Monday, January 14, 2019

Relationships are the key to the solution

Guest review by my mystery-loving wife Marian:

Relationships are at the heart of the newest Eleanor Kuhns mystery starring Will Rees, The Shaker Murders. As a new reader of this series, I was introduced to the close relationship between Will and his wife Lydia, and waited along with these characters for the birth of their baby. Another set of relationships shown in the book is between the couple’s adopted children. And there are other family connections that affect what Will and Lydia do during the course of this sixth book in the series.

Equally intriguing were the relationships between our main characters and members of the Shaker community where Will and Lydia come to stay for two weeks, as their new baby’s birth approaches. Readers learn more about the community and the Elders as we see their reactions to sudden deaths that Will believes are murders. We also get a glimpse into the complex emotional issues some characters face as they decide whether to become or remain a Shaker.

 Will is a loving husband and father, determined to find a good home for his growing family, despite the dangers and obstacles. This is the overarching theme as the book progresses. However, his frequent angry outbursts complicate these efforts. This makes him human, but it can also be frustrating to readers like me, who wonder why Will seems to be on the edge of boiling over time after time. Still, the mystery comes to a satisfying end, with relationships the key to solving the murders in the Shaker community.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Why Michael Connelly is so great

Dark Sacred Night is Michael Connelly's latest mystery starring California police detective Harry Bosch. Harry, as a result of events that occurred in an earlier book, no longer works for the Los Angeles Police Department but is working part time as a reserve officer for the San Fernando PD. Harry is probably in his early 60s, is a widow, with a daughter in college, and has taken in a recovering drug addict, the mother of a murdered child.

In this book, Connelly introduces Reneé Ballard, a 32-year-old LAPD detective who provoked a departmental transfer when she reported the sexual harassment of a superior. Ballard now works "the late show," the graveyard shift out of Hollywood Station. By the end of the book, Bosch and Ballard have formed a team. In fact the cover of Dark Sacred Night says that this is "A Ballard and Bosch Novel."

So what makes Connelly so great?

First, although Harry Bosch has been the main character in twenty previous novels, you need not have read them to understand and enjoy this one. Too often series writers have to (or feel they have to) explain why the detective is the way he is by summarizing a previous book. We don't need to know why Bosch no longer works for the LAPD; if we care we can read the earlier book.

Next, Connelly tells his stories from the limited third-person point of view. The Dark Sacred Night story begins with a title page: "Ballard" in which we travel with her to the scene of a death. Forty-three pages later, another title page: "Bosch," in which we learn that Bosch is working on a nine-year-old cold case. While we switch between Ballard and Bosch, which gives Connelly somewhat more freedom of action  we are never in any other point of view. Too often for my taste the writer puts us in the mind of the murderer,  coyly not identifying him (or her), or in the point of view of the victim; I think it's a form of cheap—unearned, perhaps—suspense.

Finally, Dark Sacred Night sounds as if this is what police work is actually like. Both Ballard and Bosch have to spend an inordinate amount of time on tedious, boring, unproductive tasks. Connelly is able somehow to evoke this side of police work without writing a tedious, boring book. Also, Ballard is called out to investigate at least three other cases during the time the novel covers. These a're not all deaths, not all the deaths are homicides, and the homicide is solved, like most, within forty-eight hours. (I've read that if a murder is not solved within two or three days, it may never be.)

Dark Sacred Night is a police procedural, with the stress on procedure. I can imagine a complaint that  Ballard and Bosch are too focused on the work; we don't get enough of their internal, their emotional lives. I would disagree, perhaps because I am a man. Neither Bosch nor Ballard is dropped from Mars. They do have, or have had, families and current relationships. They are not lonely figures riding off alone and separate into the dawn at the end of the book. They do solve the crime (a given in a mystery), and both the crime and its solution feel plausible. With Bosch and Ballard teaming up, there's more to come and I look forward to reading it.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Women: Four views of romance in pre-war Europe

Mihail Sebastian, a Romanian playwright, essayist, journalist, and novelist, was born in 1907 as Iosef Hechter. He worked as a lawyer and writer until anti-Semitic legislation forced him to abandon his public career. Having survived the war and the Holocaust, he was killed in early 1945 as he was crossing a Bucharest street teach his first class when he was hit by a truck. He's best known in English for his Journal, 1935-1944 published in 1999.

