Showing posts with label Janice Law. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Janice Law. Show all posts

19 May 2017

I Never Intended to be a Writer

  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the final story in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by Janice Law

I never intended to be a writer. My aspiration was to be a reader, a much more relaxed, lounge-in-the-hammock occupation, and this for two reasons: I liked to read and I did not much like to write. Let me amend that. Writing was tears and anguish right through my Master’s Degree, an educational experience that left me determined to teach writing completely differently than I had been taught– or mis-taught.

First serious writing 

It was the visual arts that attracted me. I apparently drew well long before I could read or write and to this day, painting seems more natural and easier than writing. I only escaped the hard life of the serious painter because I lacked confidence and because I knew I was too thin-skinned to stand about while potential buyers sniffed that a picture “wouldn’t fit over our sofa or match the drapes.”

In fact, I probably would have missed the curse of the arts entirely if I hadn’t married my husband, one of a family of writers. When I met him as a college freshman, he was already working as a sportswriter. I can well remember my astonishment when on a date at a game (a lot of our dates involved going to sports events) I watched him take notes on a little reporter’s pad then go to the pay phone and dictate his story, complete with paragraphing and punctuation without any written copy.
With this terrifying example of literary competence, I probably should have taken up golf or bridge.

My husband's book on soccer
However, the opportunity to see movies for free by doing reviews – an opportunity my husband promoted energetically – proved to be a crucial learning experience. There is nothing like having to write to length and to deadline, to see one’s work promptly in print, and to find a check in the mail. I recommend this over any writing workshop, course or seminar anywhere.

Reviews, of course, count as journalism, suitable for a family where my father-in-law wrote texts on Social Work administration, my husband did sports writing and his brother, sports promotion. I eventually did a range of non-fiction, including feature articles, scholarly pieces and history books. My husband and my in-laws showed me that writing could be a business, but as it turned out, I strayed from profitable non-fiction to the altogether riskier realm of fiction.

For the reasons, I think I must look to my own folks, both of who were good story tellers with all sorts of reminiscences about the Auld Country and about Aberdeen in my dad’s case and Cowdenbeath in my mom’s. Mom’s stories, like her, were very human and realistic. My dad had a tendency to embroidery.

Our son's adventures at the World Cup
I remember our son interviewing him for a genealogy project at his middle school. My dad, who had a fondness for a theory positing an Iberian influence in Scotland, invented Don Alonzo Law, a survivor of the Armada, who was supposedly a founder of our line and the source of a lot of dark eyes and black hair. The resulting report received an A.

I don’t want to read too much into this episode. I think our son would have entered the family business in any case. He showed an early aptitude for writing and for journalism, which became his profession. Like his father, he has published a well-received book on soccer, as well as numerous articles on a wide variety of subjects in both print and digital formats. Very sensible writing.



But my side of the family carries a powerful strain of eccentricity, and lately our son has shown signs of exploring the primrose path of fiction. I am hoping that a glance at my latest royalty statement will bring him back to terra firma, but who knows? The Muse sometimes calls unlikely folks like me and her gifts can disturb even the most practical of minds.

24 April 2017

Perspective

by Janice Law

Few things are harder than one’s own – or indeed one’s society’s – unspoken assumptions, biases, and thought patterns. Having just made my way though more than 1200 pages of the Chinese science fiction trilogy, The Remembrance of Earth’s Past, I have been struck by how ethnocentric much of our own popular writing is and also how easily good fiction can be constructed out of different materials and ideas.


Cixin Liu is a popular and award winning science fiction writer in the People’s Republic of China. Except for some short stories, his wildly ambitions trilogy about earth’s encounter with an alien civilization was American readers’ introduction to his work. Launched with The Three Body Problem, the trilogy begins with a scientist with a justifiable grudge. After her family was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie was disheartened about humanity’s prospects and willing to explore radical solutions. Sounds familiar at the moment!

When a message from an alien civilization appears on her monitor, Ye Wenjie hits the reply button and unleashes a host of troubles, the most insidious of which are the sophons, super sophisticated spy equipment that is launched at earth. Worse follows.

A Western reader inevitably thinks of Pandora, but in her Chinese version, she is no curious girl but a brilliant physicist and theorist of what comes to be called the Dark Forest view of the cosmos. Given Western assumptions about women and science, it is striking to see the range of female scientific and engineering talent that Liu includes in the novels.

There are some gender differences, however, although they do not necessarily fit our own stereotypes. Cheng Xin, the young aerospace engineer who is the protagonist of Death’s End, the last of the novels, has indeed the feminine virtues of compassion and caution, virtues admirable but, in the novel, only helpful in the short run. On the other hand, the macho Thomas Wade, one of the few important Western characters, is effective in many ways, but his aggression and violence also prove ultimately inadequate.
The two people who come closest to solving the problem of a hostile universe are both unlikely and quite unlike the typical Western heroes. Luo Ji, who temporarily staves off disaster, is a bit of a slacker. Appointed to work on global solutions to the alien crisis, he goofs off in Scandinavia and appears to waste the time that should be devoted to intensive research. I can’t help thinking that he is a modern version of one of the Daoist sages, in tune with the universe and destined to achieve success through a sort of focused passivity.

Even less likely is the second possible savior of humanity, Yun Tianming, an ineffectual young man dying of lung cancer and awaiting euthanasia. When he comes into money at the last minute, he buys a star (don’t ask, it’s complicated) for a woman he’s admired from afar, Cheng Xin. She, in turn, recruits him for what will be a dangerous, decades- spanning mission to the alien civilization.

Like Liu, Tianming with his modesty and lack of ambition (but notice that romantic gesture with the star) proves to be a remarkable individual with a combination of ingredients superior in a crisis to either stereotyped masculine or feminine behavior. His gesture of affection for Cheng Xin, by the way, is the closest the novel comes to sex of any kind. And this too seems rather traditional, like the film Cheng Xin admires about lovers who are separated by the length of a great river and never meet. Real love is poetic, spiritual – and often doomed.

Similarly, the other great staple of our popular literature, violence, is treated in a different way. I think two people are shot during the trilogy and a couple more are murdered by a robot. But fights and quarrels and car chases and the like are definitely out. On the other hand, the body count is tremendous. Whole civilizations are destroyed and the relatively comfortable eras in earth’s history come after terrible population crashes.

The whole history of the earth, the solar system, the galaxy, and ultimately the universe is Darwinian, a matter of the survival of technologically-advanced and lucky civilizations. Nature, itself, hides nasty surprises like the multiple dimensions that can collapse with disastrous results.

Ye Wenjie’s physicist daughter, Yang Dong, even becomes disillusioned by physics, which is as close to a belief system as most of the characters have. She had thought that “The World of our everyday life was only froth floating on the perfect ocean of deep reality. But now, it appeared that the everyday world was a beautiful shell: The micro realities it enclosed and the macro realities that inclosed it were far more ugly and chaotic than the shell itself.”

This melancholy conclusion is more than borne out by the sprawling novels that reach from our Common Era to a scene toward the end of the universe. The latter is more than a little reminiscent of Doctor Who, perhaps because Cheng Xin and her companions are able to time trip, not like the Doctor with a reversible Tardis, but via a combination of hibernation and light speed travel.

