Saturday, October 14, 2017

A complex plot with an unconvincing villain

I have been thinking about the problems I had with A Carrion Death by Michael Sears and Stanley Raynes, writing under the name "Michael Stanley." If you have not read this mystery and think you might, stop reading this right now because it is going to be filled with spoilers. Okay? Stop.

A Carrion Death is set in Botswana and introduces a Gaborone police detective, Assistant Superintendent David Bengu who is large enough and heavy enough to have the nickname Kubu, which means "rhinoceros." The mystery begins when a park ranger and an anthropologist find the remains of a body the hyenas have feasted on. There's enough left to know it was a white male. A tourist who took a wrong turn? Not likely. All the teeth had been knocked out of the skull and one of the arms was missing. So we know the man was murdered and his body dumped. But no white man has been reported missing.

Before the book ends, the bodies pile up: a geologist who works at a diamond mine and suspects smuggling, another geologist from the mine, a blackmailer, the hitman who killed the blackmailer, the heir to the mine, and maybe more (I didn't keep track). There is sculduggery in high places: the mysterious death years before of the man who founded the mining company, video recordings of important people doing naughty things with women not their wives, a letter that seems to suggest an involvement with "blood diamonds," and a plot so complex that when I closed the book could not make sense of all the twists and turns.

There are many things to like about A Carrion Death. Kubu is an appealing character, a responsible husband and devoted son (there's a scene with Kubu, his wife, and his parents). Sears and Raynes obviously love Botswana and dislike what development does to it: "Despite its relatively small size and attempts to avoid excessive environment damage, the Maboane diamond mine complex interrupted the arid vista like a scar. It was an open-pit mine that corkscrewed down, following the kimberlite host rock into the depths. Nearby the crushing, washing, and sorting plant stood waiting . . . " Their scenes involving corporate types in executive offices ring true.

The story hangs on the villain's ability to imitate voices and accents on the phone so well that the listener does not realize he's not talking to, for example, a school chum, someone he knew well enough to be nicknamed "rhinoceros" by him. A separate killer is willing to do the villain's dirty work—and the work is truly dirty—without every having met the person giving the orders over the phone. At one point the villain has to dispose of an inconvenient confederate who is in a luxury hotel in Portugal. When he opens his door to an attractive (female) stranger, he's set upon and his throat slit. Problem solved for the villain, but some readers will wonder how the mechanics of such an assassination can be set up, especially since the villain is just a garden-variety sociopath, not a head of state who can use the secret service. Nor is it clear what the villain gains from all the slaughter. Finally, one of the henchmen manages to escape which may be realistic—or he's being saved for a future book—but given the blood he'd spilled I found his escape unsatisfactory.

A Carrion Death is the first of seven Detective Kubu mysteries. Readers who would like a version of Botswana different from Alexander McCall Smith's might want to start with one of the later books. On the other hand, just because I found the plot of A Carrion Death overly complicated and the villain preposterous does not mean everyone will find them so. Or they will enjoy the book anyway. That there are six more Kubu mysteries tells me that he has some devoted followers. You might try one of them.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Young men and fighter jets . . . written from the inside

"This novel about flying," writes James Salter in his Forward to Cassada, "is drawn from another earlier one, The Arm of Flesh, published in 1961 and largely a failure. It lay forgotten for a long time until Jack Shoemaker, the editor-in-chief of Counterpoint, suggested that it might be a companion piece to another book he had republished, The Hunters, which was my first novel."

Once Salter reviewed The Arm of Flesh almost 40 years after its publication, he realized it had "serious faults and needed to be rewritten completely" and retitled with the name of one of the principal characters. 

Cassada is a novel about flying. Robert Cassada is a young US Air Force jet fighter pilot, fresh out of flight school, who joins a squadron in Germany in the 1950s. On his checkout flight, Grace, the lead pilot, takes him through such extreme maneuvers, Cassada throws up. But he files the aircraft.

Back on the ground, Grace's superior asks him, "Do you know what I expect of you?"
"Yes."
"No you don't. If you knew, you'd never do a stupid thing like that. What do you know about whether this man can fly or not? You don't. That's what the transition missions are for. If the major found out about this he'd take away your flight."
"Captain, I'm sorry. It wasn't good judgement. He seemed to be doing pretty well and I just got carried away."

Cassada is in fact a terrific pilot.

