Wayne Johnson, “Baseball Diaries – Confessions of a Cold War Youth”

Little League tryouts. It’s April in Minnesota. And young Wayne Johnson is both excited and sick to his stomach. He’s feeling inferior, dressed in his too-large cleats and his hand-me-down clothes and toting his beat-up, old Rawlins mitt.

And there’s Wayne’s sort-of friend and frequent foe Artie and his fresh, perfect glove.

“His glove, of course, was right out of the box. It was a Stan Musial special, bright orange leather, and it looked the size of an Easter ham. Artie Cavanaugh’s glove glowed. It looked like it cost three hundred bucks. It had a gazillion rawhide strings on it, and little flags with world titles and statistics written on them. It seemed them it had everything on it but the word Excalibur, but that’s what the thing was supposed to be.”

This vivid moment is one in a delectable string of distinctive, colorful scenes from Baseball Diaries – Confessions of a Cold War Youth. Wayne Johnson’s memoir begins in 1963. Both Wayne and Artie are sons of World War II aviators. Their mothers were both members of something called the Bachelor Buttons Garden Club. (Doesn’t the club name say it all?)  Vietnam looms. A cousin comes home in a body bag. Johnson’s youthful adventures, and the non-stop tussling with Artie Cavanaugh, are at times carefree. But there’s an undertow of foreboding, of the real world about to come crashing into the idyllic settings and the boys’ tension-filled relationship.

“And could we have known that morning we met, odd and irritating as we’d found each other, that we’d be sharing everything for the next decade, from Indian Guides to dangerous hobbies to homicidal bullies, trouble with girls, dope, explosives, home-made stun-guns and other weapons, strange Halloween candies, and somewhere in it all, one timeless, unforgettable game of Little League baseball?”

There, I’ve just laid out the “plot” of this memoir—well, that paragraph is from Johnson’s prologue, so it’s not much of a spoiler—but non-baseball fans should know there’s some baseball but it’s backdrop for the most part with the exception of that one “unforgettable” game. (I can see why.) And by the time the game rolls around, we’re all fully invested in seeing if Wayne can come out on top that they could have been playing volleyball or tiddlywinks. (Except baseball is perfectly iconic for this particular battle.)

Johnson avoids sentimentality as he looks back. Okay, maybe a touch here and there. He grounds the tales in terrific, often quirky detail. The memoir spans from building childhood go-carts to smoking dope as teenagers. Young Wayne yearns for the aloof neighbor Diane. Wayne listens to Sgt. Pepper ‘ad infinitum,’ watches The Time Tunnel and tries to sneak into the movie theater to watch “Barbarella.” He delivers newspapers, tries to sneak peeks at Playboy in the drug store, falls out with Artie, rides around town on his Schwinn bike, grapples with bullies, reconnects with Artie, remains “struck-dumb smitten” with Diane, and poaches liquor form adult stashes when possible. Young Wayne learns that a bottle of Red Dye Number Four can stretch a bottle of Dewar’s to “fantastic limits.” But both Artie and Wayne know they are good kids bound for good careers, maybe doctors. The antics and fooling around are what’s expected. They want to be popular and have fun because that’s what you do.

Baseball Diaries is not an angst-filled psychological drama. It’s the story of an odd but completely recognizable friendship and the pair’s mutual adventures. Johnson recounts the adventures with a self-effacing warmth—foibles and all. Mary Karr (The Art of the Memoir) wrote that “memoir done right is an art, a made thing. It’s not just raw reportage flung splat on the page.” Johnson’s Baseball Diaries is certainly proof of that.

Jonathan Evison, “Small World”

The day after finishing Small World, I caught a television news spot about how 80 percent of the doughnut shops in southern California are owned by Cambodians. Many of the immigrants settled in the United States in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, following the genocide in their home country. The piece featured a Cambodian-American artist, Phung Hyunh, and her exhibit “Doughnut (W)hole,” which used the pink doughnut boxes in place of white canvases and juxtaposed childhood images of “doughnut kids” with their adult selves.

“That common shared experience of the doughnut is very American,” said Phung Hyunh. “Underneath the sweet of the doughnut is actually inter-generational trauma and pain.”

And that is Jonathan Evison’s Small World in a nutshell. (Or doughnut hole.) That common shared experience. Immigrants. Newcomers. Finding your home. Hope. Dreams. Ambition. Work. Viability. Birth. Rebirth. Growth. Renewal. And for every touch of kindness, an equal dose of trauma and pain. For every smooth trip, a wreck. Small World is a three-dimensional, time-hopping tapestry of portraits of regular people who see around the corner to “next.” Small World is about a lot of things, but one of the main themes is the ability of an individual to move—to literally and metaphorically transport yourself to a new life and new opportunities. And trains are one of the main motifs.

Evison, riding up there in the locomotive with his hand on the throttle, asks readers to keep track of a whole coach full of characters. The novel starts in nine places. We meet Walter Bergen in 2019, then skip back to “The Bergens” (a mother along her young son and daughter) in 1851 aboard a ship on the way from Ireland to America. We meet Brianna Flowers in 2019 and then a character named Othello in 1851. Next, Winston Chen-Murphy in 2019, Jenny Chen in 2017, Wu Chen in 1851, Luyu Tully in 1851, then Laila Tully in 2019. We finally circle back to Walter Bergen on Page 73 but we aren’t done meeting new characters as we next pick up Malik Flowers in 2019. We careen from one coast to the other, to the middle of the country, and back around. But, not to worry. Evison makes it easy. We start to see the connections. There’s precious little slack in the couplings. Go west? Sure. Or go anywhere. Go somewhere. But as you go, think ahead. And imagine how the next generation of your extended family will fare.

