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

09 August 2019

Uses of Mystery, Part 2

by Janice Law

I have recently become interested in how certain writers use the conventions of mysteries and thrillers to explore topics. Jim Gauer’s Novel Explosives was a madly ambitious literary example. Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night and American by Day are both firmly within the mystery genre but both use a crime, pursuit, detection, and chase to explore a variety of difficult topics, including racism and violence in American by Day, and anti-Semitism, post traumatic stress, immigration and parental guilt in Norwegian by Night.

Derek B. Miller
Both are distinguished by perceptive reflections on cultural assumptions and religious beliefs, some of which is funny. They have complex characters and in Sheldon “Donny” Horowitz, the main character in Norwegian by Night, one of the most completely drawn mystery protagonists in a long time.

A widowed, retired watch repairer, an ex-Marine Ranger and sharpshooter, Donny is intensely patriotic, pugnacious, cranky, and opinionated. His late wife thought he was showing signs of dementia; his beloved grand daughter has similar suspicions, and to be fair, he does conduct conversations with his dead friend Bill Harmon as well as experience intense serial trips with his dead son, Saul, along his fatal journey on the Mekong River.

Nonetheless, Donny is  as close to a believable eighty-one year old action hero as you are likely to get. When one of his grand daughter’s neighbors is murdered in their Oslo apartment, he finds himself on the run from ex-Kosovar militia with a traumatized little boy. Donny doesn’t speak Norwegian; he doesn’t have access to a car or a weapon; he can’t risk public transport, and he feels every day of his age. He’s impossible not to root for.

Donny Horowitz’s ingenuity is matched by Sigrid Ødegård in American by Day. Sigrid, the Police Chief Inspector in Norwegian by Night, has like Donny, her own regrets and bad memories. Although a more subdued character – Miller’s women, though well-drawn are not as impressive as his men – Sigrid proves equally ingenious off her own patch. Searching for her missing brother Marcus in upstate New York State, she navigates an unfamiliar geographic and cultural landscape with considerable aplomb.

Through her eyes, Miller gives a foreigner’s view of our tangled mess of race, sex and violence, much as he used Donny Horowitz to critique aspects of Norway. Well aware of our record of gun violence, Sigrid struggles to find her shy, almost reclusive brother before the authorities and also to understand how he became a suspect in the death of his African American lover, a woman herself traumatized in the wake of a police shooting.

The psychological climate of the book is necessarily somber but occasionally relieved by feisty bit characters like the savvy prostitute who has inherited tenancy in Marcus’s apartment and especially by Irving Wylie, the decent and philosophical local sheriff who may prove susceptible to Sigrid’s off beat charms.

Together, the paired novels are thoughtful, ambitious, and entertaining. If the body count in Norwegian by Night is maybe more than is needful and if American by Day is occasionally talky, they are both superior specimens of the genre, with all the action, smart dialogue and ingenuity that characterize good mysteries.

19 July 2019

Dubious Attractions

by Janice Law

I am sure I am not the only writer to be attracted to subjects or genres that I’d be better to leave alone. I write books and stories heavier on character and atmosphere than clever plotting, and my favorite protagonists share a humorous skepticism and a propensity to chat.

Rex Stout
The rational puzzle mystery in not my natural terrain. Sure, I know enough to avoid the locked room. I know my limitations. But just the same I have twice been seduced by the siren song of the Black Orchid Society’s contest. And this, despite the fact that I’m not even terribly fond of Nero Wolfe, however much I may admire Rex Stout’s ingenuity.

Both times, however, I was convinced I had worked out the format. My first attempt, A Taste of Murder, set immediately after WW I in Providence, RI, did have a great logical mind and various errands and investigations that had to be carried out. Just like Wolfe and Archie, right?

AHMM illustration for Taste of Murder
Or not quite. My detectives, and I realize now I had never intended to give one priority, were Professor Hodgkins, a good-natured and erudite history professor with an interest in historical mysteries, and his Aberdonian housekeeper, Jean Galloway. Widowed during the war, Jean has much less education than her employer but a much tougher and more logical mind.

She is a bow to the domestic servants I grew up among, many, like her, women whose men – or potential men – had been lost in the Great War. Hardworking and clever, they were underpaid “help” who, in fact, had all the skills necessary to run the equivalent of a boutique hotel with a demanding set of residents. Put together, Jean and her professor have the Nero Wolfe mind and, depending on the errand, either separately or together fulfill Archie’s evidence- gathering function.

Probably you can already see why A Taste of Murder did for fit the contest requirements, although it turned up in Alfred Hitchcock later. A Fine Nest of Rascals, my next attempt at one of the classic forms, met a similar fate, although I am happy to say it is the cover story of the current July/August issue of  AHMM.

July/August 2019 issue
This time, I believed that I was a closer to the mark, employing my series characters Madame Selina and her apprentice Nip Tompkins in what I’d decided would be their final outing. Readers like to know what happens to characters, and this was a way of showing the resourceful Nip thriving as a cub reporter on the New York Herald and Madame contemplating retirement in the face of the vulgarities of the Gilded Age.

Madame would be the Nero Wolfe character, the brains of the operation, and Nip, who narrates, would run errands for her just as he used to do back when he was operating the bellows and creating the “ectoplasm” that enhanced her seances. I had the lines of authority and command down this time with no subversive ideas about class or gender.

Alas, I had ignored two little difficulties: Nip’s initiative – especially evident with a young woman as charming as Lucy Devereux in jeopardy – and Madame’s signature resource, the seance with Augustus, her pipeline to the afterlife. However intelligent Madame Selina, however careful her ( and Nip’s) researches, a Madame Selina story has to dim the lights and summon the Roman emperor. I can hear Nero Wolfe snort!

Oddly enough I did not see any problems at the time, showing that writers can be blind when an idea is upon them. In both cases, I congratulated myself on constructing a big reveal scene before the assembled suspects and in a variety of small ways developing plots without the chases and action that I usually find so helpful in fleshing out a story.

