Archive for Essays

Robin’s Take on Thrillers

This is an excerpt from a talk I gave at the Graubner Library in Romeo, Michigan in 2012.

I got started reading mysteries, like many of you, with Nancy Drew. Nancy was just the “gateway drug” – after her I devoured Agatha Christie, then Sayers, then Marsh, and eventually my dear departed father-in-law introduced me to contemporary mysteries. I have him to thank for my love of Sara Paretsky, Lawrence Block, Dick Francis, Lillian O’Donnell, and Tony Hillerman. Since we opened our bookstore 20 years ago my reading journey has been a varied one, but I’ve always loved the suspense part of the genre.

Mysteries were “invented” by Edgar Allan Poe, who published The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841, which features the first Detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Poe of course is also the inventor of the horror and science fiction genres, bringing his gothic, noir-ish tone to all of his writing. Wilkie Collins, heavily influenced by Charles Dickens (who was a personal friend) wrote many books, two of which are still regarded as classics of the mystery genre, The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868).

And of course the detective novel was firmly implanted in the public’s imagination by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal creation, Sherlock Holmes, who made his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet (1886).   If Poe gave mysteries a tone – noir – and the idea of an omniscient detective, and Collins added suspense and atmosphere, Doyle gave his detective the brain power he would need to solve any case through examining the evidence. All of these threads follow through the history of mystery – the suspense thread introduced by Collins, the dark, noir tone introduced by Poe, and the flat out detection introduced by Doyle.

In 1938 one of the greatest suspense novels ever written was published by Daphne du Maurier. Rebecca is still a fresh classic, steeped in atmosphere, creepy psychology, and yes, suspense, as Rebecca’s dead spirit seems to haunt and control the action in the story. The gothic influences of both Collins and Poe are alive and well in this novel.

The 1950’s brought a development of the more psychological aspects of crime to the table, as books like Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) introduced a main character who was absolutely morally corrupt. He is a murderer who kills to get what he wants. You are drawn into the stories because Highsmith is a great storyteller, and it’s fascinating to try and figure out Ripley’s twisted motives and behaviors. Of course the contemporary “Dexter” books by Jeff Lindsay are a new take on this model.

All these mystery strands – atmosphere, psychology, and often the simple chase or quest model – come to fruition in the contemporary suspense novel. The psychological strand introduced by Collins, the gothic tone introduced by Poe, and the logical detection introduced by Doyle are still present, they are just changed up and adapted to a modern format. I sat down once and tried to analyze what makes a modern suspense novel a suspense novel, and here’s what I came up with.

The story has to “up the ante.” The main character has to have some kind of mission which is tied to a deeply felt allegiance. It can be a lost love, a frequent trope used by Harlan Coben; but it can be a family member or a fallen friend. I think that’s why my favorite Lee Child book is The Enemy, because it concerns Jack Reacher’s family. Even if it’s a save-the-world type situation, it also needs to have a personal tie for the main character.

There need to be twists. The twists should be spaced through the book, but it’s good if there’s one toward the end where a previously unsuspected character turns out to be bad. Jeffrey Deaver and Harlan Coben are especially good at this. For a really recent example, check out Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

There should be an unsolvable problem. Obviously, there is a solution, but it must seem as though there isn’t one, and that even more importantly, the problem won’t be solved in time. That adds to the suspense.

A good extra can be romance, though it’s optional. One of my favorite guilty pleasure suspense writers, Michael Palmer, often uses romance to good effect, where the two characters who fall in love end up working as partners to solve the crime.

One of the most important aspects is specificity. This is what separates the really good thrillers from the so-so ones. The specifics of something need to be a part of the story – it makes the whole story more resonant and more engaging and simply, better. This is one reason Dick Francis’ books set in the world of horses – which work as pure thrillers – are so great. The horses are specific. It’s good if the specific thing spotlights something you haven’t known about before. A good example is Steve Hamilton’s The Lock Artist, where, along with a great story, you learn what it’s like to crack a safe. Patricia Cornwell’s breakthrough – often imitated – was setting her thrillers inside the coroner’s office. She took the medical thriller and combined it with the old fashioned evidence based detection story invented by Doyle to come up with something really different.

And very, very importantly, there’s PACE. A poorly paced story is just a bad book, it’s not a thriller. A good story has a rhythm, with the action almost coming in waves, and it’s better if the waves of action are sometimes unexpected. And finally, a concise definition of thrillers – from no less than Laura Lippman: “I define thrillers as race-against-time books in which the story is driven by the reader’s more omniscient view of events.”

