Rachel Howzell Hall, “Skies of Ash”

As previously mentioned about the pleasures of hanging out with Elouise “Lou” Norton, Rachel Howzell Hall’s compelling homicide detective, it’s all about the attitude. I dug Land of Shadows. And Skies of Ash quickly took me back to Norton’s sharply-barbed worldview and her grinding sense of determination when put on the scent of a murder. I mean if fellow L.A. detective Harry Bosch gets a TV show, certainly Elouise Norton deserves one, too. Maybe Bosch and Norton could meet up? I bet Norton could make Bosch laugh, loosen up some of that grim weight he drags around. (I’m a Bosch fan, don’t get me wrong. But I think Bosch would get a kick out of Lou’s dark comic jabs. He’d admire her work ethic, too.)

A sample of Norton’s snappy narrative about her endlessly awkward partner, Colin: “On my best days, Colin merely annoyed me—like the constant beeping of a truck backing up. To be fair, I didn’t know many (okay, any) twenty-eight-year-old, white-boy detectives from the Rocky Mountains. And he didn’t know any thirty-seven-year-old black female detectives from Los Angeles. So there was a cultural rift between my partner and me. A rift that was three galaxies wide.”

Hall injects her prose with a brisk liveliness. Standard descriptions take on a vivid quality with Hall’s eye and ear, as in when Norton shows up at the scene of house fire. “I photographed the crowd: a bald black man holding a toddler, an elderly Asian couple wearing matching jogging suits, a dark-skinned weight lifter with headphones around his thick neck, and the heroines of Waiting to Exhale wearing yoga pants and fruit-colored tank tops.”

Elouise Norton has her share of problems. Husband. Co-workers. Bosses. Let’s say “men” in general. Hall shifts gears effortlessly between the case and Norton’s personal life. Norton’s world, in fact, is a tangled braid of both. The twain don’t only meet, they meld. Norton is constantly marveling at odd bits about how the world functions—and why. Work and personal issues both serve up ample issues for Norton to contemplate. Norton’s pride is ferocious. She would very much like the world—including all of those in close orbit—to behave. But she’s already seen too much and knows when something doesn’t seem right.

“As a homicide detective, I regularly entered the homes of slain victims. There, I smelled tobacco caught in the curtains; smelled spilled beer and whiskey fumes in the rugs and wafting from the mountain of empties in the trash can. I noticed walls dented by doorknobs, fists, and skulls; crimson-colored splatters on ceilings and floorboards; teeth stuck in carpet.”

Teeth? In the carpet?

Skies of Ash revolves around a house fire. Something doesn’t line up. The dead inside include Juliet Chatman and two children, Cody and Chloe. The fire was arson, but was it arson designed to cover up a murder? Steadily, Norton pulls back the layers. The mother and children all had Valium in their system, and the mother was fighting cancer. Juliet’s husband Christopher is a commodities broker who returned to the house when it was fully engulfed. He had to be restrained from rushing inside. And there’s the husband’s best friend, a neighbor who is also an insurance lawyer. There are money issues that highlight possible motives. There are timing issues with Christopher’s comings and goings. And there are histories and relationships to uncover.

Pinning down Christopher is a challenge. Norton weighs the pros and cons of going “polite bird” or “rude bitch” to make him squirm. It’s the “secret sorcerers,” after all, who worry Norton more than the “obvious” villains. Christopher Chatman is a worthy nemesis and Norton tries every tack available to nail her prey, only after being taunted more than a little about how she treats men (both at home and at work).

I’m not saying Chatman did it. I’m just saying to read Skies of Ash.

Elouise Norton is worth knowing. And she’s certainly one to watch (soon, please, on a little screen or a big one).

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Rachel Howzell Hall’s website

 

Flynn Berry, “Under the Harrow”

Under the HarrowUnder the Harrow rides on its writing—a deep, detailed close-in point of view that signals itself from the opening paragraph. Flynn Berry’s style is staccato. Six words in the first sentence, eight in the second, eleven in the third.

“A woman is missing in the East Riding. She vanished from Hedon, near where we grew up. When Rachel learns of the disappearance, she will think it’s him.”

I loved the style and, therefore, dug Under the Harrow. What a great title, lifted from a C.S. Lewis quote, Come, what do we gain by evasions? We are under the harrow and can’t escape.

I had to look up ‘harrow.’  I’m no farmer. It’s an agricultural implement with spikes, tines or discs that is dragged across soil say, by a tractor, to break it up. You’ve seen harrows. And you know the word ‘harrowing.’

On the first page of Berry’s brisk novel, we meet Nora. She tells us she’s an assistant to a landscaper so she perhaps knows a thing or two about dirt and tilling soil. To get where this story takes Nora, in fact, she is going to have to dig very deep indeed.