In retrospect I have to admit that my Professor and Madame Selina, Jean Galloway and Nip Tompkins are maybe best described as Stout-ish characters. They’re doing their best but they are not really suitable for a traditional form relying strictly on logical deduction and, I suspect, most comfortable with clear social hierarchies.

07 June 2019

Jane Harper

by Janice Law

It is always a pleasure to discover a  good new – or new to me – writer, especially someone from an unfamiliar corner of the mystery world. The award winning Jane Harper, born in the UK, raised in Australia, educated in part back in the UK, and now living and writing in Australia, fits the bill.
Her novels, two so far with a third out this month, are rooted in the Australian landscape. The Dry, set in the backwater farming town of Kiewarra, is about the murder of a family. But it is also about the corrosive effects of prolonged drought, blistering heat, and looming fires on a struggling insular community. She creates the hardscrabble sheep-raising district with visceral intensity, a perfect scene for her tough, frazzled, anxious characters.

If The Dry is all about heat and looming impoverishment, Force of Nature offers upscale characters and an icy rain – Aussie weather apparently runs to extemes. A top female executive goes missing on a pricy bonding adventure in a wildlife reserve, a place of towering trees, impenetrable undergrowth, and sinister history. Rain and cold, missed trails, lost food and water lead to a breakdown, different from, but nearly as complete as that faced by citizens in bone dry Kiewarra. In both novels, Aaron Falk, joined by his new work partner Carmen Cooper in Force of Nature, provides a thoughtful, reserved presence.

The novels are skillfully well-plotted with an abundance of possible (and plausible) suspects and poignant collateral damage. What interested me, however, was her variation of the traditional and familiar device of past is prologue. The crime in each novel has echoes of long past misdeeds, mistakes, and relationships. Nothing new there.

What is original, I think, is the way that Harper has woven glimpses of the past into the ongoing narrative. Throughout both books, short italicized sections challenge, and sometimes correct, what characters claim in the present. In The Dry in particular, a scene may be presented more than once, the second time reversing the meaning of a remark or an event that had originally seemed quite straightforward, sending the investigation on a new direction.

Often the corrections or elucidations have to do with events from the characters’ own youth. Childhood is rarely a golden age for Harper’s characters and even those initially blessed with happiness rarely sustain it long. But if joy is fleeting, youthful friendships, hatreds, and rivalries have a long life in her fiction. It is perhaps not giving too much away to say that memories of the past both assist and hinder Federal Agent Falk in his investigations. Or that the investigator, primarily a financial sleuth specializing in fraud and white collar crime, is himself shadowed by long ago events in Kiewarra.


Although it may not be to every reader’s taste, I found Falk’s restraint in his personal relations a pleasant and realistic change from the heavy breathing romances that so often feature in mysteries and, especially, thrillers. A fleeting hint of attraction to his new partner and a nostalgic visit to a popular classmate back in his home town are enough to indicate Falk’s uncertain confidence and basic decency. He’s got baggage, but he’s an adult.

Jane Harper worked for a number of years as a journalist in Australia before winning a short story contest led her to begin taking her fiction more seriously. Apparently a 12 week online course in novel writing proved instrumental in turning an early manuscript into The Dry. Nice to know that contests and online courses occasionally can pay off!

16 May 2019

Historical Mysteries: Frank Tallis

by Janice Law

First in the series of Vienna mysteries
Although I am as fond as anyone of up-to-date contemporary tales, “ripped from the headlines” as one of my old editors used to say, I’m also beginning to quite like historicals. Lets face it, detectives out and about and asking questions and using their little grey cells have it all over scans of CCTV footage and rows of white-collar coppers studying their computer screens.

Naturally, the historical mystery genre has its difficulties as well, presenting a tricky balance for the writer. From writing a number of novels set in the past, I discovered that readers enjoy only so much difference and strangeness. Local color, odd costumes and odder customs are  OK, so long as the hero and heroines have basically contemporary ideas and attitudes. I learned this the hard way with All the King’s Ladies, a novel about the Affair of the Poisons at the court of Louis XIV.   Only belatedly did I realize it would probably have sold a great many more copies if the king’s mistresses had been more romantic creatures, instead of the cold-eyed business women they were in reality.

So I was pleased recently to discover Frank Tallis’ series of Vienna mysteries, featuring the young doctor (and Freud disciple) Max Liebermann and his friend, Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt. The books hit a good balance between historical accuracy and modern thinking. The result is a detailed portrait of cosmopolitan pre-WWI Vienna in the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph. Tallis knows his cultural history, especially music, and has done his research on the tangled politics, secret societies, and threatening undercurrents of what was on the surface, a glittering and progressive capital.

His appealing main characters exhibit a distinctively contemporary sensibility. It is not too surprising that Amelia Lydgate, blood expert and medical student is alert to the misogyny of the medical profession. But it is more surprising that Liebermann, fascinated by Freud’s ideas, should apply them with many critical reservations, especially with respect to his female patients. Or that Rheinhardt, a
member of the conservative police force, should be so open to what amounts to a female forensics expert. Totally plausible historically? I doubt it, but it makes them fun to spend time with.

Tallis has other strengths beyond careful and well-written historical research and good detectives. A clinical psychologist, he puts his medical and scientific knowledge to work to construct elaborate plots and ingenious modus operandi for both his cops and killers. A Death in Vienna features a locked room puzzle – with a locked box puzzle inside. Vienna Blood offers a serial killer with what, in symphonic terms, might be called a program.

While the murders themselves are quite far up on the gruesome scale, the complexity of the plots and the ingenuity of the solutions are in Agatha Christie territory – an interesting combination to say the least.