Women, originally published in Romania in 1933 when Sebastian was 26 years old, has now been translated into fluent and engaging English by Philip Ó Ceallaigh and published by Other Press. The book has four sections, all focusing on women in the protagonist's life: the first section covers Renée, Marthe, Odette; the second features Émile; the third Maria; and the last Arabela. Sebastian writes the first section in the third person: "It's not yet eight. Stefan Valeriu can tell by the sunlight, which has crept only as far as the edge of his chaise longue." Stefan, a medical student, is vacationing on an Alpine lake and has an affair with the wife of another hotel guest, Renée. However,  "As it turns out, Renée doesn't know how to love. Her first embrace is strikingly awkward; there is no reticence or delay in yielding, only a series of hesitations, more likely from awkwardness than from modesty . . . "

Sebastian writes the next section in the first person, the persona of Stefan: Here is his description of Émile: "I think making love was more a physical difficulty than a moral one for her. At the risk of using an ambiguous expression, I'd say that for her love had become a problem of balance. What must have seemed impossible for her about love was moving her center of gravity. Being a vertical creature and then assuming a horizontal position—that what I believed tortured her sensual dreams, if ever had any. I think the whole mystery of love was summed up for her in the fact, and she could't get her head around it."

The third section is written as a letter from Maria to Stefan describing her affair with Andrei. Here she describes him eating: "He was greedy, cheerful, and communicative, with a candor that suited him wonderfully and an absence of self-awareness that would have been an excuse for any crime or betrayal. I had always enjoyed watching Andrei eating and I think his greed is the only truly good thing in him, because (maybe I'm talking nonsense, but I'll tell you anyway) there's something childlike about a greedy man, something which tempers his roughness and self-importance and reduces the intimidating aspect of his masculinity."

The last section is again written in the first person, an older Stefan who presents himself as the technical adviser to the Ministry of Health of Romania in its relations with the International Commission for Medical Cooperation. He attends a circus performance in Paris in which Arabela stars. He falls in love with her, and they create their own act: "I was grateful to Arabela for unintentionally knocking me off my reasonable, predestined course and turning the serious gentleman she'd met that November night into somebody who forgot that he was a doctor, adviser, and diplomat and became again what he had always wanted to be: a young man."

The book feels very European in its attitudes, assumptions, and landscapes. As such, it's interesting for its observations and insights. Interesting that the telephone, radio, even the automobile barely exist. It does not feel as if it were written by a 26-year-old, although, having been born in a small city in Romania (Brăila on the Danube) and growing up a cultured Jew and experiencing growing anti-Semitism, Sebastian may have been more mature than his years would suggest. 

Women is a fascinating picture of a time and the relations between people. The citations above may suggest how well Sebastian is able to convey both the characters and their relationships. A novel worth reading more than once.




Saturday, January 5, 2019

"The Fun Parts": Fun but exhausting

Sam Lipsyte knows how to start a story (he should; he teaches writing in Columbia University's School of Arts). Here are three examples from his collection The Fun Parts:

—"Trauma this, atrocity that, people ought to keep their traps shut," said Mandy's father. American traps tended to hang open. Pure crap poured out. What he and the other had gone through shouldn't have a name, he told her friend Tovah all those years later in the nursing home. People gave name to things so they could tell stories about them, goddamn fairy tales about children who got out alive."

—My wife wanted another baby. But I thought Philip was enough. A toddler is a lot. I couldn't picture us going through the whole ordeal again. We'd just gotten our lives back. We needed to snuggle with them, plan their futures."

—Everybody waited for me to get skinny. My father said it could be any day. My mother said if I got skinny, it would improve my moods. She promised me a new wardrobe, one more congruent with my era, my region. My sister said if I got skinny, there would the possibility of hand jobs from her friends in the Jazz Dancing Club. Blow jobs, even. All the jobs. It was only fair, she said. Her friends had brothers. She'd done her part.

