Q & A #40 – Lin Enger, “The High Divide”

High Divide

Last fall at the South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood, a new writer friend Ann Weisgarber invited me to join her and some friends for dinner at an outdoor spot.  I sat down next to Lin Enger, but had no idea who I was with.

I was in a rush, for some reason I can’t remember now. I chatted briefly with Lin and skipped off.

Blew it!

Months later, I picked up The High Divide and realized, based on how good it is, that I could have talked for hours.

Anyway, Lin was kind enough to answer a few questions by email and a full review  of The High Divide follows:


Question:  What is it about the frontier that makes it such a compelling place to tell a story? Will we will ever outlive our fascination with how the west was first settled?

Lin Enger:  Movement west defined our history through the first century and in some respects continues to do so.  And no, I don’t think we’ll outlive our fascination with how we stole the land and tried to make ourselves rich on it, because the story is so wild and terrible and full of outlandish events; there is much about it that many still don’t want to acknowledge.  Also, of course, the grandeur of the west—the appeal of so much beauty and so much space—creates a constant pull on our collective sense of potential and adventure.

Question:  So many of the characters in The High Divide find themselves in situations where they are required to barter and trade, whether it’s to improve their means of transportation or to pay off debts. Was this a conscious theme going in or just the way it was?

Lin Enger:  I didn’t really think about it as I wrote, but I guess you’re right.  I simply tried to imagine how my characters, money-poor as they were, would manage to move across the vast landscape of the northern plains, and doing so, feed themselves and stay alive while trying to find who and what they were looking for. 

Question:  Did you know when you started how this would end? Do you plot things out or just follow the characters?

Lin Enger

Lin Enger

Lin Enger: Yes, I did know how the story would end when I started.  When I write a novel, that’s how I work.  I figure out where the characters will be when the story is finished, and especially, what specific act of courage, sacrifice, or discovery will come to define their experience and change their perspective.  Only when I can see that act in my imagination, and understand its significance, do I feel brave enough to set off on the journey of living the novel, scene by scene.

Question:  How much did you draw on your own experience as a brother in writing the relationship between Danny and Eli?

Lin Enger:  I have two brothers and a sister. I also have a wife, a daughter, and a son.  What I’ve learned from all of them is woven into everything I write. That said, my fiction does seem to obsess on father-son and brother-brother connections. Maybe some day I’ll know why.  

Question: How did you set the moral compass for Ulysses and what lessons he would learn? How did you deal with the role religion would play? And what lessons the sons would learn? Can a man learn to live with blood on his hands?

Lin Enger:  A moral dilemma is at the heart of every good story, according to John Gardner. Not surprising, since human beings are moral creatures, and most of our important decisions have an element of morality.  In The High Divide, Ulysses has committed an act that he can’t forgive himself for, and his need to find some kind of redemption is what powers the story.  Surely some people are able to live with blood on their hands, but Ulysses, after nearly twenty years, has reached a point of saturation.  His conscience, as it happens, is driven in part by a religious impulse he can’t deny.

Question:  Do you think we’re missing something as a society today by not living (for the most part) so close to the land, sleeping on dirt from time to time?

Lin Enger:  I do. And I have to wonder how the technological changes of the last couple decades might alter the relationship human beings have with the land. Maybe less than we fear. We all come from the dust, after all.

Question:  Will you ever return to writing mysteries? Do you read them?

Lin Enger:  In the 1990s my brother, the novelist Leif Enger, and I wrote a series of mystery novels (now out of print), set in northern Minnesota and featuring an amateur detective named Gun Pedersen (a former Detroit Tigers outfielder).  We had great fun writing and publishing those books, and in fact we’re about to re-release them as e-books.  I don’t know if I’ll ever return to that genre, but it seems to me the elements of the mystery novel are found in much, if not most good fiction.  My two “literary” novels are certainly mysteries, in that the characters are searching for answers to questions of paramount concern to them.

Question:  What are you working on now? What’s next?

Lin Enger:  I’m on the second draft of a novel set in California, New York City, and Minnesota, during the great decade of the 1970s. I’m having a blast working on it, and it will be, of course, the best thing I’ve ever written.


Lin Enger’s website.



We know from the beautiful opening sentence that morality will play a role in The High Divide.

It goes like this: “That summer was cool and windless, the clouds unrelenting, as if God had reached out his hand one day and nudged the sun from its rightful place.”

We are “way out on the lip of the northern plains.”

The narrator swoops in on the small town like the opening of a film, from above, but from that moment on it’s all up close and personal with the four members of the Pope family.

Within a few pages, everyone is in motion. Lin Enger’s brisk set-up is all forward movement, like the frontier itself.

It’s 1886. Ulysees, the father, is leaving after giving a dawn hug to one boy and fence repair instructions to another. He’s holding tight to a secret. His wife, Gretta is up early to see him slip away—he doesn’t know he’s being watched. He leaves no note, no idea of his destination.

And soon sons Eli and Danny are headed off on Ulysees’ trail, leaving behind Gretta to pick up the pieces, to sort through the “money troubles,” and to try and figure out a way to manage. Gretta is forced to forge her own fresh path, though her issues, at least at first, are closer to home. She’s a survivor, we learn later, someone with a “ruthless capacity for self-protection.”

The High Divide reveals itself  in careful fashion. Ulysees’ search is one of redemption from an incident when Ulysees was a member of Custer’s army. He wants to “step into the glare of judgment” and be held accountable for the atrocity. He needs to unburden himself. He’s driven by the simple notion of standing in front of the man he wronged, only knowing that if he places himself there that the right words will come. At least, that’s what he believes from a passage in Luke, a passage he’s claimed as his own.

Enger shifts points of view from Ulysees to Eli to Gretta. Each of the portraits is fully three-dimensional and free of melodrama as the story moves west from Minnesota to the Dakotas and to the Indian Reservations south of Miles City in Montana. Each of the three characters, in their own way, must negotiate or barter to keep moving and, when the time comes, to resolve their issues. There is a price for everything on the frontier, from rent to souls. Negotiating is a daily chore.

The writing is beautiful. Everything about the moments within seem genuine and unforced, with a flourish here and there for big sweeping scenery. How could you resist the scenery? “By late afternoon as they rattled into Miles City—which was laid out south of the Yellowstone—the horizon had regathered itself beneath a pale sky, the reach between here and there an expanse of rolling, gray-brown prairie in all directions. To the west, a long, high butte stretched out beneath the sun like a sleeping cougar.”

Along the way, the boys encounter the conservationist William Hornaday. Enger milks the sad (and delicious) bit of irony—the renowned representative from the Smithsonian scouring the windblown landscape for the chance to kill one of the few remaining buffalo in order to “preserve” the animal for the future. Hornaday’s journey ultimately intertwines with Ulysees’ trek. And Hornaday’s cold plans for slaughtering animals contrasts with what Ulysees did at Washita. Finally, the threads resolve in calm, grounded fashion.

