Showing posts with label Tana French. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tana French. Show all posts

27 April 2020

How Low Will You Go?


by Steve Liskow

Over the last two weeks, I've joined several other Connecticut crime writers on two podcasts from the Storyteller's Cottage in Simsbury. I've touted the venue before and love working with them. Now they're trying to keep their programs for writers functioning during the shutdown, and Lisa Natcharian invited several of us to discuss villains in our stories. I'll post the link to the podcast when it's edited and live, probably sometime in May.

Lisa came up with some provocative questions, and the topic for today is "How much evil can readers tolerate and how do you decide when to rein in a dark character?"

Her question made me look at my own writing again. I've sold nearly 30 short stories (a good week for Michael Bracken or John Floyd), and about half of them are from the bad guy's POV or have her/him getting away with it. Most of those stories involve revenge or poetic justice, and I seldom have a REALLY horrible person go scot-free. The comments on my website and Facebook Page indicate that readers like those stories, and some are among my special favorites.

Revisiting my novels, I was surprised to find how nasty some of my villains are, probably because I've worried lately that both my series characters are becoming more domestic in their private lives. Maybe I've done that unconsciously to contrast the "normal" and the dark side. But when I look at the bestseller lists, it's not just me.

If you look at those lists, you'll find Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, Meg Gardiner, Lisa Gardner, Laura Lippman, S. J. Rozan, Robert Crais, Stephen King, Harlan Coban, Tana French, Dennis Lehane, Don Winslow, Alison Gaylin, and a slew of other excellent writers, all of whom go deep. When I think back to the 90s, maybe the first book and film to come to mind is Silence of the Lambs, which presents two twisted villains.

I don't remember the last time I saw a cozy mystery on the list.

One of my undergrad history professors from days of yore said the best way to understand the minds and values of a civilization was to look at their popular arts. Plays, music, stories. . .

Remember, in Shakespeare's time, his most popular play was Titus Andronicus, which I usually describe as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in blank verse. It was a time of political turmoil, and his plays reflected that.



One of the other writers on the podcast said her readers know she won't get violent and won't use much profanity. Obviously, if you write cozies, your body count is lower. She doesn't read my books because she thought one of my covers was objectionable.

Maybe my readers want darker stories to help them cope with the real world, the way we tell ghost stories around the campfire. Remember Shakespeare's observation in King Lear:  "The worst is not/ So long as we can say, 'This is the worst.'"

Think of the Brothers Grimm, too. The original version of Cinderella involves the wicked stepsisters cutting off toes to make their feet fit the glass slipper, and birds pecking out those same stepsisters' eyes on their way to and from Cindy's wedding. The Greek tragedies wallow in gore.

Ditto slasher flicks, like Halloween and Friday the 13th.
We want to go waist-deep in the big bloody. Aristotle talked about catharsis. Maybe he's right. Maybe we've always been enticed by the horrific and crave a release. Maybe my history professor was right, too.

My most recent novels involve a serial killer who leaves the bodies of street people in abandoned buildings in Detroit, a cold case involving five people murdered in a home invasion, and a serial rapist. I think that as I watch the current social and political situation deteriorate, my inherited pessimism has become even stronger and it's coming out in my writing. Or maybe I do it to show that my life is nowhere near as bad as that of my characters. All I know is when I sit down at the keyboard, this is what comes out.

The book I'm vaguely resurrecting has a main character who is an alcoholic with an abusive husband, and I re-discovered things that excited me when I re-read scenes I had forgotten long ago. My last few short stories are darker, too. As long as people buy them, I'll keep going because people seem to need them.

When do I rein these characters in? I don't.

What's in YOUR holster right now?

17 March 2017

Happy St. Patrick's Day!


By Art Taylor

Yesterday was my birthday—March 16, for anyone reading this later—and having a birthday so close to St. Patrick's Day always made it one of my favorite holidays as a child. I was and still am insistent about wearing green on March 17—my favorite color generally—and I remember wearing a shamrock pin to school one year as well. When my dad filled out the 1980 U.S. Census, he put down Irish for the question on ancestry (at my urging), though I don't think either of my parents have actually traced that back. (The likelihood is that it's true, given the predominance of Scotch-Irish settlements in my native North Carolina.) In another little quirk: At one point, much younger of course, I thought I might actually be a leprechaun—wishful thinking for those of us of smaller stature.

