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

18 July 2021

Spycraft, Old School


Zoo Station

Usually SleuthSayers learn spycraft from the invisible-ink pen of David Edgerley Gates. A month ago, Janice Law slipped past the yet-to-be-built Berlin Wall to recall David Downing. I depend heavily on my SleuthSayers colleagues for reading material, and I ordered up Zoo Station.

The tale has a much older ‘golden age’ feel of the 1960s and I had to double-check the copyright of the first in the series, 2007. The initial half of the book is slow paced but it builds tension out of proportion to pages turned. I wondered how the author accomplished that, and I’m not the only one. One critic’s comment on the back cover says, “Downing has shown that he can produce that creepy sense of paranoia along with the best of them.”

Furthermore, the book contains a feature I’ve rarely encountered outside a school textbook, a ‘Reading Group Guide’. Question 9 reads: “Given the relative lack of overt violence, how does Downing create the novel’s sense of menace?”

Yeah. How did he do that?

I have a few notions, but other readers will surely come up with better insights. Mostly I credit the immersive nature of the story where the author puts us in the scene with the perfect serving of detail.

The story’s set as the 1930s draw to a close. Perceptive people smell war on the horizon, but live in hope it doesn’t come. Kristallnacht has left its mark. Kindertransport is under way. Jews aren’t permitted to work, travel, or dine in restaurants. While the word ‘ghetto’ hasn’t yet arisen, Jewry are evermore isolated in restricted parts of cities.

The author has allowed history to do much of the heavy lifting. Much of life seems normal, ordinary, but it won’t remain so. We know the horrors that are coming; we want to warn the innocent, tell them to flee for their lives.

Whereas trains and train stations appear in backdrops and settings, mentions of government buildings feel eerily ominous. Downing mentions 15-foot high doors, evoking the architecture envisioned by Albert Speer.

No worthy espionage story would be complete without Soviet spies. One Russian spymaster isn’t so bad, but woe be he who crosses the path of Stalinist spymistress Irina Borskaya. She eats her young.

The novel’s protagonist, British journalist John Russell, advances through a character arc from somnambulance to getting his rear into gear, helping to get the word out while saving a life or two. His actress girlfriend suggests a hint of Cabaret, but with far more gravitas than Sally Bowles.

A minor note jarred me. Russell is virtually broke when we first meet him. He lives simply, but he drinks goldwasser. It seems a pretension more in line with 007 than our impecunious reporter. I excused the gold-flecked drink on the grounds it was a product of Gdańsk (Danzig), but the affectation seemed peculiar.

Along the line, our hero obtains a ten-year-old motorcar, a Hanomag. I thought myself reasonably familiar with cars of bygone eras, and those of the late 1920s are the peak of design– the Mercedes SSK, the Cord, the Packard, the Dusenberg, the Bugatti, and the gorgeous Auburn.

1928 Hanomag
1928 Hanomag © Bonhams Auction

I hadn’t heard of Hanomag. I had to stop to look it up. It turned out to be one of the homeliest automobiles ever made. Easiest way to tell the front from the back is to look for the single, motorcycle-style headlight, on the left in this photo. Oh well, our hero’s Hanomag ran most of the time and many folks had no cars at all.

As Janice suggests, Zoo Station reads as old style spycraft with luggage storage and postal drops, suitcases with false bottoms, and shadowy men who make others disappear. Downing’s novels aren’t nearly as gloomy as those of, say, John Le Carré.

When you’re bored with the current digital library on your Kindle or Kobo, stop in a musty used book store and pick up a dog-eared copy of Zoo Station. Go old school.

12 July 2021

Danger in Paradise


Back in the days when radio was the cutting edge medium, I remember rushing in from school to catch the latest episode of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and my dad's banning a safari themed series during our dinner hour. But the radio play that made the deepest impression (and perhaps foreshadowed my later literary career) was an overheard adult offering about a young couple who are menaced by a vicious escaped convict on a deserted tropical beach. 

I don't remember the name of the play or the denoument, just the set up: The couple are enjoying the beach when the husband is somehow trapped below the tide line under a heavy timber, probably the relic of a pier. The wife is frantic to release him and as she struggles, the convict appears. Ever after, that template of a threat of death in paradise has seemed to me the perfect recipe for suspense.

