Steve Hamilton – “The Second Life of Nick Mason”

Second Life Nick MasonWho wouldn’t jump at the chance to walk out of prison twenty years early? Right? Even if the chance comes with a vague sort-of contract, an unwritten bargain? Even if the deal is struck with a notorious fellow prisoner, a crime lord named Darius Cole, a.k.a. “Mr. Cole.”

Nick Mason takes the deal. And walks out of prison. A “free” man. Um, well.

A black Escalade is idling near the sidewalk. Inside is a guy named Quintero, who is Cole’s eyes and ears on the outside. Mason gets taken to fancy digs in a part of Chicago that is a long way from the poor neighborhoods where he grew up. He gets to drink cold Goose Islands and savor a long shower. It may feel good, but Nick Mason has put himself smack back into another kind of incarceration. Yes, Nick Mason is “outside.” Yes, he encounters some luxuries and favors. But Nick has made a deal with a devil. And that guy, who is called “Mr. Cole” even by the prison guards, has some nasty business in mind for Nick Mason to carry out his end of the bargain.

The Second Life of Nick Mason is one delicious set-up. And the rest is just as tasty.

Hamilton steadily ramps up the pressure on Mason. We see him interact with his ex-wife and daughter. He’s got heart. He meets a woman and we root for things to go well.  A cop snoops, unconvinced by Mason’s early exit from prison. Hamilton braids in the backstories effortlessly—the betrayal that led to Mason’s arrest and his old relationships with his ex and his old crew, too. While written for steady forward momentum, not poetry, Hamilton gives solid character development all around. The plot chugs hard and Hamilton nails the Chicago hardscape.

“Mason left Elmhurst and gunned the Mustang down North Avenue, driving like a man with no family to live for. He blew through every yellow light, made one turn and then another, with no idea where he was going. Finally, he stopped at a bar on a street he didn’t know. In a part of the West Side he’d never seen before. It was a building made of concrete with glass blocks rounding-off the corners. No sign. No name anonymous place for the local daily drinkers who all the knew the bartender and one another.”

Mason isn’t free. He does what he’s told, steps over a certain line. The cop, Detective Frank Sandoval, draws closer. Hamilton flips back and forth between Mason and Sandoval and soon we realize there are a variety of ways to have your options severely limited, whether as cop or pseudo, sort-of ex-con.

Mason wonders if that’s it, but knows better. He waits for the phone to ring. He’s always waiting for the phone to ring. The Chicago chase scenes are epic, the fights are gritty, the plot takes a nice big sweeping turn and Nick Mason discovers a way to manage his own path to redemption.

The Second Life of Nick Mason is a terrific companion to Michael Harvey’s Brighton, another great piece of situational crime fiction released earlier this year. Ironically, Harvey has written mostly about Chicago but moved to the Boston area for his new novel. I hope Harvey doesn’t mind Hamilton big-shouldering his way into the mean streets of Chicago. Seems like there is plenty of room—and crime—for both.


Q & A #47 – Erik Storey, “Nothing Short of Dying”

Nothing Short of DyingErik Storey’s first novel, Nothing Short of Dying, is being published today with the support of sterling blurbs from the likes of Lee Child, C.J. Box, William Kent Krueger, and Nelson DeMille.

Advance reviews confirmed the praise.

Booklist called it “immensely enjoyable.” Kirkus called it “adrenaline-fueled.” And so on.

It’s hard to imagine a better blast of PR wind in your sails than that–and they’re all correct. Nothing Short of Dying puts one Clyde Barr in motion in a big, sweeping, action-packed way. I have a hunch that Barr soon will be as familiar to readers as, say Joe Pickett or Jack Reacher.

A full review follows this Q & A (below) with Colorado’s own Erik Storey.

One scheduling note–Erik will be at the Tattered Cover on Tuesday, Aug. 30 (2526 E. Colfax Ave.) for a launch event in Denver. Stop by if you can.


Question:  Where did the whole idea for Nothing Short of Dying come from? Did it start with Clyde Barr and his character? Or the landscape? What sparked the story?

Erik Storey: It started with the landscape. I was driving down a two-track road, twenty miles from the nearest paved road, listening to an audio book, and wondered why we didn’t have any thrillers written about the rugged area I was passing through. Then, I started to think of a character who would be tough enough and different enough to handle the area.

Question: Clyde has “seen evil on three continents” before getting into the situation that plays out across Western Colorado in Nothing Short of Dying. How did you develop his backstory? Have you known or met guys like Clyde? Or his pal Zeke?

Erik Storey: : I had a vague idea for his wandering background, and it is kept vague for the most part because its purpose is mostly to set up Clyde as a roaming hunter who uses his rifle for good. A backwoods Knight Errant, if you will. The backstory of Clyde’s childhood, however, came into being while I worked with my editor to make the story more realistic. We needed a concrete, realistic story of his upbringing, and the one I came up with was the only one that I thought worked.

I’ve never met anyone in real life like Clyde, but read about plenty like him in the old adventure books of Haggard, London, and Doyle.

Zeke is actually an amalgamation of quite a few people whom I’ve met and worked with who scared the shit out of me.

Question: The story winds from Grand Junction to Rifle and Leadville—it’s almost a tour of Western Colorado. How did you pick your locations? And I’m leading the witness here but how much fun is it to write about Western Colorado today?

Erik Storey: I chose the locations based on the places I knew well. I live in Grand Junction, have worked in Rifle, Meeker, and Steamboat, and went to college in Leadville. I wrote most of the first draft in the winter, and most of it while caring for my infant daughter, so travelling back to these areas for research was pretty much out of the question. Also, I believe if you write from memory you write the details that stand out most in your mind, and this helps it stand out in the readers mind.

As you probably know, it’s a whole lot of fun writing about the best parts of the state. Researching them is pretty enjoyable as well.

Question: Did you plot this out before you started writing? No spoilers here, but did you know what would happen to Allie? And how long have you been working on Nothing Short of Dying?


Erik Storey

Erik Storey: I flew by the seat of my pants while writing it, and had no idea what would happen to any of the characters. In the first draft, I didn’t even know who the characters were, other than Clyde. It’s fun to write that way, but you have to be willing to rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite. It took me four years and many, many drafts to get to this point.

