Thursday, July 28, 2016

Mystery Novels in the Era of Fear

This week I’m endorsing and recommending The Cutting, the first in a new mystery/detective series by James Hayman. In a previous blog where I reviewed the Gillian Flynn novel, Sharp Objects, I linked to this very informative 1944 New Yorker article entitled, Why Do People Read Detective Stories?

If you can make it through the quaint verbiage and exceedingly long sentences, it is quite interesting, despite the underlying fact that the author does not have a host of enthusiastic and supportive things to say about the esteemed genre. There, that sentence should get you in the mood for the article. Still, if you are interested in the history of genre, this is an article well-worth reading. Since 1944, when the article was written, the genre has grown by leaps and higher leaps.

I have this theory, and if I were doing some sort of academic paper I’d research the whole thing into existence, but for now, it simply remains a theory of mine—I believe that the worse the world around us gets, the more we escape to the inside of a mystery novel, where at the end of the day, the bad guys are caught. 

Pulp fiction saw its birth in 1939 and a meteoric rise between the two Wars. It was a terrifying time. People were confused and scared. People were dying and being bombed. Whole cities were being decimated. People didn’t know who to trust or where to turn. At a time when rationing was the norm and people were learning to do without for the “war effort”, they needed some reassurance that things would turn out right in the end. Enter the detective novel. Enter authors such as Mickey Spillaine.

Eschewing the leather bound tomes of library quality, these were printed on cheap “pulp” paper, and for mere pennies you could immerse yourself in a place where justice prevailed and things came out right in the end.

Today, and I mean today—as in July 28, 2016—rather than "today" in some generic sense, our world is kind of a mess. Bad people are popping out of nowhere and killing innocents all over the world. People are confused and scared. People are dying and being bombed. Whole cities are being bombed out. 
People didn't know who to trust or where to turn. Again, we see a grand proliferation of crime novels in which good triumphs over evil and good is rewarded. 

Here’s another New Yorker article which sort of backs up my point.

I hope I’m not boring you too much. I find this stuff fascinating. This brings me finally to today’s endorsement, a mystery in the classic sense, with clues you’d better pay attention to (no matter how minute), a serial killer, and someone kidnapped with only days to live. Enter two new crime solvers, Detectives Mike McCabe and Maggie Savage.

All of these elements, plus the author’s deft way of getting it all down on paper, make The Cutting by James Hayman a really good read.

Detective McCabe is called to a horrific crime, where a young woman’s heart has been surgically removed from her chest, and her body left outside of a disused warehouse. This crime bears similarities to other crimes, non-local crimes, crimes from all over, and McCabe and his partner Maggie Savage are on the search of a serial killer, a smart, slick serial killer who outwits them almost at every turn.

Add to this, another young woman is missing from her morning run, and McCabe soon determines that the killer has her, but that she yet might not yet be dead. In mystery phraseology–"Time is running out."

This is a serial killer story with threads and strands which reach way back into the killer's history, back when he was almost normal. That’s the story, and I could not put it down.  

I'm always thrilled to begin with book #1 in a new mystery series with new characters that I can come to know through the series. McCabe himself is a likeable, interesting character, a single dad of a teen girl. There is the angst of trying to raise a daughter. There is the ongoing problem of an ex-wife who barely knows her daughter, and wants little to do with her. Plus, there is the new girlfriend, who may or may not end up with McCabe in future novels. I suppose I will find out. 

What drew me into this book, however, was the first line of chapter one:

Fog can be a sudden thing on the Maine coast.

I love Maine. My husband and I have spent fifteen summers sailing down on our 34' sailboat from our Canadian New Brunswick home and along the coast of Maine. Because we out on the water, we know about Maine fogs.
 Anyone writing about fog on the Maine coast will immediately get my attention. And this book did. 

I also wonder, what is it about Maine which births so many crime and horror novelists - Tess Gerritson and Stephen King only to name a few. 

If you like Gerritsen, you will love The Cutting. It will keep you guessing. It will keep you reading, and turning pages (or pressing the side of your Kobo) late into the night.

Next time: Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert’s (Of Eat, Pray, Love fame) book on creativity and fear.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Small Slices of (sometimes very odd) Life

I’m back to recommending short stories today. A few months ago I endorsed Wet Thaw, my friend’s little eBook of two stories, as well as Susan Berliner’s book, The Sea Crystal and Other Weird Tales.