Maybe that is why I enjoyed Tana French's The Searcher. Granted, rural Ireland's weather is not exactly tropical, but the Republic's scenery is superb. Cal Hooper, unhappily divorced and recently retired from the Chicago police force, sees Ardnakelty as a tranquil rural haven after too many years on mean urban streets. The fishing is good, there will be rabbit shooting (and eating) after his gun permit comes through, the locals are friendly, if eccentric, and he enjoys putting his much-neglected cottage into good repair.

Life in Ardnakelty is pleasant and undemanding until a scruffy, half-feral youngster seeks his help in finding a missing sibling. Cal has all kinds of good reasons, legal, personal, and intellectual for rejecting this plea, but gradually Trey Reddy secures his help in finding out just where nineteen year old Brendan Reddy might be.

Not too tough an assignment for an ex-cop who did a stint in the missing persons division, but there are complications. French, who lives in Dublin and who has written a much-praised series featuring various members of a Garda force, is very good on cultural misunderstandings and on the ways that isolated rural communities both spread and conceal information.

As Cal gets acclimatized, he meets his neighbors and discovers the linchpins and undercurrents of the quaint and individualistic village. The rural area is not crime free, either; the young men being, as Mart, his bachelor farmer neighbor points out, uncertain about what they should do and how they should live now that traditional ways and occupations are obsolete. The results are too frequently recklessness and sometimes violence.

Although Cal starts out thinking that Chicago was complicated and Ardnakelty, simple, he eventually has to recalibrate his thinking, since few of his new friends and neighbors are exactly what they seem. Even after Cal solves his mystery, he still faces the bigger question about his own life. 

Tana French
Tana French

Given that the same old problems and cruelties afflict Ardnakelty as afflict Chicago, is he committed to this new community, to the Reddy child, and to Lena, who offers him a pup and maybe companionship, and to Mart, the farmer, and to folk like the indispensable shopkeeper, Noreen?

It is not just that rural Irish ways are not mid-western USA ways or that their common language is not without mysterious subtleties and pitfalls. Cal also has to decide to stay with full knowledge that human frailty resides everywhere or else sell up and make another attempt at paradise, a paradise that he surely knows will come with its own snake.



17 May 2021

Old Style


Journey into Fear

It is a truth universally acknowledged, to paraphrase Jane Austen, that after a certain age the phrase, “they don’t make them like they used to,” enters one’s vocabulary. Material goods of all kinds, favorite foodstuffs, athletes, movies, political figures are all set against the scale of nostalgia and found wanting. Thrillers, too.

When I started writing, one of my idols was Eric Ambler, the god of suspense. Knowledgeable, skillfully plotted, and free of stylistic affectations, his short books did not deal with the big bangs, heavy weaponry, and super-efficient operatives that fill so many modern thrillers and spy novels.

His protagonists tended to be amateurs (part of the old British tradition) without too many pretensions or illusions and with a distinct lack of idealistic posturing. They tended to find themselves in what might be called ordinary life dangers. They weren’t facing the death ray but the possibility of being caught red-handed with incriminating documents, fake passports, or ambiguous passengers. Danger lurked, to be sure, but so did the possibility of a humiliating unmasking and, from the combination, Ambler extracted an amazing amount of suspense.

Zoo Station,
start of the Russell novels
They certainly don’t make thrillers like that any more, preferring even amateurs like Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, to have preternatural abilities in everything from computing to martial arts. So, I was pleased to discover David Downing’s  Zoo Station, the first in a series of half a dozen novels about John Russell, an Anglo-American correspondent in pre-war Berlin.

Russell is an interesting character, a former Communist and a veteran of WW1. He dislikes the Nazis, but he wants desperately to remain in the Reich where his son Paul, age 11, lives with his German mother, and where the charming Effie is a B level actress.

They are his reasons for not wanting to rock the boat, and he only moves out of his comfort zone after he begins tutoring the intelligent Wiesner girls, whose desperate parents are trying to prepare them for a safe exit.

Silesian Station,
next up in the series
His affection for the Wiesmers, combined with a mysterious offer to ghost write articles for Pravda, sets in motion the, at first, rather leisurely plot. Russell’s entanglement with not one, not two, but three spy agencies soon commences, and the way Downing works out the unraveling is a real old fashioned example of clever plotting.