James R. Benn: No Such Thing as Human History

The fictional narrative offers the reader a coherent plot and movement toward resolution within the context of the time period; a reassuring process that lends a familiarity to what might be new territory. Reading historical fiction we are forced to think of the past not as a simply a sequence of large-scale events but rather to understand the patterns, causes and consequences surrounding those events and how they impact characters we have hopefully come to know and care about for better or worse. Intertwining the personal narrative of a fictional protagonist as an actor within the historical context can provide for a powerful historical understanding. We don’t just read about a battle, we feel the weight of a pack digging into a soldier’s sweat-stained back. Historians such as Bruce Catton and Douglas Freeman, among others, have written excellent volumes on the American Civil War, but it is Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage that today still stands as a defining description of what those terrible battles were like.

This approach does have its challenges and pitfalls, because the past itself does not have the same shape or coherence as does the present. The past is filled with countless people, places, and conflicts which we turn into something called history in an attempt to impose order on chaos. As the 19th century historian John Lothrop Motley said:

“There is no such thing as human history. Nothing can be more profoundly, sadly true. The annals of mankind have never been written, never can be written; nor would it be within human capacity to read them if they were written. We have a leaf or two from the great book of human fate as it flutters in the stormwinds ever sweeping the earth. We decipher them was best we can with purblind eyes, and endeavor to learn their mystery as we float along to the abyss; but it is all confused babble, hieroglyphics of which the key is lost.”

If that’s the opinion of a distinguished historian, what are we to make of history? Motley’s point was that modern readers cannot hope to understand the past, the motivations and worldviews of those people who are so profoundly different from us. The historian knows when and upon what ground a battle took place, but historical fiction demands much more – a window into the soul of those who fought, killed, suffered, and died in that battle. The characters, if you will, acting within that historical context. The dominant challenge for me is always to remember that the men and women who grew up in the Depression and went off to war in the 1940s are deeply different people from us. Their environment created them, just as ours created us, and how we view the world and each other. It is not the same world at all.

Their life expectancy was about 53; ours is 79. Their economy ran on agriculture and manufacturing; ours runs on service industries. There was no social security or universal medical care for them; we live with a life-long safety net in comparison. Travel, as we experience, understand and expect it today, was unknown for the vast majority of people (until the war changed all that). A twenty-year-old in 1940 would fully understand Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln, historical figures 70 or 80 years in their past. They would be totally unable to comprehend Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, 70 years in the other direction.

There’s another line of demarcation which separates us. We know what happens next. The Spanish Armada does not invade England; The Union prevails in the American Civil War; The Allies liberate Europe and win the Second World War.

The people who lived through those climactic events did not know how things would end. It seems obvious to us now, but the trick is, to create fictional characters who do not know what the future holds – to portray them on the razor’s edge of time, when defeat and disgrace are as likely as life and a return to normalcy – when the fear of the unknown is as palpable as the fear of whatever obstacle is being faced.

There was one time in my life when I understood what that must have been like for my fictional characters. I began to write my second book the weekend after 9/11. The skies were empty, and I had no idea what was going to happen next. Much like my protagonist thought after Pearl Harbor; an unspeakable event had occurred and there was no blueprint to know where things would take us, no sense of a knowable outcome. I cling to that memory, trying always to imbue my characters with the sense of being adrift in history, as indeed we all are. It is only the absence of major upheavals and catastrophes that allows us to think otherwise, and carry on with our lives. It’s critical that writers cleave to that notion, and keep their characters from a clear-eyed vision of the future. For them, there can only be a “now,” whether that is 1066, 1863 or 1962.

How to accomplish this? For me, research is a total immersion in time and place, whether through reading, walking the ground, listening to music of the day or watching movies my characters would have seen. I fill notebooks with jottings about the people and places in the story until I feel stuffed with facts, possessed with an overload of data that will allow me to envision how my characters would have interacted with their environment on every level; political, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Then I begin to write; and I hardly ever look at those notes again.

That information buildup is there to give me the confidence to write, to construct characters as reliable simulacrums for their times. It’s hard work. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said in his essay “History and National Stupidity”:

History is not self-executing. You do not put a coin in the slot and have history come out. For the past is a chaos of events and personalities into which we cannot penetrate. It is beyond retrieval and it is beyond reconstruction.

It’s the novelist’s challenge to prove him wrong about “beyond reconstruction.” Research goes far beyond learning the historical timeline. The historical novelist conveys a sense of the period through small “throw-away” details about clothing, food, transportation, dialect and social customs. Writer Thomas Mallon said it well: “Only through tiny, literal accuracies can the historical novelist achieve the larger truth to which he aspires namely, an overall feeling of authenticity. It is just like Marianne Moore’s famous prescription for the ideal poet. He must stock his imaginary garden with real toads.”

Or, as literary critic Logan Pearsall Smith said:

“What I like in a good author is not what he says but what he whispers.”

We need to whisper the truth of the time in which we write. Too many facts poorly presented can kill a story. Too few, and we may fail to bring alive the characters and their times, leaving the reader with a limp presentation that could take place anywhere, anywhen.