Evison shows his cards from the get-go. Right out of the chute, even before the official Chapter 1, we get a four-paragraph entry called “Full Service Reduction.” This is foreshadowing in full technicolor. We meet “Walter” only by his given name. We are told there has been a debriefing, interviews, a hearing and a “retirement party that never happened.” There was a train “hurtling toward the unavoidable” and we know Walter cared about his passengers and we get a quartet of surnames that alert us to key names to come. And Walter, who is still dazed and navigating “a world wrapped in gauze,” wonders “what circumstances, what decisions, had delivered them all to that moment.”

Circumstances? Decisions? Moments? That’s what the next 466 pages are all about and the dual-timeline mosaic gives us the aforementioned plethora of characters and all the challenges of finding their way, finding their home and, of course, finding each other. (Cue up Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America.” We’ll make our bed, say our grace, and so on.)

Evison’s characters are so richly imagined that we easily succumb to the narrative. The planning and plotting likely required a chart like a detective’s intricate murder board with a dozen suspects, except Evison is bringing these characters to life. We see individuals make choices, take chances, ponder risks. There are themes of identity, race, religion, slavery, freedom, classism, self-reliance and community, too. The list is long. Ambitious? And then some. I can imagine others wanting the novel trimmed; I can also imagine others wanting two pages for every one that’s here.

Though we know Small World will end in a train wreck, the novel revels in hope. There are many charitable gestures that alter lives like, well, a switch at a railyard. Some are in-the-moment offerings that cost the giver almost nothing, others are as magnanimous as taking a stranger under your roof. Even Walter Bergen, on the last day of his 31 years riding the rails, has something to learn about family and choices and who we all are, down deep.

Okay, back to the artist with her doughnut boxes. In that news story, artist Hyunh said she wanted to remember and respect the first generation of Cambodian immigrants. “It’s the only generation born in the United States to tell their parents, ‘Look, we want to honor you. You never had the time to even think about what you’ve been through. And we want to take this time to honor your story because you didn’t have the time to write about.’”

In his own heartfelt way, Evison took the same time. (Lots.) In today’s world of now and this moment, it never hurts to stop and wonder, well, how did I get here? Small World is an upbeat lump in the throat. And there is nothing wrong with that. Is there? 

William Kent Krueger, “Lightning Strike”

Grounded. Methodical. Logical. Slow-burn.

Here are a few more things to like about Lightning Strike:

Solid plot. Deceptively violent. Character-based. In fact—character first, character always. And the story stays within itself. It never overflows its banks and goes crazy, even with a few walloping juicy twists along the way.

There are times when William Kent Krueger’s Lightning Strike feels and reads like a young adult novel. A genteel young adult novel. (Don’t drop your guard.) Krueger is matter-of-fact seductive in his storytelling.  We’re deep in the world of 12-year-old Cork O’Connor, who will lead the charge through 17 Krueger novels when he grows up.

So Lightning Strike is back-story or prequel (and maybe the start of a new series?). We get chapters from Cork’s point of view and we see the case from the perspective of Cork’s father Liam, who is the sheriff. There’s a quaint, small-town flavor here. It’s 1963. There are newspaper routes, Boy Scout troops, and sandlot baseball games. There are elm trees, lilac hedges, and blueberries to be picked. There’s, meat loaf simmering in the oven, a swing waiting on the front porch, and so on. Where’s Andy Griffith? 

Except one thing is out of place, that “grotesque, rotting figure” hanging from the tree at Lightning Strike, a sacred place for the Ojibwe deep in the forest in the ironing mining country of northern Minnesota. The questions around the death of the well-known Big John Manydeeds are manyfold —and obvious. Suicide or murder? If the former, why? If the latter, who?  If a murder, who staged it to look like a suicide? Lightning Strike becomes a dual track of young Cork’s prodding and curiosity along with dad Liam’s official work on the case. The discovery carries extra weight for Cork, who looked up to Big John Manydeeds and was also the uncle of one of Cork’s best friends.

Krueger’s pace, as others have noted, is measured and methodical. He’s not afraid to weave in ample amounts of “regular” life—the non-plot stuff. The result is a fuller picture of the setting and deeper glimpses of Cork and Liam as son and father.  

There is plenty in Lightning Strike, too, about relationships between the new residents of Aurora, Minnesota and the Native Americans. Cork is part Irish and part Anishinaabe Indian, for starters, and the Krueger layers-in plenty about the delicate nature of the relationship between the two cultures. 

Cork, literally, has a nose for clues and Lightning Strike lets the young O’Connor quiz the facts and ponder theories. A second trip to the scene turns up a clue and there is a stray fragrance that bugs Cork. (You could blink and think that Frank and Joe Hardy have a new brother.) One possible murder suspect surfaces and then, wham, Krueger yanks away that comfortable rug you’ve been standing on and the stakes catapult and you realize the darkness is even more stark when it’s set off against all those cheery small-town touches. 

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Previously reviewed:

This Tender Land

Stewart O’Nan, “Ocean State”

Just a guess here, but that title says it all—Ocean State isn’t about Rhode Island. At least, not only Rhode Island. Ocean State is the national waters in which we swim. It’s a world of casual violence. It’s a world where teenagers killing each other is routine. It’s a world where mass shootings are a blip on the news. It’s a world where violence is a ready option. Ocean State is our ecosystem. We have grown numb to the fact that we are drowning. In violence.

