History Mysteries – Part 2

New Orleans-based author Michael H. Rubin attended the Deadly Ink! Conference around the time his historical, The Cottoncrest Curse, was published, and I met him there, then read and reviewed his book. His academic publisher, LSU Press, insisted on historical accuracy of the book’s two time periods, 1893 and the 1960s Civil Rights era. To make sure, they had “a bevy of historians” vet the manuscript. That sounded like a nail-biter to me, because historical events don’t have a single interpretation, and we’re always learning more. Think how, after 3400 years, we’re still making new archaeological discoveries in Egypt!

In the current issue of Mystery Readers Journal, Paul Vidich’s essay, “A Personal Historical Murder Mystery,” struck a chord with me. His novel, The Coldest Warrior, was inspired by the death of his scientist uncle who “jumped or fell” from his 13th floor hotel room in New York City. Only years later did the family learn he’d been given LSD in one of the CIA’s ill-considered experiments. He had several false starts in trying to fictionalize this story, mostly because he was too close to it.

It wasn’t until he took a step back and examined the events not from his family’s point of view, but from that of the CIA officers engaged in—“murder, cover-up, and a power struggle over the repercussions of the case”—could he make headway. Ultimately, the story showed the psychological burdens on them, and Vidich makes the broader point that “Honorable men who work in covert operations inevitably bring some of the darkness into themselves.”

This resonated with me after a failed attempt to write a short story that would bring in highlights from the fascinating (to me) genealogy of my great-great grandmother. Like Vidich, I was much too close to the subject, so I sent an early draft to my editor, Barb Goffman, more than a little embarrassed because I knew it was awful! All the elements that engaged me came out, and a completely different story resulted. It’s “The Unbroken Circle,” published last summer in Pulp Modern. Despite the magazine title, this story is a historical, set in the late 1800s. The editors must have found its evergreen themes of family loyalty and connecting to the past “modern” enough.

A Great Read Needs a Great Reader

Having read several excellent thrillers set in Argentina in the last year, I was excited to see the interview with Alberto Manguel (Glimmer Train #102). Born in Buenos Aires in 1948, Manguel lived in Israel and many other countries. Taking his love of reading to the huge scale, he was the director of the National Library of Argentina, but on an intimate scale, as a teenager he read out loud several times a week to the great Jorge Luis Borges as his eyesight was failing. Manguel (pictured) is now a Canadian citizen.

Everyone who is a reader can admire the love of books that has propelled his career. His first book was put together when he was working for an Italian publishing company. He and his colleague Gianni Guadalupi wrote a travel guide to the cities, lands, and islands that live only in the imaginations of authors and their readers: Shangri-La, Oz, Wonderland, Middleearth and many others. His catholic reading led him to assemble more than twenty anthologies, for which the included authors are undoubtedly grateful. “The impulse was less of writing a book than publicizing what I had read,” he said. Eventually, writing about what he had read became the non-fiction book A History of Reading and many others.

Like most inveterate readers, he said, “experience came to me through stories. Books have always given me the words to name the things that happen. We all know that we can’t see what we don’t know is there.” If imagination is a tool for survival, we tell stories in order to hone that tool and make us of it.

“I think our species has survived through having experiences without having to have the physical experience,” he said. You can link up that thought to the repeated studies showing that reading literary fiction helps builds people’s empathy. (This finding does not apply to popular fiction, which often lacks characters who are “nuanced, unpredictable, and difficult to understand”—you know, as in real life.).

Most of Manguel’s books were written in English, which was his first language, followed by German. He didn’t learn Spanish until he was eight. “When I learned Spanish, I was introduced to another way of thinking. I’ve always believed that languages dictate your thoughts and allow you to think certain things,” and language studies bear out his view.

Miguel continued: “Spanish has a horror of the vacuum. You don’t allow for silences. You fill the sentence with adjectives, adverbs, synonyms, and it’s not disturbing. If you do that in English, you write purple prose.”