Moral and religious references are interwoven throughout “The High Divide,” but ultimately the meeting of Magpie and Ulysees is down to two real men, one not suddenly and not entirely certain of the messages he’s hearing from his God. It’s a powerful, completely human moment and it sets up a stirring, memorable finish.

One final thought—the cover story on a recent issue (April 2016) of High Country News (“For people who care about the West”) is this: “A Land Divided—Can a groundbreaking settlement fix a century of bad policy in Indian Country?” Inside is a long story about the legal issues based on a ranch in Montana and, not too far away in the same issue, is a detailed story about the ongoing effort to restore the bison population.

So 130 years later, the negotiations and wildlife restoration continue—lots of good people trying to do the right thing for all sorts of good reasons. How do we manage all this open land? How do we manage the wildlife? And how do we work with those who came before “we” got here?

Some things never change.



Scott Frank – “Shaker”

Shaker 2Before singing the praises of Shaker, I want to point out that I “read” this on audio and the narration is by the one and only Dion Graham. When I loaded it up and heard his voice, I knew I was in for a good story. Graham’s work here is impeccable and perfect for the gritty urban flavor of this sometimes brutal crime novel.

Shaker is good. And supremely memorable. It starts with a big-picture Hollywood-esque prologue recounting the damage done to southern California by a swarm of nearly 700 small earthquakes followed by a big jolt, a 7.1 “shaker” that topples buildings and “grabbed the city of Los Angeles by the throat, and throttled it like a wolf on a weasel for a full twenty-two seconds.”

Five days into the clean-up comes Roy Cooper, flying in from the east coast to “pay a visit” to a man named Martin Shine. Cooper, we soon find out, is an errand boy who handles everything from moving furniture to tending bar to shooting people in the head. He’s good at what he does. Shaker would be a short story if Roy Cooper, after dispatching Shine, remembered where he had parked his car.

Instead, Roy Cooper’s life grows increasingly complicated. Roy a group of young black boys, “none older than fourteen, fifteen tops.” They surround a jogger, who is down on all fours, and he’s bleeding from a gash in the head. What happens in the next few minutes, recounted in  detail, happens almost at a slow-motion pace worthy of Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities). It’s quite the cinematic scene and I have no problem imagining the movie version of Shaker, but no movie will ever be able to pack in the backstory and detail that Scott Frank manages in these 335 pages (yes, I had to get a hard copy to see how his prose looked on the page).

Without giving too much away, the last thing Roy Cooper wants is attention. What he most wants is to slip back to the airport and return to his home on the east coast with every expectation that his work as an errand boy will go unnoticed. Instead, he becomes thrust smack into the middle of the limelight and is mistaken as a hero.

Just when we think that this might be a Roy Cooper novel, Frank starts throwing the curveballs. Shaker is a rotating-perspective story and everybody gets equal play—LAPD detective Kelly Maguire, a punk named Science, buffoonish mayor Miguel Santiago, and Roy Cooper’s onetime mentor, Albert Budin. Is Roy Cooper a hero? The mayor could use one. The victim in the attack that Cooper witnessed—and disrupted—was a candidate for mayor. Detective Maguire isn’t so sure about Cooper’s story. But her reputation and credibility are low. And the group of punks know full well that Roy Cooper is no saint—and they wouldn’t mind slipping into the hospital and taking care of business.

Frank does a number of things in Shaker that I liked—a lot. First, he lets the scenes breathe. He’s not afraid of extended dialogue—look no further than the conversation between Roy Cooper and Martin Shine before Shine is dispatched. To these ears, it all rang true. It’s Tarantino-esque. (Again, I give you Dion Graham. He injects veracity and weight into every conversation).

Frank also embraces extended passages of straight-up telling the story; the cinematic and omniscient camera at work. And he’s organized the backstories of some of these characters in a way that, by novel’s end, you have fully formed characters across the board.  In fact, “back story” suggests something slight or minor. Hardly. If Roy Cooper seems like just another hit man at first, just wait a few chapters.

The story unspools in sometimes non-linear fashion. Toward the end, Frank yanks us back in time to give us an in-depth look at the relationship between Budin and Cooper. Once we know more, the story unlocks in magical fashion. Slow in spots? Yes. (And I liked the non-rush.) Heart pounding at others? Of course. Violent? Yes.  The story builds to a rumbling, brutal climax at Dodger Stadium and, rest assured, Frank takes full advantage of the earthquakes he set in motion way back in the beginning, on page one.


Willy Vlautin – “Northline”

Willy CD 1If you put on the CD that comes with your copy of Northline, you’ll get an instant feeling for the mood.

Melancholy. Lonesome. Spare. Downcast.

It’s also beautiful—a strumming guitar and a sorrowful pedal steel.

Willy Vlautin is a musician, too; he heads up the band Richmond Fontaine (a band allegedly now on their farewell tour).

I’ve read four Willy Vlautin novels now and I read them in this order, which I recommend: Lean on Pete, The Free, The Motel Life, Northline.

He wrote them in this order: The Motel Life, Northline, Lean on Pete and The Free.

I’m glad I read Northline last—it’s a sad one.

What I love about Vlautin is his empathy for the downtrodden, those shuffling around in the dark corners. There’s always hope, however, and Vlautin’s characters hang by the thinnest thread. In Northline, for young woman on the run and would-be waitress Allison Johnson, it’s her fantasy conversations with Paul Newman and the characters he played.

The title comes from her boyfriend, who wants her to join him on a trek to a new life. “I’ve decided I really am gonna be moving North,” he writes to her in a letter. “Like I always wanted. Just draw a line and go. A Northline. The farther north, the better. Away from everyone.” Around the corner in all of Vlautin’s work is the hope of a new life, of cutting loose, of starting over.

But Jimmy Bodie is a racist. He’s a hater. He’s abused her. He’s taken her to skinhead parties. There’s no reason to think he would care. Allison is on the run, and hiding, throughout Northline. She works the graveyard shift as a waitress, takes a job doing cold calls trying to sell vacuum cleaners.

I won’t go into all the gritty situations she encounters. Allison is up against life. It’s battering her around. And we get some familiar Vlautin themes—thoughts of suicide, cold streets, bleak motel rooms, limited choices, bad decisions, bad company. But not all. There’s a touch of warmth here, a splash of humanity here. Always.

Vlautin’s prose is some of the most unvarnished, plain stuff around. I highly recommend listening to Vlautin read The Free (the only book on audio so far) if you want an idea of the plain-spoken way he intends for it to be read.