The social and psychological settings for these mysteries are also carefully done. Liebermann is a member of the prosperous Jewish bourgeoise, comfortable, well-educated, cultured. Although quite aware of a pervasive anti-Semitism, he is personally protected by his status and abilities and optimistic about the future. Interestingly, his father Mendel, a factory owner less educated and assimilated, is more perceptive about what are destined to be increasingly toxic and dangerous political currents.

The series of what are now called the Liebermann Papers began in 2006 and have now run to eight novels; the most recent, The Mephisto Waltz, came out this year. They are well worth a look.

25 February 2019

The Uses of Mystery

by Janice Law

Some time ago, Thomas Pluck devoted his last SleuthSayers blog to the proposition that the novel of social realism is alive and well in certain gritty segments of the mystery genre. By coincidence, I had just finished reading Jim Gauer’s wildly ambitious, overly long but brilliantly written Novel Explosives.  

Gauer uses mystery and thriller conventions to depict the unholy nexus of crime, finance, corporate exploitation and weaponry that have devastated Mexico, especially Ciudad Juarez and the unfortunate young women who labor in its maquiladoras.

He presents familiar elements – though often with a surreal twist. Thus we have the cold and cynical Shakespeare quoting crime boss. Plus his two minions, Ray and Eugene, who are on a mission to kill the man we know first as The Poet and later as Douchebag, the erstwhile unsuspecting financial manipulator for the drug ring.

We have a possibly helpful, possibly complicit beauty in Guanajuato, Mexico, and her opposite number, who may or may not be on the side of the angels, up in El Paso. We have enough heavy weaponry to outfit any number of military thrillers and a vet with very serious PTS – but only on odd numbered days. We have police overkill and atrocities on every side and more than this reader could understand about financial chicanery.

The Poet's map was less helpful 
All this is immensely plausible, since Gauer, who is a poet, also worked for the military before making his fortune as a hedge fund executive and a venture capitalist. He is also clearly a man with a big interest in modern philosophy, human physiology, Aztec poetry and many other more abstruse topics. Your enjoyment of the novel probably depends on your own similar tastes.

But from the point of view of mystery/ thriller writers, Novel Explosives – and I should mention the ‘novel’ of the title refers to innovative weapons – is a striking example of the uses of our favorite conventions and an illustration of the fact that every generation only has so many stories.

The 18th century loved tales of female virtue imperiled but defended. The 19th enjoyed the pursuit of love and marriage then switched to the dangers of want and misery. Our side of the Atlantic loved Horatio Alger stories and then the still-popular immigrant experience. In mysteries, we, like Mr. Gauer, are fond of flawed heroes struggling to do right in a corrupt world.  Ray, his hitman, is the most morally alert of his characters, and it will not spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the book to reveal that he has nearly superhuman endurance as well as  exceptional military skills.

The creepy Mr. Big, a staple of popular fiction in print and on screen, also makes an appearance in the predatory drug lord Mr. Gomez, who represents the criminal component of  what the author sees as a corrupting and disastrous web. Drug use (and the War it) on feed profits to the violent Mexican cartels, which in turn corrupt the Mexican police and military. Criminal financiers launder drug profits and outright criminals funnel south the military grade weapons both cops and crooks need.

Exploited on every side are the unfortunate workers of the maquiladoras, often peasants forced off their land by the changes wrought by NAFTA. The workers are heavily female, very young, low paid, exploited, and at risk of rape, torture and murder. Their male counterparts, less desirable to the corporate types running the factories, opt for risky but lucrative work in the drug trade. Altogether crime, corruption and violence make Ciudad Juarez one of the anterooms of Hell.

Over all looms Saint Death 
Where Gauer departs from the mystery/thriller format is in his treatment. The pages’ long paragraphs, the dissertations on everything from Native American medical techniques to 20th century Portuguese poetry, and enough digressions to rival Tristram Shandy take Novel Explosives into more literary territory. Add a strong strain of surreal fantasy and you are in Thomas Pynchon’s neighborhood not Michael Connolly’s.

But despite the literary fireworks, the bones of the thing will be familiar to Sleuthsayers fans: a amnesiac hero pursued by professional hitmen, both of whom have a conscience. A brutal crime lord who never dirties his hands, corrupt financial men behaving like Masters of the Universe, police and military overkill, and the deaths of innocents.

The treatment in Novel Explosives is surreal, fanciful and philosophical, but the structure owes much to popular, even pulp, fiction, illustrating once again the almost endless flexibility of the genre.

For an interesting interview with Jim Gauer – and details of doing research in Juarez –listen in to Eye 94 out of Chicago at Jim Gauer on Eye 94 .

31 December 2018

The World Revolved and We Resolved

Happy New Year!  To celebrate the occasion some of the regular mob here decided to offer a resolution for you to ponder.  Feel free to contribute your own in the comments.

It has been an interesting year  at SleuthSayers and we hope it has been one for you as well.  We wish you a prosperous and criminous 2019.

Steve Hockensmith. My new year's resolution is to write the kind of book that I would really enjoy reading but which will also have a decent chance of finding an enthusiastic publisher...which might be the equivalent of resolving to lose 30 pounds by only eating your favorite pizza.

Eve Fisher. Mine is to break my addiction to distracting myself on the internet.  


John M. Floyd.  
1. Read more new authors.
2. Write more in different genres.  
3. Let my manuscripts “cool off” longer before sending them in. 
4. Read more classics.
5. Search out some new markets. 
6. Cut back on semicolons.
7. Go to more conferences.
8. Go to more writers’ meetings.  
9. Get a Twitter account.
10. Try submitting to a contest now and then.  This one’s low on my list—I avoid contests like I avoid blue cheese—but I probably should give it a try. (Contests, not blue cheese.)   

Paul D. Marks. I resolve to watch fewer murder shows on Discovery ID and murder more people on paper.

