Karin Slaughter: No Sugarcoating

Last week a library consortium sponsored an interview with best-selling crime author Karin Slaughter to discuss her new standalone thriller, False Witness. She told the interviewer that it is a hard book to talk about without revealing spoilers, and since I’ve read and reviewed it for CrimeFictionLover.com, I can attest to the difficulty.

The book centers on two sisters, Leigh and Callie, who in their mid-teens experience a horrible event that has changed their lives in many ways. The book was a way to for Slaughter to explore her abiding interest in the impact trauma has on people. The bond between the sisters is at the book’s emotional core. Sister relationships, she says, are so fraught. “A sister is the person you can love the most and hate the most at the same time.”

The interviewer noted that many readers consider her books very “dark,” and she said “if my name was Ken Slaughter, they wouldn’t say that.” She puts violent situations in context but does not shy away from portraying them as they are. No sugarcoating. When she was a child, her grandmother would often have a black eye or split lip or even a broken bone. Her uncles would always make light of it, saying how clumsy she was, but as Karin grew older, she realized her grandfather was an abuser. The family’s refusal to face or even discuss the violence “only hurt my grandmother” and enabled the beatings to continue.

Tough issues, indeed, but despite them, Slaughter works considerable humor into her stories. In this one, Callie works in a veterinary clinic and gives the animals humorous (and very apt) nicknames. Her boss, Dr. Jerry, entertains her with intriguing animal stories. “This book was my opportunity to put in all the obscure animal facts I’ve collected,” Slaughter said. “You can’t have all the dark stuff without balance.”

As adults, Leigh is a lawyer in a high-priced Atlanta firm, and Callie a drug abuser, intermittently sober. To research Callie, Slaughter talked with current and former drug abusers and wanted to describe their outlook without defaulting into clichés. She wanted to separate Callie’s base personality from the addiction and does so in part through Callie’s love of animals. In my opinion, Callie comes across as the novel’s most engaging and believable character.

She read Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter’s novel about the 1918 influenza epidemic, which contains so many parallels to our covid experience. The new book includes a pointed epigram from Porter too. Slaughter produces a book a year, generally, and has published 21 novels with more than 35 million copies sold worldwide. Several of her books are optioned for television, and the one closest to airing is Pieces of Her, which will be an eight-part Netflix series starring Toni Collette, premiering in late 2021 or 2022 (covid delays).

“Shunning” Books by Women? What FB Users Said

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Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post based in part on findings of research done by Nielsen Book Research. As you may know, the Nielsen organization is “a leading global data and analytics company that provides a holistic and objective understanding of the media industry.” This particular research was for a new book by MA Sieghart, titled The Authority Gap (reviewed here), which explores the social conditioning and unconscious bias that belittles and undermines women. Half the population is a lot of people to not take seriously.

The author investigated the many guises in which bias occurs, but of most interest to me were her findings on how authors are treated. Much past research has dealt with women authors’ difficulties, which culminate in reduced readership. Using the Nielsen research and other sources, Sieghart found considerable evidence that these difficulties continue and that men “shun” books by women. I actually think this may be less prevalent in the crime and mystery genre, but the research was dealt with best-selling authors, all genres.

I’m gratified that my post it received abundant Facebook likes from both men and women. But in the comments, sharp differences emerged. In general, women cited specific experiences they’d had; many men denied the problem and questioned the data.

Several women (teachers) said prejudices against women authors begin at an early age, and others said they identify themselves with initials, not their names, as a result. One woman said, “A while back, a large writers’ group I belong to researched this from several angles, and concluded that in most genres, male authors significantly outsold female. Possibly the roughest moment was a friend’s husband admitting to his writer wife that he too avoided books by women because he assumed they wouldn’t interest him.” That “he assumed” is what author Sieghart is trying to get at.

Some men said they don’t pay any attention to the author’s gender. I hope that’s true. But if all that interests them are stories about former Navy SEALS with advanced martial arts skills who like to blow things up, following their preferences will naturally lead to one type of author. One said he didn’t know any women who write the action thrillers he prefers (a woman author responded by suggesting one of her books). Sieghart’s point is that readers who read books by only one gender (however that happens) miss out on understanding a lot of what goes on in the world.