If Zoo Station is not quite like what they used to write, it is a welcome variant. Less brutal and cynical than Philip Kerr’s excursions into the same territory, it still conveys the terror of the regime, the desperation of its Jewish citizens and the despair of anti-Nazi patriots, while offering suspense without firearms or official status.

John Russell is one of the amateurs of espionage and he’s a good one.



21 April 2021

The Devil You Don't Know


So you want to write a short story, but you can't think of an idea.  Is that what's troubling you today, Bunkie? 

I have a suggestion.  Specifically, here's a writing exercise that might help you out.

I assume you read a lot of short stories.  (If you aren't reading what you want to write you are doing it wrong.)

So, the next time you are really enjoying a story, stop reading halfway through.

Painful?  You need to know what happens!  How does it end?

Good question.  So sit with it a while.  What happens next?  Is there a twist?  Does the protagonist get what she wants?  Work it out in your head.  Maybe write a paragraph or two.

Once you have decided how the plot is going to turn out, go ahead and finish reading the story.  Did you guess the ending?  If so, bravo to you for your discernment.

But if you guessed wrong - congratulations!  Now you have a story idea.

I'm not suggesting you should copy the first half of the original.  There's a name for that and it rhymes with "majorism."

But you can build on the original idea and take it in a new direction.


For example: Mensje van Keulen wrote a story called "Devil's Island," which appeared in Amsterdam Noir.  The narrator's friend can't get over his break-up with a girlfriend.  One evening in a nightclub he says "I'd sell [the devil] my soul if he'd make Martha come back to me.  And then a stranger arrives, asking for a light for his cigarette...

It's a fine story and made my best of the year  list.  But the key thing is that I thought I knew how it would end.   Turned out I was wrong.

But just because van Keulen didn't use the ending I dreamed up didn't mean it was not worth using.  So I wrote a story about an actor, sitting in a nightclub and complaining that an upcoming movie has a part that would be perfect for him, but he can't even get a try out.  "I'd sell my soul for a chance," he declares.

And up pops a helpful stranger.  "Call me Nick…"

My story, "The Fourth Circle," is in the current, May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

Here's another example, which I wrote about here last year. Janice Law wrote a story called "The General," about a deposed dictator who fears he is losing the love of his son. 

I guessed wrong as to where Janice was leading and that gave me the idea for "Worse Than Death," about a dictator very much in power, whose son is kidnapped.  

You get the idea.  Will the exercise work for you?  Beats me.  If you try it, let me know.


02 March 2021

Entering Modern Publishing with Madame Selina



I entered the modern age of publishing this week when I pushed the publish button and committed ten Madame Selina short mystery stories and her only novella to Amazon Kindle. It was not a terribly difficult process but it would have been easier if I had not decided to simultaneously make an ebook on Apple's Pages, lured by the thought that the Pages file could be easily converted to an ePub file. Not exactly easy was my experience, although I did wind up making the ebook cover for Kindle on Pages.

That was an interesting experience, too. A number of years ago, I sketched Madame Selina, New York City's premier spirit medium in the years after the Civil War. While the many fine illustrators who depicted her have stressed youth or eccentricity – flying hair being a favorite device –  I drew her as she usually saw herself, as Mrs. Hiram Bingham, respectable widow and business woman. However, even someone as poor at promotion as I am realized that this image would be a selling point. 

I tried making her younger and Nip a tad weirder but that didn't suit either, although he does frequently get to carry her baggage. Finally, thanks to my new iPad and Procreate, a fine paint program, I reworked the original sketch, making Madame younger, darker, and more exotic and giving her an elaborate hat and an inky backdrop. I hope she'll do!


Madame Selina is a favorite character of mine, although she was not the focus of the original story which is narrated by Nip Thompkins, formerly resident in upstate New York orphanage. He is sprung from this sad and unhealthy institution when she comes looking for a likely boy, small, smart, and agile. Nip, underfed but otherwise healthy, is declared suitable. Whisked away to the city, he assists in creating Madame's theatrical illusions and narrates what became her many adventures.

It is popular now to have unreliable narrators. I've tried that and it can be fun, but in writing the Madame Selina stories I realized that my real preference is for the innocent eye that, lacking adult preconceptions, appreciates wonders and spots pretension. Nip, clever, practical, and definitely lacking any mystical bent, proved to be ideal for describing Madame, who, as Nip tells us, is 'willing to lie in small things' such as special effects to enhance a seance, but who absolutely and completely believes in Aurelius, late emperor of the Romans, her spirit contact in the other world.

