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

09 November 2017

Mornings in London by Janice Law

by Eve Fisher

Mornings in London (The Francis Bacon Mysteries) by [Law, Janice]
Amazon Link Here
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Well, not if you have a really good nanny. Which Francis Bacon has.  (But more about that later.)

Yes, Francis Bacon, artist, gay, designer, bon vivant, adventurer, sometime spy, and always, always, always up to his neck in trouble is back in Janice Law's latest mystery, "Mornings in London".

But the first morning is in the country, at Larkin Manor, where Francis wakes up with a hangover and a naked footman, which is fine with him.  The trouble is, all around him are the county set, and (aside from the footman) Francis is already bored to death.  But he's down there at the request of a lady, his cousin Poppy, whom he hopes to rescue from Freddie, a bounder and a cad whom Francis knows a little too well and a little too much about.

Actually, that problem gets solved pretty quickly:
The morning of the hangover, Francis gets up to go to the bathroom and finds Signor Rinaldi, Italian diplomat under Mussolini, emerging from Freddie's room wearing nothing but a dressing gown.  "I was returning a book he so kindly lent me," Rinaldi offers - but no one believes that, especially Poppy.  The fight that follows attracts everyone's attention, and the main topic at dinner is that Poppy broke her engagement.  The next day, she and Francis go for a restorative walk, they find Freddie, his throat cut, lying in the grass.

Now everyone at Larkin Manor know that none of them could have done it.
Francis Bacon by John Dekin.jpg
Francis Bacon, Wikipedia

Signor Rinaldi?  A diplomat?  Never!
Lady Larkin, wealthy, a supporter of fascist movements at home and abroad?  Never!
Major Larkin, "the nice old architecture buff, the henpecked husband of a rich and politically ambitious wife"?  Never!
Basil Grove and his horsey wife, the wealthy Daphne?  Peter Tollman, the silver-haired government man and his trilling wife Lea?  The Larkins' pudgy daughter?  Never, never, never!

But Francis Bacon, dodgy decorator of rugs and furniture?  And his cousin Poppy, who broke off the engagement in a fury?  Well...  maybe.  Why not?

Francis knows trouble when he sees it - and it grows by leaps and bounds.  Someone - as well as the police - are after Poppy.  Someone mugs her.  Someone searches her rooms.  And when the lady vanishes, Francis knows he has to find out what's really going on.

Was Freddie murdered for love?  For blackmail?  For politics?  And the last is possible.  "Mornings in London" is set in the late 1920s, early 1930s, when fascism was rising both on the Continent and in England, especially among the aristocrats, to whom Mussolini was a handy tool for providing social stability.  (They thought.)  Everywhere Francis turns he runs into intelligence officers, including his exceptionally dodgy Uncle Lastings, who shows up with his own ideas on the murder...

Image result for jessie lightfootAnd then there's Nan.  I am so glad she is a major player in this book.  I love Nan.

Nan, who "sometimes has more imagination than a nanny requires.  Of course, that was exactly why she was ideal for me." 
Nan, who always knows a secret place to slip a bit of evidence.
Nan, who will sleep / eat / live anywhere to be with Francis.  (Seriously, in the 1940's, when Francis lived in Millais' old studio in South Kensington, for lack of an "alternative location", Nan slept on the kitchen table. Wikipedia.)
Nan, who encourages Francis to give up decorating and go into painting full-time, saying, "I've been poor.  Money's better, but life's too short to pass on happiness." 
Nan, who cooks and cleans and nurses - believe me, after reading about her, I am certain that all artists, of any genre, need a nanny like Jessie Lightfoot.  

Thanks, Janice, for giving us Francis, Nan, and "Mornings in London". 

                                                










03 October 2017

Nailing the Interview

by Janice Law

Recently I did a morning drive time interview with our local a.m. station, WILI, following up stories in the Hartford Courant and the Willimantic Chronicle. This counts as a veritable PR blitz here in the Quiet Corner of Connecticut. It’s not exactly BSP ( Blatant Self Promotion) but maybe about right for a novel with local settings by a local author.

I know many of my Sleuthsayers colleagues are far ahead of me in the publicity sweepstakes, but I got thinking that a few tips for interviews might be useful for less experienced or less entrepreneurial writers.

Early a.m. at WILI 
First off, assume nothing. I was lucky. Wayne Norman, WILI’s long time radio personality, is a complete pro, well prepared and immensely experienced. He asked good questions, and he had done some preparation, although even he had not read the whole book. No offense! Remember that radio hosts have a guest or two a day, five or six days a week. Many of those guests have written books and articles. Who can read them all and still do the required prep for weather and traffic and sports reports and news breaks? No one.

So, make it easy for your interviewer. Have a PR sheet that describes your book and gives some interesting personal information.

