Leapin Leprechauns!

When it comes to a painful history, Irish authors know whereof they speak, and they know how to tell a story laced with humor. Fiction is one way to process lingering cultural traumas.

While I’ve read quite a few books by Irish authors in paper, they are wonderful books to listen to, as the narrators’ accents are transporting.

Crime Fiction

Next up for me is A Galway Epiphany by the award-winning Ken Bruen, called “the Godfather of the modern Irish crime novel,” being released April 1. It features his character Jack Taylor, an ex-cop turned private eye who becomes the center of his own mystery, when he is hit by a truck and left comatose but unscratched (narrated by Gerry O’Brien).

In the Cold, Cold Ground – Adrian McKinty’s first book featuring police detective Sean Duffy–a rare Catholic in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. In the bleak Belfast spring of 1981, hunger strikers in HM Prison Maze are dying. Paramilitaries are setting off bombs, gunfire rakes the streets, and Duffy is investigating a possible serial killer who targets homosexuals. The violent backdrop is tangible, especially with the forceful narration of the award-winning Gerard Doyle.

Stuart Neville wrote a series of excellent novels also set in Belfast, including the one I listened to, The Ghosts of Belfast. Fellow author John Connolly called it “not only one of the finest thriller debuts of the last ten years, but also one of the best Irish novels, in any genre, of recent times.”  Also narrated by Gerard Doyle.

In an interview, Doyle says that when he was a child, his parents would often take him with them to the pub. “I’d sit on the bench late into the evening listening to the stories and the lies. And the music! I even sang sometimes. They’d put me up on a table. One of my best was Ronnie Donegan’s ‘My Old Man’s a Dustbin.'”

Other Fiction

The Gathering by Booker prize-winner Anne Enright “has more layers to it—of grief, love, lightness, tragedy, absurdity, and trauma—than an onion, and may cause as much weeping,” said the editors of The American Scholar. I felt privileged to hear her reading a few years ago under the auspices of Princeton’s Fund for Irish Studies.

Glenn Patterson is another writer who gave a memorable reading in Princeton, and his The International is the story of a single night in the bar of the International Hotel, while upstairs a consequential meeting forming the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association takes place. It’s not about militants at all but about state-of-mind.

You may think there’s not much new literary territory to explore in male-female sexual relations, yet award-winning author Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians finds it and mines it. Innovative, immersive, dazzling.

Play the Red Queen & The Coroner’s Lunch

Bust out of your quasi-quarantine and take a trip halfway around the world and decades back in time with crime thrillers set in Saigon in 1963 and Ventiane in 1978. The politics feel tragically quaint, knowing how they turned out, but the settings are ripe for conspiracy, conflicting agendas, and misunderstandings at every level. Yet both books include characters who manage to maintain a sense of humor and perspective, even as their worlds are crumbling around them.

Play the Red Queen

By Juris Jurjevics – This new book has received considerable well deserved attention, bittersweet because the author died suddenly in late 2018, not knowing whether it would even be published. It was his aim that the book would, in his phrase, “bear witness” to an underreported aspect of the Vietnam War: the “elaborate, even treasonous corruption—and our complicity in it.”

He brings all this out in a book that is not a political diatribe but a page-turner of a thriller. American military advisors in Saigon are being killed by a beautiful and mysterious young woman who shoots with unerring accuracy from the back of a speeding Vespa. The U.S. military wants to get to the bottom of it and assigns two genial investigators. They run into countless operational and political obstacles, within the Vietnamese and American bureaucracies. Meanwhile, a powerful sense of foreboding settles on the city, as the corrupt Diem regime loses its grip. Tragically, its ouster opens the door for massive American intervention, which we know as the Vietnam War.

Buy here from Amazon, or Shop your local indie bookstore.

The Coroner’s Lunch

This is the first of Colin Cotterill’s entertaining mysteries about Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old physician appointed to be Ventiane’s coroner in the new socialist Laos. He has a disconcerting habit of saying what he thinks—and one thing he thinks is that he has no training for this role—which doesn’t suit the era of extreme political correctness. Yet, people continue to die under questionable circumstances, and he has to sort it out. Fortunately, his staff is loyal and he finds a few important allies.

In theory, I would expect not to like the occasional excursions into the supernatural that Cotterill deploys, but they are so culturally consistent and believable that I just went with it. And am glad I did. It’s a charming book.

Buy here from Amazon, or Shop your local indie bookstore

(This post is my first try at Indie.Bound, an alternative to Amazon. Let me know what you think! And whether it doesn’t work!!)

The Place in Your Book

Shaker Heights, Ohio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Spy’s Bedside Table

chess

Which espionage books do actual spies read and, ahem, respect? A former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, Emile Nakhleh, kindly provided The Cipher Brief with his list, and I’ve added my own recent faves.

He recommends the first two of these non-fiction books, all three of which have four GoodReads stars:

Non-Fiction

Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad by President Obama’s CIA Director John O. Brennan, a leader who was controversial to both political parties and was “in the room where it happened” when many significant security issues were discussed (not all of which he can talk about).

The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future by Chris Whipple. Whipple says the job of CIA Director is “one of the hardest and most perilous in government,” and in this book, he tells you why.

Operation Dragon: Inside the Kremlin’s Secret War on America, by former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and former Romanian espionage chief, Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest-ranking foreign intelligence officer to defect to the United States. They describe Russia’s continuing threat to the U.S., and, in a blockbuster revelation, say Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev personally told Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate President Kennedy, then changed his mind, but Oswald stuck to the original plan.

Fiction

The Order by Dan Silva – Nakhleh recommends it, and I listened to it . Fans of Silva’s Israeli intelligence officer Gabriel Allon will be pleased. He becomes involved in a conspiracy within the Vatican to hide evidence that the Jews were not, actually, responsible for the death of Jesus, two thousand years of violence, hatred, and retribution to the contrary. Again, GoodReads gives it four stars, but I’d say three. Not nearly as troubling as the real-life Gods Bankers.

Agent Running in the Field – John le Carré’s last novel, continuing the string of memorable characters he developed, all the way back to George Smiley and Alec Leamus (my review).

Finally, you might want to save a spot on the nightstand for the October 12 literary debut of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. For her conspiracy thriller, State of Terror, she’s teamed up with crime novelist Louise Penny.

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.