What an interesting insight! It makes your fingers itch to sit at the computer and bang out an adjective-rich conversation. Here’s Argentinian thriller-writer Sergio Olguín’s character Verónica Rosenthal describing her cousin’s house: “It’s hidden away behind a little wood on the hillside. A typical nineties construction, Californian style: huge windows, Italian furniture, BKF butterfly chairs (uncomfortable), and Michael Thonet rocking chair, which, if it isn’t an original, certainly looks the part, a spectacular view (even from the toilets), a Jacuzzi in almost all the bathtubs, a sauna, a well-equipped gym, huge grounds (looking a bit sparse now that autumn’s on its way), a heated swimming pool, a changing room, a gazebo which is in itself practically another house and lots, lots more.” Whew! That passage is from Olguín’s new five-star book, The Foreign Girls.

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.

Beyond the Human Gaze: Writer Jeff VanderMeer

octopus

Now that every issue in my complete set of the literary short story journal Glimmer Train is on its way to true vintage status, I’m taking a look at some of the essays the editors provided over the years—content I’d skip over to get to the stories!

In the fall 2018 issue, David Naimon interviewed Jeff VanderMeer, an award winning author in the vast realm of fantasy and science fiction, plus the landmark writing guide Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Consider adding that to your list of possible birthday presents for author-friends.

Their conversation began with a discussion of VanderMeer’s post-apocalyptic novel Borne, which includes a character that is a piece of biotechnology. Writing about non-human creatures, including animals, is a big blind spot in fiction of all types, VanderMeer believes. Writers do plenty of research to create a fictional world that’s believable, but, when it comes to animal behavior, blow it completely. We perpetuate the folklore that owls are wise; he says they’re not. (Don’t tell Harry Potter fans.) If an animal is cute, or if we believe it’s intelligent, it’s considered more worthy of attention, at least for fund-raising. We think of sharks as loners (not loaners, that’s something different), when some are quite social. “We do, I think, have to get beyond the idea of trying to find human-like intelligence in other animals, because their intelligence is very different.” Whoops! There’s my cue to mention octopuses.

Ursula K. Le Guin believed scientists’ reluctance to anthropomorphize animals’ behavior and emotional state has backfired. While we shouldn’t ascribe human motives and feelings to them, sure, we shouldn’t go too far in the other direction either, presuming they have no intention or emotional component to their actions. “It’s an act of empathy and imagination to at least try to get beyond the human gaze,” VanderMeer said.

VanderMeer is a believer in the ineffable. The more you explain about the science imbedded in a story, “the less the reader usually believes it.” Over-explaining signals a lack of confidence in what the story is saying. I personally like technothrillers with a generous amount of precise explanation, at least of things I can understand—the assassin’s requirements for the gun in Day of the Jackal, for example. But if the science is beyond lay understanding, best to assume the reader will accept the outcome and move on, VanderMeer said. A miracle happened. Now that’s something people will believe.

“Living to Tell the Tale” – EQMM March/April 2021

The title of this issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reminds readers how grateful they are that so many authors—20 in this issue alone—lived long enough to tell their tales and continue to do so! I should add a 21st writer—Dean Jobb—who writes the “Stranger Than Fiction” column. Probably many writers keep a file of head-shaking stories they know they’ll never use because, “who’d believe it?” I have a file like that. Lots of stellar tales in this issue, and here are four that stood out for me.

“Who Stole the Afikomen?” by Elizabeth Zelvin – After reading Liz Zelvin’s story, you’ll feel you’ve already done Passover this year (my Seder table pictured). The bantering among the family members across generations is perfection. Sharon take her new fiancé (the narrator; nice use of “external viewpoint”) to his first Seder and to meet the family. Her mother has thinly disguised objections. Bad enough that he’s not Jewish, he’s a cop. I loved this can’t-win exchange, which starts with the mother’s line: “This is what I get for sending you to Harvard Law?” “You didn’t send me to Harvard Law! I worked every day through high school and college and went into debt up to the eyeballs so I wouldn’t have to ask you.” “So you didn’t trust your mother and father to give you an education?”

“Cold Hard Facts” by Chad Baker – The corrosive effects of suspicion taint a woman’s view of her husband. Surely, he couldn’t have murdered their awful landlord. Or?? Insightful line: “She did not fear Adam. She feared the future.”

“Yeah, I Meant to Do That” by Mat Coward – I’m a pushover for stories about grifters and con artists. In this tale, a near-retirement grifter is recruited by an oddball assortment of “civilians” to devise a con on a wealthy and successful man who’s cheated them. Though they’re inexperienced, their Fagin gives them each a role, and it’s fun watching them play it!

