Musings on Storycraft

Book Review of  “The Drop (A Harry Bosch Novel)”  by Michael Connelly

I just finished my new favorite work by Michael Connelly: “The Drop,” a Harry Bosch mystery from 2011. (It displaces “Void Moon,” from 1999.) I realize the dude’s scribbled four or five more volumes since Drop. What can I say? Connelly seems to turn ‘em out more quickly than Famous Amos bakes cookies. It’s tough for mere mortals to keep up! Plus, he’s not the only writer any self-respecting mystery/thriller buff must read to stay au courant.

A path into “The Drop” was provided to me by Connelly himself in a recent New York Times book review section (Feb. 2015), wherein he assessed the debut of “The Whites,” by a colleague (and presumptive  competitor) in the genre, Richard Price. Connelly leads into that piece with a generous anecdote, recounting how impressed he was by a Price quote he once plucked from a magazine interview.

To wit: “When you circle around a murder long enough, you get to know a city.”

Connelly cut that line out and stuck it above his computer screen, where it served as a lodestone for his own writing for a few years. I’d like to think that it was still up there as he wrote “The Drop,” because that’s precisely what this deceptively simple – at first! – procedural mystery achieves. It doesn’t only add a fresh stratum to the legend of his enduring detective cum knight errant, Harry Bosch. This book also limns the smog-wreathed skyline of LA and the city’s beleaguered PD… as well as the shadow realm that lurks below the spires and towers of this afflicted metropolis.

This author seems to be at a charmed point in his career. Not just because he’s made the best-seller lists only slightly less often than God, but also, because he now knows he doesn’t need to open a story with a garish and gory splash. His fan base will stick, so he can launch readers into The Drop with a stark and simple scene of detectives shoving files around on desks in their dingy office. And these are not even contemporary files, they’re musty records (“murder books”) of the Open-Unsolved Unit, kicking around cases from decades past.

So Connelly shows us basic cop procedure, rendered in language basic and un-flamboyant. That style happen to remind you of anything? Readers of a certain age may recall the clear and clipped cadences of the old “Dragnet” TV show of the 50s and 60s, which featured the laconic Jack Webb as Detective Sgt. Joe Friday. Cue the musical theme, “dum-da-dum-dum.” And then, after an image of the phallic county courthouse and his badge, number 714, hear Webb intone, “This is the city, Los Angeles, California. I work here. I’m a cop.”

Well, laconic at first, maybe. In some episodes Webb grew way too loquacious and pontifical. But my point is, in the opening tone of “The Drop,” Connelly invokes Joe Friday. Just as in the character development of Harry Bosch, he invokes the long-suffering persistence and battered honor of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, and other guardians of the presumed innocent in a neon-washed L.A.

Another beauty of “The Drop” is the way a single clue – a faint blood smear on the neck of a 19 year-old coed that did not come from her, nor even from her killer – is unfolded, origami-like, by Bosch, to eventually lead him to a serial murderer who’s outsmarted everyone for decades. This mystery is interwoven with another, as he digs into the truth behind the apparent suicide of the son of a city councilman. These two threads combine to weave a tapestry of deception in which the only reliable constant is Bosch’s dogged persistence.

A third charm, highly unusual in this genre, is that there’s almost no violence. Oh, there are crimes aplenty, some with gruesome evidence, vividly described. But the sole physical action occurs when Bosch engineers a take-down and cuffing of the serial killer, and next prevents his death at the hands of a former victim. The beauty of this is that it allows the reader to focus on the detective work and the character of the detective. Bosch at this point is a gruff, no-nonsense, greying eminence on the force. He needs the job – nailing miscreants is his raison d’etre. But he certainly doesn’t need to take any shit from anyone, including his bosses, and he won’t. That gives his every interaction a stolid, curmudgeonly charm.

To put it simply, in The Drop, Connelly concentrates on making simplicity a virtue. And he ends up with a stark, clear work that portrays victims, assailants and cops churning through a complex dance where death and danger call the tune, and success at completing a number only means winning the chance to do it all over again. This novel offers a map to the homes of the stars, and the retreats of scumbags, and the locations of those caught in between – plus a few unusual people who carry well the awful burden of badges – in a town that Joni Mitchell sang of as, “L.A., city of the fallen angels.”

To Be Conscious of a Cult

04.21.14

Film review of “Martha Marcy May Marlene

What makes a scary movie? And please, don’t say the Wayans brothers.

To induce fear successfully, a film must drill into our deep subconscious, slurp the murky liquor of willful unknowing up into daylight, then squirt it straight into the eyes of viewers – making them absorb realizations they don’t particularly care to acquire on their own. The hallmark of such a film is not that it makes you look, but that it absolutely refuses to let you look away.

That description fits the 2011 psychological drama, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” to a T… though for the sake of brevity, I’m going to call this movie 4Ms.

