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

03 August 2020

The Second Sleep


"The writing of many books," said Ecclesiastes, " is a weariness of the flesh," and even with the invention of the computer and instant research on the web, the construction of many plots and the devising of many characters can tire the Muse. Consider with mysteries that there are only two sorts to murder, male or female, and only so many plausible motives, led by the always dependable lust, greed, and envy, and you can see why the modern version of the Biblical scribe begins to think that books are long and novel series longer.

We crave variety and the getting of it is not always easy. That is why, despite certain reservations, I have to cheer Robert Harris, whose newest, The Second Sleep, pulls off the neat trick of setting the future in the past and lining up one mystery in order to reveal a quite different sort of crime.

Harris first gained fame with another clever premise in Fatherland. His protagonist is a Kripo detective in a post WW2 Germany, and the twist is that the Nazis, having won the war, now are trying to clean up their image, a circumstance which makes all sorts of trouble for the basically conscientious and decent investigator.

He followed up this best seller with a mystery set at Bletchley Park among codebreakers in a UK still very much in the war. After that he went further afield in history, rather than alternative history, to do a series of crime novels set in the Roman Empire. Now he has returned to the south of England to the Year of Our Risen Lord, 1468, with a priest riding an old mare toward a small town in Wessex.

The twist is that The Year of Our Risen Lord is, by our present calendar, roughly 800 years in our future. Our current technological civilization has collapsed, world population has crashed, and the folks in rural Wessex are living like their medieval ancestors with high birth and death rates, lousy sanitation, rudimentary education, a king, and a domineering church.

For various reasons, the religious establishment, recognizably a variant of the Church of England, is particularly down on history, antiquarian books and investigations and speculations of every type. It is a shock to the inexperienced Father Fairfax, our man on the mare, when he discovers that the late Father Lacy, whose funeral he has been sent to conduct, was a passionate collector of ancient
memorabilia and the possessor of a variety of heretical books.

He also possessed a letter from one Peter Morgenstern, who had speculated on possible civilization-ending dangers, including disruption of the computer networks, pandemic, climate change, nuclear war, and a host of other all-too believable perils. These speculations shock Father Fairfax, steeped as he is in the church doctrine that they are living post the Biblical Apocalypse and that it was a supernatural event, a punishment for wrong doing and secularism, that caused the great disaster.

It is in this quite ingenious setting that Harris has placed his first mystery: the real cause of Father Lacy's demise, gradually unfolds the second, much more complex mystery, that forms the substance of the novel. In effect, he has most efficiently borrowed historical descriptions of late medieval/early renaissance life in rural England to depict the future. And it works.

I am not sure the same strategy would be satisfactory in an American novel. But in Britain, where human history is not only thousands of years deep, but with many large and still visible ancient monuments, and where there are relatively homogenous populations that can trace their genetic lineage back a thousand years and more, disbelief can be suspended.

Harris' characters are easy to take, too, perhaps too easily. The main players seem suspiciously modern in their outlooks even after eight centuries of religious indoctrination, and Father Fairfax's fall from grace happens with suspicious ease. That said, The Second Sleep is intelligently put together, its real revelations pack a punch, and it certainly gets high marks for ingenuity, especially when so many best-selling authors find a format and cling to it.



15 July 2020

Worse Than Janice?


Sometimes a wrong turn can take you to a wonderful address.

SeuthSayer Janice Law is one of my favorite living short story writers.  She has made my Best-Story-of-the-week six times and my best-of-the-year four.

Back in 2012 Janice had a story in Mystery Writers of America Present Vengeance.  The title was "The General" and it concerned a Latin American dictator, living in exile in the United States, who becomes convinced that his wise and elderly gardener is stealing away his son's love and respect.

When I read the story I was pretty sure I knew where it was going.  To my delight I was completely wrong. Janice fooled me completely.

But, I realized, just because Janice didn't choose the direction that occurred to me doesn't mean it is a dead end.  I could drive that way on my own.

And so I wrote "Worse Than Death," which is now available in the sixth issue of Black Cat Mystery MagazineIn my story, a dictator named Hidalgo is still very much in power.  His son, Teo, is kidnapped by a gang led by a wise old teacher.

They don't want money.  They don't even ask Hidalgo to resign.  What they demand is that he send them a confession of all his crimes.  Well, not all.

