A lot of people think I’m so very very serious that the only books I would deign to read are the most high-minded works of literature and nonfiction but when I was sick in bed with pneumonia, I must have read every one of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder mystery and crime novels.
I can blame my low tastes on bad company. Friends like Domenic Stansberry whose Edgar-Award-winning novel, The Confession, had a gratifying and disturbing reception when some readers mistook this first-person narrative of a psychopathic killer as Domenic’s autobiography.
I love visiting Mona Linstromberg at home in the Siuslaw National Forest, distant from bookstores, libraries and, in fact, anything resembling so-called civilization, but a place well stocked with shelf after shelf of crime novels. François Camoin writes of the mystery of existence, not books of detectives and bad guys, but he turned me on to John Burdett’s Bangkok novels featuring detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep.
Besides citing peer pressure, I can justify my love of well written crime fiction this way: The thing about genre fiction–especially of the noir/crime variety–is the way there’s so often a political sensibility behind the dramatic action. Police and judges turn out to be corrupt; the rich and powerful are usually guilty (if not of murder, at least of something), and neighborhoods are gentrified to the detriment of most of the human beings who live there. So today I thought I’d write some short notes about the crime fiction I’ve been reading lately, including a couple of thrillers that actually confront politics and policy head-on.
Like Don Winslow‘s remarkable novel, The Power of the Dog, published in 2005 and covering events from the early 1970’s to 2004. See, I can yak your head off about the misbegotten War on Drugs and what it’s done in Mexico and Colombia (where aerial spraying to get rid of coca instead kills food crops and poisons people and livestock), about corruption and deception on both sides of the border, about CIA (and Reagan and the Bush president #1) complicity in drug trafficking and the rise of the brutally violent cartels–and all my well intentioned talk will bore you half to death. Or you can get the same disturbing information from Winslow in a form that makes your pulse race. I am so grateful that people who never thought about any of this before but do read bestsellers are now exposed to this history.
I’m looking forward to reading his new novel, The Cartel, that picks up the story of DEA agent Art Keller who risked everything as he tried to make amends for inadvertently facilitating the rise of a ruthless cartel.
My only complaint about the novel: Winslow obviously did much research and has so much expertise, how could so many errors slip through, all of which detract from his credibility? Martyred Archbishop Romero wasn’t Guatemalan. The whole world knows he was Salvadoran. Mexico’s telecommunications industry wasn’t nationalized, it was privatized, and more. Where was the copy editor? Is there so little respect for Latin America that errors like this and more slip right by? But Winslow is so precise, it made me wonder if it wasn’t, after all, the copy editor who was at fault. Someone who doesn’t know as much as s/he thinks s/he knows adding “clarification” and getting it wrong.
Apparently I love books that validate what I already believe. The Interrogator’s Notebook, for example, a novel by Martin Ott, former Army interrogator and critic of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, a/k/a torture. (I came across Ott through his website, but as it turns out, his next book will soon be published by one of my own publishers, Fomite Press.)
His protagonist, Norman Cross, has lost his center. Poor Norman, who used to be unparalleled in recognizing the lay of the land, now blunders through his life. He used to do things (most of the time) the right way–learning all he could about a terrorism suspect, building rapport, getting the subject to trust and open up. But when he fails to control the team around him, he also fails to stop an imminent attack. Now, he makes notes to himself about what it means to be an interrogator–which means being someone who, as it turns out, again and again crosses the line he felt he’d never cross, and who at times shares the torment he inflicts. It means “I turned away from acts of torture and instead ended up turning myself into a deity of sorts….the more I reveled in my power, the more my humanity slipped away.” Cross is progressively more estranged from his family. He earns a living teaching workshops to private security operatives. He never wants to sit down face-to-face with a subject again–until he is pressured into learning the truth about George Stark, a deliciously malevolent character actor who’s been acquitted of homicide. Stark agrees to be interviewed but sets up conditions that put him in control of the bizarre and unsettling interrogation.
This is a fast, sometimes comic, read which does validate my own convictions: “The greatness or smallness of a country is defined in windowless rooms with no witnesses…”
But I also read hoping to be changed. Robert Crais, author of many crime novels set in Los Angeles has a very different take on the power of dogs in Suspect in which a former military dog and an LAPD officer–both in mourning and both suffering from PTSD–partner up. The book is so imbued with dog-love, it should have been a stretch for me, a cat person who is actually pretty afraid of dogs, but I cared and rooted all the way for the cop and the German shepherd.
