Survival Signals

woman with groceries
photo: Charles Nadeau, creative commons license

The situation described by the writer of a recent letter to Carolyn Hax, Washington Post advice columnist, sounded to Hax like “abuse.” I would never have guessed that, which is why she writes a successful newspaper column, and I don’t. One of the sources she suggested her correspondent consult was Gavin de Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear. At least I’d read the book! And grateful to be reminded of it. Perhaps it’s timely to repeat my review. The cover says, “This book can save your life,” and, whether that’s true, it sure can save the lives of the characters you’re writing about and suggest ways to put them in peril.

The Gift of Fear is a 1997 classic on recognizing the subtle signs of personal danger in many situations. So often in news stories about the capture of a murderer, people say, “We had no idea. She didn’t seem the type . . .” This book, like a 2018 FBI report, says baloney to that. There are signs. You just have to recognize them and accept their validity.

As a crime fiction writer, I hope those signs might be usefully incorporated in my stories, whether my bad-guy characters were aware of sending them and whether my good-guy characters perceived them. Or not. Especially or not.

The book’s author is Gavin de Becker, who has worked with government agencies and law enforcement and as a private consultant on personal threat assessment for media figures, victims of stalking, and others. Much of the book is written in the annoying “you can do it!” style of a self-help book, but his examples are excellent.

Especially useful was the chapter on “survival signals.” In it, he deconstructs the experience of a young woman he calls Kelly who encountered a helpful stranger in the lobby of her apartment building. When one of Kelly’s grocery bags spilled, he insisted on carrying the bags for her. He followed her into her apartment, then held her captive for three hours and raped her. She barely escaped with her life. Other women had not.

From the outset, Kelly received numerous signals that something about the man was “off,” which made her uneasy, though she couldn’t say why. De Becker says, “the capable face-to-face criminal is an expert at keeping his victim from seeing survival signals, but the very methods he uses to conceal them can reveal them.” The signals in Kelly’s case are easily adaptable to fiction.

Seven Key Survival Signals

  • Forced teaming—Kelly’s attacker tried to establish rapport with her, with statements like, “We’ve got to get these groceries upstairs.” A fictional criminal could plausibly say many similar things, like, “Luckily, we’re on the same side here.” David Mamet’s characters use this strategy superbly in his fascinating movie, House of Games.
  • Charm and niceness—Charm is a strategy, de Becker maintains, “a verb, not a trait.” The person trying to charm is a person who wants something. In two words: Ted Bundy.
  • Too many details—People trying to deceive pile on information, in the hope of being more persuasive. Details distract a potential victim from the bigger picture, which is that the encounter was (possibly) unsought and potentially problematic.
  • Typecasting—It’s human nature to want to be thought well of. Women, especially, are likely to demur or try to disprove a mild criticism, such as, “Someone like you probably wouldn’t give me the time of day.”
  • Loan sharking—A person may offer—indeed, may insist on—helping a potential victim, as Kelly’s assailant did. Putting her even slightly in his debt made it harder for her to rebuff him.
  • Unsolicited promises—“I’ll just put these groceries down, then leave. I promise.” De Becker says any unsolicited promise shows merely “the speaker’s desire to convince you of something.”
  • Discounting the word ‘no’—people with ill intent ignore a ‘no’ or try to negotiate it away. Either they are seeking control, or refusing to give it up.

Though even a benign character might display one or two of these behavioral traits, start piling them on, and readers will recognize the danger, even subliminally. They give characters real menace and ratchet up the tension long before the weapons come out!

Order it here on Amazon or from your local indie bookstore.

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.

The Border

The Border, Don Winslow

By Don Winslow – Whew! Another 700+ page book in 2020! Thanks to covid for opening up more reading time, though this book requires multiple kinds of stamina. Having read Winslow’s previous book in this unforgettable trilogy, The Cartel, and the late Charles Bowden’s real-life story, Down by the River, I was prepared for the brutality of the drug trade south of the border. And for American hypocrisy. And my own frustration. What I didn’t expect was how much worse it has gotten.