Ultimately Cheng Xin and her friends concede that all things must end, but the conclusion of this wildly ambitious and imaginative novel is that the universe can collapse and be reborn, a hope that comforts Liu’s protagonists perhaps more than a Western audience used to heavier doses of positive thinking.

13 April 2017

"Afternoons in Paris" by Janice Law

by Eve Fisher

You remember Francis Bacon:
  File:Pourbus Francis Bacon.jpg  No, not that one, this one:  

Francis Bacon, artist.  Francis Bacon, gambler.  Francis Bacon, bon vivant.  Francis Bacon, gay, asthmatic, Irish, autodidact, devoted to his Nan, louche, rough, crazy...

Well, HE'S BACK!!!!



Yes, my favorite gay artist adventurer is back in Janice Law's "Afternoons in Paris".  Francis is 18 and in the City of Lights, and very glad to be there after the craziness of Berlin (read Janice's "Nights in Berlin":  the book and David Edgerley Gates' review).  Now he's on his own, working for a decorator/designer by day (the somewhat susceptible Armand), visiting galleries with the motherly Madame Dumoulin, and cruising the city by night with the totally unreliable Pyotr, a Russian emigre who, like Francis, has a taste for quick hook-ups and rough trade.

Pyotr has two Russian friends, Igor, who's sinister, and Lev, who's quickly assassinated.  After getting robbed (by Pyotr), beaten up (by 'Cossacks') in Montparnasse, and finding two more waiting to do the same at his lodgings, Francis tries to avoid Russians by moving in with Madame Dumoulin and her brother, Jules, who needs a caretaker.  Well, it could be argued that Francis is the last person to be anyone's companion/caretaker, but our boy knows how to be appreciative.  And Jules, although a traumatized WW1 veteran, is an innocent (at least compared to Francis):  much like Mr. Dick in "David Copperfield", he builds complex machines and flies kites.  Francis can enjoy both.

And then Jules gets a chance to design machines for the theatre group Les Mortes Immortels, and it's back to Paris for all.  Jules' machines are the best part of a production about as audience-friendly as "Finnegan's Wake"; that and the character of Human Hope, played by Inessa, a Russian Helen of Troy who enraptures everyone around her.  Except for those who are using her.

Russians are everywhere, and they're all dangerous:  Pyotr; the NKVD assassin Alexi; the NKVD blackmailer Anoshkin; Inessa's missing brother, Pavel.  And, wouldn't you know it, who's up to his neck in all of this but Francis' Uncle Lastings?  Now known as Claude, art dealer and bon-vivant, but still up to his neck in intrigue, scams, sex, and spying.  Francis has a lot of fast talking, fast running, fast thinking, and fast acting to do to survive...

Soutine's Chemin de la Fontaine
des Tins at Ceret - Wikipedia
As always, it's fascinating to see the world through Francis' eyes, especially at 18, when he is still at the beginning of creating himself.  He has a knack for noticing details, from the "distinctive stink of French drains" to the "most brutal and vigorous thing I'd seen in France" - a dead rooster, painted by Chaim Soutine.  When he writes to Nan that "a glance at her makes me feel more hopeful", we know that Inessa is indeed a remarkable woman, someone to pay attention to.  And, when told that Pavel can't be wandering Paris without proper papers, Francis' reaction is "My own experience in Berlin led me to believe that Monsieur Chaput was exaggerating.  A teenage boy has a number of ways of eluding bureaucrats and busybodies."  And he would know.
Image result for jessie lightfoot
Nan

Emotionally, Francis is still developing, or is he?  At one point he says, regarding his commitment to Jules:  "I had promised Jules, and I believe in friendship.  It tends to be more stable than romance." Not to mention family. As he writes to Nan about his uncle, "I know this is a surprise, but He Who Must Not be Named has secured a job for me, and this time, I have asked to be paid half in advance. You can see I am getting wise to the ways of the world." In fact, the only person Francis trusts implicitly is Nan, in "Afternoons in Paris", "Nights in Berlin", "Fires of London", "The Prisoner of the Riviera", "Moon over Tangier" and in real life.  She will always be the most stable person in his life, not excepting himself.

But even at 18, Francis is already witty, sarcastic, honest, observant, hungry, lustful, reckless, and utterly sure that he will never be among the bourgeoisie. (And how right he is.) He always gives a master class in the art of survival.  Francis Bacon and Paris in the 20s - it's hard to ask for anything more.







14 November 2016

Getting Away with Murder – and Other Things

by Janice Law

I have always believed that writers should try to get away with everything they can as far as plot, characterization, and style go. Experimental writers, naturally, have this as their basic brief and a straining after originality is the usual result. But genre writers and contemporary novelists like to push the envelope as well, and two well received recent novels provide good illustrations of blending genres for striking effect: Liz Moore’s The Unseen World and Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines.

Both incorporate elements of mystery and science fiction. Moore’s novel begins as a sensitive account of Ada, a bright little girl in a distinctly unconventional household. Folks looking for thriller velocity here may be disheartened but my advice is to stick with the story. When Ada’s father shows signs of early onset dementia, the novel morphs into a quest mystery with a good deal of information about artificial intelligence.

Sounds like maybe too rich a blend? Actually, no. Moore skips in time from Ada as a child and an adolescent in the 1980’s, back to her father in the 1930’s and 1950’s, and forward to the 21st century. At the center of Ada’s search is Elixir, her computer scientist dad’s experiment in artificial
intelligence. Elixir was designed as a machine that can learn, and precocious Ada, was one of the many people in her father’s lab who ‘talked’ to the program so that it would increase its vocabulary and eventually pass the Turing Test, that is, communicate in a way indistinguishable from human.

As a result, Elixir not only learns a lot of facts about the world, it learns a great deal about the personalities and histories of its lab friends. I won’t spoil how this works out in the novel, but Moore’s conclusion is imaginative and entirely satisfying.

In a quiet way, The Unseen World is a thriller, the novel structured as an investigation with high stakes on the outcome. The Elixir program and even the various generations of computers that Ada uses to connect with it, have surprising personalities, as do the principle characters, Ada, her father, David, his kindly co-worker and neighbor, Liston, and her family.

The Unseen World is a contemporary novel with what I consider welcome genre elements. Underground Airlines is perhaps the reverse, a thriller with serious literary chops that mixes mystery and science fiction with alternative history. In Winters’ novel, the Civil War was averted by a compromise following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Four Southern states are still slave states; Texas is contested ground between an abolitionist faction and the federal government, bound by the constitution to protect the ‘property rights’ of the so called Hard Four.

The protagonist is a former PB – person bound to labor – who has a kind of quasi-freedom as a federal investigator. He’s a cracker jack detective but as his whole focus is runaways, Victor is a modern version of that hated 19th century figure, the fugitive slave catcher.
   
The character of Victor has attracted notice because Winters’ himself is not African-American, but he has certainly made Victor a complex character with a rich interior life. Further, the detective is not exactly our contemporary. He operates in an environment at once recognizable even in matters of race and politics, and peculiar, rather like the Alternate Universe in the old Fringe series or one of Philip K. Dick’s odd cities.
   
Part of Underground Airlines is straight detective work. Victor is a master of aliases and disguises, and, leashed by a tracking chip in his neck, he mostly focuses on his cases even though the poor souls he finds mirror his own experience and fears. His stoic indifference only begins to weaken after he meets Martha, a harried young white woman desperate to find her recaptured PB lover, and Lionel, their charming inter-racial son. But Victor’s rebellion really develops when a new case with an unsatisfactory file opens up unusual moral and physical dangers as well as unprecedented opportunities.