Cassada is a novel about group dynamics, a group that happens to be fighter pilots. Cassada loves to fly. But for no obvious reason he doesn't fit in to the group. He's teased, and at one point he's provoked into making a bad bet, which he loses. For the most part, we don't know his thoughts, although Salter does give us a sense of the man. Here is an example. The squadron's planes are out on patrol and are told to return immediately because snow showers are closing in their field:

"Cassada, hearing it—the calls, the other formations inbound—still new to it, felt a kind of electric happiness, a surge of excitement. Their speed was building. The air was heavier and more dense as they came down, nearing the cloud tops, then skimming them. He was confident they would get back to the field and at the same time felt a nervousness; it was in his arms and legs. The radio was alive with voices. From all directions planes were coming home."

Because Salter was a US Air Force fighter pilot (he flew more than 100 combat missions in 1952 during the Korean War) and because he was was stationed in Germany and France, promoted to major, became a squadron operations officer, in line to become a squadron commander, he writes about flying and squadron life from the inside. After twelve years in the service, he quit to write full time. I think his descriptions and his dialogue are exceptional. Here are two pilots chatting:

"Looks like it's melting," Godchaux remarked. "Did you hear what Cassada said at lunch?"
"No, what?"
"He said he wanted to pack some up and send it home to his mother in a box."
Cassada had never seen snow.
"Oh, yeah? Where's he from? Alabama?"
"No, he's from Puerto Rico."
"Puerto Rico? You'd never know that from looking at him. Was he born there?"
 "I think so. His father died or they got divorced. He lived with his mother."
"Puerto Rico," Harlan said. "Well, how'd he get in the American Air Force?"
"Puerto Rico's part of the United States."
"Since when?"
"I don't know. A long time."
"I must of missed hearing about it."

Reportedly, Cassada didn't sell well. It was published in 2000. I found my copy in the local library. Salter died in 2015 at age 90. I'm sorry I cannot write him a letter to tell him how much his book moved me. This will have to do.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Why precognition ain't all it's cracked up to be. Until it is.

It's a good thing I wasn't reading Daryl Gregory's Spoonbenders in a public space. My giggles, chortles, and gasps disturbed only my wife. It's rare to find a novel that has sympathetic and plausible characters, a complex and satisfying plot, and is laugh-out-loud funny.

You do need to suspend your disbelief enough to accept that astral projection (traveling outside one's body), precognition (the ability to see future events), psychokinesis (the ability to move objects by mental ability alone), and the ability to truly know if someone is telling the truth (psychoveritas?) are real. Because something like 42 percent of the American public believe in ghosts, this should not be a big stretch for many people.

Spoonbenders is the story of the Amazing Telemachas Family and some impatient readers may be put off by so many names, so many relationship, so quickly in the book. If so, they'll miss a lot: Teddy, a charming con man and card shark; Maureen, his wife who has genuine psychic powers; their three children, Irene, Frankie, and Buddy, who each have a psychic power. Teddy takes his young family on stage—Irene is only ten, Buddy five—and after a year is booked onto the Mike Douglas Show, an opportunity for the family to show its stuff and crack the big time.

The performance is a disaster. The family is discredited on national television. Maureen dies of cancer (a family tragedy Frankie attributes to the public humiliation), the children grow up. Irene has a son, Matty. Frankie marries a single mother, the parent of Mary Alice, and they have twins. And Buddy lives with his father in suburban Chicago. All this and more is essentially backstory. The novel begins in Matty's point of view:

"Matty Telemachus left his body for the first time in the summer of 1995, when he was fourteen years old. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that his body expelled him, sending his consciousness flying on a geyser of lush and shame." He has been looking through a peephole at his sixteen-year-old cousin and her girlfriend as they lay suggestively on a guest bed, struggling to observe one of his own commandments: "Under no circumstances should you touch yourself while having lustful thoughts about your cousin."

We follow Mattie, Teddie, Irene, Frankie, and Buddy into a complex plot involving a secret US government Cold War program, Chicagoland gangsters, a couple of improbable—but convincing—romances, and more.

Aside from the engaging plot, Gregory writes wonderful sentences. Here are a couple examples:

"Buddy sought our Irene's eyes with a classic Buddy look: mystified and sorrowful, like a cocker spaniel who'd finally eviscerated his great enemy, only to find everyone angry and taking the side of the couch pillow."