Ocean State lays its cards on the table with the opening line: “When I was in eighth grade my sister helped kill another girl.” And even that’s casual. A toss-off. The second line is: “She was in love, my mother said, like it was an excuse.”  Who could stop reading?

Marie is the younger of two sisters. Angel is older. We’re in Ashaway, a few miles from the coast. This town is struggling. The mill that used to serve as the town’s economic engine is shuttered. It was called The Line & Twine. (A quick Google search reveals a spate of these; many beautiful old stone buildings now sitting idle.) It’s 2009—right after the crash. The sisters sneak through a hole in the fence that tries to keep trespassers away from the abandoned mill and they practice roller-skating on the floors around the dusty looms. When it comes to the killing, O’Nan takes full advantage with a detail from the industry’s detritus. Now the girls’ mother Carol works as a nurse’s aide at an old folks’ home. Struggle oozes up from the pages. This world moves on Taco Bell and the Liquor Depot. A misprinted ad about a discount on Snickers is not taken lightly.

Carol and her daughters are on the edge. Marie wants to be with her older sister, who is a popular kid in high school. The Marie-Angel relationship gives Ocean State the flavor of a psychological thriller. Together, the sisters track their mother’s poor decisions, sex life, and dodgy relationships. There is relatively rich kid named Myles who is at the center of the love-triangle. “She has no plans to win him beyond offering herself,” thinks Birdy. “She’ll break up with Hector and let him know, and then whatever happens, happens.” Yearning on every page.

Marie:

“My mother’s boyfriends tried to be sweet, but they were strangers. Sometimes they paid our rent and sometimes we split it. When they broke up with my mother—suddenly, drunkenly, their shouting jerking us from sleep—we would have to move again. Like her, we were always rooting for things to workout, far beyond where we should have. Our father was gone, and our mother couldn’t stop wanting to be in love. Quote I swear this is the last time,” she’d say, dead sober, and a month later she bring home another loser They seem to be getting younger and scruffier, which Angel thought was a bad sign.”

O’Nan’s smooth, effortless energy on the page kept me rapt. We see this world through rotating perspectives—Marie, Angel, Birdy, and Carol. (Who said men can’t write across gender, let alone inside the world of three main teenage characters?). There is social media, sex, and the kind of relentless focus on internal, immediate needs.  

Birdy:

“She’s always thought of herself as honest, not perfect but good at heart, and the ease with which she’s become this new, reckless Birdy is confusing, as if someone or something else has taken control of her. It’s a kind of possession, a power greater than herself that at once exalts and leaves her helpless. It’s not worth losing Hector over, yet here she is, already lost herself. Sometimes she doesn’t care. Sometimes she wants to be nothing. The desire scares her, like her desire for Myles, at once baffling and all consuming.”

The main conflict isn’t a secret, as should already be clear. We learn early on that Angel will kill Birdy. Help kill. We know from that second sentence it’s over love. But we flip the pages looking for the moment when Angel will be pushed over the edge. O’Nan takes us up close to the first humiliation, the first attack, the counterpunch. And then Birdy is cornered. The dread rattles our bones. But teenagers? Could they? (Have you read the news lately?) We don’t know the whole plan but the next day Birdy is missing and soon there are police and warrants and searches. When we last see Birdy alive, however, there are still 70 pages left in this brisk novel—nearly a third of the story.

And the remorse? The collective town contrition, in a village where everyone knows everybody? We are told early on that Birdy is from Hopkinton, “a totally different clique.” And so. Shrug. That issue over the candy bar discount was a bigger deal.

Except for, maybe, Marie. She remembers, at least, but we don’t really get the sense she mourns Birdy. We know Marie is smart, observant, self-reflective. And maybe a touch self-loathing. Possessive too? From a distance, looking back as an adult, Marie sees all. The ending is one of those that juicy ambiguous finishes that could launch a thousand heated book club discussions. Good. It makes you want to start over immediately and consider Ocean State from a whole new perspective, as much psychological study as it is a fine, taut, and terribly human thriller.

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Previously reviewed:

West of Sunset

City of Secrets

The Odds

Gwen Florio, “The Truth of it All”

Julia Geary is not a happy camper. She’s “mad as a feral cat” as she approaches her thirtieth birthday. She’s living with her mother-in-law Beverly, a “human switchblade, all spring-loaded lethality.” But Beverly isn’t Julia’s only problem. Not by a long shot. She’s also a single mother, juggling a career as a public defender in the town of Duck Creek. “Vail of the North” feels very much like Montana, but the state isn’t specified. Julia wants bigger cases. And her boss, Chief Public Defender Bill Decker, is happy to oblige. There’s a brand new incident and Julia would be “perfect for this particular defendant.”

Why?

Because Julia’s young husband lost his life as a solider in Iraq four years prior. And the defendant in this “perfect” new case is an Iraqi high school student, a refugee, accused of raping a white female student. The alleged attacker is Sami Mohammed. He’s not being cooperative. Julia tries to see the individual behind each case, each accusation. But Sami is making it tough. “The way the boy had looked at her, through her, as though she weren’t even there. The kind of look someone gave you if you’d ceased to exist in any meaningful way, so that it wouldn’t matter if you were erased from the earth. With an IED, for instance. He hadn’t killed her husband; she knew that … But the emptiness in those eyes—given the right circumstances, he could have. And if he could have done that, what might he have done to that girl?”