Apparently, several men didn’t bother to read my post, much less The Guardian article it was based on, both of which described the research. One skeptical man asked, “Is this based on any factual research?” Similarly, men wrote, “I don’t take much stock in people’s surveys or stats,” and “I think these surveys/polls are utter nonsense.” The Nielsen research wasn’t a poll; it was an analysis of actual buying patterns.

Mysteriously, one man said he didn’t see that the problem is about gender. “Most crime fiction is written by women, so are you suggesting men don’t read crime? They certainly do.” No, the post did not suggest anything like that at all.

The ad feminem argument also surfaced: “One issue is that society conditions men to expect female authors to spend most of the time excoriating men. So why bother?”

And, this clincher: “Who cares? Move on. Write because you love writing.” Not because you want to be read or because it’s important to you that your books bring in the income that will let you eat, put a roof over your head, and buy shoes for the kids.

Heartening, by contrast, was some men’s unqualified support for women authors, like: “There are way too many high quality female authors to ignore. Especially in the mystery genre.” And “I love English mysteries, and many of the best writers are women.”

Still? Again? Men Shunning Women Authors

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Periodically authors get motivated to revisit  a persistent question, Why Won’t Men Read Their Books? It’s pretty discouraging to think that a big chunk of the population who might read a mystery/crime book, who say that’s their favorite genre to read, will dismiss out of hand the one they’re working!

An article by the gender-masking MA Sieghart in last Sunday’s Guardian newspaper takes up the issue once again. “Female authors through the centuries, from the Brontë sisters to George Eliot to JK Rowling, have felt obliged to disguise their gender to persuade boys and men to read their books. But now? Is it really still necessary? The sad answer is yes.” Sieghart set about to document that for her new book, The Authority Gap, through a survey she commissioned from Nielsen Book Research. The result? “Men were disproportionately unlikely even to open a book by a woman.”

Take top-selling female authors. Less than one reader in five is male. Then take top-selling male authors. Almost half (45%) of their readers are women. Clearly, women are much more comfortable reading across gender than men are. A question of quality, you ask? No, Sieghart says, pointing out that women authored nine of the ten best-selling literary novels of 2017.

I’ve puzzled over this a lot in previous posts. Now Sieghart takes the issue beyond a marketing conundrum, suggesting a more serious problem underneath. By cutting themselves off from the ideas, imaginations, experiences, and perspectives of women, as expressed in the books they write, men limit their ability to understand half the world. It’s a familiar-sounding argument from another domain when she says, as a result, men “will continue to see the world through an almost entirely male lens, with the male experience as the default.” The stories women tell—and the women themselves—will be niche, when in reality, they are not niche stories; they are human stories.

Top Crime Writers Salute the Classics

Around the world, crime fiction is a top choice of the reading public. And there are SO MANY of these books, to the despair of every writer pondering how to promote their own new book in such a crowded field. But, what’s worth reading?

Let’s turn to the experts. Though publishers and others produce lists of the 20, 50, 100 “best” crime and suspense novels of all time, easily googlable, what do the real experts—authors themselves—say? The Guardian asked 25 top mystery writers for their picks and recently reprinted their replies—the article itself being a classic from 2018. (Purists will cringe at this carefree interchange of crime, mystery, and suspense, as if they are all one thing, but the categories are broad and their edges fuzzy.) Here are the first eight:

Val McDermid, who writes impeccable police procedurals, recommends On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill, which she calls “the perfect crime novel,” one that acknowledges the author’s roots in the traditional English detective novel, but also the “complexities of contemporary life.”

Lee Child, whose recommendations you will find on so many book covers, he must never say no to a request, suggests The Damned and the Destroyed by Kenneth Orvis. “The story was patient, suspenseful, educational and utterly superb. In many ways it’s the target I still aim at.”

