William Landay – “Defending Jacob”

Defending JacobDefending Jacob is straightforward yet complex. It’s linear, in one way, yet chews back on itself in another. The last few pages put every scene before it back in play for re-evaluation. The story leads you gently, one way, and then messes around with your assumptions. The title is simple and clean and yet has layers of depth—at least, once you reach the final few pages and see what’s about to happen.

Our narrator is Andy Barber, the assistant district attorney in a suburban Massachusetts county. The first-person account of the events is interspersed with transcripts from court proceedings. A deft device. It works. From the courtroom back-and-forth, we know early on that Andy Barber has found a way to inject himself deep into a case involving the murder of a young boy who was a classmate of his 14-year-old son, Jacob. We know that Andy has messed up but we are not clear exactly what he’s done or how far events might have spiraled out of control.

Andy Barber is so sure his son is not responsible for the murder that he takes a few matters (potential evidence) into his own hands. And yet he’s still quite likeable, ordinary, Everyman. He is sure. We are sure. Andy Barber doesn’t believe Jacob played a role and, in fact, Andy helps us see that the prosecutors are being quite sloppy in sorting through leads and possible suspects. Why not make sure? Indeed, why not? This is your son and he may have a few problems and issues, but he certainly wasn’t involved in this heinous act. Was he?

Defending Jacob revolves neatly around relationships—between Andy and his wife Laurie, between Andy and his son, between Andy and his in-court opponent, Neal Logiudice. And, finally, between Andy and his estranged father. Andy’s take on these relationships is critical to the storytelling and Landay does a masterful job of letting us buy into Andy’s evaluations of the strains and difficulties in each. Andy is so frank with us—revealing, for instance, that he kept key information from his wife—that our trust in him grows.

Is the story a bit long? Perhaps. Andy’s father seems more caricature—too irascible—than the others. The whole “behavioral genetics” theme could have been tightened up. These are quibbles in a well-constructed story. The structure of Defending Jacob is really quite brilliant.

The story is told in a calm, straightforward style. Like the best crime-court-mystery thrillers, not everything is quite as it seems. Like the best crime-court-mystery thrillers, this one comes down to the last few pages. Defending Jacob is well executed and taut, down to the last. (This review is number 6,746 or so on Amazon and the overall rating stands at 4.5 stars; isn’t that enough “evidence?”) I “read” this story on Audio CD, by the way, and the narration by Grover Gardner was outstanding.

Q & A With Rex Burns – “Crude Carrier”

Crude CarrierFor a lesson in how to get a story up and running quickly, look no further than Crude Carrier, by the inimitable Rex Burns. The father-and-daughter detective team of James Raiford and Julie Campbell, a.k.a. The Touchstone Agency, are thrown into the deep end of a case from the opening page. With Burns’ no-nonsense prose churning the waters, the story launches quickly from Denver to far across the globe.

Crude Carrier comes smack on the heels of last year’s Body Slam, also featuring the Touchstone Agency crew and also featuring some deft undercover work. I can’t imagine more different undercover assignments than the world of professional wrestling and the world of international oil transport on the high seas.

But Raiford pulls it off—and so does Burns.

A review follows. First, Rex Burns was kind enough to answer some questions about Crude Carrier, particularly the effort that went into a story that is rich in detail about life on the high seas. If you’re a fan of the “Mighty Ships” show on the Smithsonian (it’s really cool), then Crude Carrier is the perfect mystery for you.


Question: How did you get the idea for Crude Carrier?

Rex Burns: The antennae are always out for story ideas, and this one had the advantage of involving a great deal of money (at $100 a barrel) plus the puzzle of how to steal it. An added attraction was the oil tanker setting, about which I knew very little but wanted to know more. “Write what you know” is good advice if you know something interesting, but I prefer “write what you want to know” better.

Question: How did you go about the research? Readers are eager to know how much time you spent and how you approached the whole process.

Rex Burns: This book was several years in the making, much of the time devoted to research. The shipboard setting and the London setting both required traveling and asking questions from people willing to talk about what they do. I had a teaching year in England and that provided the opportunity to identify potential sources of information and the time to make several trips from Canterbury to London to interview them. The shipping office described in the novel takes elements from a couple of offices I visited, though the fictional characters are determined by the needs of the plot rather than being portraits of actual people. Julie’s stroll through the grounds of London University go back three decades to my own attendance there. Fortunately, many parts of the London cityscape such as Russell Square and the Tower district stand firm against rapid change.