The whole town, it seems, happens to agree with that particular sentiment. The town has leapt to the “guilty” conclusion. Instantly, there are protestors. Sami’s case comes on the heels of community agitation and controversy over refugee resettlement programs. And some of the wrath is aimed squarely at Julia for, well, doing her job. She loses her son’s slot in a daycare center for the same reason—adding to Julia’s woes.

So Julia, naturally, digs in. She’s her own investigator and has more than a few questions about the circumstances about the alleged assault, which happened in the girls’ locker room and which included more than a few witnesses. The victim, Ana Olsen, claims the light wasn’t good enough for a solid identification of Sami.

The Truth of it All is crime fiction, sure, but it’s not the traditional set-up with a dead body in the first ten pages and a whole lot of clue-finding to follow. It’s as much character study of Julia Geary and the struggles of work politics, home politics, and politics politics. Julia digs in the library, visits Sami’s edge-of-town home, does her own snooping in the locker room in question. On the personal front, she ponders, slowly, the possibility of a new romance that might just tame some of that feral edge. But the “romance” angle is grounded and real-life gritty. It’s played as just another tangle in Julia Geary’s complicated, unsemtimental life.

And most of those complications begin with her status as war widow—she wouldn’t be living with her mother-in-law, for starters, if her husband had survived the war. Even though it’s been a few years, Julia’s late husband Michael is never far from Julia’s thoughts and the case with Sami provides fresh reason to revisit everything about her late husband’s sacrifice. 

It’s a bit of cliché when the cop on the case gets placed on leave, theoretically making it harder to solve what needs to be solved but continuing to fight on, valiantly, nonetheless. Julia’s separation comes via budget woes, but the effect is the same—and Florio’s adept and nifty plot twist, now possible due to Julia’s newfound status as an ordinary citizen—is pretty darn sweet.

The Truth of It All clicks on three levels—mystery, character-study, and commentary on the modern-day pastime of rushing to judgment. That’s a fine triple play.

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Previously reviewed:

Disgraced.

Related:

Q & A #27 with Gwen Florio regarding Missoula by Jon Krakauer.

Q & A #92 – Alex Segura, “Secret Identity”

Kirkus raved, gave it a starred review: “A masterful book filled with real heart and soul.”

National Public Radio offered glowing praise: A “masterful 1970s literary mystery.”

(There’s that word “masterful” again.)

The New York Times joined the party, too: “Witty and wholly original.”

Alex Segura’s Secret Identity has got the buzz going.

And it’s likely headed for a slew of awards, too.

When they come, they won’t be Segura’s first. Alex is also the author Star Wars Poe Dameron: Free Fall, The Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery Series, and of a number of comic books – including The Mysterious Micro-Face (in partnership with NPR), The Black Ghost, The Archies, The Dusk, and The Awakened. Segura’s short story, “90 Miles” was included in The Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories for 2021 and won the Anthony Award for Best Short Story.

Segura, whom I met a few years ago when we served together on the board of Mystery Writers of America (during a somewhat, let’s say, “interesting” time), agreed to answer a few questions about Secret Identity by e-mail.

A full review of Secret Identity follows (far below). Full disclosure that Alex and I share the same agent, but I stand by every word.

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Question: You said in the acknowledgements that Secret Identity has been percolating “for years.” Can you trace the moment of inspiration all the way back to a specific time when the idea hatched? Had you already been writing Pete Fernandez stories or did this idea come even before that?

Alex Segura: This idea came in three forms, and they kind of combined to become the basis for Secret Identity. In college, I was a journalism kid, but an English Lit major. So I took a lot of literature classes and also read voraciously (still do, of course). One of my favorite authors was/is Michael Chabon. I have a particular fondness for his early novels—Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, and, of course, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It was while reading the latter that I had the first bolt of inspiration. I loved the novel, of course. It felt like everything I’d ever wanted in a book. But I also really longed to read the comics about the characters in the book—especially The Escapist. I filed the idea, of inserting actual comics into a novel, away. Never really thinking I’d be the one to do it.

Another kernel of an idea came along a bit later, in a creative writing class in college. wrote a short story titled “Sometimes Green,” about an entry-level employee at a comic book company that discovers a lost character, and how they try to reinvigorate it. I never finished the story, but I was clearly interested in exploring that space. But I was very set on being a “literary” writer at the time—I hadn’t fully embraced the joys of genre yet. So it faltered. The third element was a character I created in my early twenties, called The Lynx. I don’t remember much of anything about the idea except the name, which obviously stuck with me.

So those three things were floating around when I realized, after writing five Pete Fernandez novels and a Star Wars book, that I wanted to set my next crime novel in the comic book industry. I love stories that take you somewhere else—that transport you to other places, cultures, industries, and times. Writing about comics felt natural to me. Once I settled on 1975 as the year, and New York as the obvious hub for comics at the time, Carmen appeared to me—and the three ideas that had been living rent-free in my head for almost two decades popped up again. I knew the book would really sing if there were actual comics. But the comics needed to be tied to the story, and what better story than one of a creator losing control of her creation, her character? It all felt very natural and meant to be, so I rode the wave.

Question: Could you have written Secret Identity without five Pete Fernandez novels under your belt (and more, of course)? What did you learn from writing those stories that you could apply to Secret Identity?

