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

20 April 2020

The Starless Sea



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

That's right, setting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So speaks the video gamer.

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

02 April 2020

Chaos



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Good Eye 94 discussion with Tom O'Neill

06 February 2020

Favorite Places




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 November 2019

Local Color


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

04 November 2019

Mythic Mystery


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 September 2019

When the Muse Takes a Powder


by Janice Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


09 August 2019

Uses of Mystery, Part 2


by Janice Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 July 2019

Dubious Attractions


by Janice Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

07 June 2019

Jane Harper


by Janice Law

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

16 May 2019

Historical Mysteries: Frank Tallis


by Janice Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 February 2019

The Uses of Mystery


by Janice Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31 December 2018

The World Revolved and We Resolved


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great New Year!

08 December 2018

Saying Good-bye, part 2


by Janice Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02 November 2018

The Complexity • Plausibility Intersection


by Janice Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 September 2018

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


by Melodie Campbell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On Amazon





03 August 2018

Support Your Local Fiction Writer


by Janice Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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