All this was not pure invention on my part. Victoria Woodhull, pioneering feminist, candidate for president, advocate of both free love and votes for women, conducted conversations with Demosthenes, the great orator of Ancient Greece, and, like Madame Selina, advised the bulls and bears of Wall Street. In Woodhull's case, the clientele included Commodore Vanderbilt. Apparently gentlemen who gamble are not averse to spiritual guidance.

The period immediately after the Civil War with its staggering death toll, ghastly injuries, and traumas of all sorts for troops and civilians alike, was the great era of spiritualism and of mediums, as the desperate bereaved sought to know their loved ones' fates. That was the setting for "Madame Selina" and there she would have stayed if Rob Lopresti had not suggested she would make a good series character.

I was skeptical – or maybe Nip was – but I came around to the idea and made use of many years of teaching romantic and Victorian literature to find plots for Madame in inheritance tangles and vulnerable child heirs, the politics of the Irish immigration, the difficulties of Freedmen post war, the new Italian arrivals, and the suffrage movement. 

Madame proved fit for all until changing times and the vulgarity and avarice of the high Gilded Age weakened the public's appetite for spirit communication and led to the final entry in my little book, " A Fine Nest of Rascals", where Nip, grownup and a cub reporter on a paper aiming "not to instruct but to startle," proves to have learned a lot about investigations from assisting Madame Selina. 


Madame Selina, The Complete Stories is available as an ebook on Amazon.


25 January 2021

Late Style



Art historians and critics are fond of talking about 'late style'. By this they don't mean the usual age- related deterioration where the painter's or sculptor's hand loses its cunning, the eyes begin to lose their focus, and, too often, the mind, ditto. No, late style is the rare and happy alternative outcome, when despite, or sometimes because of, the frailties of age, the artist experiences a burst of innovation and creativity: Rembrandt's magnificent late portraits, Titian's dark and eloquent religious works, and nearer to our own time, Monet's billboard-sized water lily paintings and Degas' radiant pastels.

Ian Rankin's newest novel, A Song for the Dark Times, has gotten me thinking about late style in detectives and detection, as we have now had three popular sleuths closing in on old age. The late Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander struggled through his last case while in the early stages of dementia. The redoubtable Vera Stanhope has had a serious heart scare. Her unenthusiastic attempts at fitness do not bode well for her future health, and I suspect only her popularity on the small screen will keep Anne Cleeves' inspector going. 

As for John Rebus, Rankin's long-time protagonist, that old copper is now retired. When A Song for the Dark Times opens, he is in the process of giving up his second floor apartment (3rd floor in US terminology) for a smaller ground floor flat. The stairs have become too much for a man suffering from


COPD, a debilitating lung disease. That and the state of his ancient Saab should ensure that he stays home with Brillo, his dog, and a stack of unsolved case files.

But literary detectives are not quite like the rest of us, a mystery is meat and drink to them, and opposition and complications are as good as advanced medicine. When his difficult daughter's partner disappears, Rebus heads for the far north of Scotland to a tiny town adjacent to what was once a WW2 holding camp for enemy aliens and later for POWs. Mystery soon turns into murder, and John Rebus is right at home.

And yet, the key difficulty remains. The old officer is not up for any great exertion, although he carries his inhaler and watches his whiskey consumption. Rankin devises an elegant solution: two parallel investigations. One involves Rebus's attempts to assist the police in the Highlands, who are polite but firm: civilian assistance is not required. 

Rebus soon finds that he is no longer a top cop with privileged access and the ability to give orders. In response, he tackles some of the less obvious lines of inquiry, interviewing the local historical group involved with the camp site and researching the magnate who owns huge tracts of land in the area.

To fill out the mystery and to give his elderly detective a breather, Rankin shifts every few chapters back to Edinburgh where Siobhan Clarke, Rebus's friend, colleague and protege, has a case involving the stabbing of a rich Saudi student. Wealth, political considerations, the presence of Inspector Malcolm Fox, her long time rival, and even an appearance by Big Ger Cafferty, long the Moriarty to Rebus's Sherlock, ensures that Siobhan has her plate full.