Alex Segura: I don’t think so, no. I’m grateful that Secret Identity is my seventh novel, because I was able to take all the lessons learned in the writing of the first six and apply them here. I just don’t think it would’ve been as mature, or textured, if this had been my first novel. I don’t want to diminish my earlier work, which I think still has the same ambition and themes as Secret Identity, but I definitely needed the seasoning and experience that came from writing my first few books, and trying new things under the confines of an established sub-genre like PI fiction, or a sandbox like the Star Wars universe. It helped me really cut loose with this one.

Question: What needed to happen for you to get your grips around the story so you could start to write it? The research (again, based on the acknowledgements) looks extensive. How did you know when you had enough to begin?

Alex Segura: The research was a fluid process—I was reading and interviewing people before and during the writing, up until the end, really, of the first draft. I hate to even call it research, you know? It’s just feeding obsessions. When I first got the idea for the book, I thought “well, this will be easy! I know comics! I don’t need to research at all!” Boy, was I wrong. Once the story began to form, and Carmen showed up in my mind, I knew there were so many angles that I needed to drill down on—the particulars of comics in 1975, what it was like to be a woman working in comics at the time, writing outside my own experience, the landscape of New York in 1975…so as the story gelled, I got more focus on what to read, and I was able to immerse myself in different things and figure out who to talk to, as well.

Question: How did you choose the year when you’d set the novel?

Alex Segura: I wanted to set the book during a time that would present not only a very different NYC from the one we know today, but a very different comic book industry. I wanted readers to go in and see a setting and backdrop that felt familiar but was also very, very different.

Question: How much has the industry changed since the mid-1970’s? I assume (as a non-comic book guy) that Hollywood has given the industry a huge lift or at least tugged it more into the mainstream with the Marvel and DC Comic adaptations, but what was it about the business dynamics of the mid-1970’s that made this plot work?

Alex Segura: People approached the industry differently. Back then, if you wanted to get comics, you’d go to the newsstand—to the corner drug store or grocery. There were very comic book shops, or specialty stores. There was certainly not an entirely different distribution channel yet. Comic conventions also didn’t really exist. There was fandom, of course—but it was very insular and tight-knit. The collector mentality didn’t exist yet. And the idea of comics as “IP” or intellectual property—i.e. something you could monetize and exploit in movies, toys, or what-have-you—wasn’t established yet. You had stuff like the original Batman show, but they were few and far between. Working in comics was something you did to pay the bills, creating these disposable stories that would be on spinneracks for a month and then gone, and then moving on. Or, if you were a super-fan, it was something you did because you loved comics, not because you thought, hey, there’s big money in this. That’s very different from the industry today, even if some of the core issues persist.

Question: Okay, Carmen. So many complexities with her life—from her heritage to her sexuality to her ambition. She’s smart. Did she come fairly quickly to you or was she someone who revealed herself in the drafting and development?

Alex Segura: She showed up pretty fully formed, which is something I didn’t want to fiddle with. My best characters tend to just appear— and I follow them around. But Carmen isn’t like Pete, who I had a ton in common with. While Carmen and I have a lot in common, we also have a lot of differences—she’s a queer woman, she’s living in a different time, for starters. So I had to put in a lot of time to not only try on my own to get writing her right, but I also had my fair share of sensitivity readers to look over the manuscript in various stages, to nudge and point me toward the right path. I was also mindful that I was writing a mystery, and while it felt right to be inclusive about my character choices, the responsibility to be thoughtful and mindful of how I wrote her was on my shoulders. I hope I did her justice. She’s by far my favorite character.

Question: The Patricia Highsmith references are clever—particularly The Price of Salt by “Claire Morgan” (a.k.a. Highsmith). A cool echo to Carmen’s struggle to break into the industry, given Highsmith’s status as a rare female writer in the business in the mid-1940’s and given Highsmith’s own drive and determination. Did you track down and read any of Highsmith’s comic stories? Did you read a Highsmith biography as research? And—care to mention a few of your favorite Highsmith novels?

Alex Segura: Highsmith’s presence looms large over the book, so I’m glad you noticed it. I love her work—and read some of her comics, but not in an immersive way. I was more drawn to her novels, particularly Deep Water, Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt, The Blunderer, and This Sweet Sickness. She has a knack of creating suspense where many would have trouble finding any, and her characters are always complex, seriously flawed, and not definitively good or bad. All of that seeps into Secret Identity in some way.

Question: Clearly, you’re a fan of the music from the mid-1970’s. Great references in Secret Identity to Richard Hell, Television, CBGB’s, and much more. Since you were born after this era, when did you get turned on to it? Isn’t that first Television album incredible? Other favorite albums or tracks? And was it a bit daunting to bring Hilly Kristal back to life in your plot? 

Alex Segura: It was daunting! I had to listen to interviews from the era and try my best to evoke him, but I think we did him justice! I love the early days of punk—Talking Heads are probably my favorite band ever, and I have a great fondness for Television, Blondie, and earlier groups like the Velvet Underground (and the Reed and Cale solo libraries). Patti Smith and Springsteen are also favorites, so it felt really important to get nods to them in there without it seeming too much like a Wikipedia entry. I got turned onto most of these bands in college—I’m pretty sure it started with a Velvets compilation, and I was hooked from there. I listen to them all pretty religiously still.