Question: You’ve worked so many jobs in the great outdoors. How did those influence your approach to deciding what to write? Given all the things you’ve done, when did you start writing?

Erik Storey: Working outside definitely helped me choose a setting for the novel. I haven’t worked more than a couple months indoors (not counting writing), and wouldn’t be able to write a book set in an office, for instance, or a bank. So I had to have Clyde outside as much as possible. It gave me an excuse to write about the beautiful scenery in our state.

As far as writing goes, I’ve only been dabbling since college. A few stories here, an essay there. It wasn’t until I had a winter without a seasonal job that I started trying to write something as long as a novel. I was thirty three at the time.

Question:  As a first novel, this book is arriving with fantastic advance praise—from C.J. Box, Craig Johnson, William Kent Krueger, Nelson DeMille. All heavy hitters. How did you go about rounding them up? And what did it feel like to see those comments roll in?

Erik Storey: The roundup was the work of my fantastic editor, and my amazing agent. I had nothing to do with it. I did, however, write a heap of gushing thank-you letters. These people are my writing heroes, and it was beyond strange to realize it was my book they were talking about. I felt like they were perhaps mistaken, that they’d confused my book with one from someone else. I am still having a hard time believing that all of this is real, that I won’t wake up from this and say to my wife, “Honey, I had the best dream!”

Question: You have written only short fiction, as I gather, before this. Were the short stories along these same lines or completely different? What was the hardest thing about making the switch to a longer form? Or the easiest? Are you still writing short stories?

Erik Storey: Most of my short stories were set in the outdoors, but that is about as far as the similarities went. They were crime fiction, mostly, and a lot darker and twisted than the book. The hardest thing about making the switch was making writing daily a habit. I knew the only way I’d finish a manuscript was to write 1000 words a day. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Writing short stories was much easier. I could write them in my spare time, and editing them didn’t take near as long.

Question: What writers inspire you?

Erik Storey: Hemingway, Elmore Leonard, John D. Macdonald, Louis L’Amour, Mickey Spillane, Jack London, Tom Robbins, Jim Harrison, and there’s also this very talented mystery writer whom I admire who just recently won the RMFW Writer of the year. He writes about Allison Coil, an outfitter and a wilderness wonder woman. Can’t seem to remember his name, though. Mark something . . .

Question: Where is Clyde heading next? It seems like there are some unresolved issues, to say the least. Do you have future stories in the works?

Erik Storey: The second Clyde Barr book will involve Clyde, bikers, and a terror alert, all coming together on the Ute Reservation in Northeast Utah. I hope to be able to continue writing about Mr. Barr, but it will ultimately be up to the readers whether or not the series continues.


Erik Storey’s website.

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At one point in time, the world was simply a “wide-open adventure” to Clyde Barr. A stint in the Merchant Marines. Camping across Africa at a time when he was “naïve but lucky.” Then “dreary jobs” like watching cows and building fences and digging wells. Then, hunting poachers in animal reserves and guiding safaris. And “helping the underdogs” in coups and revolutions, “picking the side I approved of.”

Not all went well, including a stint in a Mexican prison.  Clyde Barr has “has seen evil on three continents.” But there’s one thing about Clyde Barr. When he gives someone a promise, “nothing short of dying” will prevent him from following through. When his sister calls, Clyde Barr hears a tone in her voice he doesn’t like, “the same tone and pleading I’d heard as a child on the bad nights. The nights that Mom and Dad—or Mom and some new guy—were fighting, or when one of those guys, drunk and out of control, chose to hurt us.”

So Clyde makes a promise. To help. To come get Jen.

As always, Clyde gets to pick the side he approves of. And this decision is a snap.

And Erik Storey’s Nothing Short of Dying begins its rocket ride around Western Colorado. Clyde is just a brother looking for a sister. Easy? Right?

The search starts in a bar called the Cellar in Clifton. “The place smelled of piss and mildew and stale beer. There was something else, too: the acrid sweat of the strung out—a smell that reminded me of the little cantina in Bolivia where people in the coca trade use booze to come down from the powder cloud that gets them through the long shifts. If broken souls had an odor, they’d smell like the Cellar.”

Clyde Barr is full of keen little observations like that one. And he’s not all bad boy. He’s got a pistol, a knife, a .375 Holland & Holland, sure. But then there are the paperbacks like the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche or the stories of H. Rider Haggard.

Clyde befriends a woman named Allie. He’s a bit of a knight-errant—and knows it. He takes his cues from childhood reading about Gawain, Perceval and Lancelot. The story winds to Rifle and the hills nearby. Clyde has an eye for “empty country—my favorite kind” but they are alternately chasing and being chased. Then it’s up the Yampa River Valley to Steamboat Springs and then onto Leadville; Nothing Short of Dying covers a big chunk of northwestern Colorado.

To beef up his team, Clyde pulls in a guy named Zeke. They had met in the prison in Mexico. Zeke killed two fellow prisoners with his bare hands and a prison guard with a shoelace garrote. Zeke was never caught because there was only one witness—Clyde. The result? Zeke, a guy who once “lost all interest in the human race,” owes Clyde. And Zeke enlists in Clyde’s mission, tempted in part by gaining access to any “spoils” from taking down a few sinister bad boys. One named Chopo and another named Alvis. There are gun fights, knife fights and fight fights. For every mess Clyde cleans up, he drags another with him.

Some of the scenes are Reacher-esque, but Clyde Barr is much less a cartoon than the Reacher’s impossible (but oh so fun) rumbles. Where Reacher travels with precious little, in fact, Clyde Barr drags every regret and mistake with him on every page. Fuel—motivation—is never in short supply.

Nothing Short of Dying is a big, sweeping, fast-paced thriller with guts. Push down the kickstarter on the first few pages and take yourself for a ride with Clyde Barr, a man who knows himself very, very well. “The wild places….have the ability to send you deeper into your mind than you’d go if you were in a more civilized place. It’s what makes those of us who spend most of our lives in the wilderness go crazy.”

Yes, and Nietzshe said something along the lines of “stare into the abyss and the abyss stares back.”

