed since the hunt Gabe calls the Thanksgiving Classic. Ricky is working a temporary job with a North Dakota drilling crew. One night, outside a bar, he encounters a herd of elk in the parking lot. The animals panic and, in running away, do considerable damage to the parked trucks. Shrieking vehicle alarms send the bar patrons stumbling outside. They see a Native, jump to the wrong conclusion, and chase and kill Ricky. “Indian Man Killed in Dispute Outside Bar.” From the viewpoint of Lewis, Cass, and Gabe, Ricky’s death is totally predictable.

For quite a time, you could legitimately think of the elk sightings by Ricky and the half-mad Lewis as hallucinations, possibly brought on by (in one case) alcohol and (in the other) guilt. The situations are strange and terrible, but not totally outside the realm of logical explanation—metaphorical, not metaphysical. That changes. But by then, you’re all in.

Having liked this book so much, I listened to another of Jones’s: My Heart is a Chainsaw (a Bram Stoker Award winner). Teenage Jade Daniels is a loner, half-white, half-Native, shunned by her peers and effectively abandoned by her parents. Her life has one bright spot—an obsession with something even worse than her own situation, slasher movies. Her knowledge of that genre is encyclopedic. Now, I’ve never watched any of those films, so no doubt a lot went over my head, but there was never a point where I was at all confused. Jade sees around her the clues that a massive slasher event is going to occur in their rural town, but, following a core tenet of slasher films, The Adults Don’t Believe Her. I came to admire and love Jade with her woefully unappreciated big heart and lightning brain. Another great narration of the audio version by Cara Gee.

Further Reading:
What Horror Can Teach Us” by Kelsey Allagood

Reading Lessons: Green Monsters & Flawed Characters

see, eye, green

In Nicky Shearsby’s new psychological thriller, Green Monsters, the first-person narrator, Stacey Adams, makes no secret of her hatred (her word, not mine) for her married older sister, Emma. Emma is a successful businesswoman, lives in a huge house with her dishy husband Jason and toddler daughter, has a designer wardrobe, yada-yada-yada. Perfect, in other words.

Emma’s every remark is perceived as a subtle dig at Stacey’s lack of achievement, her lower status, all the ways she is less. Implications all the more piercing by being true. Stacey lives alone in a cramped apartment and squeaks by with work for a temp agency at a job she cares about not one little bit.

This is a book that, despite its strengths, has a number of significant challenges buried in the set-up described above. Stacey has an almost Manichean view of the world. People are unambiguously either bad (Emma) or good (herself). There’s no gray here.

Shearsby does a powerful job conveying Stacey’s obsessions. The book cover describes her as a “narcissistic psychopath”; however, no mental health professional makes that diagnosis. When, eventually, the plot requires a reversal of Stacy’s attitude, I had been so persuaded of her pathology, I doubted whether Stacey would be capable of any recalibration. If she’s truly a psychopath, it isn’t plausible to me that one day she would simply get past it.

Any story where the main character has a severe mental disorder faces difficulties. And, in Green Monsters is also the narrator Leaving aside that a character’s quirks could become tiresome to the reader, it can be almost too easy to predict their actions. (Of course she sleeps with her sister’s husband—not a spoiler, says so on the cover. Of course, he’ll pursue revenge to the ends of the earth.) Such characters, propelled by their pathology, typically have little control over their lives, and all the reader can do is watch their downward spiral. (By contrast, in Tana French’s Broken Harbor, the apparent schizophrenia of the main character’s younger sister is brilliantly portrayed and viewed not through her eyes, but his.)

This isn’t to say that all characters need to be “likeable,” far from it. But they do need dimension. What do they do all day? What do they value? What are they interested in, and is it something that makes the reader interested in them? I never had the impression Stacey was interested in anything other than her sister’s husband and their trysts.

In the right hands, with the right project, there are always exceptions to any general observations about writing. But I’ve read enough stories that take the point of view of a deranged serial killer (which, thankfully, Stacey is not) that I have seen how hard that is to pull off. If I were trying to distill the main lesson for me from reading Green Monsters, it would be to give my characters the kinds of lives that will keep readers interested even when they are monsters, green or otherwise.