Ian Rankin’s choice was Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. I’ve read this one! Against the background of a family fortune being frittered away by endless legal proceedings, Rankin wrote, “As in all great crime novels, the central mystery is a driver for a broad and deep investigation of society and culture.” Its strengths are a “mazey mystery,” shocking murder, slippery lawyer, and large cast of memorable characters. Dickens reportedly modeled Inspector Bucket on a real-life detective in Scotland Yard’s newly formed Detective Branch.

Sophie Hannah picked The Hollow, her “current favorite” of the Christie canon. She said the outdoor swimming pool scene in which Poirot discovers the murder is “the most memorable discovery-of-the-body scene in all of crime fiction.”

SJ Watson suggested Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938). Another check-mark! He called it “a dark, brooding psychological thriller, hauntingly beautiful, literature yes, but with a killer plot.” While it superficially appears to be a romantic drama, it is “an exploration of power, of the men who have it and the women who don’t.” Timeless? I hope not.

James Lee Burke picked Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. I can’t claim to have read this one, but the movie was terrific. Burke said it’s “the best crime novel written in the English language.” Lehane’s poetic lines, reflecting to Burke’s ear an affinity for Victorian poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins “somehow heal the injury that his subject matter involves.”

Sara Paretsky’s choice was The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes, whose novels “crackle with menace.” This one plays out in a bleak New Mexico landscape. “Insinuation, not graphic detail, gives her books an edge of true terror.”

Dreda Say Mitchell, in a sort of ouroboros, recommended Lee Child’s debut novel, Killing Floor. She cited its parsimonious style, a lead character both traditional and original, and a plot “put together like a Swiss watch.” Plus the x-factor of righteous anger that leads Jack Reacher to single-handedly “dish out justice and protect the underdog.” Read this one too.

Some interesting choices among the remaining 17—including two authors who picked Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. Time to reread it, apparently.

A Prosecutor’s Tale(s)

Last week, I had the privilege to be in a Zoom conference with Gianrico Carofiglio (above), a former Italian prosecutor who has turned his hand to writing thrillers. Yesterday I reviewed his newly translated book, The Measure of Time, and in the past, The Cold Summer.

The Measure of Time features lawyer Guido Guerrieri, and readers of the series, who have a bigger context, might have appreciated the character’s dive into the past more than I did (the book was on the Italian best-sellers list for quite a while).

I really did admire The Cold Summer, not part of the Guerrieri series, about a case occurring around the dangerous time the Italian prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were murdered by the Mafia. Those real-life events prompted intense turmoil and social reflection, which made every decision by Carofiglio’s fictional authorities that much more consequential and, therefore, dramatic.

The conversation was launched by Paolo Barlera, Attaché for Cultural Affairs of the Italian Cultural Institute in New York, with questions to the author by Chicago-based lawyer Sheldon Zenner, who has served as both a prosecutor and defense attorney.

Interestingly, Carofiglio said he considered the book as two separate novels, one the retrospective view of Guerrieri’s affair with the woman Lorenza, whose son he is now defending, and the other, the preparation of the son’s case and the courtroom proceedings. If you read my review, you’ll know that I much preferred the latter. The story of the affair was an exercise in melancholy nostalgia, as the protagonist probed the scars of an ideal and thwarted love, “the excitement of discovering things for the first time.”

His observations about the judicial system were fascinating. He thinks all judicial systems are flawed to some degree. They are an imperfect effort to establish what happened at some point in the past, using the tools of science and human memory. We have to remember, he said, that “our freedom is connected to a system that exposes us to mistakes.” He was probably smiling when he added, “The flaws of every judicial system are a friend of story.” Amen to that!

Participants in the justice system—from prosecutors to judges—may be well-versed in the law, but may be blind to other aspects of society, the context in which a crime occurred. You see a reflection of that “cognitive tunneling” in news stories about some legal cases, when the official adopts a single hypothesis that doesn’t admit of any alternative.

When Carofiglio was a prosecutor, he trained the police officers and junior prosecutors he worked with to identify every possible doubt they could think of and address it, through further investigation, expert testimony, or other means. Better them in a conference room than a defense attorney in the courtroom.

The many interesting insights in this session it made me want to read more of Carofiglio’s work and further explore his perspective.

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

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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.