Victor is preoccupied with the various identities and schemes that comprise the mystery/thriller elements of the plot, but increasingly memories of his terrible slave childhood resurface. Later, certain sci fi elements are added to the mix, not, to my mind entirely successfully, but there is no doubt that they add a chilling note and bring into question Victor’s decision to focus on his own self interest.

The Unseen World and Underground Airlines are two novels with literary ambitions but strong genre elements. I think the mix strengthens both.

17 October 2016

The Big Shift

by Janice Law

I recently finished reading Jo Baker’s excellent Longbourn, a novel that focuses on the downstairs folk of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In the Baker novel, the great events of Pride and Prejudice, a crucial ball, the arrival of the oh-so-eligible Mr. Bingley, Mr. Collins’ visit, and Lydia’s elopement are but incidentals to the unseen workers of the Austen novel.

The Hills, Sarah and Polly and the soon-to-be added footman, James, have their own dramas and their own concerns, not to mention an enormous amount of work – pumping and carrying water, doing laundry, emptying chamber pots, building fires, making bread and soap, not to mention preparing and serving the daily meals and generally waiting attendance on their “betters”.

This is a novel long overdue and really enjoyable. Very nice, you say, but what does that have to do with mysteries? On reflection, a fair bit, because published exactly 200 years apart (1813, 2013) the novels neatly illustrate the evolution of story telling from a moral to a psychological focus, as well as a shift in focus from the gentry class to the world’s workers.

The downstairs characters in Longbourn are fully drawn in the modern sense with an emphasis on their psychological states and on their responses to a rigid social system. We get glimpses of their youth and childhood, and instances when sick or injured, their minds reach altered states. There is nothing comparable in Pride and Prejudice, where many of the same human passions are filtered through the author’s rational and satiric mind and served up in the most elegant terms for the dual purpose of comic effect and moral lesson.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Longbourn which does a fine job with the workers of the household, is much less successful with their employers. Mrs. Bennet is probably the most convincing. Her backstory of painful pregnancies and deliveries fits better with the grueling realities of domestic service before mod cons. Elizabeth Bennet, by contrast, is almost unrecognizable, most of her rebellion and spark having been gifted to the novel’s heroine, the overworked but indomitable Sarah.

Given the difficulties of merging the two worlds, Austen may have been clever to leave the domestics of the Bennet household well off stage. Events that could be treated as comedy– or retrieved with a good deal of money like Lydia’s elopement – would certainly end in tragedy down in the kitchen.
After many semesters of teaching Austen, much of this did not surprise me. What I did find unexpected was, that despite the modern style of Longbourn, the characters of the newer novel were ultimately no more complex than Austen’s. Yes, we get more of their emotions, we get their sexual lives, and a broader canvas altogether, but they are not necessarily more complete and multisided for all that.

This is particularly true of the male characters. James and Tol, Sarah’s two suitors, are both too good to be true, while Wickham, charming but dishonest and corrupt in Pride and Prejudice, is a potential child molester in Longbourn. The greater depth of characterization in this case has led to characters who are less morally complicated.

Characters, it turns out, can be complex and fascinating in ways quite different from our current style, and there is no better example than that the chief of all detectives, Sherlock Holmes, who is much closer to an Austen character than to a modern detective. He has a brother with whom he is not close. He is prone to depression and overly fond of the 7% solution of cocaine. He is rude to everyone but not without sympathies up and down the social scale, and he is obsessive about all manner of abstruse topics.

What he dreams, fears, desires, remembers – these are absent, along with any personal entanglements such as bedevil every proper modern sleuth. And yet, he is by far the most famous of fictional detectives, cited and quoted and imitated and parodied. One of his cases gave a title to the best selling – and theatrically successful, The Incident of the Dog in the Night, and one of his comments heads a chapter in The Emperor of All Maladies, a biography of cancer of all things. He shows no signs of going away, nor do Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, who share some of his characteristics.

Will any of our many fine detective and mystery protagonists rise to a similar iconic status? Are there simply too many of them? Or is psychological completeness and complicated personal life somehow against them? Perhaps Sherlock was successful because he was like a great theatrical role, waiting to be inhabited by our imaginations, a child not of psychology and melodrama, but like the best of Austen’s young women, of the robust rationality of the Enlightenment.

03 October 2016

Blood and Gore

by Janice Law

Some time ago, our SleuthSayers colleague Eve Fisher wrote a good piece on why she hated (fictional) serial killers. I had to agree that too often the serial killer is a convenient, if callous, way to hype up the tension and excitement of a book and not always just in horror fiction or low level pulp. There are some really good writers like Jo Nesbo and Jussi Adler-Olsen, whose style and characterizations I otherwise admire, whose fondness for killers commiting ingenious and torturous murders strikes me as dubious both ethically and aesthetically.

Recently, a couple of writers new to me have got me thinking about serial killers again and even more, about the strain of ingenious sadism which so often accompanies their fictional arrival. John Hart’s The Last Child and Zygmunt Miloszewski’s Rage, one tangentially about a serial killer, the other, about a sadistic serial avenger, take radically different approaches.

Hart’s The Last Child throws a whole lot into the hopper: a young girl’s disappearance, a heroic boy out to find her, possible police corruption, a big helping of dismal history, and a touch of supernatural Southern Gothic. A synopsis of the plot practically screams exploitive melodrama, but the skeleton of the story proves deceptive because Hart is a careful and sensitive writer.

Yes, there is something bad happening out in the North Carolina backcountry, but The Last Child focuses always on the people affected by the disappearance of Alyssa Merrimon and the catastrophic effect of her loss on her twin, Johnny, on her distraught mother, and on the weary Clyde Hunt, the detective in charge of the initial investigation.

The portrait of brave, troubled Johnny is particularly well done, as is the companion portrait of his unhappy friend, Jack, but even minor characters like Mrs. Merrimon’s dangerous lover and the mysterious giant Levi Freemantle are well handled. Evil is present, but it’s not around for cheap thrills. Indeed, the book ends in a sadder, more plausible, way that one is likely to anticipate.

Miloszewski’s Rage is another matter altogether. I like mysteries set in foreign countries, and Olsztyn, a Polish resort town with a multitude of lakes and seemingly wretched weather, is a locale ripe for mystery and mayhem. The investigator, Prosecutor Teodor Szacki, is cranky and over worked. He is often difficult with both his lover and his teen-aged daughter and inclined to be abrupt with innocent members of the public.

Harried by the investigation of an exceptionally cruel, if equally exceptionally creative, murder, he fails to pick up hints of serious domestic abuse and finds himself not only in bureaucratic hot water but in true physical danger. This interest in domestic violence apparently represents something new in Polish crime fiction, but that alone probably does not account for the inventively gruesome revenge plot.

The lack of nuance in Rage is too bad, because both the settling and admittedly crusty but not entirely close-minded Prosecutor Szacki are intriguing. But a strain of zestful cruelty runs throughout the novel, and to my mind, at least, too much of the momentum and impact of Rage relies on gruesome ingenuity as opposed to intelligent characterization or to a real exploration of the ethical and social issues raised by the plot.

Oddly enough, in this case, The Last Child, a novel with a bona fide serial killer, if one kept mostly off stage, turns out to be a moving and subtle character study. Rage, with a much lower body count, sadly relies more on gore and sadism than on its distinctive investigator.