"I am only interested in wrongful deaths.  Not torture, not robbery, not false imprisonment.  Or graft, of course!  My God, if we tried to cover all your sins poor Teo would die of old age, wouldn't he?'

The viewpoint character is Hidalgo's head of security. He knows if the boy is harmed he will died for it.  But if Hidalgo writes the confession the whole government is likely to wind up on trial at the World Court.  So you might say he is highly motivated...

Clearly this is not one of my laugh-a-minute romps.

 It is also my third (and I sincerely hope, last) story about a child kidnapping.  (See this one and that one.)  When I told a friend about this he said he wasn't going to let me anywhere near his kids.

Some people are so suspicious. 


08 June 2020

A Different View



Barbara Neely died in March 2020 and after reading the New York Times obituary, I ordered up a kindle version of  Blanche on the Lam, her first mystery novel. It featured Blanche White, a freelance domestic worker, adoptive mom, snoop, and freethinker, and it was published in 1976, the very same year that my Anna Peters debuted in The Big Payoff.

That opening sounds like the start of some shameless self-promotion, but it's not. I mention it because both Blanche and Anna represented something new in the genre, women of the working class. Women sleuths had been around for quite some time, but most of them were well-connected and well-educated. It was one of my irritations with characters like the otherwise admirable Kate Faissler (Amanda Cross) was that she was prone to pick up the phone and dial up help of one sort or another.

Even Miss Marple, who does have the excuse of advanced age, was very fond of delegating the leg work, while Harriet Vane (Dorothy Sayers), who was much more active, still had that invaluable resource Lord Peter Whimsey at her beck and call.

Characters like Anna (underpaid secretary and occasional blackmailer) and Blanche (cook/ housekeeper) were without much backup. They couldn't ring up the chief constable or a top lawyer. They didn't have lines into the local police force or wealthy protectors or tame journalists. No, indeed. If they wanted information they had to get it themselves and pay for it one way or the other.

They were followed six years later by two famous, rather better-educated-and-connected women detectives, Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski and Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone. Their literary descendants have been legion!

Naturally, these characters were all more striking at their debut. Both Anna and Blanche had a healthy skepticism when it came to rank and power, whether it involved rich white homeowners in the Jim Crow South or industrial titans in the oil industry. Blanche, in particular, has a lot to say about race and class, about expectations and patterns of behavior, much of it pungently expressed.

But what struck me, coming to the book years after its publication when there are a few more minority mystery writers and more varied sleuths of all types, was how cleverly Neely reversed the conventions, particularly the conventions of the classic British mystery novel, which relies heavily on the patterns and expectations of the class structure, and of deference from what used to be called 'the lower orders'.

First, the matter of backup and resources. Law enforcement is clearly not on Blanche's side, not as a matter of social order and also because she is on the lam after a bounced check. Clearly, she can't take off work to research her employer's dodgy husband or travel to Atlanta to suss out some details of their marriage. Instead, she employs the network of underpaid domestics, gardeners and chauffeurs in the black community, along with Miz Minnie, the local wise woman.  They know a great deal.

Instead of being faithful Bunters à la the Lord Peter stories, these silent but all seeing, all hearing, servants know the score and at least suspect where the bodies, literal and figurative, might be buried. They are a huge help to Blanche.

Even more important is her own attitude. She is a good cook and a conscientious worker, but she keeps a resolutely independent mind, fearful of succumbing, as she is kind-hearted, to what she calls the dreaded "Darkies' Disease" of identifying too closely with her employers' troubles and needs. The charming, mildly handicapped Munsfield  presents a problem in this respect, but Blanche keeps her balance. It doesn't hurt her emotional restraint that the rest of the household are horrid and possibly homicidal.

Blanche sees herself as an independent contractor before the term arose out of the gig economy, and from her perspective, she runs whatever household employs her. Her specialty is little acts of defiance and enjoyment, and one of the things that make her a complex and enjoyable character is the way she approaches the fine line between clear-eyed perspective and mild self-delusion.

A character of high intelligence, courage and integrity she is employed in often complex but usually much undervalued work. She is a domestic worker by preference, despite its drawbacks, because she sees it as a way to remain independent. And, of course, even if few other writers have chosen their sleuths from downstairs, Blanche has a view of the ground floor of crime.

