Q & A #53 – Susan Mackay Smith, “Conan the Grammarian”

cover-conan“Clarity is what matters to readers.”

That’s the clarion call of one Conan The Grammarian, a.k.a. Susan Mackay Smith, who has been writing columns in the monthly newsletter from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers for about ten years.

Now, Conan is out with a handy reference guide that distills those columns into an inspiring volume titled, handily enough, Conan the Grammarian, Practical Guidelines on Grammar and Craft for Fiction Writers.

Remember Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation? This book would sit handsomely on your shelf alongside it and all your other writing resources.

Conan sets a high bar for writing. And writers.  Cool plots, Conan argues, can be enhanced by the nuances of language.

But, fear not. This is a light (near breezy) read that will leave you feeling encouraged and emboldened, not depressed or over-anxious. In fact, Conan talks a good game but, in the end, has “his” forgiving side, too.

Lawyers and journalists may get use out of the book, says Conan, “but this book is meant for novelists, who have their own requirements and, yes, rules. Which, like Jack Sparrow’s rules of piracy, are more like guidelines.”

Susan Mackay Smith is the past president of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and a frequent judge of the Colorado Book Awards, has been writing a monthly Conan the Grammarian column for over ten years. Traditionally published in fantasy under the nom de plume, Mackay Wood, she is a second-generation Colorado native with a degree in history and (more important to her) a BHSAI from the Porlock Vale Riding School in Somerset, England.  She lives in Boulder with the most wonderful man in the world.

A full review follows.

First, a Q & A with Conan / Susan:


Question:  Okay, we’ll start you out with a softball. Do you ever have to look anything up related to the rules of grammar or usage?

Susan Mackay Smith: Certainly – everyone does. For the column in particular, I often double-check that my instincts are correct. I also check terminology, because my brain is full, and I no longer remember the terms for every little nuance of the so-called rules.

Question:  Your book makes learning and understanding grammar look easy. Why do the rules of grammar have to be so hard?

Susan Mackay Smith: They aren’t hard. The terminology is arcane, but English grammar is so stripped down, compared with other languages, that to call English grammar “hard” throws up a barrier to learning. English spelling is hard, but English grammar is simple. Learn a few basics (first person personal pronouns, verb tenses, subject-verb agreements, how modifiers dangle) and the rest is easy.

Question:  Do you have a grammar pet peeve? If you were benevolent dictator over all of the grammar universe, would you wave your magic wand over one specific issue and make it go away?

Susan Mackay Smith: A hard choice! Instead, let’s ask what I would make universal, and the answer becomes easier. Proper punctuation, and the aforementioned correct uses of first person personal pronouns (I, me, myself). Maybe this boils down to teaching the mechanics from an early age again … then no one would have to worry.

But two peevish misuses set my teeth on edge: it’s used for a possessive, and I’s, used at all.

Question:  What is the number one biggest, most frequent grammar issue that you find that writers stumble over and/or wrestle with and/or seem to ignore the most?

Susan Mackay Smith: In the narrow realm of grammar, writers these days seem oblivious to what modifies what, how, and why. Dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers abound, leading to confused readers or to readers who end up sneering at the writer’s ridiculousness.

An example: At age six, Johnny’s mother gave birth to twins. Think about it. One sees similar errors everywhere. It’s as if writers and copy editors think, oh, the reader will figure it out. But the reader shouldn’t have to! Stopping reading for even a fraction of a second to figure it out interferes with the critical suspension of disbelief that creates enjoyable reading. Don’t we want readers to enjoy our work?

On the other hand, the biggest problem I see in fiction writing isn’t a grammar issue but one of craft: recognizing what’s not on the page. That is, what you intended to show or have the reader understand versus what you actually show, so the reader fails to grasp what you meant. Even multi-published, successful writers face this problem. Good critique groups can be vital in pointing out where something—motivation, rationale, emotion – didn’t translate from imagination to page.

Question:  Conan the Grammarian is a funny book. It’s hilarious in many ways, including in its bluntness and certainty. But you also make it clear that the rules can be broken. Can you point to some good examples of rule breakers? And how to break the rules in the correct way?

Susan Mackay Smith: All good writers break the rules: e.e. cummings’s no capitals; James Joyce’s loaded run-on sentences; Shakespeare’s neologisms; Elmore Leonard’s skipping dialogue tags; Kent Haruf’s neglecting quotation marks; Dorothy Dunnett’s using foreign languages and atypical viewpoints; Carol Berg’s dropping -ly in most adverbs…

Breaking the rules correctly is quite a droll concept, but my maxim – Conan’s maxim – is that writers have to know a rule to break it effectively. Sometimes a fragmented sentence is merely strange and hard to read, but in a good writer’s hands, a fragment gives evocative emphasis to the prose.

Question:  How did you come to care so much about the right and wrong way to put sentences together?

Susan Mackay Smith: Isn’t that a writer’s job? Writers should care – words and sentences are how stories get told. Words and sentences are how we humans communicate.

Question:  As a longtime judge for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold contest (and other contests, I’m sure), can you tell within a page or so whether a writer has a firm grasp on grammar? And has a good writing “voice”? How?

Susan Mackay Smith: Less than a page, for the basics. That first mistake alerts me, and if more crop up, I look for those instead of focusing on the story. “That’s not fair,” some contestants may say; but life isn’t, editors and readers aren’t, and that’s reality. Contests are a teaching tool – teaching entrants how their work is perceived by readers who are strangers, readers who see only what is on the page. If what’s on the page is replete with errors, that’s no one I care to read, however great the story buried in the mistakes may turn out to be. Mistakes make for hard reading. Life’s too short.

As for voice, those who have a good one, whether their own storyteller’s voice or a good character voice, are immediately apparent, from a great first line that flows organically into the next line, then the next, consistent and real, with some spark that says, this character is a person, or this writer has a unique clarity and way with words.

Question:  You’ve been writing the Conan the Grammarian column for RMFW’s newsletter for years. How did you go about the process of culling through those and shaping them in book form?

Susan Mackay Smith: I reread all the columns and sorted them into rough categories – punctuation, grammar, craft, and so on – then realized I had several that were pep talks or moral support rather than about mechanics or language. Those became the introductory and concluding sections, which provided a starting place and a goal for the rest. Then it became a process of combining or deleting duplicate columns from within the rough categories, and working for a good flow from topic to topic. It was fun (I’m a re-writer anyway).

Question:  I learned a new word I did not know reading this book: swivet. Good one! There were many others as well, especially in the “Toward More Colorful Writing” chapter. How does a writer know when a choice word is the right one and not just, you know, showing off?

Susan Mackay Smith: Why not show off? But the trick is, make sure your word fits your character and/or your time period and genre, and be sure odd words or non-standard uses are clear in context. (Critique groups help here!) For example, if your scene shows your protagonist freaking out, and another character tells her, “Don’t get in such a swivet,” it will be clear in context. But if the opening line of the novel says, “Mary Sue was in a swivet that morning,” not so much.