The odd title of the flick is only a hint of the creativity involved in making this guided trek into the trauma-ridden mind of a youthful follower of a cult, located on a dilapidated farmstead in upstate New York. The eponymous Martha – played by Elizabeth Olsen – is a lovely girl seeking to cross over the metaphorical bridge into womanhood. But she gets stuck about midway. Confused, defensive, vulnerable and unformed, she’s seized upon by a master manipulator named Patrick – played by a supremely conniving and always convincing John Hawkes.

At first, Martha’s induction into the “family” makes her focus on new relationships, music, learning her way around a garden and a kitchen, then assuming some care of the collective’s infants. However the tide of her conversion inexorably begins to flow toward much darker matters: drugs and group sex, then robbery, violence and mayhem.

Though the film’s running-time is 141 minutes, it does feel a great deal longer. That’s a fabulous thing. Too much cinematic story-telling these days obsesses over hitting each highly-prioritized mark in a fast-paced three-act structure. In so doing, a movie can grow as boring and predictable as a pop tune.

However, 4Ms glories in a more jazz-like approach as it switches back and forth between Martha’s time with the commune – gradually turning from idyll to nightmare – and the period spent with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) once they’ve rescued her and brought her to live with them in a vacation cottage. Lucy and Ted only gradually come to see the flaming wreckage inside this apparently frail creature they’ve clasped to their bosom.

The jazz-like development of the story-line is underscored by a major emphasis on the sound edit. Over the film’s course, the hammer-blows and ax-strikes of a rural commune struggling to build itself gradually become the thump of rocks flung onto a roof to distract a home-owner before a hit-squad from the commune invades his house for a robbery. The ring of a phone gradually inflicts terror, after use of phones becomes a means for the communards to track down Martha. And the crunch of a vehicle moving over gravel pursues Martha all the way to the film’s last, unsettling scene.

All of these changes and challenges are chronicled in Martha’s face, sweet but guarded, baffled and yearning, then – increasingly – shocked, numbed, and terrorized. Elizabeth Olsen won nine acting awards for this role, while achieving fifteen nominations for other prizes. I’d say she deserved all of them, and more.

Yet as far as I’m concerned, the palm for supreme achievement here must go to Sean Durkin, 4Ms’ writer and director. Fortunately, the Sundance Film Festival thought that, too. He’s the one who assembled all the parts in this chilling and profound work of story-telling. It’s my belief that story-tellers working in any medium, including prose fiction, can learn a incredible amount from the way Durkin approached his subject and managed to accomplish his goal. In an interview for the book, “The Best Film You’ve Never Seen,” he told author Robert K. Elder, “When I make a film, I think about things that scare me. My exploration of those things is to try and wrap my head around them and confront them.”

Which is also a formula for the way human society can encounter and absorb some of its most necessary stories. Now, more than four decades since Charles Manson and his band of marauders left their famously bloody handprints smeared across the American Southwest, we may finally be ready to see and hear what it actually means to fall under the sway of a masterful and determined, yet thoroughly demented manipulator. And finally understand how this damage, once accomplished, is extremely difficult to undo.

So. Why might this be such a scary message for us? It’s because, my dears, there’s far more than one type of cult.

Let’s give a listen to the lines that Patrick whispers to Martha, as he attempts to convince her that the murder she’s just watched being committed by her fellow communards during a home invasion should not bother her.

“You know that death is the most beautiful part of life, right?… It brings you to now, makes you truly present. That’s nirvana. That’s pure love. So, death is pure love.”

If you’re able to watch that scene and audit that line without a shudder, I’ve got a job for you. I hear Dexter may be looking for an assistant.

In Murder – Does Neatness Count?

07.20.13

Review of “Bones Are ForeverBones are Forever.” by Kathy Reichs

There’s a compulsion inherent to mysteries and thrillers – no matter how messy the crime scenes get. And that’s an impulse to clean things up. Baddies enter the story to upend the social order, tie the blond to the railroad track, chew on the scenery and summon all the demons of chaos. But! Then along comes Marshal Jones, in his (or her!) guise as the lonesome stalwart blessed with the inner (and outer!) strength to dish out just desserts, then make the baddies eat ‘em.

That’s the reassurance, the medication – hell, let’s face it – the opiate that most of this genre serves up. The exceptions only prove (or at least serve to underline) the rule. Then, there’s works like “Bones Are Forever,” by Kathy Reichs, a mystery that dances so closely to the line of “too clean” that a reader can practically hear the sentences squeak. Not to mention the wooden gears of the plot.

There’s no question that Reichs has been a huge success with this approach. Her first book won an Ellis and rocketed to the NY Times best-seller list, as have subsequent works. So, you argue against it at your peril. Clearly there’s an audience out there that’s avid for it. My main concern is that a) such overall tidiness does not mirror the world, and b) that it telegraphs most of the punches – which leaches tension out of the narrative.