20 April 2020

The Starless Sea



Although most of my writing has been mystery novels and short stories, I have also published a number of contemporary novels, as well as short stories in other genres. For this reason, I am always interested in novels that combine genres or generally break the usual compositional rules.
Erin Morgenstern's The Starless Sea, a love letter to reading, books, and stories of all types, is a fine example. Distinguished by an intricate plot that mixes myth, fable, adventure, and mystery, its greatest strength turns out to be an incredibly detailed and imaginative setting.

That's right, setting.

We like to say that character and plot are absolute keys to success and normally they are. In the case of The Starless Sea, however, while the plot is effective and the protagonists, likable enough, what one is apt to remember is the creation of an alternate world, dominated by books and stories, far beneath our feet.

Clearly this world, without sun or visible means of ventilation or food production has many, many implausibilities, not to mention the sea of honey, the bees, the Owl King, the seemingly wise cats, and the immortal Keeper. But never doubt the power of a good storyteller. The Harbor where Zachery Ezra Rawlins enters (via an elevator in New York's Central Park) is described with such precision and such a wealth of detail, that it is easy to suspend disbelief. And well worthwhile, too, because that alternate world is where the various stories, some no more than a page or two, some newly-invented fairy tales, and some full-fledged adventures, all come together.

Zachery is a graduate student in Emerging Media, who finds that all he really wants to do is read after a romance goes sour. Scanning his university library's bookshelves, he chances upon Sweet Sorrows, an anonymous volume from a mysterious donor, that recounts an incident in his own life. This triggers a bibliographic mystery, which, in turn, leads him to adventures with members of a mysterious society and their enemies; to Dorian, to whom he will lose his heart, and to Mirabel who may be human or may be a metaphor, but who knows her way around the starless sea and its harbors.

Zachery winds up below ground, while in the upper world, life goes on for people like his friend Kat, an aspiring game designer also enthralled by fiction. At the same time, in another dimension, one of fables and myths, various stories unfold, interesting oddities what will all be eventually pulled into the overall narrative. This complicated structure must have presented many challenges for the author, but the breaks have a useful function. They interrupt what might have become an overly claustrophobic and precious atmosphere of the vast libraries of the starless sea venues, whose very physical structures are sometimes devised from stories on paper.

The narrative spine is provided by Zachery's adventures, interwoven with the experiences of the heroic Dorian; of Eleanor, who literally fell into the Harbor as a young child and of Simon, later her lover and man lost out of time, along with appearances by the enigmatic Mirabel and her antagonist Allegra, the Painter, who wants to preserve a world that both Mirabel and the Keeper know is in decline.

Erin Morgenstern
The line of the novel only becomes clear in its closing stages, but the adventures of the main characters prove strong enough to support the weight of fantasy and myth and, yes, the many metaphors, that fill the book. A clue to the author's ambitions comes when Kat reflects on the type of game she would like to construct: " Part spy movie, part fairy tale, part choose your own adventure. Epic branching story that doesn't stick to a single genre or one set path..." She concludes, "A book is made of paper but a story is a tree."

So speaks the video gamer.

But in The Starless Sea Erin Morgenstern has done something similar the old fashioned way with print on paper.

02 April 2020

Chaos



I probably wouldn't have read Tom O'Neill's Chaos, Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties if he had not appeared on Eye 94, a book show on WLPN-Chicago radio. This is a low power station and the show ( full disclosure here) is hosted by three book geeks, one of whom is our son. It tells you something about the state of the publishing business that a huge variety of authors, from local first timer to literary translators to Pulitzer Prize winners, is willing and eager to share the mikes.

Still on the face of it, another book about the Sixties did not appeal. Great music, sure, and some high ideals, but also a lot of self-absorption, pretension, and outright bad behavior, some of which still haunts us now.

But O'Neill was so down to earth, unassuming, and informative that I cracked the covers. Four hundred and thirty-six pages plus notes later, I know a lot more than I knew before, and I have a lot more questions about what I thought I knew previously.