The stories are funny—sometimes laugh-out-loud funny—and sometimes grim and sometimes funny/grim. But they are also difficult to sum up fairly and accurately. The flap copy writer does a better job than I can do: "A boy eats his way to self-discovery . . . [a boy] must battle the reality-brandishing monster preying on his fantasy realm . . . an aerobics instructor, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, makes the most shocking leap imaginable to save her soul . . . Other stories feature a grizzled and possibly deranged male doula, a doomsday hustler about to face the multi-universal truth of 'the real-ass jumbo,' and a tawdry glimpse of the northern New Jersey High school shot-putting circuit, circa 1986." In other words, Lipsyte's range is prodigious.

He writes the stories in short bursts with line breaks, usually filled with crisp dialogue, but even the prose between the dialogue crackles: "Goth girls, coke ghosted, rehabbed at twelve and stripping sober, begged for my sagas of degradation, epiphany. They pressed in with their inks, their dyes, their labial metals and scarified montes, cheered their favorite passages, the famous one, where I ate some sadistic dealer's turd on a Portuguese sweet roll for the promise of a bindle, or broke into a funeral parlor and slit a corpse open for the formaldehyde . . . "

My problem with the stories—and I admit it's my problem and may not be anyone else's—is that they're too bouncy, too rich while being stripped down, too glittery surface. They're written for people with short attention spans. They're not written to be read one after another. Nothing sticks. Once I put the book down, I could not recall a week later any of the characters or their situations, only brief glimpses of a situation or a character remained.

That said, I think anyone interested in writing could read The Fun Parts to see how Lipsyte does it. How he can set up a situation or a character in a few sentences. How he uses dialogue to reveal (or hide) character and advance the action. One caution: The style is so vivid you have to take care not to allow it to creep into your own writing. One Sam Lipsyte writing like Sam Lipsyte is enough.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Suspect could almost be a true crime account

Fiona Barton's first novel, The Widow, spent seven weeks on The New York Times hardcover bestseller list, and was named a Best Book of the Year by NPR, The Wall Street Journal and Publisher's Weekly. Her second, The Child, did not do quite as well although it too was named a Best Book of the Year by NPR. The Suspect is Barton's third novel and I have a hunch it will be another bestseller and Best Book. It should be.

Barton tells the new story in seventy-two short chapters over 400 pages. Each chapter is labeled with the point-of-view character or the situation—The Reporter, The Mother, The Detective, Bangkok Day 1—and the date of the chapter. It's a way to help the reader follow a story that jumps back and forth in time, from character to character, and from London to Bangkok. I can imagine some readers having trouble with these shifts; I cannot imagine how Barton could have told the story as effectively any other way. Pay attention to the dates.

The inciting incident (or lack of incident) is the silence from 18-year-old Alex O'Connor. She and her friend Rosie have gone to Thailand upon high school graduation for a three-week vacation. Alex has been checking in regularly with her mother via Facebook when the messages abruptly stop even though Alex wants to know her final grades.

Her mother, as might be expected, grows concerned, talks to Rosie's mother who's heard nothing, and calls to the police. After only a day, the police are not much help. However, the detective tips off the reporter, Kate Waters, (they know each other from an earlier book) and Kate sets off to find out what's happened to the girls. She has special interest in the story because her own son, a college dropout, is in Thailand.

Barton spent thirty-five years as a newspaper report in the UK, working for major newspapers, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. With that background, her chapters on following the story—interviewing distraught parents, consulting with the paper's Bangkok stringer, dealing with other reporters—ring absolutely true.

Unlike many mysteries, The Suspect could almost pass itself off a true crime account; it rings that true. Kate, the reporter, tells her chapters in the first person, present tense. The other chapters are all in third person, past tense if only because they provide information that Kate cannot know but that the reader needs to know for the effect of the story.

And while the mystery is convincingly complex, what sets The Suspect apart from many novels is the emotional truth of Barton is able to convey: A mother's fear for her child half a world away. A reporter's discomfort when she becomes the story. A detective's impatience with foreign police procedure. A teenager's shock at discovering a friend is not the girl she thought she was. And more. And more.