“Bones” is a novel that features her recurring heroine, Temperance Brennan. Like Reichs herself,  Brennan is a professional forensic anthropologist. The story opens as she examines the corpse of a baby that appears to have been slain by its mother, and in rapid succession, other children who’ve met a similarly tragic fate. Brennan is soon on the killer’s trail, in the company of homicide detective Andrew Ryan and a Canadian Mountie named Oliver (“Ollie”) Hasty. Brennan has a history with both men, so a romantic triangle descends to complicate the investigation. Unfortunately, it’s a triangle that clanks more than it rings, a formulaic element that feels imposed simply so the guys can snarl at each other while they flirt with Brennan.

The simplest way to indict the repartee that thumps into the story to provide you with a sample. Q: “Why are you looking for her?” A: “I’m a dentist, and I’m worried she’s not flossing her teeth.”

Apparently, this is what passes for tough cop chatter north of the U.S. border.

The trail leads them to aboriginal – Dene – settlements in the northern territories. They find the killer, a simpleton with barely enough brain-power to invent aliases for herself, a witless woman who has worked as a prostitute and deploys infanticide as birth control. But another dimension of the woman’s sad plight is that her family has been targeted by white, pseudo-environmentalists who scheme to deprive the native people of land rights and steal the potential diamond mine that lies underground.

Reichs is a scientist, and her forays into the history of diamond mining, like her scenes of forensic analysis, are all informative and illuminating. She’s a clever enough story-teller to show Brennan making a few mistakes and getting into a bad jam or two. She’s particularly good at rendering some Native American minor characters. But since cleanliness is the overwhelming and dominant virtue of the narrative, there’s never any doubt that her feuding cop partners will cooperate on rescuing Brennan, and all problems will be solved with the smooth efficiency of a softly ticking Swiss watch. As, in the due course of time, they thoroughly are.

Reichs is a master at her own tidy modality, and her readers apparently love the dickens out of her for laying it on them. But me, I’d infinitely prefer to see a truly rogue element – or three, or four – ride in to kick over her far-too-orderly apple-cart, and infuse the literary proceedings with a few bolts of genuine demonic chaos. In this novel, the only true agent of chaos that ever shows up is the hapless infant-killer/prostitute. She’s hardly a worthy antagonist. She’s almost another victim.

Aboard the Good Ship “Thriller”

04.23.13

Review of Dublin DeadDublin Dead. by Gerard O’Donovan

In one of her lapidary poems, Emily Dickenson incisively summoned for all time our image of a book as an argosy, a ship that can transport a reader to foreign climes and cultures. And indeed, readers can readily expect time spent with a thriller or a mystery to transport them into deeper dimensions of crime and social dysfunction, the horrors of violence, and the harrowing challenges willingly taken up by the champions of justice.

A good mystery or thriller can accomplish this, and more besides. It can also illustrate Dickenson’s literal point by bearing a reader as nearly as far into a distant nation as an actual physical trip might. Such an achievement is scored by Dublin Dead.

In this complex tale of crime in modern Ireland, O’Donovan brings back a pair of main characters from a highly successful debut novel, “The Priest.” One of them is Siobhan Fallon, a pretty and feisty investigative female reporter for The Sunday Herald who was literally crucified and almost slain by the demented killer Rinn in O’Donovan’s  earlier work. Mike Mulcahy is a dedicated and dour, implacable detective inspector who heads up the National Drug Unit for the Gardai – the Irish national police.

O’Donovan grasps well that the most potent part of human sexuality is yearning. Siobhan and Mike clearly have got the steamy hots for one another.

Unfortunately they, like many native Irish, carry a mental infection brought on by generations of Manichean Catholicism. For them, strong desire is reason enough to develop resistance to the very thought of getting together. Instead, both members of this potential couple stand frozen before the gleaming apple of temptation. To them the prospect of romance seems simultaneously forbidden and alluring, powerful yet poisonous. Besides that, Siobhan is traumatized by her experiences with Rinn, and Mike is rattled by the blend of his own flight impulse, coupled with excessive concern for her frailty. So all they can seem to offer each other is a bumbling camaraderie that switches back-and-forth between angry confrontation and awkward affection.

In short their situation is so bloody Irish, it fairly sweats Guinness and reeks of peat smoke.

Frustrated passion doesn’t prevent Siobhan and Mike from rushing fiercely into danger over and over again to save each other’s lives. Rather, it actively forces them to do that very thing. Because, you see, it’s a mighty form of sublimation, a substitute for that other consummation which they struggle with all their strength to avoid.

The shamrock is flamboyantly branded on some other story elements that are more atmospheric. These include: a Church whose once-omnipotent presence has faded to a dim, decaying backdrop; a turbulent history whose modern harvest is a glowering belligerence readily accessible to most of the characters; and the faltering spasms of a “Celtic Tiger” economy everywhere reduced to mewling-kitten status.