In that blog, I mentioned in passing The Man Who Built Boxes and other stories by Frank Tavares.

Today I want to specifically focus in on that book and urge you, if you are a fan of the genre, to read it. (And if you are not a fan of the genre, you should be.)

I love the fact that these days short stories are easier to find and enjoy. Before the advent of Kindles, Kobos and digital material, readers were hard-pressed to find many short story collections for sale anywhere. Oh, I suppose you could meander into a dusty library and thumb your way through some literary journals, but beyond that, they were mostly out of reach. Not anymore. Now they are as close as your Amazon bookstore (which is where I purchased The Man Who Built Boxes.)

A short story is a slice of life—one day, one afternoon, one emotion, a couple of characters at most. Sometimes—not all the time, but sometimes—you are left hanging at the end. You often have to come up with your own ending to the story. I like that.

I first read this collection of a dozen stories about a year ago. I’m not even exactly sure how I found it or when and why I purchased it, but when I was casting about for something quick and easy to read, I found it on my iPhone’s Kindle app. I read the first story in the collection, My First Ex-wife’s Third Wedding, and to put it bluntly, I was blown away.

I have since discovered that the author, Frank Tavares is known as the “voice of NPR” radio. I did not know this. His name was unfamiliar to me. Being Canadian, the only NPR I know are the podcasts that I listen to (and totally enjoy, by the way). I also learned that he teaches communications and writing and that his many short stories have “appeared in a variety of literary journals…” You see, that’s my point. That’s what I’m talking about. Normal people don’t have access to literary journals. We don’t even know where to look. And that’s what makes our online world of “any kind of books you might want to possibly read” so really great.

I usually look for two things in the books and media I endorse here. Good writing and good story. These stories had both of these in abundance. Whether it’s the utterly convoluted relationships in the first story, My Ex-Wife’s Third Wedding; the very bizarre tale of Girl in a Box, or the heartbreaking character in Accident With a View, these are little slices of life you won’t soon forget.

I always include first lines in my blog, and so to whet your appetite, to draw you in, here are a few first lines.

Doin’ the Laundry -
Ron-Allen Tucker knew his wife had decided to kill him.

The Man Who built Boxes -
This time it hit John Dodge on the morning of this forty-third birthday.

Antonio’s Yard -
Antonio Enzo Marino was aware of the shift when he woke up a half hour early.

Secondly, there are his imaginative ideas themselves. Why Jimmy Mendoza Hated the Late Tamale Jones features a living man's conversation with his dead friend, who, while they are chatting at the funeral, picks up a cigarette. The story describes how the smoke "seeps from the autopsy sutures in his chest." I loved that very Stephen King-ish visual image. 

Here’s yet another sentence I loved (Loved it because I've done it myself.) -
She bought a paperback and hid herself in it.

In Antonio’s Yard, the earth itself is falling away, even as Antonio’s life and aspirations and hopes are also.

And then there is the story of a dying young woman who carries the tattoos of the faces of every person she has had a relationship with.

The title story is about a man who builds hundreds and hundreds of exquisite boxes, and whose entire house is filled with them.

Even now, I can hear my mother saying, “Who comes up with this stuff?”

The beauty of Tavares writing is that the stories seem like they could be real. His characters talk like us, behave like us. We can almost see ourselves in them. Back when I studied writing I remember one of the cardinal rules in dialogue is to write it the way people think they talk, not the way that they actually do talk.

Tavares has presented characters to us that feel so intrinsically real that we can almost identify with them, despite the very odd circumstances they they find themselves in.

At the end of this collection of a stories is a sample chapter of an upcoming book - Digging up Mr. Bradley. Well, I’m waiting for that book, Mr. Frank Tavares!

Next time - It’s back to mystery fiction with The Cutting by James Hayman.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Mystery/Horror of Sharp Objects

I admit to being a fan of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, both the book and the movie. There were reasons why this book garnered so much praise, a movie deal and more than 43,000 Amazon reviews. The writing itself is superb (The way she can turn a sentence is amazing!), but the plot was what “got” most people. And that ending! That ending had book clubs arguing and pounding fists and and pondering and discussing for weeks, some loving it, some hating it, but no one in between.  