Question: Have you always been fascinated by big ships, or tankers?

Rex Burns: By ships large and small, yes. I come from a Navy family and some of my earliest childhood memories are fragments of ocean trips to the orient before Pearl Harbor. Following WWII, the Navy had many ships host civilians, Navy dependents, and groups such as Boy Scout troops, and I had tours aboard air craft carriers out of Pensacola Bay and out of Coronado, CA. My later month-long sojourn aboard the troop transport “Daniel I. Sultan” from San Diego (Camp Pendleton) to Okinawa was significant, too; as I was mess officer on that voyage I was able to nose around and see aspects of the ship’s operations and aspects of the personnel organization and division of labor that most passengers don’t see. I especially like destroyers—my Dad was a “tin can sailor,” but I do find submarines claustrophobic—though very interesting. I still enjoy sea travel, including the twelve minute ride between Coronado and San Diego on the old Coronado ferry (which is now for foot traffic only).

Rex Burns HeadshotQuestion:
What was the hardest part of gathering all the detail—things like learning how ships are loaded, how the loads are measured, learning about the world of shipping insurance?

Rex Burns: There was nothing really hard about any of that—I found it interesting, so it was pleasurable to research. A lot of the basic issues were done with interviews as mentioned above, but most of the research of fine detail—balancing the load, types of oil, handling dangerous cargo—was done on the computer. I gained familiarity with the niceties of loading a vessel when, while stationed on Okinawa, I was appointed the embarkation officer for a tank battalion and responsible for ship loading when we boarded LST’s for transport to Numazu, Japan. I was able to recall and transfer the emotion of that job to the lading of the Aurora Victorious. As for the marine insurance, what is necessary for verisimilitude is to know what you want to find out and to find and use the keywords that unlock a myriad of sites providing pertinent facts. The hardest part of research for this book as for most of my yarns is to stop doing research—then to pare down what factual material goes into the book so it retains a sense of depth but does not confuse or bore the reader. There’s a balance between telling what’s necessary and effective, and burdening the reader with so much detail that the tale’s impetus is lost. Of course that balance varies with each reader, and I’ve had some who enjoyed learning about oil tankers and others who complained about “all that oil-stuff.” I would rather try to please the former reader than the latter.

Question: And how about the electronics details around the boat?

Rex Burns: Again, research. I made the Aurora Victorious an old vessel not only for the plot but also because my own knowledge of electronics (and single side band radios) is very limited. I really don’t know if Raiford’s use of the radio would work—but that’s OK, because he didn’t either. We’re both very happy that it did. A lot of the communications gear aboard the Aurora, being so old, comes from the communications equipment I learned to use when I served in a tank battalion, and—with some admittedly shallow reading up on contemporary satellite usage—I could adapt it to the Aurora’s ancient electronics.

Question: Without giving anything away, have the book’s nefarious deeds happened?

Rex Burns: I do not know if this plot has occurred in real life, but I greatly appreciate your implication that it seems as if it could. My guess is that if it hasn’t, it could. There seems to be some kind of prescience afloat which writers sense. A couple of my Gabe Wager novels preceded reality—one, The Leaning Land, had a police officer ambushed near the Four-Corners area of the Navaho nation. A couple months after it was published, a police officer was killed near the same Four Corners area in the same way. Another tale, Endangered Species, had a suicide bomber planning to crash an air plane into one of the critical buildings on the Rocky Flats atomic trigger manufacturing site. That was about a year before 9/11. And in Parts Unknown (1991), body organs were being stolen from undocumented victims and sold to less-than-honest doctors for a nice profit. So I can’t say that this book’s plot won’t thicken into reality.

Question: You allude to the shrinking size of the crew on these ocean-going tankers. How safe is it out there?

Rex Burns: One of my characters interviewed by Julie lists several major accidents involving oil tankers. The list is true (and by no means exhaustive). There have been more accidents since the Crude Carrier came out last year. I did read not too long ago that one company is designing robotic freighters that will be so automated that crews will not be needed. I don’t know if humans will be placed aboard for supervision of the machines or not, but the “S.S. Keymatic” is on the drawing boards now. The robot ships may or may not be safer than those guided by fallible humans. My guess is that if skeleton crews are mandated as back-up for the robots, the sea-faring ability of the humans will atrophy, and their primary function will be to radio for help.

