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.

Theme vs. Meaning in Fiction

Author, teacher, and literary agent Donald Maass recently wrote a thought-provoking essay in Writer Unboxed in which he makes a distinction between “theme” and “meaning” in a novel. I’ve written about theme before, specifically, whether a writer should set out to create a book around a certain theme and how hard that can be to pull off, because it focuses the writer on an abstract concept, when creating a story is the dominant concern. At least that’s true for novels written for US and UK audiences. Characters in novels translated from other languages often seem to wander in some misty realm without reference to the concrete world of, say, peanut butter sandwiches, and perhaps it’s because they’re written to theme. Just a guess here.

The theme of my mystery/thriller, Architect of Courage, is redemption, which I discovered embarrassingly late in the game. And now that it’s printed and has covers around it, I am still recognizing minor themes. These likely reflect attitudes and beliefs so ingrained that I don’t consciously think about them, but that come out nonetheless.

According to Maass, a novel with a theme “points out something we must heed about ourselves and our world,” whereas a novel focused on meaning aims to “tell us who and how we are.” Or, as he says, it’s descriptive, not prescriptive. Genre novels (mysteries, thrillers, romance) tend to be of the former type, and coming-of-age stories and historical fiction tend toward the latter.

It’s easy to think of examples of both. On one hand, the theme of books like Razorblade Tears (SA Cosby) and many police procedurals is that justice is being done, while the theme of The Water-Knife (Paolo Bacigalupi) and The Cartel (Don Winslow) is the urgent need to put things right before it’s too late. On the other hand, “meaning” books, like The Ones We Keep (Bobbie Jean Huff) and The Great Alone (Kristin Hannah) describe life as it is, sort of, with all its bumps and distortions and wierdnesses.

This distinction is worth thinking about, but as to how it affects the reader, Maass further suggests that the thematic approach is like being told something, and the meaning approach is like sharing something. “Literary” fiction mostly camps out in meaning territory and disdains genre fiction’s tidy endings, whereas genre writers defend their approach, saying that at least their stories have an ending.  

While I’m persuaded Maass has articulated an interesting distinction, perhaps it shouldn’t be interpreted too rigidly, too either-or. For one thing, authors are wholly capable of bait-and-switch. For most of their pages, Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens) and Atonement (Ian McEwan) seems like coming-of-age “meaning” books, and only at the very end do you discover they’ve upended the “justice will be done” theme. Currently, I’m listening to My Heart Is a Chainsaw, by horror-writer Stephen Graham Jones, and I would be hard-pressed to place it in either category. Can’t I choose both?

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July/August EQMM and AHMM

reading, beach

Is it summer and the competition of outdoor activities that cause attention spans to dwindle and make a good collection of short stories extra appealing? Truthfully, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine are never out of season. Here are some highlights from their summer issues.

In EQMM:
“Serving Process” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch – anyone who’d save a litter of wet, half-starved and mewling kittens is a hero in my book
“The Secret Sharer” by W. Edward Blain – very clever and satisfying tale, and a nice example of how fiction can reflect the realities of covid yet not be about covid
“Powerball” by Jack Bunker – Yes, playing the lottery is a mug’s game, yet some people are just better players than others. In light of last week’s $1.337 billion Mega Millions jackpot IRL, this story should have a big audience!
“Storm Warning” by Dana Haynes is another table-turning tale that makes you feel that, sometimes, bad deeds work out exactly right!

And in AHMM:
“Death Will Take the High Line by Elizabeth Zelvin – Points to her for tackling a story that plunges right into gender identity issues without becoming polemical.
“The Conversation Killer” by Al Tucher – in lushly described Hawa`i, a rookie female police officer makes a big mistake.
“The Man Who Went Down Under” by Alexis Stefanovich-Thomson won the 15th annual Black Orchid Novella Award contest. The search for a missing diamond involves quite a few characters, notably, a young P.I.’s interfering and none-too-impressed mother.