I’m not here to write about Gone Girl, though. Today I am endorsing Sharp Objects, a much earlier book of Flynn’s, but just as much a psychological thriller as Gone Girl. Maybe even more so. If you are a Gone Girl fan, keep reading. If you like the psychological thrillers of Ruth Rendell, keep reading. If you relish a Stephen King novel, keep reading. If not, go get yourself a coffee and I’ll see you back here in two weeks.

Sharp Objects tells the story of Camille Preaker, a very flawed, very fragile young woman who works as a journalist for a two-bit newspaper. When two children are killed in the hometown she fled (never to return, she vowed),
 she is sent back there by her editor to get the full story. Are the police looking for a serial killer of children? Is that how horrific this thing is? Her editor wants the upfront story, and who better to get it than someone who grew up there? Because the newspaper is so low-budget, they can't even afford a hotel for her. She has to stay in her family home with a whole boat load of dysfunctional family members.

Trouble is, she left the huge mansion of a home and the town for a reason, but being who she is, she can’t share that with her editor. She can’t bow gracefully out of this assignment and hope to keep her job. And she desperately needs her job.

She goes.

So far so good. Camille Preaker seems like a normal young woman in a bit of a bind, and I’m in for a nice cozy mystery, looks like.

Not exactly.

Mid-way through the book I stop and re-read the past few paragraphs. What am I reading? Is this a mystery or a horror novel? Who IS Camille Preaker?

We soon learn that Camille has serious problems which are far greater than the family she left—and that’s enough of a spoiler for one day.

Once inside, I got hooked on the story, and finally, it was the unexpectedness of the plot elements which kept me coming back for more.

Flynn is an amazing writer. As is my wont, here is the first sentence of the book:

My sweater was new, stinging red and ugly. It was May 12 but the temperature had dipped to the forties, and after four days shivering in my shirtsleeves, I graved cover at a tag sale rather than dig through my boxed up winter clothes. Spring in Chicago.

It was the words which first drew me in, and then it was the story of the horribly dysfunctional family which made me read more. First there is the doting, controlling, hypochondriac mother, Adora. Allen, the silent father is next. And then there are the children—Camille, the main character and through whose eyes the story unfolds, the dead sister Marian, and then Amma, the new young sister who took her place.

Even though I wanted to put my hand over my eyes and turn away from the book at times, something always made me go back for more, until I finally reached the stunning conclusion.

Why are we attracted to evil in our fiction? Why do horror movies captivate us? Sometimes I like watching those Youtube videos with names like, World’s Scariest Walking Bridge or World’s Most Dangerous Road. Here you get to watch people racing down mountain tops on with a steepness going into oblivion on one side. Guard rails? In your dreams.

In real life you wouldn’t catch me mountain biking on the side of a cliff for any amount of money, but I can sit back and watch it on Youtube, because I realize that if they’re posted online like that, it means that everyone got down safely and everything turned out out alright in the end. I can breathe a sigh of relief.

And as horrible as the evil in Sharp Objects is, it is brought to full light in the end. And that satisfies something inside of us. We want to know that evil will be found out and punished.

That is what’s promised in horror, that ultimately, no matter how horrific the situation our characters find themselves in, evil will be discovered and punished and justice and goodness will win.

As for the mystery part, the reason mystery novels are so popular is because there is something in us that wants to figure out “who dunnit.”

Here’s an interesting New Yorker  article from 1944 on why we read detective stories.

One of the reason we are drawn to story in the first place is that it’s fun to “try on” other people’s lives, and “see what it’s like” to live in such a dyfunctional family (And I don’t care how dysfunctional you think your family is - the Preakers have got you beat by a mile!)

Back when I was a young mother I faithfully watched one daytime soap, Another World. A lot of my friends also did and we would get together for coffee and talk about the characters and plot, always reflecting that “those people” had it way worse than us! Our lives were normal by comparison. (When that finally went off the air for good in 1999, I said goodbye to daytime soaps for good. (Now, I only watch nighttime soaps like Nashville, The Good Wife and Longmire.)

I have been drawn to stores forever, and can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have a novel “on the go.” Back before online, I would feel bereft when I finished a book and there wasn’t another one waiting on the pile. I’d often have to wait before I could take a trip to the library or bookstore. Now, I can simply go online to a favorite online bookstore and download another onto my trusty Kobo.

So, if you like psychological thrillers, do pick up Sharp Objects and tell me what you think.

In Two Weeks: It’s back to short stories with The Man Who Built Boxes

by Frank Tavares