Yearning, Desire, and Fiction

In an interview with author Kevin Canty I recently ran across (Part 1 here), he made the point that story characters must want something worth writing about. While that might at first sound like a point that hardly needs to be made, Canty is talking about the need for fiction to include what Robert Olen Butler calls “yearning,” or “the phenomenon of desire.” This, Butler says, is the essential ingredient most often missing from beginning writers’ work. (And any number of New Yorker short stories I abandon half-read.) Unsatisfying, in the way a crime without a motive is.

Of course, Canty says, characters in fiction may not choose the most effective or direct or logical ways of getting what they want, but they have to want something. They may even take actions that are counterproductive to their goal. Othello wants Desdemona, yet he murders her. These characters are like the people whom we would describe as “their own worst enemies.”

Or, what characters end up getting can be vastly different than what they thought they wanted. The outcome can be just as emotionally satisfying but far from the original plan. Think Jane Austen. In such cases, the author leaves enough clues to the character’s true desire that the reader sees it, even if the character has a blind spot.

Doesn’t it make a story feel too pat when characters want a particular outcome, and that’s exactly what they get? It’s too easy. Real life’s more complicated, which is why writers struggle with plot. Characters—much less the reader—don’t learn much from easy wins.

Putting himself in the role of a fictional protagonist, Canty says, “There’s a constant incompleteness and irony and all the rest of it that keeps getting between what I want, what I think I want, and what I get.” It’s what makes characters interesting. It’s what keeps us reading.

Canty’s most recent book is The Underworld: A Novel, about the aftermath of a disastrous fire in a small Western mining town.

Photo: eluj for Pixabay

***Net Force: Dark Web

photo: openDemocracy, creative commons license

Jerome Priesler’s new techno-thriller, Net Force: Dark Web carries on a series created by the late Tom Clancy and Steve Pieczenik, but lacks the immersive, gotta-turn-the-page qualities of Clancy’s work. It’s certainly true that cybersecurity becomes more consequential by the day, but this book doesn’t make the case.

True to current thriller-writing style, it comprises short chapters of a few pages that skip around to cover the actions of a large number of players, among them: black hat hackers versus white hat hackers, corrupt African leaders, the President of the United States and her new cyber-initiative team, CIA and FBI operatives, parking garage attendants, and moms with kids. In other words, a lot. Too much, in fact. If an author expects to maintain your interest for around 700 pages, the length of the paperback version, at least some of those characters should be written in enough depth to make you care about them.

The story starts strong, with a prologue set in 2023 in Malta (why this was a “prologue” and not just Chapter 1, I don’t know, as it’s contemporaneous with the rest of the story and integral to it). A young woman who has something to do with software development flees through city streets, trailed not just by men in vehicles, but also by a drone following her every twist and turn.

Just as you’re rooting for her escape, in a nice reversal, she’s captured, and you learn her pursuers are CIA and she may not be one of the good guys after all. Then the action moves to Romania where black hat operators plan to use the woman’s clever software to take control of a wide array of computers. They probably can’t anticipate the full ramifications of their project, given the near-future pervasiveness of the Internet of Things. The CIA wants the woman’s help, but she’s resisting.

I won’t go into how all the other plot threads and descriptive elements merge with this set-up, except to say some of them don’t. The entire Africa plotline was extraneous to the story; deleting it would have reduced the page count. Likewise, Priesler describes every new character at length, whether they reappear or not. You may regret struggling to remember all those backstories.

What makes a techno-thriller work is confidence that the author has the technology down pat (good examples are Ghost Fleet or This is Gomorrah). Inevitably, a moment arrives when the author goes out on a limb, when you must suspend disbelief and just hang in, but I never reached that point of trust. As far as I can tell from his past works, Priesler has not written this type of book before, and it shows.

Photo: openDemocracy, creative commons license

Crime Short Fiction: EQMM and Rock and a Hard Place

magazines, reading

In the rambunctious arena from which mystery and crime short stories emerge, some publishers have played a long game, MVPs of that literary scene, some leave the game after a short run, and, though their retirement from the field is lamented, new players keep the game going. Here’s a take on one of those new pubs and recent offerings from a true stalwart.