Question: In the age of Twitter abbreviations and emoticons, where is grammar heading? What is the future of grammar? What will the nuns be concerned about if they don’t have grammar to fire up their sense of order and discipline?

Susan Mackay Smith: I’m not a psychic, nor do I play one on TV, but (easiest point first) I don’t think emoticons will ever substitute for evocative writing. Emoticons set tone in a Tweet or email, where the brevity might not allow the writer’s intent to be clear otherwise.

As for Twitter, etc., pray we never get to the stage where novels are written full of three and four letter acronyms! Tweets ignore punctuation because of character limitations, but I sincerely hope that doesn’t become standard in all writing, because punctuation serves Conan’s God of Clarity, making communication easier.

That said, limiting yourself to 140 characters can be a useful exercise in clear and concise writing, which helps any writer hone basic skills.

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

Susan Mackay Smith: I am finishing the revision of a YA fantasy, the first of a projected two-book set. What should be next is starting the submission process again. A couple of years ago, I had given myself a vacation from submitting, then life got in the way, as it is wont to do, so I’ve neglected the be persistent aspect of a writer’s job. Time to get back on the horse named Never Give Up.


Conan the Grammarian  cover-conan

Podcast interview with Susan Mackay Smith on The Rocky Mountain Writer.




Do the rules of grammar turn your knees to jelly? Do you cower at the mere mention of relative clauses, the past perfect tense, or participial modifiers?

Me, too.

But I’m getting better. And now I’ve got Susan Mackay Smith’s Conan the Grammarian: Practical Guidelines on Grammar and Craft for Fiction Writers on my side. I mean, right by my side.

Drawn from Smith’s decade of writing the ‘Conan’ column for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ monthly newsletter, this book is not only handy and useful, it’s inspiring.

Yes, grammar can be inspiring.

If you think that reading this would be the equivalent of getting your knuckles rapped by an irascible nun, think again.

Conan the Grammarian is funny, breezy, and wicked smart. (Wickedly smart?)  Smith places the idea of understanding and appreciating grammar in a more powerful context. And that, quite simply, is the desire to help writers tell their stories with more sharpness, precision, and impact. Thinking about grammar is thinking about writing—and writing clearly.

Writes Smith in the introduction: “To begin at the beginning, this book examines the craft of fiction from the perspective of grammar and usage. This is not a book of Rules. Though it includes many grammatical terms, the purpose isn’t to teach terminology but to elucidate how the language works so Careful Writers can wield their tools to best advantage for their stories For what matters isn’t only the story; it’s how the story is told.”

The book is divided into six parts: On Language; In the Beginning Was the Word; Structure and Bone: Grammar; The Sinews: Punctuation; Heart and Soul: The Novelist’s Craft; and Battle Scars.

Smith writes in second person as “Conan,” an alter-ego with a stern sensibility.  But Conan is nothing if not funny and entirely self-aware and “his” particular, enjoyable voice makes this volume eminently readable:

Herewith, three examples

Example 1:

On Euphemism

“A euphemism is the substitution of a less negative or more general word or phrase for a blunt or embarrassing one. Conan, as readers are learning, prefers specifics for fiction, which is why euphemism comes under Bad Habits. Lots of swear words are euphemistic—drat and darn for damn; heck for hell; shoot for—you get the idea.”

Example 2:

The Passive Voice

“What is passive voice? Why is it uniformly castigated as Bad Writing? Why is it wrong, and why should you care?

“First, let’s discuss what passive voice is not. Someone has perpetrated a heinous canard that passive voice equates to using the verb to be, e.g., was and were. Whoever is responsible, please stop! While Conan has elsewhere explained that to be forms are state of being words and, when used instead of more muscular verbs, may impart limpness in writing, that doesn’t mean they are passive voice. Got it? Stop spreading this pernicious fallacy, or Conan will get grumpy, and that’s something nobody wants. It’s never a pretty sight.”

Example 3:

The Serial Comma

“Conan believes the serial comma is never wrong. You the writer aren’t the best judge of your text’s possible ambiguity, since you know what you intended to say. Make a habit of the serial comma and let the editor remove it, the lunkhead.”

Writers, Conan the Grammarian will give you a few dozen different ways to approach your revisions and self-editing, from clichés of characterization (watch those head nods) to dialogue tags to that dreaded first sentence. It’s also a handy reference guide (with a thorough index to boot).

Conan approaches grammar as a writer who cares about good writing and not as a authoritarian technocrat only interested in The Rules. In fact, Conan makes a good argument about knowing the rules first in order to break them. And, along the way, Conan shows a depth of knowledge about the history of language and the power of good writing with references to everyone form Shakespeare to Flannery O’Connor. A bibliography runs for a couple of pages; you will be very busy trying to keep up.

Finally, Conan is beautifully designed and I did not spot one typo or word out of place.  You have to figure, on that basis alone, that Conan knows “his” stuff.Q &

Conan the Grammarian only costs $10.  Okay, to be as precise as Conan, $9.95. A steal. Get it.

You’ll have a goldmine in your hands.


Lou Berney, “The Long and Faraway Gone”

the-long-and-faraway-goneSometimes you find yourself so easily drawn into the story and the characters that you never even stop to think whether the events on the page are close to reality (if that’s a thing that matters to you).

Writing recently in The New Yorker, John Lanchester talked about the “reader’s decision to put the argumentative, quibbling part of his mind into neutral and go along for the narrative ride.”

Wrote Lanchester: “The suspension is voluntary, though not necessarily conscious; it’s not as if you reach up and toggle a setting in your brain. Rather, as readers, we usually fight the story a little bit at the beginning, while we’re getting our ear in; then we submit, and are carried along by the flow, unless something happens to jolt us out of it.” (Ironically, Lanchester was making a case what gives grounding to Lee Child’s cartoony, over-the-top Jack Reacher; Lanchester made some great points.)

With Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone, I never looked back. I never quibbled. I never fought the story.

I’m not alone. The novel won the 2016 Edgar Award for Best Paperback original and picked up a slew of other awards including the Barry, Macavity and Anthony.

This is “a novel.” It’s not billed as “a mystery” despite the genre-specific awards and even though the arcs of the two principal characters involve a haunting search for what happened? smack up alongside who done it?

And, most of all, why?

Two events drive the story, based on real life stories from Berney’s home state of Oklahoma (where he teaches writing at the university level). In real life, the events were separated by a few years. In the book, the events are separated by a month. The first involves the brutal killing of six movie-theater employees. The second involves the disappearance of a teenage girl from the annual state fair.

In the novel, neither case was ever solved. The Long and Faraway Gone becomes a parallel journey for Wyatt, who survived the movie theater massacre, and Julianna, whose sister Genevieve was the one who vanished, as they try to uncover answers to the questions that haunt them. They both live in a kind of purgatory, unable to come to grips with their current life until they answer the hidden questions from the past.