I wonder if I am alone in this sort of reaction or if there are other folk out there who find madly inventive and sadistic murders a dubious literary resource?

28 July 2016

The Seven Deadly Sins

by Janice Law

They are known by a variety of names, elegant like ‘evergreen’ or downmarket like ‘filler’ and ‘plugger’. However they are dubbed, these are useful columns and articles that have   long shelf lives. Good today, good tomorrow, good enough a year from now.

Sleuthsayer’s emergency columns are an example of the genre, and in an attempt to write something that will have a long literary shelf life, I recently thought of the Seven Deadly Sins. Sure, their heyday was probably six or seven hundred years ago, but look at it the other way, they were on the cutting edge of entertainment, morals, and religious thought for probably a millennia. And to be fair, what would mystery writers be without them?

Of course times and fashions change. Our Victorian and Edwardian predecessors in the scribbling trades leaned heavily on greed. Heiresses were married for their money; wards were cheated out of their inheritances, and last wills and testaments attracted skullduggery of all kinds. The modern writer, by contrast, favors wrath, all the better to dispatch multiple victims, and lust, a super reliable motive. If they are not enough, greed is certainly good, although gluttony has gone quite out of fashion.

This is not to say that writers do not have a personal acquaintance with the deadly sins, but their general poverty probably keeps most of us from greed and gluttony, while pride, although a temptation, gets its regular comeuppance from editors’ rejections, readers’ resistance, and critics’ complaints. I think the  scribbling tribe must make do most times with envy – self explanatory – and sloth, ditto.

For a different view, go back six hundred years and check out the medieval literary landscape. There were different ideas and different concerns, but then as now, popular writers tried to produce the stories that their readers or listeners wanted and needed. To us, a procession of the Seven Deadly Sins – even accompanied by Despair, the worst of all – or a battle of vices and virtues like the ancient Castle of Perseverance sounds like a dull afternoon. Where are the gun battles, the car chases, the seduction scenes, and the moments of terror?

Nowhere in sight! A superman – or superwoman – saving the world or a persistent detective bringing a felon to justice would have seemed to the medieval audience an irrelevant distraction. Secular justice was not their concern – wise enough since it was often in short supply. What they wanted was to avoid hell, about which they had an all too clear notion, and reach heaven, which they figured had to be better than much of medieval life. They understood that their souls were the battleground between angels and devils, and the plays they watched and the stories they heard pointed the road to salvation.

Which did not mean that their stories and plays were sermons with costumes. The people who built the great cathedrals, illuminated the great manuscripts, designed the wonderful stained glass windows, and, incidentally, created fashions to die for whenever they had money, certainly knew how to put on a show. When you read that a favorite feature was fireworks-farting devils, I think you can see that spectacle, as well as salvation, was a necessity.

 Looking back at plays and pageants featuring Pride, snooty and elaborately dressed; Wrath, red faced, bearing a club and no doubt mugging for the audience; Gluttony, fat and overfed and probably gnawing on a chicken leg, and the rest of the wicked crew, we see how a whole set of stories and characters flourished and then all but died. The battle between spiritual forces for the individual soul was replaced by struggles in the secular realm. The heroes of the old plays, Virtues like Fidelity, Chastity, and Mercy gave way to real men and women of less elevated character but more concern with righting wrongs within everyday society.

But, sad to say, Despair, that companion of the Seven Deadly Sins, suddenly seems more relevant than ever. In medieval theology, Despair, with its implied limitation of God’s grace, was the worst of sins. I used to think that curious and retrograde and psychologically unsound. No more. We don’t have to accept any theology at all to see that radical despair is a bad thing. What is it that drives people toward fanaticism, toward hatred, toward radical programs of destruction but despair? Not necessarily theological despair, but despair of society, of civilization, of humanity, itself.

I think no one can predict where literature will go next or what stories people will demand, but I am afraid that, just as the Seven Deadly Sins show up in contemporary disguises, Despair is going to feature prominently in our future.



16 June 2016

The Mysterious Sources of Ideas

by Janice Law


I guess that the most frequent question writers get, along with recommendations for agents or publishers, is “Where do your ideas come from?”

In response, one waggish author is supposed to have replied that he ordered them wholesale.
Would that were true! A few lucky souls seem to produce an unending stream of good and marketable ideas. Consider the great 19th century great galley slaves of literature like George Sand, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope or Honore de Balzac. Nearer to hand, there’s our own Joyce Carol Oates or any of the thriller writers who, with a stable of helpers, adorn the best seller lists month after month. Clearly they rarely have to beg the Muse for ideas, and they write The End only to start afresh at Chapter One.

But I suspect that most writers are beset sooner or later with fears that another story, novel, article, or blog will not be forthcoming. Then it’s the writer’s turn to ask where ideas come from and how they can be persuaded to appear regularly.

 After forty years, I still have no definitive answer, but I do know some of the conditions that encourage inspiration. First, ideas in writing or painting, and I would guess the other arts as well, come from work. The genesis of art (or even pulp fiction) is the ultimate chicken and egg conundrum. Amateurs who say, I’d love to write but I don’t have any ideas, have it backwards. Writing produces ideas, which, in turn, produces writing.

Perhaps the writing that primes the pump, so to speak, need not be the final product. I’m always surprised at the massive volumes of famous writers’ correspondence. When did they have time to write those hundreds, sometimes thousands, of letters? And we’re not talking emails, either, but long screeds – and in pen and ink, too. Others wrote not just letters but kept journals or wrote reviews and columns and left memoirs. I suspect such productivity fed the novels, plays and stories, even as it took time from the main work.

Though crucial, writing itself is not enough. Books, the daily papers, and certain true crime TV shows have been useful for me. My newest novel, Homeward Dove, grew from a couple inches of print years ago in the London Telegraph. The Countess came from a couple pages in a children’s book about spies, while The Night Bus owed its inspiration to an episode of Unsolved Mysteries.

But while the public works overtime for the crime writer, material and the practice of writing have to be combined with a certain sort of observational alertness. An example from my own career: at one point, I was doing features of a vaguely business nature for a local paper, things like  considering the then new proliferation of office greenery or explaining where stale bread went. I did this for a while and never had a problem with seeing publishable angles. Then the gig stopped. I don’t think I’ve had a single idea for a similar story since.

The reason, I suspect, is that composition requires another ingredient, and that is the enlistment of the subconscious, both in daylight hours to notice things and after working hours, to bring the unexpected together. Maybe clever people who can plot out a whole novel do not need this assistance, but I do, and I often find myself on the verge of sleep giving orders to whatever neurons are in charge: finish the scene at the bridge; resolve the conflict between Fletcher and the Leader, or simply, next five pages, please. Works for me.

After many years of writing, I have clearly semi-trained my subconscious. This is not to say all its ideas are brilliant or that the solution is always waiting for me the next morning. But the mysterious appearance of solutions does emphasize inspiration’s dependence on habit, on observation, and on work. The Muse, it turns out, has to be courted. Writing, writing, writing turns out to be the required offering for this capricious deity.






