Showing posts with label thriller. Show all posts
Showing posts with label thriller. Show all posts

12 December 2015

A Hanukkah Mystery: The Case of the Female Maccabee

by B.K. Stevens

The story of Judith doesn't fit most traditional definitions of "mystery." It does contain elements suitable for a thriller--a brutal and lustful villain, a beautiful woman with a daring scheme, the fates of nations at stake. And someone gets killed--almost always a plus, in either a mystery or a thriller. There's no doubt about whodunit, though, or how she done it, or why she done it. Even so, mystery surrounds the story. What are its origins? Is it history or fiction? In what ways, if any, is it linked to Hanukkah--and even to Hanukkah foods? We'll get to all that. But let's start with the story itself. It's a good one.

It goes back over two thousand years. There are several versions, some long and elaborate--the one in the Catholic bible, for example, is divided into sixteen chapters packed with details. I'll stick to basics, emphasizing elements that could connect the story to Hanukkah.

In ancient Israel, evil Assyrian general Holofernes attacks the city of Bethulia. The inhabitants fight back and manage to keep him from taking the city, but they're too badly outnumbered to defeat him outright. Frustrated by the stalemate, Holofernes decides to starve the Jews into submission. He lays siege to the city.

As supplies of food and water dwindle, Bethulia's elders and military leaders begin to talk of surrender. Judith, a beautiful and virtuous young widow, steps forward to rebuke them. God will save the city, she says. Further, He will deliver Holofernes into the hands of a woman. She puts on the fine clothes she hasn't worn since her husband's death, packs a bag with cheese and old wine, and leaves the city, accompanied only by her maid.

When they arrive at the Assyrian camp, Judith demands to see Holofernes. She's realized the city is doomed, she says, and has come to him for protection. Struck by her beauty, Holofernes invites her into his tent, where she regales him with the supplies she's brought. The salty cheese makes him thirsty, so he drinks too much wine. Soon, he falls into a deep sleep. Judith prays to God for strength, takes Holofernes' sword, and decapitates him. Then she wraps his head in a cloth, and she and her maid sneak out of the camp and return to Bethulia.


Judith with the Head of Holophernes,
(Royal Collection, London)


When Holofernes' soldiers find his headless body, they panic and decide to flee. Judith shows the head to the Jews and urges them to attack the enemy camp. They do, scattering the last of the soldiers. Bethulia is saved. Judith is too devoted to her husband's memory to remarry, but she lives a long life, revered as a heroine by the people of her city.

That's the story. Now comes the mystery. Is the story of Judith based on a real event that took place during the Maccabee revolt? Opinions vary. The oldest existing text of the story is written in Greek. People who know much more about such things than I do think it's probably a translation of an earlier, lost Hebrew text written around 150 B.C.E.--not long after the Maccabee revolt against Assyrian/Greek oppression. But the Greek text makes no reference to the Maccabee revolt, and it has some odd, confusing features. For example, it says Holofernes served Nebuchadnezzar, not the evil King Antiochus of the Hanukkah story. To muddy the waters further, it identifies Nebuchadnezzar as "a king of Assyria," not of Babylon. And there's little historical evidence to confirm the existence of a city called Bethulia. In Hebrew, Bethulia means "a virgin." Some see it as a poetic way of referring to Jerusalem, and some think it's a symbolic reference to Judith's chastity. Some, on the other hand, say it's an indication that the Book of Judith is a work of fiction.

Joshua 1:1 as recorded in the Aleppo CodexIn some ways, the book does seem like a fanciful reweaving of the stories of several heroic women in the Jewish bible (or the Tanakh--a Hebrew acronym for Torah, Prophets, and Writings, essentially the same as the Protestant Old Testament except that we put the books in a different order). First there's Deborah, the judge and prophet, who urges a general, Barak, to resist the oppression of the king of Canaan and his general, Sisera. Barak falters, saying he won't lead the army into battle unless Deborah accompanies him. Deborah agrees but says the glory of victory will therefore belong to a woman. Inspired by Deborah, the Jews defeat Sisera, who flees the battle. That's when another heroic woman, Yael (or Jael)--a Kenite, not a Jew--takes over. Seeking refuge, Sisera comes to Yael's tent and asks for water. She gives him milk, he falls asleep, and she kills him by driving a tent stake through his head. Finally, there's Esther. a Jewish girl who becomes queen of Persia. She's the heroine of the biblical book of Esther and also of the Jewish holiday of Purim. When wicked Haman schemes to kill all the Jews of Persia, Esther steps forward and risks her life to stop him, and the Jews of Persia are saved. It's hard to miss the parallels between these three stories and the story of Judith.