Most U.S. drug deaths come from illegally manufactured opioids (fentanyl), cocaine that is often laced with heroin or illicit fentanyl, and methamphetamines. All these drugs are manufactured and distributed by the Mexican cartels. They have so much money, they are a giant tail wagging the dog of the Mexican economy and the drug lords must look elsewhere for places to stash and launder their loot. Elsewhere, like the United States, where the size of the prize is just too tempting for major banks, like HSBC and Wells Fargo, and others to turn away.

Though Winslow’s character Adán Berrera is a stand-in for drug lord Joaquín Guzmán, it’s around the disposition of the money that Winslow’s new book turns into a mind-bending roman à clef. His main character, Art Keller, is now head of the DEA in the late days of the Obama Administration. On the horizon are the acolytes of surprise Republican presidential candidate and Twitter addict John Dennison, whose son-in-law, Jason Lerner, is a Manhattan real estate investment tycoon. Sound familiar? Real estate, Keller knows, is a prime sinkhole for large amounts of cash, and a deal Lerner is trying to negotiate needs cash fast.

In a Sean Woods interview for Rolling Stone, Winslow said he has no information linking Trump or Kushner to drug money. However, he believes, the link doesn’t strain credibility: “We live in an extremely corrupt era.” He believed that creating another type of U.S. leader would have been much more disconcerting for readers.

Every once in a while, Art Keller climbs up on his soapbox. He rails against the drug-prison industrial complex or the failure of U.S. immigration policy or the shortsightedness of attacking the supply side of the drug equation rather than the demand side or the incarceration of some 300,000 Americans, mostly for petty drug crimes and the relative impunity of those, like the bankers and investors who facilitate the trade from the top.

But The Border isn’t just a polemic. It’s a multi-layered thriller packed with adventure and compelling characters whose fates you’ll care about. If this review concentrates on the issues rather than the literary devices of plot, characterization, setting, and the like, it’s because those resonances with reality will really stay with you. They’re what make this such an important book.

We Americans turn a blind eye to the drug trade and the corrosive power of its financing at our peril. “You know,” Winslow said, “the problem with writing these books is virtually everything in them really happened.”

Order The Border from Amazon here.

Private Eyes: 2020 Incarnation

spy, espionage, reading

Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker reviews a couple of recent books about the private investigation industry and its changing role. One of them, The Modern Detective: How Corporate Intelligence is Reshaping the World, by Tyler Maroney, was named a 2020 favorite by Kevin Burton Smith, who monitors PI stuff on his web site, for the Private Eye Writers of America, and for Mystery Scene.

More than thirty thousand private investigators are working in the United States, and while some of them engage in the activities that find their way into crime stories—investigating kidnappings, flagging cheating spouses or employees, and finding missing persons—a lot of what modern PI’s do is less juicy corporate work. They check out potential employees, track missing assets, scour proposals for multibillion-dollar deals, assess corporations’ potential partners, engage in (presumably) white-hat hacking, and amass opposition research from the undrained swamp of politics.

These activities are ubiquitous in the corporate world today. Globalization, deregulation, and rapid technological change have created the opportunity for whole new chapters in the secret investigations playbook, as well as new criminal opportunities and strategies.

Despite the growth in that sector of the industry, tales of insider trading, corruption, and fraud are a regular feature of the news media. You have to wonder, is the investigations business simply ineffective in curbing bad behavior, or is the malfeasance we read about only the tip of what would be a glacier-sized iceberg if the investigators’ weren’t on the job?

Says Keefe, the book “is not an exposé. It is part memoir, part how-to guide, a celebration of the analytical and interpersonal intelligence that makes a great investigator.” Those are the traits that have given Poe’s Auguste Dupin and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes nearly a century and a half of popularity. Sounds like a must-read!