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Gods of Deception

Upfront I’ll tell you that David Adams Cleveland’s book is 917 pages long. Before you stop reading, consider why an author would write such a book and how it even got published in this era of instant information? Of itself, length isn’t an insuperable barrier for me. I gladly stick with Neal Stephenson’s door-stops, though twenty pages can be too many if they’re boring. But this book was heavy, even for a paperback. So I ripped off the cover and used a butcher knife to slice it into four 250-page sections. (Are you cringing?)

I read it. I liked it. If you’re wondering what justifies taking so much of a reader’s time?, I’d say “layers.”

At the heart of the story is the controversial 1950 trial of diplomat Alger Hiss, which divided the country for years. Liberals thought Hiss was a victim of red-baiting in the simmering anti-Communist climate; conservatives were convinced he got off lightly with his conviction and sentence on two counts of perjury. Spying was his real game, they believed. Documents that came to light after the collapse of the Soviet empire confirmed he was a spy (though not everyone believes it even yet).

These were not trivial suspicions. Hiss managed to get himself attached to the US delegation to the Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin Yalta conference about the post-World War II world. Thus, he was in a position to influence the meeting’s significant pro-Soviet outcomes, such as handing Poland over to the Soviets and returning millions of Soviet citizens to their home country and almost certain death.

One of Hiss’s defense attorneys was Judge Edward Dimock who, when Cleveland’s book takes place in 2002, is in his 90s and wants his grandson George Altmann to handle his memoirs. George, whose other grandfather was a Depression-era artist, begins to doubt the manuscript. Gradually evidence accumulates that Dimock knew Hiss was a spy, but did he, really? It’s a bit like a visit to the optician. You believe you are seeing the picture clearly, but then some shift, some slightly new way of looking is introduced, and the picture snaps out of focus again.

In the 1930s, the suspicious deaths and convenient disappearances of five men who could have testified against Hiss occurred (in real life), and George Altmann’s artist grandfather made a sixth (fictional one). Young George and his girlfriend, a character I never warmed up to, try to sort out the truth of the mysterious deaths, but again, facts are hard to pin down.

On top of the questions of intrigue and murder is a thick layer of art and music. Young George runs an art gallery, and his girlfriend is an artist. They look at the world around them in a particular way. Judge Dimock’s wife was a concert pianist, and insisted her son and three daughters also play. The family home in the Catskills is itself like a work of art with one priceless feature—an ancient ceiling painted with frolicking gods and goddesses, who become silent family friends and bemused observers.

All these layers—the significance of Hiss and the trial; the long tail of violence; the law and its opposite, the creative arts; the perennially perturbed family relations—any of these could be a book in itself. And I haven’t even mentioned Young George’s mother’s scandalous involvement with the Woodstock concert and music scene. Cleveland’s intricate layering of these innately intriguing elements makes the experience of each more resonant.

Ultimately, one message of the book is that the Hisses of the world, determined liars and true believers, can create a climate of disinformation, a parallel reality it’s hard to break free of. Their deceptions can lead even the most intelligent people astray and down paths of destruction. This is certainly a message that should resonate in today’s world. Though I thought the book started slow, before long it drew me into their fractured world.

Where Story Ideas Come From: Why Courage?

I didn’t set out to write a book about courage. In fact I was probably on a second or third draft, pestering myself with questions like, “what am I really trying to say?” “why might readers find this book not just entertaining but meaningful?” “do I find it meaningful and why?” i’m not a writer who can dash off several books a year; I have to think about them a while. And thinking about these questions, I finally realized I was missing an easy opportunity to express what it is about, without having to pen a preachy narration.

In the opening pages of my new book, Architect of Courage, Manhattan architect Archer Landis discovers his lover has been murdered. He’s afraid of the fallout if he’s caught in her apartment, and without considering the implications, he delays calling the police. Instead, he hastily returns to the business dinner he’d left not long before, determined to make the call from there. Alas, circumstances prevent it. What had he been thinking?