Willy CD“The room had a double bed, a desk, a dresser, a TV, and a bathroom. She’d never been in a motel room by herself, let alone in a city. She’d barely even left Las Vegas and now she’d done so by herself. The crying wouldn’t stop. She shut off the lights in the room and go in bed still wearing her clothes. Pictures of Jimmy appeared in her mind. The time he had gotten them a suite at Caesars, or when they’d go swimming in the lake. Times when he was decent to her, when he was kind. In the darkness she found the phone. It sat on a bedside table and she held it. She wanted to call him, to give in, but she also hated herself for not wanting to so badly.”

Check the range of praise for Vlautin—from mystery writer Craig Johnson to sci-fi legend Ursula K. Le Guin, from Tom Franklin to Ann Patchett, from George Pelecanos to Cheryl Strayed.

Vlautin’s stuff is addictive but heroes are few and far between.

As the fantasy “Paul Newman” tells Allison Johnson, “People do their worst when they’re weak.”

And Willy Vlautin likes to watch. And write.


Willy Vlautin


Vlautin 3












Q & A #39 – Ray Daniel, “Terminated”

TerminatedI met the ever-friendly Ray Daniel in Long Beach at Boucheron in 2014. We’re both fellow ‘Inkers.’ That is, we’re published by the same cool house, Midnight Ink. I’ve run into him at other writing conferences and he’s a fellow board member with Mystery Writers of America.

Terminated is the first in the mystery series featuring uber-geek and hacker extraordinaire Aloysius Tucker.

The Boston Globe called it “a smart novel with plenty of witty asides (and) slam-bam action.” Corrupted Memory followed and Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review (“compulsively readable”). Coming this summer is Child Not Found. 

Daniel’s short story “Give Me a Dollar” won a 2014 Derringer Award for short fiction and “Driving Miss Rachel” was chosen as a 2013 distinguished short story by Otto Penzler, editor of The Best American Mystery Stories 2013.

Daniel’s short fiction has been published in the Level Best Books anthologies THIN ICE, BLOOD MOON, STONE COLD, and ROGUE WAVE; as well as in the Anthony-nominated anthology MURDER AT THE BEACH (Down and Out Books).

A full review of Terminated follows but, first, Daniel was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail.


Question: So much crime and mystery fiction has been set in Boston, did you find it a challenge to do something different with the setting or did you just go with the flow? And, by the way, why is Boston such a great setting?

Ray Daniel: I know authors who worry about setting books in a city popularized by Parker and Lehane, but that comparison has never worried me.  We all live in our own version of our cities.  The aspects of the city that strike me aren’t the ones that struck previous authors.  Also, Boston keeps changing, so there’s always some new wrinkle to examine.

There are several reasons that Boston is a fantastic setting for stories. The first lies in the varied neighborhoods crammed together into such a small space.  It’s only a 45-minute walk from the North End to Fenway Park and in that walk you’ll pass Faneuil Hall, Downtown Crossing, the Boston Common, Beacon Hill, and the Back Bay.  It’s easy to cram different types of people together in Boston.

Another reason that Boston makes a great setting is that it has been a great setting many times.  Readers and moviegoers are familiar with Boston and so feel grounded in stories there.  It’s been said that people argue whether New York or L.A. are the best settings, but both sides agree that Boston is next on the list.

Ray Daniel

Ray Daniel

Question: Software designers and software debuggers—is it really two different camps? Two different mindsets? Will designers ever be able to design a hack-free computer or device? Is there always a weakness? And why don’t the debuggers sit in when the architects are working and point out mistakes?

Ray Daniel: Three great questions. As to the mindsets or camps, you might compare it to authors vs. editors.  While it is possible to have someone who is good at both roles, people definitely have strengths in one direction or the other.

The author/editor split also applies to the question of having debuggers involved in the architectural process. The problems a good editor solves are not usually apparent until the entire story is written.  The same can happen with software.

As for whether it’s possible to create hacker-proof computers or devices, it is possible as long as the device doesn’t do anything.  A brick is pretty hacker-proof. Once you start adding functionality you are almost certain to create security holes that can be exploited.  Even something with no electronics at all, a lock, can be hacked (or picked in that case.)

Question: Terminated relishes the particular joys of the modern day industry convention. You sound like an old pro and these things. Do you enjoy, hate, endure…or a combination? Any convention survival tips you’d care to share?

Ray Daniel: I’m an extrovert who feeds upon the energy of crowds, so I love conventions and conferences. My biggest tip is that if you are working a convention (for example if you are at the American Library Association Conference signing books in your publisher’s booth) never stand on your booth’s carpet.  Always stand in the neutral walkway carpet.  This keeps out you there meeting people.

When you meet a new person always ask, “Have you seen our booth yet?”  That way you have a next step whether they answer “yes” (“What brings you back?”) or “no” (“Let me show you around.”)

Question: Tucker’s three days in Terminated are, to choose one word, harrowing. How did you determine how many close shaves he could handle?

Ray Daniel: Poor Tucker takes it on the chin every time I think the audience may get bored.  Since I’m paranoid about boring my audience, he takes it on the chin a lot. Also I’m a big fan of books in which the main character is in real physical danger, so again Tucker bears the brunt of it.

My biggest challenge as a new author was learning how to write the scenes where Tucker responds to his close shaves.  Being in danger is an emotional experience, and it would be flat if Tucker didn’t respond to the danger.

Question: The exchanges between Tucker and his dead wife Carol, who materializes at surprising moments, are both colorful and, again, funny. How did you develop this idea? Have you ever had an experience like Tucker’s, seeing and talking with the dead?

Ray Daniel: Carol was an in-the-moment inspiration when I was writing the scene where Kevin had left Tucker alone for a moment in his office.  I wanted conflict in the scene, but Tucker was alone, and the idea for Carol popped into my head at that moment.

Once I had the idea I wanted to make sure that Carol didn’t fall into the category of “My sainted dead wife.” That’s become something of a cliché.  That’s why they fight so much.

Also, once you’ve been married long enough, you don’t need the other person around to have the fights.

Question: Favorite Boston (or New England) writers—go. And, sure, feel free to mention any others you like, maybe a few unsung heroes of yours.

Ray Daniel: This question and the next question have the same answer: Robert B. Parker.  I used to tell people that I liked reading “First-person, wise-cracking, Boston-based mysteries.”  So, when I started writing I wanted to write first-person, wise-cracking, Boston-based mysteries, and I do.

Question: Who or what inspired your mystery writing career?

Ray Daniel: <above>

Question: What’s next?

Ray Daniel: Tucker’s third book, Child Not Found, publishes on June 7th. Tucker takes his cousin’s daughter sledding on Boston Common and loses her in chapter one.  I really liked what Kirkus had to say about this book: “As usual, Daniel is more than generous with the violence, guilt, tweets, craft brews, and compassion.”

I love the fact that I’ve reached a point in my career where a reviewer can use the phrase “As usual.”  It looks like I have a recognizable style!