***Rock and a Hard Place

The debut of another outlet for short crime fiction is something to celebrate. Editors Jay Butkowski, Jonathan Elliott, and Roger Nokes say they aim to capture the sense of desperation in our current moment. Though the 18 stories in their inaugural issue are about characters in desperate situations, at the bottom of the social heap, the editors believe these stories are compassionate and real. In going dark, they’re following the path of a good many other current crime magazine editors.

Stories I especially enjoyed included SJ Rozan’s funny “Sister of Mercy,” about a nun with an unusual and peculiarly useful side-job. Kathleen Kilpatrick’s “Ghost Tribe” about albino children in Tanzania raised interesting questions about identity and fitting in. For a clever jibe at Donald Trump’s Mexican wall, read Alex Skopic’s “Los Renacidos.”

In “Chlorine,” Al Tucher’s recurring character, the prostitute Diana, (wisely) decides against a replay of her teen years, and several memorable characters in SA Cosby’s “The Anchors That Tie Us Down” encounter a bit of the editors’ sought-after compassion. You’ll chuckle over the reversal of fortune faced by a pair of young grifters in Allan Leverone’s “A Town Full of Losers.” Finally, Jacqueline Seewald’s “Against the Odds” pits a gambler against his compulsions.

Not all of the stories appealed to me, and I abandoned one or two partway through. But that’s OK. The appetite for darkness isn’t the same for everyone or the same on every day. Independently published, Rock and a Hard Place is a notable first effort for a publication worth watching.

****Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

I see I’m falling behind in my reading, as this refers to the January/February 2020 issue of EQMM, and March/April beckons from the bookshelf beside me. This long-standing publication of crime and mystery tales (almost 80 years!) may be thriving in part because of the diversity of story types it includes—something good for every reader. Among this issue’s many fine stories are the following:

>“The Wretched Strangers” by Matthew Wilson employs a novel protagonist, a woman who interviews asylum-seekers and must untangle their complex relationships with the truth.
>Satisfying (and deadly) comeuppance tales in “Now Hiring Nasty Girlz” by Toni LP Kelner, “Crow’s Nest” by John M Floyd, and “Stroke of Luck” by Bill Pronzini. Floyd talks about how he created “Crow’s Nest” in a 15 Feb SleuthSayers post (scroll down for it).
>“The Concrete Pillow” by Pat Black–a gritty police procedural set in Glasgow.
>Excellent depiction of a child’s flawed recollections in “The Summer Uncle Cat Came to Stay” by Leslie Elman.

You can subscribe to EQMM or its sister publication Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine or find single copies in the magazine section of your big box book store.

Photo: cegoh for Pixabay, creative commons license

****The Bells of Hell

cocktail

By Michael Kurland – If Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man series could be a refreshingly witty corrective for 21st century gloom-and-doom, then Michael Kurland’s The Bells of Hell may be just the book to prove it. There are dark deeds afoot by Nazis and Communists in the late 1930s, but the main characters in this historical thriller are plunging into these events with their equilibrium and senses of humor intact.

Lord Geoffrey Saboy is a British ‘cultural attaché’—that is, a spy in the British Secret Service—working in Washington, DC, along with his wife, Lady Patricia. Lord Geoffrey is gay, so though the couple is close, he doesn’t begrudge his wife her amorous dalliances, some of which are for pleasure and some in service to her own approach to sleuthing. An old friend of Lord Geoffrey’s, US counter-intelligence agent Jacob Welker, has the ear of President Roosevelt, which occasionally comes in very handy.

In March 1938, a Communist agent from Germany, arrives in New York, and in a matter of days, is found naked, tied to a chair in an empty warehouse, tortured to death. Unbeknownst to his Gestapo killers, there was a reluctant witness to this execution, unemployed printer Andrew Blake. Many arms of officialdom take notice when the salesman’s identity is revealed, as worries about the German-American volksbund (the “Bund”) are on the rise.

Welker talks a reluctant Blake into taking a job printing literature for the Bund. Blake is terrified by the murder he saw and almost paralyzed with fear his spying will be discovered. He laments every assignment and drags his feet in accepting each new task, proving once again that true courage is not going boldly into the unknown, but knowing the danger and going anyway. And when his German masters, in turn, ask him to spy on the Communists, he’s a pretzel of hesitation.