Wyatt returns to Oklahoma from out of state. He’s a private eye who gets dispatched on a case, helping the owner of a music club who believes she’s being harassed. Wyatt would rather not go back to Oklahoma. “That was Wyatt’s philosophy when it came to the past: Stay out of it. By doing so he had lived a happy live. A life undrowned, unbroken on the rocks, unswept toward an empty horizon.” But Wyatt can’t help himself and soon finds himself back swimming in the sea of memories, with its “riptide.”

Berney alternates between the two stories, giving us glimpses of the events from a variety of perspectives. Julianna is always looking, always searching and always thinking about how to figure out what happened to her sister. She is keenly aware of the “landscape of memory” and how events from the past come in and out of focus. “Sometimes the near seemed far, far away,” she thinks, “and the faraway was right beneath your feet.”  Berney shows us the ever-changing city landscape, and its ongoing “makeover,” which further threatens the ability to remember places and events. Both Wyatt and Juliana take notes on these changes.

I fully expected Wyatt and Juliana to meet up and, perhaps, help each other toward some Big Finish of self-discovery and cymbal-crashing ta-da. Well, they do meet. (In clever fashion.) But, adding to the plausibility factor in my mind, there is no resulting magical spark and big race to the finish. The story stays within itself.

Both Wyatt and Juliana are surrounded by a rich cast of characters, including family and co-workers and old friends. Wyatt’s official reason to be in Oklahoma City gives him time around a familiar, old-haunt nightclub and Berney takes full advantage of the opportunity for Wyatt to reminisce about 1980’s rock bands. Berney conjures a few acts of his own, including a band named (hilariously) The Barking Johnsons.

Berney is more interested in the haunting nature of the search than the big moment, although resolution waits. There’s a memorable scene at the Murrah Building memorial as Wyatt contemplates the thin lines of fate that can change everything. One recurring motifs—a Born in the U.S.A T-shirt, Stars and Stripes Park—suggest Wyatt and Julianna’s excavation through memories is a universal, all-American story. (Hello, 9-11, the Murrah Building, Pearl Harbor…)

The Long and Faraway Gone also suggests you can lose yourself in your memories. And, if you look hard enough, you can find yourself, too.

Q & A #52 – Susan Berry Casey, “Appealing for Justice”

appealing-for-justice-book-coverWas Colorado a hate state in 1992?

Few people predicted the passage of Amendment 2. Gov. Roy Romer was seen as a moderate Democratic governor. Three cities (Aspen, Boulder and Denver) had approved gay rights ordinances.

And then along came the push back from conservatives, Amendment 2, and a surprising switch in how Colorado was perceived. The new voter-approved amendment prohibited any laws providing protections to gay citizens.

What did Colorado really stand for?

Do you remember the reaction? The fallout? The controversy?

Susan Berry Casey’s Appealing for Justice will take you back to the momentous case that grew out of the approval of Amendment 2. It will also give you a fascinating portrait of Jean Dubofsky, the woman who spearheaded the legal fight.

A full review follows. Susan Berry Casey (former Denver City Council member) was also kind enough to answer a few questions by email. (Check out her thoughtful commentary.)


Question:  Well, I read your book before Nov. 9, 2016 and I’m writing these questions after that momentous date. I’m wondering about your thoughts about the results of the election, given your long involvement in public service, and also as that experience relates to one theme in Appealing for Justice, that one person can make a difference.

Susan Casey:  In truth, the campaign and the election results have been a bit of a gut punch. Reliving the decades when blacks, women, the poor, and gays and lesbians had to fight for an equal and safe place in our society and seeing how far we’ve come reaffirmed my belief that gains in social justice have come from the efforts of ordinary people who “stand up for an ideal, work to improve the lot of others, strike out against injustice” (per Robert F. Kennedy).  Being confronted with how much racism and sexism and hate still remains makes it much harder to believe, but hearing from people who have read the book and felt comforted and eager to join the continued fight for justice gives me hope again.

Question:  Given all that’s happened with states acknowledging gay marriage since 1996, do you think there is any chance of going to back to those prehistoric times?

Susan Casey:  I cannot conceive of the Court moving backwards in the short term. Romer v. Evans opened the Constitution’s equal protection clause to the LGBT community and the high Court has reaffirmed those protections three times, with Lawrence, then Windsor, and now Obergefell, the same sex marriage case. That is a lot of precedent for any new Court ruling to overcome. However, if new appointments to the Court change the ideological composition dramatically, then, in the coming decades, I fear that many of those hard fought gains could be overturned.

Question:  One of the compelling threads in Appealing for Justice is how Jean Dubofsky had to prove her worth and talents over and over again and also how personal events shaped her career choices. Did you know these stories about the Topeka tornado or her father’s health before you started the research?

Susan Casey:  I actually knew very little of Jean’s story when I began. But I was intrigued with the little that I did know her–that she had fought on behalf of others her whole life, had been involved in social justice causes through four decades, was a trailblazer for women, yet, at the same time she was subject to injustice and faced hurdles and challenges in her own life. As so often is the case, the experiences of ordinary people often tell us a truer story about history than the history that has been written from top down and I suspected that the combination of Jean’s experiences might help me shine a light on our country’s journey and our own journey. Her father’s mental illness, that her uncle was gay at a time when mental illness and homosexuality were hidden away, misunderstood, not spoken about, were other examples of injustice that she witnessed and experienced around her.

Question:  Were you were aware, before you started writing and researching this book, that Jean had to repeatedly prove her talents?


Susan Casey

Susan Casey:  The two things I was aware of was that there was some kind of an uproar and backlash when she was appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court and that her brief time teaching at CU ended badly, with public outcry and accusations that sexual discrimination was at the root of what happened there. I had no idea about what really happened and it was not easy to get people to talk about what happened in each instance.  The “witch hunt” after her court appointment, the pressures and hurdles to be overcome for any woman who is “the first”, and the turmoil at CU brought back painful memories for many people who were caught up in the swirl of what happened to Jean and it was hard for many to talk about those days.

That Jean always felt the pressure to prove herself over and over again, including on the court and as an accomplished appellant attorney, was not something even those closest to her fully understood.  It took a long time and interviews with many people and digging through boxes and boxes of personal papers and news clippings to piece together these stories. Jean was so stoical in the telling of her own story. “It was tough but I was fine,” she would say. “It was just the way it was and you just had to keep going, put one foot in front of the other.”

Question: What drew you to Jean’s story? When did it first occur to you that this was a project that you wanted to pursue for all the years it must have taken? And why were you so determined to write Appealing for Justice? 