The dinner is to celebrate the important award one of his best friends is receiving and now he has to sit through it. The friend, Phil Prinz, takes this speaking opportunity to talk about courage. Now, we’ve all been to dinners where the speaker rambles on about some high-flown topic, and we’ve occasionally been pleasantly surprised to hear some nuggets worth remembering. Phil chose a worthy topic, but he’s no orator.

Still he breaks the topic down in an elegant way, describing four kinds of courage (briefly in the novel): physical courage, you know what that is; mental courage, when people dare to think in new ways; emotional courage, when they put their feelings on the line; and moral courage, when they do the right thing simply because it’s right. Landis doesn’t spend a lot of time then or later reflecting on Phil’s remarks—he’s too upset about what happened earlier in the evening. But I hope I’ve planted a seed for readers so they recognize that, despite his early failure, Landis displays all of four types of courage before the story ends. But if all you’re looking for is a lively adventure, there’s that too.

Available from Amazon on preorder!

Where Story Ideas Come From: Who’s Number Two?

A fine line exists between making secondary characters memorable and turning them into caricatures, distinctive, but not clichés. Even though the trope of the comical sidekick is common, in skilled hands it still works.

The main character, beset by story problems, may need to retain some seriousness. Even so, sometimes a little lightening of the mood is needed. Strong, funny number twos who retain their individuality include Lewis in Nick Petrie’s Peter Ash books and Juanell Dodson in Joe Ide’s I.Q. stories. I start chuckling the minute they appear.

As protagonists, investigators—law enforcement or p.i.’s—have more freedom for snark and gallows humor than crime victims do, being one step removed from the tragedy. I’ve laughed out loud at John Sandford’s jokes and Tami Hoag’s squadroom putdowns. Knowing how to keep a balance is key. I recall a police procedural where every bit of dialog generated a snarky response from a secondary character. That became annoying. It was too transparently a device.

In a short story, an author may have two or three additional characters to sketch out, and in a novel, quite a few. Giving them distinct characteristics keeps readers from becoming confused. Like the terra cotta warriors, each should be different. Compared to the main character, there’s probably less detail about secondary players, and finding the right broad strokes to convey them is an art. It’s iffy whether to term rough-around-the-edges Nina Borisovna Markova a secondary character, as she’s the third point-of-view character in Kate Quinn’s The Huntress. Quinn has thoroughly worked out who Nina is and how she got that way. Nina’s behavior, which breezes past “distinctive” into outrageous territory, is nevertheless consistent and believable. And, of course, she’s a perfect contrast with the main character, a sophisticated, erudite Englishman (and Nazi-hunter).

I don’t know how Quinn developed Nina’s character, but I can imagine her starting with the Englishman and constructing a new character who is the total opposite of him in important ways. Then, perhaps, she constructed the kind of background story for Nina that would produce such an unusual person.

My novel, Architect of Courage (available 6/4) has a number of secondary characters that were fun to work out. Colm O’Hanlon is the attorney for the architecture firm Landis + Porter and for Landis himself. He’s a genial guy and affects Irishisms for his own amusement, but he never takes his eyes off the ball—that is, whatever is needed to protect his clients.

Landis’s two principal assistants, Charleston Lee and Ty Geller are very different personalities, alike in that they’re both harboring secrets. Charleston is polite and deferential, a child of the South. He’s steady, deliberate. Ty has a short fuse and a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Charleston has to learn to take more risks, and Ty has to learn how to manage people.

Unlike a novel set in an investigative agency, Landis doesn’t have all the skills he needs for what he hopes to do. He’s backstopped by the introduction of Carlos Salvadore, an investigator in the criminal law department of O’Hanlon’s law firm, whose job description involves “heavy lifting.” Carlos goes about his business with quiet efficiency, solving problems Landis doesn’t even know he has. Good or bad, strong or weak, all these characters serve the story. You’ve probably heard authors say that sometimes, a character intended to have a walk-on part take over, and I can imagine that happening! Sometimes it leads to a new series, too.