One more major element helps “Dublin Dead” bear readers away on a voyage to a tarnished Emerald Isle: the well-rendered, rich vernacular language, robust and profane, which is scattered throughout the book’s scenes with a prodigal hand. Here follows a few of my favorite phrases.

Rain is a, “feckin’ downpour”; a criminal is a, “yellow gobshite”; a suspect is, “some eejit”; and the deity is either, “Jaysus” or “Christ on a bike.” For complete sentences, I savored, “All the molly-coddling, it’s complete bollocks”; and, “How do you fancy that pint I owe you?”

As to plot, it primarily deals with the fallout from the seizure of ninety bales of Columbian cocaine, taken from an ocean-going yacht off the Irish coast; this find is Mulcahy’s main focus. Another mystery is presented by the suicide of a promising young Irish real estate developer, who takes a flyer off a high bridge in England; this is the focus of an investigation by Fallon. As the troubled duo of detectives flail through a welter of confusing clues and false leads, they belatedly come to understand they’ve been laboring to unravel opposite ends of the same sprawling conspiracy.

I loved many parts of this novel, except for its climactic finale, which held too many head-snapping reversals-of-fortune for my taste.

However, overall, the part of it I far-and-away loved best was a chance to fly straight into Ireland and linger there for a good while, without any need to purchase or endure a six-hour plane ride.

“There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!” – Emily Dickinson

Crime Without Villains

02.19.13

Review of Truth Like the Sun by Jim Lynch

My older brother likes to spout a theory that the hippies were correct about everything. I don’t particularly subscribe. However, I will admit that long-haired, herb-smoking mob did create incredibly nifty slogans. Such as: “What if they gave a war, and no one came?”

After you’ve mulled that idea for a bit, try this one on for size. What if someone wrote a crime novel that had few if any crimes? Or presented a mystery that had all its major truths laid out in plain sight?

Such a conundrum is provided to readers by the wonderfully crafted Truth Like the Sun

A major clue that author Lynch is up to some creative play with ordinary story formulas is that he offers us two protagonists, yet no clear villain.

The first major character is Roger Morgan, a charmed and charming Seattle socialite who draws an idea for the city’s iconic Space Needle on a napkin, and then manages to get the thing built just in time for it to serve as the centerpiece for the Century 21 Exposition, aka the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

Morgan, then young, is described as jug-eared, loose-limbed, bushy-haired, and is hailed as a “silver-tongued p.r. Hercules” for accomplishing this task. Ever afterward he’s known by the sobriquet, “Mr. Seattle.” In fact, he serves so well and so long as the unofficial social leader of the city that, as the 40th anniversary of the fair approaches, he decides to run for the actual position of mayor, and in this way invoke some of the can-do optimism that prevailed during his heyday.

Enter a muck-raking reporter on the prowl, one Helen Gulanos, an East Coast scrivener who has been lured West by promises of a loose leash and big play for her stories in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Gulanos, a single mom with a hapless love life, is damaged goods. She struggles to raise her pre-schooler son, tries to justify her existence by writing hard-hitting stories, and takes only occasional refuge from stress by sawing away on a violin.

Asked to write “enterprising” stories about the anniversary of the fair, Gulanos first observes Roger Morgan at the party where he announces his candidacy. She suspects Morgan can’t possibly be as clean or as idealistic as he presents himself, decides to probe into his past and Seattle’s, and soon – as Sherlock Holmes might say – the game is afoot.

Lynch cleverly designs “Truth” with two timelines. In the first timeline, set in 1962, the young Roger Morgan is shown afloat on the flood of the energy and enthusiasm that creates the fair – made all the more poignant by the fact that the era was also haunted by the Cold War and a looming specter of nuclear holocaust. Still, the 1962 Morgan enjoys intriguing encounters with actual fair guests like a neckless Ed Sullivan, sardonic John Glenn, hip Count Basie, witty Prince Philip and profane LBJ. His best meet-up by far is with a surprisingly thoughtful and sweet-tempered Elvis.

This timeline also dips into Morgan’s shadow side, as he explores the dark dimensions of his hometown, its illicit gambling halls and dens of vice, its corrupt cops and old-boy network – the elements of any city, really, that must evolve rapidly from a raucous frontier character to a more civilized and modern one. But Morgan himself never seems guilty of anything other than strong curiosity about how things actually work.

In the modern timeline, set in 2001, the reporter Gulanos chases after tiny crumbs of information, bits of historic record, and the grumblings of Morgan’s enemies (any public figure will have them) as she tries to figure out the extent to which he participated in the city’s corrupt practices. Ultimately, she’s only able to brew a weak tea – but her editors insist on distilling it into a far stronger indictment, albeit one based on innuendo rather than verifiable fact.