Susan Casey:  I wanted to explore the changes that have come for women over the decades, as part of the country’s broader journey of social justice. It was personal, in a way, because I grew up before women were allowed to be fully engaged outside the home and came of age as the women’s movement was gaining steam and opening doors. I had my own share of experiences and struggles along the way but had no interest in navel gazing about my own experiences. Instead, I thought of Jean, who had been one of the first women to help open those doors, and thought telling the story of those years of change through her experiences might allow for a telling of the evolution as an intimate and powerful narrative that would shine a light on the broader story of social justice. And I lucked out, because the intersections of her story with battles for civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, and justice for the poor and forgotten were many and deep and extraordinary. The more I learned of her story and deeper I dug into stories of each of the movements, and how so many unsung heroes were at the heart of all the change that occurred over the decades, the more committed I became to telling this one untold story, both because of it’s own power but also on behalf of every other unsung hero who participated along the way.

Question:  What was the most surprising thing you learned along the way about Jean or the whole long legal process behind Romer v. Evans?

Susan Casey:  More than anything, I guess I was surprised at what a thin line there is between a case going in one direction or another, and how much history can shift and so many lives be affected. Actually, that pretty much sums up my take on this election. A tiny shift in the direction of wind and here we are about to make history…and not in a good way.

Question:  Okay, one more question about the election. Women supported Hillary Clinton over Trump by 54 percent to 42 percent in 2016 but that’s about the same as the Democratic advantage among women in 2012 (55 percent for Obama) and 2008 (56 percent for Obama).  Given that there was a woman at the topic of the ticket, were you surprised? And, as it relates to Jean’s story, what is it going to take for women to be treated equally as men in 2016 and beyond?

Susan Casey:  Sadly, I was not surprised. In some ways I think many women resented being expected to be treated like sheep and just fall into line, and rightly so. But as we saw, all it takes it a little less enthusiasm, a few more voters staying home, a few more doubts planted, and a few more voters emboldened to hold on to old assumptions about a woman’s place in the world to shift one state or another into the column of the Republican side. I think in the near term, women are going to experience a bit of harder time because of the blatant misogyny during the past year. But over the longer term, I think we will continue to make progress.  I have faith that the younger generation, men and women, are comfortable and appreciative of a culture that values women and girls in ways that Jean’s generation, and mine, did not.

Question:  Do you have your biographer’s eyes turning to any other subjects?  What’s next for you?

Susan Casey:  I have some ideas and will begin to poke around a bit next spring and summer to see if there is a story that captures me deeply enough to let it move in and take over my life for a few years.  But for now, as Jean’s story resonates with so many, I continue to be fascinated with and learn from all the new stories that I am hearing about those justice years, about how far we have come, and how far we have to go.



On BallotPedia (what a resource), the entry for 1992 Colorado ballot measures shows a green check mark next to Amendment 2, showing that the proposal passed. In fact, the proposal won with 53 percent of the votes. Amendment 2 would have banned laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in Colorado.

At the time, three cities (Denver, Aspen and Boulder) had passed laws that prohibited such discrimination but statewide voters approved the idea of a constitutional amendment that would have made such laws illegal.

However, next to the green check mark is another tiny icon.

A brown gavel.

Appealing for Justice is the story of that brown gavel. That case was called Romer v. Evans. And not quite four years later (in May, 1996), a 6-3 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court decision wiped out the passage of Amendment 2. The language approved by Colorado voters, in fact, was ruled unconstitutional.

“We must conclude that Amendment 2 classifies homosexuals not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, delivering the majority opinion. “This Colorado cannot do. A state cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws.”

It may seem now that such logic should be a given. (Given the national election results this month, however, what is?) What’s reassuring about reading Appealing for Justice is the notion that individuals can—and do—make a difference.

Smoothly written by former Denver City Councilwoman Susan Berry Casey, Appealing for Justice is an inspiring account of the case and the woman, Jean Dubofksy, who led the charge.

If you’ve been around Colorado for any length of time, reading the book also provides a meaty opportunity to think about how the cultural landscape has changed. The story also shines a light on a woman who did not get much of the spotlight as the case wound its way through the courts.

What a life. Jean Dubofsky’s story plays out against a half century of civil rights struggles. Raised in Kansas, she attended Stanford and then Harvard Law School. Dubofsky’s enlightenment about the plight of all minorities grew as she worked on civil rights cases in the South and also as she experienced discrimination as a woman seeking acceptance in man’s world, whether that was in law school itself or working as a legislative assistant to Senator Walter Mondale in 1968.

“The Senate was a stodgy place and there were many rules to be followed,” writes Casey. “When in the Senate chamber, for instance, staff members were required to kneel along the side wall in a certain manner: with one knee up and one knee down. ‘But with a short skirt on, you couldn’t kneel with one knee up and one down,’ Jean said. The sergeant-at-arms had little experience with dealing with women staffers kneeling in the Senate chambers and insisted that protocol was protocol, skirts or not. When Jean failed to persuade him that the archaic rules were not going to work anymore, she took the issue to her boss, Senator Mondale. Soon Jean was kneeling on both knees in the Senate chamber without being reprimanded by the sergeant-at-arms.”

This wasn’t Jean’s last fight. Hardly. She was appointed deputy Attorney General for Colorado in 1975 and, four years later, became the first female justice on the Colorado Supreme Court (the youngest person ever appointed, at age 37).

Dubofsky faced a series of tough challenges. She battled an ugly, false professional accusation. She made a difficult choice in balancing her career with family responsibilities. And she endured a nasty, brutal public relations fight over being denied tenure at the University of Colorado.

Over and over, Jean Dubofsky chose to go her own way. She pushed back in some cases, turned away in others. When it came time to set the strategy for the appeals over Amendment 2, she stuck firm with her belief that it would be the story of ordinary gay men and women who would end up winning the day. She stuck and stuck firm. She fought for her conviction that the case turned on proving that homosexuality was, in fact, immutable.

One goal of the Colorado Supreme Court hearing (before the case was appealed up to the U.S. Supreme Court) was to establish a thorough record about all aspects of the case. But a second goal, Casey writes, “was to provide everyone, from the presiding judge to the world at large, an education. The trial became an introductory course: Gays and Lesbians 101. And the world was watching. Literally, Court-TV was again in the courtroom and televised the trial live, gavel-to-gavel. For Jean, the trial was more than a legal case. It was an argument for society about social justice, and the key to winning that argument was education.”

The final showdown in the U.S. Supreme Court is a nifty narrative and Casey doesn’t waste the opportunity to demonstrate the stakes of the case or the tension in the room during oral arguments as the state attempted to defend the indefensible.

Appealing for Justice is an engaging, insightful read about an important figure in Colorado—and U.S.—history. It’s also, just as Jean Dubofsky might want it, an education. Recommended.




William Shaw, “She’s Leaving Home”

shes-leaving-homeFirst, this bit of Beatles trivia. When the Fab Four recorded “She’s Leaving Home,” it was the first time a female musician was used on any Beatles track. Her name was Sheila Bromberg and she played the harp.