But while Deborah, Yael, and Esther all made it into the Jewish and Protestant bibles, Judith did not. The Catholic bible includes the Book of Judith, but the Protestant bible relegates it to the apocrypha, and the Jewish bible doesn't grant it any canonical status at all, maybe because its basis in fact seems so shaky. Jews loved Judith's story, however, and a number of prominent Jewish rabbis and commentators mention it in their writings, saying Judith deserves everlasting praise. Jewish retellings of the story often emphasize (or invent) links with Hanukkah. Some versions of the story say Judith was the sister of Judah Maccabee, the hero of the Hanukkah revolt against the Greek/Assyrian empire.  (Judith and Judah--they could be twins.) And medieval Jewish retellings add the detail about Judith feeding Holofernes cheese in order to make him thirsty, drunk, and vulnerable. Many authorities say that's the origin of the tradition of eating cheese on Hanukkah.

In fact, the first latkes were probably cheese pancakes, not potato pancakes. After all, the potato wasn't introduced to Europe until a mere four hundred or so years ago. Long before that, Sephardic Jews evidently celebrated Hanukkah with latkes made of ricotta and other cheeses--always fried in oil, to commemorate the Hanukkah miracle that took place when the temple in Jerusalem was recaptured and rededicated by the triumphant Maccabees. They found only a tiny bit of pure oil, enough to keep the Eternal Light burning for just one day--but it lasted for eight days, until more pure oil could be prepared. (The other day, I came across a Food Network recipe for latkes fried not in oil but in clarified butter. Oy vey. What's the point?)

Today, potato latkes are definitely the latkes of choice for most Jews, though there are plenty of variations on the basic recipe, some using sweet potatoes, some incorporating other vegetables such as carrots or zucchini. My favorite latke recipe was included in "Death on the List," a Hanukkah whodunit published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine back in 1999. The recipe's available on my website-http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com/recipes-from-the-stories/-     

But, like many Jews, my family always eats cheese on Hanukkah, too--cheese blintzes, cheese pie, even grilled cheese sandwiches. This year, for the first night of Hanukkah, my husband and I had, as usual, potato latkes and a Sephardic cheese frittata. The recipe for the fritatta follows. It's simple, it's delicious, and it's baked in oil. And if the cheese makes you thirsty and you have an extra glass of wine, so what? As long as you're among friends, you should be fine. If you decide to give the recipe a try, think of Judith when you sit down to dinner. Maybe she was an actual person, and maybe she wasn't. Maybe she had something to do with Hanukkah, and maybe she didn't. Her story will probably always be wrapped in mystery. Even so, like other mystery heroines, she can inspire us with her cleverness, and with her courage.


Bernice's Cheese Frittata
(Sephardic Style Cheese Souffle)  
2 eggs
2 cups milk
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
grated cheese--about 2 cups
spices such as pepper, tarragon, and nutmeg (optional)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
  • Mix all ingredients, except oil and Parmesan, until slightly frothy.
  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spread oil evenly in 9 x 13" baking pan; heat in oven.
  • When oil is frying hot, approximately 2--3 minutes, pour batter into pan. If desired, sprinkle with Parmesan. 
  • Bake approximately half an hour at 400 degrees, until a butter knife inserted in the fritatta comes out nearly clean.
  • Any type of cooking cheese should work. Bernice's favorite combination is grated Muenster and Romano. We also like using 1 cup cheddar, 1/2 cup fontina, and 1/2 cup Gruyere.
  • Serves four to six (depending on how hungry they are, and how many latkes they're having as a side dish) 
    First night of Hanukkah, 2015: Three unusually adorable grandchildren, many menorahs in the window


07 July 2015

Suspense the Hard Way: Writing Suspense Stories When You Already Know the Outcome

by Paul D. Marks

In early June, I attended the California Crime Writers Conference in Culver City in the LA area. I was on a panel called Thrills and Chills. The panel’s topic was suspense, how to create it, sustain it, etc. Many good points were made by my fellow panelists, D.P. Lyle, Craig Faustus Buck, Laurie Stevens, Diana Gould, moderator, and I hope by me too. Being on that panel got me thinking about what defines suspense? Is it a cliffhanger? A surprise ending? A reversal? A twist? All of which is part of it. Or is there something else? But I’ll leave the micro mechanics of suspense writing for another time. What I want to talk about here is a certain type of suspense/thriller that’s based on real events and/or people.

Thrills and Chills Panel CCWC  -- 6-2015 -- d3

When one’s writing a fictional story with fictional characters it’s one thing. It’s another thing completely when you’re writing a story based on a real character or characters and situations, because, if the reader is halfway literate (which is getting more and more iffy all the time), they will know the outcome of the story before they read the first word.

Some cases in point:

jackal 1aMy favorite example of this is The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. The book came out in 1971, about a year after Charles de Gaulle died. It’s a suspense-thriller about an attempt to assassinate de Gaulle in the early 1960s. I remember reading the book when it came out, turning page after page. Sneaking a read here and there because it kept me so engrossed. And I knew how it would end. At least I knew de Gaulle would not be assassinated, because I knew that in real life he wasn’t murdered. So the incredible thing about that book for me is how the author kept me, and others, interested when we knew the outcome. An amazing feat. And how he had us rooting for the Jackal to succeed, even though we knew he wouldn’t, and even if in real life we wouldn’t have wanted that.