I always thought he was joking, but now I understand what Oscar Wilde meant when he said, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”

A few thoughts on Agatha Christie (spoilers included)

Every couple years the “public” rediscovers Agatha. As there’s a new film of Murder on the Orient Express due in the fall, non-crime readers have been looking for that particular book. In general, however, Christie remains our bestselling author as her appeal is timeless. I was thinking about the innovations she brought to crime fiction and thought about her plots, for which she is justly famous.

She came up several tropes that are still in pretty much constant circulation: the narrator is unreliable/the killer (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd); everyone is the killer (Murder on the Orient Express); everyone is killed (And Then There Were None); or someone long dead is found to be unjustly accused, causing an uproar in the present (Murder in Retrospect). Oh, and she also wrote a very early example of psychological suspense, Endless Night (1967). Though Josephine Tey wrote earlier versions of psychological suspense (The Franchise Affair, 1948 and Brat Farrar, 1949) Tey’s clung to some remnants of traditional detection. Christie’s story is so modern it could easily find a market today and it might be written by someone like Ruth Ware or Belinda Bauer (or, earlier, Ruth Rendell).

People dismiss her as “simplistic” or “easy reading” but something as finely tuned and assembled as her stories are is neither. The actions seem to grow organically, one from the next – while some of the situations are indeed fantastic (a poison dart in an airplane, for example) they never seem forced – they seem like a natural part of the plot.

In middle school I read the books one after another and after book 25 or so my dim mind began to perceive how her brilliant one worked and I could begin to figure out where she was headed. She’s always an expert in misdirection – she gets you to focus on one thing, when the thing that’s important may sit quietly in the background and you, as a reader, overlook it.

The other thing Christie did and which has been endlessly imitated is to create Miss Marple. While I am a Poirot fan, he has his ancestors. He didn’t spring out of nowhere. The quietly subversive Miss Marple, however, is another story entirely. Miss Marple makes her first appearance in 1930 (The Murder at the Vicarage), and while Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver appeared slightly earlier (Grey Mask, 1928), the first Miss Silver book is a very far cry from her later incarnation. In the first book Miss Silver is almost a cold and ruthless figure. She only becomes the familiar Miss Silver with the publication of The Case is Closed (1937) when her knitting and innate kindness come to the fore.

Miss Marple, however, springs to life as “fluffy,” the village busybody who nevertheless has a penetrating intelligence (another hallmark of Miss Silver). Both of them are often overlooked and ignored by virtue of their age and their gender. Talk about misdirection – this is as quietly subversive as it gets. While Miss Marple and Miss Silver sit knitting in a corner, they’ve figured everything out. Miss Marple famously compares everyone to the villagers in St. Mary Meade, asserting that people are types and are the same everywhere. This may be Christie’s most radical notion, and the older I get, I can’t disagree with it. Never take Agatha for granted – she’s one step ahead and she’s come up with about every plot. Any reader could do worse than spending the rest of their lives reading and re-reading Agatha Christie.

An Appreciation of Loren D. Estleman

Loren EstlemanLoren D. Estleman feels as though he’s as integral to Aunt Agatha’s as our purple paint or over-stuffed bookshelves. We’ve been lucky enough to have known him for almost 25 years now. When we first met he was newly married to the lovely Debi, and ever since then he’s continued to write book after wonderful book.

When we first met him, he was hard at work on the spectacular historical series he’s nowfinished, each featuring a different decade in Detroit. Spanning from prohibition (Whiskey River, 1990) to the 80’s (King of the Corner, 1992), with both those volumes being stand-outs, he takes a look at race, economics, and culture as well as telling a memorable story in each volume.

He’s also one of the best regarded Western writers in the business, with over 20 Western novels to his credit, which have garnered him several Spur awards as well as a lifetime achievement award,

He also writes the now five volume Peter Macklin series, as well as the film historian Valentino series beginning with Frames (2008) to the most recent Brazen (2016). He’s written some fine stand-alones—a personal favorite of ours is Gas City (2008)—and indulged in some Sherlock love—Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula (1978) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes (1979). He wrote his first novel fresh out of Eastern Michigan University, The Oklahoma Punk (1976), while balancing an early career as a reporter.

But for mystery fans I think I can say that the love fest ignites with his Amos Walker books, one of the finest series of private eye novels ever written. Set in and around Detroit, Amos has been going strong since Motor City Blue in 1980, right up through this year’s The Lioness is the Hunter, which brings the Amos count to 26. His voice really roars to life with the first sentence of Motor City Blue: “Faces from the past are best left there. If, two hundred-odd pages from now, you agree with me, this will all be worthwhile.” He goes on to indelibly describe the Detroit street corner where Amos is trying to light a cigarette and tailing a man suspected of insurance fraud.   Amos has even been to Ann Arbor—in one memorable scene, he even visits Aunt Agatha’s (The Sundown Speech, 2015), which was lifetime achievement enough for me.