The character of Gulanos’ face-to-face confrontations with Morgan and his shrewd aide, Teddy Severson, I will leave to the reader to discover – as these are some of the best scenes in the book. For a teaser, though, here is Morgan summarizing Gulanos to her face: “She gets a visceral thrill from unleashing somewhat true stories about him without once imagining what it would feel like to be stalked by herself.”

By the book’s end, a reader is left with plenty to think about. Not just images of the rain-swept Pike Place Market or the soaring Space Needle, or a remarkably well-informed tour of the city and its past… but also an insight into the difference between an almost mythic era and a modern time of greatly lowered hopes. Compared to the grand vision that inspired the building of the Needle and the Expo, Gulanos’ grubby effort to mount a threadbare expose’ stands revealed as a tawdry game of smallball.

And a dearth of dreams soon leads to the death of the dreamer.

The Bliss of a Deeper Dive

01.12.13

Review of “Patient Number 7,” by Kurt Palka

It is rare when a mystery or thriller attempts to do more than entertain. But when a book does shift away from the genre’s shallow end and charges into the deeps, most often it will do so by analyzing an issue, dissecting a threat, or diving into unexplored history. These are all worthy efforts. Best of all is a book that finds its depth in its characters, that through their story reveals something about what it means to be human.

“Patient Number 7,” set in Austria and Germany during the dismaying rise and precipitant fall of the Nazis, accomplishes this in spades. It might bear a goofy title (the meaning of which only becomes clear in the last pages) but is an excellent book because of the depth of its interest in what constitutes a genuine person.
Patient Number 7

There are twin timelines, occupied by two main characters: Clara Eugenie Herzog, a budding university student in Vienna; and Albert Leonhardt, a captain in the Austrian cavalry. Over the objections of her family, their romance ignites while Albert squires Clara around the countryside on his Norton motorcycle.

However, the dark dawn of the Third Reich already looms over their idyll – as indeed it does over the entire Western Hemisphere. In short order, Austria is absorbed by Hitler via the Anschluss in 1938, then  British prime minister Neville Chamberlain secures his everlasting post in infamy by appeasing the Reich and handing over part of Czechoslovakia through the Munich Agreement.

These events first entangle, then ensnare our characters. Albert is dragooned into the German army and becomes a tank commander under Guderian and Rommel. Meanwhile Clara and her family are swept up in the rising Nazi dominance of society at large, and are ceaselessly badgered to join in it. Amid such fraught and parlous times, how can the lovers endure? After they marry and have children, how can they help them survive?

Their salvation is not just that Clara is a strong-minded woman. It is that she’s a woman who knows how to maintain a strong mind, no matter what challenges her. Since the early Thirties, she has taken advantage of a liberal wave in European education to study philosophy, not as a heap of abstract theorems, but as a way to foster inner strength, peace and poise. She studies with Wittgenstein and Freud, and the book presents amusing and intriguing scenes of her with them and other deep thinkers – she even spots Martin Heidigger musing on a park bench, and convincingly imagines what he might be brooding about.

Clara comes to realize you can make philosophy a house that you live in, and regard the world and all its tumult through the windows. You can live in that world, yet still refuse to be of that world.  This poise, coupled with Albert’s innate sense of honor, duty, fair play and dignity, are what see the pair through – even when the story’s great villain, SS Obersturmfuhrer Bonninghaus corners her in a farmhouse to attack her while Albert is gone. The couple have already prepared each other to survive and win.

You know, plenty of stock characters wind up getting deployed over and over again in this genre. One of the hardest-working guys in the thriller bizz, for example, is a former Special Ops military man, cynical but brave, skilled with weapons and adept in martial arts, who wanders about the world’s mean streets to ceaselessly deal out his own special brand of justice, while cracking wise every step of the way. I know you’ve seen this cool bastard in action, since he turns up almost everywhere! He’s Jack, Frank, Clete, Magnum, etc. etc.

And at this point, the guy bores me to tears.

That’s why it’s so compelling to spend quality reading time with a fresh and strong, smart and unique, well-drawn and intriguing heroine like Clara Eugenie Herzog.

Birth of the Metaphysical Thriller

12.09.12

Review of Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Everything old is new again. If you spot an exciting, fresh-seeming book called a “metaphysical thriller,” it’s easy to proclaim it as signaling the birth of a genre or sub-genre. But I’m afraid we’ll have to term this only a re-birth. I mean, think about it.

Much of the Bible could be described as a metaphysical thriller, with the entire world’s damnation or salvation as the ultimate high stakes. Prior to the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey similarly fit the bill. Afterward, the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost did so too, quite ably. In modern times many of the books of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams add religious, spiritual or philosophic dimension to the rollicking ride of their plots.

Now, there’s “Alif – The Unseen,” by G. Willow Wilson, a work so compelling and original that it seems to invent a new category of thriller writing, although it Alif the Unseen only re-imaginines one.