To me, Flynn Berry’s style is seductive. It’s her eye. For this story to work, we have to be immersed completely in Nora’s dense worldview. Nora has the landscaping gig but she is also a writer; she’s looking forward to an artist’s residency in France. One assumes her writing is akin to how she takes in the world—with efficient declarations about what she sees. On page two, Nora is heading from London to the East Riding, to the “old farmhouse on a shallow hill” where her sister, Rachel, lives alone.

“On the train, I press my head against the seat and watch the winter fields pass by the windows. My carriage is empty except for a few commuters who have left work early for the weekend. The sky is gray with a ribbon of purple at the horizon. It’s cold here, outside the city. You can see it on the faces of people waiting at the local stations. A thin stream of air whistles through a crack at the bottom of the pane. The train is a lighted capsule traveling through a charcoal landscape.”

A few pages later, however, Nora finds Rachel—and Rachel’s dog—dead inside the farmhouse. It’s a grizzly scene; the dog hanged on his own lead from the banister. Nora moves north from London to help investigate. She moves to the only inn in town, a place called The Hunters. Nora slowly comes to grips with the events and the scenes she has witnessed. The tone is grim. Nora struggles to regain a foothold on reality.

Berry smoothly shows us the bond between Nora and Rachel—and why. Nora has ample reason to regret a decision she made that had a tremendous impact on Rachel’s life. Someone attacked Rachel and the two sisters spent time and energy trying to find her assailant. Is Rachel’s murderer the same person who attacked her? Nora interacts with the police, identifies what seem to be some worthy clues. She consumes herself with a neighbor who was the last person to see Rachel alive. There are complications with Rachel’s work life and social life and their father, too. Nora’s affection and uber-close relationship with Rachel is palpable. The scene where she scatters Rachel’s ashes reminds us, as Ross Macdonald told us, that the corpse is the main character in any good murder mystery.

There’s really no good way to comment on the ending of Under the Harrow except you realize how deftly Berry has kept our feet on the ground with her cool, sparkling prose.

(Under the Harrow won the Edgar Award in 2017 for Best First Novel. Flynn Berry’s website is here.)

Making A Case for the Irrational Elements

A blog post for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers about Mario Vargas Llosa, who makes a case for the “irrational” elements of literary creation.

 

 

 

Tyler Dilts, “Come Twilight”

Long Beach homicide detective Danny Beckett is in touch with his own mortality. Danny’s hand was nearly severed in a previous case. He came very close to bleeding to death. In the year following that incident, “hardly a day” passed when he didn’t contemplate his own mortality. Says Danny, “I learned what the muzzle of a gun tasted like and made a list of songs to play at my funeral.”

That list of tunes yields the chapter titles for Come Twilight, from “Cadillac Ranch” to “Whither Must I Wander” to “Seat at the Table.” The idea of the list also generates the title of the novel (and it’s fairly slick how Dilts works that in.) Music informs and infuses Danny’s life and, therefore, many of the pages here. George Pelecanos (whose stories take place about 3,000 miles away) and Tyler Dilts would make for a fine pair of DJ’s at your next party. They both have a fondness for the occasional obscure track or artist, but both are such music champions that their stories, well, hum along. Literally.

Danny Beckett is prone to go off on thoughts about the music. He apparently had some different views on bands with his late wife. He ruminates quite a bit about the songs to be played at his funeral, which ideally would include every song Bruce Springsteen ever wrote. (If he ever dies, it’s going to be one long service). If that’s enough music to imbue this solid mystery, Danny Beckett is also learning banjo.

Danny Beckett is also focused on a puzzling murder investigation that appears to be a suicide but is not. And then Beckett’s worries about death are given a fresh jolt when a bomb turns his car into a “jagged mess of metal and plastic” while it’s at the repair shop. The moment makes Beckett realize that he could have been killed and also gives him a chance to think about what it’s like to be a victim. So Beckett is ordered to lay low while his would-be assassin is hunted down, hampering his style. Beckett doesn’t do well with limits of any kind. More misery awaits Beckett and, well, along come more opportunities to contemplate that list of tunes.

Dilts’ writing is so smooth you could skip a stone across its surface. “My eyes were locked on the water glass on the table in front of me. I should have told her about the bomb as soon as I found out. Instead, I’d kept it to myself, wanting to believe that if I pretended hard enough, I could make it go away. Or that it would turn out to be a false alarm or somehow easily resolved and I’d be able to laugh it off. The truth was that if I acknowledged the reality of the situation to her, I’d have to acknowledge it to myself, too.”

We are thoroughly grounded in Beckett’s three-dimensional world, both the case itself and the weight of his personal issues as he rebuilds a new life with Julia, an artsy photographer.

Come Twilight offers up solid clue-finding and plenty of Long Beach atmosphere, down to Beckett’s choice for various edibles from carne asada to choice omelets to calzones. There are pop culture references from “Downtown Abbey” to “Game of Thrones” and “The Bachelor.” There are podcasts, too, and the all the aforementioned music. The point is that Danny Beckett may be overly focused on the songs for his funeral but he is taking in the world and he is very much alive.