Question: Raiford notes the “rigid chain of command” from the captain on down the line. True?

Rex Burns: The merchant marine is a quasi-military structure, and by law the captain of a vessel is the ultimate authority when the sea-bound ship drops its pilot. The Ship’s Articles that each crewmember signs designates his or her place in the pecking order.

Question: What’s next for the Touchstone Agency?

Rex Burns: I’m not sure, but I’m looking for something that interests me.



There is something unmistakable about the Rex Burns style. It’s straight-ahead. It’s meaty knuckles of prose, in your face. Here’s the story and here’s more story and we’re not going to spend a lot of time chewing the fat, okay? Try and keep up. Window dressing is for retail, padding is for your mattress, fluff is worthless since it doesn’t weigh anything. The style reeks of confidence of a pure storyteller focused on the events, not the clever way he is going to tell it. Boom, like that.

Crude Carrier
gets up and running like a water skier launching from a dock, but this case the topic is ocean-going oil tankers and a mysterious death. The case arrives at the landlocked, Denver-based Touchstone Agency through letters delivered by the owners of the Aurora Victorious to the parents of Third Officer Harold Rossi, who died at sea with precious little explanation to go with it. Efforts by the parents to find out more have borne no new details. Soon, James Raiford and Julie Campbell—a.k.a. The Touchstone Agency—are making telephone calls via satellite to the ship itself. The detectives get the brush-off but soon realize that the owners of the ship may have established a “pattern of negligence” within its fleet and the insurance company is eager to know what Touchstone has learned, if anything.

Before the page count reaches double digits, the body count jumps from one to two (I don’t think that’s a big spoiler) and soon James Raiford is off to insert himself into the military-like subculture of the Aurora’s crew (he works his way on board as an electronics officer) and Julie heads to London to sniff around the company’s shady past.

Raiford isn’t all brawn and brute. His relationship with Julie gives him some soft edges and we see Raiford’s humanity as he makes his way from the lower decks to the upper echelon of the Aurora’s hierarchy. But Raiford has a temper—and reason to have one—and he attacks the “rigid chain of command” in such a way that his work to find out what happened to Rossi is hampered. In fact, he manages to dig himself a few holes before battling his way back. Alone never felt so utterly alone on this remote patch of ocean.

The ship details are fascinating—but not overdone. If didn’t know about Plimsoll lines, you will soon. Burns writes convincingly about all this stuff—quite a feat. You’ll grow a pair of sea legs reading in your arm chair.

Resolving the case of the dead Third Officer requires knowing when to ask the right questions—and who should hear them. Thousands of miles away in London, Julie encounters her own brand of danger and inadvertently puts her father squarely in the crosshairs of trouble.

Bow to stern and port to port, Crude Carrier is a solid, engaging trip.

Q & A With Maximillian Potter – “Shadows in the Vineyard”

PotterBookCoverThe rave reviews for Shadows in the Vineyard by Maximillian Potter have poured in–for good reason.

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Publisher’s Weekly and celebrity chef Eric Ripert have all showered praise (and that’s just for starters).

In Shadows, Potter takes a crime in the vineyards and uses it as a jumping-off point for an enjoyable look at the context for the tradition-filled wine culture in France. (A review follows.)

Max Potter is currently the Senior Media Adviser and speechwriter for Gov. John Hickenlooper and he’s the former Executive Editor and Editor-at-Large for the magazine 5280, but he took time out to answer, in thorough and entertaining fashion, a few questions about the book.  You might need a glass or two to sit back and savor Max’s in-depth and colorful replies. He even offers an opinion on the standard weeknight fare around our house, Trader Joe’s “Three-Buck Chuck.”


Question: Do you think Americans can appreciate the degree of devotion and reverence that the French hold for wine in general and wine, in particular, from many of these highly-valued vineyards?

Potter: Absolutely. I guess I’d say that I’m proof.