As the story opens, the eponymous Alif, a young hacker in a nameless emirate on the Persian Gulf, is breaking up with his high-class girlfriend. In order to block her messages, he constructs a new tool, a computer algorithm that’s capable of identifying any keyboard user – no matter how well shielded – by the pattern of their typing and their style of message entry.

The down side: this unique program is a golden grail for the world’s spy agencies. Alif soon finds that he’s drawn the murderous attention of the local government’s digital watchdog, a vicious and spiteful entity known only as “The Hand.”

Complications, as we like to say, ensue. Even Alif’s adept hacker-pals at their undercover HQ, the Radio Sheik (one of many deft jokes that leaven the story), are unable to do much but wring their hands. However, his young Egyptian friend, Dina can help – she’s a hijab-wearing teenager who grew up near Alif, who believes both in “the man he will become” and devoutly in Islam. Both these elements will grow crucial as the plot thickens. Other boosts come from an American woman known only as “the convert,” an aged mullah of the emirate’s principal mosque, and a wily, ancient djinn (genie) called Vikram the Vampire.

Once Vikram enters the tale, it departs the quotidian earth of normal human affairs and enters a scary realm where the physical and spiritual form a combustible mix. The tinder is a manuscript called the Alf Yeom or “The 1001 Days” (a shadow version of the classic, “The 1001 Nights”) that has been narrated by the djinn. A masterpiece of indirect logic and story-telling, the Alf Yeom seems to hold the key to a paradigm shift in computing, one that will move users from rapid-binary to quantum calculations. With this discovery comes immense power, and possibly the ability to unwind creation.

“Alif the Unseen” is a layered work. Besides achieving success as a metaphysical thriller, it is also: a coming-of age novel; a crime story (covering, without seeming to really stretch, crimes by both individuals and governments); a Mideast fantasy-parable; and a digital-sleuth yarn that picks up where cyberpunk classics like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer’ left off. Perhaps most impressively, it’s an East-meets-West story. It introducers a Western reader to the power of Islam’s basic beliefs, and the magic lore of Arab countries. Meanwhile, it also shows Eastern readers how aspects of their culture might appear to Westerners. The net result is a hemisphere-spanning piece of informative entertainment.

Generally I’m not a big fan of metaphysical or fantasy elements in mysteries or thrillers. A little of that goes a long way, and a bunch of it tends to go way too far. And I say that even though the next two novel manuscripts I’m ready to unload on an unsuspecting public include: 1) a philosophic thriller, and 2) a metaphysical thriller. What I truly object to is an unbalanced use of these elements, which I’ll explain like this. Once an author begins to conjure, he or she can only maintain tension by staying internally consistent (within the realm of the story) and externally consistent (within the elements of culture). Too much rule-breaking results in a world where everything is possible, and consequently nothing is important.

Author G. Willow Wilson, herself a convert to Islam, has side-stepped this chasm. I rarely quote from blurbs (I’d rather be quoted in them), but in this case, I can’t resist. On the cover, Steven Hall calls Wilson’s book, “A Golden Compass for the Arab Spring.” And I believe that’s exactly it is. This book can foster communication between wildly different geopolitical worlds. Way off the charts for the achievements of a thriller, and no mean accomplishment for a book of any stripe.

Pushing the Throttle in Thrillers

11.27.12

Review of “Start Shooting” by Charlie Newton

Any work of art can be judged in two ways. You can assess it according a larger set of values – applying an exterior frame of reference, as it were. Or the work can be evaluated on the merits – does it fulfill its own premise?

When we look at thrillers – especially noir-cop-thrillers like Charlie Newton’s “Start Shooting” – the second method has to sit on the judge’s bench.

Start Shooting [ START SHOOTING BY Newton, Charlie ( Author ) Jan-10-2012

That’s due to the fact that the dynamic of a thriller is essentially internal. A thriller may have some things to say about the world as it is, but it mainly has things to say about itself. That’s how a writer keeps his reader aboard the equivalent of Mister Toad’s Wild Ride.

A thriller requires a writer to keep raising the stakes, to keep shoving the accelerator down on the engine of narrative. The author does not do his (or her) job well unless the tachometers stay red-lined, then get pushed ever higher, until it sounds like narrative progress cannot possibly be maintained, since all the pistons are about to blow out through the hood.

The story’s protagonist always must face a growing threat. So the level of dangerous elements, bad characters, murderous impulses, deadly surprises, stinging betrayals, shocking revelations, astonishing plot twists and the ilk constantly must be heightened. And the more exciting a story grows, the less like quotidian life it becomes. Thus, maintaining consistency within the story becomes paramount. An intrigued reader will allow the narrative to part him from the recognizable earth and bear him off like a hot air balloon, but only if the design and operation of the vehicle that carries him are self-reinforcing.