Danny Beckett may not know he’s enjoying life, because he’s so good at denial, but we do.

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Tyler Dilts on Facebook

(Scroll down for Tyler’s YouTube links to all the chapter titles/songs referenced in Come Twilight.)

Adrian McKinty, “Rain Dogs”

It’s easy to see why Adrian McKinty’s Rain Dogs is drawing all sorts of attention, including being named as a finalist for the 2017 Edgar Award in the category of Best Paperback Original.

Rain Dogs is rich. History, character, puzzle, and plot are all up to snuff in a layered story with a series of juicy, false-summit endings that kept me nicely off-balance right down to the last wee drop.

Rain Dogs is a locked-room mystery. Well, sort of. The colorful crime scene is the real-life, 12th-Century Carrickfergus Castle. Based on the hour when the murder victim is found and the number of others who had access to the castle, the suspect list is short. That is, extremely so. The suspect list is so short, in fact, this may be a suicide. But Lily Bigelow was a reporter for a major newspaper. And, well, there are leads to follow. What was she working on? Where are her notes?

The story starts low-key, nearly ho-hum.  No rush. There’s a robbery case first before we get to the castle and some character-building with Duffy. He likes good whiskey. Bowmore, perhaps. His career with Royal Ulster Constabulary is stalled. There are girlfriend woes. Duffy is constantly checking for bombs under his car, given that this is 1987 and The Troubles are in full swing. He’s perfectly happy to sit on the sofa and listen “as Ella Fitzgerald decanted some of that old-time religion.”

Duffy broadens the case out—way out. Soon we’re dealing with international intrigue (and realize how smoothly McKinty has introduced these ideas and themes in the opening chapters) and we follow Duffy’s explorations to the Kincaid Young Offenders Institution and a pedophile ring and, well, politics and there’s a colorful trip to the far reaches of Finland.

Duffy is especially cynical about the likelihood that the Carrickfergus Castle is a locked-room scenario because this would be his second such case and the odds of that, well, are slim. McKinty winks at us when he has Duffy recognize he’s in good company; there are ample references to such fellow fictional characters as Inspector Maigret, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. One cop is named Ed McBain. McKinty seems to be saying, there is nothing new here but when the plot crackles and your lead guy is solid, I’ve got you hooked. (Rain Dogs is a bit meta—one reason it may be doing well with the mystery crowd.)

McKinty, in fact, makes it look easy. There are terrific minor characters, a few legitimate surprises, and the expected dose of Irish liquids—beer and whiskey flow.

The writing is brisk, clipped, and punches hard. McKinty’s prose is reductionist—and loads of fun.

“Morning. A cat climbing onto my head and meowing. Shower, shave, skip breakfast, leave some tuna for the cat, check under the BMW for bombs. No bombs.

No bombs, but was that somebody watching the house from the bend at the bottom of the street? Guy in a parka?

No. My imagination. Why would anybody want to watch me? He was a loiterer. Keep my eye open, though.

Inside the Beemer. Culture Club on Radio 1. Vivaldi on Radio 3. Dolly Parton on Downtown Radio. Downtown it is.a

“Up to the incident room….”

On many levels, Rain Dogs is a blast to read.

Patricia Abbott, “Shot in Detroit”

Violet Hart lives on the fringes of Detroit. She’s prone to poking around Belle Isle Park in the pre-dawn with her camera, looking for gritty shots of gritty people doing gritty things. She lives in frugal fashion in a dreary little apartment in the blue-collar suburbs with a mirror over the bed. Violet wants to be an artist. She wants to be taken seriously. She knows it’s been too long since she felt “that chill” from any photographs she’s produced. She’s looking for truth.

Violet has a thing for Ted Ernst, who runs a gallery where some of her photographs are being exhibited. She’s also close to a funeral home director named Bill Fontanel. They are lovers. The third guy in Violet’s unusual orbit is a street artist named Derek Olson. He’s got peculiar ideas for artistic materials and looks for them while poking around the aforementioned Belle Isle.

With a traditional mystery set-up, Violet Hart would soon stumble across a murder victim during her semi-seedy wanderings and get entangled or lead-up the investigation. But Violet’s interests are art, not any pseudo role as amateur sleuth, even when Derek goes missing. Violet gets caught up a bit in the questioning around Derek’s demise and she does go in search of answers to a few questions, but she’s hardly driving the action. Violet’s main focus, her ticket to recognition, is a series of photographs she’s taking of Bill’s clients, young men who have lost their lives one way or another on the hard streets of Detroit. Most of the victims died as the result of violence, but not all.