"Mitzi's Tavern was starting to fill up with the after-work crowd, if you could use the word 'crowd' to describe the dozen wretches who huddled here for a beer and a bump before facing the wife. The décor was Late-Period Dump: ripped-vinyl booths, neon Old Style signs, veneer tabletops, black-speckled linoleum in which 80 percent of the specks weren't. The kind of place that was vastly improved by dim lighting and alcoholic impairment."

And here's how to write dialogue. Irene is talking to her father before she leaves on a trip: "She would not let him forget about the time he babysat Matty when he was two. 'He's a teenager now, not a toddler,' said Teddy. 'This time if he drinks a glass of gin it will be on purpose.'"

All in all, I say Spoonbenders is a delightful novel that deserves to be read by anyone who wants to spend some time with an unusual, but still human, family.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Clearly, we don't know our own minds

Michael Lewis is the author or Moneyball, the story of how the Oakland Athletics used big data to supplement—or replace—expert opinion. After it was published in 2002 a pair of academics pointed out that Lewis "did not seem to realize the deeper reason for the inefficiencies in the market for baseball players. They sprang directly from the inner workings of the human mind . . . " Lewis admits, "My book wasn't original. It was simply an illustration of ideas that had been floating around for decades and had yet to be fully appreciated by, among others, me."

Ideas about the way the human mind works or fails to work when we form judgments and make decisions were explored and described by two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. They wanted to know how did someone arrive at a conclusion when faced with uncertainty? How do we process evidence? What is it about people's minds—including the minds of experts who ought to know better—that leads them to misjudgments? The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds is Lewis's clear and engaging effort to explicate those ideas.

If you've read Daniel Kahneman's best-selling Thinking Fast & Slow many of the ideas and examples in The Undoing Project will be familiar. What makes the book so interesting is the biographic information about Tversky and Kahneman, the stories about their collaboration and eventual separation, and some of their work's consequences. But even if some of their insights and observations are familiar, Lewis is able to help the reader understand where they came from and why we tend to think and act as we do.

Both Kahneman and Tversky. Israeli psychologists, served in the Israeli military, Kahneman helping train fighter pilots, Tversky as a paratrooper. They both graduated from Hebrew University, and both immigrated to the U.S. Kahneman was teaching a graduate seminar at the University of Michigan when he invited Tversky, who he barely knew at that point, to give a guest lecture. Tversky talked approvingly about cutting-edge research then being done at Michigan on how people respond to new information in their decision-making. Kahneman thought the study's premise was, in academic terms, bullshit and said at much to Tversky, who was seen as a boy genius and unused to being contradicted.

But when he considered Kahneman's criticism, he began to wonder certain assumptions economists had always made. Back at Hebrew University in 1969, the pair began talking, and what these talks evolved into was an intellectual collaboration as intense as a close marriage. Anyone who wanted Kahneman could find him before lunch. Anyone who wanted Tversky needed to call late at night. "In the intervening time, they might be glimpsed disappearing behind the closed door of a seminar room they had commandeered. From the other side of the door you could sometimes hear them hollering at each other, but the most frequent sound to emerge was laughter." Their fifteen-year collaboration and the papers they wrote together ultimately blew up the economics profession.

Until Kahneman and Tversky began publishing, economists assumed that people made decisions, economic and other, as if they understood the underlying economic factors. As if, in other words, people were rational economic beings. We're not.

Or not always. We can be influenced by the way an issue is framed: "Holy Father, is it a sin to smoke while praying?" Yes, it is. But: "Holy Father, is it a sin to pray while smoking?" Of course not, my son; go and smoke in peace. Tversky and Kahneman discovered among other things that "simply by changing the description of a situation and making a gain seem like a loss, you could cause people to completely flip their attitude toward risk, and turn them from risk avoiding to risk seeking."

The Undoing Project is a fascinating dual biography that introduces readers to two remarkable scholars and their work that changed the world. Lewis has known Kahneman since 2007. (Tversky died of cancer in 1996.) He has interviewed their students and absorbed their papers (cited in the bibliography). Because Lewis is such an exceptional writer, his book about two academics and their work never flags. Anyone who is curious about his/her own mind—and how to avoid being tricked by it—should read The Undoing Project and then Thinking Fast & Slow.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

What it's like to grow up on Washington's mean streets

I think Simba Sana's memoir Never Stop is worth two blog entries. This first is an introduction to the book, the second will be—if I can pull it off—a discussion of Sana's life lessons and philosophy.