When Vanity Fair first sent me to Burgundy to report on the crime, I knew next to nothing about wine and zero about Burgundies. My oenophile friends justifiably got a kick out of the idea of me in Burgundy. Their reaction was pretty much, “Dude, really?!” I’d like to think that makes me your typical American when it comes to French wine. It was in preparation for my first reporting trip for the magazine piece that I began to research the region, the wines, and the culture, and to say I was skeptical of what I read would be an understatement.

When I read about terroir, which is the concept that one particular parcel of earth is so much more special than another patch of earth—and that is why wine made from one parcel of soil can sell for, say, $1,200 while wine from a parcel just three yards away can “only” sell for $300—I thought that was just bananas. It seemed to me that terroir was nothing more than a French marketing scheme established so that Burgundian winemakers could jack up the prices for their fermented grape juice. I dismissed the philosophy of the Burgudnian vigneron as pretentious hooey. Vigneron is the term for just about anyone who works in wine cultivation, and Burgundian vignerons do not believe wine is made, but rather subscribe to the notion that wine is born. They view themselves as midwives birthing nature’s fruit and pressing it into wine. I thought, Give me a break.

When I first told my father I was going to Burgundy to report on this crime, he said, “So you’re going over to investigate a crime committed against some plants?” Really, my pop’s question sums up what was at the core of my American cynicism on this topic.

But here’s the thing, after I had spent a relatively short time there, I not only saw Burgundy through new eyes, what’s more, because of Burgundy, I saw the world differently. Terroir is real. It is a product of science and spirituality. Because of hundreds of years of geological upheaval and transformation, with oceans receding and the earth’s crust buckling and bulging, and the resulting abrupt, uneven fault lines beneath the vineyards, Burgundy very much indeed is in a global sweet spot to grow vines, and each parcel is truly unique. Call it the work of God, or chalk it up to shifting Tectonic Plates, or both, whatever. There’s that.

Additionally, there has been the work of man, beginning with the medieval monks, who married the Pinot Noir vines to Burgundy, and you might say engaged in centuries’ worth of experimentation and ultimately perfection when it comes to viticulture. There truly is a difference in wine that comes from one patch of terroir and another that is, oh, just across the road.

Quick story: I attended probably north of 50 tastings in Burgundy; at one of them, more than 50 of the best wines of the Côte de Nuits region were uncorked, all were 10 years old. The co-host of this particular event, who became a dear friend, was cooking in the kitchen and asked me to fetch him a glass of a wine that I liked. (This guy is a massive man with a massive heart, a brilliant Brit who lovingly liked to call me a certain derogatory term for females—rhymes with punt—but that’s a whole other story.)  I honestly can’t remember what wine I selected for him, but I do recall it was from the village of Pommard. Presented with the glass, this big guy in his apron stood in his kitchen before his simmering pot of stew, sniffed the wine for a few seconds, took and drink and he nailed the exact vineyard and producer, out of hundreds of vineyards and producers. I was stunned. I said something to the effect of, “Well, I must have just grabbed a wine that you know very well.” He

Maximillian Potter

Maximillian Potter

told me to go get him another glass of something else. I did, and he nailed it again. We played this game for about a half dozen glasses. In no time, frankly, I could tell the difference of wines from a given village, though I could never approach being able to discern wine from neighboring vineyards in the same village the way this fellow can. The difference in flavor is largely due to the uniqueness of the terroir.

Contrary to my dad’s statement, the vines in Burgundy are not just plants. In the overwhelming number of domaines, these vines have been a part of a family for decades, in some cases, hundreds of years, and the vines are regarded as children to be cared for and raised by each generation. In the case of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, its patriarch, Aubert de Villaine, almost literally cares for his vines as his children, and for decades he has tended to them with an unwavering dedication and tenderness. There is nothing more sacred in Burgundy than that ancient marriage of the vine to the earth. In many ways, that union is what holds the culture together, at times it feels like literally the culture is tethered to the earth with a vine. And for centuries, there has been an unspoken arrangement, I think, between man and the vineyards, wherein “we” realize that these vineyards are out there, vulnerable, and no one had ever dreamed of entering a vineyard and intentionally laying waste to it. Yet, that is exactly what these bad guys threatened to do, and, frankly, they showed it was possible. This crime drilled into and attempted to poison that very essence of Burgundian culture.