Chaos, I think, will appeal to two different sorts of readers. Conspiracy buffs and true crime fanciers will have a field day with this exploration into the muddy waters of the Tate-LaBianca murders and their perpetrators. Along the way, O'Neill turns up a bizarre gallery of spy agency and FBI operatives (worried about anti-war protests and Black Power), dodgy psychiatrists, mind-control specialists, ambitious or anxious politicians, and cops both frustrated and corrupt. There's an appearance by Jack Ruby, assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald, along with links to the CIA and illegal human experimentation. You couldn't make this stuff up!

The milieu really requires a Thomas Pynchon to do it justice, and, come to think of it, Pynchon's early novels were contemporary with the drugs, anxiety, and paranoia of the Sixties. Unsurprisingly, O'Neill had trouble digesting all these strands, and what had begun as an article for an entertainment magazine on the lasting impact of the Manson case on Hollywood morphed twenty years later into a book so long and complicated that he took on a collaborator, Dan Piepenbring to help him out of the documentary thicket.

And that brings me to the second group of potential readers: fellow scribblers. While Chaos is a convincingly-researched true crime account, it is also two other things: a critique of what might be called the official story, the late Vincent Bugliosi's best selling Helter Skelter, and the narrative – and it honestly is an epic– of O'Neill's twenty-year pursuit of information.

Anyone who has done even modest amounts of research will be sympathetic to O'Neill's obsessive pursuit of just one more document, one more interview, one more angle. He was warned at the start that the Manson case had the potential to devour his life and that warning proved prescient. Again and again, he worries that he is going down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole, and that he is becoming so overwhelmed not just with information, but with conflicting information, distortions and outright lies, that he will never finish.

It was a near thing. Before he was done, O'Neill was half a million in debt. Premiere, the original commissioning magazine was defunct, and his first publisher had washed its editorial hands of the book and was threatening to sue for the return of his advance. The lot of the writer, like Gilbert and Sullivan's policeman, is not always a happy one.

Thomas O'Neill
O'Neill is candid about these tribulations and about his anxiety concerning his debts, especially to his devoted parents. Along the way he is threatened with retribution of one sort or another and with suits, including several times by Bugliosi, who had some violence issues as well. More than once, O'Neill questioned whether or not devoting his life to the aftermath of  several sordid murders was worthwhile.

Part way through the investigation someone asked him just that, and he records his answer at the end of Chaos: "This has been the most exciting thirteen years of my life. There's nothing like the adrenaline rush of catching these people in lies, and documenting it – knowing you've found something no one else has found."

There speaks the true researcher and one of the truest sorts of detectives.


Good Eye 94 discussion with Tom O'Neill

06 February 2020

Favorite Places


I have written before about atmosphere and setting. No surprise: there are not all that many topics in writing. That mystery writers have favorite venues is one of the obvious and most enjoyable facets of the genre. Many fans have had their views of California shaped by Golden State mystery mavens from Margaret Millar to Raymond Chandler and our own Paul Marks, while Carl Hiaasen has put his stamp on South Florida, as Anne Cleeves’ has put hers on Shetland and the multitude of northern noir writers on Scandinavia and Scotland. Frenchwoman Fred Vargas, currently making Paris dangerous, also includes the Pyrenees, which take up a good deal of psychic space within the capacious mind of her Commissaire Adamsberg.

I have my favorite places, too, but thinking about the topic, I realized that I have only rarely set mystery novels in them. My first detective, Anna Peters, hung out in Washington, D.C., a consequence of her remote inspiration in the Watergate hearings. At the time of the scandal, I was convinced on that some underpaid secretary knew a whole lot she wasn’t saying. I devised such a secretary and moved her to an oil company.
Anna Peters' early environment

When Anna proved modestly popular, her speciality, white collar crime, kept her in big cities with only the occasional side trip to the sort of rural setting I really prefer. She had a visit to St. Andrews, Scotland, one of the world’s great good places, and got to Patagonia, Arizona, a favorite birding location, as well as to Trier, a shabby and historic burg whose Roman ruins caught my eye. But, basically, Anna was stuck in urban life – or well-heeled suburbs.

My second series character, Francis Bacon, the Anglo-Irish painter and bon vivant, was the urban man par excellence, and his city was London, whose light and ambiance encouraged good work. A serious asthmatic, he loathed the country and all its works. Animals made him sick and he thoroughly disliked them – despite the fact that two of his finest paintings depict a screaming baboon and a mastiff. He also did a fine African landscape, complete with elephant, but that did not reconcile him to any place without sidewalks.
Soho, Francis' favorite venue

This inexplicable distaste for the natural world and its more attractive inhabitants was, along with his tin ear for music, the hardest thing  about turning the real Bacon into my character. His rather gaudy sex life, his alcoholism, his genius were the merest bumps in the road compared to constructing a man who hated and feared dogs and found the rural landscape boring.