World-Rocking Reading List:
The Modern Detective: How Corporate Intelligence is Reshaping the World
Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the World
Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage

Foreign Intrigue

If domestic intrigues are giving you fits, you might try some stories set in other countries. What you’ll find, of course, is that there’s no end to the shenanigans people get up to. But you knew that, right? Here are three award-winners from France, Germany, and Japan. In general, crime novels by non-American, non-British authors have a different style. They often have subplots that leave you to draw your own conclusions. Personally, I like that extra dose of mystery. These three happen to have wonderful cover art too!

Summer of Reckoning

Summer of Reckoning, Marion Brunet

Some teenage summers are just too awkward and painful to revisit. Marion Brunet’s novel expertly describes a summer exactly like that. When I say it’s set in the south of France, you’re thinking Provence. Lavender and cabernet. The bleak, poverty-stricken village where sixteen-year-old Céline and her fifteen-year-old sister, Johanna, live with their brutish father, Manuel, is not that. Céline is pregnant, and Manuel insists she reveal who the father is. From his drunken determination, much tragedy ensues. Winner of the French Mystery Prize (the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière), it was translated by Katherine Gregor. Read my full review here.

Mexico Street

Simone Buchholz, Mexico Street

Simone Buchholz’s street-smart Hamburg public prosecutor Chastity Riley works closely—in some cases intimately—with the local police. Her cast of well characterized lovers, former lovers, and police colleagues is investigating the latest in a rash of car fires. This one is different, there’s a dying man inside, a member of a notorious Bremen gangster family.

That connection leads Riley and her crew to some dark and lawless places, to a world and family life that operate under their own unforgiving rules. Winner of the German Crime Fiction Prize in 2019, translated by Rachel Ward. Read my full review here.

The Aosawa Murders

Aosawa Murders, Riku Onda

In the 1970s, an Aosawa family birthday party ends with 17 people poisoned to death. The only survivor is teenage daughter, Hisako, who is blind. The evocative, layered story by Riku Onda is created retrospectively from interviews with the principals, starting with Hisako’s memories, the ruminations of the police detective who is convinced Hisako somehow must have been involved, and the author of a best-selling book about the murders.

Was this the perfect crime? As the book blurb says, “Part Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Part Capote’s In Cold Blood.” Winner of the Mystery Writers of Japan Best Novel Award, and translated by Alison Watts.

Dust Off Your Library Card

chalk outline, body

You see so many reviews of brand new crime novels on this website because, as you may know, I read and review them for the fantastic UK website CrimeFictionLover.com. Occasionally, I dig into my book pile and find something not suitable for CFL. Possibly it’s a book that’s been out a while, a new book already reviewed by CFL or in one case below, great non-fiction. A post for another day is a list of not-crime books. There is such a thing!

***Identical
By Scott Turow (2013) – if you want a novel full of twists and turns, this one has it. If you want a novel that stretches the bonds of plausibility, you have that too. Twin brothers Cass and Paul (Castor and Pollux, get it?) couldn’t be more different. One is running for city mayor, the other about to be released from jail after 25 years. He pled guilty to the murder of his girlfriend Aphrodite Kronon. Confusions worthy of the ancient Greeks and arising from twinhood are here, fairly predictably.

****Statute of Limitations
By Steven F. Havill (2006) – This is one of Havill’s meticulous police procedurals set in small-town New Mexico. I’ve read three of them, and I love them! A retired police chief abandoned after collapsing from a heart attack, a body in an arroyo, a late-night attack—this Christmas season is certainly not filled with goodwill toward mankind. Under-sheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman doesn’t miss a beat.

****The Aosawa Murders
By Riku Onda (2005), translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts – Newly published in English, the scenes in this prize-winning book are like a set of still lifes. Different points of view describe a crime in which 17 members of a single family were murdered, with only one survivor, a young blind woman. Gradually, the crime is pieced together. Lovely writing, stellar cover.