Quick story 2: There was a moment along the way in my reporting when I found myself talking to Francois Millet, one of the vignerons who was another of the victims of this crime. Francois was explaining to me how this crime had shaken him and really all of Burgundy. He said that until this crime the vineyards of Burgundy had been free of evil. He told me that the vignerons realized this and did not take it for granted. On the contrary, he said that Burgundian vignerons “had the luxury to focus on the poetry that God had given them—the vines, the earth, the sun and the rain. But, Francois added, that luxury came with a price: It meant that they had the responsibility to birth the very best wines from it.”

In writing the book, I was very conscious of my own journey from skeptic to Burgundy believer—I was very conscious of my father’s reaction—and I tried to structure the story, or rather stories, in such a way that a reader like me, or like my dad, who had every rational reason to dismiss it all, would come to know and appreciate the place, the people and the wines the way I came to appreciate them. I’ve said it many times, but I mean it, a crime is what drew me to Burgundy, but that poetry of the place is what drew me back … and makes me wish I were there right now.

Question:Is the wine from DRC really that much better? $10,000-per-bottle better?

Potter: Yes. Again, I think I’m probably a great barometer for this. The first Burgundy I ever had was a 2008 La Tache. Monsieur de Villaine, the co-director of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti kindly invited me into his cellar and poured me a glass of the La Tache, which is widely regarded as one of the very best wines in the world. It was, without exaggeration, the best flavor—really, flavor isn’t right, it was the best sensation—I have ever had in my mouth. That same day, I walked across the cobblestone street to the Domaine Liger-Belair, and there I was served at 2008 La Romanée, another of the world’s very best wines. Later that night, back at my hotel with my translator, all we could think about that night was how incredible these two wines were. Since then, I’ve had several vintages of Romanée-Conti, which many critics and collectors think is the world’s best wine, along with many other highly prized Grand Crus from the DRC along with many other prestigious domaines, and man, oh, man, they are magnificent. Since then, back at home in the real world, I’ve pretty much been limited to Burgundies that are at the bottom of the wine hierarchy, which is to say $25 “Regional” Burgundies. Regionals can be very good, but nothing compared to the Grand Crus.

I guess I liken the differences between a Grand Cru and all rest to a piece of remarkable writing and something that is just readable. When you read truly great writing, even if you don’t understand its engineering, you know it and you measure everything else you read or write against that highest standard. The Grand Cru wines of Burgundy are very much like that. When a Grand Cru wine comes into your life, you are blessed and ruined, ruined in the sense that all the wines that follow are … ok.

Question: As you expanded on the original Vanity Fair article about the crime (which I have not read as a stand-alone piece), how did you go about finding ways to expand on the story? How much research did you do and how did you go about organizing it? How did you decide how far back to go in the history?

Potter: Well, I’m a big believer that structure is 70 percent of a successful piece of writing. You want to tease and ultimately satiate the reader. Call it narrative foreplay. Hey now! … Writing, it seems to me, if done well, is a very selfless endeavor. For me, writing is not about the writer, it’s about the reader. As I mentioned, I worked very hard to try to replicate my experience—Burgundian neophyte/skeptic who, through exposure and education became an unapologetic Burghound believer. Pursuing this goal made the structure at once incredibly easy and challenging. The crime was my portal into that world—who doesn’t like a good crime story–and so I began with that to lure the reader. Through the crime, I stepped into and learned the incredible history of the place and came to meet the characters past and present (and future), and so, similarly then, as the author, I tried to replicate that with that experience. I think of the crime as the main vine stock and the other stories in the book as offshoots, which I hope bear fruit for the reader and generally enrich their experience and understanding of the place and the wines.

Basically, I wrote the book for people who have not discovered Burgundies, or for that matter, wine, who find the “pretense” off-putting, but who have the sensibility and soulfulness to appreciate the wine and the culture when given the chance.

Quick story 3: One of the characters the reader meets in the book told me that wine is a blend of the ghost of grapes and all of the ghosts who have worked over the centuries to make that wine. Whether it’s a $12,000 bottle of Romanée-Conti or a $30 Regional Burgundy, I’d say the vast majority of the wines are made with the same type of care and tradition. In other words, there are wonderful ghosts in every glass of Burgundy and my hope is that after reading the book, you would better appreciate the ghosts in your glass.