Kurland develops the plot in a number of interesting ways by giving Lord Geoffrey his own brush with the Nazis when he accompanies HRH Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, on an official visit to Germany. HRH find Hitler impressive and forceful, and Saboy responds that one likely acquires the habit of being forceful when no one dares disagree. If you are familiar with the real-life affinity HRH had for Hitler, this plotline is especially intriguing.

Meanwhile, intelligence from multiple sources suggests the Gestapo is planning a major terror event in New York, which they plan to set up so that blame lands on the Communists. But what, where, and when is this to take place? These questions preoccupy the British couple and Welker, their American friend (and possible future amour of Lady Patricia).

The nicely plotted story moves along at a sprightly pace. Though the characters are dealing with deadly serious matters, they maintain their lighthearted, let’s-not-take-ourselves-too-seriously banter. Kurland captures the spirit of the times: the oppressive gloom in Germany, the uncertainties regarding impending war in Britain, and the fear of the extremists of right and left who threaten America. You may be as delighted as I am that The Bells of Hell is billed as ‘A Welker and Saboy Thriller,’ signaling the possibility of more about this engaging trio in future.

Photo: wikipedia

*****The Kennedy Moment

By Peter Adamson – In this political thriller by former UNICEF official Peter Adamson, the reunion of five college friends launches a do-good project that none of them could have anticipated, that has every potential of imminently and disastrously going off the rails, and that has almost incomparably high stakes.

In the early 1960s, a group of Oxford University students were best friends. As Stephen Walsh, a stubbornly Marxist professor writes to the others, “We’ve lost touch, the months drifting into years and the years into decades.” He proposes a reunion.

Michael Lowell, the only American, leads a World Health Organization team on childhood immunization; Seema Mir works on a biography of the African American Hemings family; Toby Jenks is the hard-drinking creative director of an advertising agency; and Canadian Hélène Hevré is a physician, exhausted from the demands of tending patients within the minimalist health care system of Côte d’Ivoire.

The relationships among these friends, especially the two almost-couples (Michael and Seema; Toby and Hélène), are believable and sometimes painful because the characters are so engaging.

At the reunion, Toby, with his flair for the outrageous, responds to the health professionals’ angst over vaccine-preventable illnesses saying, “Seems to me, possums, the obvious thing to do here is to get hold of a little test tube of cached smallpox virus and threaten to blow bubbles with it in Times Square unless the world gets off its butt and immunizes every last kiddie.”

A few months later, the friends reunite in New York. No one has forgotten Toby’s little joke, and before long they have a plan to use smallpox virus to blackmail the US government into fulfilling its immunization commitments. But it must be carried out in complete secrecy.

Predictably, the government focuses not on meeting these mysterious demands, but on finding out who is behind this little venture and stopping it. To them, it’s bioterrorism, and a nail-biting chase is on. Meanwhile, Toby crafts a powerful statement for the US President: “Twenty years ago, President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to the goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade. Today, the United States commits itself to another great goal: a goal for our times; a goal to be achieved here on earth; the goal of immunizing all of the world’s children against the major killer diseases of childhood.”

I loved this book and the daring team of characters that took on the crimes of neglect and half-measures. Hugely satisfying and out of the ordinary. Available here.

Photo: anjawbk for Pixabay.

A Juicy Idea

The origin stories of novels are as varied as their authors. The idea for the Harry Potter series first came to J.K. Rowling while traveling on a train delayed between Manchester and London. (No more whining about airport delays, please. Use your time wisely). Lee Child has variously attributed the creation of Jack Reacher to sheer commercial motivation and as “an antidote to the all the depressed and miserable alcoholics that peopled the genre.” The writing duo of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, authors of several crime thriller series, began by leveraging the pair’s publishing and museum experience.

In the firehose of information about authors and their books that flows across my computer screen daily, I recently noticed another intriguing origin story. A mother and son duo created a new book called The Gourmet Gangster. It combines episodes in the life of a fictional New York gangster who owns an upscale restaurant with real recipes the apocryphal restaurant serves. And the book’s roots are as quirky as the title suggests. Here’s how it came about, according to author Marcia Rosen.

