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.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

How "Ohio" evokes the life and times of a dying town

How often do you pick up a book by an author you've never heard of, a book about which you know nothing—no book review, no friend's recommendation, not even flap copy? For the books I ask to review, I've read promotional material so I have some inkling of what to expect. With Stephen Markley's Ohio I had nothing. I picked it up because, as an old (elderly) Ohio boy, the title appealed to me.

Perhaps reading it fresh, without expectations, without recommendations, increased my pleasure and admiration. I found it an awesome first novel. The flap copy describes Markley as an author, screenwriter, journalist, and graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He's published two non-fiction books, Publish This Book and Tales of Iceland.

Ohio is interestingly structured. It begins with a Prelude, the description of a 2007 memorial parade and observance of the death of Rick Bricklan, a Marine killed in Iraq, the son of the town's Chief Investigator. The town is the fictional New Canaan, one of the many Ohio towns decimated by factory closings, its Main Street store-fronts empty, the shops unable to compete with Walmart.

Ohio continues by following four graduates of New Canaan High through one "fried fever of a summer night in 2013." The four had known, or know of, each other in high school, and given that this is a small town, their lives had intersected in interesting, dramatic, even horrific ways. The first 120 pages evoke Bill Ashcroft, a 27-year-old alcoholic/drug addicted soul who's been hired by an old high school girl friend to bring a mysterious package from New Orleans to New Canaan; $1,000 up front, $1,000 more on delivery. I almost gave up at the end of the section because I didn't want to spend another 300 pages watching a drunk make one bad decision after another.

The next 100 pages, however, give us Stacey Moore, another New Canaan High graduate who happens to be in town on this special night. She's gay and through well-handled flashbacks Markley describes her adolescent confusion and the growing realization of her nature. It does not help her family feeling that her older brother is an evangelical minister who is certain that Stacey will burn in Hell for all Eternity for her lifestyle choice.

Next, Dan Eaton, an Army vet who lost an eye in Afghanistan, who has come to his hometown to see an old girlfriend and to visit his family. Dan's memories of serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are so powerful, precise, and convincing I wondered if Markley himself is a vet. And each of these sections point toward a larger, more complex story.

The fourth section evokes Tina Ross, who was 15 years old when she started hanging out with the star of the high school football team. She is in her way more damaged than Ashcroft, Moore, or Eaton, and her story is both horrific and perversely satisfying.

Aside from the satisfactions of the plot (there is no aside from those satisfactions), there are the pleasures of Markley's observations.  Here an older German woman talking to Stacey: " . . .we are no longer cataloguing life with art, which is perhaps why art is failing. Life itself has become the final disposable, exploitable resource. We will do anything. Level whole mountains, erase whole species, relocate mighty rivers, burn forests to the ground, change the pH of the water, blanket ourselves in toxic chemistry. It took two million years for our species just to stand up and only five hundred generations to do the rest. Our culture is one of abundance, of entitlement, and basically little else. We've put our birthright at risk because we don't know how to control ourselves. Our lust."

And there are the pleasures of his descriptions. Here's an elderly teacher Dan is meeting in a senior center: "Gone was the elocution-school way of speaking, replaced by a slow and precise slur. Her hair was now bone white and so thin he could make out the moles on her scalp. She looked gaunt, her face an unhealthy plum, the blood looking congealed beneath the skin, and the right side drooped so the eye, lips, and cheek seemed in the process of sinking into quicksand. She took his hand in both of hers, the fingers pointed off liked the gnarled knots of a tree branch."

In the 484 pages of Ohio there are more than a dozen main characters and there must be more than fifty named characters. The book has an enormous number of moving parts, but for all the characters and all the moving parts Markley never lost me. I think he's done something remarkably difficult. He's conveyed—without editorializing or preaching—the impact of the closed factories and the lost jobs on the children of the town's residents. At the same time, he's told the stories of individuals who are more than economic statistics. A rich, thought-provoking, rewarding novel.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

What Theophrastus has to say about bad behavior

Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher and pupil of Aristotle, was born around 372 BC, died around 287. When Aristotle was forced to retire from Athens in 323, Theophrastus became the head of the Lyceum, the academy Aristotle had founded. Under Theophrastus the enrollment of pupils and auditors rose to its highest point. 