Barb Goffman.  My new year's resolution is to finish all my projects early. Anyone who knows me is likely rolling with laughter now because finishing on time is usually a push for me. Heck I'm often writing my SleuthSayers column right before the deadline, and I'm probably sending in this resolution later than desired too. But at least I'm consistent!

Janice Law. I resolve to start reading a lot of books- and only finish the good ones.

Stephen Ross.  My New Year resolution is to FINALLY finish a science fiction short story I started two years ago, but have yet to think of a decent ending!

Steve Liskow.  I love short stories but find them very difficult to write. I've resolved that I will write and submit four new short stories in 2019.  My other resolution is to lose 15 pounds. That will be tricky since I don't know an English bookie...

Art Taylor. My resolutions are pretty regular—by which I mean not just ordinary but recurrent; for example, I’m redoubling my resolution to write first and to finish projects—keeping on track with some stories and a novel currently in the works. I fell short on my big reading resolution of 2018 (reading aloud the complete Continental Op stories—still working on it!) but I did keep up with reading a list of novels, stories, and essays set in boarding schools (related to my novel-in-progress) and that’s a resolution that’s continuing into 2019 as well, with several books recently added to the list, including The Night of the Twelfth by Michael Gilbert and A Question of Proof by Nicholas Blake. I know these might seem more like “things to do” than “resolutions” but that’s how I plan, I guess! For a real resolution, how about this one? Be nicer to our cats. (They’re demanding.) 

Robert Lopresti.  Back in 2012 I won the Black Orchid Novella Award for a story about a beat poet named Delgardo, set in October 1958.  I am currently editing his next adventure, which takes place in November 1958.  In 2019 I want to write "Christmas Dinner," which will be set in... oh, you guessed.

Melodie Campbell. This fall, we found out my husband has widespread cancer.  He isn't yet retirement age, so this has been a shocking plot twist.  In the book of our lives together, we have entered a new chapter.

That metaphor has become my new resolution, in that it is a new way of looking at life in all its beauty and sorrow.  I am a writer.  I have come to view my life as a book.  There are many chapters...growing up, meeting one's mate, raising children, seeing them fly the nest.  Even the different careers I've tried have become chapters in this continuing book.  Some chapters are wonderful, like the last five years of my life.  We don't want them to end.  Others are more difficult, but even those will lead to new chapters, hopefully brighter ones. 
May your book be filled with many chapters, and the comforting knowledge that many more are to come.

Leigh Lundin.  Each year my resolution is to make no resolutions.  A logical fallacy probably is involved.

R.T. Lawton.  I tend not to make New Year’s resolutions anymore. Why? So as to not disappoint myself. At my age, there are fewer things I feel driven to change, and for those circumstances I do feel driven about, I make that decision and attempt regardless of the time of year.

For instance, there is the ongoing weight concern, but I hate dieting or restricting myself from temptation. Other than working out, my idea of a dieting program these days is not using Coke in my evening cocktails. Instead, I’ll merely sip the Jack Daniels or Vanilla Crown Royal straight or on the rocks. Not many calories in ice. On the days I gain a pound (weigh-ins every morning), I can usually guess why. On the days I lose weight, I have no idea why. My best weight loss (usually five pounds at a crack), mostly comes from some health problem I did not anticipate and which involved minimal eating for a few days. Naturally, I’m eating well these days, so we’re back to the temptation thing.

As for any writing and getting published resolutions, that’s a constantly renewable action, however, I can only control the writing and submitting part. The getting published part is up to other people and beyond my control, except for e-publishing.

For those of you making New Year’s resolutions, I wish you much success and hope you meet your goal. And, to spur you on with your commitment, let me know in June how well you did.

Have a great New Year!

08 December 2018

Saying Good-bye, part 2

by Janice Law

I’ve written before about saying good-bye to important characters, but recently I have taken farewells to a whole other level. Let me explain. When we moved into our old farm house thirty years ago, I built book cases. We had already lightened ourselves of several dozen boxes of books before we moved in, but no writer can live in a house without bookcases and our new ones were quickly filled.
My husband had runs of Wisden Cricket Anthologies and Rothman’s Football ( soccer) Yearbooks, as well as rows and rows of reporters notebooks. Our son had a vast comics collection, and I had – well, more or less everything – favorite children’s books, philosophy tomes from my undergraduate days, Norton anthologies, those tools of the trade of English teachers, art books, novels, histories – and a growing number of manuscript boxes.

They went onto the shelves, and since I have more or less a truce with dust, there they stayed until a month ago when the planets aligned, the karma was right and I decided to wash the woodwork and weed the books. If you can possibly avoid such a ridiculous impulse, by all means do so.
Piles of discarded books 
I was not so wise and began emptying the shelves. It is quite amazing how many books can fit onto a ten or twelve inch shelf, especially if one doubles up paperbacks and smaller volumes. It is also surprising and depressing how dirty books get and how even gently-treated volumes begin to fade
and develop foxing. In short, books age like the rest of us and after a number of decades some, even those holding the wisdom of the tribe, are too worn, dirty and depressing even for the library book sale. Say good bye to them!

And then, writers do accumulate paper. Now, of course, everyone stores their novels and short stories digitally. But those of us old enough to have lost manuscripts or who have discovered that word-processing programs can become obsolete will always insist on at least one paper copy. Published novels go off to a university archivist who probably unwisely requested my manuscripts. But the unpublished, even ones close to my heart, are unwanted. There they are, first and second drafts, additions, corrections, second and third thoughts, taking up shelf space in their big white cardboard boxes.

I didn’t have the heart to discard them entirely, although one ancient mystery, the second I wrote and a hard luck book, joined the pile. The day the contract for it with Macmillan was due to be signed, the department was terminated. I am beyond retyping a manuscript decades old!