I read an Estleman book slowly, to savor the prose. I think he’s one of our state treasures, He’s been nominated or has won just about every literary award imaginable—including the National Book Award—and his book count is 82 and rising. He’s only in his 60’s with no signs of letting up. He’s also an incredibly kind and incredibly knowledgeable man—he loves old movies, classic private eye novels, and his home state. He has shared some great stories, his love of books (he can sometimes be found scouting our shelves) and he’s generous to other writers. When I ask him to share an event with someone else, he never objects, and is unfailingly kind to whoever the other author may be. We once had a panel at the Kerrytown BookFest titled “Mentored by Estleman” and other writers lined up to participate.

There’s no doubt our literary culture would be poorer without Mr. Estleman to enrich it. Of all the blessings we’ve counted at Aunt Agatha’s through the years, he’s one of the biggest.

A visit with our Book Club

Aunt Agatha's Book ClubOur book club has been meeting for 23 years now, with inevitable changes in membership through the years. We have some members who have been with us from the beginning, and we always love meeting new people. Through the years our discussions have gotten more focused, though the discussions are always very passionate, one way or another! All of us, I think, have read books we otherwise wouldn’t have and through discussion have come to enjoy books we may have initially disliked. I asked our members about their participation in the book club and what stands out to them. For my part, I’ve enjoyed discussing the books I love with this wonderful group for over 20 years.

Tori Booker: (I’m a) director of a small non-profit that provides legal services to immigrants in need.

I’m proud to say that I’m an original book club member! In the summer of 1993 (I think), I was taking a knitting class at the Fiber Gallery right next door to Aunt Agatha’s. I noticed a postcard announcing a new book club, went next door to buy Pennies on a Dead Woman’s Eyes by Marcia Muller and became an official member of the club. In that first year, we also read Colin Dexter and Robert Crais – authors completely unknown to me. And that’s what I’ve appreciated the most about book club – the exposure to hundreds (after 23 years, “hundreds” is accurate) of authors and stories I never would have considered on my own. If I limit myself to the last decade or so (23 years is a long time to remember all of the books I’ve liked or disliked), some standouts are: Elly Griffiths, Lisa Lutz, P.J. Parrish, Child 44 (Tom Rob Smith) and The Keeper of Lost Causes (Jussi Adler-Olsen).

Apart from reading unfamiliar authors, I love that book club offers a comfortable opportunity to connect with other avid readers with whom you can be completely honest. I still remember Maria, one of my favorite original book club members with whom I shared similar reading tastes. The current group has been meeting and discussing for several years now. We talk about new jobs, new babies, weddings and travel, and when I have a strong opinion about a particular book, (The Darkest Secret, Alex Marwood), I’m anxious to hear what the others think. Authors often join our discussion, and no matter what we thought about the book, we are always diplomatic and polite. They have brought t-shirts, slideshows, and cookies. Some have smoked while talking and others have been hard to connect with, but they are all grateful for our interest. The most memorable author discussion for me was sharing a meal with Louise Penny and her husband; both so kind, friendly and appreciative to be with us.

Over the years I’ve recruited mystery-loving friends to join our book club, and several years ago my dad participated in one of our discussions. I hope that in a few years my 11 year old son will too.

Editor’s note: Tori mentions author visits – on one occasion we skyped with an author – A.X. Ahmad, author of The Caretaker – and Tori really helped facilitate the discussion and make it a better one.

Vicki Kondelik: I work as a cataloger at the Graduate Library, and I’m writing a novel in my spare time.  I’ve been in the club at least ten years, even though I haven’t been able to go to every meeting.  I still remember the first time I went, the book we discussed was Emperor Norton’s Ghost by Dianne Day.  There are many books I enjoyed very much that we discussed in the book club, but one particularly memorable discussion was of In the Woods by Tana French, because opinion was so divided on that book.  I remember that people either loved it or hated it.

Editor’s note: Vicki says she has been coming for 10 years, but I think it may be more like 15! Time flies. She is an especially avid fan of historical mysteries and of Louise Penny.

Joyce and Mike Simowski: Mike and I are still newcomers, but we’ve thoroughly enjoyed the discussions.  We are both reading authors we hadn’t tried before, or in my case an author on my ‘wannaread’ list now becomes a priority so I can discuss it at our meeting!  We look forward to each new book. Thanks for making reading fun!

Roxie & Rob Weaver: Rob: I recently retired from ITC Holdings, Michigan’s electric transmission provider, where I was a Senior Systems Analyst. Basically I was a small contributor to a large enterprise tasked with keeping high voltage electric power flowing so that “Michiganders” could read their Aunt Agatha’s books after dark and keep ice cream cold in their Frigidaires.

My post-retirement agenda includes as much traveling with Roxie as can be budgeted, seeing as much of the country as possible; also includes a regimen of biking, hiking and walking to commune with nature and stave off decrepitude. Of course, there is much reading to be done, stuffing the remaining brain cells with quality fiction. Fiction is usually sufficient to explain what I observe in human nature. For example, in just the last couple of months, we have seen Orwellian fiction become reality right here in the U.S.A.