Clyde Barr returns the stare with action and purpose. It isn’t always pretty, but the point isn’t “how,” it’s “what.”

Clyde Barr shows knows exactly how to get to that crazy place.

All he needs to do is pick the side that’s worth fighting for.




Mark Coggins – “No Hard Feelings”

Mark Coggins - No Hard FeelingsI’ve only read one other in the August Riordan series. The Big Wake-Up was a hard-charging five-hour energy boost set on the sometimes mean, sometimes funny streets of San Francisco. That tale involved the preserved body of Eva Peron and heavy doses of August Riordan’s wry take on the universe.

Riordan is back in No Hard Feelings and it was a snap to slip back into the groove and devour this one like an apple fritter at Bob’s Donuts.

The San Francisco backdrop is in full force again (this one starts with on the Golden Gate Bridge) but No Hard Feelings ventures off to Nevada and then to California wine country for the big finish.

Looking for something different? How about a book that features photos that set the mood for each chapter? All 34 of them? Photos, in fact, shot by the writer? Anyone who follow Coggins on Facebook or Twitter knows he’s a master at the street candid with his moody black-and-white portraits. He’s also an award-winning photographer (with a book to prove it, too). Here, the shots are still-life: objects, landscapes, buildings. Again, black and white.  Great idea. Kudos to Down & Out Books for going along with or encouraging this design.

Speaking of down and out, there’s August Riordan and a woman named Winnie. It’s hard to get much lower than Winnie’s state of mind in the opening sentence: “When she got to San Francisco and found that August Riordan wasn’t there, she decided to kill herself.” She stares at the “lumpy ocean” far below and thinks through her options. If she jumps from the Golden Gate, she’s almost certain she’ll feel nothing at all.

In fact, Winnie has no feeling below her neck. But thanks to “experimental technology” developed by her husband, she can walk. But then Winnie realizes one flaw in her plan. If she lives or dies from the jump, nothing will change in efforts of her enemy, a guy named The Winemaker, to “harvest the last few secrets” of how it works.

So she goes to look for August Riordan, who lives in a trailer park at the base of Mount San Jacinto.  “The sheathing and the trailer itself were painted pink, and the concrete in the carports was stained forest green. The ‘lawn’ in front consisted of a semicircle of dirt that extended out from the dented aluminum skirt of the trailer. River rocks, weeds, and a half-buried truck tire were the only things that broke the chalklike surface of the dry desert soil.” Winnie finds Riordan in the carport simultaneously lifting weights and downing shots of whiskey. That’s our boy. Clearly, Winnie and Riordan have had interactions prior to the action in No Hard Feelings (Coggins slips in plenty of backstory) and Winnie feels obligated to warn Riordan that the wheelchair-bound Winemaker and his henchmen might soon be coming after him, too. She knows that if there was one person the Winemaker hates more than her, it’s Riordan.

Before Riordan can finish his whiskey or “workout,” the chase is on. First, Riordan enlists the help of a former aircraft engineer named Ray. He’s a ham radio enthusiast who lives in a nearby trailer at the same “park.” Ray agrees to conduct an on-the-spot electronic surgery on Winnie’s implant. This scene goes a long way in covering the ins and outs of Winnie’s particular situation with her nerves and physical feelings, as well as the technology in question. She’s mostly mechanical; only her faces reveals expressions and moods. (A helpful author’s note from Coggins explains that the technology to restore mobility in spinal cord injury patients is real but not quite as far along as the plot here requires.)

The exchanges between Winnie and Riordan are delicious and sarcastic. They bristle and jab at each other. And occasionally bite. And then, well, other “feelings” emerge. They briefly stop hiding behind each other’s “cutting remarks.”  Winnie and Riordan make for a bawdy, spunky pair.

After a hilarious scene at a unique brothel, the chase leads around California before a major showdown at a winery. There are pipe bombs, drones, shotguns, and a couple of thugs named Sergy and Anatoly. All along is our hero with an equal interest in doing what’s right and staying alive. He’s a Budweiser-sipping action hero for the real people, those with artificial parts or not. And then Ray shows up with toys and tools to complete the odd-trio attack squad.

Winnie ends up where the book started—staring out at the water. She’s thinking about her choices and what she can and cannot feel, both inside and out. The ending is ragged, open-ended and real.

No Hard Feelings is the perfect title for a funny book with a rip-roaring plot. Along the way, it makes a few winning points about what makes us human—or not.


Down and Out Books

Mark Coggins

Previously reviewed: The Big Wake-Up

Big Wake Up

Q & A #46 – Christopher Bartley, “Naked Shall I Return”

naked shall i returnI’m going to keep this intro short.

Below, some nifty insights from the writer behind eight novels featuring thoughtful tough guy Ross Duncan.

I’ve only read the first, They Die Alone, and the latest, Naked Shall I Return.

For any fan of the hard-boiled, noir-ish gangster stuff, however, you should know Ross Duncan.

And Christopher Bartley.

You’ll soon realize that the reason these books ring true is that Christopher Bartley has immersed himself in the fiction and non-fiction side of this period for a long, long time.

You also should know that Christopher Bartley brings hefty professional credentials to his work as a crime fiction writer.

Check this:

Bartley is the pen name for B. Christopher Frueh, a behavioral scientist.  He is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Hawaii, Hawaii, and also McNair Scholar and Director of Research at The Menninger Clinic in Houston, Texas.  He conducts clinical trials, epidemiology, and neuroscience research, primarily with psychiatric inpatients, prisoners, combat veterans, and special operations forces.

Frueh has authored over 250 scientific publications including a recent graduate textbook on psychopathology. He has consulted to U.S. Congress, Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and the National Board of Medical Examiners. He has also published commentaries in the National Review, Huffington Post, New York Times, and Time. For his scientific work he has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Washington Post, Scientific American, USA Today, and Los Angeles Times, among others.

Frueh lives on the Big Island of Hawaii with his wife and their cats.

By the way, I highly recommend following Christopher Bartley on Twitter (link below). His Twitter feed is a gold mine of stuff from both his professional and creative sides.

A full review of Naked Shall I Return follows the interview.