Otherwise, cheered on by my husband who quite rightly points out that just about everything one needs is available on the web, I was ruthless. Would I ever read Kant again? Highly unlikely. What about Hume? I’d consulted him within a decade, give him a pass. Out- dated atlases and reference books? Gone. Various anthologies, well marked for classroom use? Out. Variorum editions of Shakespeare? Ditto. A paper copy of Eric Ambler’s Journey into Fear, dusty with the cracked spine and underlining that I’d studied before writing my first novel? Out, although I was seriously tempted to rescue it at the last moment. I think any book lover will understand my hesitation.

Space for new volumes!
At last, after days of breathing dust, the shelves were washed and clean, and the  reprieved books installed again. Quite a tribute to good housekeeping. My husband repeats that after all, you can find whatever you need on the internet, that the physical book is a thing of the past and that the Kindle is a very nice reader.

All true, but I look at my tidy shelves with their newly freed-up space for family photos and souveniers, and I have another thought: I have space for more books.

02 November 2018

The Complexity • Plausibility Intersection

by Janice Law

How about that title? In another life I spent time in academia and learned that a fancy title is better than an intelligible essay. However, pretension aside, the tension between complexity and plausibility remains one of the troubling features of our favorite genre.

It does seem unfortunate that the red herrings, misdirections, and deceptions of one sort or another so dear to the hearts of mystery writers and readers are usually the least plausible story features. Indeed, the more ingenious the puzzles the less realistic the plot. I may have been the only reader disenchanted with The DaVinci Code but I’ll bet I was not the only one who had to jettison all expectation of reality.

Worse, the more intricate the plot – and as someone who has always struggled with plotting I have the greatest admiration for the well-wrought narrative – the less memorable the story. Think about it: the great crime and punishment plots are the simple ones, in some cases, with the denoument foretold. In contrast, how many of us can remember more than the briefest impression of even the best crime novels? The reason, of course, is that in the service of mystification and suspense, the story inevitably loses simplicity in twists and surprises.
Don't listen to witches

This makes a good mystery fun to read but hard to remember, compared to say, Macbeth, which can be summarized in a phrase: witches’ prophesy drives noble Scot to regicide, tyranny and disaster. Try to summarize the life trajectory of the characters in Gone Girl, as compared to the biography of the ill fated Oedipus Rex: Abandoned king’s son returns to unknowingly kill father, marry mother; plague ensues. Simpler yet is the tale of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment: Student kills pawnbroker and has regrets.

Oedipus
There is no suspense in any of these, except the uneasy anticipation of the worst, and red herrings and clever plot are superfluous. The narrative line goes straight to the jugular, and once the action gets underway, the narrative is not just plausible but inevitable.

Few modern mystery writers will be so fortunate as to construct a plot as simple, powerful, and memorable as the classic crime tragedies, although John Steinbeck contributed a great novella of crime and sorrow with Of Mice and Men. Instead, rather surprisingly in a genre so reliant on action and plotting, the lasting memories of our favorites really rely on atmosphere and character.

With the possible exception of Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, the clever twists of Agatha Christie plots are lost to oblivion. Fortunately she created two iconic detectives in Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. They are what one remembers along with those toxic country houses, vengeful small towns, and dangerous resorts.

Ditto for Raymond Chandler whose plots were never very watertight but whose Philip Marlowe, stylized diction, and lush California settings remain indelible. Dorothy Sayers, like Agatha Christie, was fortunate to create two great protagonists with Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. Their plots are forgotten but not her characters, nor her snobbish delight in top nation venues and the heyday of the class system.

More recently, we have had detectives like Kurt Wallander, Bernie Gunther, Thomas Lynley, Barbara Havers, Commissaire Adamsberg, and Adam Dalgleish, all enjoyable to read with delightfully complex – but ultimately forgettable plots. Instead, we remember Gunther’s ghastly WW2 East front setting, Adamsberg’s dreamy eccentricities, Wallander’s decline into dementia, Lynley’s romantic tragedy, Havers’ dogged persistence, Dalgleish’s poetry.

Clever devices and complex narratives propel novels to the best seller list. But what lingers in the reader’s mind are character and atmosphere. And what gives writers long careers are memorable protagonists. The plots can be – and maybe must be, given market trends – exaggerated, the characters must still be plausible if the work is to linger in the mind.

Getting the balance right is difficult. I suspect that the tension between exciting (and surprising) action and the plausibly human is the reason why, despite excellent, sometimes brilliant, writing even the best crime fiction is set a step below contemporary or literary novels.

22 September 2018

Do Authors Expect Too Much? (wait a minute...this is a serious post. Has Bad Girl lost her mind?!)

by Melodie Campbell

I'm guilty of this one. I'll say it right up front.

Janice Law and O'Neil De Noux got me thinking serious thoughts, which is always risky for a comedy writer.

I make a living as an author.  But not a particularly good one.  Probably, I could make the same working full time at Starbucks.  As authors in these times, we don't expect to make a good living from our fiction.  It's a noble goal, but not a realistic one for the average well-publisher author with a large traditional publisher.

This isn't a new observation.  F. Scott Fitzgerald said something similar about his time:  The book publishing industry makes horse racing seem like a sure thing.

So if we can't expect big bucks from all this angst of writing fiction, what do we expect?

When The Goddaughter came out, there was quite a fanfare.  I was with a large publisher that agreed to pay for refreshments.  Eighty-five people overflowed the place for the launch.  Local newspaper and television brought cameras.  This doesn't happen in mega-city Toronto.  But in Hamilton, a city of 500,000 where my book was set, I got some splashy coverage.

Those eighty-five people included some of my closest friends and cousins.  I was delighted to see them support me.  We sold out of books quickly.

I've had another twelve books published since then. I've won ten awards.  I am still fortunate to get people to my launches.  But the mix has changed.  The people who come to my launches now are fans, not relatives and friends.  With a few exceptions (and those are friends I treasure.)

Back when I first started writing - when big shoulders were a really cool thing - I expected my friends and extended family to be my biggest supporters.  I've been fortunate.  My immediate family has been terrific.