“The Phone Message” by Robert Cummins – a juicy police procedural in which the detective turns over every investigative stone in the hope he won’t find anything. And his suspect appears to be giving him free rein. Cummins really has you rooting for these dueling protagonists.

Intrigued by great stories like this? Subscribe to EQMM here.

Tennessee Williams: How To See

“The Fugitive Kind” is the framework Bonnie J. Monte, is using for her “Book Club” discussions of Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) and his work. Monte is the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, and the next Book Club discussion group will focus on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, both parts, and Henry V, the stirring encomium to the Battle of Agincourt.

She chose “the fugitive kind,” because she believes what she calls Williams’s “vast and complex universe” is liberally peopled with a tribe of broken spirits. You can find one—or more than one—in every play: Rev. Shannon in Night of the Iguana, Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, practically the whole cast of Camino Real. The Fugitive Kind is the title of the award-winning film starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, and Joanne Woodward, which was made from Williams’s play, Orpheus Descending. Williams perfected a certain kind of character—drifters,  misfits, people out of sync with society, often through no fault of their own. We know such characters in daily life. We believe in his drinkers, his womanizers, his people who hide behind religion or lust after the unattainable, because we know people like that too—the people we call “their own worst enemies.”

Williams’s older sister Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Treatments in the 1940s for mental disorders were limited, and Rose (like Rosemary Kennedy) was subjected to a lobotomy,  which left her institutionalized. Later in life Williams felt great guilt about Rose’s fate and was a loyal, financially supportive brother. Rose’s shadow is cast across many of Williams’s most memorable characters, including, of course, Laura in The Glass Menagerie and even Blanch DuBois in Streetcar.

Not only did he create a vast body of work, he expanded the form with experimental (albeit not popular—yet!) plays and covered subjects not openly addressed on stage before: homosexuality, blasphemy, and the like. Monte calls him “a connoisseur of language,” as he sets brutal violence alongside his poetic form.

Marguerite from Camino Real: “Oh, Jacques, we’re used to each other, we’re a pair of captive hawks caught in the same cage, and so we’ve grown used to each other.”

John in Summer and Smoke: “You—white-blooded spinster! You so right people, pious pompous mumblers, preachers and preacher’s daughter, all muffled up in a lot of worn out magic!”

His lines are delivered in a very specific visual world. Williams’s stage directions and descriptions of his sets are detailed and precise: “(T)he sky should be a pure and intense blue (like the sky of Italy as it is so faithfully represented in the religious paintings of the Renaissance),” and, in the night sky, which constellations to project. (Examples from Summer and Smoke.)

Williams fell out of favor in the 1970’s, and Monte says the theater community was downright cruel about him and his work. His later plays were not well received, and many critics and academics thought his reputation was in permanent decline. A dab of homophobia may have contributed and (like Edgar Allan Poe) the machinations of a poorly managed literary estate, a fate shared with Edgar Allan Poe, whose reputation was damaged for decades. But the plays speak for themselves. And, his later plays remain capable of getting audiences to think new thoughts and see the world in new ways.

The State I’m In

Last week the New York chapter of  Mystery Writers of America sponsored a Facebook panel on “New Jersey writers.” It was a lot of fun, at least for me. On the panel, which was led by RG Belsky, whose books I’ve reviewed here, were Mally Becker, whose new historical mystery, The Turncoat’s Widow, is set in the Revolutionary War, Jeff Markowitz, past chapter president, also with a recent book, Hit or Miss, and me, who will have a book out later this year.

The first issue we dispensed with was “who IS a New Jersey writer”? There are people who live in and write about New Jersey (at least sometimes). There are people who live her but write about other places. And there are people who live somewhere else and write about New Jersey–wannabees. We can usually identify them.

Panel members agreed there’s a New Jersey sensibility—a bit of a chip on the shoulder, being constantly looked down upon by our near-neighbors across the Hudson, a lot of attitude, and a lack of shrinking violets. I complained (again, but I live in New Jersey, so why not?) about the Akashic book of short stories, New Jersey Noir, many of which for my money could have been written about almost anyplace. I didn’t get a chance to plug Bill Baer’s new book New Jersey Noir: Cape May, which hilariously captures several perfect specimens from the New Jersey ecosystem.