In The Eagle Has Landed, Jack Higgins’ thriller, Nazi commandos allied with Irish revolutionaries attempt to kidnap British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II. Complications ensue. But once again, we know the outcome in real life: Churchill was never kidnapped. Still, Higgins manages to keep our attention and keep us guessing—will they succeed? Or is this an alternate history with a totally different outcome from what really happened?

And my wife and I just recently watched Bugsy again, the Warren Beatty movie about the notorious gangster Bugsy Siegel. Again we knew the ending. We knew he got murdered, we knew pretty much the how and why, at least according to the movie. Yet still we were glued to the screen. (And as a side note, I grew up across the street from Bugsy’s brother, a doctor—and his family—who Bugsy put through medical school.)

A couple other movies that come to mind are an oldie but goodie, Manhunt, with Walter Pigeon, and Valkyrie-2008-BluRay-postera newer flick, Valkyrie, with Tom Cruise. Both are about plots to assassinate Hitler, and if anyone deserved it, well..., but I digress. Manhunt is a fictional story, to my knowledge, and, as it was made in 1941, World War II was still going strong. So who knew at that time, maybe a plot to kill Hitler was going to happen? But the fact is the story is fiction, and Hitler was still alive and kickin’ when the movie came out. So people watching it then knew the ending wasn’t going to work out, at least not when the movie was released. But somehow the suspense worked and you are sucked into believing it. Valkyrie, based on a true story, came out in 2008, so everybody knew, well almost everybody, well maybe nearly almost everybody, well maybe a handful of people knew, that Hitler hadn’t actually been assassinated. But again the story was like a roller coaster ride at Magic Mountain. You were still rooting for the conspirators to kill Hitler and to get away with their lives even when you knew they wouldn’t. There’s also Argo, with Ben Affleck, and we knew the outcome there too, but were still on the edge of our seats, waiting to see if that group of people would get out of Iran alive.

So how do these authors and filmmakers keep us interested and involved when we already know the outcome?
Alfred-Hitchcock-227x300
“There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise,’ and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”
From: Hitchcock
By Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock

The suspense comes from empathizing with the characters, wanting them to get away or even succeed, even if you know they can’t/won’t and even if they’re anti-heroes or badguys. You want them to come out of it alive. Since you know from the get-go that the mission fails, you have a sense of suspense in hoping the character won’t be injured and will get away in the end. We’re also interested in the how of it—the how-dun-it? How do they plan to achieve their aim of killing de Gaulle or Hitler or kidnapping Churchill?
Also, like the ticking bomb in Hitchcock’s example of suspense (see sidebar), the reader knows they’re going to fail so you’re watching them run towards the “ticking timebomb,” hoping they’ll escape before it’s too late. But with Day of the Jackal, also what makes the reader want the killer to succeed? Isn’t he a “bad guy”. Why don’t you want the other characters to succeed in catching him?

So how does a writer achieve this? A full answer would probably take a book, but briefly: Initially you might not be rooting for the anti-hero. But as the author introduces you to the character and his/her goal you might start identifying with them and their mission. And even though you know their mission is a bad one, like kidnapping Churchill that might have changed the outcome of the war, you still feel a sense of suspense in wanting them to either get caught or succeed. It’s not because you identify with the Nazis per se, but you identify with these individuals and their efforts to achieve their goal or you’re hoping like hell that they won’t. And just like with any other character, the author puts them in jeopardy and puts obstacles in their way so the reader wonders whether or not they’ll get out of it. Also, sometimes villains can be charming or tough or cool. We admire their skill and caginess and we want to live vicariously through them and their adventures.

Sometimes the outcome isn’t the most important part of a story. It’s the ride getting there. So, while a spectacular ending may be good in some books, for some it is more important to build great characters and suspense and not rely on a surprise ending to leave the reader with a good feeling. In a way you have to work harder on the meat of the story when readers already know the outcome, but it is one way you can really distinguish a writer who is a master of suspense—when they can still build suspense with a known outcome.

So sometimes suspense isn’t just about the surprise ending or the unexpected, sometimes it’s about knowing what’s going to happen but wanting something different to happen and how that in itself can create tension, suspense and a great ride along the way.

***

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and Twitter: @PaulDMarks
And check out my updated website www.PaulDMarks.com
Subscribe to my Newsletter: http://pauldmarks.com/subscribe-to-my-newsletter/



24 January 2015

Mysterious, Thrilling, and Criminal





by John M. Floyd



I've heard that the late great Elmore Leonard, who was at one point named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and who won an Edgar for his novel LaBrava, once confessed in an interview that he'd never written a mystery in his life. He said he wrote crime stories, thrillers, suspense novels (and short stories)--but never what might be a called a "traditional" mystery.