Ray Daniel’s Website



Terminated begins with a bang. I’ll let you figure out which kind. The first two words of the book, however, offer a somewhat helpful clue. “Morning sex…”

The five days of plot in this brisk novel, after the opening action, never let up. Our erstwhile techie hero Tucker manages to get in a few stops for various bits of Boston nosh and beverage along the way. This guy needs a drink. Or four. He’s had it rough and it’s going to get worse.

Tucker and his wife Carol developed controversial security software. They were a team, of sorts, at a company called MantaSoft (what a great name). Carol was viciously murdered in their home six months prior to the gauntlet of mayhem that takes place from Sunday to Thursday within the pages of Terminated. It turns out that Tucker and Carol’s marriage had plenty of bumps and not much going on in the bedroom. But that doesn’t mean Tucker doesn’t care who killed her. He cares, in fact, very much.

But now “Carol” follows Tucker around and he can often be seen having conversations with her in public, though the Bluetooth gizmo prevents others from questioning his sanity.  Yes, this is a familiar device but Ray Daniel’s uses it sparingly and Carol pops up, appropriately, at some wonderfully inopportune times. And they continue to bicker about what went wrong. Hilarious.

A few pages into Terminated, Tucker’s pal at the FBI is letting him in a new lead, a somewhat worrisome photo of a woman, someone Carol once hired when she worked at MantaSoft.  She’s dead. And someone thinks Tucker may have played a role in the woman’s demise, further fueling Tucker’s need to find out what’s going on at his old company.

Tucker can hack or debug anything. “You really solve puzzles through a flash of insight,” he says. “Then you work your way back through the logic so you can explain it to others. After years of debugging software, I was good at generating flashes of insight.”

And he’ll need them. By the time Tuesday rolls around, Tucker makes Jack Reacher look like nothing more than the captain of a Swan Boat in Boston Garden.  Tucker isn’t likely to take on five big men with only his fists, but he seems to attract as the violent type. He’s a mayhem magnet.

Humor and violence live side by side in Terminated. And Daniel flashes some very funny lines.

“If you took a bowling ball, taught it to talk, and bought it a custom bowling-ball suit, you’d wind up with Agent Bobby Miller.”

“The prosperity of the 1960’s blew past Boston’s dying textile industries. While other cities were making money and dropping down the architectural equivalent of bell-bottom pants, Boston was too broke to build.”

“The beach still curves gracefully toward Nahant, but the only noted attraction is Kelly’s Roast Beef, which is ‘World Famous,’ according to its sign. I’d once asked some folks from Budapest if they had heard of Kelly’s Roast Beef in Revere and they had not. It was very disappointing.”

Tucker has lots to sort through. Not everybody is what they appear to be. And Tucker will soon realize, despite a sharp ability to debug anything, that his smart aleck ways are helping leave an easy trail for would-be assassins to follow.

Terminated (a title that probably carries quadruple meaning here) is a fun and hair-raising romp through the streets of Boston. It ends, like it starts, with a bang. I’ll let you figure out which kind.





Robin Yocum – “A Brilliant Death”

A Brilliant DeathMy review of “A Brilliant Death” by Robin Yocum for the New York Journal of Books is posted here.

Q & A #38 – J.L. Abramo, “Brooklyn Justice”

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00046]J.L. Abramo was born in what he calls the “seaside paradise” of Brooklyn, New York on Raymond Chandler’s fifty-ninth birthday.

He is the author of Catching Water in a Net, winner of the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America prize for Best First Private Eye Novel.

He also wrote the subsequent Jake Diamond novels: Clutching at Straws, Counting to Infinity, and Circling the Runway.

Then came Chasing Charlie Chan, a prequel to the Jake Diamond series and a stand-alone thriller, Gravesend.

Abramo’s latest  is Brooklyn Justice.

As Abramo makes clear, defining fictional genres gets messy in a hurry.

All I know is when you pick up Brooklyn Justice, you’ll hear the echoes to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and, well, all good classic detective fiction.

A review follows but, first, a thoughtful online interview:


Question:  What’s up with noir? Why do you think it still holds appeal as a genre? Why is it timeless? Or is it?

J.L. Abramo: Let me begin by saying that categorizing—giving a work of fiction a genre designation, is often vague.  The label crime fiction, for example, could be used to describe some of the great classics of literature—Crime and Punishment, Les Misérables, Oliver Twist, The Scarlet Letter—to name a few.

Joyce Carol Oates said: “In genre fiction there is an implied contract between writer and reader that justice of a kind will be exacted. Good may not always triumph over evil, but the distinction between the two must be honored.” I agree with the sentiment, but it is so broad it could easily portray The Count of Monte Cristo, Moby Dick and The Bible as genre fiction

Categorizing is a double-edged sword. Calling something crime fiction can pigeonhole the work and serve to discourage readers with no taste for the genre or attract diehard fans.

Noir takes classification a step further—to what some call sub-genre.  Noir’s appeal comes from generations of readers, writers and film goers who were inspired and thrilled by the 1940’s novels of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain and the French film noir work of Jules Dassin, Jean Luc Goddard, Henri-Georges Clouzot and others in the 50’s and 60’s. One of the characteristics of classic noir fiction and film was that it was invariably black and white—and as timeless as the eternal struggle between the darkness and light in humanity.

If I was forced to give my Jake Diamond series or Brooklyn Justice a label—it would probably be better described as classic-inspired detective fiction.

Question: Has the ‘noir’ definition slipped? I’ve been to some ‘noir’ readings where it seemed like a bunch of horror writers trying to out-gross each other.  Do you know what I mean? Can ‘noir’ be defined?

J.L. Abramo: Dennis Lehane suggests that noir represents working class tragedy—noir is a genre of men and women unable to roll with the changing times, so the changing times instead roll over them.

I respect the observation—though it also brings to mind works such as The Grapes of Wrath, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and Of Human Bondage.

A widely subscribed to rule of noir has long been choose a dame with a past and a hero with no future. Private investigators may or may not be present.  Two of the most acclaimed noir novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, both by James M. Cain, do not feature private eyes.  And the protagonists in many classic private eye works, from Philip Marlowe to Sam Spade to Mike Hammer, had both flaws and redeeming characteristics.

And then Jim Thompson came along.

The early bad guys, from Conan Doyle’s Moriarty to Cain’s Walter Huff in Double Indemnity, ranged from simply criminal to diabolical—Holmes and Barton Keyes could relate to their adversaries, and therefore so could the reader.  In The Killer Inside Me, Thompson created a psychopath.  Lou Ford was more than simply evil—he was a monster.  To be able to identify with Ford would be a scary proposition. The book was shocking in an unprecedented way.  It was more horror fiction than noir.  It changed the landscape—and opened the door to crime fiction featuring villains like Michael Slade’s Headhunter and Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector.  There are a number of younger writers today who choose the Thompson model over the Cain model in their writing, which would account for the observation you noted in your question.