Q & A:

Question: What was the inspiration for the Ross Duncan character? How did you become interested in the 1930’s and the whole gangster world?

Christopher Bartley: As a young child I read a lot, and for some reason I liked biographies – Christopher Columbus, Napoleon, Jackie Robinson, Wyatt Earp, George Washington, Mickey Mantle – and one day at the public library when I was about ten or eleven I found the autobiography of Alvin Karpis. That hooked me. Karpis was a professional criminal and a contemporary of John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Barkers. They were all robbing banks in 1933 and 1934, just after prohibition ended and in the depths of a national Great Depression. By January of 1935 Karpis was essentially the last surviving “Public Enemy.”  Hoover had built them up into celebrity bank robbers, while ignoring the far worse societal predations of organized crime.  As his federal agents shot the bank robbers down in the streets of America, he gained fame and glory – and cemented the status of his small federal agency, which soon became known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation – the FBI.  Karpis was smart and edgy, and had a longer run than most and managed not to get killed.  After his capture he spent almost three decades on Alcatraz and then got out of prison in the late 1960’s, wrote two fascinating books about his life, and died an old man.

One other thing: as a bank robber and professional criminal, Ross Duncan is not a private investigator and also obviously not your typical “good guy.” However, he is cut from the same cloth as the archetypal hardboiled PI’s of American literature. I chose the name “Ross” in honor of one of my favorite writers in any genre: Ross Macdonald.

Question: I have only read THEY DIE ALONE (Chicago) and NAKED SHALL I RETURN (around San Francisco). Where else has Ross Duncan, shall we say, “worked?” And how do you do the research for the time period and various locations?

Christopher Bartley:  I’m fascinated by American cities and their histories.  Ross Duncan grew up on the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota and he moves fluidly around the mid-western states, with strong connections and ties in Chicago, New York City, and Kansas City.  In the course of the current eight published novels he also has visited Hot Springs, Arkansas (a wide open town in it’s heyday) and San Francisco.  I’ve been doing some of the research my entire life by visiting these cities and reading about them.  More then that, if you visit my office on campus, you will find hundreds of books about the era, the cities, and the people – far more books on those subjects than on psychology.  I especially like to work with books that are filled with old photographs of the cities and the people in them – the buildings, the streets, the signs, the automobiles, the clothing styles, and the everyday people caught in candid moments of living their daily lives in that era.

Question: What is ‘noir’ to you? Why has the interest in ‘noir’ lingered in the public imagination for as long as it has?

Christopher Bartley: ‘Noir’ translated literally in French obviously means black, but in the context of literature and film it generally means fiction that is characterized by fatalism, cynicism, moral ambiguity, and the darkness of the human heart.  I prefer the term ‘hardboiled’ to noir.  I think I write in the genre because it fits my view of the world.

Hardboiled crime novels and movies do not come along very often anymore, at least not the old school, hard as nails types. Modern movies too often succumb to the easy seduction of the focus-group-tested happy-endings and computer generated action scenes devoid of character and charm. There is something uniquely American about the form. Dashiell Hammett pretty much started it with his iconic Sam Spade, played for the ages by Humphrey Bogart in THE MALTESE FALCON, who lived in the shadows and the shades of gray of 1930’s San Francisco.

Christopher Bartley

Christopher Bartley

Question: In NAKED SHALL I RETURN, where did the whole plot come from? The cliff house? The missing objects? The ‘blue orb’? The silent movie backdrop?

Christopher Bartley: I think most readers will note a connection to THE MALTESE FALCON, especially since the novel is set in San Francisco and the ‘blue orb’ may appear to bear some thematic resemblance to the “stuff that dreams are made of,” (which Hammett borrowed from Shakespeare). The cliff house was a real historical house overlooking the bay/ocean that burned down under mysterious circumstances in 1907.  The history of Chinatown that forms part of the backdrop to the novel comes from several history books, including two by a Chinese Historian colleague of mine.  I’m not sure where I got the silent movie backdrop, though I liked it for its theme of a golden age that had come and quickly past – and left behind a group of dreamers who would never be stars again.

Question: How did you develop Ross Duncan’s moral code? He’s got some pretty heavy views on immortality, on prisons, on the nature of being human. Yet he’s certainly not afraid to take matters into his own hands. Has he changed over the course of eight books?

Christopher Bartley: It’s easier for me to analyze Sam Spade than it is my own protagonist. Spade saw the world around him as it was, not as it was idealized to be. He was clear eyed about the corruption, large and small, around him and he saw through the darkness of men’s hearts, observed their wickedness without stepping onto higher ground. He was there raking about in the gutter himself, where the action was, were the little soft nuggets worth finding were to be had.  He harbored no illusions about his partner, Miles Archer, knew his greed and lust. And still he felt duty-bound to seek out and punish his murderer. “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it.  It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him.  He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it,” he explains.

By reputation, Spade (both Hammett’s original creation and as played by Humphrey Bogart on film) is no saint himself. He drinks too much and he’s perceived by others to be corruptible. Only it turns out his avarice is no match for his desire to be able to look himself in the mirror at the end of the day.  He’s stubborn, softhearted, even, at the fringes. In THE MALTESE FALCON he wants to save the lady, Brigid O’Shaughnessy; knowing she’s flawed, he wants to believe she’s worth saving, and that redemption can be found for them both.

But, he’ll only be played so far.

He won’t play the patsy, and he won’t play it perhaps for no other reason than because she’s counting on him to. He’ll wait for her to get out jail, but he won’t take the fall for her or let her walk away from her crime.  It hurts him, wearies him.  If they hang her, he’ll always remember her. He also notes, “a lot more money would have been one more item on your side” (of the ledger), rendering his final risk calculus as something less than full morality. Then again, he’s a hard man, hardboiled all the way through – and we, the readers, have no way of knowing what he might have done for more money. We’re not supposed to. One has the sense, that, while it was a theoretical possibility, practically speaking there would not ever be enough money to corrupt him.

My protagonist, Ross Duncan, has a lot in common with Sam Spade.  He values loyalty, keeping his word, not harming innocents, and getting the job done.  If he’s betrayed, he will have his vengeance. At the same time, he’s growing weary, seeking redemption and another path – but first, he has a few accounts left to settle.