Simba Sana was born Bernard Sutton in Washington, D.C. in 1968. His mother earned a bachelor's degree and a high school teacher's certificate in North Carolina. She began a relationship with a Herman Sutton, married him and divorced him when he moved from North Carolina to Michigan. She moved to Washington and at age 35 became pregnant. She stopped working and Sana knew her only as a single mother who would tell him nothing about his father. As an adult he tracked down Sutton, but apparently Sutton had separated from Sana's mother long before her pregnancy.

The first half of Never Stop is an account of growing up as a black child in the District's black neighborhoods. He and his mother were evicted from their apartment at one point and spent time in a homeless shelter. Sana hung out with the neighborhood kids and, as he got older, tried to avoid the turf of rival gangs. He says he managed to avoid much of the drugs and violence. Because he was so shy he managed to lose his virginity relatively late compared to the experiences his buddies claimed. He hung out at a local gym, learned to box, and as an adult he was much involved with world of boxing.

His mother converted to Roman Catholicism so that the Archdiocese of Washington would cover Sana's expenses at a private Catholic school. While he spent a lot of time on the streets and hustling to find work for pocket money and, later, to help his mother, his grades were good enough he was admitted to Mount Saint Mary's University in Pennsylvania. On graduation he took a job with Ernst & Young, the giant public accounting firm, although he'd become involved with the African Development Organization (ADO), a black nationalist/pan-African group.

As a young child living in a black neighborhood, Sana was barely conscious of color. Before he left for college, however, "several older black people gave me unsolicited advice about dealing with racism on campus." It wasn't the overt or blatant racism but the "emotional and psychological impact of racism . . . Implicit in their words was the idea that I needed something white folks had . . . I didn't adopt this view . . . I felt the streets of DC had been the toughest thing I'd faced, and that nothing white folks could ever throw at me would match up."

The second half of Never Stop is Sana's life as an adult: his career as an entrepreneur, his love life, his marriage, his involvement with boxing, and what happened when everything went smash.

Sana and an acquaintance from ADO began selling black-themed books from a card table. They expanded to a kiosk in a mall in Prince George's County, Maryland, and became Karibu Books. Sales were strong enough they rented as shop in the mall. The business continued to grow helped by Sana's tendency to be a workaholic. Eventually Karibu had four stores, almost 50 full- and part-time employees, and was planning a major expansion. It was perhaps the most successful black-owned bookseller in the country.

When the 2006 recession hit, however, it hit Karibu violently. Sales fell. Relations between Sana and his partner deteriorated. There was a question whether Sana would buy out his partner or vice versa. As a throwaway comment, Sana notes that in the year before the company's first-ever board meeting in 2007,  he had loaned the company $400,000 of his own money (!) to keep it afloat. Adding to his stress, he was enmeshed in a bitter custody fight with his ex-wife over the custody of their two children. Some 25 pages from the end of Never Stop he writes, "By 2009, my business and all of my money were gone . . . All the real estate I owned  . ..was facing foreclosure. Worst of all I wasn't seeing [my two children] Zendaya and Talib."

Never Stop is well-written (Sana had gone on and obtained a M.A. from Howard University in African Studies), but the second half suffers as Sana tries to explain—and justify—actions and decisions that even sympathetic readers will seem irresponsible. I think it's a problem with memoir in general: How to write about a failing business or a deteriorating marriage, say, without seeming like a patsy or a bully. Sana does not cut himself a lot of slack, particularly when he writes about a time when he had an uncontrollable need for sex and what he did to get it. But unfortunately it's possible to read the passage two ways: Ain't I a stud to have such a passionate sex drive? Or: Ain't I pathetic to be so overwhelmed by my need for sex?

While reviewers should never complain about the book the author didn't write, my own feeling is that Sana actually offers three memoirs in Never Stop, any one of which (or all three) could be strong and engaging: His life growing up in Washington; his involvement as a child and an adult in boxing; his experience as an entrepreneur with Karibu Books. Each of these filled out are interesting stories. Nevertheless, Never Stop did hold my interest and will give readers insights into a world(s) they know little about.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Margot Livesey shows fiction's hidden machinery

The director of the Michener Center for Writers, James Magnuson, has high praise: "There is no finer teacher of writing in America than Margot Livesey." Livesey has published eight novels. a collection of short stories, and is a professor of fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Tin House recently published her small paperback, The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing.