For the actual interview, you will need to have a pithy statement of what the book is about. That was, in fact, the first question I was asked. While most of us hate the idea of boiling down our brilliant prose and profound insights to a few sentences, that’s what’s required. The TV listings are too short, but a Times review is definitely too long.

Figure three or four sentences mentioning your protagonist and his or her situation, emphasis on conflict. You need to do this without giving away the whole plot. Tricky? You bet, so if you are not an old classroom teacher used to thinking on your feet about plots and reader interest, plan ahead; even a few notes won’t hurt.

The next big question is, or should be, chief characters. Once again I was lucky. Mr. Norman had read enough to know who was important and to ask about them specifically. If your interviewer hasn’t cracked the book, find a way to introduce your characters. You don’t need to give their entire biographies, but an enticing villain, a charming child, romantic interest of one sort or another is good – if you can give short and interesting descriptions. Be prepared for this.

Morning WILI host Wayne Normal in parade mode
Sometimes, as in the case with Homeward Dove – and here a tip. Do as I say, not as I do: Mention your book title! I must confess that I left that to my interviewer. Points off! Anyway, in the case of Homeward Dove, setting was my friend. If your book features a particular area, you can sometimes interest a program that would otherwise be cool to your prose. People like to read about their own communities – or in the case of Homeward Dove – the surrounding parks, rivers, and forests.

The clincher for me was the fact that Homeward Dove ended with Willimantic’s famous Boom Box Parade. For those still ignorant of this event, it is a promotion of the local station and was designed to compensate for the demise of local marching bands. When it is time for the parade, the station cues up patriotic marches which are played by a couple of sound trucks but also, and here was the genius idea, by marchers and spectators carrying boom boxes. A description of this event and the creative costumes and floats produced by the locals was clearly a way to my interviewer’s heart.

Along the way, we talked about a number of things mentioned in the book, including the many references to the trades – a chance to talk about my father who was a skilled carpenter, and about whether a particular passage about fears of learning to swim reflected my own attitudes. Since I’ve always adored the water, we ventured into imagination and where ideas come from.  These are good topics and perennials when readers and fans meet writers.

Thinking about that, led me to consider the difference between what readers and critics and interviewers, too, are interested in as opposed to writers. The readers are interested in art, in ideas, in the meaning of it all. Writers, and from my experience, painters, too, tend to talk about money, markets, or, less often, technique. Who’s buying, who keeps your manuscript for ages, who writes snarky rejection letters, who pays promptly, who’s looking for submissions: these are the big questions for writers.

Speakers on for the start of the Boom Box Parade
So, once in a while, it’s nice to talk to some of the folks who love art with the capital A: the readers and fans.

21 September 2017

Golden Age Mysteries, Female Version


by Janice Law


Ah, the Golden Age of American detective fiction: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Cain; murky clubs, noirish alleys, thuggish gamblers. Love them, and yet, isn’t there someone missing? We know all the men but what about the women writers of the time? Most have dropped from sight. As a well-read librarian of my acquaintance said recently, “I didn’t know there were any major women mystery writers back then.”

There were for sure, but I am not surprised that while Chandler & Co are still household words in the mystery community, Dorothy Hughes, Helen Eustis, Margaret Millar and the like are strictly specialist fare. Consider my own experience some thirty years after their heyday. My first novel, The Big Payoff, was an Edgar nominee and went into a second printing. But when my agent approached the big paperback mystery house of the day, the answer was negative. And why? Because they already had their female mystery author in Amanda Cross. One to a customer, apparently!

Things must have been even harder back in the day, and so a lot of fine work, even work that resulted in famous films like Vera Caspary’s Laura, was neglected and good authors subtly squeezed out of the mystery canon. Fortunately, thanks to the enterprise of editor Sarah Weinman, who, as she wrote, recently realized “...that the most compelling and creative American crime fiction was being written and published by women,” and decided to look into the women who preceded the best sellers of today (and paved the way for a great many more of us).

The result is the two volumes of Women Crime Writers, Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940’s & 50’s, (The Library of America). I’ve acquired the first and have the second volume on order. As my ninth graders used to say, I can recommend them to anyone.

The 1940’s work overlaps the later Chandler novels and at least one of them, Dorothy Hughes’ In a Lonely Place is set in California. The novels have dodgy characters, blackmail, a lonely detective, even a serial killer – a lineup not too different from their male counterparts, but I’m happy to report also some differences. We’ve only been getting one side of the story, folks.

The settings, for one thing, are varied. There’s a posh women’s college, the sort of closed academic world destined to be utilized by P.D. James and reach its commercial apotheosis in J. K. Rowling's Hogwarts. There is a smart-talking amateur detective right out of Chandler but, wait, she’s not the glamor girl on campus, it’s her chunky friend in the flannel shirt.