Does it matter? Not to me. I love Leonard's books and stories--all of them, including his Westerns--and I couldn't care less how they're labeled. Besides, mysteries are not always whodunits. I maintain that mysteries are puzzles, in the sense that any good story is a puzzle--we want to see what happens, how things turn out--but the identity of the villain doesn't always have to be withheld from the reader until the end. Look at the Columbo series, where the bad guy was always identified in the first five minutes of the episode. It was still considered a mystery show, and one of the best.

The criminal element

This question of what a mystery is--or isn't--seems to come up a lot, in literary discussions. One way to address it is this: Next time you're in a bookstore, take a look at the "Mystery" section. Stacked upon those shelves are hundreds and even thousands of volumes containing murder, mayhem, and misbehavior on all levels. But all of them aren't traditional mysteries, and certainly all of them are not whodunits. I doubt that half of them are. What they are is crime fiction.

If you need further proof, consider the short-story submission guidelines for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Both of them used to say (I'm paraphrasing, but this is the gist) that a story qualifies as a mystery if a crime is central, or essential, to the plot. In other words, if there's no crime, the storyline would fall apart. I also think I remember once reading in their guidelines that a story can be categorized as a mystery if it includes a crime, or even includes the hint of a crime.


In light of these observations, I dutifully went back and examined some of the stories I've had published over the past twenty years. As it turns out, only about twenty percent of my mystery stories have been whodunits. The rest were howdunits, or whydunits, or howcatchems. In those, there's no question about who killed whom. The question is, will the good guy(s) win out, and--if so--how?

Bottom line: Are whodunits good examples of mystery stories? Of course they are, and they'll always be around. But mysteries, whether long or short, don't have to be traditional. They just have to include criminal activity of some kind.

Puzzle vs. suspense

What, then, are some differences between so-called mysteries and so-called thrillers? Here are a few that come to mind:

1. In a traditional mystery, the protagonist (detective, usually) knows more than the reader. In a thriller, the reader knows more than the protagonist--or at least knows it sooner. I once heard it put another way: in a mystery the reader is a step behind the hero, and in a thriller the reader is a step ahead.

2. Traditional mysteries are often told in first person, which supports the "conceal the facts from the reader" approach. Thrillers are more likely to be told in third person, which can heighten suspense. It's "thrilling" for the reader to know, before the FBI agent does, that the terrorist is ready and waiting, just around the corner (or in the root cellar). Or, as Hictchcock is famous for saying, that "there's a bomb under the table."

3. In a thriller, the protagonist's world gradually grows larger, to include more and more tense situations. In a mystery, his world narrows, until only the solution remains.

4. In a traditional mystery, we wonder who committed the crime. In a thriller, we wonder if the hero will survive.

The big question is . . .

Which of the two do you prefer? The answer might not reveal only your reading tastes, but your writing preferences as well. It's been said that crime fiction writers who prefer using third person naturally tend to write more suspense/thriller stories, and that crime fiction writers who prefer first person lean more toward traditional mysteries. I admit that in my case that might be true. Some of my favorite stories of my own were written in first person, but I usually feel more comfortable writing in third--and I've written far more suspense stories than whodunits.

What are your thoughts? Which had you rather read? Which had you rather write? At a guess, what percentage of your own stories or novels are mysteries and what percentage are thrillers?

On the one hand, who cares, right? They're both fun to read, and to create. And we're all different. As Lt. Frank Bullitt said, "You work your side of the street, and I'll work mine."

On the other hand . . . tell me your secrets. End the suspense.

To do less would be a crime.



28 November 2014

Three Books by David Robbins

by R.T. Lawton

A few weeks back when I was looking for something new to read, I stumbled across The Empty Quarter (2014), the latest book by David Robbins. Its title intrigued me. I opened the book and scanned the inside. The offered sample read well, so I made my purchase.

The Empty Quarter opens in Afghanistan with a team of para rescuers from the Air Force's SOE branch being landed in an open field by a Pave Low helicopter, protected by a gunship. Their mission is to locate, treat and evacuate three wounded British marines whose patrol is pinned down by the enemy. In the process, the reader gets introduced to some of the main characters and finds out what makes them do the hazardous job they do. I then expected the rest of the book to take place in Afghanistan with that war. It didn't.

The story next moved to Yemen where the reader is introduced to Arif, a Saudi who returned from fighting the Russians in Afghanistan twenty-five years previously. Having returned to his native Saudi Arabia, he found he no longer fit into that society. Didn't help that he married a Saudi princess and became embroiled in conflict with her father, the prince. A short prison term for our likable antagonist soon followed. Then, acting upon the words from the prophet Muhammad from his own troubles centuries before, Arif and his wife fled to Yemen. Now, Arif uses his software programming skills to anonymously harass and embarrass the Saudi government through the internet.