Question: Okay, the whole notion of “justice.” How do you go about establishing a moral code for your characters? How do you decide when they need to take “matters,” so to speak, into their own hands?

J.L. Abramo reading at "Noir at the Bar" last December at Bookbar (Denver).

J.L. Abramo reading at “Noir at the Bar” last December at Bookbar (Denver).

J.L. Abramo: Justice can be a very subjective concept, both in terms of law and in the minds of individuals seeking personal retribution.  From King Solomon threatening to cut a baby in half to address a dispute over its true mother to Vito Corleone’s admonition to the undertaker who asks to have the men who assaulted his daughter killed, “That is not justice, your daughter is still alive.”  The more personally a violent crime affects a person—the more intimate the survivor is or was to the victim—the less willing that person may be to trust the legal system to exact fitting justiceHowever, even when a protagonist takes matters into his or her own hands—commensurate justice must be considered if we wish our readers to remain sympathetic to our hero.

Question: Have to ask about Brooklyn cuisine. Except I don’t think they call it cuisine. But there’s a fair amount of food being consumed in Brooklyn Justice. What’s the best thing about Brooklyn food?

J.L. Abramo: Brooklyn is as diverse ethnically as anywhere on earth—so when it comes to food, the variety is limitless.  In general, I use food in my work for a number of reasons.  As an excuse to bring characters together, as a means of accentuating setting and specific location, to slip in a little history and folklore, and to show that even fictional characters need to eat.  I would point those interested in the role food plays in my work to this blog entry here.

Question: There’s a 1940’s vibe through Brooklyn Justice, but there are enough references for us to know that it’s actually a contemporary setting. How did you approach the atmosphere for these stories?

J.L. Abramo: One of the many unique characteristics of Brooklyn is how much it has changed and how much it has stayed the same.

Brooklyn is where there are still Brooklyn Dodger fans nearly sixty years after the team left for California.  Brooklyn is where you can take your eight-year-old granddaughter on the same rollercoaster you first rode when you were an eight-year-old.  Brooklyn is where the Atlantic Ocean defines summer. Brooklyn is stick ball and slap ball.  Brooklyn is evenings on the stoop. Brooklyn is Coney Island, where Nick Ventura does business.  Brooklyn is refuge.  For these reasons, it is a good setting for the kind of private eye fiction that transcends time.

Question: Favorite noir and/or crime writers, go.  And how about a few good ones we’ve never heard of?

J.L. Abramo: Where and when a story takes place, how characters speak to each other, knowledge of subject matter, willingness to make the hard and sometimes unpopular choices—for me these are all important considerations when I write. In that regard I admire and I am inspired by those who do this well. Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos for the authenticity and essential role of their settings, Loren D. Estleman and Donald Westlake for their smart and often humorous dialogue, James Ellroy for his diligent attention to time period, Bob Truluck and Lee Child for their uncompromising moral choices, Scott Turow and Patricia Cornwell for their expertise—to name several.

Question: You were born on Raymond Chandler’s 59th birthday.  How did you plan that?

J.L. Abramo: I have to give the credit to my parents for their impeccable timing.  I was actually unaware of the shared birthday until reading a short bio of Chandler in a used paperback copy of The High Window I purchased from a street vendor in New York City.

Since I don’t customarily believe in coincidence—I decided it would be intriguing to mention the fact in my own bio. The drawback is that if readers discover the year of Chandler’s birth, and do the math, my own age will no longer be my most well kept secret.

Question: What’s next?

J.L. Abramo: Short stories in three upcoming anthologies—Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns; Mama Tried: Stories Inspired by Outlaw Country Songs, and Coast to Coast: Private Eyes From Sea to Shining Sea. 

The follow-up to my thriller Gravesend, once again set in the Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up, is scheduled for release before year’s end.



J.L. Abramo

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When the first nasty bit of justice is delivered in “Pocket Queens,” the opening novella in this collection of taut crime fiction from J.L. Abramo, it’s quick. And harsh.

Nick Ventura doesn’t like to be lied to. It might be his least favorite “thing.” But he’s relaxed enough to identify the make of chef’s knife before he, well, uses it. Let’s leave it at that.

Nick Ventura’s office is above Totonno’s Pizzeria on Neptune Avenue “two blocks from the beach and the ocean that separates me from a thousand places I had only read about.”

Nick Ventura’s world, in fact, takes place in a tight bubble of gambling, Monte Carlos, .357’s, and the cocktail lounge at the Howard Johnson’s. Men have names like Freddy Fingers, Mario Grillo and Charlie Mungo. Trouble starts right out of the shoot (ahem) in “Pocket Queens” when a “small pop” at a poker table leaves Blinkin’ Lincoln slumped over, “blood spilling out of the back of his head turning his sevens crimson.”

Nick Ventura has a sharp eye—and ear. He likes The Mets. He drinks Cherry Coke with his Sicilian squares and when he wants somethings stronger it’s Johnny Walker Black. Or Red. Or Green. Once entangled, Nick isn’t likely to give up. Nick can take a bullet but, naturally, has his soft spots, too. He’s a reader and quotes lyrics from Jackson Browne.

If the ‘hard-boiled’ concept goes clear back to Gordon Young, then we have nearly a century of writing about cynical tough guys who have seen it all and who are out to save the world. Or, at least, the problem at hand. This style never gets old—and Abramo is right at home.  He writes with a cool, crisp vibe.

Nick Ventura is right at home, too. There are ample contemporary references, but there’s a timeless quality to the prose and the dialogue is ready for a screenplay.

“She was dressed for the weather in a little blue number with a small white polka dots that could be politely described as a pinafore and more accurately described as too provocative.”

“North Maine Avenue had not earned a square on the Monopoly Board but it sat in a prime location and I imagined it wouldn’t be long before the four homes between Caspian and Liberty Avenues would be traded for a hotel.”

“I think I could eat a horse if it was scrambled with bacon.”

Moral ambiguity is one hallmark of the traditional hard-boiled gumshoe. Nick Ventura, however, doesn’t fret over all those blurred lines. He knows his rules and he’s very clear on his role, a self-deputized and entirely unofficial member of the forces trying to keep a bit of order to civilization. He’s more prone to hop in his Monte Carlo in search of answers than he is likely to spend time on self-reflection. But when he does, he knows his precise spot in the world:

“I walked down to the waterside to stare out over the Atlantic, sizing myself up—a small man facing a mighty ocean trying to hold my own and live with my own choices. A huge world filled with little people capable of causing monstrous damage or, for too short a time, shining a faint light in the darkness.”