But expecting your friends and extended family to celebrate your success in continual ways is a road to disappointment.

I've come to realize this: if you work, say,  in a bank and get a massive, very difficult project done, there are no parades.  Your friends and family don't have a party for you.  They don't insist on reading the report.  Your paycheck is your award.

Yet as an author, I have expected that sort of response from my non-writer friends.  I expect them to buy my books.  (First mistake: all your friends will expect to be given your books for free.  For them, it's a test of friendship.)  I expect them to show up to support me at my big events if I am in their town.  Maybe not every time.  Is once a year too much?

It's been a lesson.  I have people in my circle who have never been to a single one of my author readings or launches.  I've given my books to relatives who are absolutely delighted to receive a signed copy - but they never actually read the book.

Worse - I've done the most masochistic thing an author can do.  I've casually searched friends' bookshelves for my books.  Not there.  (Note to new authors: NEVER ask someone if they have read your book.  You are bound to be disappointed.  This is because, if they read it and liked it, they will tell you without prompting.  If they read it and didn't like it, you don't want to know.  If they didn't read it...ditto.)

Yet along this perilous, exhilarating and sometimes heartbreaking journey, I've made a discovery.  Your closest friends may let you down. I no longer see my closest friend from ten years ago.  I write crime and fantasy.  She let me know that she thought that unworthy.

People like her will find excuses not to go to your events.  I don't know why.  It could be a form of envy.

But the best thing?  Some people you least suspect will be become your best supporters.  This came as a complete surprise to me.  A few friends - maybe not the ones you were closest to - will rise to the occasion and support you in every way they can.  I treasure them.

To wrap:  Most authors need approval.  We're doing creative work that involves a lot of risk to the ego.  There is no greater gift you can give an author-friend than full support for their books.  Be with us at our events.  Talk enthusiastically about our books to other people.  We will never forget it, and you.

Do we expect too much from those around us?  Is it because we don't usually get a constant paycheck? What do you think?


On Amazon





03 August 2018

Support Your Local Fiction Writer

by Janice Law

I’ve been thinking lately about the human passion for stories, about need to convert the messy realities of the world into tidy narratives. Lately, it has gotten us into difficulties, what with tall stories seeded by reckless bloviators, Russian agents, and conspiracy theorists, not to mention loose charges of fakery whenever news displeases the powerful.

But the passion for stories doesn’t stop with lies for fun and profit. Consider sports broadcasts. Younger readers may be surprised to learn that before TV and the tell-all Jumbotron, broadcasters delivered a call of the game – interspersed admittedly with ads for beer and cigarettes – without relying on the Story Line. Many broadcasters also managed to do a complete baseball or football game or call a tennis or boxing match without the help of the now obligatory “color” commentators.

Well, times have changed. With video omnipresent, commentators with hours to fill now rely heavily on The Storyline. Often this is a story of Redemption, a word they are almost as fond of as preachers, or Triumphant Comeback, preferably from some dire illness – although legal troubles will do in a pinch.

Within these favorite narratives, we have personal rivalries – often carefully cultivated and promoted by the media – and heroic top players who are idolized until they start losing, whereupon they can be repurposed into a tale of Redemption. Unless, of course, the idol is a top coach. These gents are never in need of Redemption because they simply more on to another over the top salary or graduate to the commentary booth.

Is it any wonder that the younger generation seems more inclined to play video games?

What to do about these threats to national games and national politics? Return to truth in labeling and the people who tell stories for an honest ( and usually modest) living: your fiction writers. I can speak only for that subset, the mystery writer, but these are folks who tell stories that are clearly labeled Fiction. They don’t try to add a veneer to events without doing the hard work to turn the stuff of this world into a short story, a script, or a novel.

They are also up front about what they are doing – and they are pros. How often does the latest conspiracy theory fall flat over some preposterous premise? You needn’t worry about that with a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime or the Authors Guild.

Fed up with the familiar story lines and hackneyed phrases? Ditch the amateurs and start patronizing your local novelists, short story writers, and dramatists. These are folks who know their foreshadowing from their denoument and are well acquainted with the rising curve of suspense. They can handle multiple points of view, reliable and unreliable narrators, flashbacks and stream of consciousness. They can satisfy all your fiction needs.

So buy their books and subscribe to the magazines that still print real Fiction, not all the ersatz stuff that is around on the web and the tube. The legion of writers will thank you – and just maybe the body politic, too.

25 July 2018

An Upstart Crow

David Edgerley Gates

Bernard Cornwell's newest book, Fools and Mortals, is a romance about Elizabethan theater, in particular about Shakespeare and the first production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. A lot of Cornwell's books are swashbucklers, the Sharpe novels, the Last Kingdom stories, and this one has its share of derring-do and hair's-breadth escapes, but much of it is theatrical in the literal sense, how a play was staged in 1595, thirty-seventh year of Elizabeth's rule.



Shakespeare isn't uncharted waters. He's had leading parts and cameos before. The yardstick is the Anthony Burgess novel Nothing Like the Sun. Burgess himself calls the period "a word-drunk age," and his novel is a headlong rush of language, told in Shakespeare's own voice, both confident and sharing confidences. (One of my personal favorites is Bitter Applesa novel within a novel, John Crowley's reimagining of that tiger's heart, wrapped in a player's hide, in the first book of his Aegypt quartet, The Solitudes.)


Cornwell gives us a convincing and fully-realized world, the rivalries between the acting companies, the politics of religion, the sexual opportunism, and the internal dynamics of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, onstage and off. In their petty intrigues and their generosity, their authenticity and pretense, a mirror of their betters, and the audience.  Cornwell does his homework, and his careful detail pays off. He always gives it flesh and bone, smoke and odor and tallow. It smells, and not of the lamp.