Question: It’s interesting to read Shadows in the Vineyard, which references the heavy persecution and oppression of Protestants by Catholics in the mid-18th Century, with what happened in Paris on January 7 this year. What were some of your thoughts about the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the history of religious differences–in France and elsewhere?

Potter: I don’t see a parallel between the Pre-Revolutionary French oppression of Protestants and the slaughter carried out by those terrorists in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. The Protestants who were oppressed by the Pre-Revolutionary French government were indeed oppressed, and they took up arms, as our forefathers did here in America, only after logic and reason and politics had failed them over and over again. Beyond that, I’ll leave it to the geo-political experts.

Look, I’m a way lapsed Catholic who went to 13 years of Catholic School including four years of high school with Jesuits (“God’s Marines”). The Jesuits are big on critical thinking, which ironically, I guess, is the kind of thinking that propelled me from the Church and organized religion in general. I came around to the idea that organized religion is not for me. I wish it was. I miss the sense of community and world order that comes with organized religion. But I’m not a fan of exclusivity or dogma, or superiority—that’s where, it seems to me, the world gets into problems. Crazy thing about organized religion and codified beliefs—and maybe this does apply to the Hebdo massacre—is that organized religion has historically been a cause of oppression and bloodshed.

I certainly don’t believe that any one religion is better than any other. I mean, it seems to me, they’re all roads to the same place: selflessness and love and community. Yet somewhere along the way, organized religion often gets perverted and fucked up. If there is a God, and I believe there is, I’m of the mind that we are all his People. While I’m a lapsed Catholic, I will forever admire the Jesuits who taught me, and I will forever hold fast to their credo, which simply says: Be a person for others. I kind of think that’s all we need: remember love and to be a person for others … And wine!

Question: I’ve seen a few comments from readers who expect Shadows in the Vineyard to offer up a typical true crime book, but it seems to me that your goal was to put this crime against the vineyard in a broader context about elitism, about ruling class versus working class. Thoughts?

Potter: Well, I never set out to write a typical crime book. And while I was conscious of the classism that has always surrounded wine, I tried to place Burgundy wine in a larger historical context and show that wine is meant to bring people together.

Quick story 4: During my reporting for the book, over the course of two and half years, I had the great fortune to lunch many times with Aubert de Villaine. We would often eat at the Domaine: meats, cheeses, fruit and he would open an awfully nice bottle of wine. As I detail in the book, Aubert is a humble, hardworking farmer; and a man of extraordinary kindness and tenderness. He’s a big proponent of hugs, though rarely gives them himself. However, he is a man born into privilege and by definition, an aristocrat. Then there’s me: born into a working poor family in a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia. During one of my last lunches with Aubert we discussed our very different backgrounds and I said I found it amazing that a guy like me was sitting here with a guy like him drinking his amazing wine. Aubert cocked an eyebrow in such a way that conveyed he had never thought of it that way, because, quite frankly, I don’t think that is how he thinks. There was a long pause, he took a drink from his glass (2007 Romanée Saint-Vivant) and he said that I should try to find a way to put our meeting, and our differences, into the book. When I asked him why he responded, “Because that shows the power of wine. Wine brings people together who might not otherwise have ever met. That is the beauty of wine—the relationships and community it creates.”

Long story short, that was the overarching theme and context of the book I was trying to achieve: All of the events and characters you encounter in Shadows are gathered around wine.

Question: Have ever tried Three-Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s? Thoughts?

Potter: Dude. Come on! Two-Buck Chuck and Rolling Rock is my terroir. That’s where I was born! As high-schooler growing up in Philly I used to spike my Water Ices with generic Vodka and Night Train. My thoughts: I’d much rather drink a Burgundy.

Question: What’s your pick for a good–and affordable–Burgundy that you can readily find in Colorado? Where do you buy it and how much is it?

Well, as far as Burgundy goes, here’s a suggestion that is good insidery type stuff: Aubert de Villaine, who oversees the D.R.C., also has a domaine of his own. It is in the far south of Burgundy and until he moved there in the early 70’s, it was thought of as the Hoboken (before it was cool) to Burgundy’s Manhattan. Aubert has changed all that.PotterRed2 His Domaine is A&P de Villaine and I buy his wines because they are affordable and, clearly, he makes great wines. I recommend the Domaine A&P Bouzeron Aligote (a white), and of his reds, I recommend the Domaine A&P Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise La Fortune both under $30.PotterWineRecWhite

Question: I know you might have plenty to do on a daily basis, but do you have plans for another book?