So there.

The book, She’s Leaving Home, will take you back to the Beatles era of London but it should be noted that the band is mostly in the background, little bits here and there including a court appearance for one John Lennon, busted for drug possession. Toward the end, the song in question does surface. A quick mention.

Potential Beatle enthusiasts, take note—The Beatles are about 10 percent factor here. It’s the era that matters more, the shift in cultures and attitudes and, even more importantly, Britain’s role in global politics, specifically how the British government dealt with the civil war in Nigeria and the breakaway state of Biafra. In many ways, She’s Leaving Home is about the fallout of the British thirst for trade stability—and energy resources. (The author’s note at the end might be worth reading before you dive in.)

So, a caution. Based on the book jacket, I was expecting much more about the Beatles. Instead, Abbey Road studios—where a teenage girl’s body is found “just steps away”—is used as a sort of mecca for fans. If you think Macca becomes a suspect, think again. That didn’t diminish my enjoyment of this story, I’m just saying.

Into this landscape comes a police procedural and the same old story—two very different cops with two very different ways of viewing the world. But we never get tired of the same old story. Do we? And the one in She’s Leaving Home is very good.

First we meet Detective Sgt. Cathal “Paddy” Breen. He’s worried and confused about an incident in which he may have acted poorly and left a Sergeant Prosser in harm’s way.  Breen is introspective and routine-oriented. He’s a bit down in the dumps after the death of his elderly father. When a young woman’s body is found strangled on Abbey Road, Breen is assigned the case and he’s teamed with a female constable, at the time a rarity.  Helen Tozer is very much a second-class citizen in the ranks of law enforcement, but she’s brazen and outspoken. Tozer is Breen’s foil. She is new, Breen is old. She is the future, Breen is the past. She is hip to what’s coming. He is clueless but he sees the changing streets and shops.

“West London was full of color. Each year the colors got louder. Girls in green leather miniskirts, boys in paisley shirts and white loafers. New boutiques selling orange plastic chairs form Denmark. Brash billboards with sexy girls in blue bikinis fighting the inch war. A glimpse of a front room in a Georgian house where patterned wallpaper had been overpainted in yellow and a huge red paper lampshade hunt from the ceiling. Pale blue Triumphs and bright red Minis parked in the streets.”  Elsewhere around London, as in the area where he keeps a basement flat, it’s business as usual. Things aren’t so bright.

So the clash between Breen and Tozer is the clash of cultures, of the times and attitudes changing. The story works in issues of the day, from sexism and racism to homophobia. When one of the main individuals in the center of the investigation is a man with his roots in Biafra, there’s xenophobia, too, and issues of national identify (not too much different than what is playing out in Britain and the U.S. in 2016).

Breen and Tozer grow closer. She warms him up, loosens him up. Things change when they visit her family home in the countryside and what is a beautiful and intriguing pastoral scene turns into harrowing moment, so well told, shortly thereafter. And then another. No spoilers here.

The occasionally pastoral procedural picks up the pace toward the end and She’s Leaving Home ends with a bang and, well, Breen and Tozer find a way to get over the cultural divide. This is also a story you’ve read before. But we never get tired of the same old story. Do we?


Manuel Ramos, “My Bad”

my-bad-3My review of My Bad by Manuel Ramos for the New York Journal of Books is posted here.

Previous review of The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories (including Q & A with Manuel) is posted here.

Previous review of Desperado is posted here.

James W. Ziskin, “Heart of Stone”

heart-of-stoneIntricately plotted and deftly layered with dicey issues of identity and status, Heart of Stone is another terrific entry in this spunky, energetic series featuring the likable Ellie Stone and that Cold War in-between-everything era of 1961.

If you’ve read the three books leading up to this one (I’ve read the last two), you know the intrepid Ellie is a reporter in a small-town newspaper called the New Holland Republic in upstate New York. Heart of Stone takes place during summer downtime at a lakeside in the Adirondacks. Ellie’s natural inquisitiveness and sense of order come in handy when two men are found splat dead on the beach, apparently having misjudged the leap necessary to safely dive to the water.

Sounds like the set-up for your basic amateur sleuth mystery, right? Well, maybe. First, Ellie is asked by the local chief of police, Ralph “Tiny” Terwilliger, to assist by helping photograph the bodies with her ever-handy Leica. The cop is camera-less and also a bit clueless about photography. He’s also more than a bit of a boor and has opinions about the “Jew Communists” staying at the “Hebrew kee-boots,” a.k.a. the nearby Arcadia Lodge.

Ellie is happy to help and doesn’t even mind, too much, getting close to the bodies or figuring out all the angles to take of the scene, whether not it’s yet known to be a crime. Ellie briefly contemplates the ghastly scene on the beach and the jumping-off point above, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to instantly drop her sunbathing plans and grab the nearest magnifying glass. Hardly. Ziskin lets the story build like a slow-gathering wave. Ellie knows that “procedures” belong to the police. She supplies the contact sheets to the cop, wonders casually about what could have possibly happened to lead two men to the fatal plunge, and goes about her summer.

An intense fling develops as Ellie finds herself hanging around the aforementioned “kee-boots,” the communal Arcadia Lodge where the musicians play Puccini and Verdi and pass the whiskey.  Heart of Stone is well-populated (a Ziskin trademark) and more—there’s even a prison escapee who is allegedly loose in the woods nearby. Once the questions around the odd-couple deaths turn from accident to murder, there is a small army of suspects in place. So the slow turn toward investigation, when Ellie turns up the jets on her reporter snoop-doggedness, doesn’t happen until dead middle of the story.

“The day was bright. The wind and rain of the previous night had passed, and the August sun was back in the saddle. It was only half past noon, but Wednesday promised to be an exhausting day. I was supposed to be on vacation, yet I was chasing a story that was surely just an accident. Yes, there were a few details about the diving deaths that didn’t make sense. But what did I think had happened? Had the two men been pushed off the cliff? Was this a case of double suicide?”

Ellie has an “obsessive devotion to clearing up remainders and riddles” and soon she is out studying the crime from new angles with fresh eyes and her analytical powers in full force. Fans of the series know full well that her camera will help piece the puzzle together. All the camera nostalgia, from Tri-X film to darkroom enlargers, is fantastic. The camera doesn’t lie. On the other hand, there are the humans who do. And many have arrived on the shore of Prospector Lake with a rich variety of back stories and dark secrets that go straight to the heart of the era’s cultural divides, social norms, sexual politics, racism and more. More than a few have tried to change their stripes or shed their skins. (Maybe one too many?) Heart of Stone does not lack for themes or issues. The story is sprinkled with world politics of the day, from who gets to work in Hollywood to the John Birch Society.