As a result, while the characters must deal with the challenge of the silent girls among others they must also deal with their own fears, angers, wants and desires. It makes The Suspect an engaging and satisfying novel. As I said at the beginning, I think it should be a best seller. And I would not be surprised to see it turned into one of the six-episode mini-series' that the BBC does so well. Meanwhile, I'm going to look up The Widow.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Stories worth savoring and studying

Jane Gillette says she began writing stories in 1962 for a creative writing class at Vassar College. The Trail of the Demon and Other Stories, published in 2017 collects eleven of her stories, all of which were published in literary reviews—The Yale Review, Michigan Quarterly, Virginia Quarterly, Missouri, Zyzzyva, Hopkins Reviews, Antigonish—and most of them published since 2010. The Missouri Review's editors were impressed enough by Gillette's writing to make this book the first in the publication's new imprint.

Gillette grew up in Muncie, Indiana (which appears in a couple of the stories), where her father managed a shoe store. She says she been an adjunct college teacher of freshman composition and a writer for association magazines devoted to historic preservation and landscape architecture (and Amazon lists a book called The Most Beautiful Gardens Ever Written: A Guide by a Jane Gillette who I am going to assume is the same person). She says about her personal history, "I more or less ran a press devoted to landscape architecture. Spacemaker published books and a bi-monthly magazine and I anonymously wrote lots and lots of things for them."

So she's an interesting writer, if hardly a household name. She's been working in a very special vineyard, the world of literary magazines. I like to think of myself as well-read, but I'm afraid I'd never heard of any of the people who praise the book: Daphne Kalotay, Anthony Varallo, Tina May Hall, Nancy Zafris, John J. Clayton. That I'd never heard of them no doubt says more about my limitations than it says about Gillette. (For one thing, it gives me a list of authors and works to investigate.)

Because Gillette apparently writes slowly and carefully, the stories are worth savoring and studying. She often makes it clear that what you're reading is a story; it's not pretending to be life. The title story begins, "This isn't a very nice story, but I feel I should tell it because at the time of the assault I lived six houses away from Dawn, and she has so much to say I thought I'd never hear the end of it." The Ghost Driver begins, "Let me tell you a story about how we became the success we are today." And Meditation XXXI: On Sustenance begins, "Since there's only one scene in this story and it takes place at McDonald's out on McGalliard Road in Muncie, Indiana, I'll first kill a little time discussing food."

By allowing the reader to see backstage like this, Gillette risks decreasing the story's emotional impact. We know Othello doesn't really kill Desdemona. At the same time, Gillette is skillful enough to engage the reader even as we know what she's telling us only a story about made-up people and invented places (Muncie, Washington, DC, Vassar). And she manages to dramatize how actual events, memory, and myth slop into one another so that not one is entirely real or true.

Let me quote from Speer Morgan's Forward because his observations about what she's accomplished are better than what I could say. In the story A Preface for Mrs. Parry, Gillette's suggests that "not only do relationships and even marriages become insignificant over time, but some of our most important personal memories may be so affected by self-mythologizing as to represent desire more than fact." She tells the story Divine Afflatus from two points of view and indicates that "personal tragedies become the sense through which we see the world and about how the world may refuse to soften, even for the suffering." Not a cheerful message, but a necessary one.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Kingsolver's fictional doings in a real Vineland, NJ

One piece of apocryphal advice to aspiring novelists: Chase your main character up a tree and throw rocks at her. The idea is that your reader will want to know how the character manages to get down—or not.

In Chapter 1 of Barbara Kingsolver's new novel Unsheltered set during the 2016 presidential campaign, Willa Knox learns that her family's recently-inherited, 100-year-old brick house is literally falling down around their ears. Also, the magazine at which she had been an editor has folded, the college at which her husband had tenure has gone out of business and he has become a lowly adjunct, her dying and raging conservative father-in-law lives with them, as does her free-spirited, tree-hugging daughter, recently returned from Cuba. Her son, a recent college graduate with over $100,000 in outstanding student loans, calls from Boston where he is living with lovely woman on the fast track to a lucrative law career despite just given birth. The woman has killed herself.

