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

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

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". 

                                                










03 October 2017

Nailing the Interview

by Janice Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 September 2017

Golden Age Mysteries, Female Version


by Janice Law


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 September 2017

Cabin Fever

by David Edgerley Gates

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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



07 August 2017

Two Different Worlds

by Janice Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 May 2017

I Never Intended to be a Writer

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

by Janice Law

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

First serious writing 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

24 April 2017

Perspective

by Janice Law

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 April 2017

"Afternoons in Paris" by Janice Law

by Eve Fisher

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

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

Well, HE'S BACK!!!!



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

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

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

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

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

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

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







14 November 2016

Getting Away with Murder – and Other Things

by Janice Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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