But the key here is Ellie—she’s a Dewars-sipping, forward-thinking “modern” young woman. She’s independent, feisty, and smart. For the first time, we get to see her get cozy (and then some) with a true love interest. She’s free spirited, a few years ahead of her time. She’ll make the switch from classical music to meaningful folk music, I have no doubt, when the time comes. And that free-thinking mentality and open mind is what helps her figure out why the two men took their fatal tumbles. Long may Ellie run.


Previous review of Stone Cold Dead and Q & A with James W. Ziskin is here.

Lucia Berlin, “A Manual for Cleaning Women”

a-manual-for-cleaning-womenI think anyone interested in writing should read A Manual for Cleaning Women if only to realize that everyday life is observable and transformable as engaging prose. As art.

As Elizabeth Geoghegan put it so beautifully in her piece in The Paris Review, it’s the voice that pulls you in.

Geohegan: “The moves she makes in her fiction shadow the peripatetic nature of intimate conversation, and in turn, her peripatetic life. She can transport you from the alcoholics of El Paso to the inmates of Oakland as easily as she can make you believe she was capable of loading a lethal dose into her addict husband’s syringe before going to the hospital to deliver his child. Each of her stories unfolds in such unexpected ways you nearly forget where the tale has begun. Then she suddenly brings you back and knocks the wind out of you with one of her singular last lines.”

Read the opening foreword by Lydia Davis, and you’ll have no choice but to dive into the stories and then, well, you’re hooked with that voice, especially after you reach the wickedly funny title story (the fourth).

Lydia Davis: “Lucia Berlin’s stories are electric, they buzz and crackle as the live wires touch. And in response, the reader’s mind, too, beguiled, enraptured, comes alive, all synapses firing. This is the way we like to be, when we’re reading—using our brains, feeling our hearts beat.”

And that’s precisely the feeling you get.

Writing in The New York Times, Ruth Franklin said Berlin’s stories “are the kind a woman in a Tom Waits song might tell a man she’s just met during a long humid night spent drinking in a parking lot.”

The comparisons are out there—Carver, Proust, Chekhov, Proulx. All legit. (Skip right to “Point of View” as Berlin invokes Chekhov and basically tells us how she uses “intricate detail” to make a character “believable.” This is a short story about writing; her secrets.)

For her eye on the down and out, Steinbeck is an apt comparison, too. Dust. Dirt.

Berlin’s life was wild and unsettled.  Borrowing from Davis’ foreword, she was born in Alaska. Some of her youth was spent in mining camps in western United States. Then she lived with her mother’s family in El Paso, then Chile, then Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico, New York City, Boulder (Colorado), Berkeley, Los Angeles. Health problems ranged from alcoholism to double scoliosis.

Berlin’s style is blunt, gritty, unflinching, non-flashy, earnest, detailed, matter-of-fact. There’s a medical undertow to the entire collection—dentists, abortionists, hospitals, nurses. Blood is a frequent topic along with other bodily fluids. Berlin’s writing is un-sanitized, too, but it’s frequently as straightforward as a friend with, well, a story.

“I’ve worked in hospitals for years now and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the sicker the patients are the less noise they make,” goes the first line of “Temps Perdu.” How easy and inviting is that?

“It was dry at the airport, cars grinding in and out on the gravel,” says the narrator in “Electric Car, El Paso,” a funny four-page dollop. “Tumbleweeds caught in the fence. Asphalt, metal, a haze of dusty dancing atoms that reflected dazzling from the wings and windows of the airplanes. People in cars around us were eating sloppy things. Watermelons, pomegranates, bruised bananas.”

The stories often feature people who try new things, step into other worlds, and stretch their boundaries. Her characters are not fodder for the fates, however. They make choices. No matter the narrator or main character, the senses are always on fire, taking in the world.

In “Bluebonnets,” one of the few stories told in third person, a teacher named Maria heads off from Oakland to Texas to spend time with a writer whose work she had translated into Spanish. A fling of sorts; she’s not sure. The man, Dixon, stops on their drive out into the country and makes her wait while he gets a haircut. “The absence of noise was what was so evocative of her childhood, of another era. No sirens, no traffic, no radios. A horsefly buzzed against the window, snip of scissors, the rhythm of the two men’s voices, an electric fan with dirty ribbons flying rustled old magazines. The barber ignored her, not out of rudeness but from courtesy.”

She’s a reporter (or memoirist) who takes stark, unsentimental moments and finds the telling image that reveals how her characters feel, what they’re thinking. Reading these stories, you get the feeling that Berlin never had her brain turned off or her eyes closed.  Berlin is utterly alive, despite all the poverty-stricken bleakness or alcoholism or death, and her characters are, too. They see things, hear things, and document their surroundings as they confront some terribly real scenario.

In “Todo Luna, Todo Año,” a Spanish teacher named Eloise Gore takes her solo trip three years after the death of her husband. Eloise is about to wake up, in a very big way, but first she takes in her surroundings, feeling very much out of place.

“She forced herself to relax, to enjoy langostinos broiled in garlic. Mariachis were strolling from table to table, passed hers by when they saw her frozen expression. Sabor a ti. The taste of you. Imagine an American song about how somebody tasted? Everything in Mexico tasted. Vivid garlic, cilantro, lime. The smells were vivid. Not the flowers, they didn’t smell at all. But the sea, the pleasant smell of decaying jungle. Rancid odor of the pigskin chairs, kerosene-waxed tiles, candles.”

Later, in her room, Eloise works working on translating a poem. Berlin tumbles together her fine-tuning of the translation with all that is going on around her. And the two strands intertwine, exterior and interior.

“In her room she looked at the poem again. Thus all life arrives / at the place of its quietude. No. And not life, anyway, the word is sangre, blood, all that pulsates and flows. The lamp was too dim, bugs clattered into the shade. As she shut off her light the music began again in the bar. Insistent thud of the bass. Her heart beat, was beating. Sangre.

Lucia Berlin stories pulsate and flow, yes, with sangre and heart.


Q & A #50 – Stephen and Joyce Singular, “Presumed Guilty”

presumed-guilty-coverUtter the three syllables out loud—JonBenet—and you’re bound to get a reaction. Everybody has an opinion. If you haven’t studied the case, even in cursory fashion, a brief glance at the murder will hurt your head.

Let’s say the murder didn’t happen but a scriptwriter today pitched the exact same storyline, as fiction, to “CSI.” Nobody would believe it as a story close to credible, possible, or within the realm of possibility. The facts of the murder were plenty bizarre, only to be eclipsed by the strange investigation and wacky decisions by those in charge of finding the killer. Or killers.

It’s almost 20 years since JonBenet’s death. It’s been 17 years since Stephen Singular published Presumed Guilty, An Investigation Into the Jon Benet Ramsey Case, the Media, and the Culture of Pornography. That book took Patsy Ramsey, JonBenet’s mother, off the hook. It made a strong case for looking at the broader context for the murder—specifically the world of child beauty pageants and its connections to pedophiles and child pornographers. The most vocal mouths of the media (talk radio, ahem) didn’t buy it. It’s impossible to forget the certainty with which these blathering microphone hogs carried on. It was a circus.