Some other familiar characters appear in Hughes’ In a Lonely Place and for a while it looks as if we’re getting that familiar dichotomy of the nice domestic wife and the free-living theatrical type. It perhaps won’t spoil the plot to reveal that these two women turn out to be the best of friends.
Both Laura and The Blank Wall have complicated women who are not necessarily what they seem at first glance. Caspary’s Laura has tricky plotting, giving the heroine not only her very own Svengali, a man almost overly eager to help the police, as well as a portrait lovely enough to snare the heart of a straight-laced inspector. If you are weary of conventional femme fatales, this one’s for you.

The protagonist of The Blank Wall ( filmed most recently with Tilda Swindon) is probably in the prototypically female position: head of a wartime household. With her husband in the service, Lucia Holley has her teenaged son and daughter to worry about, as well as her elderly father. Financially comfortable, seemingly content with a domestic role, her worries are focused on her far-away husband and on teenage rebellion before her daughter’s unsuitable boyfriend winds up dead in their boat house. A refusal to call the police sets Lucia on a slide from domestic security to unsavory company.

These are four writers who deserve to be remembered and more, republished, and I am happy to conclude with the information that Dorothy Hughes’ The Expendable Man, another really bold and imaginative novel, is available in paper from the New York Review of Books.

13 September 2017

Cabin Fever

David Edgerley Gates

The current issue of Alfred Hitchcock (September/October) includes stories by me, Eve Fisher, and Janice Law - all of us SleuthSayers contributors. Here's looking at you, kid.



My story, "Cabin Fever," was written quite some time ago, and it's taken a while for it to work its way to the top of the stack. I'm mentioning this because what I'd like to talk about here is how stories get started, why an idea takes hold, and what kind of legs it needs to get us across the finish line.

Here's a curious thing. For some years now, Craig Johnson has been coming through Santa Fe as each new Longmire title launches, and for the past six years, his visits have coincided with the shooting schedule of Longmire, the TV series. As it happens, when Craig came to town to promote Hell Is Empty, the Longmire cast and crew were shooting the episode based on the book. And also, somewhere in this time period, or not long after, I'd started "Cabin Fever." The point is, Hell Is Empty has Walt tracking down an escaped con through a winter blizzard. "Cabin Fever" has my guy, Hector, held hostage by escaped cons in the middle of a forest fire. But. I didn't catch up with Hell Is Empty until later that year and the Longmire season opener wasn't broadcast until a year after that. There wasn't any cross-pollination. My idea came out of thin air.

Or not? We've all had the experience of things floating around in the zeitgeist, or drifting by, in our peripheral vision, that suddenly take on shape, and density. In our sentimental moments, we might even call it inspiration, the light on the road to Damascus. On a less exalted plane, it's more like you're hitching a ride, and somebody pulls over. I couldn't tell you where the set-up for "Cabin Fever" came from. Hector's truck breaks down, he's out in the back of beyond with no cell coverage, and a weather system's blowing in. He decides to try and find shelter, and beat the storm. There turn out to be other people lost in the woods, and soon enough they find each other.

I think it's safe to say that a story's going to change with different storytellers. The approach, the attack, the retreat. We might call the story "Stop Me If You've Heard This." A cop, a priest, and a hooker walk into a bar. You and I are entirely likely to go off at right angles to one another, or in completely opposite directions. It depends on what we think the story is. Where's the emphasis, who's got the POV, when do you show your hole cards?

Supposing that Craig and I did have a similar idea, and at more or less the same time, the end results turn out differently in the actual telling. I can give you another example. And in this case, I know where and when the match lit the fuse.

I was faithful reader of Marc Simmons' weekly column Trail Dust, in the Santa Fe New Mexican, until he retired the column last year. (Simmons, a highly-regarded New Mexico historian, has a reported forty-nine books under his belt.) He wrote a piece about the Butterfield freight line and a stagecoach loaded with gold that disappeared on the eve of the Civil War, in the desert west of Lordsburg. Was there treasure buried in a place called Doubtful Canyon? OK. First off, Lordsburg. John Ford's movie Stagecoach is based on the Ernest Haycox story "Stage to Lordsburg." I couldn't possibly pass that up. Secondly, how does anybody resist a name like Doubtful Canyon? There's your title, ready-to-wear. Last but not least, the bare bones of the story itself, men on the run with thirty thousand in Yankee gold, in hostile Apache country. I'm lathered up already.

The story I wound up writing ("Doubtful Canyon," of course) clocked in at some 20,000 words. It capped off, at least for a while, the bounty hunter series. I thought it was terrific, fully fleshed, peopled with rattlesnakes and rascals, and a satisfying answer to the puzzle, if made up out of whole cloth. It wasn't an easy sell, though, not at that length. I was a little disheartened. About a year later, then, you can imagine my shock when I ran across a new novel on the Westerns shelf at Collected Works bookshop called Doubtful Cañon - Cañon the Spanish spelling. What fresh hell was this? I knew the name, too. Johnny D. Boggs. I'd read one of his earlier books, Camp Ford, and liked it a lot. I was going to revisit my opinion now, you can bet your sweet ass.