Perhaps in retaliation, my version of Bacon was frequently in difficulty in rural areas – no doubt confirming all his prejudices. He wound up on camel back in the wilds of Morocco, drove in terror down vertiginous French roads, and effected a rescue on horseback in Germany. His trials and tribulations culminated at a real English country house, his absolute least favorite venue, in his last (and final) outing, Mornings in London.

My own favorite landscape – the rolling woods and farmland of New York state and New England – have been reserved for stand alone, mostly contemporary, novels. Night Bus was set in a fictional town that drew from our village and the one next to it, while Voices went right back to my hometown in Dutchess County, where I am happy to say, the landscape of roughly fifty years earlier was waiting for me.
nearby rail to trail conversion

And that brings me to one of the great pleasures of favorite and familiar landscapes and, indeed, of memory, which I can best illustrate with reference to the climax of Night Bus, which required a lonely cabin in the Adirondacks. I was in such a cabin only once, when I was 18, but unbeknownst to me, the neurons, which had forgotten so much else, remembered exactly what I needed, right down to how the water supply turned on. It was one of the weirdly satisfying moments in my writing life.

It is not often that the pulp fiction writer channels Proust, but the French master of memory was absolutely right about recapturing the past. He wrote that memory, in awakening the past, frees it and the remembering mind for a moment from time. Proust mentions sounds and, that most evocative and primitive of senses, smell, as triggering memory. It is the sound and smell and sight of our favorite places that so often bring us what we need as writers, not only the momentary setting but the weight and flavor of the past.

Do you have favorite literary places as either writer or reader?
Not all favorite places wind up in print

18 November 2019

Local Color


When my late mother-in-law was very old, she developed a passion for Harlequin Romances. A booksellers dream, she ordered up what she called her “little books” by the case, and consumed them at the hair dresser, in the evening, waiting for a train or an appointment. They replaced her now arthritis-denied needlepoint for staving off tedium. She claimed that what she really liked about them was the local color. Her tastes ran to UK settings with local customs like afternoon tea (she had a sweet tooth) and a fair degree of pre-war quaintness.

Recently a couple of new mystery series have gotten me thinking, like my mother-in-law, about the charms of other societies, not just the geographic settings but the cultural ones as well. Sujata Massey has followed up her impressive debut, The Widows of Malabar Hill, about an ambitious young Parsi woman in 1920’s Bombay, with The Satapur Moonstone, set this time in a forested princely state outside the city. In both, the restrictions faced by middle and upper class women combine with carefully observed venues to add believable complications and challenges for her pioneering female lawyer and detective.

Perveen Mistry, apparently based on one of the author’s own female ancestors, has found a niche in the otherwise much-restricted legal system by catering to the legal needs of women in purdah. She, herself, moves relatively freely in her society, although possible pitfalls and dangers were vividly illustrated by her experiences in the initial novel.

In The Satapur Moonstone, Perveen is off in the hinterland, back when the term really had meaning. Parts of Satapur are cut off during the rainy season, with tracks only passable by palaquin – Massey gives a vivid account of the discomforts of this conveyance for both the passenger and the bearers – or on horseback. She also has to conduct delicate negotiations – neither too forward nor too deferential – with the males she encounters, including the Agent of the Raj, whose all-male station, she discovers to her dismay, is her only possible shelter.

The underlying mystery is neatly constructed, but I must confess that it is the curious customs, Perveen’s nicely-calibrated courtesy, and the picture of princely India with imperious royals, impoverished locals, and spectacularly crumbling royal estates that really bring enjoyment.

 If Massey’s Perveen Mistry is distinguished by her iron self control and her sensitivity to the different customs and values of Bombay’s heterogeneous community, Auntie Poldi of Mario Giordano’s Sicilian mysteries is off the charts in the opposite direction, a truly operatic character, or perhaps we should say, a Wagnerian character, because, though Auntie Poldi’s lamented husband was Sicilian, she is Bavarian. And larger than life.

In Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, she decamped to Sicily intending to commit suicide. Her plan involved large amounts of alcohol and seemed easy to accomplish given her weakness for drink. But Auntie’s suicide required a house with a sea view. Renovating this property, along with the beneficent interference of the Sicilian relatives, not to mention the salutary influence of a local murder mystery, keeps putting Poldi’s termination on hold. With her fabulous black wig, her caftans, her hobby of photographing handsome Italian policemen, and her appetites for food, drink, and romance, Poldi is an over-the-top character. And kind of nice to see, given that she is in her sixties.

 My own preference would be for Giordano to scale her back just a tad, but as described by her would-be-novelist nephew, she comes across as a genuine force of nature. Forces of nature being best enjoyed in smallish doses, it is fortunate that the Aunti Poldi stories have a great deal of Sicily as well as a great deal of the Bavarian diva. Sicilian food– abundant, apparently delicious and the pleasing obsession of half the characters – is a big player, as is Sicilian agriculture.

The novels are full of lovely groves of olives and oranges, flowers, ornamental palms and horticultural specimens, and vineyards thriving in the volcanic soil. In Giordano’s books, the island is a paradise, marred only by those so useful snakes, Mafioso and greedy multinationals, both of whom covet the island’s water supply in the newest, Aunti Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna. The plot is silly but the scenery is top flight. As my mother-in-law knew years ago, local color and a touch of the exotic have their place.

04 November 2019

Mythic Mystery


The last few nights I have been watching Die Walkure on PBS. I am not a big Wagner fan, finding his operas slow going, despite all the exotic trappings, the remarkable singers, and the frequently beautiful music. But I had seen broadcasts of the production when it debuted at the Met a decade ago, and I was curious to hear the new cast and to see how the famous – or infamous – Lepage machine had held up.

Wotan tries to get Fricka to see things his way
What struck me on this second viewing was how contemporary the situation was and how familiar the details of the whole Ring must be to any modern mystery aficionado. It’s a classic story of greed and power leading to disaster and regret, with some right up-to-the-minute touches.

Wotan’s troubles really start with luxury real estate in the opening of the Ring cycle. He goes into debt to the giants Fafner and Fasolt in order to build Valhalla, a home for the gods, complete with the rainbow bridge to bring the dead heroes who will defend the gods in the afterlife. Just how that will work out is left unclear, but later on, Wotan will worry that his semi-undead army might be led astray by bribes from a rival.

Those worries are in the future. The giants build Valhalla and, as contractors are wont to do, demand payment. When Wotan is short of cash, the giants seize Freia, the goddess of youth and beauty. The gods realize that this is a bad bargain, for without Freia, they are going to age and die.

Crisis in Valhalla. Wotan and Loki, fire god and trickster, go off to seize the Rheingold. The McGuffin in the opera of the same name, the Rheingold, had already been stolen from the Rhine Maidens by the master craftsman, Albrecht, who has forged the Ring of the Nibelungs, a trinket which guarantees world domination at least some of the time.

The Valkyries
Alas for Wotan, though he and Loki trick Albrecht and seize the treasure, every last scrap including the famous Ring is owed to the giants. They, in turn, immediately fall out over it. Fasolt is killed and Fafner, in a real self re-invention, turns himself  into a dragon, slinks back to the Nibelung forest and guards the golden hoard in his cave.

Wotan has his palace, the giant has his payment. All should be well, but Wotan, Valhalla in hand, wants the security of the Ring and realizes that his hands are tied by the treaties he has made with his rivals. Unlike certain modern politicians who withdraw from treaties without more ado, Wotan wants plausible deniability. He wants a hero who will, as heroes in these things tend to do, fight the dragon and get the gold.

Wotan sets out on this dodgy project, romancing first Erda, the wise earth goddess, and producing the Valkyries, lively equestriennes in odd costumes with wonderful music. But though Brunhilde, the protagonist of Die Walkure, is the most complex, morally alert and interesting character in the whole Ring, she is not a hero. Male gender required.

Brunhilde
Wotan’s second try, a liason with a mortal woman, produces the ill-fated twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde. While the boy is out hunting with his father, the family home is attacked by Hunding, a nasty piece of work, who murders the mother and kidnaps Sieglinde, forcing her to marry him, combining a @MeToo moment with news out of the Middle East.