Abbott’s writing is cool and straightforward and fully immerses us in Violet’s glum worldview. Comparisons to Patricia Highsmith and the darker stuff from Ruth Rendell, to me, are apt.

“I shot away, taking more picture of Ramir. Being a drug addict had taken a lot out of the guy, and I wanted to put some of it back for this final picture. He was handsome beneath the ravages of too little food, too many nights in the rough, and too many drugs. The bone structure was still there. I wasn’t doing an expose of heroin-cool cadavers. I’d save it for another time. An audience would notice the beauty in these men; cry out at their untimely deaths.”

For a photographer looking to make money from art rather than shooting dog shows and retirement parties, the funeral parlor’s clients light up Violet’s artistic soul and the questions she sets out to answer rely on her observational skills.

So Shot in Detroit is a quasi-mystery (it’s one of five finalists for an Edgar Award this year as Best Paperback Original) stirred gently together with a terrific character study and a dollop of psychological suspense. The novel offers a compelling portrait of Detroit’s recent blight and urban struggles, both the real property and the very real people. Violet is cool and jaded right down to the end, which delivers a nifty jolt. If you like your protagonists warm and cuddly, seek elsewhere. If you like a slice of gritty urban writing, check this out. Like the photographs Violet takes of the dead, Abbott’s tale is imbued with a genuine dignity.

Q & A #56 – Lyndsay Faye, “The Whole Art of Detection”

Lyndsay Faye is having a very good year.

Her most recent novel, Jane Steele, is a finalist in the Best Novel category for the 2017 Edgar Awards from Mystery Writers of America.

It’s Faye’s second such listing; Faye was up for the same award for Gods of Gotham, published in 2012.

And today is the launch day for The Whole Art of Detection, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche that gathers up 13 of Faye’s previously-published short stories and two fresh imaginings.

Advance praise is glowing, including from Nicholas Meyer (author of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution): “Author Faye has captured the language, locutions and inventiveness of the original tales as well or better than any author I can think of it. It is absolutely essential reading for any—and every—aficionado who cherishes the real thing.”

I happen to agree. My review for the New York Journal of Books is published here.

Lyndsay Faye was kind enough to answer a few questions by email about her work. I think you’ll see that Lyndsay Faye takes this Sherlock business quite seriously–and she also knows how to have a fair amount of fun along the way.

Sherlockians, dig in.

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Question: Okay, we’ve read the official Grove Atlantic “conversation” with you and we’ll try not to repeat any of those great questions, but hope to entice some equally interesting answers. When you craft a “lost mystery” of Sherlock Holmes, do you have to conjure the whole puzzle first? The solution? Or do you just dive in and go?

Lyndsay Faye:  Actually, it depends very much on what I’m trying to accomplish for that particular story.  All my Holmes pastiches operate on two arcs—there’s the crime to be solved, of course, but I’m also exploring some facet of Holmes and Watson’s lives together, illuminating the friendship in a sense.  One or the other of those arcs generally occurs to me first.  For instance, “Hey, I want to write the one Doyle mentioned about James Phillimore going back into his house for his umbrella and then never being heard from again,” that’s one way of being inspired.   But then other cases start with, “I want to explore Watson’s late brother’s alcoholism, so how would I do that,” or “I wonder what Lestrade made of Holmes pretending to be dead for three years,” or “I wonder what Watson initially made of Holmes’s aversion to female company?”

So once I have an idea, then I have to craft the hat trick.  There’s always a twist of some kind, of course—why is this man wearing clothes that don’t belong to him, why has this other one been kidnapped and then released unharmed three times, why does this society wife think her jewelry is poisoning her?  Often it’s the puzzle I think of first, then the solution of course (because I have to know that!), and then I write the middle.  What I really can’t do, sadly, is just dive in and go—the minutia of the clues is too complicated.

Question: Precisely how do you channel the writing rhythms of Arthur Conan Doyle? Have you internalized the narrative approach? In other words, do you hear voices?

Photo by Anna Ty Bergman

Lyndsay Faye – (Photo by Anna Ty Bergman)

Lyndsay Faye:  Oh, absolutely.  I was trained as an actress, not as a writer.  So I really can hear syntax, accents, speech patterns, modes of address, subtle differences in the way Holmes and Watson (both highly educated gentlemen) speak to each other.  My ability as a mimic is pretty solid on the stage, which is why it also works on the page.  I still bank at Actor’s Equity credit union!

As to the real how, well, I’ve been reading these stories since I was ten, so I can even hear the changes between early and late era cases.  If I’m writing a story set in the 1880s, it’s going to be subtly different—Holmes is more frankly puppyish and eager, the way he expresses himself in stories like “The Redheaded League” or The Sign of Four, so I would read one of those stories before starting to write, just to refresh myself.  If the case is set in 1900, then he’s more acidly sarcastic, but he and Watson also know each other so intimately by then, so that also sounds different, and I’d read a story like “The Priory School” or “The Sussex Vampire” before sitting down at my keyboard.