Question: How does your professional work as a clinical psychologist play a role in writing fiction? What came first? The fiction or the work?  How do you fit them together in the daily routine?

 Christopher Bartley:  I started writing when I was about ten years old, short stories that I showed to my parents, and then attempts at writing novels as early as age twelve.  I went to Kenyon College where I was enamored of the literary presence there, but majored in psychology because that seemed more practical.  As a clinician and scientist I work during the day, and writing is a crucial aspect of my day job. I write fiction at night. I suppose, though I am not sure how, that my training and experience as a psychologist must influence my writing. Much of my work has been with combat veterans and trauma survivors, so I have spent much of my life learning about the dark things that people do. The first combat veteran I ever interviewed was my great grandfather who served in Cuba during the Spanish-American war and fought at the Battle of San Juan Hill. I’ve since worked extensively with veterans from every war since WWII and more recently I do a lot of work with special operations forces who have been used heavily since September 11, 2001.

Question: What’s the biggest challenge in writing noir? At the same time, what’s the attraction?

Christopher Bartley: Before I started writing my first novel THEY DIE ALONE, I did not commit a word on paper until I had my character, Ross Duncan, firmly in my mind. He was laconic, fearless, world-weary, and filled with regret – and of course that was the easy part. More challenging, I had to know how he spoke, what he did, what his history was (i.e., juvenile delinquency, stints in prison, early crimes) and why, who his friends and enemies were, where his values fell, how he related to females (and vice versa).

Why wasn’t he a private eye? Because that was too obvious, has been done too much already, and a professional criminal would present different challenges and opportunities to take the character. Could Sam Spade rob a bank, make deals with gangsters, or shoot a man in cold blood?  Maybe, but Ross Duncan certainly could. With that in mind, I had to think a little more about setting. It could not be modern day. It had to be a mythic past, a time when smart phones, video games, and reality TV series were not yet changing American society. I went back to the last Great Depression, urban Chicago openly ruled by mobsters, and the Midwest. It was a time when men still had the power to forge their own destiny outside the controlling hands of the rapidly growing federal government, at least for a short while yet.

In THEY DIE ALONE, the first novel of my new Ross Duncan series, the exhausted bank robber observes: “The heartless, blinding light of the early morning sun catapulted over the tall city buildings, mocking me for a fool as I reached the street with my hands trembling in my pockets.” He’s humbled and alone in the big concrete city, overcast by the planetary conditions of an indifferent god, still searching. 

Question: Ross Duncan references James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett in NAKED SHALL I RETURN, what are some other classic noir writers you read or recommend? Anyone writing contemporary noir whom you’d like to point out?

Christopher Bartley: The classic American hardboiled crime novelists – Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Mickey Spillane, John D. MacDonald, James M. Cain, and of course the great Jim Thompson – ruled the hardboiled form with literary eloquence and they remain relevant and revelatory even today, over seventy years after their emergence. I admire some of their British successors too: Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond novels, Len Deighton, and John Le Carre.  Modern day crime writers I admire include Megan Abbott and Sue Grafton.

Question: What’s next for Ross Duncan or any future fiction?

Christopher Bartley: I currently have four books underway.  First, I am working on another Ross Duncan novel. Titled, THE DOWRY OF EVELYN BAYS, Duncan returns to Chicago to confront the woman who betrayed him in FOR A SIN OFFERING (book #3) and deal with some old business in Chicago.

A second book, A SEASON PAST, is virtually finished.  It is a collection of two novellas and a short story that are all set in American and set in 1900, 1946, and 2009.  I wrote the first one over twenty-five years ago, and just finished the most last one recently.  Collectively, they are held together by the theme of men who have served in war and are now struggling with life transitions in some way.  I intend to send it off to my literary agent, Sonia Land, in London, by the end of August.

Third, I have outlined and written the first and last chapter of a book, THE GATEWAY TO NOTHING, which will be somewhat autobiographical, largely about my work for the government dating back to 1984 and some of the consequences that work has resulted in – for me personally, as well as those close to me.

Finally, I am co-authoring a contemporary thriller novel titled ONLY TWO WAYS TO DIE.  My coauthor is a good friend and a highly decorated former Navy SEAL.  His name will not mean anything to most readers, but he is very accomplished.  We decided not to write his real-life memoirs yet because DOD would not sanction them; so, we are writing an action-thriller series of novels about a tier-one Navy SEAL.  The series will have a strong character-driven focus, with a dark, hard edge, gruesome humor, dramatic plots, and an attention to tactical, technical, and scientific detail consistent with the realities of modern special operations warfare and current geopolitical threats.



Follow Christopher Bartley on Twitter

Previously reviewed: THEY DIE ALONE

They Die Alone










Rain. Cigarettes. Smoke. Fog. Gangsters.

Add Chinatown, San Francisco and Thompson machine guns.

We know this world, a noir-gangster-hardboiled mashup and it’s beautifully handled by Christopher Bartley in Naked Shall I Return (the second Ross Duncan novel I’ve read after They Die Alone).

The atmosphere and language channel Chandler, Hammett, and Cain. (The latter-two are name-checked by our protagonist within the story.) Our hero searches for meaning and substance amid the slow-burn mayhem. A dame? Why, yes. We know her well. Or do we?

It’s all familiar.

And fresh at the same time.

Naked Shall I Return starts with a bank robbery, blazing guns and a car chase. It’s 1934. The robbery is in Illinois. And a couple months and a brisk few pages later, Ross Duncan is in San Francisco. He’s arrived with very little in the way of possessions. His girlfriend has less. And he’s being asked for help. Duncan is told by potential new clients that he has “special talents” and the “right heart.”

A package of “great value” has gone missing. The package includes a special Blue Orb. And soon there’s another encounter. This time, a woman. She’s waiting to talk to Duncan about her husband, who has vanished. She won’t share all her suspicions about the “complications” of her husband’s strange life. Her name is Jennifer. It used to be Afsoon.