Which leads to a different question. Using real people in fictions. It's one thing if they're a walk-on (Hitler overheard in the next room, say), and we've likely got more freedom of invention the further off they are from us in history, but whether in the wings or front-and-center, they still have to ring true.

Gore Vidal in Burr, to take an example, confounds our expectations of the Founding Fathers. It's a poisoned-pen letter, but a salutary corrective to the hagiography of Parson Weems. Mary Renault, The Last of the Wine. Socrates is entirely plausible, and no doddering old fart or department store Santa, either. Cecelia Holland. Robert Harris. Philip Kerr. Janice Law's sly mystery series featuring that unapologetic dissolute Francis Bacon. Here lurks a clue, perhaps.


If we don't know for certain what Francis Bacon was doing on a particular Monday morning (although we know he was an air raid warden, during the Blitz), we can make it up. The same goes for Shakespeare or Socrates. Or if we do know, we can fit that into the timeframe and fabric of the story. The trick, it would seem, is putting them in a plausible circumstance. I've used real people, although not in the lead, as a rule. Gen. Leslie Groves has a bit part in "The Navarro Sisters," which is about the Manhattan Project. Owney Madden makes an appearance in a couple of the Mickey Counihan stories, and so does Bumpy Johnson. It's local flavor. I've even hired Elfego Baca as a lawyer, once upon a time, to get a kid off a murder rap in El Paso.

You don't spoil a good story for lack of the facts. Then again, you can't bend the facts to suit yourself. The best case is when you can fill in a few cracks in the existing narrative. There's a famous deleted scene in Ford's movie Young Mr. Lincoln, when Abe Lincoln first rides his mule into Springfield. Another young man steps out of a doorway, onto the plank sidewalk overlooking the street. There's a playbill on the wall next to him, advertising an upcoming theater performance. The two young men make eye contact briefly, and then glance away from each other. The second guy is of course the actor John Wilkes Booth.

*

Best wishes and Godspeed to Art Taylor, who's taking a sabbatical from this forum, picking up the reins of the blogsite First Two Pages, as well as becoming new assistant director of creative writing at George Mason University.  

02 July 2018

Recognition

by Janice Law

I’ve been thinking about recognition lately, although not in the form so close to writers’ hearts as great reviews, editorial interest, and large checks. I’ve been considering it in connection with inspiration, the most mysterious part of the creative process. In particular, I have been trying to figure out the relationship between the two arts that interest me a great deal, namely writing and painting.

The Big Y florist who tripped the switch
It is not uncommon for people to be serious in more than one art. At least two of our Sleuthsayers colleagues are active in both music and writing. Recent Nobel laureate Bob Dylan paints respectably, while an older laureate, Gunther Grass, did really fine etchings. Going the other way, Vincent Van Gogh wrote some of the world’s best letters, while the term renaissance man (or woman) reflects the wide interests and capabilities of what were often primarily visual artists.

On the other hand, if I have a spell of painting, where I am finishing a picture every week or every other week, I have no ideas for anything creative in writing. PR releases for the local library are fine, but anything requiring imagination as opposed to craft is simply absent.

The change from one to the other is abrupt and apparently not under my control. This makes me think that while writing is basically an auditory art, and painting, a visual one, the roots are the same, and at least in my case, there is only so much of the right neural stuff available for work in either one.
That leads to the question of what inspiration in writing and painting have in common, and that
brings me to recognition. In both cases, I seem to recognize something useful. For example, recently I noticed one of the florists at our local supermarket wheeling out a cart of plants. A little mental click and I knew this was a painting. Why not any one of the dozens of other people in the store that day? That remains mysterious.

But that recognition of the pictorial possibilities had a further effect. I painted a whole series of images of the Big Y store personnel, so that recognition triggered a spate of painting and cut off any literary inspiration. Seven or eight paintings down the road, that impulse dried up.
Then various news stories about the Alt Right led me to revisit a story I had begun a number of years ago and abandoned. Again, I recognized something I could use and the result was the completion of that story and at least two more. The verbal switch is apparently now on. How long will it remain? I have no idea, but at some point I hope to see something that says ‘paint me’ and the cycle will start over.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? I would love to know if painter/ musicians or musician/ writers have similar experiences.

Having two arts is lovely, although there is one drawback. Instead of worrying about a lack of inspiration in one field, one gets to worry about two.

15 June 2018

Story & Structure: "English 398: Fiction Workshop" in EQMM

By Art Taylor

Writers often get questions about the weight of character and plot in their works, the balance between them—which they start with when sitting down to write or which ultimately drives the story as it unfolds.

For me, another element seems both inseparable from a story's success and the key, for me, in figuring out how to write it in the first place: structure.

My fiction workshops at George Mason University focus on narrative structure first and foremost. While we obviously discuss character and plot and dialogue and setting and... well, everything that goes into making a story, the semester itself is divided into two assignments: first, write a linear story (chronologically driven start to finish, rising action leading scene by scene to a climax, Aristotelian really), and then write a modular story... which may require some explanation. In class, I assign Madison Smartt Bell's Narrative Design, which likens modular design to the mosaic—bits and pieces of narrative adding up to a more complex whole—and then analyzes modular stories by breaking them down into various vectors, looking at how those vectors interweave and interact.

At its most basic level, there are several ways to understand vectors as they contribute to modular design. Imagine a story that shuttles section by section between two different time frames—exploring how past events impact the present. Or a story with several different narrators, interweaving various contrasting/conflict points of view to reach a clearer truth (I did this myself in my story "The Care and Feeding of Houseplants," navigating the points of view of all three characters in a love triangle.) Or perhaps two seemingly unrelated tales which dovetail on some thematic point. Bell's Narrative Design is also an anthology, and one of my favorite stories is Gilmore Tamny's "Little Red," with one of the vectors narrator the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the other providing commentary from the narrator herself, analyzing the fairy tale, fretting over the themes and implications, even arguing with Little Red herself at various points.