***False Light
By Claudia Riess (2019) – This is the second outing for amateur sleuths, art experts, and randy spouses Erika Shawn and Harrison Wheatley. Their challenge this time is to decipher a coded message from a famous art forger, now dead. Supposedly, it will identify some of his works masquerading in prestigious collections as the real thing. It’s a great set-up, and if you’re a fan of art world skullduggery, you may enjoy this, but I found the denouement implausible.

*****Breaking and Entering
By Jeremy N. Smith (2019) – Subtitled “the extraordinary story of a hacker called ‘alien,’” this is the nonfiction story of a woman’s career from her exploits as an MIT undergraduate through to her current role consulting with banks, government agencies, and others on security issues. Cybersecurity is their big concern, and she and her team are cyber experts, but they also routinely prove to clients that good old humanware can be their weakest link. Fascinating.

*****This Mortal Boy

justice

By Fiona Kidman – Based on a true story of one of the last executions in New Zealand, Fiona Kidman’s historical crime novel, This Mortal Boy, concerns a young man found guilty of murder is a powerful question mark. When is the death penalty justified? How does politics affect ‘blind justice’? Fundamentally, what is justice?

Although the novel takes place in New Zealand in late 1955, its thought-provoking issues are still germane to the United States and to the more than 50 countries where the death penalty exists today, countries where more than 60 percent of the world’s population lives.

What’s remarkable about this book is how Kidman brings forth the issues involved like specimens under a strong light, showing them in all their complexity, without ever preaching or becoming polemical. You are reading a compelling and disturbing story, not an essay.

Albert Black is a young man from tension-filled, divided Belfast, who leaves his parents and younger brother to immigrate to New Zealand for a fresh start and a better life. In a bar fight, he stabs Johnny McBride, the bully who’s been tormenting him. From his Auckland jail cell he reminisces about his upbringing on the other side of the world and his life during the two years since he left Northern Ireland. The vivid descriptions of these various communities and his circumstances, as well as his actions, make him a fully rounded person. While Kidman doesn’t romanticize him, he inspires empathy.

He feels he’s an outsider in New Zealand. That feeling turns into grim reality when he’s on trial, and jury members hold his Irishness against him. He’s ‘not one of ours,’ the judge says. Kidman also reveals the mindset of the jurors (‘set’ being the operative word) and the high-level discussions amongst the legal establishment regarding capital punishment.

She skillfully uses the frame of the trial to enable comparison of retold events to witness testimony, and while there’s no doubt that Black attacked McBride, the circumstances make both the situation and the cause of death more ambiguous than they first appear or than the court ever hears.

Albert Black was hanged 5 December 1955, and, as Kidman says in an Afterword, “A tide of disgust against the penalty overtook public perception after the hanging of Albert Black.” When a new government took over in New Zealand in 1957, all death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment, and in 1961, the death penalty was abolished.

This Mortal Boy won the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize, the NZ Booklovers Award, the NZSA Heritage Book Award for Fiction, and the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Dame Fiona Kidman, DNZM, OBE, was born and lives in New Zealand and is the award-winning author of novels, poems, plays, and short stories.

Photo: Mike Gifford, creative commons license

Award-winning Listens

earphones

Once the nominees and winners for the many, many awards in the crime/mystery/thriller genre are out, I listen to some of the ones I haven’t read. A talented narrator can really put a story into your head! Here are five I’ve heard lately, all (except one) with excellent narration. Three are nominees for Anthony Awards, which will be announced later this year.