Book Review: Jewish Noir II

Just in time for the High Holidays, comes Jewish Noir II, edited by Kenneth Wishnia and Chantelle Aimée Osman. In his lively introduction, noted crime writer Lawrence Block says you can sum up every Jewish holiday in three sentences: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!” While great food is an essential part of Jewish holiday celebrations, Block points out that the first two sentence are even more tied to the Jewish experience and, as he says, make the combination of Jews and noir almost inevitable. And timely, I’d add, given current trends.

This collection of twenty-three short stories, many of which were written by prize-winning authors, are clustered in six themes: legacies, scattered and dispersed (stories from the diaspora); you shame us in front of the world (embarrassment and dishonor); the God of mercy; the God of vengeance; and American Splendor (stories that could only happen in the United States). Editors Wishnia and Osman point to a subtext of many of the stories: fear amidst the stresses of modern life. Fear of the past, fear of loss, fear of anti-Semitism, fear of violence. Fear that is another signpost on the road to noir. Even with that common thread, the stories themselves are wildly diverse, and readers will find many that appeal, regardless of stylistic preferences. This review tackles only three of them, from across the themes mentioned.

“Taking Names,” the opening story by Steven Wishnia, sits perfectly in the sweet spot between past and present. It begins with the commemoration of a notorious tragedy, the 1911 fire at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. In that calamity, scores of young women jumped nine stories to their deaths, rather than be burned alive. Because of the business owners’ negligence, 146 people—mainly Italian and Jewish immigrants—died. The issue of worker safety is brought up to the present day by reporter Charlie Purpelburg, who’s covering union efforts to increase worker safety in the construction industry. Once again, risky conditions affect the most vulnerable employees—undocumented workers, this time around. They’re not only caught in the political machinations of Jewish developers skirting safety regulations, their wages are being stolen. Enter the social media trolls. Where does all this racial hostility end? No place good.

Craig Faustus Buck’s “The Shabbes Goy” is another tale of exploitation, this time of an elderly woman by her ultra-religious husband, who fills their apartment with gloom and domination. How three members of the younger generation ally to thwart him is quite satisfying. Funny and horrifying, all at once.

“What was I thinking?” is the first line of “The Nazi in the Basement” by Rita Lakin. An elderly Jewish woman living in California returns to New York for a funeral and decides to do the unfathomable. She visits her old neighborhood in the Bronx for the first time in decades. When she lived there, the residents were mostly Jews, Irish, and Italians, and now, before she can park the rental car, she encounters teenagers from Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, and Bangladesh. They wheedle most of her life story out of her. But she doesn’t tell them the ending, the tragic events that produced in her “the scars masquerading as memories.”

Many of the remaining stories address the issues of younger generations of Jews and people living in other countries. Still, it is today’s elderly, grandchildren of the immigrants from the last century who have witnessed the massive social changes of upward mobility, and who, at this point, may be most caught between past and present.

Travel Tips: The Poe Museum, Richmond, Virginia

Contributing stories to Quoth the Raven (contemporary works inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s writings) and Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe rekindled my interest in the much-misunderstood poet, literary critic, and inventor of the detective fiction genre. A recent Virginia trip (history, Busch Gardens, genealogy) offered an occasion to visit the Poe Museum, a tiny jewel of a museum located in several small Richmond houses connected by gardens.

The house where you enter and buy tickets has a nice selection of Poe souvenirs and books. When you leave that, you cross a small lawn whose paths lead to a memorial (pictured). The granite benches along the paths came from a rooming house where Poe once lived, and the ivy lining the paths originated with cuttings from Poe’s mother’s grave—a fittingly macabre touch. Two black cats laze about, darkly.

Possibly you remember that Poe was the middle child of three born to actors David Poe and English-born Elizabeth Hopkins. Their father abandoned him when he was about a year old, and his mother died of consumption when he was three. He was taken in, but never adopted, by the family of John Allan, a successful Richmond merchant, who paid for his education in Scotland and London before the family returned to Virginia. At 15, Poe served in a youth honor guard during a visit to Richmond by the Marquis de Lafayette. Poe was admitted to the fledgling University of Virginia, but his gambling debts cost him place at the university, as well as his relationship with his foster-father. He lasted only a year there.