Then of course there’s the question of atmosphere, and so very much of these tales depend on the environment—the horror in the client’s eyes, the fog on the moors, the glint of carriage lights and so forth.  You can’t skip all that as window dressing—it’s essential.

Question: And a follow-up, if I may. And I fully realize I might be leading the witness. Do you think Conan Doyle gets enough credit as a wordsmith? As a poet at times?

Lyndsay Faye:  He’s a brilliant poet!  Well, on the one hand, sure he gets enough credit—he broke the mold, remade the genre, and Sherlock Holmes is read all over the world.  On the other hand, he’s just this amazing writer, absolutely incredible imagery, and when people think of the stories only as popular genre mysteries, they might not grasp at just how high a level he’s using words.  I think of the passage from “The Blue Carbuncle,” where Watson describes, “Outside, the stars were shining coldly in a cloudless sky, and the breath of the passers-by blew out into smoke like so many pistol shots.”  That’s just…masterful.

Question: Sherlock Holmes is the focus of literary and fan societies; what made you first think you could wriggle into this world and stake a claim? You ventured where many others have tread, including Stephen King, A.A. Milne and Neil Gaiman and others. When did you think you had something, I don’t know, worthy?

Lyndsay Faye:  Well, I strongly believe that Sherlock Holmes is for everyone.  He’s a completely democratic hero, he’s for us, he’s for the outsiders, he’s for the wronged.  So I’m being completely honest when I say that every Sherlockian effort is worthy, whether you wrote a flash fanfic on a paper napkin and then uploaded it to AO3, or whether you spent the time to write a novel and the blood and sweat to try to get it in the right hands.

But the truth is that I’m incredibly, unbelievably picky about my pastiches.  I’ve read hundreds of them, more likely thousands.  Thousands seems right.  And I can tell within about three paragraphs whether it’s going to work for me or not.  What happened to make me start Dust and Shadow was skimming a new Sherlockian paperback on a work break from waitressing (I always spent the time between my doubles at Borders), and I thought, “That bit there, that’s wrong.  No.  That’s not how they sound.”  So then I thought hell, no one’s stopping me—why not give this a go?  I never imagined it would be published in hardcover, and I really never imagined it would lead to a career as a novelist!  I just love them so much.  I couldn’t not write them.  That’s how many of us feel.

Question: Okay, The Adventure of the Memento Mori. Without giving too much away, what was the spark of inspiration for the backstory—the bad guy, Henry—in that one?

Lyndsay Faye:  Oh, that’s a truly rotten fellow.  It’s a perfect example of the case having a crime plot arc and then this separate emotional arc for Holmes and Watson.  Henry Staunton is mentioned in the Doyle stories as being a murderer Holmes “helped to hang.”  But what I actually wanted to write at the time was Holmes fresh back from the Hiatus, Watson is overjoyed but he also just lost his wife, and here’s Holmes returned from the dead and riddled with guilt but also in his own way oblivious to people’s feelings, and it’s about how Watson lost everyone he loved but then miraculously got one back.  Memento mori are Victorian death remembrances—locks of hair and such.  So crafting a case around a memento mori Holmes gets in the mail along with a cry for help made perfect sense, because both men have all this stuff they’re not saying, there’s death and loss and hurt in the air despite Watson being an incredibly good egg about it, so the inspiration for that killer was, “What sort of clue would break these two reticent idiots open enough to talk about what happened at Reichenbach Falls?”

Question: For non-Sherlockians looking for an entry point into this vast world of stories and movies, care to list a few of your favorite short stories from the original works? And best Sherlock film? Least favorite?

Lyndsay Faye:  Start with “The Speckled Band.”  If you don’t like it, you probably won’t like the Holmes canon!  But seriously, begin with the short stories, preferably The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes collection, because those are just universally smashing.  Then read The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and next maybe The Hound of the Baskervilles.  You’ll be hooked by that time.

I’m quite the omnivore when it some to Sherlock Holmes, so I love a wide range—the amazing Jeremy Brett Granada series, for instance, the first season of Benedict Cumberbatch’s BBC Sherlock, Robert Downey Jr. kicking ass in the Warner Brothers films.  I can absolutely tell you my least favorite, though, and it’s Rupert Everett’s The Case of the Silk Stocking.  It’s wretched.  He’s such a fine actor and he spends the entire film brooding in this wallowing funk and sulking with his eyebrows at unlikely angles.  I want to throw things at the screen whenever I see it.

Question: Okay, saving a tough question here for the end. What was it like to get nominated for an Edgar Award for Gods of Gotham?

Lyndsay Faye:  Shocking, utterly shocking.  But I did put an enormous amount of research work into that novel, and I knew that telling the story of the very first NYPD copper stars, with their original slang dialect, was unique in some ways.   It was a ridiculous honor, especially considering who actually won that year—Dennis Lehane!  I got to stand next to Dennis Lehane.  It was bananas.