      "When disaster threatens, seek refuge in Yemen." ~ The Prophet Muhammad to his followers
       after retreating from Mecca.

Tension remains taut throughout the entire book, all of which is leading up to an escape and chase into The Empty Quarter, a vast desert in Yemen controlled by various tribal factions who often set up road blocks on the desert highway and demand bribes for any wishing to pass. Tribal bonds and blood feuds soon affect both the escapers and the pursurers. The escapers are an American low level diplomat (ex-Army Ranger Captain) who wrongly believes that Arif's wife is trying to go back to her father, a slippery Yemen Intelligence Colonel who lives in the world of spies, and Arif's wife who is strangely silent on the entire matter. The pursurers are a desparate Arif, a Yemen family of brothers who owe a death bed vow to assist this Saudi mujahedeen who has lived in their village for many years. A SEAL unit is on standby for extraction and the para rescuers are prepared to assist, but the plans of men often go awry with events beyond their control. It all collides at the ruins of an ancient building just off the desert highway, and it sometimes becomes difficult to tell who the real bad guys are.

The ending was not what I expected. If you don't get a lump in your throat at the conclusion of this book, then you are made of stern granite.

Enjoyed that novel so much that I went back to see what else David Robbins had written. To my surprise, I had already read one of his earlier books years ago, War of the Rats (1999) which is set in Stalingrad during World War II. Hitler has decreed that his army will capture this city named after the leader of the Soviet Union, while Stalin for his part has sent Krushchev to bolster the city's defenses down to the last man, woman and child, no surrender. The war for ground in the city slowly grinds down to a virtual stalemate. Snipers are called in to assist both sides.

If you are starting to think this scenario sounds familiar, you're correct. Robbin's book, War of the Rats, was made into a movie, Enemy at the Gates. I liked them both.

Realizing that Robbins likes to base his characters and story backgrounds on real people, events and existing organizations, I decided to try a third novel, The Assassin's Gallery (2006). This one is set in 1945 with most of the story taking place in the U.S. During the dark of night on New Year's Eve, a swimmer comes ashore from a submarine. She successfully lands on a beach outside a small town in Massachusetts and starts walking up the beach road to go to the house of her American contact. Unfortunately for her, two civilian coast watchers are parked up that road in an old pickup. Now, she must use all her talents as a professional assassin to cover her tracks.

Meanwhile in Scotland, an American who teaches at a university also secretly trains Jedburgh teams to be dropped behind German and Japanese lines to operate as assassins and saboteurs. This professor gets recalled to America by a member of the Secret Service whom he once trained as a Jedburgh. This particular Secret Service agent believes an assassin is en route to Washington, DC to kill the president.

The rest of the book matches wits between the alleged assassin and the professor. As the story progresses, the calendar keeps moving closer to April 12, 1945, the actual date of Franklin D. Roosevelt's death at the Little White House in Georgia. If you think you know the ending, you should consider two facts to go with this tale of fiction. One, shortly after Roosevelt's death, Josef Stalin sent a telegram to the U.S. State Department requesting that an autopsy be performed to determine if Roosevelt had been poisoned. And second, no chemist's report concerning what may or may not have been in Roosevelt's last meal is available even though the Secret Service ordered a test on the contents of that meal.

Ah, happy reading.

20 November 2014

David Dean: "The Purple Robe"

by Eve Fisher

What if you found out there was a place where miracles really happened?  Deep in the jungle, far away from any prying eyes.  Would you go?  And why?  Is it a miracle you want, or a miracle you fear?  Do you need to ask for it, or to stop it?  What is it that you want?  And what would you do if you found out it was all true...  but there is a price?  David Dean's new thriller, The Purple Robe, offers a wide range of answers to these questions and more.

The small quiet Yucatan town of Progreso, on the Gulf of Mexico, far from the tourist hot-spots, is under the bewildered care of young Father Pablo, awkward, uncertain and with a little bit of a drinking problem.  (They don't call him Father Tomato for nothing.)  His acolytes don't respect him; his congregation is dwindling; and then there are Dona Marisa Elena Saenz, a/k/a La Viuda Negra (the Black Widow), and the local police Captain Barrera, two people who always manage to make him feel...  inadequate, if not downright wrong.

Ironically, although Dona Marisa and Captain Barrera have nothing in common, both express a concern about the missing Alcante boy, some say lame, all say drug-addicted, and last spotted out at a rotting plantation in the jungle, perhaps walking...  Perhaps he's joined the insurrectos; perhaps he's found something else.  There are rumors about a ruined place with a holy relic, a secret site with secret pilgrimages:  much to Father Pablo's chagrin, the Archbishop asks him to investigate.  But where? How?  His main clue is a leaflet, given to him on a bus by a woman named Veronica:


"Ask and ye shall receive":  
the only words underneath a wood engraving of Jesus 
beaten and bloody in a purple robe; 
surrounded by Mayan warriors instead of Roman centurions.  