“I wrote the mysteries, and my son Jory provided the recipes. Together we created some murderous titles and decided which types of food would best fit the stories.” These titles include “He’s a Dead Duck” paired with a recipe for Duck à l’Orange and a recipe for “The Quiche (Kiss) of Death.”

But the impetus for the collection goes even deeper. Marcia says in the book’s epilogue that her father was a Jewish gangster in Buffalo, New York, who owned a gambling hall and consorted with a tribe of colorful local characters. She says: “Remembering my father, and picturing him at a restaurant he owned when I was a teenager, initially inspired me to write about events set in a restaurant.

“I’m a mystery writer, so of course they had to be about murder, mayhem and, I thought, a fun bit of madness. Loving short stories, I decided to write a series of short mysteries, all involving the same criminal organization and taking place in a restaurant called Manhattan Shadow. The stories are from my vivid and sometimes frightening imagination, played out for the pleasure of mystery lovers.

“The idea of adding recipes made good sense, since my father was a chef. Level Best Books, our publisher, suggested putting a recipe before each story. ‘Great idea,’ I responded. ‘My son is a fabulous cook; he can create the recipes.’” And that’s how Marcia and Jory ended up with “The Chicken Piccata Caper,” “The Sacrificial Lamb,” and, of course, “A Deadly Delicious Dessert,” based on Marcia’s father’s recipe for donuts.

Says Marcia, “As I considered mystery stories for the book, I thought about places familiar to me. One story, ‘He’s A Dead Duck,’ was a reminder of a duck pond we lived near on Long Island, years ago. I loved the idea of creating a story beginning with a duck recipe!”

Son Jory (a marketing/advertising executive by day) adds, “In my family, today, we truly look forward to our evening meals. I have three kids (two girls, ages 9 and 7, and a boy, age 3). My grandfather would have adored them. What I cook allows my children to get know my grandfather through every bite of the cuisine he created. I hope the recipes in my mother’s book inspire good memories and experiences in others, too.”

“Really,” Marcia says, “I’m deadly serious!” Read more about Marcia’s writing and her series, The Senior Sleuths, on her website.

3 Top-Notch Foreign Crime Novels

High-velocity plots and gritty characters typify American and British crime thrillers. Yet, this style is an artistic (and marketing) choice, not a precondition for gripping fiction.

Here are three recent crime novels from Nigeria, Argentina, and India that I enjoyed tremendously that stand up to the US/UK’s best. 

*****My Sister, the Serial Killer

By Oyinkan Braithwaite – For a book about violent death and two sisters’ efforts to cover it up, this entertaining fiction debut from Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite is remarkably full of life.

You can’t help but be charmed by the narrator Korede, who early on in her tale provides this advice: “I bet you didn’t know that bleach masks the smell of blood.” It’s a lesson she’s learned the hard way, covering up her sister Ayoola’s crimes now three times. The sisterly bond is more than the glue in this story; ultimately it is its subject.

Braithwaite infuses her narrative with insights into the culture, not only of Lagos, Nigeria, where the story is set, but also of the hospital where Korede works—the rivalries among the women staff and the administrators who do not lead. There’s not a shred of meanness in any of this, and much of it is quite funny.

Braithwaite’s light touch when exploring serious matters and the extraordinary honesty of the writing prompted numerous media outlets to name it one of the best books of last year, garnered it a 2019 Booker Prize nomination, and a made it a finalist for the 2019 Women’s Prize, among other honors. Best of all, it’s fun! Order it here. 

*****The Fragility of Bodies

By Sergio Olguín and translated by Miranda France – This award-winning Argentine novelist’s fast-paced 2012 crime novel is only now available in English. With all the elements of an engaging, visually arresting drama, no wonder it became an eight-episode tv series in 2017. The protagonist is a crusading reporter who acts with dedication and truth-telling, and if you enjoy the banter and oneupsmanship of the newsroom, as I do, you’ll find those scenes entertaining indeed.