Question: What’s next?

Writer:  I’m almost through with a novel about the rise of the KKK during Prohibtion.  It’s shockingly timely, which terrifies me, and I’d prefer it weren’t timely at all.  But there you are.  The wheel turns, etc.

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Lyndsay Faye’s website.

 

 

 

Reed Farrel Coleman, “Where It Hurts”

where-it-hurtsThe character names alone set the gritty landscape—Gus Murphy (our hero), Tommy Delcamino, Kareem Shivers and Frankie Tacos. Those are character names worthy of Chandler or Leonard or Block.

We’re on Long Island, the overlooked sections with dive bars like Harrigan’s. “It was a classic loser’s bar. The kind of place where even the young men were old. Where the Daily Racing Form passed for the news of the world and where the light of day was the common enemy.” The entire novel unfolds against a gritty backdrop and Coleman takes every opportunity to name overlooked towns and unremarkable roads.

Gus Murphy is a retired Suffolk County cop with a weight on his shoulders, the sudden death of his son two years earlier. It happened one day on the basketball court, when the boy was felled by an undiagnosed heart defect. The death has wrecked his family and now Gus works as a courtesy van driver for a nowhere hotel. Gus is just hoping to put one foot in front of the other and find a way to get by.

Where It Hurts (such a great title) is part mystery novels and part literary study in grief. “Even a spare minute was a chance to relieve the last two years,” thinks Gus. “Took forever to live it. Takes only seconds to live it again. I had tried filling in the fissures, cracks, and cavities with wondering, wondering about the trick of time. That got me about as far as wishing. Nowhere.”

The last thing Gus wants is to get pulled in on a case involving an ex-con, the aforementioned Tommy Delcamino. Tommy’s son TJ was found dead four months earlier and the Suffolk County PD doesn’t seem, well, motivated to figure out what happened. Gus is reluctant, for many reasons, and then he starts running into people who spend a great deal of time and effort trying to discourage him from getting involved.  When he encounters real trouble, and more, Gus feels suddenly revived, “alive again in the midst of spilled blood.”

Needless to say, Gus Murphy finds the motivation to poke around and soon he’s plenty entangled. His slow-motion descent into the fray, coupled with the relentless gravity of the feelings of loss about his dead son, anchor the story in a feeling of genuine pain. At times dialogue-rich like George V. Higgins and other times neatly procedural like Michael Connelly, Where It Hurts presents a solid character with troubled shoulders leaning into very real problems, both internal and external.

Those problems show Gus a possible path to healing, but will he take it? Or does he want his pain to rule over everything else? Gus knows where it hurts, it’s up to him whether he wants to the pain to linger forever or make a change. Where It Hurts isn’t all action. There’s a fair amount of talk over beverages. But when the action comes, it’s real and it’s carrying a certain weight.

John Galligan, “Red Sky, Red Dragonfly”

red-skyI think one of the best things you can say about any book is that you can’t think of another one like it.

That’s the case with John Galligan’s Red Sky, Red Dragonfly. The cool but colorful writing style, the intercontinental story, the unsentimental portraits of a wide variety of characters, and the ever-growing realization of how well Galligan has layered the work, flailing hockey sticks in one country echoing the flying kendo sticks in another.

I was already a fan of Galligan’s work, having enjoyed three mysteries in his fly fishing series featuring trout bum Ned “The Dog” Oglivie.

The Wind Knot, The Clinch Knot and The Blood Knot are all peculiar, quirky, and lots of fun. Galligan’s got the same dry-eyed writing style in Red Sky, a sprawling story that doesn’t lend itself to easy synopsis. In his “mysteries,” a novel is prone to pop out. In Red Sky (“a novel by…”) a mystery (no surprise) lies at the core. Red Sky came out in 2001; the “Knot” novels later.

From the back cover: “When a young American teacher disappears in small-town Japan, the next teacher, an older man on the run from his troubled life, must find out the truth. Told from multiple viewpoints, Red Sky, Red Dragonfly explores the perilous attraction between men and women of different cultures, and the position of the white man in the new century.”

I couldn’t do much better than that, except urge readers to stick with Galligan as he moves back and forth from Japan to the United States and also back and forward in time. As with the “Knot” series, Galligan is not a big believer in holding the reader’s hand. He’s fine to let his main character chill for a bit while he works on another corner of the canvas. The pieces appear disconnected at first and then the bigger picture comes slowly into focus as each character comes around and their role in the tale becomes apparent.