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Theophrastus was one of the few Peripatetic philosophers who fully embraced Aristotle’s metaphysics, physics, physiology, zoology, botany, ethics, politics, and history of culture. "His general tendency was to strengthen the systematic unity of those subjects and to reduce the transcendental or Platonic elements of Aristotelianism as a whole." He was a prolific writer and his works, many lost, include Inquiry into PlantsGrowth of Plants and treatises attributed to him on fire, winds, signs of weather, scents, sensations, and other subjects. His Charaktēres, written around 320 BC, consists of thirty "brief and vigorous character sketches delineating moral types derived from studies that Aristotle had made for ethical and rhetorical purposes."

Pamela Mensch, a translator of ancient Greek literature, has now produced her version of Theophrastus's Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behavior. These include the Dissembler, Flatterer, Yokel, Sycophant, Newshound, Miser, Busybody, Vulgar Man, Social Climber, Coward, and twenty more.

Theophrastus's observations are—with small adaptions—as appropriate today as they were 2,300 years ago: "The Talker is the sort who plumps himself down next to someone he doesn't know and starts praising his own wife; he goes on to describe the dream he had the night before, and then relates in detail what he had for dinner,"

"The Busybody is the sort who stands up and promises what he can't deliver. In court when it's agreed that his argument is just, he overdoes it and loses his case."

The Complainer grumbles at Zeus not because it's rraining
but because it didn't rain sooner
"The Shameless Man is the sort who, after shortchanging someone, goes back to ask him for a loan."

"The Tactless Man is the sort who comes to solicit advice from someone who's busy. He serenades his sweetheart when she's down with a fever. He approaches a man who's just had to forfeit bail money and asks him to post bail for him."

The book includes a useful Introduction and endnotes by James Romm, professor of classics at Bard College, that puts the author into an historic context. Romm points out that unlike every other ancient Greek author whose work survives, Theophrastus observes the Athenians' "food, their clothes, their purchases, the decor of their homes. He notices objects we never hear of elsewhere, like the spurs worn by the Social Climber to show he's wealthy enough to ride in the cavalry . . . ."

Aside from Theophrastus's delightful comments, the book is a lovely object to hold, a delight of book design by Don Quaintance. And it includes apt illustrations of each character by Andre Carrilho, a designer, illustrator, and caricaturist from Lisbon. Characters would make a splendid gift for the right person. (I wouldn't give it to someone who will see herself in it.) It would make a good gift for oneself if only to remind yourself what you don't want to be.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Why you should visit Dukla, the town and the book

Dukla is a small town in southeastern Poland on the Jasiolka river at the foot of Cergowa mountain. It has a population of about 2,200 people, a 17th century town hall, the ruins of a 1758 synagogue, the ruins of a 16th century border tax office, the ruins of a brewery. In 1944, the Battle of the Dukla Pass left 90 percent of the town in ruins. In 1997, Pope John Paul II visited and in his sermon mentioned John of Dukla, one of the patron saints of Poland and Lithuania.

Dukla by Andrzej Stasuik is a remarkable work of literature. It is memoir, travelogue, nature writing, reportage and ethnography. It contains a short essay, a novella, and a series of brief portraits of local people or events. It was translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, my workshop leader in a translation conference, and that connection led me to it. Stasiuk is well-known in Poland and has won the NIKE, the country's most prestigious literary prize for his collection of essays On the Road to Babadag. That book and four others of Stasuik are also available in English.