Veronica takes him deep into the jungle, to a nightmare of a plantation, the disintegrating mansion of a Yucatan Miss Havisham, Dona Josefa, a woman as old as time and either a mystic or mad, who holds a relic that she claims is a fragment of the purple robe worn by Christ at his trial.  Surrounded by Mayan guards, and ever-increasing numbers of pilgrims, including two wealthy Norte Americanos, Father Pablo finds himself in a world in which hope, faith, need, and desperation make people willing to do anything to achieve what they want:  healing, power, prayer, control, hope, fear, and even death.  

Especially if someone is willing to do anything to stop another miracle from happening...

The Purple Robe is a Catholic fable, an evocation of the Yucatan, a religious thriller, and quite a ride. And it's worth thinking about:  What if you found out there was a place where miracles really happened?  Deep in the jungle, far away from any prying eyes.  Would you go?  And why?

29 April 2013

I Found My Thrill (but not on Blueberry Hill)

by Fran Rizer
The original title at the top of this was simply "Thriller."  When my grandson stood behind me and saw that, he asked, "G-Mama, are you writing about Michael Jackson?"  I'm not, so I changed the title though I'm not writing about Fats Domino either.  (BTW, my grandson is the ONLY person who can stand behind me while I write without igniting my wrath.)
Somehow I don't believe this photo really
needs a cut line.

As some of you know, my Callie Parrish Mystery series is so close to cozy that I don't object to being classified as a cozy writer.  I wrote the first one following what I thought were the guidelines for cozies, but Berkley Prime Crime thought not and  marketed them as Mainstream Mystery.  I've also done some writing under pen names because I didn't want to offend or upset those wonderful people who read about Callie and Jane nor disillusion any of my former students that Ms. Rizer might say something that wasn't "nice."

I'm presently trying to find a publisher for a new thriller, and when I do, it will be published under the name Fran Rizer.  I've decided I'm too old to try to protect my reputation any longer, and the students I last taught are now grown. It's not going to hurt for my readers to realize that while Callie Parrish doesn't use profanity, Fran Rizer knows how to spell those words!

Since my genres sometimes cross, I researched genres again when I finished this book to see what I'd written. Yes, there are several murders (way more than the maximum of  two  allowed in a cozy), but I wasn't quite sure what  to call this book.  After all, I researched cozies before the first Callie book, and didn't hit the target. My agent helped me.  He calls this a southern mystery thriller.  Everyone knows the meaning of southern and mystery, but what exactly IS a thriller?

I'll share my findings with you, but please don't think I'm comparing my thriller with the ones mentioned in this article.

First off, I don't believe in writing "formulas."  There is no formula for writing a thriller, but there are shared characteristics.  The biggest one is obvious:  thrillers "thrill."  The plots are scary with great risk to the characters, making the reader either eager to turn the page or scared to turn the page and see what's next.

Thrillers cross many writing genres and can be divided into different categories:  action thrillers, military thrillers, psychological thrillers (like Hitchcock's Psycho), romantic thrillers, sci-fi thrillers, spy thrillers, and even more.  The stories begin with a major, generally life or death, problem and a protagonist who attempts to solve it only to find the threat grows bigger and bigger and more and more dangerous.  The confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist is dramatic, and the book ends with a short wrap-up.

Recognize these people?
The thrillers that most interest me are the thriller murder mysteries. Some are classic "Who-done-its?" Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs is that kind of thriller.  We don't know who committed the murder(s) until the end.
.
Ken Follett's The Eye of the Needle and Peter Benchley's Jaws are "How-done-its?"  The readers (or movie viewers) know who the bad guy is from the very beginning.  The tension and thrill is in the question, "Will they catch him/her/it before more people are killed?"  Note that the bad guy doesn't have to be human.  It can be an animal like in Jaws.
Dick Francis died in 2010.  He had
received numerous awards including
three Edgars, the Crime Writers'
Association Cartier Diamond Dagger,
 and the MWA Grand Master Award.




Not all murder mysteries are thrillers.  Many are puzzles that are interesting and entertaining but don't sweep the reader into a thrilling action-filled ride. Dick Francis's works don't fit that category.  He was a master of the mystery thriller.

There are mystery/thriller writers whose works surpass the genre and become serious art.  Examples are:

Raymond Chandlers Phillip Marlow novels, James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice; John D. McDonald's Travis McGee novels; and Ross McDonald's Lew Archer novels.  They all make serious social commentary and have existentialist undertones. Somehow, I don't think I'll fall into that category, but I'm pleased enough with my new southern mystery thriller under my own name.

Wish me luck finding a publisher for this new venture.

Until we meet again… take care of you.