So much has transpired since the murder that Steve and Joyce Singular have completely updated the original book. It’s entirely worth reading now. A review follows. First, Steve and Joyce (The Spiral Notebook, Shadow on the Mountain, The Wichita Divide, When Men Become Gods and many others) were kind enough to answer a few questions by email.


Question: Did you watch the two-part CBS television show that attempted to deconstruct the case and all the theories? If so, what did you think?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  First of all, thanks for asking us to participate. We’ve just put up our 1999 book about the case, Presumed Guilty, on Kindle/Amazon. It’s been updated with about 70 new pages from the original version, bringing the story into the present. Anyone looking for a truly alternative explanation for JonBenet’s murder will find it here.

The CBS program was a mixed bag. The show’s suggestion that scenarios exist other than the Ramsey parents committing the crime (making them totally guilty) or an intruder coming into the house and killing the child (making the Ramseys completely innocent) was good. CBS did a fine job of depicting that a crime scene inside the Ramsey home was staged. They also did good work decoding the 911 call Patsy Ramsey made to the police the day the body was found. But they never addressed the more complicated questions raised in the years since the murder. In 1999, a grand jury concluded that a) the Ramseys did not kill their child, but exposed her to the circumstances that led to her death and b) the parents helped cover up the crime. Instead of exploring what the Ramseys may have exposed the child to, CBS leaped to the conclusion that 9-year-old Burke beat his sister to death with a flashlight because she ate a piece of his pineapple on Christmas night. Think about it for a moment: the program alleges that while covering up the crime, the parents wrote a nearly 400-word ransom note, fashioned a highly-complex garotte for JonBenet’s neck, choked her severely with it, and sexually assaulted her—but somehow forgot to hide the flashlight and left it out on the kitchen counter, in order to make their son look guilty.  This simply doesn’t make any sense and there’s no actual evidence of any kind—DNA or otherwise—to support the idea that Burke killed his sister. CBS walked right up to the edge of going below the surface of the case, and asked some provocative questions, but then stopped and did the predictable.

Question: Same kind of question—did you see JonBenet’s brother Burke’s appearance on “Dr. Phil” and, if so, what did you think?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  Burke came across as rather awkward and odd, but there’s nothing in his behavior or again the evidence to suggest that he killed his sister. One of his first comments to a psychiatrist—in unguarded circumstances following the murder—is that someone must have stabbed her to death with a knife. In other words, he’s clueless. Right after Patsy called 911, the Ramseys sent Burke over to a friend’s home, which was filled with strangers, who were visiting there for the Christmas season. Ask yourself this: If the Ramsey parents knew that their son had just viciously murdered his sister, and they’d covered up the crime for him, would you send him into house full of people he doesn’t know, where one slip of his tongue can put you in prison for many years to come? Or would you try to protect him and keep him away from others because of the inherent risks involved? You can only send him away like this because he doesn’t know anything incriminating—and that’s exactly how he comes off 20 years later with Dr. Phil.

Question: Your points in the book about the nature of Boulder—influence, power, politics, persuasion and how those might have influenced how the case was prosecuted—are compelling. Do you have any reason to believe that things have changed? That favoritism in another high-profile case isn’t a possibility today? Do you think the police and prosecutorial systems in Boulder have changed, been reformed?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  No, Boulder protects Boulder—very much as Aspen protected itself recently in the aftermath of a high-profile murder in that town.  Boulder DA Alex Hunter asked a grand jury to look at the evidence in the Ramsey case for a nearly-unheard-of thirteen months. In legal terms, that’s the equivalent of forever. After all their diligent work, the grand jurors told Hunter to indict the Ramseys on the two counts mentioned above. He refused. Why? Getting a conviction on these charges would have been much easier than getting a

Stephen and Joyce Singular. Photo by Kerry Ransom.

Stephen and Joyce Singular. Photo by Kerry Ransom.

Murder One conviction. Hunter went on to seal the indictment and it stayed that way for the next fourteen years. In 2013, the DA’s office was successfully sued, but it still decided only to release four pages of this 18-page document. Why was the rest concealed from the public? What’s in the remaining 14 pages? Are other people named as suspects? We suggest in Presumed Guilty that Hunter refused to prosecute the Ramseys because it would have opened up a much larger set of problems for Boulder. The grand jurors, after looking at all the evidence, did not say that Burke Ramsey killed his sister. They said that the Ramsey parents exposed JonBenet to events and a person or persons, which led to her death. What events and what person (s)? Whose DNA was left behind in several places on JonBenet? Is it possible that the scandal around her death touched prominent people in the community and no one wanted that to come out?

All these questions would have been explored in a Ramsey trial—and Hunter and the powers that be in Boulder weren’t going to let that happen. On the CBS show, ex-Boulder cop Steve Thomas quotes Hunter as saying that the decision to charge or not charge the Ramseys was going to be “political.” We think that both Hunter and Thomas were telling the truth. But what was the political issue here? What was Boulder trying to protect—or hide?

Question: Can you even count the number of ways this prosecution was fumbled within the first few hours and over the ensuing weeks, months and even years? What do you think is the biggest thing the cops or prosecutors should do today, if you were running the case?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  Go back and interview the pageant mothers around JonBenet at the time of her death. Learn from them about the photographers taking her picture then and how they behaved in the aftermath of the murder. Look for who insisted that he did not kill the child. Look for pictures of JonBenet on the Internet or elsewhere holding potential clues and suspects. Look into the criminal pool of child predators, some of whom operated on the edges of the pageant world…This area is where we began our investigation of the case in early 1997 and we feel that over the past two decade it’s been quite fruitful. We continue probing these areas today and there are a few people who’ve told us more about the case in 2016, when we re-interviewed them, than they did in 1997. They’re older now, they’re children are grown, and they’re less fearful about sharing important information that suggests a wider scandal in Boulder than the murder of one child. We’d tell the authorities to go to these people and start asking questions that go far beyond the Ramsey family as the only suspects. Dig into the issue of child exploitation in the Boulder area…in the years before the crime.

Question: Do you think the grand jury report will ever see the light of day?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  That seems very unlikely.

Question: You’ve managed to get close to some major cases—O.J., Warren Jeffs, JonBenet, the BTK Killer and others. How were you received in Boulder compared to those other cases? It almost seemed as if they were willing to share information and they offered the semblance of an open door even if they didn’t say much. Thoughts?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  Early on, Alex Hunter was quite willing to listen to outsiders and even reporters. A few months later, he stopped doing this. He told Steve face to face that he wanted the Internet/child porn angle investigated, but the Boulder police wouldn’t do this because they were fixated on the Ramsey parents. So the DA suggested that Steve look into this—an outlandish and astounding idea in a high profile murder case. To do what Hunter was asking, Steve would have had to break the law and that wasn’t going to happen. Steve also approached the Boulder police a number of times, but they were a brick wall when it came to receiving or exploring new information.