In Dikla, Stasuik says, "I always wanted to write a book about light. I never could find anything else more reminiscent of eternity. I never was able to imagine things that don't exist. That always seemed a waste of time to me, just like the stubborn search for the Unknown, which only ever ends up looking like an assemblage of old, familiar things in slightly souped-up form. Events and objects either come to an end, or perish, or collapse under their own weight, and if I observe them and describe them it's only because they refract the brightness, shape it, and give it a form that we're capable of comprehending."

As a writer, I've felt sometimes my weakness—inability perhaps—in describing the physical world. It is easy (relatively) to write dialogue, to explicate ideas, to write useful abstractions. It's not so easy to find the words that convey a vivid sense of place. Stasuik (and Johnston) seem to do it with ease:

"The shadows of early morning lie upon the earth as if the wind were blurring them. They're black yet hazy, because the dew atomizes the light and refracts it back at the edges. Even in the middle, the black is far from distinct—it rather resembles a reflection. Beyond Dynów the San touches up against the road with its crooked elbow. We have to flip down the visor, because the sun is shining directly in our eyes. It hangs there just above the road. The blacktop is peeling like old gilding. The river down below has the color of a mirror in an unlit room . . ."

In his Introduction, Johnston suggests that Dukla is "a languid prose poem." Perhaps. But few of the prose poems I've read are as engaging. Stasuik is not playing with language for the sake of language. He's not trying to create a beautiful, if impractical, object like a Christmas ornament. He's trying, I believe, to do what he says, to write about light, but also tom write about "things and places no one else thinks worthy of writing about," says Johnston. "Polish literature has preponderantly been urban in character; writing set in the countryside has traditionally involved country estates, and has concerned above all the life of the gentry. What goes on in the small towns and villages has . . . been overlooked."

The book includes a section describing the Pope's visit to town, but Stasuik says almost nothing about the Pope or the pomp. Rather, "I walk about and watch people. They all look like my grandfather, my grandmother, my mother my father, like all the people I've known and seen in my life. Their shoes pinch, they limp, they sweat in their wrinkle-proof outfits, and examine the goods for sale at the stalls, medallions, white busts, color prints, canvas beach chairs for four fifty; they sniff at the food on the grills, chicken breasts, sausage, bacon, dark glistening blood pudding. From time to time the sun comes out and captures their silhouettes in misty aureoles. Busy with their ice creams, Pepsis, mineral water, and children, they fail to notice this indifferent caress. . . "

I'm afraid that the bulk of this review is quotation from Stasuik and Johnston. I had to restrain myself or there would have been more. How else to convey the book's flavor? I can say it's a remarkable work of literature (and I did), I can urge you to find it and read it (and I do), but without the extended quotations I don't know how to let you know about it. I feel fortunate that circumstances conspired to lead me to it. It enriched my life.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Meet Mattie Cobb, Timber Creek's K-9 cop

Killing Trail is Margaret Mizushima's first Timber Creek K-9 mystery. I wanted to read it because I enjoyed the fourth in the series, Burning Ridge. In Killing Trail we are introduced to Deputy Mattie Cobb who has just completed twelve weeks of training with Robo, the county's new police service dog. We meet Cole Walker, Timber Creek's only veterinarian, whose wife has left him and their two daughters. We meet the town's sheriff, Abraham McCoy, and another deputy, Brody, who resents Mattie because she beat him in the competition to become the town's K-9 officer. We also meet Detective Stella LoSasso who is called in from the county seat to take charge of the investigation of the crime and who, by book four, is living in Timber Creek.

Asked about her writing, Mizushima said in an interview, "Initially, I wrote mainstream, and then historical romance. I placed in a few contests but didn't get published. Switching to mystery came from my love of crime documentaries and crime fiction, as well as a little push from a friend."

In the same interview, she advises aspiring or beginning writers "to attend writing conferences where you will learn about writing craft and the publishing business. I met both my agent and editor at writing conferences; that personal introduction will get you much further than a query letter or a slush pile submission."