Chapter 2 is set in the 1870s. Thatcher Greenwood has been hired as the town's high school science teacher but has been forbidden to mention Darwin, evolution, or natural selection. His neighbor, Mary Treat, is an amateur botanist and entomologist who is serious enough to carry on a lively correspondence with Charles Darwin himself and his leading American advocates. Thatcher, a man of science, becomes friends with Mary, a woman of science advanced for her time (and an actual person who actually lived). The rest of the book's chapters alternate in times and point of view.

What connects them is that Willa and Thatcher live in essentially the same house in the same—actual—New Jersey town, Vineland. In 1861 Charles Landis, a 28-year old Philadelphia attorney, bought 20,000 scrubland acres in southern New Jersey, carved streets out of the wilderness, and established his own utopian community. Landis, another actual person who appears in Kingsolver's novel, required land buyers to build a home, live on the land, and plant fruit trees within the first year of purchase. So we have a novel that mixes historical reality and fiction, and by implication shows how far we've come—or not. One of the many things I find impressive about Unsheltered is that Kingsolver is able to weave the 19th Century and the 21st Century stories together without showing the seams.

One way she does this is by making the 19th Century chapters sound as if they were written in the 19th Century. Here is an example picked almost at random:

"Selma gave a prompter's curtsey. A pale, fuzzy little mullein of a girl, nearly as young as Polly, he guessed, but more accustomed to work. 'Your mistress has such such praises of the Pine Barrens,' he said, 'I'm impatient to see them. I hope I can join you soon as an assistant to the assistant. I am very good at carrying things and getting deplorably muddy.' Selma made a squashed little grin. and glanced at Mrs. Treat. . . ."

And here is a sample of a current-day situation:

"Mother and daughter curled together in the recliner they all called the Big-Ass Chair, constructed for people of that particular make. It was an old thing, brown corduroy, beyond huge. Tig could lie in it sideways. Willa hadn't seen a piece of furniture like it before or known such things existed, but she'd seen the asses of course, so it stood to reason. The recliner had belonged to one of Sondra's clients, now in hospice, and the family wanted the furniture gone . . . ."

Another thing I admire about the novel is Kingsolver's ability to dramatize what are essentially abstract arguments about evolution, economics, social order, and more. I suspect some readers are going to be uncomfortable by some of the arguments some of the characters make. Here's Willa's daughter giving her what-for: "People can change their minds about little things, but on the big ones they'd rather die first. A used-up planet scares the piss out of them, after they spent their whole lives thinking the cupboard would never go bare. No offense, Mom, but you're kind of not that different from Papu [grandfather]. You want a nice house that's all your own, you want your kids to have more than you did."

It's no spoiler to say that by the end of Unsheltered Willa and Thatcher have been able to climb down from the trees into which Kingsolver has chased them. A rich and rewarding novel.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

So you want to survive as an existentialist

It sounds like an interesting and practical book: The Existentialist's Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age. The author, Gordon Marino, PhD, "is a professor of philosophy and the director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College" in Minnesota. He's written and edited a number of books about Kierkegaard and is also "an award-winning boxing writer for The Wall Street Journal and other outlets."

I'm not sure what I expected, but this isn't it. Start with the title. If you bought The Desert Hiker's Survival Guide, you would expect to learn ways to remain alive / sustain yourself / keep body and soul together in the desert. What kind of guide would an existentialist need to survive? To survive what? Existential angst? In his Introduction, Marino writes that he will discuss "existential insights on how best to understand and relate ourselves to the trials posed by anxiety, depression, despair" and the more positive aspects of existence: "authenticity, faith, morality, and love."

What it all comes down to (spoiler alert) is a belief in and a trust in God. That's what Marino is selling. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph, a Christian God. Not Allah, not Brahma, not Thor, not Torgasoak, not . . . but you get the idea. Perhaps because Marino has devoted so much of his scholarly life to Kierkegaard and because he was raised Catholic, he uses Kierkegaard to justify and explain his own faith. According to Kierkegaard, "we need God to teach us how thoroughly depraved we are. Faith is the opposite of sin, and paradoxically it requires faith to understand we are sinners." I'm sorry. I don't think I have black spots on my soul. I don't think we're all sinners.