Question: Can you describe the process of going through a sensitivity read during the editing process? Did the reader make suggestions you rejected? Were you surprised to see images or ideas sneak into the prose that might be considered offensive and that you hadn’t spotted yourself? Was this new step and/or process for Secret Identity or something you went through with the Pete Fernandez books, too?

Alex Segura: The process usually involved me sending the manuscript to the reader and then having a phone call or exchanging emails about their thoughts—and I’d say, 99 percent of the time, I took the edit or suggestion, because that’s why we do this. We want to get notes on how to write a character that we don’t share our life experiences with better.

There was one note that was presented as kind of “not super important, but you could do this” and it just felt like too much to tack onto a given scene, so I skipped it. But everything else (which ranged from a minor tweak to a larger note that changed the core plot for one character) I did integrate, and it really made the book stronger. There’s a moment where Carmen is walking by Stonewall, and one of the readers noted it would be odd for her not to think anything about where she was—and that made a lot of sense and didn’t feel like I was being heavy-handed, so I took the note and I felt like it really added to Carmen in the moment. I’m grateful for stuff like that, because I’m always there for anything that makes the book better.

Question: What has nobody asked you about Secret Identity that you wish you could answer?

Alex Segura: Nobody’s asked me about all the Easter Eggs relating to my own work! And there are a ton! Two Pete Fernandez references, nods to other comics I’ve written like The Black Ghost, The Dusk, The Awakened, Micro-Face…I had a lot of fun with those.

Question: What are you working on next? And will the Lethal Lynx evolve into a full-blown comic series? 

Alex Segura:  I’m working on a pseudo-sequel to Secret Identity. It’ll be set in the modern day and feature a new protagonist, but we’ll see old friends from the first novel. It’s very much the other side of the coin to Secret Identity, and hopefully entertains. And yes, we’re going to unveil a Lynx comic sometime next year! Stay tuned.

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More at Alex Segura’s website.

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REVIEW:

Carmen Valdez is sitting in a classroom in Dade Junior College in Miami. She’s taking a writing class because the teacher, Emma Lytton, has come highly recommended. The teacher offers this bit of writerly insight:

“If your characters are developed, if you spend enough time with them—really, truly, get to know them … then they’ll come to life,” says the teacher. “You have to create a world, with people in it, so believable that you are just the tool that the world uses to tell the story.”

Fictional Emma Lytton may as well have been describing the approach of real-life writer Alex Segura, who has been pondering Carmen Valdez and her story for a very long time. As in, a good couple of decades and five mystery novels ago. The ruminating has paid off in the richly layered Secret Identity.

And did Ms. Lytton say something about creating a world? Well, Alex Segura may not have been alive at the time this novel was set (Segura was born in 1980) but he knows more than a little about comics. Segura he is the Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Oni Press, with previous stints at Archie Comics and DC Comics. And if you follow him online, well, you know he’s steeped in the business. And its history.

Secret Identity is set in 1975. Carmen works for Triumph Comics in the Flatiron District of New York City. Jeffrey Carlyle, who owns Triumph, is a self-important, old-school grump. He sees the business as a means to an end. He wants to move “up” to the world of true literature. But he also enjoys the business battle against comic book giants like Marvel and DC Comics.

Down in the pecking order at Triumph—we first meet her in the copy room—Carmen Valdez wants nothing more than to develop and write her own superhero comic. She’s already been told by Carlyle that a script she was “competent” but “needs work.” Carlyle explains (er, condescends to her) that she’s competing against “a line of guys outside my office who would kill, literally murder someone to write a comic here, to be in business with us.” Carlyle wants Carmen to be an editor. Maybe. Carlyle tells her to be patient.

Soon, a fellow staffer seeks Carmen’s help in developing an idea. Somehow, Harvey Stern has been greenlighted to pitch something to Carlyle while she was discouraged. Watching as Harvey and Carmen develop a concept is entertaining—a peek inside the process when a couple of story-focused creatives conjure a new character. What they come up with is the Lethal Lynx. Harvey is interested in Carmen beyond the story development (no surprise there) but Carmen is quietly queer. In fact, Carmen lives in a triple shadow—sexually, creatively, and professionally.

And then things get complicated. Harvey is found dead, a bullet in his forehead. Their joint creation has gained traction with Carlyle, but Harvey had kept Carmen’s role in the project a secret. The Lethal Lynx is about to be published. “She felt a heavy stone inside her—but she also felt loss. What would happen to their creation now? Should she burst in and tell Carlyle the truth? That she’d helped Harvey create the character he was about to launch? No. She knew Carlyle well enough … He would cancel the book within minutes.”

So Carmen’s quickly got her hands full—wanting to see the Lethal Lynx reach its potential, protect her intellectual and creative property, and figure out who shot Harvey. And then there is a sudden re-appearance in New York of one of Carmen’s ex-lovers from Miami. Carmen, who is concerned that the Lethal Lynx has the right backstory to get “activated” as a character, is suddenly very activated herself. She is not instantly transformed as an amateur detective, but it doesn’t take her long to become a driving force. Segura takes every opportunity to plunge into New York of the time, including plenty of musicians (jazz and rock) and a chance for Carmen to quiz legendary CBGB’s owner Hilly Kristal. 