05 June 2016

It’s the Little Things

by Leigh Lundin

Getting inside a woman’s head is tricky; some say it's nigh impossible. I like trying though… not to mess with her but to write about her. I know what guys think, at least this one, so how can I resist exploring the world inside my favorite subject… women? Brave and foolish, huh, but I don’t entirely botch it. In my earliest days of writing, I wrote a story of a woman with low self-esteem. A professor singled it out as an example of writing from the viewpoint of the opposite sex. I like the discovery. When in doubt, I'm not afraid to ask.

Last month, Eve Fisher reviewed Janice Law’s Homeward Dove. The article was so good, I bought the book. I can’t compete with Eve’s excellent report, but I want to address the book’s characterization– Consider me gobsmacked.

A lot of women write from a male’s point of view. Many are terrific at it, others– meh. Don’t think this hyperbole, but I’ve never seen anyone pull it off like Janice Law.

To be sure, she’s received excellent reviews and awards for her Francis Bacon series. I would find it tricky to get into the head of a gay artist, but Janice pulled it off with aplomb.

In Homeward Dove, she slips into the skin of her main character, Jeff Woodbine. He’s a blue collar 20-something initially drifting and grifting in a big-box electronics store and working in the building trades. Jeff says ‘should of’ instead of ‘should have’ and is better with tools than he is people. He likes beer, sex, sports, and fishing.

At first blush, that doesn’t seem like much characterization but that’s not what we're talking about. A Very Famous Mystery Thriller Author started a series writing from a woman’s viewpoint. For characterization, he stopped the story in places to discuss fashion and to badmouth men. It wasn’t characterization and it wasn’t authentic.

The thing with Janice, her Jeff is so authentic, I can’t see the hand behind the curtain. He’s real. He grows introspective. He matures. She uses setting to her advantage. He lives in New England, so he watches the Red Sox, drinks Rolling Rock, and he doesn’t eat a hoagie, a hero, or a sub– he wolfs down a grinder.

These are minor points, but our boy Jeff knows the intricacies of rebuilding a roof and rebuilding a carburetor better than rebuilding a relationship. He knows his tools and his lumber. More to the point, we feel his fear of heights and fear of relationships.

I can’t discuss a couple of traits without introducing spoilers, but in a way I’m not sure how she pulls off Jeff’s character. Sure, he knows the difference between a rotary and a reciprocating saw and minutiae women aren’t likely to know, but these are like tiles in a floor. We see and admire the tile, but we don't notice the unappreciated grout that supports and enhances the tiles.

Janice understands the need in a male to protect and the craving to be heroic. She also brings out men’s insecurities, not those that women giggle about, but the deeper, little-boy-lost syndromes no man will admit to. In the case of Jeff, he’s the victim of his own quiet desperation.

The novel would make an interesting subject for literary analysis, deconstructing it to see how it works, much like Jeff and the little boy take apart engines to study them.

That brings me to a final point. When Eve summarized the plot, I could not imagine how a little boy might communicate his, well, accusation for lack of a better term. But again, Janice pulls it off.

Who are your favorite cross-boundary authors? What suggestions for writers do you have?

19 May 2016

Grantchester

by Janice Law

Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve discovered that in old age, a woman’s fancy turns to thoughts of clergymen – of the mystery fictional variety, that is. Certainly jolly, confident, busybody Father Brown has enlivened many dark winter months, and his younger, Anglican counterpart, Cannon Sidney Chambers brightened up an erratic spring.

Chambers is the vicar of Grantchester, a parish near Cambridge. Like Father Brown, he first saw the light in shorter works, novella length stories by James Runcie, who was inspired by his clergyman father, the Archbishop of Canterbury. There’s a dad for a mystery writer!


 Runcie has planned a series of volumes that develop Chambers’ character and recount his romantic adventures and professional trials as well as his amateur sleuthing. That is the first difference with Father Brown. The good priest of Kembleford is a completed character, if I can put it that way. His personality is set and so is his neat little circle of friends, helpers, and opponents. In every way, socially, professionally, and theologically, Father Brown is confident he knows the score, and he never hesitates to plunge into the case of the moment.

Sidney Chambers, in contrast, is very much a 21st century detective, even though the stories are set the early 1950’s. He is even more uncertain, diffident, and troubled in print than he is in the television series, where James Norton’s unusually robust, athletic, and handsome physique lends a dynamic touch. At the same time, Norton’s restraint – very much in keeping with the original stories  – helps to downplay the soap opera additions TV favors.

So how is Grantchester as a mystery series? Pretty good on the screen and in print, too, where five volumes are out, beginning with Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death. The TV series goes, quite naturally, for extra drama and emotion; the novellas add more than a soupçon of clerical doubts and guilts. Sidney is conscientious and scrupulous to a fault – except when the requirements of a murder case require a little stretching of the rules.
The print Sidney worries, on the one hand, about neglecting his parish duties and failing to engage his parishioners, and on the other, about the morality of interfering in the lives of those touched by crime. Needless to say, the TV Sidney does not ruminate very long on either. Where both Sidneys converge is in their struggles with the weekly sermon. Print Sidney fusses about this task and muses on its content seriously. TV Sidney concludes many episodes with the Sunday sermon, a neat reflection of the issues raised by the case of the week.

The first Father Brown story appeared in 1914; the first volume of the Grantchester stories in 2012,
and what interests me is the difference roughly one hundred years has made in the approach to detection. Father Brown was a rival of Sherlock Holmes, and if he is too good a clergyman to sulk like Sherlock when crime is thin on the ground or to complain at the poor quality of the murder on offer, he certainly thrills to the chase and pursues the puzzle with the same eager joie de vie that he gobbles Mrs. McCarthy’s famed strawberry scones.

One hundred years later, Cannon Chambers has been infected by modern angst. Two wars  have erased the optimism of the Edwardians, and his time fighting with the Scots Guards has left him with bad memories and more taste for whisky than is really good for him. He meddles in crime in spite of himself, spurred on, it is true, by his great friend and backgammon partner, Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green), who appreciates both his logical acumen and his psychological insight.

The good padre is conflicted on the romantic front, too. Though Mrs. Maguire ( Tessa Peake-Jones) runs his household (1950’s bachelors require self sacrificing and efficient housekeepers – see also The Doctor Blake Mysteries) everyone agrees that he needs a wife. Various characters either seek to introduce him to Ms. Right or put themselves forward for the role. Alas, pleasure produces guilt, an old crush interferes with present possibilities, and complications ensue.

Fortunately, Runcie has already completed five volumes with one more to come. Perhaps the good Cannon Chambers can find the right woman and retire to domestic bliss. Perhaps. But in the meantime, he has lots of cases to solve in charming – but clearly dangerous – Grantchester.

28 April 2016

Janice Law's "Homeward Dove"

by Eve Fisher

Have you ever looked around and realized you're in a dead-end job, in a dead-end town, working your butt off for just enough to keep you in rent and groceries?  Too much drinking, too much junk food, too much wasted time.  A memory of something better - like that girl back in high school - but right now you've settled.  Oh, how you've settled.  The only good thing in your life is fishing, drinking, and the occasional roll in the hay with a woman who's also settled, and doesn't really care...

And it ticks you off, down deep. It should be better than this.  There should at least be a future, right? Maybe a vacation that doesn't involve Motel 6 or a friend's busted out old camper? A better job? A home and family?

And if you can't get that, why should you play it straight?  It's a mug's game, and you don't want to be just another loser.  So you cut corners, do some dicey stuff, make a little money on the side, but you've got your ass covered.  Everything's fine.