In other words, if the author sets it up that the balloon burners (or narrative engines) are running on fermented rat piss, then the supply of rat piss has to be a consideration. If the pilot is a hair-fetishist ax-murderer with mommy issues, then the lady passenger who’s got her locks tucked under a hat needs to have a slight advantage over the lady passenger who doesn’t. The interior dynamics of the book will determine whether the suspension of belief can be sustained; not the reader’s evaluation of whether or not the events described could ever happen in the “real” world.

Which brings us to “Start Shooting.” The genius of this thriller is how well it succeeds – or even exceeds – at its task. It opens with a prologue, in which one first-person narrator (there are two) says, “Nineteen years I’ve been a ghetto cop and thought I’d worked every heartbreaking, horror combination possible. But I hadn’t.” The speaker is Bobby Vargas, a Latino lover of his tough Four Points neighborhood in Chicago, whose refuge from the stress of police work is strumming blues guitar in dive bars. His older brother Ruben is a homicide detective with a dangerously slick skill-set and a sociopathic sang-froid.

Bobby might be a lover, but the love of his life is apparently a dead girl, Colleen Brennan, an Irish kid with whom this “Rican” had a forbidden teen romance. But she was raped and killed. And the first threat to the adult Bobby comes when a muck-raking Chicago Herald reporter launches a series which looks to indict Ruben and Bobby himself for the crime. The second hit follows rapidly on the first: a supposed ex-FBI, ex-DEA agent, a short, blond stick-of-dynamite named Tania Hahn, parachutes onto the force to facilitate drug busts of the main Four Points gang, the Latin Kings.

Instead, she precipitates untoward violence, and ropes Bobby into a series of frame-ups – including a child-molestation charge – in order to coerce him into assisting with her real agenda: investigating a looming bio-weapon terror attack that will use a plague agent developed by the Japanese in WWII. Tania can get away with all manner of illicit manipulation, see, because she’s an off-the-books contract player hired by the CIA.

If your head has begun to spin like a Tibetan prayer wheel, good, get ready, because as you read on those cranial rpm’s will only increase.

Colleen Brennan’s twin sister Arleen has just come back home to Chicago. She’s a gorgeous waitress-actress with more than one dark secret, who’s returned to grasp at the straw of a possible role as Blanche Du Bois playing opposite Jude Law in a “Streetcar” to be staged at the Chicago-Shubert Theater. Big problem with her plan is that Ruben has Arleen in his grip, and uses her as a pawn and go-fer in arranging a way to profit from the terror attack. Got it? Then add another complication: Arleen is the book’s other first-person narrator; and it just may be possible, as a teen, that she was playing twin-games with Bobby’s head, and she herself was his real first true love.

I tell you all this to reveal what a crafty and complex set of throttle pushes Newton provides on the threat levels in his thriller. Can’t reveal much more without turning my teasers into spoilers, which I don’t want to do, because I wish for you to read the book and enjoy its roller-coaster ride as much as I did. As wild as it gets, the story never quite leaves the rails, because a) it’s internally consistent, i.e. it adheres to its own premises and b) because the prose is so saturated, knowing and gorgeous that it provides a narrative propellant of its own.

There are thrillers more hyperbolic than this one, but they tend to shake you out of the cart before you reach the destination. In “Start Shooting,” the hand on the controls stays masterful.

A Starring Role for Meals in Mystery

11.08.12

Review of “Outerborough Blues” by Andrew Cotto

Great food is sensuous, alluring, and… reassuring. That means well-written eating scenes can serve plenty of entertaining and useful functions in thrillers and mysteries. Such scenes can offer readers a break in tension while serving as a bridge between much higher-octane situations; they can both  promote and illustrate bonding between characters; and they can also reveal that our hero chef (or villain) has a nurturing side, and a few skills other than delivering karate kicks and impressive feats of marksmanship.

An excellent case in point is Andrew Cotto’s “Outerborough Blues.”

outerborough blues by andrew cotto

This concise, fast-paced novel is illuminated by a half-dozen well-crafted food scenarios. They actually are an integral part of the story, since cooking is the singular skill that allows the hero – a young, half-Sicilian drifter named Caesar Stiles – to roam around the U.S. and make a living wherever he happens to land. During the six days of this tale, he’s hanging his hat in a black neighborhood of Brooklyn, and working a bar, restaurant and juke joint called The Notch.

Among the many creative and unusual charms of the book is that it takes quite a while, nearly half its length, to present its true villain, Caesar’s ex-con brother, Sallie. En route, it artfully establishes a gritty urban setting, invigorated by music, wreathed in smoke, and inhabited by a highly believable ethnic cast of characters. It also establishes a plot somewhat grander than the typical noir conceit (a hero must traverse a noisome pit of crime and sleaze, somehow defeat or evade the baddies, and emerge amazingly intact on the other side). In this case, an extra dimension is conferred by a home-coming theme: wanderer Caesar must fulfill his mom’s dying wish that he root himself back in his family’s old place, and learn to inhabit his true identity and his life.