I suspect, based on the titles about writing on my shelves, that at a certain point in their careers most authors knows they have a book about writing in them. For many of us, writing about how to write is easier than creating one more goddamn novel. Also, for many of us who buy these books, it is easier to read about writing than it is to write. All that said, The Hidden Machinery is special and worth virtually any author's time. (The exceptions are those who know everything they need to know.)

Livesey's first essay begins with a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson: "Life is Monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate. . . " What this means in practice, I think, is that even a 'slice of life' story
succeeds or fails not in how 'lifelike' it is but how carefully the author has been able to hide the machinery of fiction from the reader, and often from herself.

She writes, "I am using the phrase 'the hidden machinery' to refer to two different aspects of novel making: on the one hand how certain elements of the text—characters, plot, imagery—work together to make an overarching argument; on the other how the secret psychic life of the author, and the larger events of his or her time and place shape that argument." To illustrate, she uses works of E.M Forster and Henry James. This first essay caused me to consider (as best I can) the effect of my psychic life and the events of the time and place in the past about which I am currently writing—and the effects of current events.

Her second essay discusses creating vivid characters. "Vivid characters are not necessarily the sine qua non of memorable fiction, but they certainly a significant part of it and an enormous part of all fiction." (And as I wrote in my last blog post, they are critical in mysteries.) Livesey confesses that she has trouble creating characters that leap off the page, and has come up with a list of prompts, rules. and admonitions for herself and her students: "Name the character . . . Use myself or someone I know . . . Make her act . . . 'Bad' characters must have some strength or virtue: perfect pitch, the ability to recognize edible mushrooms . . . When creating a character very different from myself I often need to create her or him from the outside. I give the character a house, a job, activities, friends, clothes, and, in the course of doing so, I gradually figure out her or his inner life  . . ."

While it is tempting to continue quoting (my copy of the book has a dozen sticky tabs marking passages), I am going to stop myself with a few of Livesey's words about dialogue: "But if all dialogue does is appear natural, then its artifice is wasted. Good dialogue serves the story. It must reveal the characters in ways that the narration cannot and advance the plot while, ideally, not appearing too flagrant in either mission. And it must deepen the psychic life of the story. We should sense the tectonic plates shifting beneath the spoken words. There is text, and there is subtext. Too much dialogue without subtext can quickly become tedious."

The Hidden Machinery has ten essays that explore various aspects of both craft and theory of fiction. In addition to Forster and James, Livesey employs Jane Austin, Virginia Wolfe, Gustave Flaubert, Shakespeare and her own work to illustrate her points. In addition to the essays about creating characters and writing dialogue, she has an essay she titled "How to Tell a True Story: Mapping Our Narratives onto the World" and "He Liked Custard: Navigating the Shoals of Research"; either one alone is worth, in my opinion, the price of admission.

While these essays will be most useful to working and aspiring authors (Francine Prose blurbs on the back jacket, "If only I'd been able to read The Hidden Machinery before I began my first novel. It would have saved me so much trouble!"), any reader with a serious interest in fiction and how it works—or doesn't—can learn from Livesey's insights as an author and teacher.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

What makes a great detective—at least in fiction?

Not long ago I had lunch with an acquaintance whose hobby is genealogy. He had recently broken through a brick wall (genealogy talk for dead end) through the use of DNA. Having solved his personal mystery he remarked that it would make a good book. I didn't contradict him but a good book, mystery or otherwise, generally requires an engaging, memorable character. The mystery is secondary, almost irrelevant.

Which is why The Lineup, edited by Otto Penzler, is such a valuable book for anyone who wants to write a mystery. The subtitle gives the game away: "The world's greatest crime writers tell the inside story of their greatest detectives." It's the inside story behind Harry Bosch, Jack Reacher, Precious Ramotswa, Inspector Morse, John Rebus, Spenser and fifteen more fictional sleuths.

Otto Penzler is the proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. Several years ago, attacked by big box stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders and the online retailer Amazon (this was before Amazon drove Boarders to the wall), the Bookshop was struggling. "Not being wealthy," he writes in the Introduction, "partially by accident of birth and the failure of my parents to leave me an obscene fortune, I was faced with the increasing difficulty of supporting a business that was bleeding money—some months a mere trickle, others a rushing, roaring hemorrhage. To illustrate the level of desperation to which I had fallen, I called for a staff meeting . . . "

For several years, Penzler had commissioned an original short Christmas mystery from one of the authors he knows. The store printed the stories in pamphlets and gave them to customers as a Christmas present to thank them for their patronage. What about commissioning authors a biography or profile of their series characters, produce only 100 copies of each in hardcover, and sell the autographed, limited-editions to those collectors who also buy a book or five?