More recently, when my wife Tara and I got married, we went to Ireland on our honeymoon—including being in Dublin for Bloomsday!—and a few years later, I led a student group to Ireland again for a creative writing Winter Study Abroad. And I'll admit that I have a fondness for Irish writers and for stories set in Ireland. I was reading just recently some of Edna O'Brien's short fiction, and William Trevor's stories are (as anyone who's read him knows) among the best ever, and then another Irish writer, John McGahern, wrote an odd little story that still stands as one of my favorites: "The Beginning of an Idea." As with so many crime fiction fans, Tana French is at the top of my list of great mystery writers today, and just this week, I was excited to see that another friend in the mystery community, Sheila Connolly, has a new book out in her County Cork series: Cruel Winter—which was timely in several ways, since the big winter storm helped to welcome it into the world! There's dozens more writers I could likely point to here, but these are the ones that jumped to mind first.

Despite my long-standing love of Ireland and the Irish, however, I have to admit that I no longer count St. Patrick's Day as a favorite holiday. In fact, some aspects of the day have overwhelmed my otherwise long-standing enthusiasms for it—and the same is true of New Year's Eve (which may already give you a hint of where I'm going with this). 

Now, anyone who knows me well knows how much I appreciate a nice cocktail, but especially at my advancing age (circling back to that birthday I mentioned in the opening), going out on a raucous drinking binge is about the last thing I want to do, and in my mind both New Year's and St. Patrick's have become synonymous with those types of parties: crowded bars, overindulgence, and all the fall-out from that overindulgence—ultimately less a toast to the occasion than an excuse for excessive alcohol consumption.

Or maybe I'm just being curmudgeonly. 

For those who still do head out for public celebrations of St. Patrick's Day, are my impressions actually the case? Or have I fallen prey to some stereotypes about the festivities?

And maybe a better question: For those of you who, like me, admire Ireland and the Irish, how do you raise a toast to today? 

I'll be sipping a glass of Green Spot myself at some point—and maybe revisiting a favorite story or two. And I'll be sporting some green too—one tradition that I inevitably keep. 

However you celebrate, Happy St. Patrick's Day to all!
 

13 November 2015

"Crossing Genres: The Literary Mystery"


By Art Taylor

As you might be able to tell from this post and my previous ones here, my teaching at George Mason University is dominating my mind these days—and lately it's not only the semester I'm enmeshed in but next semester as well that's occupying a lot of my mental energy.

In the spring 2016 semester, I'll be teaching a graduate-level course for the first time: "Crossing Genres: The Literary Mystery." That's not my title, I should stress, and I have some issues with the idea of what's meant by the "the literary mystery"—a phrase that could go in a number of directions: mysteries that have books or bookish folks at the core of them maybe? But as intended primarily for aspiring writers in the MFA program here at Mason, I think the goals of the course are potentially a good one: an exploration of genre fiction, a look at the places where these persistent classifications of genre fiction and literary fiction blur, and a study of what so-called "literary writers" can learn from genre writers. To put all this in context, back when I was in the MFA program at Mason myself, I had a fellow writer tell me he'd finally read a Stephen King book and was surprised that it was actually good!

Stephen King
More context: I remember at panel on genre fiction at an AWP conference several years ago, where a writer/professor in another MFA program talked about the difference between his students interested in writing genre fiction and his students interested in writing literary fiction: If a he told students writing fantasy that they might want to read Gilgamesh or The Aeneid or any of a number of "high literary" works, they'd have it read by the next week, whereas if he suggested to literary-minded students that they should read a thriller or a sci-fi novel, they'd drag their heels.

There's lots of room to learn, clearly, from lots of different writers and lots of different kinds of writing—and I've often been fascinated, often written myself about, these delineations between kinds of books, the prejudices and biases at the core of such attitudes, and the continuing evolution of writers attitudes toward genre, how those writers might be informed by formal traditions on the one hand and how they might challenge them on another.

Much more to say on all this, but I mostly wanted to share some of the books I'm considering teaching—and invite others to chime in with books I might add to the reading list, whether one for the syllabus itself or a supplemental list for students to explore on their own.

The course will start out with a selection of short stories surveying both the foundational history of the genre (Poe and Conan Doyle there, among others) and also various subgenres within the larger world of crime fiction: the traditional mystery, the hard-boiled tale, the noir story, domestic suspense, the police procedural, true crime writing, etc. etc. But once that foundation is laid in the first few weeks, here's the list of full novels—and one feature film!—that have risen to the top so far (in no particular order yet but all, purposefully, pointedly, from 2000 onward):

  • A Rule Against Murder, Louise Penny
  • Little Scarlet, Walter Mosley
  • In the Woods, Tana French
  • No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
  • The End of Everything, Megan Abbott
  • Country Hardball, Steve Weddle
  • Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan 
  • The City & the City, China MiĆ©ville
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon
Thoughts? Additions?

I have a second list of strong contenders too that will be on a growing supplemental list, so.... Thanks in advance for suggestions and additions!