In Brooklyn Justice, six stories in all, Nick Ventura soldiers on—over and over into the “muddy fray.” He knows when to press his luck—and when to walk away, whether or not anyone is keeping score.  You may not want to drive what he drives. You may not drink what he drinks. You may not agree, at every turn, with his style of justice. But you’ll be glad to know he’s out there taking care of business.




Q & A #37 – Christopher Merkner, The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic

411hmzqv7tL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Skip this intro!

Go down to the Q & A.

Then find yourself of copy of The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic.

What, you’re still here?

Okay, know that Christopher Merkner is worth following. He teaches classes through Lighthouse Writers here in Denver, so go get yourself some Merkner.

He’s teaching a class on Deborah Eisenberg and Joy Williams beginning in April; check it out.

Last summer, Merkner’s volume won the 2015 Colorado Book Award for best short story collection. Also among the finalists was the previously quizzed Wendy J. Fox.

So, now: read the Q & A.

Oh, a full review follows.


Question: Short sentences. What gives? Are you comma adverse? Sure, you have some long sentences but it seems as if you really prefer them short, punchy. True? And why?

Christopher Merkner: With Scandamerican Domestic, my position was Less Is Best. The primary characters are all white heterosexual men feeling very badly about themselves for no objectively defensible reason. So, while I have little doubt that these men “in reality” would have no qualms about carrying on and on, eloquently and otherwise, my thinking was that it seemed appropriate and necessary to neutralize them with a language they more fully deserve, which is a language with as few words as possible.

Question: “Scandamerican” – is that a thing? And what about the domestic aspect here? Did you know when you gathered these stories that there would be a lot of child rearing, coupling, and painting walls? Of negotiating roles and responsibilities?

Christopher Merkner: As far as “Scandamerica” is concerned– it’s definitely a thing, Mark. C’mon! It’s huge! Next time you’re in Rockford, Illinois, stop by the Stockholm Inn. Very much alive, Scandamerica, I assure you, and when you are there they will treat your just right.

As far as the domestic aspect, my whole life is my wife and kids. I haven’t had a drink outside our house in perhaps five years. I have three friends, maybe two. I have no hobbies. I listen to my parents complain on the telephone from their home in Illinois. I haven’t spoken to my sister in Wisconsin in about two years. I dwell on and lament memories of my youth, when I had what some would allege was “a life.” I go to a grocery store between ten and fifteen times a week. I try to play catch or Frisbee with my daughter and son. I drive the kids to swimming lessons, then back home again, sometimes strongarming them into a grocery store on the way home. I find this life pretty rich, and I really enjoy it, so I write about it – not my life, necessarily, but the life that exists around me as I conduct this life with my family. Maybe that makes me imaginatively narrow. I’m sure it does. And for now that’s okay.

Scandamerica built up around these stories and this life, not the other way around, and I just feel grateful daily that someone was kind enough to say, “Yes, this is a book.” I could not be more grateful, nor could I be more aware that I should be grateful, given the amount of important creative work being created out there that isn’t getting published.

Christopher Merkner

Christopher Merkner

Question: Why is the family unit such a source of amusement, if that’s the right word, to you? Or terror? Do amusement and terror live side by side?

Christopher Merkner: Amusement and terror, at least for my writing, are just aesthetic tools. Family by contrast is a concept, and it’s a really important concept for me, very close and dear to me, and amusement and terror are the tools I apply to the expression of that concept because I personally find them both vastly better fits than their alternatives in helping me say what I want to say about family and families in America today.

Question: The Missouri Review said: “In Merkner’s stories, the things that tempt us come to pass.” There does seem to be a free-fall to some of these stories. You can’t believe a husband is going through with, say, holding a party for his spouse’s ex boyfriends. All of them. Do you agree with The Missouri Review’s conclusion? Is that a fair thread? Care to discuss?

Christopher Merkner: It became pretty clear, pretty early on, that Scandamerican Domestic would not be interested in realism, anyway, so in many ways this idea that wouldn’t “likely happen” doesn’t really apply. But I guess I’m also pretty confident that the men who tell the stories in the book definitely see their lives in free-fall, just as most Americans like these characters do. And this is of course ridiculous and founded on all of the most ridiculous foundations of their privilege. There really isn’t a narrator in the book that isn’t authoring the hardship by which they find themselves feeling victimized. I have very little patience for men, especially angry and stunted-feeling white ones in the middle and upper-middle class, and I imagine that must be creating this sense that things that “probably shouldn’t happen” are happening to them. They author these things in a world where they are free to author almost anything they want. They set themselves up, foolishly, and I’m just helping them find their inevitable realization. Maybe that’s too political. And maybe that’s just too cruel and unfair. I don’t mean it to be.

Question: There are several (many) stories that involve negotiations between husband and wife and that show the struggle with roles and responsibilities. Why does this space draw such interest? And does your wife check your work before you submit?

Christopher Merkner: Molly reads everything I write. If I have anything as a writer, I owe it to her. And we’re both in agreement that the “crises” of the characters in these stories are as incriminating as they are authentic.

Question: “Last Cottage,” I must say, is particularly warped and fantastic. Can’t we all just get along? You write that one from the collective “we” perspective, almost like the “we” is the whole community’s consciousness. The town wants every spare bit of shorefront commercialized—or else. What sparked this one and using that larger “we”?

Christopher Merkner: It has to be pretty normal to discover your creative work is really nothing more than an unwitting synthesis of your personal concerns, feelings, memories, attitudes, ideas, people, anecdotes, etc. Imagination is part of it, of course, but I think imagination is servant to these other pressures. Or, at least, that’s what’s going on here with me. This story started off as a sort of warm, commemorative note on the town I really grew up in—Wauconda, Illinois. But I feel like there’s no way to control this sort of thing, at least not with such an oppressive constraint as “commemorative,” so in revision it just kept expanding, drawing more fully from a fuller range of attitudes, issues, and practices I’d experienced in that town, with those people, my parents, friends, and my sister. And myself. I think it’s important to say that I am very much part of this “we” in this story, not in any sort of literal way, but in the way that one is invariably drawn into one’s own metaphors. Anyway, the deeper that story went into revision, the more fully it became clear that the characters were complicit in their own demise, all parties, all of them white and fairly, relatively solidly upper middle class. Why can’t we all just get along, indeed! But that’s the point or function of the book as a whole: Americans who really have no actual or real problems, relative to the broader world, working diligently to create problems for themselves.

Question: For folks out there like myself who have spent a long time working on full-length novels, what is the advantage, do you think, of working on your short story craft? I saw in another interview that you might be working on some longer pieces. True? Is it a difficult transition?