"More than two years after initiating this series—" The Lineup was published in 2009. "—we're still in business, which, against all odds, has picked up nicely. Many clients come in, call, or write each month to ask who will write the next profile, and then buy books in order to get a copy."

The profiles vary as much as the original books. But the articles are fascinating. Here's Lee Child writing about the creation of his Jack Reacher series: "Character is king. There are probably fewer than six book every century remembered specifically for their plots. People remember characters. Same with television. Who remembers the Lone Ranger? Everybody. Who remembers any actual Lone Ranger story lines? Nobody. . . " Also. "If you can see a bandwagon, it's too late to get on. . . "

Here's Ian Rankin writing about the creation of John Rebus when he, Rankin, was a 24-year-old graduate literature student. He became fascinated by contemporary literary theory, "enjoying the 'game-playing' aspect of storytelling. Eventually I would name my own fictional detective after a type of picture-puzzle, and the mystery of his first adventure would be solved with the help of a professor of semiotics. That's the problem with Knots and Crosses (and one reason I find it hard to read the book these days)—it is so obviously written by a literature student . . . It seems to me now that I wasn't interested in Rebus as a person. He was a way of telling a story about Edinburgh, and of updating the doppelgänger tradition . . ."

Again: While The Lineup should be of interest to serious mystery readers if only for all the books cited in its pages, it is invaluable for anyone who aspires seriously to write a mystery.

Monday, August 7, 2017

How do you defend the indefensible?

Delayed at an airport and finishing my last book, I browsed the terminal for a novel that would distract me from airplane malaise. I picked up a John Grisham, a brand name author, maybe not great literature but sure to please and who can focus on great literature while his flight is delayed . . . and delayed . . .and delayed?

Rogue Lawyer distracted, impressed, and engaged me through my wait, the flight, and then some. You know you're in good hands from the first paragraph: "My name is Sebastian Rudd, and though I am a well-known street lawyer, you will not see my name on billboards, on bus benches, or screaming at you from the yellow pages . . . I carry a gun, legally, because my name and face tend to attract attention from the type of people who also carry guns and don't mind using them . . . The law is my life, always consuming and occasionally fulfilling . . . ."

Rudd is a rogue lawyer, working alone, though he does have a bodyguard/driver/associate. He is "paid by the State to provide a first-class defense to a defendant charged with capital murder." Grisham does not identify Rudd's state or city (for good reason—U.S. libel laws) and one might wonder how well the state pays, but he gets by. Rudd does well enough, in fact, he's able to buy a piece of a rising cage fighting star. Watching cage fights is one of his diversions.

I thought for the first hundred pages or so that Rogue Lawyer was a collection of short stories, sort of a "My Most Memorable Cases." It turned out to be far more complicated and interesting than that however, as Rudd's old cases and new come to affect, influence, and shape one another. It's not really a mystery; in one of Rudd's cases an elderly man shot a SWOT cop thinking his home was being invaded. In another, an arena full of people watched a fighter commit murder. The mystery is whether Rudd will be able to save his client from execution or worse, life in prison without parole.

Rudd—and I am going to assume his creator Grisham—has a sobering view of police and prosecutors. Police routinely fabricate evidence and coach jailhouse snitches. Prosecutors withhold exculpatory evidence. (The Sunday New York Times Magazine of August 6, 2017 carried an article of such a case in Memphis; the innocent woman spent nine years in prison.) As Rudd ruminates, "Like so many, this trial is not about the truth, it's about winning. And to win, with no real evidence, Huver [the prosecutor] must fabricate and lie and attack the truth as if he hates it. I have six witnesses who swear my client was nowhere close to the scene when the crime was committed, and all six are scoffed at. Huver has produced almost two dozen witnesses, virtually all known to be liars by the cops, the prosecution, and the judge, yet the jurors lap up their lie as if they're reading Holy Scripture."