11 September 2012

Settings


by Dale C. Andrews

     Fiction, at its best, does more than just tell a story -- it tells a story in a setting.  Good fiction immerses the reader – we are propelled into the narrative and into its setting.  And the setting crafted by the author reflects the world around the author, or the author’s characters, at the time of the story.  The story told in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is part and parcel with the French Revolution.  A Dickens novel is often almost as much about setting as it is about story.  Oliver Twist is dependent on the injustices that were a side effect, and a very real side effect, of the industrial revolution.  And as I noted some months back, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in fact grew out of a non-fiction essay that Dickens wrote addressing the deplorable mid-nineteenth century working conditions in England and the need for child labor reform.

    No surprise, then, that setting is also a major component of great mysteries.  Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes cannot be separated from Victorian England.  I add the proviso of “Doyle’s Sherlock” since, to my mind, the BBC series Sherlock does a sensational job of re-imagining Holmes in modern day London.  But even there, it is modern day London, with its Blackberries and computers, that provides the setting backbone to the stories. 

The Doorbell Rang (NOT the newest Clint Eastwood sequel!)

    In Rex Stout’s 1965 Nero Wolfe novel The Doorbell Rang, which The Nation described as “the best civil liberties mystery of all time” the story is dependent on then-current FBI abuses under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover who, famously, Wolfe leaves standing on the stoop of his brownstone at the end of the book.  Similarly, Ellery Queen’s The Glass Village, and its theme that accusation must never be a substitute for evidence, is dependent on its setting -- the McCarthy era that pervaded the mid-1950s when the novel was written. 

    To read these books is to experience what it was like to live in the eras depicted. It is no surprise that all of this remains true today.  Two recent (and sensational) new mysteries by a pair of gifted writers, Tana French and Gillian Flynn, who are separated by many thousands of miles, tell stories in different  settings, but settings that are still eerily analogous and in each case reflective of our time.  More on that below, but first, some background on each author.

Tana French
Gillian Flynn
    Gillian Flynn grew up in Kansas City Missouri, a state in which her three mystery novels are set.  Before she became a novelist Flynn was was a television critic for Entertainment Weekly. She was educated at the University of Kansas, and received a masters degree from Northwestern.  Her first novel, Sharp Objects, was a 2007 Edgar nominee for best first novel.

    Tana French in fact received the Edgar for best first novel when In the Woods, was published the following year  Although she was born in the United States, Tana French spent most of her early years abroad.  She received a degree in acting from the University of Dublin, and since 1990 has resided in Dublin, where each of her four mystery novels is set. 

    So, other than leaping into the world of mystery fiction within one year of each other there is very little that either of these women share.  Yet each has crafted their most recent novel in settings that, while thousands of miles apart, nevertheless resonate with common themes.

    A teaser on Gillian Flynn’s website describes her new book, Gone Girl, as follows:
On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick Dunne’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River.
And here is the description of Tana French’s new book, Broken Harbor, as set forth on her website:  
On one of the half-built, half-abandoned “luxury” developments that litter Ireland, Patrick Spain and his two young children are dead. His wife, Jenny, is in intensive care.
    The principal setting of each novel is therefore very different.  What, after all, does a small Missouri town  have in common with the outskirts of Dublin?  But there is an undercurrent in each setting that is the same and that is reflective of the times in which we live.  Each author has taken the pulse of the present and has built a setting for her novel that rings true and, as a result, ensures that each story rings true. 

    Broken Harbor is set in a community of new homes on the coast of Ireland that failed as a result of the economic downturn that has shaped many lives in recent years.  The home that the unfortunate family lives in is surrounded by abandoned or half finished homes, and the couple at the heart of the novel has had to grapple with the horrors of losing a job in an economy where jobs are increasingly hard to find.  From that setting, which is to say from their world, the story springs.

    And that community of “McMansions” that is the setting for Gone Girl?  Well, there are remarkable similarities between Gillian Flynn’s Missouri housing development and that depicted in Tana French’s novel.  The couple at the heart of Gillian Flynn’s novel also find themselves in a development that is a casualty of world-wide economic downturn.  Like the family in Broken Harbor, the couple in Gone Girl is surrounded by homes that are abandoned and in foreclosure, and other homes that stand as half completed derelicts.  As in Broken Harbor neighboring homes are abandoned as a result of foreclosure, or sit half completed.  And in each book there are wandering homeless people living or gathering in the empty homes.  And here, too, the central characters in the mystery have lost their own jobs as a result of economic downturn. 

    I have written before that I hate spoilers.  So you will get no more of the plots of these wonderful newly-published novels from me.  But they are both great reads, and like many mysteries and other well written books over the years, they gain strength from the fact that they are set in a world that we know.  The heart of each story beats to the world’s pulse.  The setting may be a bit bleak in each case, but, after all, that never stopped Dickens.