Along with Roxie, I have been an Aunt Agatha’s customer and enthusiastic attender of  author events since 2006 but I did not immediately join the Aunt Agatha’s book club, preferring to hang out at Expresso Royale on Main Street while Roxie went to Aunt Agatha’s once a month. After being convinced that you weren’t reading cozies or romance novels I began attending the book club in 2013. I’m glad I did.

I think it is important to belong to a book club because I am introduced to the works of authors with whom I am often unfamiliar. The same could be said for attending author events. Aunt Agatha’s provides both the book club and author events. Robin and Jamie direct me to the “good stuff”, otherwise I gravitate to “mainstream” mystery, crime, espionage… Mainstream is good but expanding my literary exposure universe is priceless.

Roxie: I own a small mobile art business – Geiser-Weaver Crafts where I teach pottery, painting, drawing and jewelry to children. I travel all over Southeastern Michigan doing so. I also design and sew American Girl Doll clothes, my specialty is Super Hero Costumes. I am also a Lularoe Consultant with my daughter Morgaine. I am a retired mental health therapist. I love to travel and find that the flexibility of my multiple self employment gigs allows me to do so. My husband Rob and I have traveled all over the United States having walked in all 50 states and are currently walking all the capitals. We also like to bike and have done some distance biking – biking from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD and from Cumberland to Washington, DC. I read primarily mysteries and like to try new authors. I am not a huge cozy fan, but have been known to read a few. I have a knack for figuring out who committed the crime, which can be both fun and frustrating. I read fast, so I read a lot. I started coming to the book club right after we relocated from the west side of Michigan to the east about 10 years ago. My first book club meeting I remember going to supper with Catie & Angel. I have been hooked ever since, I enjoy the banter and the diversity in opinions – it is enjoyable to hear different viewpoints on the same book. Seldom do we all the like book or hate it, so the discussion is lively.

Editor’s note: We can all attest to Roxie’s gift for guessing the killer.

Tammy Rhoades: I enjoy the book and author recommendations, the new authors I am introduced to, the people I meet who enjoy reading, the discussions about historical novels, the opinions of the group on different books and their reasons for liking them or not – these are very insightful.  I enjoyed meeting Julia Keller and Carrie Smith and hearing of their writing process and all that goes into creating a work of fiction. It is a great way to spend an evening!

Linda Arnsdorf: As you, know, I am a retired person who works.  Currently just a Nurse Practitioner, part time.  I am not sure how long I have been a member of book group but more than 20 years, I think maybe more than 20.  I like hearing other people’s thoughts on a book we are all reading.  Most times I like the book more or if I hear that the line is overused and I like the book, I will still like it but would think twice about recommending the book to my friends.  Members have come and gone but a few of us continue.  I am always happy to see old members who come and go as well as when there is a new member.

Editor’s note: Like Tori, Linda is an original member – 23 years. 

Maggie Nelson: The Red Parts & Emily Winslow: Jane Doe January

9781555977368I recently read two great true crime narratives, The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson and Jane Doe January: My Twenty Year Search For Truth and Justice by Emily Winslow, that started me thinking about the evolving way we look at crime. Both books demonstrate the seismic effect that advances in DNA testing have had on both prosecuting and narrating crime stories.

Maggie Nelson’s book of poetry Jane: A Murder, about her aunt was about to be published when she got a phone call from the police. Although she had never known her aunt, a University of Michigan student who had been killed thirty-five years earlier, the unsolved murder had resonated within her family and with the writer, who had obsessively sifted through the available sources about the killing and her aunt, including Jane’s diaries. But the Michigan State Police detective on the other end of the line revealed that DNA testing had suddenly revealed the one thing that only one living person knew previously—the identity of the killer.

u34+1F!EVWH7ngw7NLVXIcKIKW2pmYA+Gl!w8rbMsYH!BRIAG5OUet9tcq9F2XjffXkZsjELHH1dotzfe59Az8458JDs9D0t2hphI9KAc!+WsW1OYzkgsRAdZgmVYczuEmily Winslow had an even more personal collision with violence when, as a college student in the prestigious drama department at Carnegie Mellon University, she was brutally raped in her apartment by an unknown assailant. Although she continued with her life, moving to England and writing mystery novels, she followed her case and others like it, following the advances in DNA testing and the slow testing of an enormous backlog of rape kits, until one day decades later, her assailant was no longer unknown. Both books center around the authors’ experience of the subsequent trials, as both literal and metaphorical witnesses.