To achieve this, Caesar must unravel twin conspiracies to capitalize on the coming gentrification of Brooklyn, choose a winner, defeat hoodlums bent on his destruction, and help a cute French girl save her artist-brother from drugs and decadence. There’s a lot going on, but Cotto lets the reader rest by periodically providing a feast like this: “With the bones I’d taken out of the ducks, I made a stock; from that stock, I made a reduction. From the reduction I made a glaze. With that glaze I shellacked the roasting ducks to a deep mahogany, then stuffed each duck’s hollowed cavity with jambalaya, a thick rice dish with heavy seasoning and crumbled Cajun sausage. For the final step, I surgically cut each duck into eight slices, held the body together, re-glazed one last time, and put them all back in the oven to seal.”

If that scene doesn’t make your mouth water, go buy yourself a baggage tag, write down your name, age and address, tie it to your big toe, then lie back and wait for the morgue boys to come pick you up.

This is a fine banquet of a book, yet not without its flaws. Numero uno problemo is that Caesar’s pal, Don from Trinidad, is a good-hearted bad-ass who j-u-s-t happens to show up big-time whenever Caesar gets in a tight spot. The creaky sound of a deus ex machina being lowered into a plot is never a good thing. And the other problem is a number of copy-editing mistakes so lousy that they jolt a reader right out of the story. Here are a few: “viles” for “vials”; “women” when it should be “woman”; “sown” for “sewn”.

Memo to “ig Publishing” (which brought out the book) – a computer spell-check does not suffice! Hire a good copy editor! With the shrinkage of newspapers, there’s plenty of experienced people out there, many of whom are eager to find work.

End of sermon. Now, I’m hungry. Wonder if I can find a restaurant that serves jambalaya-stuffed roast duck.

Writing Risk

10.23.12

I believe that realistic action is one of the toughest elements to create for a reader, in any form or forum of writing. I’ve turned the problem over in my mind since I posted my first Kindle Single at the end of October. Titled, “Big Wave Virgin,” I built this story to bring a reader deep into the fast-moving tumult of a surf ride on one of the world’s most powerful waves, the break at Maverick’s in Northern California.

Big Wave Virgin

The first key to a good action sequence is accuracy. There’s nothing more jarring to a reader than plunging into the excitement of a pivotal scene, only to be brought up short by a dumb mistake on the part of the author. For example, several times I’ve seen heroes in thrillers or mysteries get ready to take a shot at the bad guy, only to have the gun “jam.” This is major bullshit.

First, the only way a revolver or wheelgun gets jammed is if it’s a double-action weapon that’s been crushed with a dumptruck or pounded with a sledgehammer. Second, if it’s a semi-automatic pistol, the hero needs to have a round in the pipe and the safety on as he approaches the confrontation. If he’s qualified to use the weapon, he’s not going to wait to chamber that round until he’s deep in the jam. So he’ll own the chance to shoot one bullet. Now, when the slide tries to cycle the next cartridge into the chamber, then it could jam. But not before! The only way(s) to keep the first round from going off is if the firing pin breaks or if the primer on the cartridge is defective and fails to ignite. Or your hero is too stupid or gripped to flick off the safety before squeezing the trigger.

People, please. If you’re going to write about guns, let’s spend a reasonable amount of time shooting first, all right?

In the case of that surf piece, I had spent thirty years surfing myself, in conditions ranging from crapulous to sublime. This is not to brag, only to point out the value of relevant experience. Also, in my purview as a professional outdoor sports journalist, I had interviewed and written about big wave surfers up to and including multiple world champ Kelly Slater.

My aim was to describe the high-risk action involved in confronting a wave with a 50 foot-high face, a dynamic, moving structure that releases the mass and energy of a collapsing building as it breaks. And then, to take the reader on a second-by-second voyage through that adrenalized experience. Note that I had two major streams of info available to help me build a realistic scenario: personal experience (my own time in the water) and acquired experience (the interviews).

Not every author can come to crime writing after years with a police department (or a life as a “made man,” eh?) but every author trying to pull off a realistic description can certainly talk to cops, hang out with them, go on ride-alongs. Not every author trying to concoct a fight scene is going to have a black belt in a martial art, but he or she can certainly spend a month learning the basics of an art and talk to practitioners, masters and fighters.

The point is that a story is a virtual world, and one needs to deepen it using best-possible materials. Then the reader has a scene he can dive into without banging his forehead on the shallows.

Other key values to bear in mind? Economy, for one. I give you the top message from Strunk & White: “Vigorous writing is concise.” And another: consequentiality. Try to make a large result depend on the outcome of your action scenes.