And then in she walks.  Not Lana Turner from The Postman Always Rings Twice.  The supervisor from hell, with a clipboard, an attitude, and a taste for money.  The kind of person who knows who's screwing the company, because that's her plan, too.  And she goes straight for your throat.  Pay up, or get fired.  And keep paying, paying, paying...

Welcome to the first 14 pages of Janice Law's new novel, Homeward Dove.  (Available here at Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle.)

Our dead-ender is Jeff Woodbine, our supervisor from hell is Michelle, and the high school dream girl is Jess.

So, where do you think this is going to go?  Not where you think.  Like a Coen Brothers' movie, this has twists and turns, dark humor and black deeds, that go places that you don't expect, but when they come, you know they're absolutely right.

Michelle is like all blackmailers, just stupid enough so that her greed makes her feel invincible.  She keeps pushing, and pushing, and pushing for more money.  Jeff is at the end of his rope.  But on the opening day of trout season, when a hungover Jeff climbs out of bed with his f-buddy, Lynn, and goes down to the river to clear his head, who does he find but Michelle, wheeling a toddler down the path.

Well, they're going to get into a fight, right?  Yes.

He's going to kill her, right?  Inadvertently, yes.

The only witness?  A toddler, who can't even speak...

And when he gets back home, Lynn is still asleep, nobody's noticed, everything's fine.

So why does he feel so sick?  And what happens when the police show up?  Thank God - in Jeff's world - for Hurricane Andrew, which gives him a chance to get out of town without seeming like he's running away.  He works hard, cleans up his act, makes some money, lives with it all.

Months later, he's back, to a new job.  And he runs into Jess, the woman he's always wanted, who cried in his arms the night before her marriage to a man who died a few years later, a military hero. She's beautiful, sympathetic, loving; and Leon, her son, is the toddler in the stroller who saw Jeff kill Michelle.

So, where do you think this is going to go?  Not where you think.

There are twists and turns. Conscience and cops.  A fire that damn near destroys everything.  A story that Jeff's grandfather has shared with no one, "Though you're maybe the one to tell."  And when he does, it comes with a warning:  "See you be careful and don't get into [a business] that's as high priced."  But the warning comes too late for Jeff.  What he needs is to know what to do next.

Homeward Dove is like a Coen brothers' or an Alfred Hitchcock movie, where ordinary people in ordinary lives get bad breaks, make bad choices, and do bad things.  Sometimes very bad things. And then try to break free, as frantic as a fly in a spider's web.

You can't help but root for Jeff.  But what's right?  What's fair?  What should happen?  What does?
"Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin.
Dance me through the panic 'til I'm gathered safely in.
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove...
Dance me to the end of love;
Dance me to the end of love."       Dance me to the end of love - Leonard Cohen

13 April 2016

Nights in Berlin

David Edgerley Gates


NIGHTS IN BERLIN is the fourth of Janice Law's period mysteries featuring the painter Francis Bacon. The first book takes place during the Second World War, and the next two follow chronologically, but NIGHTS IN BERLIN takes us back to Weimar Germany in the 1920's, when Francis is only a teenager - although far from innocent - some years before he begins his art career.

Berlin, in the Weimar era, has a reputation for being wide open. "Life is a cabaret, old chum - " and you better believe it. Francis is sent off in the care of his uncle Lastings, in hopes Lastings will make a man of him, Francis being more than a little gay, but uncle favors a bit of rough, himself. He's also a scoundrel, working the black market, with a sideline as an informer, which turns out to be the part that proves dicey. Lastings is selling secrets to the highest bidder.  

In the event, uncle takes it on the lam and leaves Francis to his own devices. Playing fast and louche, Francis lands a job as a hatcheck girl at a drag bar. It's good cover when British Intelligence recruits him - blackmails him, in point of fact - because Uncle Lastings was freelancing for them. Berlin is in political ferment, with Bolsheviks, Freikorps thugs, SA brownshirts (Goebbels just arrived as Nazi party gauleiter), Prussian reactionaries, all stalking each other with violent and criminal results.

Francis is an entertaining guide to these wilder nooks and crannies, his voice alternating between the knowing aside and his native provincialism. There's something to the story of a Boy's Own Adventure, reminiscent of John Buchan, say, or Erskine Childers' RIDDLE OF THE SANDS. I think partly this is the age between the wars, revanchist, tribal hatreds boiling to the surface, but no real sense of the cataclysm about to swallow the Old World entire. It's also a function of our hero's age. Francis is old and wiser, and sadder, in the first three books of the series, whether London or Tangier or the Cote d'Azur, whereas turning the clock back, we see a previous, vanished Berlin, and through a younger pair of eyes. What contributes further to this is an avoidance of historical ironies. Hitler doesn't get a walk-on, or Sally Bowles, either. NIGHTS IN BERLIN is very much of the moment, as Francis inhabits it, and that lends it a sort of wandering air, the kid a little too much in pursuit of sensation for his own good.

The politics are really a side issue. The story is how the experience imprints on Francis. What did he learn? he writes to ask his former nanny. That the most unlikely people can teach us odd and useful things. And with this in mind, he's off to Paris at the end of the book. Both enterprising and alarmingly fey, in some respects, Francis seems like something of a blank slate, yet to be written on. In other words, we're still in the opening pages. The rest are empty. Francis will grow into himself. As the world itself will, passing into the savage 1930's, and then the war years. Pages yet to be written.




I jumped at the chance to read NIGHTS IN BERLIN. Janice had me at the title. I'm crazy about the premise, and the period, of course. I've lived in Berlin, I've read up on it quite a lot, I've written about it myself. I also recently discovered Philip Kerr's fabulous series of historicals, with the wartime German homicide cop Bernie Gunther. There's something endlessly fascinating to me about the city in the past century, with its many changes of clothing, Weimar, the Nazis, Occupation and the Cold War. I think if Berlin didn't actually exist, we'd have to invent it, as a metaphor, and for the purposes of fiction.


07 April 2016

Illustrated Mayhem

by Janice Law

It was a great grief to me when, sometime between the late ’50’s and the ’70’s, publishers stopped illustrating adult fiction. Not that illustrations for adults ever rivaled the glories of children’s books. Forget the full color splendors for volumes like Treasure Island created by N.A. Wyeth or the marvelous line of  John Tenniel’s pictures for Alice in Wonderland.

Just the same, quality novels often had line drawings to enliven the blocks of text which too often today are set up tight to save paper or, in the case of certain popular authors, given ludicrous amounts of spacing and giant margins in order to create a “big” book. Would we had pictures with either or both!

For a time in the ’80’s the lack of illustrations was to some extent compensated for by the care and technical skill of cover art. The book jackets Houghton Mifflin supplied for my first four Anna Peters novels, had beautifully wrought and realistic collage paintings, done by hand, mind you, not on the computer. And this for what were definitely ‘mid-list’ novels. Those jackets, too have gone by the board.

I’ve been thinking about illustrations, especially illustrations for mystery novels and stories, because during a dry spell in painting, I did covers and illustrations for two little three-story collections. I wanted to learn how to put up ebooks, and thought that three mystery short stories (originally published in Alfred Hitchcock and Sherlock) and three stories of the uncanny  (two unpublished, one in the old Fantasy Book, would make good test projects.