And down goes Duncan into the fray, dragging his humanity along at every step. On the trip back from Sausalito to San Francisco, his ferry slips past Alcatraz. Duncan thinks: “It was easy for me to imagine the indignities and lack of ordinary freedoms the men in the cell blocks endured. I’d been in a place like that before. Relative to the boundless possibilities that surrounded me in every moment that I wasn’t a federal prisoner, it nearly broke my heart.”

Ross Duncan knows he has choices. He thinks deep thoughts. He sees the big picture—or, at least, contemplates what it might or might not be.

The shoot-em-up bank robbery beginning is a bit misleading. Most of Naked Shall I Return is point-to-point quasi-detective work. There are many thoughtful, moody conversations interrupted by flashes of PG-13 violence. The story weaves in human refugees. It plays off the waning era of silent films. There’s a famous cliff house and what happened in a fire in 1907. There’s a thread about the secret to immortality. There’s a mysterious Chinese mistress and a discussion about Judas. Through it all, Duncan carries the weight of the world. He is ever wary of ambition, hubris and greed. Down in the places where Ross Duncan does his best work, he witnesses extreme manifestations of those traits and isn’t sure he likes what he sees. He ponders an alternative self.

“Standing in the shadows of the clouds that passed over me on Market Street, I thought about my mother and the times she’d expressed hope that I would become a priest. Before her early death, she had been sure the calling would find me. There were times I almost wished it had. I had grown weary of other people’s pain, hurt, deceit, and bad fortune, and I couldn’t help but wonder if a white collar and a black suit might have provided an effective layer of armor against the tribulations of the world.”

Worldly temptations include the girl, of course, and Bartley serves up a classic here. Beguiling, of course. Helpful to Duncan, of course, and encouraging. She is desperate. And appealing. “The scent of her lavender perfume caught my nose and tickled some ancient part of my brain that knew only one way to respond.”

But we know where this is going. Right? She seems so well-intentioned, we are lured into forgetting. She can’t be that woman. Can she?

Duncan rides events down to the gritty, final showdowns. The time period is perfectly evoked and yet, in other ways, the period doesn’t matter. Duncan may have immediate problems to fix and people to figure out, but he’s eternally aware of his place in the big scheme of things and the “ancient force” bearing down. Ross Duncan’s rich interior is as seductive and serene as a cool fog wrapping itself over the City by the Bay.



“Brussels Noir”

Brussels NoirMy review of the short story collection “Brussels Noir” for the New York Journal of Books is posted here.

Lori Rader-Day – “Little Pretty Things”

Little Pretty ThingsCan you “win” high school?

What if you spent all of high school as an also-ran hiding in the shadows? What happens if you felt perpetually overshadowed, overlooked?

Little Pretty Things will take you back to those feelings of inferiority. That is, unless you were class valedictorian and the star athlete.

I doubt you’ll find a better example of strong point-of-view in a protagonist. Lori Rader-Day rolls out a richly three-dimensional character in Juliet Townsend—and gives us full access to all the slights she has felt, all the bitter humiliations and stinging frustrations. Juliet retains vivid memories of her high school experience. She recalls the pain. It’s palpable. Of course, she hasn’t gone far, just down the road to clean rooms at the Mid-Night Inn, “a step above a roadside dive.” We’re outside Indianapolis. It could be anywhere, U.S.A.

Juliet (Jules, the perfect nickname) is no angel. She knows the motel looks clean, but knows how to fake it. Short-cuts, sure.  And little things, little pretty things, might disappear if you are staying in one of the rooms she cleans. She is a collector, let’s say. Juliet feels she’s owed. “This thing—shiny, silver, gold, pink, beaded, flowered, whatever it was. Some little pretty thing that was someone else’s. With the flick of a wrist, it became mine.”

And then, one night, Madeline Bell shows up. Madeline Bell “had always meant the same thing to me. Another loss. Another very near miss.” And Juliet, who spots a certain shiny thing on Maddy’s finger, can only think she’ll be the one who might get to clean Madeline’s “fair locks” from the shower drain the next morning.

But Madeline Bell, it turns out, has come to see Juliet. Could that be true? Why would she? They were rivals on the same track team—but “Maddy” always won.

The two share a delicate drink and dicey chat in the Mid-Night’s bar. There’s a reunion coming up, the tenth year.  What does Maddy want? Why is she stirring up Juliet’s pain?  “For a moment,” Juliet thinks, “my life split in two and I was the me I could have been and also the me I’d become.”

And the next morning, Maddy is found hanging by her neck from the balcony railing at the Mid-Night.

And we’re off.

But Rader-Day doesn’t set this up as a typical amateur detective story. This is much more novel, to me, than mystery—even though there are secrets to uncover, pasts to dig up. Juliet becomes a suspect. We know that’s coming. But Juliet doesn’t whip out the magnifying glass or start button-holing suspects. Her work on the “case” comes more from situational conversations and the overall squeeze of the moment. Juliet’s predilections are exposed. She burrows back into the high school hallways, the gym locker rooms, and the pages of the yearbooks. She is looking for meaning in moments and the power of winning during those formative years. Along the way, she ruminates on the versions of herself that she might have become without Maddy eclipsing her high school experience.

Just what is a trophy? What does it mean? Did Juliet know everything Maddy was going through? Back then? Maddy made it look so easy—was there more to it?

Little Pretty Things has already won the 2016 Mary Higgins Clark Award at this spring’s Edgar Awards ceremony and it’s nominated for the 2016 Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original.

No surprise on either count. Little Pretty Things (such a great title) is taut and slow-grind tense from start to finish. And as a case for rethinking high school reform—putting less emphasis on letter jackets and class rankings—it’s a must read.

Stewart O’Nan – “City of Secrets”

Stewart O'Nan City of SecretsCity of Secrets
takes us to 1945 Jerusalem. We see the volatile city through the eyes of Brand, a former mechanic turned taxi driver who is now a member of the underground resistance against the British control, the Mandate, over Palestine. The British, in fact, try to control everything, including the flow of Jews headed to the land of Israel. It’s still three years until independence.

Brand, a Latvian Jew, lives in the shadows. His job is to listen. He’s dragging the memory of the camps, and all that happened to his family, with him.