To even the competition slightly, Rudd has cultivated a source within the police department: "Spurio is a thirty-year veteran of the police force, a genuine, honest cop who plays by the book and despises almost everyone else in the department . . . Over the years, Spurio has refused to play the political games necessary to advance and has gone nowhere. He's usually hanging around a desk, filing papers, counting the days. But there is a network of other officers who have been ostracized by the powers that be, and Spurio spend a lot of time tracking the gossip. He's not a snitch by any means. He's simply an honest copy who hates what his department has become." So Rudd is a voice for honesty in a corrupt and lying world.

Rudd may work alone, but the book is filled with people. Rudd has a son, an ex-wife and her partner; he has his cage fighter and that family; he has to deal with his son's school teacher; and he has clients, ex-clients (including a mob boss Rudd was not able to save from an execution sentence), prosecutors, judges, and more. Grisham never has to jump into another character's head; Rudd tells the entire story.

Because I am no lawyer, I cannot critique the book's points of law. I do wonder about a prison system that is so porous that correctional officers are able to smuggle cell phones into prisoners. Also, in the prisons with which I am familiar, no one—not even an inmate's lawyer—can bring in a cell phone. But this is only a quibble. Rogue Lawyer offers a fascinating view of a subspecialty of the law, defender of the indefensible.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

But what was in Marilyn Monroe's unknown script?


John Herrick had an interesting idea: What if Marilyn Monroe wrote a screenplay while she was married to Arthur Miller? What if she gave it to a young friend, properly stamping each page with her thumbprint to prove authenticity? What if the friend, Del Corwyn, packed the script away and forgot about it? What if today, 72-year-old Del, now facing bankruptcy, discovers the script, which Marilyn titled “Beautiful Mess”?

That’s the armature on which Herrick builds his new novel, Beautiful Mess. If stories about Hollywood, the stresses of fame, the dangers of false gods, and a happy ending are the sort of book that attracts you, stop reading this review right now and add Beautiful Mess to your to-read list. You’ve been warned.

It’s not a bad book. I admire Herrick’s industry. He’s published four earlier novels and a book of non-fiction (8 Reasons Your Life Matters). Beautiful Mess comes with a reading group guide, interview with the author, and a stand-alone short story. In his answer to the question of what motivates him to select one book concept over another, Herrick gives three elements, gut feeling, commercial and target-audience appeal, and “potential to inspire or encourage the reader.”

Expanding on motivation number three, he writes,”The same collection of words triggers diverse responses among readers. It can serve as entertainment for one person. It might inspire another to reach for his or her dreams. And that same novel could uplift someone enduring pain or contemplating suicide. It’s such a privilege, and it’s like fuel during my writing process.” Which may account for my problems with the novel.

Herrick’s main character, Del Corwyn is an actor who almost won an Academy Award years ago. He has a big house in Malibu, runs every day to keep himself in shape, never married, has been living beyond his means, but seems to have no inner life. He was Marilyn Monroe’s friend when is was barely out of his teens and had an acting career that never went anywhere.

Del meets a 25-year-old actress, Nora Jumelle, who is up for an Academy Award for a breakout indie film. Nora is adventurous enough—or screwed up enough—to have a one-night-stand with Del. They agree a May-December relationship will not work (although reportedly the sex was fine) and become friends. Several of the chapters are written from Nora’s point of view.

Del meets Felicia, a minister of certain years (much more age-appropriate for Del) and they become friends. We never learn much about Felicia’s religious calling or what denomination she represents. Del and Nora happen to meet Tristan, a 30-something online wellness coach who makes a good living dispensing “Dear Abby” style advice anonymously and for money.

None of the four main characters seem to have families, friends, or much of a backstory. (Del does have an accountant and an agent.) Herrick, I suspect, started with his concept, then needed characters to move around to make the concept work rather than starting with the character(s) and letting the story grow out of their personalities and experiences.

Another problem for me is the Monroe script at the heart of the book. We never see it, although we do read Marilyn’s letter to Del when she gives him the script. People talk about it, how incredible it is, how the biggest studio in the country is willing to go all in to obtain it. But nothing, really, about it. It is a McGuffin, “a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a McGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot.” Alfred Hitchcock could get away without explaining the specific nature; I wanted to know more about Monroe’s script.

I also had problems with the writing. Here’s Nora regarding Tristan: “He inspired in her a sense of security, and as she sneaked glances at those blue eyes, her heart told her he was a a guy with romantic potential.” Dell regarding Felicia: “. . .Del could see in her eyes that her heart reached out toward his.” (In Herrick’s world, hearts are wonderfully articulate.) “Del invited Felicia to speak a blessing over their meal, then they began to partake.” Who partakes these days? And then there’s poor Nora; she cannot get a break. She attends the Academy Award ceremony dressed in Armani with Del as her date. However, “Little did she know, the following day, critics would balk at her attire and label her the ceremony’s worst-dressed attendee.”