Some of the well-known crime/mystery writers who call New Jersey home are Harlan Coben, Joyce Carol Oates, and Janet Evanovich, whose protagonist, bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, works out of Trenton. Equally witty is Brad Parks, whose early books drew on his experience as a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger. A newspaperman like Belsky, he’s deserted the Garden State for Virginia.

The diversity of New Jersey crime writers is reflected in the day jobs they’ve held: Joe Hefferon (law enforcement), Steven Max Russo (advertising executive), N. Lombardi, Jr. (groundwater geologist, who has decamped to Cambodia), Nikki Stern (professional musician), Al Tucher (librarian), the aforementioned Baer (college professor and award-winning poet), and Sergio de la Pava (public defender). Their books are just as diverse! Me, I gave away money. Don’t call. That was a long time ago.

Even if these writers all chose New Jersey as the setting for their books, they still have a lot of choices—New Jersey Transit (a world unto itself), the notable universities scattered across the state, the honky-tonk and environmental treasures of the Jersey Shore, the densely populated north, self-contained communities of myriad ethnic groups, the Pine Barrens (where Markowitz likes to set stories. It’s the big green area in the southern half of the state), and the rural western and southern counties. No matter where you are, though, you’d be hard-pressed to escape the heavy Italian influence: pizza, pasta, and Sinatra.

Tennessee Williams: The Deep Dive

What do you think of when you think about the man many critics believe is one of America’s three greatest 20th century playwrights, alongside Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller? Other than thinking that’s a good way to start an argument, as I can hear you saying, “What about August Wilson?” “What about Sam Shepard?” “What about . . . ?” So, forget “one of the three” and just say, “one of the greatest.”

Probably you instantly call to mind several of his best-known plays. Maybe you think of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor pictured), A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie. With further thought, you probably come up with The Rose Tattoo, Summer and Smoke, Sweet Bird of Youth. Oh, and Night of the Iguana. And . . .

Go ahead, Google him, and you’ll find the sheer number of famous plays he wrote is remarkable. And the best-known ones may not even be the best plays. Like great artists in many fields—painting, music—sometimes he’s ahead of the rest of us. Two hundred years ago, audiences gave Beethoven a cool reception too.

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s Book Club is conducting a six-week Zoom course on Tennessee Williams and his plays, led by STNJ artistic director, Bonnie J. Monte. The predominant reason the forty-plus (number, not age) students signed on was to learn more about this author, of course. That’s a more interesting reason than it sounds, given how well known many of his plays are.

Several students commented on productions of his works they’d seen decades ago that they still remember well. I recall STNJ’s powerful 2008 production of A Streetcar Named Desire. At the end, the audience was momentarily too stunned to applaud, and the leads (Laila Robins as Blanche and Nisi Sturgis as Stella) looked as though they might weep through the curtain call.

Monte had a particular exposure to Williams while she was working at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in its 1982 season. The festival’s artistic director, Nikos Psacharopoulos planned a production of excerpts from the plays, billed as Tennessee Williams: A Celebration. Monte put the show together, and Williams was pleased with the result.

Not so Hollywood’s treatment of his work. Endings have been changed, material excised, and portrayals skewed, so if the versions you’re most familiar with are Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Burl Ives in Cat or Ava Gardner, Richard Burton, and Deborah Kerr in Iguana, or Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster in Tattoo, you’ve missed the real Williams. Of course, with casts like those, the films were bound  to be memorable! All the worse, Williams must have thought.

My interest in Williams was sparked by a personal encounter too. I attended the 1980 Kennedy Center premiere of Clothes for a Summer Hotel, his play about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and during intermission, I saw Williams standing alone, leaning against a wall, not eight feet from me. Thrilled, I turned around to tell my husband and bumped into Elizabeth Taylor. Alas, those moments are what I most remember about the play, which was not a critical success. Still waiting for me to catch up, perhaps.

Two Entertaining Listens

Was your New Year’s resolution to get more exercise, and you’re having trouble bounding out of bed with the necessary zeal on these gloomy mornings? Here are two thrillers for your in audio that will get you up and moving, simply because you have to know “What happens next?” These two books are both impeccably entertaining and couldn’t be more different.