Thanks to the kindness of a very patient techie somewhere in Texas, The Double, (the mysteries) and The Man Who Met the Elf Queen are now available for 99¢ from iBooks. The Elf Queen book has chapter illustrations, too. Thus ends the commercial!

All the illustrations were done freehand on my Wacom drawing slate with an electronic pencil. Not everyone likes the process: basically one holds the pad in one hand and “draws” on the white surface with the pen, producing lines over on the computer screen. A certain ability to disassociate is probably helpful, but I like it a lot, because it is easy to combine line with perfect flat areas of color, flowed in via an icon that looks like a bucket.

The only caveat is that enclosed areas must be perfectly enclosed. Even one pixel missing and the flowed color swamps the entire image. Thankfully, there is an Undo button, and even for someone who is not neat and tidy, the bucket tool enables the creation of perfect flat ‘print like’ areas of color.
So much for technique.

The bigger problem for the non-professional is, I think, consistency of image. It is not too hard to produce an attractive illustration. What is difficult is making a character look recognizably the same in different settings and from different angles.

I now appreciate another difficulty. The writer has a notion of what a character, setting, or action should look like and, having suggested that satisfactorily in print, she is sometimes surprised by the changes the illustrator produces. But graphic design has its reasons. When I finished the drawing of the Elf Queen, I thought to check my story. Oh, dear, she was supposedly wearing a sable trimmed cloak! Too bad, the addition of dark brown fur, in addition to being more work, would upset the color balance.

Similarly, the Magus in The Potion of the Empress had dark eyes in print, unsurprising as he was an ancient Roman. However, both an older drawing done in an early Apple graphic program, and my new color version, gave him a chilly light eye, very necessary given the shadows that formed his background.

If nothing else, trying to devise pictures for these little web books has given me sympathy for the illustrators at AHMM who have been illustrating my Madame Selina stories. Do they fit my ideas of the medium and her assistant? Usually not, or not entirely, but they are none the worse for that, being appropriate in size and pattern and style for the magazine and all different, too, which is really interesting.

Just the same, I thought I’d try my hand at both her and Nip and was pleased with the results, but I know better than to attempt a series of panels where I need to keep their features and expressions consistent. Amateur drawings can be lovely but the graphic novel – or even illustrations for a series – are best left to the pros.

15 March 2016

Resetting the Clock

Today, on the Ides of March, I’d like to welcome Janice Law, SleuthSayers emerita, mystery writer and painter, to guest blog. Janice was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1977 for The Big Payoff, her first Anna Peters novel. And in 2013, she was nominated for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Mystery for Fires of London, the first in her Francis Bacon series. She won that award the following year for its sequel, The Prisoner of the Riviera. She writes frequently for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and many others. So, take it away, Janice.

—Paul

*~*~*~*

Resetting the Clock

by Janice Law

(Many thanks to Paul D. Marks for kindly giving me his column space this week.)


My family always insists that I don’t take advice. This is only partially true. I rarely take advice immediately, but that’s not to say that I reject good ideas entirely. Case in point: my new Francis Bacon trilogy, which debuts April 5 with the opening volume, Nights in Berlin.

And what is this good advice that I’ve taken? To revise a character’s age downward. I did not do this with my former detective, Anna Peters, who retired with her bad back in her early 50’s. But I have now reset Francis’ age, from forty-something in Moon over Tangier, back to seventeen.

I had a couple reasons for doing this.

By the time he’d reached his early forties, the historical Bacon was on the verge of being both rich and famous, and some of his less pleasant, and more destructive, habits were going to become prominent. More important, he had lost Jessie Lightfoot (Nan in the books) and she, along with a knowledge of painting, was crucial to my understanding of his personality.

Characters one invents are almost by definition comprehensible. They may or may not be the fascinating, successful creations we all hope for, but the chances are good we’ll feel we understand them. If we don’t, if the character doesn’t in some way “make sense” to us, he or she will surely wind up in the out-take file or scooped up and eliminated by the handy delete button.

Historical figures are another matter. They are known, sometimes to the general public, sometimes only to specialists, but either way there certain irrefutable facts and circumstances about their lives that must be respected. To be honest, some of these facts are awkward. I personally love country living and all animals. Not so Francis. Music is important to me; Francis was tone deaf. And then there is his sexual preference – promiscuous gay sadomasochism – and his affection for the bottle.

Clearly, if one is going to write about a character this far from one’s own tastes, interests, and experience, a character, moreover, whose biography is known and available, one must find a way into his personality. My entrance to Francis’ psyche were via Nan (my mom had emigrated as a nanny and I grew up on a big estate that employed one) and his art (I’m a keen semi-pro painter).

With those two anchors, I’ve been able to navigate my fictional character’s taste for city life and rough trade, not to mention his reckless genius. Still, by the time I finished Moon over Tangier, I felt that the character I had been following for a dozen fictional years was complete, and I was ready to end the series.

But some interesting facets of the man’s life remained, especially his decision to close a reasonably successful design business (one capable of supporting both himself and Nan) and to embark on the precarious path of serious painting. That decision could, I saw, be the finale of a new trilogy.

What about the 600 or so pages needed before I could get to that point? Here, the real Francis’personal history came to my rescue. As a teenager and young adult, he lived in three different cities, each at a crucial and fascinating time: Weimar Berlin, where he was taken by a peculiar uncle – my character Uncle Lastings is, aside from his sexual habits and the circumstances of the German trip, a total invention; Paris at the end of the Roaring Twenties; and London in the Thirties after the party stopped.

Berlin and Paris were extremely important for the real painter’s later development. Bacon never went to art school and what little formal instruction he had in oil painting was picked up from one of his lovers. But in Berlin, he saw the cutting edge European art of the moment, Bauhaus design, Expressionism, Dada, and the New Objectivity as German artists struggled with the machine age and the devastation of the world war. For a young gay man, it also didn’t hurt that Berlin was liberated sexually in ways undreamt of in England.

Paris, like Berlin had galleries and new art, most importantly for Bacon, the works of Picasso, as well as the great public museums. Surrealism was in the air, and writers and artists from around the world had come to work – or to live the artistic life – in the metropolis. As for London, the art scene was tame compared to the excitements of the Continent, but London was, first and foremost, where his heart was. All his artistic life Bacon had trouble working anywhere but in the city along the Thames: he was a London man first and foremost.

Of course, three novels, even short ones, about the making of a painter are not going to set mystery lovers’ hearts a-flutter. Fortunately, history as well as biography now comes to the rescue. Berlin had gangs both fascist and Red; an enormous vice industry, fueled by the collapse of the post-war economy, plus public and private violence and misery of every sort.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-09249-0013, Berlin, alte Frau sammelt Abfälle
Paris had rich foreigners flinging money around and indulging their whims, while poor foreigners scraped for a living and struggled to recover from wars and revolutions further East. The underside of Parisian artistic creativity was imaginative larceny, including successful attempts to sell the Eiffel Tower. As for London, by the mid-Thirties, the city saw Hunger Marchers, waves of homeless, desperate immigrant Jews, British fascists like the Black Shirts, and ever-increasing fears of yet another war.

Who could let all this go to waste?

I declared Francis seventeen again and started Nights in Berlin.

11 February 2016

Vera

by Janice Law

I have no problem with being “a woman of a certain age.” Well, to be frank, old. So long as you don't refer to me as a “senior” or some other namby-pamby euphemism, I’m OK with old. Youth may be wasted on the young, but they're the only ones with the energy to endure it. No, aside from “the ills that flesh is heir to” as Hamlet puts it, I’m pretty content, except for my quarrel with the almost uniformly young and glamorous heroines of popular novels and TV series.