As I said at the beginning, if the premise intrigues you, read the book. It intrigued me enough to read and review it, but I am afraid that on balance I came away from Beautiful Mess agreeing only with the title’s second word.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Two mysteries, one book, and too clever by half

I did not care for Anthony Horowitz's best selling Magpie Murders but I feel that anyone interested in writing and publishing should read it because, aside from the stories it tells, it includes a wealth of information about publishing, mysteries, and the writing life.

The book begins with Susan Ryeland, a British editor, introducing "Magpie Murders," a new mystery by Alan Conway, the house's most popular author. The next 213 pages (separately numbered, different type) is that manuscript minus the last chapter. The rest of the book is Susan's story of tracking down the missing last chapter and trying to understand why Conway has just committed suicide. Or has he?

Horowitz has (at this writing) written over 40 books including the teen spy series Alex Rider, which he adapted into a movie. The Conan Doyle estate commissioned him to write two new Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Moriarty and The House of Silk, both bestsellers. The Ian Fleming estate commissioned him to write the James Bond novel Trigger Mortis. As a television screenwriter he created and wrote Midsomer Murders and Foyle's War.

Alan Conway's "Magpie Murders," ostensibly the ninth in the August Pünd series, is in the style of Agatha Christie set in a 1955 English village complete with a brilliant, if opaque, private investigator; his faithful, much younger, sidekick; a helpful, if dim, police inspector; two murders, and a half dozen suspects with reasons to kill. That is, everyone but the actual killer which Pünd has to finally expose.

I did not care for either "Conway's" mystery nor the mystery in which it is embedded because they are both puzzle boxes with red herrings, lucky (or unlucky) coincidences, and—for me—unconvincing murderers. Interestingly, we learn that Conway himself did not care for the character and the series that had made him wealthy, and one of the book's many pleasures is learning the connections between Conway's life and his book.

I am in awe of Anthony Horowitz's ability to write in the style of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and others of the period. Here is "Conway's" third-person, omniscient POV introduction to Pünd:

"Dr. Benson examined his patient with a certain amount of puzzlement. The name Atticus Pünd was familiar to him, of course. He was often mentioned in the newspapers—a German refugee who had managed to survive the war after spending a year in one of Hitler's concentration camps. At the time of his arrest he had been a policeman working in Berlin—or perhaps it was Vienna—and after arriving in England he had set himself up as a private detective, helping the police on  numerous occasions. He did not look like a detective. He was a small man, very neat, his hands folded in front of him. He was wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a narrow black tie. His shoes were polished. If he had not known otherwise, the doctor might have mistaken him for an accountant, the sort who would work for a family firm and who would be utterly reliable. And yet there was something else . . ."

By contrast, here is Susan Ryeland's first person POV description of Alan Conway:

"I didn't like him. I'm sorry to say it but he just struck me as a bit of a cold fish. You'll have seen photographs of him on the book jackets, the slim face, the closely cropped silver hair, the round wire-framed glasses. On television or on the radio he'd always had a sort of eloquence, an easy charm. He was nothing like that then. He was puffy and a little overweight, wearing a suit with chalk marks on the sleeves. His manner was at once aggressive and eager to please. He wasted no time telling me how much he wanted to be a published author but he showed almost no enthusiasm now that the moment had come. I couldn't work him out . . ."

And here is a sample from the thankfully brief excerpt of the kind of book Conway would like the be known for:

"Lord Quentin Crump comes slumping down the staircase, lording it as he always does over the cooks and maids, the under-butlers and the footmen that exist only in his anfractuous imagination, that have in truth slipped hugger-mugger into the adumbration of family history. They were there when he was a boy and in some ways he is still a boy, or perhaps it is more true to say that the boy he was lurks obstinately in the fleshy folds that fifty years of unhealthy living have deposited on the barren winter tree that is his skeleton . . ."

I believe any aspiring mystery writer could study Magpie Murders to understand how a consummate professional describes character and place, drops clues, and propels the story forward, in this case both stories. While puzzle box mysteries are not to my taste (I agree with Edmond Wilson; who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?), I learned a great deal from the book that I plan to use in my own writing.