In real terms, it’s wonderful that DNA can take so much of the guesswork out of the criminal justice system, but in dramatic terms it forces a departure from the most traditional elements of crime writing. The figure of the detective, for instance, the primal seeker of truth whose idiosyncrasies and brilliance have entertained since Poe’s Dupin, is greatly diminished in such a scenario. There are law enforcement figures in both books, naturally, but in the case of cases so long unsolved, they function more as dogged but frustrated keepers of the flame of the hope of justice, and then, once the conundrum is solved with the aid of a lab report rather than a brilliant deduction, supporters and hand holders of the survivors banded together for the trial. Similarly the victims are not the colorful characters in the village who are either universally hated or loved, producing either too many or too few suspects respectively, but people who were simply unlucky. Even the perpetrators in these books, far from being oversize Moriarty or Lecter figures, are ciphers whose guilt is clear and motives irrelevant.

The appeal in both books lies in something else entirely. One of the trends in contemporary crime fiction is the movement away from emphasizing the puzzle of solving the crime to the shattering effect of transgressive behavior on the community itself. In our selfie era, some of the most vital writing is in the areas of memoir and personal essay and both The Red Parts and Jane Doe January take the examination of the effect of crime to an even greater level of magnification—the impact on two sensitive, finely articulated consciousnesses.

Maggie Nelson has made a name for herself as a brilliant and bracingly honest writer and thinker on a variety of topics, and The Red Parts is a great example of her quicksilver, deeply informed mind at work. As she describes stalking the streets of Ann Arbor, the scene of the trial, fiercely ruminating, the reader is enthralled by her fluid combination of personal history, erudition and theory.

As far as I could tell, stories may enable us to live, but they also trap us, bring us spectacular pain. In their scramble to make sense of nonsensical things, they distort, codify blame, aggrandize, restrict, omit, betray, mythologize, you name it.  This has always struck me as cause for lament, not celebration.

I must say that I wasn’t bowled over by Jane when it came out, but this book tethers Nelson’s rhetorical flights to the familiar structure of a criminal trial, bringing a more focused narrative thrust. The result is an extremely enjoyable book about a horrible subject as an extremely agile and powerful intellect wrestles with a banal evil that is essentially inexplicable. There’s also a powerful critique of a society that both exploits and brutalizes women and uses the violence against them as entertainment and diversion.

The Red Parts is the length of a sustained essay or novella, which is appropriate, because keeping up with the author’s high-wire mental gymnastics can be exhausting. On the other hand Emily Winslow, who also writes mystery novels, unfolds her personal history with less pyrotechnics but more sustained rigor. Jane Doe January is closer to a traditional autobiography, but centered around a single shocking crime and its effect of her and those around her. One of these effects is an overwhelming thirst for justice, and she relentlessly researches the crime and the eventually unmasked criminal, trying to understand every aspect like a student cramming for an exam, or indeed, a novelist researching their next novel. Meanwhile the trial proceeds in fits and starts, generally playing havoc with her now settled life with husband and children in England. Even as the overdue reckoning of the trial grinds on there are tragic developments in the here and now, reminding the reader that life is rarely really settled.

Stephen Hawking has suggested that the Big Bang could have been caused by the intersection of two universes, a bump that set off the explosion of a new universe. Sometimes I feel like human interactions and relationships are bumps like that and we’re all so enormous with pasts and desires and faults and ambitions that our little meetings have larger, occasionally explosive, effects.

The cumulative effect is tremendously powerful, and challenges received attitudes about “victims” and “actors” (a technical law enforcement term for criminals) in crime narratives. In the end its a story of survival and, indeed, triumph, like the story she tells of the Japanese practitioners of kintsugi, a Japanese method of fixing broken ceramics. As she says “practitioners of this method highlight the repair lines with gold, admitting to the object’s past shatters, incorporating the object’s experience as part of its presentation, and of its changing, growing, aging beauty.” (Jamie)

36 years on: Ann Rule’s “The Stranger Beside Me”

51CgK5tPG2LMost people on the planet know the “Ted Bundy” story (unfortunately). That alone does not make Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me a true crime classic, though she relates the details of the case in her typically clear, well-told storytelling style. She’s one of the best in the biz, and this book illustrates the reason why. And on her telling of Bundy’s story alone, this would be a great true crime book. What takes it to the next level and makes it unique is the friendship she had with Ted Bundy, far pre-dating his notoriety. It’s her own change of feelings and attempt to understand what happened that make this book a standout.

Rule died about a year ago, a death I greeted with extreme regret because though I don’t read much true crime, her books were a never-miss for me. She illustrated the blackest of human hearts, while staunchly standing up for the victims of whatever crimes she was writing about. She was also a staunch police ally – something that became a trope in her later books – but The Stranger Beside Me illustrates why she was such a police ally. Later in her career, one of her subjects had begged her family to have Ann Rule write about her eventual murder (Too Late to Say Goodbye) because she knew Rule would tell her story fairly.

A former police officer herself, Ann scrabbled together an early career writing, as Andy Stack, for True Detective magazine. She was doing this when she met Ted Bundy. They met as they manned a crisis hotline in Seattle together. She was later assigned the Lake Sammamish “Ted” murders, never in a million years connecting her friend Ted with the killer she was writing about. Writing about her friend Ted Bundy ironically became her ticket to the big time. She maintained a correspondence with him until his execution.