“When the war came Brand was lucky, spared death because he was young and could fix an engine, unlike his wife Katya and his mother and father and baby sister Giggi, unlike his grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins … The winter after the war with no home to go back to and no graves to venerate, he signed on a Maltese freighter and landed in Jerusalem, realizing his mother’s lifelong dream.”

It’s the dream of many others, as well, to live here. And also, through sometimes violent means, to convince the British to leave. In this spare, clean novel (190 fast pages), O’Nan puts us immediately into Brand’s inner turmoil. He’s got to navigate through his sorrow. He’s always in long lines or slowed down at checkpoints. The city is his own personal weigh station; limbo.

“The city was a puzzle box built of symbols, a confusion of old and new, armored cars and donkeys in the streets, Bedouins and bankers. The Turks and Haredim, the showy Greek and Russian processions—everyone seemed to be in costume, reenacting the meticulous past.”

The resistance is a puzzle, too. Who to trust? Brand is a man lost, cut off completely from his past and trying to find a way to settle into this new world. His anchors are his relationship with the decade-older Eva, an ex-actress and member of his cell. She works as a prostitute and also, in her job, gathers information. She listens, too. His taxi allows him a certain kind of freedom, even though he knows he is never safe. He buffs his old black Peugeot to a “mirror-like shine.” It’s the one thing he needs and the one thing he trusts.

Through most of City of Secrets, Brand is finding his way.

“Some nights, navigating the shadowy labyrinth with its vaulted galleries and courtyards and bazaars, Brand felt as if he’d traveled back in time. Others, coming to her half drunk and wildly grateful to be alive, guarding the happy secret of his myopic, impossible love, he saw himself caught up in an exotic adventure. He knew they were both illusions, knew precisely why he needed them. He was no hero, no Romeo, just a fool, untouched as yet by the Angel of Forgetfulness.”

Brand’s cell is Haganah. Others are the more violent Irgun. “Times change,” says Eva. “We all want the same thing.” Should Irgun and Haganah combine forces?  Whenever the Irgun strike, the British crack down harder.

Despite all the layers and complications, City of Secrets is as much a mood piece as character-based thriller. The entire question of Israel’s gathering strength seems to be embodied in Brand’s growing recognition of the stakes and also of what’s right. City of Secrets is a study of a man struggling to shed sharp and painful memories, or deal with them. O’Nan’s brush strokes are quick and efficient. The descriptions are rich and thorough yet the plot moves quickly—there’s a ton of action here, including a harrowing scene where his cell detonates railroad tracks and stops a train.

Brand is a man with his own code and questions. He’s keen on understanding cruelty and how violence is justified. At first he’s the kind of freedom fighter who makes sure his finger stays on the trigger guard, not the trigger. Later, he finds himself caught up in rebel success and wonders why he suddenly wants to blow everything up. Identity is fluid. Politics are personal. Self-preservation isn’t a bad thing. The ending is a piece of work—that’s all I’ll say.

City of Secrets is a master class in understated writing, unsentimental prose and character development wrapped around a story with high stakes. I finished the last page and went back to the beginning and started over.



Q & A #42 – Richard Cass, “Solo Act”

SoloActFrontAh, Boston, you’re my home.

Well, I grew up in the suburbs but I lived in Cambridge, Newton and in an apartment so close to Fenway Park that it only took a few minutes to walk over and sit in the bleachers and watch the Red Sox.

Boston is a great setting for crime novels–Dennis Lehane, Robert B. Parker, William Tapply, George V. Higgins (this would be a long list) have all used the setting.

Welcome Richard Cass to the fray with Solo Act. “An alcoholic walks into a bar … and buys it.” You won’t soon forget that particular recovering alcoholic, Elder Darrow.

A full review follows but, first, the very thoughtful Richard Cass was kind enough to answer a few questions.


Question:  Where did you get the idea for Elder Darrow and, while we’re at it, that name, ‘Elder?’ Have you ever owned or managed a bar? If not, how did you learn about the job?  Is there a specific bar in Boston you used as a model for the Esposito?

Richard J. Cass: I was looking for a way to put my hero in a serious conflict from the get-go and since I knew I was going to be writing a mystery set in a bar, I thought this would start him out with a problem before the book even began. I chose the name Elder for a couple of reasons—I wanted him to sound as if he came from an old New England (read Mayflower-passenger) family and I thought it might give him a little extra weight as a character to have an old-fashioned name.

I worked behind bars all through college and managed a couple as well. It’s a very interesting way to collect stories and observe human actions without having to participate in the craziness too much. The Esposito, where Solo Act is set, is more a combination of a number of bars I’ve both drunk in and worked in over the years but isn’t based on a particular one, though it shares some characteristics with the old Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall in Boston.

Richard Cass

Richard Cass

Question:  What about the idea for a putting an alcoholic in charge of a bar? What was the inspiration?

Richard J. Cass: Conflict, conflict, conflict. There’s a funny story that goes along with this. When I first started shopping the novel, a very prominent New York agent told me the premise was ridiculous and no one would ever buy the idea of an alcoholic in charge of a bar. I hope I’ve made it believable, even if it seems unlikely. My take is that the tension between Elder’s alcoholism and his testing himself every day adds to the conflict in the book—in a way it’s like an added love interest, only turned sideways.

Question:  You decided to show us what the bad guys are up to – and go from first-person with Elder to third-person with them. Was that hard to do?

Richard J. Cass: Pure inexperience, I think. Solo Act was the first mystery I finished and there’s a lot where I was writing by the seat of my pants. In a way, it’s a mark of my lack of sophistication as a writer at the time that I let myself get away with things like that. I probably know too much now to do something like that unconsciously. On the other hand, I’ve always been a sucker for Elmore Leonard’s depictions of the criminal mind from inside—bad guys are often more interesting than straighter characters.

Question: You started your writing career as a poet so how does poetry influence how you write fiction? Or does it? Do you still write poetry? And, who are some of your favorite poets?

Richard J. Cass: If poetry influences me in any way, it’s in always trying for the maximum concision. It also means I sometimes underwrite, though. One of the hardest things for me in the transition to mystery fiction was leaving behind most of the lovely vocabulary and imagery I could deploy in poems. That said, I was probably a mediocre poet—I hope I’m a better fiction writer. I do not commit poetry any longer, though I do read as much as I can. Some favorites: Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Jim Harrison, Gary Snyder, Raymond Carver.