Glamorous investigative journalist Verónica Rosenthal lives a privileged life in Buenos Aires. She’s pursued by attractive men, has loads of friends, drinks and smokes too much, but she’s serious about her investigative work. As a character, she’s fully developed, as are most of the men she interacts with, old and young, and there are some steamy sex scenes.

A wire service blurb about the suicide of a railway worker captures her attention when it quotes the man’s apology for the crimes he committed, especially the death of a child. Was the letter a confession or an explanation? Suicide by train is rather common, she learns. The drivers of the killer trains see the catastrophe coming, yet are helpless to prevent it. Some can never drive again.

Worse, on one specific train line, pairs of young boys are playing chicken with the speeding trains, and, occasionally, one waits too long to jump out of the way. Olguín makes the boys’ contests—how they think about them, how they prepare—into high-tension, truly horrifying encounters, and the closer Verónica gets to the truth behind this diabolical game, the greater the danger to her.

The admirable translation by Miranda France is so smooth, you’re never aware it actually is a translation. An unusual, brilliant read. Order it here.

*****Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous

By Manu Joseph – When an apartment building collapses in Mumbai, the lone survivor is a man filled with regrets, and complicated efforts are under way to extricate him from the rubble. The catastrophe coincides with the election victory of a conservative Hindu nationalist party, and the influence of politics on the characters in the past and in the current emergency is never far away.

Author Joseph is known for his biting political satires, and the significance of this book is enhanced by his sly observations about the state of Indian politics. (If you read Dexter Filkins’s recent reporting in The New Yorker about the Modi government’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions, events in the novel will seem all-too possible.)  

The unknown man is alive, but confused and mumbling about a terrorist threat involving two people (but who?) headed somewhere (but where?) to carry out an attack (but what?). The intelligence forces see the need for drastic preventive action, but no one knows what that should be. Overreaction seems almost inevitable.

Joseph’s character descriptions are strong throughout, making it easy to appreciate the characters’ motivations, as well as the stresses of living in a culturally and religiously polarized society. Although he makes strong points, he’s not giving a lecture. He lets the story make his case. Joseph is a literary author who has won several awards for his previous novels and is a former columnist for the International New York Times. Order it here.

Picture: GDJ for Pixabay.

*****The Murder of Harriet Monckton

poison, bottle Arek Socha for Pixabay

By Elizabeth Haynes – If you have people on your holiday gift list who are fans of historical mysteries, this might be just the book for them! Author Elizabeth Haynes stumbled across a trove of documents in the UK’s National Archives relating to an obscure mid-1840s murder in the (then) small town of Bromley, a few miles southeast of London. The coroner’s jury verdict was delayed several years because of the case’s numerous uncertainties and the plethora of suspects.

Haynes uses those uncertainties to create a fictional story that begins from the certain knowledge that on 6 November 1843, Harriet Monckton took or was administered poison, died, and her body stowed in the privy behind the Congregational Chapel. When the next day she’s noted as missing, a search ensues. Even before her body is found, multiple efforts are under way to mislead, mischaracterize, and otherwise frustrate any inquiries.

The story is imagined from the points of view of several real-life people, chief among them: Harriet’s friend, the schoolteacher Frances Williams; Reverend George Verrall, her confidant; Thomas Churcher, a shoemaker in love with her; and Richard Field, Harriet’s former mentor and lover, now married and living in London. Verrall and Churcher are the more obvious suspects, though if a wider net were cast, Williams and Field or even Field’s wife and Churcher’s ex-fiancée might be suspected.

Each of these characters provides an account of their association with Harriet—both in response to the coroner’s questioning and in their private thoughts. It’s a Rashomon-like treatment, with each not only seeing the sketchy facts in different ways, but recounting them to their best advantage. Haynes gives each a distinct voice and point of view, not all admirable. Her slightly old-fashioned writing style helps transport you to the era. All of their views, however revelatory, are one step removed from Harriet herself, but you finally do hear from her directly when Frances reads her diary.

Haynes’s Bromley is completely convincing, as are the reactions of the residents as one secret after another is revealed and as some secrets manage to remain hidden. As the author says, “The impact on my life has been profound, to the extent that I feel as if I have inhabited Bromley in 1843 myself.” I felt it too. Even though the book’s events took place a long time ago, the tension was fresh.