Question: You two invest so much of your own resources—time and money—into this case. What drove you to keep pursuing leads and making calls? Has it gotten easier or harder to make yourself part of the conversation in cases like these, given the way that journalism has changed?

Steve & Joyce Singular: The case just keeps finding us, as it has throughout 2016. It goes away for a year or two, but then someone contacts us with new information and our work lurches forward. Above all, this homicide remains a world-class murder mystery, so it holds its own level of interest for anyone who likes this sort of thing. It’s the only known murder where a body and a ransom note were found in the same location. There has to be an explanation for this. Neither CBS nor any of the other shows currently being aired on the case has explored this in any depth. That’s what our book is really about—and it gives readers more than two answers in the case. It also raises troubling questions: What keeps everyone involved with the murder quiet for two decades? What shuts down a legal process? What scenario makes everyone in Boulder look bad? What causes a family to spend a fortune protecting itself? What causes important legal documents to remain sealed? If a boy had killed his sister over a piece of pineapple, we believed the murder and its aftermath would have been resolved long ago.

Question: There are apparently over 30 books about the crime; other than yours, what is the best one out there?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  Lawrence Schiller’s Perfect Murder Perfect Town is a good collection of facts about the case from its early days. We believe that clues are buried inside that book, which were never really focused on or investigated enough.

Question: One thing you touch on the book but don’t really get into is the intense media frenzy that this case generated back when it first happened twenty years ago. Even “reporters” took strong, self-assured opinions about what must have happened. You mention one story about how you were treated by fellow reporters, care to share any other stories about how you were treated? Why did you think this case was elevated to this extreme fever pitch?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  There was a vacuum left behind after the OJ case. The general population and the media were hungry for a new murder narrative. The Ramsey case had just about everything: murder, mystery, money, sex, beauty, possible corruption in high places—and cable TV was now fully in motion, eager to fill up its 24-hour news cycle. The case was made for that. And more than a few legal or media commentators were willing to jump in and tell the world they’d solved the murder—when law enforcement was having a very hard time doing exactly that. Careers were made with people accusing the Ramseys of murder on TV and radio and the Internet, just as they’d done with OJ. It was a seismic shift in how these cases are portrayed to the public. Opinion crushed the known facts. Presumed Guilty was thrown into a trashcan on live national television because it dared to suggest another explanation for the crime, beyond the Ramseys as killers. All this has culminated with CBS, formerly the gold standard—the “Tiffany Network” of TV news—accusing a 9-year-old boy of murder when there is nothing at all to substantiate this. This media pattern makes doing any real journalism around the case much more challenging…and leaves the deeper questions behind: Why does a legal system and a city government decide not to prosecute the most visible case in Colorado history when it has an obligation to do so after spending $2 million of the public’s money on an investigation? What’s the real mystery behind the paralysis in this case?

What’s your best estimate for how this case will be resolved—or will it?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  It’s very unlikely it will ever be solved, unless there’s a DNA match with a currently unknown killer who left multiple DNA samples on the child and her clothing.

Question: What’s next for you two?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  We’re writing a fictional screenplay with our son, Eric, about an alternative energy resource. We’re working on a couple of other stories and when they’re more developed, we’ll post them on our website: www.stephensingular.com  Also posted there will be a notice about Steve’s upcoming appearance on the Lifetime Network for a program on the JonBenet Ramsey case, once the date is set.



Follow the facts. Keep asking questions—and keep asking questions. Without a concrete answer to the death of JonBenet Ramsey, obviously, questions remain. As Stephen and Joyce Singular put it in Presumed Guilty, some murders just won’t leave you alone. And as they make painfully clear in this updated version of their 1999 book, there are still questions to be asked—still work that could be done.

I’m no expert on the case. But the Singulars do two things simultaneously—and they do them well. First, they look closely at the human behaviors of those immediately involved. Second, they widen the lens and look at the bigger picture. It’s very hard to read this book and not come to the same general conclusion—that the answer to this case lies in the troubling sublayers and dark underground of child beauty pageants and sick underground tunnels to child pornographers.

The murder alone is puzzling enough. The police work and prosecutorial efforts that followed were worse. As the Singulars write, “the case remains a world-class conundrum. The murder of JonBenet is the only example in the annals of American homicide where a body and a ransom note were found in the same location. Somehow, some way, there is logic behind that, but Boulder’s legal system was never able to explain what it was. Or perhaps it did, a long time ago, but we’ve never fully understood what this means.”

In the years following the murder, the Singulars write, their questions ran head-long into either “pervasive fear” or “absolute silence.”

Looking back, they write: “The most potent aspect of the Ramsey phenomenon was the stillness around it — from the family and its legal team, from Boulder cops and the D.A.’s office, from parts of the media, and in the very uneasy quiet that clung to the crime, even as the authorities tried to put it behind them. Presumed Guilty suggested that there were powerful reasons for this silence and the effort to bury the murder, rather than solve it. The book stood alone in speculating that there were more than the two ironclad scenarios the media and the police had laid out for the child’s death from the very beginning: either the Ramseys did it and were totally guilty or an intruder had come into their home and killed the girl, leaving the Ramseys completely innocent. A huge gap lay in between these poles and Presumed Guilty explored that space.”

As recent television news shows make clear, that space still remains. The Boulder police (in a videotaped message to the community at large, recorded in anticipation of the huge media onslaught coming with the two-decade anniversary) maintain they are actively pursuing leads to this day. I hope so. Perhaps they should start by reading this book; the Singulars lay out some compelling places to start.

It also suggests what we all largely suspect to the case—that deals were struck, that money and wealth got the privileged kid-glove treatment it thinks it deserves. Nothing else explains the actions of Boulder law enforcement in the days, weeks, and months following the murder.

In the updated version (I did not read the original), the Singulars take readers along for the ride. The book takes each thread and unspools it in a very conversational style.

These two get very close to the main players in the case; as independent journalists they brought information forward to Alex Hunter and others, with mixed results. The book becomes a series of interviews and conversations with those around the Ramseys—and a series of reactions by the authorities to what is brought forward. What did they find? See above. Pervasive fear and/or absolute silence. I won’t go blow by blow with each encounter, but the Pam Griffin conversation here certainly suggests there is more work to be done. (Griffin was the seamstress for JonBenet’s pageant attire and knew Patsy Ramsey very well.)

Presumed Guilty is a fascinating book, well worth a read; it’s brisk. The book concedes that it has only identified the what for the case, not the who. Until there is an answer, isn’t it a good idea to be open to all possibilities? And follow the facts—not the noise.


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.





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.”