I suspect she also learned that a mystery series is more likely to be published than a single book, that it is best to have a spunky detective with an original or unusual partner, that a mystery needs complexity but not too much, and that it doesn't hurt to have the heroine rush into danger in the last fifth of the book.

Killing Trail begins when a forest ranger finds fresh blood on the porch of an empty cabin in the national forest outside of town . . . and Robo sniffs out the body the blood came from buried in the wilderness.

Although Mizushima is writing from the inside—she grew up on a cattle ranch in the Colorado high country and Timber Creek is a composite of several small Colorado towns—and although it took her three years to write Killing Trail, she was still finding her way in this book. The mystery is not very mysterious (experienced readers will have identified the villain by the middle) and Robo has more personality than Mattie.

Mizushima has given Mattie troubled childhood: an abused mother who disappeared when Mattie and her (now estranged) brother were small, an imprisoned father who was killed in prison, a foster home with a loving, if overworked, Hispanic woman. Mattie's been a deputy for seven years (she seems to be about thirty years old), but she seems to have no life beyond police work. Cole Walker is a potential love interest, one that is still developing by book four.

Nevertheless, Killing Trail is a creditable first effort. Robo is not a prop but an active and important character in the book. Cole's veterinary skill has consequences. And the book is good enough to justify three more installments.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Who all is buried high on Redstone Ridge?

Burning Ridge is Margaret Mizushima's fourth Timber Creek K-9 mystery and the first I've read. It's a police procedural with an interesting cop—Sheriff's Deputy Mattie Cobb and her German shepherd K-9 partner Robo who work out of small Colorado town. Mattie is romantically involved with the widowed local veterinarian Cole Walker, and the narrative shifts from Mattie to Cole and back, sometimes in the same chapter.

The action commences when Cole takes his two daughters riding into the mountains to show them some bighorn mountain sheep before he and a crew from Colorado Parks and Wildlife relocate them to another area. Redstone Ridge is high enough and remote enough it can be reached only on horseback. The outing turns grim when the family's Doberman pinscher who has been ranging off the trail returns with a charred boot that contains a foot and leg bone.

When Mattie and Robo, Cole, and Sheriff McCoy and his team return to the area, Robo sniffs out a shallow grave in which a body has been partially cremated. We learn almost immediately that Mattie has a close personal connection to the dead man. The legal team also discovers three similar graves, two adults and a child—but these are thirty years old. What's the connection? Is there a connection?

According to the book's publicist, "Mizushima lives in Colorado where she assists her husband with their veterinary practice and Angus cattle herd." In other words, she's writing from the inside. She knows the landscape, she knows how to treat of animals, and has picked up enough about police dog handling to write convincingly about it. For example:

      Mattie opened her pack, removed Robo's collapsible bowl, and filled it with water from her own drinking supply. He'd drunk freely from streams on the way up, but she wanted him to moisten his mucus membranes now to enhance his scenting ability, Besides, it was a valuable part of their routine.
     After he lapped at the liquid, she took off his collar and put on his tracking harness, his signal that it was time to search. Robo assumed his all-business face, adopting a serious attitude for the first time on this outing instead of acting like he was along for a picnic.
     "Robo, heel." Taking the ice chest [containing the charred boot and leg] with her, she led him a short distance from the rest of the group and began to tousle his fir and pat his sides. She used the high-pitched chatter meant to rev up his prey drive. "Robo, are you ready to work? Are you? Let's find something . . . ."

Timber Creek, Colorado, is a small town. Mattie has lived there all her life. Everyone knows everyone not by six degrees of separation but by two. How much mystery can there be?

Burning Ridge plausibly implies there's a lot. Rough men pass through town on their way elsewhere. Strangers move into town to make a new start. Men abuse women. Parents mistreat children. There's enough work to occupy the Sheriff, his deputies, the detective (and Mattie's friend) Stella LoSasso, the Parks and Wildlife manager, and state resources in Denver.