You can feel Segura’s interest, commitment, and passion for the comic book business. There’s a gem reference (and it’s not a throwaway) to one-time comic book writer Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, the novel she had to publish under the penname Claire Morgan due to the lesbian relationship at the heart of the novel, which neatly echoes Carmen’s predicament, too. There are references galore for true fans and followers of the business (I am not one of those). And Segura (with artist Sandy Jarrell) gives readers a glimpse of the Lethal Lynx with excerpts from the series interspersed as the novel progresses. Anyone who doubts the work that went into Secret Identity, please check the extensive acknowledgements and the many interviews and research that went into this project.

Secret Identity takes us to an unusual setting, takes us deep inside the business, and gives us a strong character at the heart of the story. Personally, the “noir” references don’t really ring true for me; Carmen is too young and not jaded enough (yet). Secret Identity is crime fiction to its core but Segura isn’t afraid to keep the pace grounded and believable. Remember teacher Lytton’s advice how to make something believable? Segura would ace the class.

Jeffrey Fleishman, “Last Dance”

Opening paragraph, Last Dance:

“She lies pale and light as shaved ice. Her hair spreads like a black flame across the pillow. Classical music plays in whispers. Schubert, I think. The place is scattered with toe shoes, tights, diet pills, opioids, suitcases, dresses, scarves, and empty bottles of Stoli. I snap on gloves and kneel beside her, study the small, nude map of her body.”

We are immediately back in the weighted world of detective Sam Carver. In L.A. In the hands of smooth storyteller Jeffrey Fleishman.

There is no blood or bruising on the dancer’s body. Only a “slight frozen shiver on her face, as if she were bracing against a sudden wind.” She is, Carver thinks, “a broken bit of magic fallen from a music box.” Suicide? Carver thinks not.

The victim is a world-famous Russian ballerina. There are few leads. The new case looks like a puzzle, but Carver is still grappling with the one that got away. Her name is Dylan Cross. (In My Detective.) Cross, Carver’s boss tells him, “was a clever, messed-up, vicious broad.” Dylan Cross was obsessed with Sam Carver.

But Carver is a dedicated cop. He’ll give the case of ballerina Katrina Ivanova everything he’s got. In fact, we are deep in Carver’s skin from first sentence to last. Carver likes to “chase the odd angle.” He doesn’t like to explain why a certain dark alley appeals to him. Shortly after Katrina’s body is taken to the morgue, her body vanishes. No body (and the theft was pre-autopsy) means big problems. There’s the case, of course, but also the reputation of the whole department.

Leads include Katrina’s neighbor and friend. There’s a writer who might have been getting ready to put together Katrina’s story. And a cellist who would play while Katrina danced in her loft. But he turns up dead, too. Overdose? Or staged overdose? And then the FBI shows up. Carver learns there were Russians pursuing Katrina, too. And a tight Los Angeles noir suddenly explodes to Brussels and South Sudan. The locations change, but Carver carries his world-weary gloom wherever he goes. And then back to L.A. There’s a big-shot movie producer. Oh, and connections track back to one Vladimir Putin and issues around hacking in the 2016 election. Along the way, Carver picks up Officer Lily Hernandez as a partner. Lily was the uniform cop on duty at the murder scene of Dylan Cross’s second victim. Lily is tough-as-nails, athletic. She has a witness who could provide key information. Until …

Fleishman’s pace is steady. He makes sure that Carver, well, slices it all into manageable pieces. Carver pauses. Reflects. Carver notes what people say and he notes what questions they don’t ask. There’s a ton of plot here for a brisk read, but Carver’s quiet moments are as interesting as the whodunit. Carver has an issue with time. He sometimes feels suspended by it. He’s got a “weird aloofness.” And knows it. And there’s always Dylan Cross to ponder. She is never far from Carver’s thoughts.

I think that’s the key to the success of Last Dance—equal parts noir gravity, well-rounded and well-grounded character, and high-stakes plot.

Familiar turf? Sure. Does the occasional line of dialogue make you wish you could hear Humphrey Bogart read it (as Sam Spade)? You bet. But we read on, thoroughly immersed, because it’s so well done.

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Previously reviewed: My Detective

Rick Berlin, “The Big Balloon (A Love Story)”

One night in Boston in December of 1973 (if I’ve got the right year), my life changed. I was staying for a few weeks in the Back Bay of Boston with Ben Brown, a friend from college who knew a plenty about music. For some reason, I felt like hell. But Ben urged me to come with him on a trip to deliver some stage lights he was loaning to a band that was playing at Jack’s, a club near Harvard Square. I remember driving down Mass. Ave. in his van, not sure why I had agreed to get vertical.

When I walked into the storefront bar, I knew why. I was instantly healed of whatever was ailing me. The clouds lifted. The colors in the air changed. On stage (I guess the lights were running late!) was this unwieldy, unusual-looking band. The female singer, Lisa Kinscherf, was singing a beautiful, heartfelt version of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”

The band was Orchestra Luna. I would become, to say the least, transfixed by the band’s wild combination of theatrics and rock, of poetry and jazz, of gut-punching music. Their style was avant-garde and Broadway throwback all at once. They were led by keyboardist Rick Kinscherf (Lisa’s sister), whose song-stories ranged from Genesis-level epic to Elton John precious. I was transfixed by the inscrutable guitar player Randy Roos, whose flying figures cranked on a giant Gibson. The rhythm section of Scott Chambers and Don Mulvaney was mighty. And solid. Poet Peter Barrett commandeered the moment as needed, and Liz Gallagher joined Lisa Kinscherf (“The Lunettes”) with back-up singing and the occasional lead vocal.