Oh, it’s fine for a George Gently to show white hair and a bit of a paunch. Kurt Wallander was done in by dementia not low ratings, and Inspector Lewis, with a bit of makeup and hair dye, looks to go on until he's older than his one time mentor Inspector Morse.

Not so the women of mystery, who need youth or glamor and preferably both. Except for Hetty Wainthropp, I don’t think anyone has picked up Miss Marple’s cardigan. So it has been a pleasure to discover Vera Stanhope, the crusty, plain spoken DCI from Newcastle, who is the featured detective in Vera. The series from ITV is now several seasons old but is just now showing up on my set.

This DCI is middle aged and dumpy. Her wardrobe can best be described as functional. She has a peculiar and distinctive voice and calls everyone, even prime suspects, either Love or Pet. If she’s got emotional trauma in her past, secret addictions, or unlikely obsessions, she keeps them private. Brenda Bethyn plays her as a grown up lady and all the better for that.


Based on the novels of Ann Cleeves, who is also responsible for that taciturn depressive, Jimmy Perez of Shetland, Vera uses a nice blend of up to date tech – the cry for CCTV footage goes out several times in every episode – with a good sense of human nature to solve her cases.

Accompanied by her young and handsome DS Joe Ashworth (David Leon), Vera is often abrasive but never heartless, being particularly sympathetic to younger offenders. She’s no softie, but she’s a good listener who, unlike her able young sergeant, can draw on a vast experience of human oddities and frailties. She’s been around long enough so that nothing too much surprises DCI Stanhope. Nice to see age is worth something!

The TV show encouraged me to sample Cleeves’ Silent Voices, part of a Vera Stanhope series. I was not disappointed. Like the Shetland novels, Silent Voices is well written with an intricate plot, an abundance of red herrings and misdirection, and a fine sense of landscape and atmosphere – like me, the author is clearly a countrywoman.

But Vera is a much more interesting, rough-edged, and generally sparky character than the hero of the Shetland series, and these traits are emphasized in the novel more than on the screen. Vera occasionally succumbs to envy and she has a nice line in snarky thoughts. She gets cranky with her staff and over works Joe, her conscientious sergeant, who is her closest companion as well as assistant.

At the same time, the DCI never falls into self pity, although she is a lonely person. She is quick to apologize and also to praise. This is a well rounded character, with a good deal of sympathy for the people who get entangled in crime and violence, as well as a tremendous excitement about her job. Like Sherlock Holmes, she can’t wait for the game to be afoot.

There are differences between screen and print versions of the character. Clearly a novel is much better at presenting the inner thoughts of the characters and the intellectual process of detection. But it is also interesting that, as with Elizabeth George’s Barbara Havers, Vera has been tidied up a bit for TV. She is chunky but not really fat, and Brenda Bethyn is only a decent haircut and a nicer wardrobe away from being totally presentable.

Not so Vera of the novel, who is depicted not only as homely but as terminally undesirable, a convention I find unfortunate. If only the svelte and pretty were attractive, there would be no population problem anywhere, and it strikes me that Vera’s blank romantic life is simply the female variant of the suffering detectives are supposed to endure.

But maybe not forever. In the last TV episode, a would-be admirer appeared. Vera turned him down – but left the door open. Now a plain faced, overweight female detective of a certain age with a bona fide admirer would really break a number of stereotypes.

I hope the script writers will go for it!

03 September 2015

Serial Offenders

by Janice Law

Like most mystery fans, I have my favorites, characters I willingly read about time and again. Indeed, what lover of the genre wouldn’t like just one more Sherlock Holmes story or another vintage appearance from Lord Peter Whimsy or Adam Dalgliesh? Familiarity breeds contentment for the reader. The writer is another breed of cat.


Writers enjoy variety, new challenges, new plots, new directions, and perhaps for that reason even wildly successful mystery writers have sometimes had complicated feelings about their heroes and heroines. Demands for another helping of the same can arouse a homicidal streak – of the literary sort. Thus Conan Doyle sent Holmes over the Reichenback Falls and Henning Mankell gave Wallander not one, but two deadly illnesses. Agatha Christie wrote – then stored– Curtain, Poirot’s exit, at the height of her powers, while Dorothy Sayers, faced with either killing off or marrying off Lord Peter, mercifully opted for the latter. He was never the same in any case.


first POD for Anna. My design
During my career, now longer than I like to mention, I’ve twice created serial characters, each begun as a one off. Anna Peters was never projected to live beyond The Big Payoff and my second novel used other characters entirely. Alas, Houghton Mifflin, my publisher at the time, was not enthralled, and the new novel was destined to be unlucky. Bought by Macmillan – or so I thought – the deal fell through when the entire mystery division was folded.

Back to Miss Peters, as she was then. Nine more books followed. They got good reviews and foreign translations and sold modestly well, although not ultimately well enough for the modern publishing conglomerate. I did learn one thing I’ll pass on to those contemplating a mystery series: don’t age your character.

Sure, aging a character keeps the writer from getting bored, but in five years, not to mention ten or twenty years down the road, you’re getting long in the tooth and so is your detective. Poor Anna got back trouble and was getting too old for derring do. I was faced with killing her, retiring her, or turning her into Miss Marple.

I chose to have her sell Executive Security, Inc. and retire ( some of her adventures are still available from Wildside Press). I imagined her sitting in on interesting college courses and wondered about a campus mystery. But I was teaching college courses myself at the time, and a campus setting sounded too much like my day job.

Wildside edition,
last Anna Peters
For at least a decade (actually, I suspect two) I stayed away from series characters. I published some contemporary novels with strong mystery elements and lots of short stories. I liked those because I didn’t need to love the assorted obsessives and malcontents that populated them. I just needed to like them enough for 10-14 pages worth.

Then came Madame Selina, a nineteenth century New York City medium, whose adventures were narrated by her assistant, a boy straight out of the Orphan Home named Nip Tompkins. Once again, I figured a one off, but a suggestion from fellow Sleuthsayer Rob Lopresti that she’d make a good series character led me write one more – pretty much just to see if he was wrong.

That proved lucky, as she has inspired in nine or ten stories, all of which have appeared or will appear in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Thank you, Rob. However, there is a season for all things, and having explored many of the key issues of the nineteenth century with Madame Selina and Nip, I am beginning to tire of mysteries that can be wrapped up with a seance. That, by the way, gets harder each time out.

What to do? I’m not so ruthless as to kill off a woman who’s worked hard for me. But as she’s observed herself, times are changing and the Civil War, so horrible but so conducive to her profession, is now a decade past. As you see, I learned nothing from my experience with Anna Peters, as both Madame and Nip have continued to age.

I don’t think I’ll marry her off, either, although she knows a rich financier who might fill the bill. Instead, I think I’ll let her sell her townhouse and retire, perhaps to one of the resorts she favors, Saratoga or, better because I know the area, Newport, where she will take up gardening and grow prize roses or dahlias.

As for Nip, I’ve already picked his profession. Snooping for Madame Selina has given him every skill he needs to be a newspaperman in the great age of Yellow Journalism. Will the now teenaged Nip show up in print again?

We’ll see.