Kierkegaard is famous for the phrase "leap of faith," which he never used himself. But he affirmed that one could know God—again, the Christian God—only through such a leap, not through logic, not through doctrine. But it assumes there is something to know. It assumes there is a God to know, to love, to believe in.

But why not take a leap of faith into knowing that you will be reincarnated? It would explain why bad things happen to good people—they're being punished for an offense committed in an earlier life. It would mean that there are a finite number of souls available—sometimes you come back as a dog or a cockroach, sometimes as a better person—rather than new souls having to be created constantly. (Where are these souls coming from?) Reincarnation, after all, is something millions of people believe it. Why not you?

When does magical thinking become superstition become faith? Or are they all flavors of the same thing? According to Marino, you have to accept faith on faith. "[T]here is no argument from Kierkegaard for faith. In fact, he warns that offering a defense of faith is a sin against faith, akin to offering a brief to prove that you love your spouse." That from a man who broke off his engagement and never married. In any case, the argument sounds both closed and circular to me. You have to believe because you believe.

What about the subtitle, living authentically in an inauthentic age? Well, the book has a whole chapter titled "Authenticity." But wait. I question: What is an inauthentic age? What makes this age inauthentic? Was there ever an authentic age? Marino himself asks, what does it mean to live "authentically"? What's the difference between sincerity and authenticity? 

Well, "to become authentic is to become yourself." Or as Camus wrote, "Above all, in order to be, never try to seem." This appears to come down to the Shakespearian, "To thine own self be true." And yet, and yet. Does the mask you wear make you inauthentic, or is it just one aspect of your authentic self, one of many? 

As you can tell, I fought with The Existentialist's Survival Guide all the way through. I disagreed with Marino in large ways and small, delighted with myself when I could see a flaw in the logic, frustrated by his dependence on Kierkegaard's cockamamie arguments. For that and more, I recommend the book. I don't think it tells you how to live authentically in an inauthentic age, but for Christian believers it should provide intellectual comfort. And for non-believers, we're back to St. Thomas Aquinas: "To one who has faith in God, no explanation is necessary. To one who has no faith, no explanation is possible." Just take it on faith. Trust me.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Why Rachel Cusk's "Kudos" deserves kudos

Kudos is the third book in Rachel Cusk's trilogy. I've discussed the two earlier books, Outline and Transit. As in those novels, Kudos has no conventional plot as defined in my on-line dictionary as "the main events of a novel devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence." There is no rising action leading to a denouement. The narrator, a middle-aged British novelist, flies to an unnamed foreign city (it sounds like Dubrovnik to me but it could be Gdansk) to speak at a literary festival and people talk to her.

That's it.

Her seat mate on the plane tells her a story about the family dog. She meets her publisher at the conference hotel who talks about publishing. She meets another writer who tells her about a writing workshop she recently attended. She meets an interviewer. She is taken by a guide, a young man, to a party across the city who talks about college and his generation's attitudes. She meets a wealthy woman who offers her estate as a writing retreat. She meets another writer whose entire life has been changed by a smartwatch.

She describes the conference and quotes and evokes the writers at it. She meets with her local publisher's publicist who has set up interviews, one of whom who spends all the time available talking about himself. At the end of the book she has a phone conversation with one of her children back in London who has had a small crisis. She assures him everything will be all right.

And that's it.

But of course that's not it. The stories are interesting in themselves, in what they reveal (or don't) about the speaker, in what they say about the narrator and what she chooses to quote, and how they resonate, one against the other. Given that the narrator is a writer and the scene is a literary festival, there is more than a little about literature and the literary life. Her publisher, for example, has returned the company to solvency by jettisoning unprofitable literary novels and she asks about publishing.

"What all publishers were looking for, he went on—the holy grail as it were, of the modern literary scene—were those writers who performed well in the market while maintaining a connection to the values of literature; in other words, who wrote books that people could actually enjoy without feeling in the least demeaned by being seen reading them. He had managed to secure quite a collection of those writers, and apart from Sudoku and the popular thrillers [the firm's major revenue sources], they were chiefly responsible for the upswing in the company's fortunes."