Of course Maggie, that wonderful K-9, is always ready to rip the throat out of anyone approaching her wounded partner, even if that someone is trying to save his life. So I guess it’s possible to love dogs and still fear them.
And speaking of cats, to celebrate Millie’s moving in (thank you, Amanda Foundation),
I’ve started reading the quite violent mystery novels of Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. When I first laid eyes on Millie three years ago, I’d never seen anything like her. I found out yesterday she is apparently a Norwegian Forest Cat, named by King Olaf as the official cat of Norway. Does the US deserve an official cat? (Maybe let’s not go there. We could face a government shutdown with Republicans refusing to pass a budget unless Congress honors the Fat Cat.)
What else have I found out that I didn’t already know?
Sakina Murdock, author of Autotherapy, and I also share a publisher (Rainstorm Press). I’ve met her only in cyberspace where, among other things, she offered advice on how to keep track of the close to 100 flamingos I was monitoring at the LA Zoo. Her own expertise gained through geese-farming didn’t translate, requiring the use of ten fingers, not easy when you’re holding a clipboard in one hand and taking notes with the other. But her novel, featuring dead bodies drained of blood and people with secrets, also taught me stuff I didn’t know (in addition to the resolution of the mystery).
Her writing about genetic engineering (something I know a little about) and the geography of Cumbria (of which, till reading her book, I knew nothing) as well as the way to go about exploring a cave (ditto) is rendered with the kind of authority that convinced me I was in good hands as the bizarre events unfolded.
As a writer, I was intrigued by the unusual structure Murdock chose for her novel. Most crime/mystery novels maintain forward momentum–this happened and then this and then this–with some flashbacks or backstory. The dramatic action of Autotherapy is told in short sections taking place from 10:00 AM, April 17 through 1:10 PM April 23. Interspersed among these sections, and not in chronological order, we find out what the main characters said and what they withheld when interviewed in sessions taking place between 9:00 AM on April 24 and 3:15 PM on May 1.
After Shelagh Connor Shapiro interviewed me for her radio show Write the Book, I wanted to read her own fiction. Her novel, Shape of the Sky, also has an atypical structure for a mystery but that’s because though it features a homicide, a missing person, and an assumed identity, it’s not really what you’d consider a mystery. I enjoyed it so much, however, I decided to stretch the category and include this vivid picture of life in a small Vermont town. The people of Resolute, Vermont take a big risk in agreeing to host a rock concert. Sure enough, the mini-Woodstock attracts hordes of outsiders who camp outside in the rain bringing some needed cash as well as excitement, music, and opportunity as well as the disaster some townsfolk predicted.
Shape of the Sky doesn’t progress chronologically because each section gives us chronologically overlapping points of view as lives intersect. Shapiro offers compassionate and nuanced portrayals: a farm wife, a groupie, a town constable, a rock star, the town’s most annoying gossip, and more. The town is a place where a decades-long resident can still be considered an outsider but where newcomer-drifters are quickly offered work and where people take care of each other. Becca, for example, who uses a wheelchair after a car accident, wants to be allowed to do for herself what she can do, but also recognizes how much she still can’t, and how “…the town had healed around her like the edges of a wound.”
What I wish I could learn from Shelagh Connor Shapiro is how to write with such beauty and tenderness without ever crossing the line into sentimentality.
As long as I’m straying from my mission, I can’t overlook Jen Grow’s new story collection, My Life as a Mermaid.
Though I know Jen Grow to be a very talented writer, I approached this book with some trepidation because of the back cover. Did I really want to read about the dark side of living “happily ever after”? Did I really need another book about housewives, mothers, and cheating husbands? Of course, if that’s your cuppa, yes, you’ll find fiction here about love gone wrong. I don’t mean to put any subject matter down. But really…When I first started leading writing workshops, I can’t tell you how many stories I read about unhappy wives who end up running on beaches only to throw themselves into the ocean and transform into mermaids. That is not at all what Grow’s fiction is like. Her remarkable title story instead vividly and dramatically explores the anxiety of privilege. It’s a story I’ll reread often. And if there’s a fairy tale being questioned in My Life as a Mermaid, it’s the American Dream as when Grow writes in the voice of the wife of a severely injured veteran, and spotlights the fragile communities of the down and out. It’s a moving and memorable collection.
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Coming up soon: Cartels, politics, corruption and the US hand in Latin America. After I finally get around to reading Don Winslow’s The Cartel, I’ll write about it along with The Power of the Dog and Vanessa Blakeslee’s Juventud, a coming-of-age novel set in Colombia amid the violence of drug trafficking and civil war.