The slow transformation chronicled in the book as she slowly realizes her friend is guilty of horrible crimes comes to a head when she and other reporters were allowed, during one of Ted’s trials, to see photographic evidence of what he had done. She threw up. Never in her other books did she give any of the killers she chronicles much benefit of the doubt, and indeed, seldom do they deserve it, but in this book she makes a mighty attempt to understand the kind of sociopathic mind that Ted Bundy possessed.

The afterword to the book, written after Bundy’s Florida trial and sentence of execution, follows his numerous appeals as well as his eventual last-ditch confession and death. Rule felt Ted should have been studied and learned from, and she may have been right, but the state of Florida and its citizens were avenging some very terrible murders. However you feel about the death penalty, Ted Bundy pushes the boundaries.

For Ann Rule, it was still the execution of a one-time friend. Her anguish is obvious and real – anguish at what he’d done, at the waste of his potential, and the eventual waste of his life. An interest in the human heart and mind makes this book a must read, if a painful one, and places Ann Rule at the very top of the true crime genre. It’s a maligned genre but it’s one that tells the dark and sometimes sadly banal side of human evil. It’s something most of us find uncomfortable to think about, but it’s as real as the anguish Ann Rule relates so well. She is very much missed, one year after her death.

Literary Thrillers vs. Thrilling Thrillers

As you’ve perhaps noticed, we don’t pan books in the newsletter. We’re here to sell books and advance the mystery genre, after all, and if we don’t like a title, there’s no point in publicly knocking it when there are so many other mysteries that we DO like and are more than happy to recommend and sell. I just finished a recent release that seemed promising and began pretty engagingly, but by the time I reached the end, had me wanting to throw it against the wall. I then read a review by a mystery maven who I admire, and was quite surprised to find that she praised it, not as a mystery exactly, but as something she could relate to and a fine example of a “literary thriller.”

This made me wonder what exactly a “literary thriller” is. The “literary” novel (O.K., I’ll drop the quotation marks now) is a relatively recent classification – novelists in the past wrote novels without a lot of marketing labels. Now it’s a defined genre like any other, with conventions as strict as Romance or Western. First, and for me most positively, there’s close attention to the prose itself. This is something I think I’m more picky about that most people. There are some extremely popular writers I can’t get more than a few paragraphs into because I’m allergic to cliché and malapropism. Stephen King once wrote a guide for writers in which he basically told people to use the first word they think of because it doesn’t make that much difference anyway, which for me pretty much encapsulates Stephen King.

Of course you can go too far with this. In long passages where nothing happens the language itself, no matter how lyric, can become enervated, and a literary type, as Mrs. Henry Adams said of Henry James, quite often “chews more than he bites off.” I’d put the prose of James Lee Burke, William Kent Krueger or Megan Abbott up against any of the fashionable literary stylists, and there are very few out there as consistently audacious and experimental as James Ellroy.

Unfortunately nothing happening can also be a hallmark of the literary genre. Mild boredom is considered a necessary sacrifice for the virtuous pursuit of literature. In many ways it’s seen as the badge that distinguishes the emperor from the commoners. It’s somehow declasse to have an eventful narrative with a vigorous tempo. “Plot driven” has become a veiled put-down, which is a problem for the literary thriller because they’re expected to be, you know, thrilling. The slow boil can be an effective tactic to generate suspense, but if a writer waits until the final chapters to reluctantly advance things in a dramatic way, this lobster will have climbed out of the pot and crawled away long ago.

Instead of being plot driven, the literati like to claim that their work is character driven. I would argue that the series format allows mystery writers the opportunity to develop character in unheard of depth over time and circumstance. Besides, I believe that character is most authentically revealed in the stressful life or death situations found in thrillers rather than the neurotic moping literary characters revel in.

This emphasis on character causes far too many writers, mystery and otherwise, to indulge in lists of likes and dislikes, detailed personal histories of not only the main character but minor characters as well, and other things that seem more like writing seminar exercises than things the reader needs to know. Raymond Chandler and Loren D. Estleman can establish memorable characters with one phrase or sentence, while the writer whose book I just finished felt the need to tell me not only how the heroine lost her virginity but how her best friend did too, information that advanced neither the plot nor any crucial understanding of their characters an inch. In a generally dark book haunted by serial killers and child murders the narrator pauses to impart the secret of making good cupcakes or painting sinks. The character may be driving but the vehicle is going in circles.

And then there’s Chevy Stevens. I think with really good authors I’m never quite sure how they get away with it. Chevy Stevens confronts sensational, almost melodramatic material that should be exploitative or distasteful but somehow remains compelling and very, very real. She’s not afraid to inhabit her characters, to push them into the abyss, and as a reader I’m more than willing to follow. Her forthcoming book Those Girls (St. Martin’s, July release) starts with three sisters in rural Canada who are being abused by their widowed father, forced into violent action and attempt to flee to the big city. Unfortunately, the road is not often kind to teenage girls who are on the run with something to hide, and they end up in an even worse circle of hell.