Both mysteries unfold with Rankin's usual dexterity, DI Siobhan Clarke shows she learned from a master, and there's a fair bit of cynical cleverness all round. What is different are the adjustments Rebus must make. He has to be patient with his distraught and frankly rather unpleasant daughter, remembering always that he was never the world's greatest dad.

He has to get used to being the recipient of orders – mostly to clear out and let the professionals work – and he has to call on assistance from Siobhan to access the information he wants. He's back to amateur status, no matter how experienced and perceptive he is, and it is interesting to watch him adjust his game plan to his reduced powers, both physical and professional, and, in so doing, acquire a fine late style.

29 December 2020

Winter Counts


Everyone wants justice. 

Courtroom dignity with an impartial jury or the dark delights of vengeance. The injured and grieving want restitution of one sort or another. Given that justice is so often partial, economically based, or capricious, the mystery novel and its sibling the thriller, have spread across the world, bearing as they do, the promise that the scales can be evened up and right might prevail.

For this reason, the detective, whether PI or cop or, as in David Heska Wanbli Weiden's Winter Counts, something less official and more ambiguous, shows up in nearly every culture and subgroup. Weiden's hero, Virgil Wounded Horse, operates on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, in an impoverished, if culturally rich, community that is seriously lacking in trustworthy law enforcement and reliable justice.

Weiden has said that one motivation for writing this novel was to bring attention to the difficulties of a community that cannot prosecute serious crimes. These are turned over to federal authorities, who are chiefly interested in drug crimes, often declining to prosecute rape, assault, child abuse, and even murder. The results have been particularly pernicious for Native American women.

 Virgil Wounded Horse provides an answer. For a modest fee, he will administer justice in the form of a violent attack and threats of more unless the perpetrator changes his ways. It's not exactly a respectable career path but it's a living and, arguably, an essential service.

The skills Virgil has developed come into full play when Nathan, his fourteen year old nephew, grieving his dead mom and bullied at school, samples some heroin. The boy nearly dies, and Virgil finds himself hunting for the drug dealers and trying to protect his ward, who eventually becomes entangled in a federal investigation.

The novel is strong on place, atmosphere, and action, maybe less so on dialogue. Winter Counts is particularly interesting on the tension between tribal ways and the often-threatening outside world and between loyalty to the people and culture of the rez and the opportunities for advancement elsewhere.

 If the solitary, super-competent hero is a staple of mystery/ thrillers, Virgil Wounded Horse has much that is distinctive in his attitude and outlook and a good deal to say about tribal life, federal stewardship, and white bias.

Winter Counts is one of a number of mysteries by Native American writers, and if you only know the non-Native American Tony Hillerman's stories of the Navaho Nation, Weiden has a fine list on the Strand Magazine website : https://strandmag.com/seven-essential-native-american-crime-novels/.

Interestingly, one of the novels mentioned is The Round House by Louise Erdrich, who is rarely thought of as a mystery or crime writer.  I haven't read that particular novel, but I can certainly recommend her splendid LaRose, which gives a distinctly Native American solution for recompense after a terrible accident.

Weiden ultimately opts for a less spiritual solution to the dilemmas his enforcer faces, but throughout Virgil has a strong sense, not only of justice but of the necessity for healing psychic as well as physical wounds and of restoring community. That gives him a distinct perspective and gives Winter Counts, despite its conventional features, something new in the genre.

08 December 2020

Debutants


Getting a new character is an exciting development, even if, I suspect for most of us, he or she appears as a one-off, a gift from the Muses, unlikely to be repeated any time soon. Of the three characters I’ve written multiple works about, only one came with thoughts of continuance. I was thoroughly surprised that my first detective Anna Peters was destined for multiple outings, ditto for Madame Selina, who, perhaps wisely, stayed firmly in the short story format.

Francis Bacon, admittedly, came with thoughts of a trilogy, as clear a sign of author hubris as I can imagine. Although eventually published by Otto Penzler, he was an extremely tough sell and never went into either hardback or foreign rights.

So I was interested lately when two authors I’ve enjoyed, Alexander McCall Smith and Ann Cleeves, debuted new characters: Swedish Detective Varg of The Department of Sensitive Crimes, and Detective Venn, North Devon, UK. I imagine that their thought processes were quite different than mine - or indeed most mid list or aspiring authors.
Detective Varg, of

If neither is in the mega-author world, both McCall Smith and Cleeves are well published, with multiple editions and, in Cleeves case, two successful television franchises. Whether the public warms up to Ulf Varg or Matthew Venn means cash for their publishers, possible TV or film rights, and employment for editors, book designers, illustrators and marketers.