Siegmund, brave, loyal, devoted, has hero written all over him, but when he finds his sister and falls in love with her, he offends the Fricka, queen of the gods and defender of marriage. Siegmund must die, and only Brunhilde’s courage saves Sieglinde and her unborn child. This will be the long-sought hero who, hampered by a notable lack of sophistication, will kill the dragon, marry his aunt, betray her love, get himself killed and bring on Gotterdammerung.

It’s a lot of keep in mind, but somehow with a philandering politician, a wronged but shrewd wife, luxury real estate, unsupportable debt loads, more or less bare-faced theft, plausible deniability, not to mention rape, murder, and mayhem, the world of the Ring doesn’t really seem that exotic.

20 September 2019

When the Muse Takes a Powder


Although there are authors of unrivaled productivity, nearly every writer comes to periods when the Muse is unavailable. She’s pitched her hammock somewhere on the slopes of Mount Olympus, or if your favor a more modern goddess, she’s on a beach somewhere drinking pina coladas and checking her smart phone. But don’t try to contact her – she’s not taking your calls at the moment, whether you’re sacrificing at Delphi or chasing ideas on the web.
Muses by Eustace LeSueur

I’m not talking about writer’s block here, although that is another and probably more famous affliction. Joseph Conrad left two vivid descriptions of this malady. In a famous letter to Edward Garnett, he apologized for his slow correspondence. “I ought to have written to you before, but the fact is I have not written anything at all. … In the course of that working day of 8 hours I write 3 sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair.”  In another letter he noted, surprisingly, that his imagination was extremely active during these bleak periods: “Everything is there: descriptions, dialogue, reflexion—everything—everything but the belief, the conviction, the only thing needed to make me put pen to paper.”

Joseph Conrad
Most of us would be happy to have descriptions and dialogue not to mention reflection in the hopper, but when the Muse takes a powder, it’s not will that’s lacking for most of us but ideas. Perhaps we can take some comfort in the fact that inspiration can desert even the great. I recently came across a quote from T. S. Eliot in a review of a new volume of his letters. Declaring “ it is a nuisance to be a poet”, he continues, “When it is a life work, you are sure to find from time to time that your inspiration is exhausted, and that you either repeat yourself, or stop writing. These are painful, but necessary periods.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The last sentence is the one I find most significant, especially his comment that these unpleasant dry periods are necessary. I think I agree. At the same time, I suspect that I am not the only writer that faces these fallow times with a touch of dread, fearing rationally or not, that this time the Muse and all her precious ideas are gone for good. It’s certainly possible and, at my age, increasingly likely.

On the other hand, she’s always come back before which gets us to the next question. If she cannot be summoned directly is there anything that helps? Well yes. Effort does sometimes work. Conrad, you will note, was seated at his desk for eight miserable hours a day struggling. Blocked as a poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote voluminously, turning out much admired essays and criticism, but while Conrad managed more novels, Coleridge’s poetry did not return.

On a much humbler level, I have found over the years that ideas come directly from work, particularly when the work is non-fiction or shorter prose fiction. One trains the subconscious to notice what will make, say, a good feature piece or a good short mystery story. In a slightly different way, work on a novel, which begins in a burst of inspiration, enthusiasm, and pleasure, dwindles about the second week to a slog not too different from Conrad’s misery at the writing desk.

Muse regarding a MS
with some skepticism
This is when persistence and craft have to take over until around week 3 or 4, one makes the happy discovery that more copy is waiting each morning. The Muse has been called back by hard work and conscious thought and now the subconscious can do its job.

But sometimes even dedicated persistence does not work. I started a novella a couple of years ago with the usual enthusiasm, wrote several nicely crafted sections, and came to a shuddering halt. Everything was set up nicely, prose was good, voice interesting, characters all right – but the story went nowhere.

It was only a few months ago, that, trying to clean out my file drawers, I read it over, thought it was pretty good, and after a couple weeks of struggle, got back on track and finished the thing. So, while I always encouraged students to try regular habitual writing, I must say that I also believe in the hydraulic theory of composition. The subconscious takes time to fill up. There is only so much energy, inspiration, enthusiasm and confidence available at any one time. Deplete them, and you have to let the Muse lounge in her hammock for a while.


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.