We first meet Tommy Morrison coming into Japan. He’s got hockey in his background, a troubled marriage at home in the United States. At the airport, he encounters a few layers of extreme vetting, especially after his bag splits when on the conveyor. It’s not the last time he will be questioned about his intentions. Then we meet high school student Miwa Sato after calculus class in the town of Kitayama. She’s getting ready to somehow say good-bye to teacher number one. That’s Stuart Norton. It’s a “difficult leaving” for reasons that will become clear. There are other points of view from a variety of other Japanese characters, too, including an ex sumo wrestler.

(Readers, just go with the flow. Okay?)

The Galligan’s stylistic DNA is easy to spot. Galligan isn’t afraid of making a leap between moments. The style can feel a bit elliptical, but I urge readers to relax into it and let the scenes speak for themselves. The caulking becomes clear as the story proceeds—and that’s part of the pleasure of letting Red Sky come into sharper and sharper relief. (You’ll feel so smart, without even trying!)

I fully concede I’m easily drawn into a story when the writing is powerful and a few tasty paragraphs are enough for me.  Galligan likes to warm up a paragraph with a few rapid-fire declarations of sights and smells, then deliver a long snaking sentence that takes you for a ride.

“By lunchtime, as Father decreed, the rain had stopped. The sun burned hot over the southern mountains. Starlings strutted on steaming roads. Dragonflies lifted on glittering wings from the flooded rice fields. The mountain breeze smelled of mud and worms and cucumber leaves, but as Noriko drove down toward Kitayama the air was gradually claimed by the gassy diesel trucks hauling in tents and platforms, by the burnt-miso aromas of cakes and cotton candy.”

Or:

Tommy “felt the sudden intensity of the forest around them. Leaves baked in the sun. Cicadas buzzed. Flies swarmed. Unfamiliar bird calls sawed and screeched and moaned through the heavy brush. When Tommy stood for relief he could see, framed in fans of rust-red sumac, the Kitayama valley far below deep and hot, a thousand dragonfly specks dotting the rice paddies; and then, against the opposite mountain, he found Kitayama town, blue and red rooftops packed in the curve of a wide and shallow river.”

It’s a coincidence that both those passages reference dragonflies—and also not. Lots of things buzz in Red Sky, Red Dragonfly. There are unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells throughout. After all, this is a story about a stranger in a strange land trying to understand the stranger who came before him and the new strangers he’s left at home.

Red Sky is about how an individual finds footing in a foreign culture and how individuals in that community use the visitor for their many-faceted needs.  Red Sky, Red Dragonfly doesn’t assign blame or point fingers. This is just what happened to Tommy. This is what happened to Stuart. And this is what happened to the Japanese residents of Kitayama who knew them both.

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From 2012, a Q & A with John Galligan about The Blood Knot and fly fishing and more, here.

 

Christopher Bartley, “Unto the Daughters of Men”

unto-the-daughters-of-men“Mr. Duncan, you seem to have an educated man’s grasp on the social intricacies and tragedies that complicate people’s lives. Where does your learning come from?”

That question is posed to Ross Duncan by Obadiah, a central figure in Christopher Bartley’s Unto the Daughters of Men.

Duncan, responding, shrugs and says: “I had a lot of time to read in prison and I used it.”

Yes, Ross Duncan. Gangster, tough guy, philosopher, observer of human nature. He reads the Bible for comfort or clues. He shoots when it’s necessary, throws a hard punch to make a point, talks up the dames at the bar. More than anything, he thinks about how people are put together.

It’s 1934. We’re in New York. It’s the fifth year of the Great Depression. Organized crime is discovering a new foundation for its thriving illegal empires. J. Edgar Hoover is after bank robbers—bank robbers like Ross Duncan. But Duncan also gets called on to handle specific jobs and the one in Unto the Daughters of Men is a beauty.

The aforementioned Obadiah, grandson of a runaway slave, is the doorman and all-around helper guy for “the Colonel,” a former soldier and senator. People tend to ask Duncan probing questions about his character and the Colonel wastes no time.  He asks Duncan if he believes in the Devil.

“Wouldn’t I be a fool not to?”

“That’s a casual answer,” replies Colonel Bennett. “I am not asking you about a symbolic figure who represents all that’s bad in the world. I am asking about a literal Devil: Satan, Lucifer – God’s adversary, the fallen angel. Most men have an abstract notion of good and evil, but few anymore actually seem to believe that there is literally a Devil set on tempting them to spend an eternity in hell, a literal Hell. He opposes God’s plan. Do you believe he exists?”

I’m not giving away Duncan’s answer here. Suffice it to say that these are the issues that gnaw at Duncan on a daily basis. He struggles with right and wrong and, of course, does lots of right and plenty of wrong.

The Colonel has a proposal. He needs a man like Duncan, one with a “definite code.” Dorothy, one of the Colonel’s granddaughters, the one blessed with “God’s light and grace,” is died of a heart condition. The other granddaughter, Veronica, was last seen with a gangster, Remo Marsden, whose business is gambling, narcotics, and prostitution. Since the Colonel is frail and knows his days are numbered, he needs Duncan to find Veronica and “bring her home, anchor her here where she is supposed to be, help bring her to a point of common sense.”