Potter: I have few book ideas that I can’t seem to shake. There are a few topics, and one character in particular, I just can’t shake. I’m figuring out which one I want to tackle first as a book. I’m also waiting to see how some of these unfolding stories around me wrap, with fingers crossed for happy endings.


And now, a review:


Settle back (perhaps with a glass of wine) and relax. Shadows in the Vineyard is a thoughtful, smart, elegant look at a nasty attack on the “storied” vineyard known as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. (DRC if you’re in the know.)

I am not.

Given the heightened terrorism fears in France and across Europe as I write this review (January 2015), it’s hard to put this particular attack in context. But Maximillian Potter does—and he sees the 2010 extortion-by-poison as a big-picture event with roots, so to speak, in history.

Shadows in the Vineyard covers lots of ground and (sorry for all the agriculture metaphors) and tills the soil with care. Fans of heart-stopping true crime stuff, seek else.

The attack was wicked and required enormous dedication—carefully drilling holes in over 700 precious vines and threatening to inject them all unless an exorbitant ransom is paid.

Potter intersperses tales of the crime and the events as they unfolded with glimpses of history—Louis XV, Madame Pompadour, the Prince de Conti all get screen time as Potter demonstrates the growing reverence for wine. The shadows in the vineyard of DRC are shadows first cast a few centuries ago—and Potter’s case is well prosecuted. Along the way are questions about classism, snobbery and outright religious oppression.

In fact, the chase for the suspect is hardly heart-pounding (despite several dead ends that stump the elite team of investigators) and the center of gravity for the book shifts to the growing decay and troubles under the reign of Louis XV. As the narrative flips back and forth, you may feel at times like you’ve strayed way too far from the inciting crime of this story. But Potter brings the threads back together in deft manner at the end and we see how one vineyard took on such exalted status that it could be compared to a work of art—and, as such, draw the attention of French government officials to protect the purity of the lineage and, well, bloodline.

Potter takes the case like a cutting, nurtures it carefully, and gives us all a narrative we can sit back and savor.


Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance. - Benjamin Franklin










Willy Vlautin – “The Free”

The Free - Willy VlautinI listened to The Free on audio CD. Willy Vlautin’s narration of his own novel is as matter-of-fact as his prose. He reads in a dry but empathetic fashion, no flash. The writing looks simple on the page and Vlautin’s reading is equally vanilla. Steady. But there’s an inexorable tug to the undertow.

Willy Vlautin, whether reading or writing, has the ability to put a reader in a trance.

The Free is the story of a brain-damaged Iraq war veteran (Leroy Kervin, who tries to commit suicide), a nurse (Pauline Hawkins), and the night manager of the group home (Freddie McCall) where the veteran lives. As their lives intertwine, they struggle with All-American doses of everyday reality—the health care system, mounting debt, addictions, loneliness.

“Freddie arrived at the group home that night in such a state of exhaustion he could hardly do his chores.”

“Pauline walked down the sixth-floor hall and entered room 3, Mrs. Dawson. She helped her from her bed and walked her up and down the hall, and when she was finished she clocked out for dinner break.”

“He opened his eyes to see a brown-haired nurse in the corner of the room. She stared out the window into the parking lot. It was night and the main room lights were off. He could hear her sobs and could see her wiping her tears while she looked at her wristwatch.”

As in The Motel Life and Lean on Pete, The Free focuses on individuals on the edge. Vlautin’s landscape is bleak but he sees acts of humanity everywhere.

Vlautin’s characters are very much in the “now.” They might have a dream or something out there they might wish to do or a place to reach, but the narrative stays close to the next minute and the next. There are no big schemes or plans.

Vlautin people seem naturally propelled by their circumstances. The narrative style only affords us brief glimpses of the character’s thoughts—most of the point of view and attitudes are rendered in detail of the surroundings and movements. Vlautin is the tireless documentarian, although he flashes a distinctly different style in recounting the drug-hazy and wild fantasy life where Leroy occasionally heads, in his mind.

Despair rules but hope gets a chance, every now and then, to flash its stuff.