Eventually they escape physically, but Stevens is very good at portraying the lasting scars of abuse, and when one of the sisters travels back to confront the past it feels inevitable. What is even more wrenching is that she’s followed by her niece, daughter of the principle narrator, and history threatens to repeat itself.

Steven’s vision is unflinching and immersive and her books always capture me from the first sentence. Her characters don’t lie in bed musing about things they may or may not have seen, they act, swept by events from one place to another with a nightmare immediacy and the reader is swept with them. She avoids all the things the literary thriller is so afraid of, like sensationalism and cliché, yet she remains thrilling and suspenseful. And Stevens has just as much to say about the victimization and powerlessness of women in contemporary society, but because her portrayal is more dramatic, it is more powerful.

Endings are another thing the literary have problems with. Bringing things to a conclusion is somehow seen as artificial or inauthentic, overlooking the fact that a novel is fiction, inherently an artifact. I don’t care if a book is like real life or not—because it can’t be real life, even if it’s non-fiction. For me, no matter how realistic it is, I’m not satisfied with an anti-climax, an ending where you don’t learn much for sure and the creepy guy who has you trapped in his house says You think I won’t let you go? And then does. It’s hardwired, beyond all academic theory—we need to see the monster unmasked and dispatched. Besides we all already have real life, probably too much of it. What we need, and have needed since caveman days, are credibly shaped stories. (Jamie)

A Short Tribute to Mrs. Pollifax

unexpectedmrspollifaxI have been feverishly re-reading Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax books – it’s been long enough that I don’t remember the particulars, but I do remember how much I enjoyed Mrs. P, though in my memory she was a bit softer than she actually is on the page. Gilman’s portrayal of her in the very first book, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (1966), is one of the best first mysteries ever. The set-up is clever – an older woman, unsatisfied by life, goes to the CIA to volunteer her services. When the CIA’s Carstairs sees her in the waiting room he thinks she would be the perfect innocent abroad. And through 13 books, she was. Gilman lays down her adventure story format leavened with Mrs. Pollifax’s generous yet knowledgable heart in the very first book and the formula holds. Gilman often provides the reader with surprisingly penetrating insights into human behavior, courtesy of Mrs. P; one of my favorite moments involves a Whirling Dervish (Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish, 1990). Re-discover her for yourself.

An Appreciation of William Kent Krueger

William-Kent-Krueger-2014-2William Kent Krueger visits us this September, appearing, as he has with nearly every one of his now sixteen novels, at Aunt Agatha’s.  This lucky association started for us back in 1998 when Kent called and invited himself to the store to sign copies of Iron Lake.  I was delighted with Kent and his books back in 1998 and I still am today.  In between, our tiny staff  have all become hard-core Krueger fans and have relentlessly pressed his books on almost every reader we can think of.  Every one of them comes back for more.  Even my brother, a mystery reader who doesn’t remember authors, asks about that “Minnesota guy.”

And Kent has only continued to grow and challenge himself as a writer.  In a long running series, it’s sometimes difficult to keep things fresh, but Krueger manages to make each of his Cork O’Connor books somehow distinct from one another and enjoyable on their own merits, though I couldn’t recommend more highly reading this series in order and seeing the incredible depth of characterization that Krueger manages to shade into all of his characters as the stories progress.

His 14th O’Connor book, Windigo Island,  is another wonderful outing.  The widowed Cork, now a private consultant, finds himself drawn into the case of a missing young Ojibwe woman, something which leads him into the world of teenage prostitution.  Krueger still manages, all these books in, to be fired up about an issue, manages to infuse something new into Cork’s journey, and manages to continue to evoke emotion and tension in equal measure.

Sometimes there are things in his novels that a lesser writer might not be able to get away with, but Krueger somehow manages it.  I always finish one of his books with a box of Kleenex at my side.  Long ago when I first read Madeleine L’Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time I was captivated by her concept of the “educated heart.”  This is a quality Krueger possesses in spades.  Nowhere was this quality more evident than in last year’s publication of his Edgar-winning stand-alone novel, Ordinary Grace.

It felt like all the things Krueger had been learning as a writer, the things he had been polishing up in his writer’s tool box, were put to use in that incredible novel, a coming of age story set in 1961 Minnesota.  And happily, Ordinary Grace has been richly and deservedly rewarded by the mystery community with a slew of award nominations and wins.

And for Jamie and I, who were honored to win a Raven award presented at this year’s Edgar ceremony, it was very satisfactory to see our pal Kent, whom we had known from the start of his career, win Best Novel after a long and steady climb upward.  Sometimes bookselling is incredibly rewarding, and that was one of those moments.  So please, come meet one of the masters of our genre this September 14 when he will talk about his latest Cork O’Connor novel, along with Denise Swanson and Julia Keller.