Christopher Merkner: For me, anyway, there are no advantages. For me, stories pester tirelessly. They are indefatigable, incessant naggers, and I think that’s because there are just so many of them to be attended to, always desperately needing something. The novel, I’m finding, is always beholden to these demands. The novel is louder, yes, but it frankly can’t compete with the multitudes of nagging, needy voices, at least not without becoming angry – and anger doesn’t flatter the novel, at least not for me. Maybe it’s a maturity thing, the way that grandparents can “handle” grandchildren with relative indifference to their annoyance, and still carry on their daily lives without being upset by or having their days ruined by the demands of their grandkids. But at this point in my life stories are just very much needing constant attention and the novel is just like a teenage kid doing its own thing, off a bit on its own, capable of enormous damage, moving toward something awesome but forever stepping on the brink of its own demise, but the stories…I just can’t stop paying attention to their needs. And the transition between the two is annoying when I think of it as annoying. I just try to just stay in contact with them both and give them each the kind of attention they seem most pleased to receive…and of course I’m inadequate to the cause. I mean, that’s the prevailing feeling, inadequacy.

Question: Lydia Davis. Is there anyone else out there like her? Who considers each word with such surgical precision and who gets so much done in so little space?

Christopher Merkner: Lydia Davis is the gold standard, at least for me. I am so grateful to her. If I look past her, back to the writers that I admired before I’d really started valuing Davis, I have to admit that it was Donald Barthelme who opened the door to the room in which I found Davis, and so I could not possibly forget him. Other writers that I find in this same room with Davis? Let me just say it this way, as I’ve said it before: I think everyone should spend some time reading Selah Saterstrom (Slab), Meg Pokrass (Damn Sure Right), David Leavitt (The Marble Quilt), Padgett Powell (The Interrogative Mood), Josh Russell (My Bright Midnight), Margaret Luongo (If the Heart is Lean), Imad Rahman (I Dream of Microwaves), Chris Bachelder (The Throwback Special), Tara Masih (Where the Dog Star Never Grows), Spring Ulmer (Benjamin’s Spectacles), Josh Harmon (The Cold Season), Wendy J Fox (Seven Stages of Anger), Luke Rolfes (Flyover Country), Danielle Dutton (Sprawl), Greg Howard (Hospice), Sara Veglahn (The Mayflies), Chris Narozny (Jonah Man), Erik Anderson (The Poetics of Trespass). These are good people writing good books.

Question: What’s next?

Christopher Merkner: What’s next, indeed. I have to try to get my kids to the mountains once more this winter; I have to get groceries for their lunches; I have a birthday party to get my daughter to Sunday, and my son needs to do his physical therapy stretches more consistently. They both have homework. The entrance to the house needs to be vacuumed. The laundry is backed up. It’s hand-to-hand combat here in this house, Mark, and what comes out of it all, in terms of writing, is still in process, and I won’t know it until it’s let me know it, I’m confident. But I’m grateful for you asking!


Christopher Merkner’s Website



A few of the words that came to mind while reading The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic:

Acerbic. Biting. Caustic.

And absolutely, in spots, hilarious. In a sort of morbid fashion.

Christopher Merkner doesn’t waste time revealing his sensibilities. He kicks things off with the first-person narrator of “Of Pigs and Children” worried about how he’s going to explain how he “accidentally gaffed” his uncle in the temple “with one of my musky bucktails on a very simple and heaving backcast.” He needs to explain what happened to his mother but she’s distracted by her Vietnamese potbelly pig. The story of Uncle Ackvund’s demise comes to us in bits and pieces and we soon learn all the grisly facts, from wheelbarrow to “slop in the culvert,” about the narrator’s miserable attempts to save his uncle’s life.

The opening sentence of “In Lapland” is a perfect example of Merkner’s breezy, easy style: “On Thursday my wife returns from work and says she needs some color in the house, can’t live in this cell-hole another minute, what have we done to bring ourselves to this way of living at our age, we aren’t twenty-five-year-old twist, not anymore.” When the couple encounters a color snob in the form of saleslady who tries to talk them off the “Country Rill” green they are chasing, they bottle up their wrath. “We’ve reserved all this direct outrage for the car ride home and really let the car windows have it,” the husband reports.

The painting project is really, in fact, all about their sexual dynamics and sexual tension between the couple and Merkner isn’t subtle. He goes after the blush.

“Friday, the brush is frayed and starchy, limpid and stiff at the same time—caked in a sort of translucent lacquer and generally incapable of offering a stroke of Country Rill that does not somehow ruin a previous stroke. My whole rhythm is off. I’m doing harm. My wife just winces, says things like ‘Oh, Guud.’”

Merkner finds humor in the ordinary. The stories seem to ask, why are things the way they are? Do we have to accept them just because? How did I get here?

Merkner pushes the envelope, surreal in spots and sardonic in others. Merkner’s characters seem to simultaneously participate in the story and turn to at the reader and say, “can you believe this is happening?’ You catch a wink like Kurt Vonnegut, a flash of humor like the best of Tom Robbins, and then a fun patch of prose a la John Updike.

The titles are ample clue to the tone, “When Our Son, 26, Brings Us His First Girlfriend” and “Check the Baby” and “We Have Them To Raise Us,” a story about a wife who goads and cajoles her husband into helping plan a party with her ex-boyfriends—all 36 of them. (“We Have Them To Raise Us” would make for a great episode of “Portlandia.” So would a few others.)

The last story is a doozie. “Last Cottage,” told in the collective “we” third-person that speaks on behalf of an entire community that’s in favor of “progress” in the sense of commercial development. The “Larsons” have been coming to Slocum Lake for fifteen years and possess the only waterfront property that has not succumbed to The Borg.

The Larsons have been subject to a series of bullying tactics but so far seem oblivious to the collective message to give up their quaint family ways and see the light. So a plot is hatched to electroshock the lake and cover the Larsons’ beachfront in dead fish. The Larsons greet the escalating affronts with pluck, resourcefulness and an innocent shrug. How infuriating!

The ending borders on Kafka country and reminded me of Thomas Berger’s fine novel “Neighbors” in its ambiguous moral compass around a tale set in a place where we’re all supposed to get along.

“Getting along,” in fact, might be the dark undercurrent here—the notion of what we’re supposed to do in middle class, Midwestern America versus how things actually play out.

Merkner’s characters reference the general suburban-Scandinavian-porcelain gene pool, but seem to recognize the pros and cons of their heritage. “My specific roots are northern Midwest, settlers near Green Bay,” the narrator of “We Have Them to Raise Us” informs us, “and while we know our way around the labyrinth of deception, because we are half the time misleading ourselves, we are not actually well prepared genetically for the confined chambers of overt and sustained lying.”

Such explicit self-analysis is rare. More often than not, Merkner’s characters are genetically well prepared for standing in wonder. They don’t often fight. The sabotage in “We Have Them to Raise Us” is sweetly mounted but only after we get some insights on the benefits of passivity. These are not journeys of self-discovery but surreal views of family intimacies that turn the world cock-eyed and make you wonder what we all take for granted.