*****Bearskin

Written by James A McLaughlin, narrated by MacLeod Andres – Oddly, Bearskin had some of the same appeal as the very different Where the Crawdads Sing, because part of the narrator’s challenge is dealing with a heavy dose of the natural world. Rice Moore is hiding out in an Appalachian Virginia nature preserve, living pretty much off the grid and hoping an assassin from the Mexican drug cartel whose younger brother he killed doesn’t find him. Meanwhile, he must deal with bear poachers, motorcycle outlaws, and an interesting parade of Old Dominion miscreants. Winner: 2019 Edgar Award for Best First Novel; Nominee: 2019 Anthony Award for Best Novel

*****November Road

In November Road, written by Lou Berney, narrated by Johnathan McClain – President Kennedy has been shot and New Orleans player Frank Guidry realizes the errand a local crime boss sent him on is connected to that crime. It sounded simple: drive this sky-blue Cadillac Eldorado to Dallas and park it in a particular place. It was the assassin’s getaway car. Now Guidry is supposed to dispose of the vehicle and rightly worries he’ll be disposed of next. Meanwhile, an Oklahoma housewife leaves her alcoholic husband and hits the road with her two daughters, never expecting to meet a man like Guidry. Winner: 2019 Left Coast Crime Award for Best Mystery Novel and a “Best Book of the Year” by at least 13 publications; Nominee: 2019 Anthony Award for Best Novel

****House Witness

Written by Mike Lawson, narrated by Joe Barrett – A powerful member of Congress has a secret: years ago his mistress bore him a son. When that son is shot dead in a Manhattan bar, he sends his fixer, Joe DeMarco, to make sure the culprit—son of a wealthy businessman—goes to jail. The case in House Witness should be a slam-dunk. There were five witnesses, after all. But as the witnesses start disappearing, the prosecutor suspects a campaign to get rid of them. She enlists DeMarco in a desperate cat-and-mouse game with a beautiful sociopath. Nominee: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Novel

****The Chalk Man

Written by C J Tudor, narrated by Euan Morton. Years ago, in a small English town, a tight-knit gang of four twelve-year-olds communicated with each other via coded messages chalked on the sidewalk. One day a strange chalk message leads them to the body of a missing girl and a teacher–The Chalk Man–is blamed. Thirty years on, Eddie drinks too much, fuzzing his thinking about the new appearance of chalk men and the mysterious letter he and each of his friends have received. Is he creating these messages in a drunken blackout? When one of the four dies, Eddie must find out what happened so long ago in order to save them all. Winner: 2019 International Thriller Writers’ Award for Best First Novel; Strand Magazine Award for Best Debut Novel

***Jar of Hearts

Written by Jennifer Hillier, narrated by January LaVoy – In Jar of Hearts, sixteen-year-old Georgina Shaw’s boyfriend, Calvin James, kills her best friend, and buries the dismembered corpse in the woods behind Geo’s house. Twenty years later, Angela’s body is found, and Calvin is convicted of her murder, but he soon escapes from prison. Geo is incarcerated for five years, derailing her lucrative career and high-profile engagement. As she is about to be released, new bodies are found in the same woods. Calvin is the chief suspect, and Geo may be the next victim. This thriller loses a star mainly because the narration didn’t work for me. The print book might be a better choice. Winner:2019 International Thriller Writers’ Award for Best Hardcover Novel; Nominee: 2019 Anthony Award for Best Novel

Photo: John O’Nolan, creative commons license

****No Way to Die

ancient China

By PA De Voe – If you want a total escape from Brexit or US or European politics, PA De Voe’s second-in-series Ming Dynasty Mystery, No Way to Die, will take you back to late 1300s China. As a devoted fan of the Judge Dee mysteries of Robert van Gulik, set six hundred years earlier in the Tang Dynasty, I was delighted to find De Voe’s well-crafted series.

The prose is deceptively simple. No lengthy descriptions, just enough information to let you picture the scene—a style in keeping with both the era in which the stories are set and the heavily verb-dependent Chinese language.