Question: Did you plan and plot this book out?  Or do write and see what happens?

Richard J. Cass: Total seat of the pants on the first draft, though I went through eight or nine drafts by the time I was done. What I often do, and did with this book, is break the draft into scenes in an Excel spreadsheet to look at POV, balance of characters, order of events, and so forth. But that’s always after I have a completed draft.

Question:  Tons of jazz and music references are sprinkled throughout the book—where do your tastes in music run? Care to mention any favorite, overlooked musicians (or bands) that are folks should know?

Richard J. Cass: Huge jazz fan, obviously, both old time and contemporary. My idea of a good night is a bottle of Pinot Noir and a roster of Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Johnny Hartman, and others from that era. I also have a taste that I don’t confess to just anyone . . . for middle-of-the-road rock from the seventies and eighties. About the only kind of music I don’t listen to regularly is opera–and I’m working on that.

Question:  Okay, I’m just going to come out and say you’ve got a really good eye for detail when it comes to describing clothes, both for men and women, and great descriptions of how people look and carry themselves, too.  Any tips for writers along these lines?

Richard J. Cass: Mostly close observation, I think. I believe everyone has maybe two or three characteristics—physical or assumed—that combine to mark them as unique. My hope in creating characters is to describe them economically but accurately in as little space as possible. Clothes, jewelry, etc. can be dangerous, though, because the temptation is sometimes to use them in place of character development rather than as a supplement to. Nothing I like better than sitting in a public place and trying to catalog people by their physical selves.

Question: Ultimately, Elder Darrow’s terrific internal struggle is what carries the narrative—the tension over his efforts to not drink and also the tension over whether he can stop considering himself a failure. How did you map out or think about his emotional journey in the book and how it fit with his investigation into the death of Alison Somers?

Richard J. Cass: Writing this book was such intuitive work for me that I don’t know if I can come up with a coherent answer to that. I’ve known people in situations like Elder and Alison and I think the extent to which I’ve been able to empathize with them helped me make better characters. But as far as conscious planning or mapping out of the path? Not here. Just lucky, I guess.

Question:  And what’s next?

Richard J. Cass: One of the unhappy things about the publication of Solo Act is that Five Star, the publisher, has quit publishing mysteries. (I’m assured that Solo Act was not the cause of that decision😉.  So it’s unclear if Elder has a future, though I have written two other novels using him as a character. I am also currently shopping a standalone thriller, set in Portland, Maine, about a man avenging his fiancée’s accidental death who winds up killing the wrong person. My next project may or may not be a procedural about a rookie cop on the Montreal police force . . . but I’m only three pages in.


Richard Cass on Facebook

Richard Cass on Twitter



Elder Darrow’s family had been in investment banking “since the Revolution.” He was raised to “learn the mores and manners of the ruling caste.”

But now he’s a recovering alcoholic and he owns a bar called the Esposito. He’s into jazz. He’s a bit of music nut. Managing the soundtrack at the bar is one of the ways that Darrow is trying to upgrade the reputation of the once-bleak watering hole, purchased with a trust fund windfall. He knows when Paquito Rivera needs be swapped out for Bill Evans.

Darrow is trying to upgrade the bar, and its clientele, the same way he’s trying to upgrade how he thinks about himself. His reputation. His last chance for “straightening out” is the management, in fact, of this bar. “All forty-four by fifty feet of it, sixteen-foot tin ceilings and the twelve metal stairs, same number as to the gallows, with a steel-pipe railing up to the street door.” There’s a triangular stage in the corner, “big enough for a trio as long as none of them was fat.”

Darrow has been sober for a year a half, but has positioned himself smack in the middle of temptation, pouring drinks for others. Darrow’s days as the owner of a pub started with a grand bargain. The deal was that his father’s bank would hire him if he could stay dry for two years and run the Esposito at a profit. But then dad died and he is left to wonder why he still cares. Elder Darrow is good at asking questions of himself.

One of Darrow’s regulars is a jazz-loving cop named Dan Burton who gets called away on a “sidewalk diver.” That suicide turns out to be a singer named Alison Somers. Darrow had been “utterly absorbed” with Somers for six months and the idea of her taking her own life doesn’t sit well.

As the motivation for amateur sleuths go, this is a nifty one. Darrow’s interests in Somers’ demise tangle with his own personal journey of discovery and the daily tests of his sobriety. His background, after all, could not have been more different than her youth in Roxbury, the poorest part of the city. How well did he know her? He had a pact with Somers—and assumed the pact remained despite the split. The deal was this: he would stay sober if she’d keep taking her anti-depressants. “But if I were ever going to be sure of that, I was going to have to find out for myself. Because I was afraid that if she had killed herself, then I would find my own reason to start drinking again, and then both of our stories would be over. If I didn’t do something, I was failing her memory and probably obliterating my own.”

With this great set-up, Solo Act follows Darrow as he begins asking questions and poking around. This isn’t a case of bar/restaurant turned Jack Reacher, it’s a case of one real man taking one step and then the next to get at some troubling and unresolved questions. Cass doesn’t push the pace, he lets the weight of Somers’ demise tug on Darrow’s soul.

Crafted for humanity and not designed to set pulses racing, Richard Cass chops in nifty, poetic snippets of Boston streets and alleys, noir-ish vibes and sounds (cue the sorrowful sax.) Cass intersperses Darrow’s trail with chapters that give us glimpses into the lives of the prescription pill bootleggers with their questionable plans and distrust in the ranks.

The Boston setting comes to life, but it’s a glitz-free view with back alley trash and dank smells. There’s a woman. And temptations. Failure lurks. One slip and Darrow know he won’t get credit for all the time he stayed clean. Darrow examines addiction from all angles. The investigation becomes a reflection of his own nature as much as finding out why Alison plunged to her death. In the end, Darrow is both bartender and barfly. He’s the wise mixologist, a bartender keenly aware of the poison he’s dispensing, and he’s got a burning need to know.




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.”