Two quotes to keep in mind as you read The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic:

Salvador Dali: “Surrealism is not a movement. It is a latent state of mind perceivable through the powers of dream and nightmare.”

Frank Kafka: “I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.”

Darkness and, in the case of Merkner, a healthy dose of humor.


Ausma Zehanat Khan – “The Language of Secrets”

The Language of SecretsEsa Khattak is just too cool.

He’s thoughtful, careful and analytical. He sees the world in subtle, complex ways. Best of all, he knows who he is and what he’s up against. He’s a Muslim. He’s a detective. He works in multi-cultural Toronto. And he just happens to work in the special community policing division, handling sensitive cases. And he’s coming off a rough outing for how he managed the investigation of the murder of Christopher Drayton (in The Unquiet Dead). That case required diving into a tight community of survivors of the war in Bosnia and, more specifically, the massacre in Srebrenica.

Licking his wounds, and fully aware of his shaky reputation among his superiors, Khattak is handed a new case in The Language of Secrets. Again, Khattak wades into tricky, pricklish turf. The murder victim, Moshin Dar, was an estranged friend. Moshin “believed in the Islamic nation, a supernatural community whose faith transcended language, sect, ethnicity, and borders, tied together by a spiritual commonality.”

But when he was murdered, Moshin Dar was on an undercover mission for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And Khattak is asked by the federal intelligence agency to figure out what happened all while not disrupting or giving away the ongoing undercover work into a terrorist cell that operates out of a Mosque and is running commando training in the suburban woods. To make matters worse, few cops trust Khattak. He’s constantly being reminded of his missteps and, occasionally, being baited into “anger and indiscretion.” Oh, and one more thing. Khattak’s sister is involved with the erstwhile leader of the Muslim cell.

These are just a few elements that frame this layered novel. As in the first installment, Khattak works with his partner Rachel Getty, as purebred Canadian as they come. But agnostic Rachel must first go undercover to the mosque as a potential new recruit, as someone who is thinking about converting to Islam. The only religion Rachel cares about is ice hockey. While Khattak turns to prayer to ease the “ferment of his thoughts,” the only thing she’ll pray for is to have her cherished Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup.

Khattak and Getty are a terrific pair. One of my favorite things about these two is how considerate they are of each other. The cliché approach requires tension between odd-couple protagonists. The cliché approach requires quick-fire repartee and rapid retorts, but Khan avoids the tired tropes and puts two real people on the page who are struggling with their own self-doubts and struggles. She admires Khattak’s “understated elegance” and hopes to emulate it. He wants to expand their relationship to genuine friends—just because. He shows her a few things about how to approach the case, but he would never ask her to moderate her partiality to the “young and dispossessed.” They like each other, get along. The point is to see this case from two different vantage points and Khan slips effortlessly back and forth, alternating chapters as we absorb Khattak’s more nuanced intake of the clues and as Getty bounces, more youthful and a touch wide-eyed, into the heart of the fray.

It’s Khattak’s ongoing struggle with his identity that gives The Language of Secrets its weight. It’s also his ethics and his interest in simple truths about how the story of his people (his faith) is being skewed and skewered in public. Khattak is fully aware of his secret fears. He has ample reason to sink into an abyss of cynicism and anger, but he remains a believer in peace even as his dusk prayer breaks his heart anew each night. Ultimately, of course, it’s Khattak’s keen knowledge of the culture that begins to break the case and soon Rachel Getty finds herself in deep jeopardy. In the tense finish, Khan takes full advantage of the rugged Canadian winter and Rachel’s familiarity with ice.

Language across cultures (meaning, emphasis, subtleties, nuance) and secrets (between people and within both Rachel and Essa) play critical roles in unraveling the conspiracy, which is based on a real-life case from 2006. Esa Khattak, in a beautifully written scene, isn’t afraid to whisper to an “unseen presence.” He’s also not afraid to listen—and observe—with care. The whole issue of subordination to existing authority versus a higher spirit, in Esa’s case, is fascinating. What makes these first two Khattak-Getty novels click is the space between two interesting, contrasting characters who model thoughtful, mutual respect.


Previously reviewed–The Unquiet Dead, including Q & A with Ausma Khan.

Unquiet Dead



Helen Macdonald – “H is for Hawk”

H is for HawkDon’t we read, sometimes, to be surprised? H is for Hawk is one of those books. It’s almost indescribable.

How many topics does it weave together? Brit Helen Macdonald trains a goshawk. She explores grief over the death of her father, a news photographer. She reflects on writer T. H. White, who wrote his own manual (in 1951) about training the goshawk. She shows us the connection between White’s personal life and his approach to telling tales about King Arthur (The Sword in the Stone). She ruminates on  oppression, World War II, homosexuality, repression and oppression. She is also very aware that she is writing another animal book—and that they don’t always end well.

And, somehow, she pulls it all together.

The training of the hawk, which she names Mabel, becomes a prism for processing her thoughts. She’s an experienced falconer before her father dies, but the goshawk (much feistier and edgier than some birds of prey) represents a new challenge and so does her state of mind: “While the steps were familiar, the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief and numb to the hurts of human life.”

The goshawk is part alien. It’s a loner. T.H. was part alien. And a loner. At least, he knew he was different—and Macdonald’s dredging up the business about White’s fantasies about spanking boys, while not easy to read, shows Macdonald’s drive to confront as many of those “hurts of human life” as possible.

Macdonald pours herself into Mabel, lives through her—and kills alongside her. Her father taught her to look through a viewfinder as a way to distance herself from the subject and to compose photographic, organized thoughts about the images coming through the lens. Mabel becomes Macdonald’s viewfinder and she hopes to find herself in the training and hunting and, yes, killing. The two connect. While I found it a bit hard to believe that a bird’s moods could be deciphered as easily as say, a dog’s, Macdonald convinced me.

This is a mesmerizing memoir. It’s slow in parts. It skews dark. I’ve seen some other comments that Macdonald comes across as self-absorbed but that never occurred to me; she stirs the pot with so many other issues and ideas and observations that I was never bored.

A sampling of the writing as Macdonald meets Mabel for the first time:

“A sudden thump of feathered shoulders and the box shook as if someone had punched it, hard, from within. ‘She’s got her hood off,’ he said, and frowned. That light, leather hood was to keep the hawk from fearful sights. Like us.

“Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.”

(Porpentine…arachaic for porcupine.)

“Nature books” don’t get much more rich than H is for Hawk.

It’s about nature – including the human kind. In looking at herself so deeply at a time when she was going off the rails, and pulled herself back up, she looks at all of us, from our darkest moments to the brightest. H is for Hawk is like “daylight irrigating a box.”