All of which is to say that Burning Ridge is engaging (and rewarding) because Mattie and Cole are not isolates; they are embedded in a recognizable social fabric and what they do—or don't do—seems reasonable based on who they are and where they are. Burning Ridge is interesting enough that I'm going to look up Mizushima's first in the series, Killing Trail, and will report back. Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

How to go from premed to Paris detective


I would like to write about Cara Black's Murder on the Quai in such a way that it does not discourage mystery readers from picking up the book, which is a creditable effort, but also explains why I have difficulties with certain mysteries.

Murder on the Quai is Black's sixteenth Murder on the . . . series. It stars Aimée Leduc. This book, series readers tell me, is Aimée's backstory, how she evolved from medical student to private detective. Her father runs a private detective agency and he leaves Paris early in the story to go to Berlin where the Wall has just fallen. He wants to obtain certain files before the Stassi can destroy them. This subplot involves Aimée's mother who abandoned the family when Aimee was about three years old, and its resolution is, I presume, saved for another book.

In this one, the first chapter takes place in November 1989 Paris. An elderly rich man is murdered gangland style on—where else?—the quai after an expensive dinner with three rich friends. "You remember, don't you? It's your turn now," the killer tells the man just before he puts a bullet into the back of the man's head. The police have no leads and the man's daughter, Elsie, comes to Aimée's father for help. In a believable series of events, the father takes off for Berlin and Aimée takes over to investigate the one lead Elsie can offer.

Switch to Chambly-sur-Cher, November 1942, a dark and stormy midnight. The Cher river is rising. Villagers are pilling sandbags to prevent the water from flooding their fields. British planes have been bombing the railway line in Occupied France right across the river. Enter a German troop truck, lost on the Vichy side of the river. They want the French farmers to use their horse cart to pull the truck out of the mud. There are only five soldiers and one of the French young hotheads makes a move and before they know it there are four dead Germans, one missing in the river, and a truck with an interesting cargo.

Aimée, who spent much of her childhood following her detective father around and hanging out with her retired police detective grandfather, sets off to help Elsie as best she can. Which is pretty good. She is determined, intelligent, and a good liar when she has to be. It spoils nothing to tell you that there's another murder on the quai, the same M.O., and the new victim was one of the four wealthy men who'd had dinner together before the first killing. By the end of the book Aimée has assembled all the pieces into a coherent picture. 

If this is the sort of mystery that engages you—a spunky young detective, a foreign setting, past events with contemporary consequences—then you should read Murder on the Quai. It held my interest all the way through. So if that's what you like, stop reading this right now!

Because I've decided this kind of mystery—and it's not alone—is a kind of fairy tale. It doesn't tell us how the real world works, which police procedurals tend to do. It invents a serial killer who leads a law-abiding, unexceptionable life who nurses a murderous streak for years. I'm not willing to suspend my disbelief. I believe that in the real world virtually all murder is unintentional or accidental and fueled by anger or drink or both, or it has a single target—the ex-wife, the unsympathetic boss. Finally, I prefer a book where the author is writing from the inside rather than from research (unless, of course, you can't tell the difference, which does happen). 

Black "lives in San Francisco . . . and visits Paris frequently." I do not know Paris at all, and I am sure that she has correctly identified every street, every building, and every landmark. "A short walk under the bare-branched trees on the brightly lit Champs-Élysées, then right past the tiny art cinema, Le Balzac, one of her premed Friday night haunts; down narrow, winding rue Lord Byron, named for the poet who, according to her grand-pére, had never set foot here." I do not question the accuracy of this or other sentences like it throughout the book. But for some reason it sounds like research, not lived experience and I cannot tell you why. And I only noticed toward the end of the book when Aimée is running out of pages and I wanted to know what happened.

On the other hand, Val McDermid is quoted on the back cover, "So authentic you can practically smell the fresh baguettes and coffee." You should probably go with McDermid.