Blacktop Wasteland

SA Crosby, Blacktop Wasteland

When Crime Fiction Lover reviewer Rough Justice said “believe the hype” about SA Crosby’s rural noir novel, Blacktop Wasteland, he wasn’t kidding. Suffice it to say that Crosby has achieved that literary ideal—to create the universal by focusing on the specific. The types of challenges faced by Beauregard “Bug” Montage are faced by many sons of missing dads, by many hard-working people of limited means, by many who believe they cannot escape their past.

So much has been written about this multiple award-nominated novel, I won’t rehash the story, but if you like audio books, this is definitely one for your “must-listen” list. Actor Adam Lazarre-White is pitch-perfect, not only when it comes to the Black family at the center of the narrative but also in portraying the white trash grifters and petty criminals with their dubious, dangerous schemes.

Crosby has written his dialog with a precise ear for the rhythms and patterns of speech of his native southern Virginia (the pleading “Just hear me out,” from someone Bug should never in a million years listen to). Combined with Lazarre-White’s talents, Crosby’s characters come to life unforgettably. Good and bad, Black and white, brave and sniveling. They are real people.

Agent Running in the Field

This is John le Carré’s last novel published before his death in December, set in the upper realms of the British espionage establishment. The hero, 47-year-old MI6 agent Nat, is afraid he’s about to be shoved into retirement, but instead he’s given a lackluster post in a local backwater. Maybe this is to keep him out of trouble, but no matter, trouble finds him.

It’s an unsettled time, with Brexit looming and the political establishment, like all of Britain, deeply divided. Though you may anticipate what the sources of Nat’s deepening dilemmas will be, how he goes about extricating himself is exciting reading or, in this case, listening.

Agent is narrated by le Carré himself, and though I’m usually skeptical of an author reading his own work (mostly because I know what a bad job I would do), he offers a persuasive performance. Almost all the characters are British, which may help, or not. (Prof. Henry Higgins would be happy to dissect the regional and impenetrable idiosyncrasies of English speech.) Listening to le Carré read his own words here, quite expertly, as it happens, feels like a kind of good-bye.  

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Slivers of Backstory

Authors are constantly admonished not to dwell in backstory—especially early in a book or at the introduction of each new character—yet there are aspects of a character’s prior experiences that writers want readers to know. Unless you start your book at the very beginning of a character’s life, like David Copperfield’s “I Am Born,” there are relationships and episodes you need to review in order help readers understand who the character is in the today of the novel.

Since my character, Archer Landis, is in his early sixties in 2011, he was in his mid-twenties as the Vietnam War was ending (I have done this arithmetic about a hundred times, convinced I have it wrong!). The war, the draft, the demonstration would have been very much top-of-mind to him at a crucial and formative stage of life, with indelible impact.

Rather than take a deep dive into his war experiences—like Michael Connolly did so well in his first Harry Bosch story, The Black Echo, which was so immersive that when the story returned to the present day, I was briefly discombobulated—I doled out Landis’s war memories in small bites.

He briefly returns to his Vietnam experiences at three points in the novel. I hadn’t realized it as I wrote, but looking back, in each case, they come to his mind at times he is very much in peril. It must be the intensity of the hazard that resurrects them. For example, late one afternoon, Landis is standing in front of a window in his office, and someone shoots at him from across the street. He reflexively dives to the floor. No standing there, thinking, “What? Where did that come from?”

Some chapters later, anticipating a possible violent confrontation, he hearkens back to his Vietnam experiences and the way the Viet Cong would enter hostile territory and contrasts that with his options in the situation he finds himself in. It causes him to reflect on the kind of person he has become. I’m not telling a war story; I’m showing who he is.

Many pages later, when an attack on him and a well-armed colleague is expected—this is now forty years after Vietnam—he asks whether he should have a gun too.
“You done much shooting?” his colleague asks.
“Not since Vietnam.”
“There’s your answer.”

These snippets are reminders that Landis engaged in the issues of his day and was a part of them. They help me—and the reader too, I hope—see him as a fully rounded person who has a past, but is not dominated by it.

For how to think about this aspect of his past, I relied on Karl Marlantes’s fine novel, Matterhorn. Marlantes is a Yale alumnus, was a Rhodes Scholar, and served as a Marine in Vietnam.