Cusk would be worth studying not only for the way she handles dialogue but also for the apparent precision of her descriptions:

"She was a tiny, sinewy woman with a childlike body and a large, bony, sagacious face in which the big, heavy-lidded eyes had an almost reptilian patience, occasionally slowly blinking. She had attended my event this afternoon, she added, and had been struck as she often was the the inferiority of these occasion to the work that was their subject, which seemed to be circling with increasing aimlessness and never penetrated. We get to walk in the grounds, she said, but we never enter the building."

Kudos is not a long book, less than 55,000 words. But the words are so well chosen, the sentences so well constructed (look at the two samples above), and the thoughts expressed so interesting that it is worth reading repeatedly. As Ruth Franklin wrote in The Atlantic, "In her effort to expose the illusions of both fiction and life, [Cusk] may have discovered the most genuine way to write a novel today." I am not sure I would go that far, but Cusk is certainly original and exhilarating.

Friday, September 28, 2018

An ex-stripper and private consultant take on Idaho

Carl Brookins has created an interesting crime-fighting duo, Marjorie Kane and Alan Lockem. They are married, live in Minneapolis, and sound as if they are in their late 50s, early 60s. Marjorie is an exceptionally well-preserved former stripper. Lockem is a "private consultant," whatever that means. He's not a PI. "Some people call him a salvage expert." In any case, the two help people in trouble.

In Grand Lac, the person in trouble is Sam Black, the son of Marjorie's cousin, Edie. Sam and Edie live in the fictional small town of Grand Lac, Idaho, and Sam has been arrested for the murder of Jack Ketchum, "a rancher in the area." Edie asks Lockem and Kane to come to Idaho to help Sam.

Ketchum, who has a wealth of enemies in town, apparently has been shot by a hunting rifle that was some distance away. The reason for his killing? Angry at other landowners (including cousin Edie) who will not permit a road easement to his property on the mountainside, Ketchum took a bulldozer and cut his own road through everybody else's property, destroying tress, brush, and good feeling. It is not clear to me why Sam would be arrested for the murder let alone why Ketchum's vandalism is worth killing him, but let that go. Sam's in jail and we readers know he didn't do it.

Alan almost immediately twigs that the county sheriff and the Grand Lac police do not view public safety the same way, and that if Alan has to trust somebody he should trust the sheriff. Also Alan has been around the block enough times to suspect that the jail interview room has been bugged (apparently illegal even in Idaho) and Brookins writes a cute scene between Alan and Sam to circumvent the bug. And there's a problem with Ketchum's body: If he was killed by a distant rifle shot, why are there powder burns around the wound?

As Alan and Marjorie poke around Grand Lac, meet people, and ask questions, bad actors grow concerned and try—unsuccessfully—to frighten them off. They don't frighten, so the action gets ramped up, and we're in the middle of day trading scams, land deals,  civic corruption and more. Ketchem was more than a rancher on a bulldozer.

I've reviewed another Brookins mystery, Inside Passage, and Grand Lac offers many of the pleasures that book offered (Brookins lists 11 mystery titles he's independently published). For example, here's his description of a Grand Lac restaurant:

"It was the kind of supper club that aimed to serve those who wanted some private time together in an intimate setting. It would have good food, high prices and no sense of pressure to eat and get out. There were no windows of course, and the walls were hung with tapestries and large paintings of outdoor scenes, which could have been Idaho or California or South America, for all Lockem knew, not being much of a geographer. The building had the look of a place that started life as a modest cinderblock building and then grew with multiple expansions in a sort of haphazard unplanned non-pattern. As a result hallways and cul de sacs and evidence of doors appeared, any of which might have been randomly inserted between the decorations. It was the kind of place that could hide a lot of secrets."

And while Brookins himself has been around the block a few times, I would like to see a tighter story. Having created Lockem and Kane, he can give them skills and opportunities they don't yet have. Because they are not law officers, they are limited in some ways in what they can do to catch crooks, but they are free in other ways to do things the cops can't. We'll see what happens in the next book.