by Elizabeth Zelvin
SleuthSayers Monthly Giveaway: It's my turn to play elf and conduct a drawing for a copy of Death Will Get You Sober, first in my series of mysteries featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends OR a copy of my brand new e-novella, DEATH WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE. To enter: leave a comment on today's post any time this week and check back next Saturday (above John Floyd's post) to see if you're the winner.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about readers in my years in the mystery community, it’s that every individual’s taste is different. You may hate the books I love, and vice versa. My own husband and I are yin and yang in this regard. Even within the narrow range of books that we may both pick up—a certain kind of high-quality historical or fantasy fiction—I get bored if the battles go on too long, while he gets bored if the relationships and feelings go on too long. (Same with movies, but that’s another story.) This is the first of what may turn into several posts about authors on my personal list.
Michael Gruber is usually referred to as a thriller writer, but he isn’t highly visible in the crime fiction world, although his last book, The Good Son, was short-listed for the 2011 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger award in the UK. His best work has in abundance what I consider the three essential elements of great novel writing: storytelling, writing, and characterization. My favorite is The Book of Air and Shadows (2007). I’d call it literary crime fiction in the best way. There’s an element of caper, and it’s certainly a whodunit.
The McGuffin is a completely unknown Shakespeare manuscript, a play about Mary Queen of Scots. The plot is twisty and clever, and the tension never lets up. The writing is superb, and the characters are vivid, complicated, and memorable. Then there’s voice, that mysterious element of the writer’s craft that distinguishes a master. The voice is delectable; it puts a big grin on my face page after page. He treats the reader to a literate sentence filled with educated vocabulary and felicitous turns of phrase—and then pop in a zinger, some colloquial term or trendy reference, to remind us that we’re in the real world and not some ivory tower. Or sometimes he’ll drop an apposite apple reference into a grove of oranges at just the right moment.
Here’s an example. Jake, one of the protagonists, is talking about a literary forger who almost got away with faking a new bad quarto (don’t ask) of Hamlet.
“And it might have become part of the critical canon had not L.H. Pascoe delighted in delicious young fellows with smoky eyes and pouting lips, and having such a taste, not promised one of these a trip to Cap d’Antibes, and a new wardrobe with it, and having so promised, not reneged, causing the young fellow, naturally enough, to drop a dime on his patron.”
The whole passage is delicious, but it’s that “drop a dime” that makes it sublime.
Here’s another, as Jake describes what started as an ordinary day in the practice of intellectual property law.
“Quiet meetings, billable hours, the marshaling of expertise, and the delicate suggestion that lawsuits in this business are largely a waste of time, for Chinese piracy of rock album cover images is an unavoidable cost of doing business in our fallen world.”
The zinger in this sentence is “fallen world,” a reference, if I’m not mistaken, from born-again Christianity.
I’m not a big fan of explicit sex scenes, but I don’t mind Gruber’s, because his descriptions are so perfect. Here’s the end of one such passage.
“In the end she made a sharp single cry, like a small dog hit by traffic. Then she rolled over without a word and seemed to go to sleep, in the manner of a guy married for years.”
Believe me, those monkeys with the typewriters could not come up with lines like these, not in a million years. And while he’s writing up a storm and entertaining the reader with this fantastic voice, he’s unrolling the twisty, twisty plot, keeping that feather in the air by blowing it steadily and gently.
This Gruber is a very, very smart guy. I don’t know anybody who does multiple points of view with such panache. In The Book of Air and Shadows, his fictional 17th-century character (the protagonist of the manuscript within a manuscript) describes the unknown play in such a way that you can tell it could have been written by Shakespeare at the height of his powers. The playwright’s commission is to make Mary Queen of Scots a sympathetic character and make Queen Elizabeth look bad. Instead, he shows the nuances and ambiguities of both women’s characters. The character telling us about it thinks this is a bad thing, while the author knows that the 21st century reader will think it’s a good thing. In short, it’s the sneakiness of a master storyteller.
I could go on. This is the kind of read that makes me want to say, “Listen to this!” But instead, I’ll say, “Read the book.” And read the rest of Gruber’s work, especially The Good Son, which engages our sympathies with a terrorist, no mean feat, and the Jimmy Paz trilogy, hardboiled detective stories with a little magic, and all in that gorgeous and hilarious prose.