Perhaps that is why Cleeves included an introduction to the “Dear Reader”, confessed a certain nervousness about introducing a new character, and described her childhood in the Devon area where her new detective has his stomping ground. Clearly more is at stake than for most of us.

So how do the new entrants stack up? The Cleeves, at least on the first novel, The Long Call, is the more successful, despite, a not-completely plausible resolution. As always with her novels, the sense of place and the natural world is very strong – a particular delight for this birdwatcher. The supporting characters are good, too, especially Lucy, a sparky young woman who is not by any means defined by her Downs Syndrome. Also good – Cleeves women, I think are a shade better than her men – is Venn’s second in command, Jen, a harried single mom but a very good investigator.

About Venn, himself, I am not so sure, although he is ethical, thoughtful and competent. But like Jimmy Perez, her other male detective, he is a bit of a depressive and almost overly subdued. He dresses like an undertaker, second guesses himself, and has major insecurities despite being married to what sounds like the ideal husband. And there may lie some difficulties for the series. Having personally experienced the obstacles to marketing a gay detective, I can only wish Cleeves and Matthew Venn luck.

Detective Varg is another matter with other ambitions. His publisher is marketing the new series for the prolific McCall Smith as Scandi Blanc, an alternative to the increasingly brutal and grotesque direction of  so much Scandinavian Noir. Varg takes on unusual crimes – someone hacked below the knee, an ambiguous disappearance, and a case of lycanthropy that threatens business at a holiday hotel.

Varg himself, is thoughtful, ethically aware, and prone to mull over human reactions and relationships a la McCall Smith’s beloved Precious Ramotswe of The Ladies Number One Detective Agency of Botswana. And that is perhaps the weakness. Varg comes off as a paler version of the Botswanan detective, and the supporting characters, amusing like the literal minded but highly informed Blomquist or Varg’s second in command and secret passion,  the charming Anna Bengtsdotter, are good but also prone to a good deal of rumination.

At least so far, there is no one as friction-promoting ( in a positive way) as Mma Grace Makutsi, lover of fine shoes and possessor of the highest ever score on the secretarial exam, or the matron of the orphan home, whose machinery always needs the attention of Mr. J.L, B Matekoni of Speedy Motors.

Similar characters may arrive in time, and they are needed to counteract the strain of whimsey that runs through Detective Varg’s cases. McCall Smith periodically indulges such flights his other popular series, 44 Scotland Street, but there the whimsical is usually confined to young Bertie Pollock or to Angus, the dog. On the plus side, McCall Smith is a genius plotter and such a thoroughly genial presence that one hopes this series, like his others, will genuinely take off.


17 November 2020

Deacon King Kong


I am partial to contemporary novels that use some of the conventions of our favorite genre, and I am always pleased when I find a new author who uses them skillfully. National Book Award winner, James McBride, has mean streets, drug deals, even a professional assassin in the mix but Deacon King Kong is certainly not an exercise in noir. Rather it is the sort of skillful, basically comic plot one might come up with if one could mix Walter Mosley and Jane Austen with a dash of either Ralph Ellison or Toni Morrison. 

The novel's dialogue is vigorous and the characters love to talk. They all have a lot to say, but chief among them is the title character, Deacon King Kong, AKA Sportcoat. An alcoholic, Sportcoat is a noted umpire, baseball strategist, deacon of his church, and plantsman. He lives to drink and funds his passion with a series of odd jobs: taking out the trash from the church, stacking boxes for the liquor store, and digging wild plants with an even older eccentric, Mrs. Elephante, one of the last of the Italian residents, whose son, The Elephant, is the last of the resident Italian mobsters.

Sportcoat and the Elephantes are surrounded by other vividly drawn characters: Deems, the local heroin dealer and former baseball standout, Sister Gee, the noble-hearted churchwoman, Sargent Potts, an honest cop on the verge of retirement, and Sportcoat's buddies Hot Sausage and Rufus, not to mention the giant, Soup, and the Haitian Sensation.