19 February 2013

Readers Choice

by David Dean

In spite of earlier reports of my departure, which resulted in much joy and merry-making, I'm still here.  And, as I've warned those that have ears to listen (okay, eyes to read...but you get the point), I'm not leaving till I'm done--I need help and your going to give it to me, and even after you do, I've still got one more posting for you to get through on March 5th.  Sorry, but those are my terms.

Being a sucker for punishment, I intend to write another novel and would like to begin very soon.  I am not satisfied that I should write only one (how should I put this?) non-bestselling book, but am determined to produce another.  My theory is that I should continue to throw novels against the wall until one sticks--it's worked for others; why not me?  But that's where you come in--what should I write next?

Having outlined four different stories, I thought you might get a kick out of helping me pick one to get started on.  I like them all (though I have my favorites), but can't seem to settle on which one might be the best bet out of the chute.  So what follows are brief synopses (teasers really, as I'm withholding the conclusions) of my ideas for your consideration.  As I know we are all drawn to mystery first and foremost, I must ask you to remain open-minded about my offerings as they span four genres--consider also the commercial potential--this is a subject of which I've had very little experience.  Up until now, I've written whatever I felt like writing.  But, as I would also like for a few folks to actually read what I've written, I ask for your help.  To paraphrase Rod Serling, consider the following offerings:

Mystery Novel:  A fourteen year old girl, and her two younger siblings, arrive home from school one day just in time to save their father from hanging himself.  It is the anniversary of their mother's unsolved murder.  The eldest girl determines that she will get to the bottom of the mystery of her mother's death and enlists the aid of her eleven year old sister and nine year old brother in the cause--commands them really, as she has stepped into their mother's empty shoes.  Using the newspaper stories that covered the murder, which occurred only blocks away near the railroad track that runs by their home, as well as possible clues of a secret life that she gleans from her father's intended suicide note, she maps out an investigative strategy.  The suspects range from their father to their mother's employer, a doctor; a yet undiscovered lover (and potentially his wife), a nun who may have disapproved of mama's extracurricular activities, a violent tramp that was the police's original and favorite suspect, their grandma (dad's mom), and finally a completely unknown person.  It doesn't take long for the children to start rattling some cages, and soon, it appears that they have garnered some very unwelcome attention from a stalker with violent intentions.  But they can give as good as they get, and the culprit is eventually uncovered.

Horror Novel: A man is awakened in the middle of the night by a great sound, as if the world is cracking.  This is followed by screams, then silence.  Discovering that his wife and children are missing, he scours the house, then the neighborhood, but soon realizes that most people, and all children, have vanished.  In short order, he also discovers that those remaining are not alone; that something(s) is in the dark with them--killing them.  Over the next few days, as he struggles to survive in a world populated by demons, giants, phantoms, and monsters, he begins to understand that Judgement Day has come and gone, and that earth has been given over to hell to rule.  In a world where one can be endlessly terrified, tortured, and horribly killed, only to live again to suffer the same torments, he searches for salvation and release.  When he stumbles upon hell's only weakness, he begins to fight back, and little by little to regain his humanity, and his hope.

Speculative Fiction Novel: With a nod to Beowulf, this story centers on a young Norse Viking named Thorfinn Ratspiker.  So called because he lives in his father's barn where he excels at spearing rats with short javelins known as "darts"--a talent he picked up from their Irish slaves.  He is the illegitimate child of one of these captive women, and is small and slender, and thought to be slow-witted .  When his father, the Viking chieftain, warns him of his half-brother's impending return from raiding and his intention to remove Thorfinn from any chance of inheriting the throne, Thorfinn takes the hint and flees north.  After slaying a gigantic wolf that was terrorizing an impoverished village, he is told of a kingdom still farther north, whose king and populace are living in fear of a cannibal giant.  This bloodthirsty monster is only kept at bay by a steady sacrifice of slave children to sate his appetite.  Thorfinn, buoyed by his recent victory, and unable to return home, continues on to this kingdom to try his luck at freeing the people and to be hailed a great hero and richly rewarded.  What he discovers is that there is far more to the monster than meets the eye and that something even more sinister lies at the core of this kingdom.

Thriller Novel:  A young police officer finds out that his ne'er-do-well little sister and her sketchy boyfriend have vanished while sailing in the Bahamas.  Their boat has fetched up on a small cay in the Exuma chain without them or any clue as to what happened.  Taking a leave of absence, the officer charters a sailboat out of Miami, intending to recreate his sister's voyage based on what he knew of the couple's sail plan.  The captain, a tough old Haitian, agrees to his plan and they set off, only to discover that a large tiger shark follows in their wake--not a good omen according to the captain.  After meeting with the police in Nassau, and being assured that nothing new has been learned, they go to find the boat.  While doing so they pick up a new follower, a large black yacht, that neither draws closer nor stands farther off when they challenge.  His sister's derelict sailboat reveals nothing, but the locals assure them that it arrived on a northerly current and must have been abandoned to the south of their island.  Continuing on they stop over at a cay rumored to be a drop-off point for South American cocaine, prior to its being flown to the U.S.  Here they encounter not only only the crew of the black yacht, but a beautiful island girl in their company.  Having convinced them she is being held captive by drug-runners they help her to escape and flee southward with the yacht in pursuit.  But during the voyage, they grow suspicious that the girl may know something about the young man's missing sister, and is leading them to a similar fate on a deserted island known as Starvation Cay.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, there you have it--these are the horses in the race!  Make your pick and place your bet!  The winners will recieve an autographed copy of the book upon publication (if, and when, that ever happens)!  How can you go wrong?  But you can't win if you don't play, so think it over and let me know your thoughts in comments.  Thanks one and all!