Much to my chagrin, this Boggs turns out to be no schlump, as a writer. And this being Santa Fe, we bump into each other, sooner rather than later, at a library event. He's genuine, personable, and funny. All-around good company. The guy coaches Little League, for John's sake. Impossible not to like, which is even more annoying.



Johnny's novel is a YA, and yes, it does take off from the same start point, the missing stagecoach full of gold. There are other synchronicities. We both tell the story from a distance, in hindsight, although he gives it twenty years, and I gave it fifty. Part of this is, I think, a sense of perspective, tilting the horizon, and another part of it artful misdirection. Johnny and I both used a split screen, in effect, and the device of a not entirely reliable narration as well, but we deployed it differently. In my case, I alternated the two time-frames, too.

As a writer - or as one of two writers grazing the same section of fence - I'm probably more interested in the confluences between Johnny's approach to the canvas and mine. A critical reader, who doesn't have skin in the game, might well be more interested in where we diverged. But absent the annotated Library of America edition, we'll skip the play by play. The question isn't whether the idea is original, it's whether we made it our own.

Here's a last little teaser, a sort of exercise. I ran across this poster at my local frame shop. Tell me it doesn't conjure up all sorts of possibilities. I'm not sure how I'd use it, myself, but I'm going to let it rattle around in the cupboards for awhile. How about you?



07 August 2017

Two Different Worlds

by Janice Law

We’ve had a lot of Sleuthsayers columns on different types of mystery writers: noir vs psychological, cozy vs hard boiled. And also considering different approaches: stories planned with outlines vs developed on the fly, even that big question to revise or not to revise.

I’d like to suggest a different division that encompasses a lot of these varieties, namely closed vs open plotting. By closed, I mean something like the traditional mystery which, despite its relative modernity, has classical antecedents. Back in the day, Aristotle talked up the unities of time, place, and action, basing his analysis on the Greek tragedies that favored a tightly focused action with a few protagonists in one locale. Contemporary short mystery stories, anyone?

The Greeks also liked to begin in media res, in the heart of the action, another favorite device of most modern mysteries, not to mention thrillers.

Beyond this, we see an interesting split. If the closed mystery may no longer be set in the country house or the isolated motel, it has a small universe of suspects and usually a fairly compact geographic area. This is particularly clear in the various UK mysteries that adorn PBS each season. Vera may be set out on the windswept moors and empty sands, but there are rarely more than five real suspects and, in this show at least, they are as apt to be related as in any Greek tragedy.

Midsomer Murders is also fond of a half dozen suspects, mostly unpleasant people who will never be missed. Ditto for Doctor Blake who, with all of Australia, sticks close to Ballarat and, yes, the handy five or so possibilities. Clearly, the attractions of this sort of story for the TV producers are the same attributes that pleased the Athenian town fathers: compact locations, smallish casts, one clear action. The emphasis is on the puzzle factors of mysteries, and at their best such works are admirably neat and logical.

The open mystery takes another tack, flirts with thriller territory, and likes to break out of confined spaces both geographic and psychological. If it has ancestors, they’re not the classically structured tragedies, but tall stories, quest narratives and, if we need a big name, Shakespeare, who loved shipwrecks and runaways and nights in the woods, as well as mixing comedy and tragedy and all things in between.

I’ve thinking about this divide for two reasons. First, I just finished what will be the last novel in the second Francis Bacon trilogy, Mornings in London. I really wanted a little bow to the great British tradition of the country house mystery, and I managed a country mansion – just the sort of place Francis hates – and a nice half dozen suspects. I had a victim nobody much liked and rather a nice crime scene, and I must confess that neither Francis nor I was really happy until I could get us both back to London and off to other places less claustrophobic.

Turns out what I had long suspected was true: I’m not cut out for tidy and classical and ingenious puzzles. And I don’t write that way, either. I like to meander from one idea to the next, a method of composition much more conducive to glorified chases and quests than to Murder at the Manor. Too bad.

The other reason I got thinking about closed vs open plots was a quick dip into a Carl Hiaasen novel, one of his orgies of invention that spins off in every possible direction without somehow losing a coherent plot. If Agatha Christie is still the godmother of every good puzzle mystery, Hiassen’s satiric crime romps have certainly taken chases, quests, bizarre personalities, and imaginative disasters about as far as they can go.

I wonder now if writing style is inevitably connected with a certain type of mystery. Perhaps those who compose traditional, classically inspired mysteries are the same clever folk who can plan the whole business from the start. And maybe those of us with less foresight are inevitably drawn to a chase structure with a looser time frame, wider real estate, and more characters.

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.
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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.