The time is the late 60's, early 70's. John Lindsay is mayor, and Robert Moses is bulldozing the old neighborhoods in the name of progress and highways. Heroin has arrived, and even the old mob is getting in on the act. The Cause Houses, a once Italian now Black and Latino housing project, has aged without improving. Its struggling inhabitants are surrounded by crime and violence, both official and freelance, and they waver between the tiny church with the hope of salvation and the plaza drug market with the hope of profit.

McBride supplies two useful McGuffins and a good deal of action. He is as fond of coincidences and plot quirks as Agatha Christie and comes to a neat resolution of the several plot strands. But what makes Deacon King Kong especially interesting to me, is that many of the characters, even some deep in mob activities, are truly in pursuit of the good, of redemption, of genuine love. 

Evil is easy in writing, goodness is tough to do, a fact that might drive the philosophical to notions of original sin. Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, Kent Haruf's Plainsong, very different books from Deacon King Kong, manage it. McBride, with a completely different style of writing and plot, manages it too. His characters are afflicted with uneasy longings. Sportcoat, an unrepentant drunk, talks to his late wife, Hettie, whom he loved and disappointed.The Elephant dreams of marrying a country girl and becoming a good man. Sister Gee, a genuinely kind and good person, struggles with disappointment and thinks about happiness, and even the vicious young drug dealer has moments when he remembers baseball, another activity of strategy, timing and skill and thinks of an alternate life. Though mired in all the sordidness urban poverty can provide, the chief characters in Deacon King Kong would agree with Socrates: our true and most important pursuit must be the Good.

05 October 2020

A Touch of Frost


Inspector Frost with one
of many new sergeants
One of the downsides of advancing age is an inability to read as much as one once did. This is a nuisance for everyone, but especially for writers, for whom the written word is up there with food and drink. Lately of an evening, I have found myself looking at wavering lines of print and clicking on the TV to Britbox, a combined service of the BBC and ITV which was a Christmas present last year.

The service has an assortment of good programing, but, especially in this time of virus and isolation, I've been favoring Gardener's World and A Touch of Frost. The latter was a long running UK favorite, originally from Yorkshire TV, starring David Jason as Inspector William "Jack" Frost, a self-described street copper with a nose for crime and good-sized problems with bureaucrats and authority.

He's old fashioned and quick-tempered and not altogether loath to cut corners, characteristics that look less desirable in cops these days than they probably did back at its debut in '92. His saving grace, besides being an excellent, even obsessive, investigator, is his sympathetic knowledge of his community, including the many poor but decent folks who wind up in difficulties.

David Jason in A Touch of Frost
Inspector Frost, himself is often in trouble, especially with his ambitious and rather dim Superintendent Mullett. Out of the office, Frost's absorption in his cases drives any number of nice women out the door, even while his grumpy charm attracts new ones. As played by David Jason, this character proved durable and extremely popular.

And he had good scripts. These are formulaic, unsurprisingly, given that some 42 episodes were made, but well done, nonetheless. Most episodes had two cases running simultaneously, one involving a death, the other less serious. Although there was a solid cast of regulars, the Inspector was frequently paired with new sergeants and constables, some of whom seem to have been assigned with the express purpose of exasperating him, others for whom he comes to feel genuine affection.

Frost expects all of them to work hard, and there is a good deal of cooperation and delegating of duties except for the last twenty minutes of most episodes, when, despite his years of experience, Inspector Frost rushes off on a hunch of his own, confronts various bad guys and winds up in an obstacle laden chase or facing a gun or a serious fight.

Even at the start of the series, Jason, small and a bit plump, was getting up in years, so it is not too surprising that he finally retired from the role at 68, noting that a real detective would have been off the force eight years earlier. During his long run with A Touch of Frost, however, Jason managed to finesse the problem of his advancing years with the vigor of his performances and the robust physicality of his acting – catch the pop eyes and flushed face when he's angry or the sly twitch of a smile when he has outsmarted some crook.

Frost's nemesis,
Superintendent Mullett
He's good in quieter scenes, too, suggesting a genuine sympathy that counterbalances his brash personality and impulsiveness. This sense of balance is reflected in the scripts, too. They are clever without being obscure; the perpetrator's motivations are plausible, and at least some of the criminals are in morally complex situations.

There's enough surprise to keep the stories interesting, and enough familiarity in Frost's unending struggles to thwart Superintendent Mullett, to rescue the romance of the moment, or to finish his mostly rushed and unwholesome meals to make the show relaxing of an evening. This is definitely one of the better mystery imports.

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.