Detroit in Fiction

Cars, Motown, the long destructive tail of the 1967 riots. The Tigers, the Lions, the Pistons, the Redwings. These pretty much sum up my home town of Detroit for many people. Well, maybe not the Lions. But the city is a lot more complex—and interesting—than these. When I was growing up, Detroit was the country’s fourth-largest city; now it’s the 27th. That massive change—due to white flight, the auto industry’s shift to the nonunionized South, and other difficulties—was accompanied by a lot of pain. The semblance of optimism in the past few years follows an excruciating and stuttering journey. Fiction tells the story of that journey and the families affected by it.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

The Turner family of thirteen children has to decide what to do with the house they grew up in on Detroit’s east side. The relationships among the siblings are complicated, and the city itself is like a character restricting their choices. Their parents moved north from Arkansas after World War II to escape the Jim Crow South, and while they faced prejudice and changing economic circumstances, their children are now almost all firmly middle class. When they come together to celebrate their widowed mother’s birthday—possibly her last—you see family relationships in action, the accommodations, the cheer, the old wounds, and the shared expectations. A lovely book.

Grand River and Joy by Susan Messer

Some intersections carry their own weight of associations—Hollywood and Vine or Naomi Hirahara’s Clark and Division—and in this book, Messer delves into the months leading up to the 1967 riots/rebellion and their aftermath. The violence lasted five days, and the city has needed almost fifty years to recover, the entire lifetimes of a great many of its poorest, most affected, residents. Messer’s story shows the ways lives intersected—black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish, old and young. At a time when tensions and the possibility of danger were rising, tough decisions were needed.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Many readers assume that Detroit is the unnamed rust-belt city that occupies the first half of Morrison’s classic, which helped gain Morrison her Nobel Prize in literature. A complex coming-of-age story, rich in cultural and folkloric references.

Elmore Leonard’s Detroit Crime Novels

From the age of nine, Elmore Leonard grew up in Detroit and graduated from the University of Detroit. Called “the Dickens of Detroit”  Leonard set many of his crime novels there, including City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit, 52 Pickup, and The Switch.

Image: Peter Mol for Pixabay.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Creating a 360-degree Character

Archer Landis, protagonist of my forthcoming murder mystery, Architect of Courage, is not one of those characters who seems to have no life outside the confines and events of the story. Writing about his role as the head of a large architecture firm with offices across the United States and in Dubai, with all its challenges and demands, allowed me to develop him as a more fully rounded character, a person with a “real life.” Using a single point of view in this story may make that total immersion easier.

When bad things start happening to Landis, he has to take into account their effects on his family and staff. He’s running a big business, he employs hundreds of people and encourages new architects, clients have invested millions of dollars in projects his firm is leading. The world isn’t waiting while he recovers from events directed at him; decisions have to be made. He can’t just ignore all that and, in the story, dealing with familiar issues reassures him he can handle the unexpected.

As an example in which the character’s life didn’t mesh realistically with the story, I think of a mystery in which the protagonist (a police detective) had a partner who was a female hockey player. Possibly interesting, no? Some possible plot implications too, right? In that novel, the women’s hockey team had an important all-star game coming up. The pressure was on. But in the month or so of story time, she never attends a single practice. The author introduced hockey as an important part of her world and barely mentioned it thereafter. Missed opportunity.

One of the parts of Archer Landis I gave attention to is his role as mentor to his principal assistants. How much leeway does he give them? How does he reward, critique, and support them? They responded in unexpected ways, as people do, and there are still some Grand Canyon sized opportunities for misunderstanding. Landis is devoted to many aspects of his work, but one he doesn’t like? H.R. problems. And there are always those.

His relationships with his fellow architects, several of whom are close friends, are also important, if dwelt on less. When he needs them, they rally around. As do his firm’s attorney and public relations manager. It’s clear he’s been the kind of person whom others have confidence in and want to help, even though he’s stumbled here and there. I never have to come out and say this, it’s obvious in their actions toward him. Showing, not telling. At least that’s my hope!