The main building of the Museum is the “Old Stone House,” built around 1740 and the oldest original residence in the city (several major fires destroyed much). It contains some furnishings—bed, desk, fireplace mantel—from Poe’s boyhood home, as well as his sister’s piano. The memorial building contains original copies of his writing and editing, including editions of the Southern Literary Messenger, which he edited for several years. A bound collection of that magazine was open to one of Poe’s own short stories—“Berenice”—which coincidentally was the inspiration for my two Poe-adjacent stories.

The museum displays some pages in Poe’s own hand (tiny writing) that are hard to read, as they can’t be subjected to bright light, pictures of some of the women he allied with, including his cousin and much-loved wife Virginia who, too, fell to the ravages of consumption. Thirteen years his junior, she died at age 24, after an eleven-year marriage. (Yes, married at 13.) Her death was a considerable blow to Poe, who believed nothing was more romantic than the death of a beautiful woman, and clearly was a partial inspiration for some of his melancholic poems and stories, including “Berenice.”

Upstairs in this house is a “reading room” with books by and about Poe and artists’ interpretations. Lots of ravens. In another building you can find items from closer to the time of Poe’s death (in Baltimore, age 40), including a portrait of Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Poe’s literary executor, who took advantage of the death of his rival to sully Poe’s reputation. Not for many years were Griswold’s scurrilous accusations of madness and depravity seen for what they were—the product of an intense jealousy. The recent Julian Symons biography, The Tell-Tale Heart (reviewed here) is a well-researched, highly readable summary of a complicated and sad life.

More Information:

The Poe Museum 1914 East Main Street, Richmond. Open Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10-5; Sundays, 11-5; free parking. Tours, educational programs, shop.

For Quoth the Raven (contemporary stories and poems inspired by EAP), click here.

For Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe (Holmes and Watson on the case), click here.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight

If you enjoyed Riku Onda’s previous mystery translated into English, The Aosawa Murders, you’ll find many of the same attributes in her new psychological thriller, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight. It offers that same dreamy feeling and a quality of uncertainty about the characters’ perceptions. It’s almost as if the story were told by those very fish, trying to make sense of the light and dark around them through a veil of water.

The short chapters of this new book are related alternately by Chiaki (Aki) and Chihiro (Hiro), who met in the tennis club at college and were immediately attracted to each other. Paired up to play doubles, it seemed like they had played together their whole lives. When their parents learn about their friendship, they reveal that the young people are, in fact, brother and sister, twins separated when their mother could no longer take care of them both and gave daughter Aki up for adoption. Since age three, they were raised as only children.

To recapture the lost years of siblinghood, Aki and Hiro decide to share a flat in Tokyo and are very happy for a time. The relationship falls apart after a mountain hike when their guide is killed in a fall, and they are each wracked by suspicion that the other somehow engineered the tragedy. The novel takes place on their last night together.

Every chapter peels away another layer, as each of them is intent on extracting a confession about the guide’s death from the other. It turns out that the guide is connected to the twins in a way that might provide a motive for murder, but did it? Author Onda spreads out the revelations, and in large part, they’re the siblings’ differing impressions of the tragedy.

Unexpected fragments of memory find their places in the puzzle of their lives, as the deepening mystery flashes, twists, and turns much like the eponymous fish that Aki at one point describes.

The translation by Alison Watts effectively conveys this sense of gradual discovery—about the guide, about the siblings’ relationship, about their un-twin-like misinterpretation of the other’s state of mind, about the past, and, perhaps even about their futures. Onda has a lovely, slow-moving and relatively unadorned style of writing. But beneath the placid surface is a tidal wave of emotion. She minimizes physical description in lieu of emotional nuance, resulting in a complex and memorable story.  

Onda is a well-known Japanese novelist, whose works have won numerous top awards and been adapted for both film and television there. The Aosawa Murders was the first to be translated into English. It won a Best Novel award from the Mystery Writers of Japan and was selected as a 2020 Notable Book by The New York Times.