I'll admit that I thrilled by experimental structures. Robert Coover's "The Babysitter" is one of my favorite stories, whose short sections swoop through various perspectives, fears, fantasies, and possibilities all centered on the title character. And then there's Joyce Carol Oates' "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again: Notes for an Essay for an English Class at Baldwin Country Day School; Poking Around in Debris; Disgust and Curiosity; A Revelation of the Meaning of Life; A Happy Ending..." which plays with chronology and perspective so magically. It's a story I teach and reread regularly, I just find it so endlessly fascinating.

Both of these stories were among the inspirations for my new story in the July/August issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine—and its full title shows a clear nod toward Oates' story: "English 398: Fiction Workshop—Notes from Class & A Partial Draft By Brittany Wallace, Plus Feedback, Conference & More."

As the title promises, the story is an amalgam of bits and pieces—with those "note from class" providing the overall framework, punctuating the story with the kinds of advice and guidance that are common to creative writing courses: show, don't tell; use sensory detail; escalate the conflict in as many ways as possible; that sort of thing. A draft from one of the workshop's students is submitted, along with her own notes about other characters, other potential plots twists. Students comment on the draft. And then comes a discussion with the professor—that conference being a required part of the whole process. The "& More" is basically an article from the student newspaper (and I anticipate that last element is part of what prompted Kristopher Zgorski at BOLO Books to comment on the kinds of "contemporary social issues" I'm weaving into the story; thanks again, Kris, for the kind words).

The structure here may not be to everyone's tastes, I recognize that, but I hope that the plot itself will prove interesting and those characters at the core of it—basically, as one of the workshop participants comments, "James M. Cain relocated to a college campus," charting a dalliance between a college professor and one of his top students and then the fallout from that relationship.

(Though I actually teach "English 398: Fiction Workshop" at George Mason University, the story is, um, not autobiographical. Just feel the need to point that out (again and again (and again)).)

Finally on this story, I want to say how pleased I am that EQMM not only gave me a shout-out on the cover but also top billing there—even above recent MWA Grand Master Peter Lovesey, which kind of astounds me. I've already been sampling other stories in the issue—including "The Mercy of Thaddeus Burke," a terrific tale by former SleuthSayer David Dean—and look forward to reading more, with another SleuthSayer in the mix as well, Janice Law with "The Professor," another academic mystery! Looks like a great issue, and I'm honored to be part of it.

22 January 2018

Saying Good-bye, part 1

by Janice Law

My view of Anna
There comes a time for good-byes in literary relationships. I’ve experienced this twice, first with Anna Peters, a detective who made my first novel a success and who explored mostly white collar crime in seven subsequent volumes. I liked her, I really did, but I’d made a serious miscalculation, I’d aged her with me.

Anna, professional illustration
That didn’t seem a problem when I began, but as the series extended and she got older and more settled and developed back problems, I understood that, despite an Edgar nomination, we had to make a break.

Fortunately for my artistic development and for her personal safety, the series was not the fiscal prop of some struggling publisher nor the passion of a legion of demanding fans. I didn’t need to kill her off, as some writers have done with heroes who hung around too long, but could settle her into a decent retirement.

Madame S in AHMM
More recently, I bid farewell to two characters who have done yeoman work in the short story markets, namely Madame Selina, Gaslight era NYC’s leading medium, and her assistant, Nip Tompkins, an orphan with a good deal of savoir faire. I’ve enjoyed them, and Nip, in particular, has a turn of phrase that is a pleasure to record.

But I have already explored many of the issues of their time, including spiritualism, the aftermath of the Civil War, exploited heiresses, Irish rebels, corrupt politicians, votes for women, and immigration.

There are, I know, fertile imaginations that can ring endless changes on a couple of appealing characters and the sins of a big city. Not me. Nip has grown up and, not having any gift for the spirit world, has entered the newspaper business.

My view of Madame S & Nip
Lucky boy, journalism is in its greatest days, and having appeared in a novella along with Madame S, he will perhaps have an afterlife. We will see.

I have been thinking about good-byes lately, because another big one is coming up: the last of the Francis Bacon novels. Mornings in London finishes the second trilogy with this character. The first trilogy debuted with Fires of London, set during the Blitz when Francis was scraping together a livelihood along with his beloved Nanny, and ends with Moon Over Tangier, when Francis is an established painter with a toxic lover and a big hole in his life following Nan’s death.

I could have said farewell then and had the perfect ending. But these things are not solely under the writer’s control. Francis, gay, alcoholic, promiscuous, and ambitious, was such fun. He was quite different from Anna, Madame Selina or Nip. Although he disliked the countryside and animals, both of which I adore, he was interested in the Greek plays and Shakespeare, and of course, in painting. So am I.

But I did not necessarily want to forge ahead. As a general rule, people of great achievement are more interesting on the way up. Their struggles to succeed are much interesting that the lists of greatest hits of the established artist. The solution was to head backwards, where I felt Francis was both more charming and more vulnerable, the latter an essential for any mystery, caper, or suspense novel. The Bacon books partake of all three.

Last Francis Bacon novel
His biography was a great help in the decision. He was dispatched with a truly funny uncle to Weimar Berlin in his father’s delusive hope that he would come back a heterosexual soldierly type. Then he went to Paris, catching the end of the Roaring Twenties and acquiring some basic art training, before he set himself up in London with his nanny and opened a design studio.

Three venues, three books. It worked out nicely. But now the Second World War is coming, and Francis is about to become an Air Raid Precautions warden and embark on the adventures of Fires of London. Although he’s been good for me, being a finalist three times for a Lambda award and winning once, it’s time to say good-bye.

As consolation, he recently acquired another life in the form of talking books, as the first four volumes have been produced by Dreamscape and are excellently read by Paul Ansdell. Francis could not have been better voiced. My Francis is pleased, and maybe the real Francis Bacon would have been, too.

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".