In the summer of 1974, I started following Orchestra Luna in earnest—to Nantucket, to the North Shore, to western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, or to The Rat in Kenmore Square. The band put out an album on Epic Records. They played CBGB’s. They were a less-tame Tubes or a harbinger of The Flaming Lips. They were either an acquired taste or you were instantly blown away. They could be messy, but they were always moving. Check out this clip from CBGB’s for a taste. Many of the faithful believed they would become a well-known national act.

Orchestra Luna: Version 1

It didn’t happen.

I was there as the band lineup changed—Karla DeVito taking Lisa Kinscherf’s place in The Lunettes, rocker Steve Perry taking over guitar, Chet Cahill stepping in on bass, Bob Brandon adding a fresh layer on keyboards, and a series of drummers starting with Ace Holleran. My friendship with several of the band members, including Karla and her then boyfriend, got me an invitation to rent a room in the band house in Newton, one of the wildest and most music-filled years in my life. But OL2 also failed to take off, even with DeVito’s magnetic on-stage charm. (She went on to tour with Meatloaf, among many other career accomplishments.)

Orchestra Luna: Version 2

By the time I moved to L.A. in 1978, the band had morphed yet again and had stripped-down to a five-piece, now known simply as Luna. A few originals, mostly covers. Much more commercial. When Luna3 folded, Rick Kinscherf changed his name to Rick Berlin—and has kept producing music and being creative ever since.

And now here comes The Big Balloon (A Love Story), 640-plus pages of Rick Berlin riffing on the stuff in his life and reminiscing on key moments and relationships throughout his career. “The Big Balloon is super personal,” he writes in the prologue. “Most art, at least the art I love best, is personal. From another’s truth one extrapolates one’s own echo, wisdom, embarrassment and laughter. That’s what I’ll hope for you, dear reader. That you’d laugh or at least find something self-relevant in these independent passages of my peculiar life.”

So the writing prompts range from a lock box bought at True Value, to an Adirondack chair; from an ode to a fire extinguisher to junk drawer trinkets; from yard-sale art to … medicine jars? Most “chapters” run a page. There is precious little through-line, other than watching Berlin’s brain percolate around the subject at hand. There are no set rules. One “rabbit hole” might be fairly expository—the simple provenance and backstory of a found object, while the next spelunking descent might spark a sharp memory or emotional story. The book is divided into bigger sections marked “Foyer,” “Back Porch,” “Pantry,” and so on but these are very loose as headers go.

“I’ve had a great time of it, this weird-assed trip of mine,” he writes in a chapter called ‘Pandemic Portions,’ about his refrigerator and staying at home. “Wounds and bruises, but all-in-all I’ve loved every second. I’ve had a good run. I’ll be okay if I buy the farm as long as it doesn’t hurt, as long as hospice drugs float me sweetly into painless pink cloud oblivion.” 

Berlin is the responsible one, we learn in ‘The Tally,’ about his bill-paying ethics. We learn he’s a huge Red Sox fan. “Me, the fan who knows the least about sports, but who, like all of New England went crazy in ’04 and the three parades after that.”

And finally we get an eight-page chapter (“Ridgemont Street”) and we start to get into Orchestra Luna memories and flashes of how songs came together and the bandmates assembled. Then there’s a quick tribute to Rick’s sister Lisa (“By Hand”) and some heartfelt memories of the late Chet Cahill and his girlfriend (later, wife) Billie Best, who came in with OL2 to manage the band. Same with “Peter Barrett & Moosup The Musical,” where Rick offers a few scenes of his repressed adolescence that might be worthy of Jim Carroll’s frankness about sexuality and drugs in The Basketball Diaries or Patti Smith’s art and music recollections in Just Kids. (I could have used a whole lot more about people and OL memories—but that’s just me, because I left so early on—and less about the objects and objets-d-art.)

Throughout, Berlin touches on boyfriends and relationships—and fights and break-ups, too. Anyone who knew Kinscherf/Berlin knows he’s got a big heart. Now in his mid-70’s, he’s lived his life on the stage. And if he’s tempted to focus on the “would-haves” and “could-haves” that might have kicked up OL1 or OL2 up to the next level, it only comes through in Big Balloon in micro-doses of regret. He says he’s learned “how not to keep score.” 

Berlin can write. Here’s a moment about Peter Barrett:

“At the end of OL (Pete had been in both versions), he took off for San Francisco, the homo heartbeat of the U.S.A., and formed No Sisters with his two brothers and a fourth. It was the truly the end of an era, the end of the most liberated art epidemic I’ve known. A profusion of unrestrained ideas and liberties taken. Peter was the shining caboose on the end of that train. None of it would have been half as interesting or groundbreaking without him. I can still picture him in an empty Orpheum writing up the OL setlist in his trademark handwriting, as we took for granted how easy it was to be opening up for Roxy Music, the Boomtown Rats, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the Pointer Sisters, Splitz Enz—riding high without the constraints of real-world Icarus vertigo.” 

The Big Balloon is sprawling, rich, personal, and, at times, quite frank. And thoughtful. There are some beautiful nuggets within:

“The guru we’ve been seeking, whom we think will make our journey a snap with an easy ET touch to the forehead, is, in fact, within, already a part of our being, ready to awaken. An undiscovered, done-deal Dharma path.”

Based on how all he’s contributed to art and music, I think Rick Berlin has understood that fact all the way along.   

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Related review of How I Made A Huge Mess of My Life by Billie Best, who managed OL2.