Harriet is a character who isn’t so much described as assembled. Like the build-up of daubs of paint that produce a portrait, Haynes’s text-clues allow you, eventually, to see the dead woman, with all her flaws and vibrancy, as she was in life.

Photo: Arek Socha for Pixabay

Last Books Read in 2019

magician, assistant

***Cairo Modern

Written by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, translated from the Egyptian by William M. Hutchins. This story of how an unscrupulous college graduate gets his comeuppance captures a bygone time in the city and culture. Originally published in 1945, it’s more interesting than entertaining.

*****The Magician’s Assistant

I hadn’t heard of this 1997 book by Ann Patchett, but thankfully another tourist left it behind. It was captivating, start to finish and not the first book I’ve read lately about people involved in creating illusions. Sabine’s magician-husband, a gay man named Parsifal, has died, and soon she learns he’d made up his backstory. Grief-stricken, she tries to connect with his real history. Amazon link.

*****Inland

Téa Obreht’s new book is just great, and she vividly captures the essence and rhythms of America’s Old West. In a lawless, drought-stricken Arizona, a family struggles with the politics of water. Meanwhile, several states east, some bright individual in the US Army decides to import camels to use as pack animals—an experiment with unexpected consequences. Amazon link.

****The Oxford Murders

Billed as “a scholarly whodunit,” this novel by Guillermo Martínez, set in England, provides numerous puzzles for its mathematician protagonists to decipher in order to stop a serial killer. A lot of fun. Amazon link.

***Sharp Objects

Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel is a page-turner, though you may guess early on who’s killing children in the tiny Missouri home town of the protagonist, Chicago reporter Camille Preaker. Camille has spent time in psychiatric care because she carves words into her body, and I found her experience with that even more engrossing than the mystery!

Photo: Enrique Meseguer for Pixabay

Spies X 3

spy, espionage, reading

****Spy’s Fate

Overhearing someone talking about you can be both unsettling and revealing. Arnaldo Correa’s novel, full of observations about the US and its spycraft, from the point of view of a Cuban intelligence operative, is another such revelation. While there’s plenty of ineptitude and bureaucratic blindness on one side or the other, the main character, Carlos Manuel, is an expert at exposing and outwitting it. For a book about a Cuban spy stranded in Miami with a vindictive CIA agent on his trail, there’s quite a bit of humor and a heartwarming romance too. I really enjoyed this book. First published in 2002, it was Correa’s first novel translated into English. Available here from Amazon.

***Spies

This Fiction River special edition, edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, includes 15 short spy stories by a range of authors. If you think the short story form doesn’t provide enough space to explore the long con of espionage, these tales may change your mind. Rusch says that what links them, besides their topic, is “their willingness to look at the world in all its messiness,” without flinching from the corrosive effects of secrets on everyone involved. My favorites included two historicals—the clever and very British “Our Man in Basingstoke” by Sabrina Chase, set during World War II, and “The Message” by CA Rowland, set during the Civil War—and Ron Collins’s “The Spy Who Walked into the Cold,” set in racially divided Chicago a few decades back. Get it here.

****From the Shadows

Spies needn’t be government agents or involved with great sociopolitical questions. Spanish author Juan José Millás’s novel (translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn) barely escapes the bedroom. Damián Lobo, a youngish man down on his luck and out of work, entertains himself by carrying on pretend conversations with a famous talk show host. This fantasy so preoccupies him that, in a rash moment, he steals a tie pin he believes the tv star would like. The police chase him through an outdoor market and he ducks inside an old wardrobe on display. Before it seems safe to emerge, the wardrobe is trundled away, loaded onto a truck, and delivered to its new owners’ bedroom, with Lobo still inside. As it turns out, there’s never a good moment to climb out, and through an elaborate ruse, Lobo makes his home there, listening in on all the family’s intimate secrets. An amusing tale that Kirkus Reviews calls “spectacularly bizarre.” Millás has won numerous literary prizes; this short novel is his first published in North America. Loved it! Available from Amazon.

Photo: David Lytle, creative commons license