Women’s doctor (and woman doctor) Xiang-hua is asked to serve as coroner to determine whether the mangled body of a stranger found in the village herbalist’s pig pen got there through foul play. Alas, the pig had made a bit of a meal of the man before his body was removed. Numerous males of the community are concerned the sight of the mangled corpse may be too much for the young Xiang-hua. But she does not shrink from the task. Trained as a healer by her grandmother, Xiang-hua is determined to fulfill her obligations (striking a feminist note that resonates in the 21st century). It’s tough, but she’s in possession of herself well enough to discover the dead man, muddy and bloody, had been stabbed in the back.

The local officials want to know the victim’s identity and, if possible, who stabbed him, before they have to report the crime to higher authorities. If they fail to find out, it will likely to bring down the wrath of the bureaucracy, never a pleasant outcome in ancient China, as punishments were plentiful and harsh. This is a prime example of how De Voe uses 700-year-old realities to create situations that adhere to one of the basic memes of modern crime stories: the ticking clock.

The investigation enables a fascinating trip back to a colorful and simpler time, and though the culture was so different, human emotions and motivations are the same across eons. De Voe’s training as an anthropologist and her advanced degree in Asian studies mean that what she writes carries an authority based on deep knowledge of that long-ago culture and society. I’ll be looking forward to more of her excellent tales!

Seasoning Dinner with Crime: Second Course

Forensic psychologist Louis Schlesinger of John Jay College of Criminal Law spoke to the NY chapter of Mystery Writers of America after dinner last week. Yesterday, I summarized his points about staging a homicide scene and undoing a murder—both aspects of criminality that writers may find useful in their diabolical plotting. Here’s more.

Foreign Objects

Schlesinger has written about foreign object insertions, a topic he considered not suitable to delve into in a postprandial talk, except to say that about half are not discovered until autopsy and the moths found in the throats of The Silence of the Lambs killer’s victims were not realistic. Why not? I wonder. He’s published an article on this topic, and if you’re super-curious, you can access the full article here.

Serial and Sexual Homicides

Serial and sexual homicides often involve rituals and follow a pattern—a “signature.” The murder alone is not psychologically sufficient to fulfill the killer’s intent. Creating any kind of an elaborate crime scene tableau requires time, which increases the risk of apprehension. Taking this extra risk shows how important that aspect of the crime is to him.

Recall Douglas Preston’s true-crime book, The Monster of Florence, about a series of 16 (at least) murders that took place in north Italy between 1968 and 1985. The killer’s victims often had complicated wounds that would have taken some time to inflict, yet as I recall, the bodies were found in well frequented lovers’ lanes. It was a mystery how he got away with it for so long. (Preston’s book describes the horribly botched investigation masterminded by prosecutor Giuliano Mignini. Over the course of Mignini’s “investigation,” he prosecuted some 20 individuals, all of whom were subsequently acquitted. If his name rings a bell, Mignini was also responsible for the mishandling of the case against Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito.)

But just because a serial killer has a signature, he may vary it occasionally, depending on circumstances. These variations crop up anywhere in the series of killings and can take many forms, making identification of all the victims in a challenge for your fictional investigator.

Psychopathic serial killers are typically of average intelligence, Schlesinger said, with Ted Bundy the exception that proves the rule. What they’re very smart about is masking their pathology. Maybe that’s why a killer’s neighbors and co-workers always say, “He seemed like such a normal average guy!”

Trends

Schlesinger pointed to several trends of interest to crime writers. Advances in emergency medicine that have helped save injured military personnel on the battlefield have been imported to our city hospitals. Many people whose injuries would have been fatal a few years ago now can be saved. That’s the good news, partly responsible for holding murder rates down.

The bad news is that, despite more police and better analytic techniques, only about 60 percent of murder cases are cleared by an arrest. It isn’t that the police aren’t doing a good job. Back when most murders occurred between people who knew each other, police investigations had something to go on. Today, the increases in random shootings, drive-by killings, drug killings, and gang warfare mean that, absent a confession, the responsible party is forever a question mark. And, they lack the dramatic possibilities of a 20-year feud between neighbors, a wronged lover, or jealous sibling.