15 June 2012

Guys Read

by Dixon Hill


If you’re reading this between 10 am and 1 pm, California time, on Friday, then — Even as you read, buddy! — I’m behind the wheel of a 12-passenger van, burning east along I-10. I’m on my way back home from the church Summer Camp where I’ve been incarcerated with scores of screaming teenagers since early Monday morning.

I spent the week before this getting the van laid on, hunting down last-minute campers, and preparing things so that my dad, my wife and our kids would be ready for my week-long absence, as well as gathering the minutia I figured a 49-year-old man would need during a week of — well, I guess it’s not exactly “hell-raising” if we’re going to be at church camp. Still, my list of minutia included a small propane stove with coffee-making accessories, a stash of cigars I expect to E&E into the woods to enjoy (since smoking is prohibited on the camp grounds), plus a big box of chemical heating pads for aching back muscles.

I didn’t exactly mean to volunteer for this. But, I did in fact volunteer for it. So, I suppose I ought to quit my … er … um … ‘complaining’ (see, I’m already practicing to spend the week at church camp with a bunch of teenagers).

What happened is this: A few months ago, I promised the 22-year-old woman, who was going along as a counselor for the girls, that I’d go with her if we couldn't find a younger guy to shepherd the boys. We only have five girls and one boy attending camp, but the  22-year-old refused to go without another adult, and none of the other college-aged kids in our church could get time off from work. So … I’m the guy driving a 12-passenger van with the rear seat removed for added cargo space, a young female counselor and six teens. And, I have no idea what’s in store for me up at camp, as I write this — though, by the time you read this, it will all be over.

One thing all this does have me thinking about is KIDS.

Particularly young boys, around nine or ten — like the rowdies in the Sunday school class I teach. Boys who are dying to go to camp, but aren't yet old enough, which is something I’m working to rectify for next year.

These 3rd and 4th graders may be too young for this year’s camp, but they aren’t too young to swing hammers, work saws, and turn screws when we build Sunday school projects. (Can’t tell this class is taught by an old SF Engineer Sergeant, can you? No doily projects for us, buddy. We stick to wood and hardware! That’s the only thing that keeps these “Wild Men of Borneo”, as I call them, from tearing apart the classroom. LOL   And, please realize: No slight is intended to those who hail from Borneo; these are all great kids.)

These boys are just that. BOYS. They love adventure. They crave it; they seek it; and, when adventure isn’t a part of their real lives — they invent it. Which brings me to the point of this post:

Guys Read

According to their website, Guys Read is “a web-based literacy program for boys … Our mission is to help boys become self-motivated, lifelong readers.”

I first stumbled across Guys Read when I bought one of their anthologies for my son at a school book fair. This anthology, Guys Read: THRILLER, holds ten short stories, packed with action and adventure — a real hit with my son and his friends.

Some of the stories, such as Ghost Vision Glasses, by Patrick Carman, are spooky and fall into the horror category. Others, such as Gennifer Choldenko’s Snake Mafia, are pure mystery-suspense. The Double Eagle Has Landed, by Anthony Horowitz, is a perfect blend of action, suspense and comedy that had me laughing (and biting my nails) right alongside my son, while Walter Dean Myers’ Pirate provided a quick and troubling, blinding flash of insight concerning life as a teen pirate off the coast of Mogadishu.

All these stories have young male protagonists who face daunting odds, force their way (sometimes with second and third thoughts) through a rousing adventure, and finally find their way out the other side.

Guys Read website says: “… research … shows that boys will read — if they are given reading that interests them.” And, I have to say: "I couldn't agree MORE!"


Guys Read: THRILLER definitely delivers. But, the site offers more, saying:

“… the biggest part of this site is the collection of book titles below. These are books that guys have told us they like. Our idea is to help guys become readers by helping them find texts they want to read. Get in there and start looking around. There is a little something for everyone.”

 This old soldier's suggestion?

If you know a young guy, similar to one of my “Wild Men of Borneo”, check out Guys Read. You may be opening up a whole new world of adventure for him!

See you in two weeks (assuming I survive Church Camp without being burned at the stake!),
— Dix