There’s been blackmail and rumors of a “blue photograph.” The Colonel wants bad-boy Remo out of the picture and Veronica back home and out of trouble.

This is a nifty, enticing, and delicious set-up, especially after what happens just a few moments after the Colonel extends his request for help.

Duncan finds trouble. In fact, he wastes little time entering the bad guy’s lair. Duncan cuts to the case. There is drinking, smoking, guns, cars, chases, a dame named Delilah and a thug named Beef Parker. There is also one of the most remarkable, near-poetic slow-motion car crash scenes you might ever read.

Bartley is in total control, start to finish. The Duncan novels are classic gangster stuff. The beginning, middle and end of this plot all carry the same steady, relentless tug of dark noir and all its smoky-boozy flourishes. (Getting Duncan to quit tobacco? Might be the battle of the century.)  Duncan gets nicked and bruised and beaten and bloodied. He unravels stories, cuts through lies, shrugs off the pressure to keep his nose out of other people’s business.

But Ross Duncan keeps on ticking, fighting, and asking questions of others and questions of himself. He’s always working on the puzzles that get handed to him and he’s always working on the puzzles about the human condition, about good and evil, about God and The Devil, about right and wrong. (Good thing, there’s no easy answer in sight.)

The Ross Duncan novels (okay, I’ve only read three) offer a killer combination of a compelling character and cool, memorable stories.

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Previous Q & A with Christopher Bartley and review: Naked Shall I Return

Previous review: They Die Alone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trevor Noah, “Born A Crime”

trevor-noah-born-a-crimeCan you imagine taking over Jon Stewart’s seat on “The Daily Show?”

Who would want that particular challenge?

If you watched Trevor Noah early on and found yourself heading elsewhere for your political skewers and laughs, it may be time to check back. Trevor Noah has hit a groove. His humor is sharp. His sidekicks (Michelle Wolf, Roy Wood Jr., Lewis Black) are terrific. Plus, his interviews are smart. His passions and brainpower come through with his interviews. He is not afraid of a tough question.

Reading Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood will make you wonder: how in the world did a guy with that upbringing end up in that chair every night on Comedy Central? Born A Crime doesn’t cover that particular transition. The narrative only hints at Trevor Noah’s leap to a national television stage. Most of this memoir is focused on his early days in South Africa, particularly the utter poverty in Soweto. Born A Crime is deeply personal. In turns, it is harrowing, funny, and wild.

The best stories involve Noah’s status as half-black, half-white. Actually, all the stories seem to all revolve around his status (or apparent non-status). Noah is the son a Xhosa mother and a Swiss-German father. Black. And white. Not white, not black, not from the complicated heritage known as coloured. Born A Crime is a story of survival—among authorities, on the streets, in church, among scrappy teenagers, in the dance clubs, and among the opposite sex. Noah’s strong mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, dominates Trevor’s world. She’s the woman with a three-church Sunday routine. She’s fearless, exacting, and determined.

Frequently, Noah leans on his multilingual skills to overcome tight social and personal situations, particularly one harrowing moment in prison. Noah knows Zulu, Tswana, Tsonga, English (and more) and shows the power of language and its ability to soften potentially tricky situations.  Noah grew up as an eternal outsider with his light skin in a sprawling black township of Soweto. That outsider status forced him to make tough social and personal decisions over and over again.

As a teenager, Noah built a business copying and selling pirated CD’s and then transitioned into a wildly popular D.J., throwing massive dance parties in a nearby shantytown called Alexandria.  (The “Go Hitler” chapter offers a compelling reminder that the title of World Despot Ever goes to different people depending on where you live.)

Noah lived with death all around and, ultimately, violence comes home in the final gripping scenes as Noah’s drunken stepfather turns on Noah’s beloved mother with a gun. Riveting.

The book is as much about Noah’s mother as it is about Trevor. It’s clear that his mother wanted Trevor to set his sights on a distant horizon—and also wanted him to make good choices (even as he spent his formative years making poor ones, stealing candy or learning how to hustle stolen goods).

I listened to Trevor’s narration on Audible. He is a very good storyteller. He knows how to set the scene and build dramatic tension over and over again. He’s also a sharp observer. Of people, class, race, authority, religion.

And himself. He’s also, it seems, fearless. No wonder he felt like he could step into Jon Stewart’s shoes.

Ian McGuire, “The North Water”

the-north-waterColm Toibin put it perfectly in The New York Times:

The North Water feels like the result of an encounter between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition.”

It’s a brutal book. It’s violent, gritty and harsh. And it’s a big old chunk of pure storytelling.

Set in the late 1850’s, much of it on a whaling boat called the Volunteer, The North Water is one part adventure, one part crime story and all parts tale of brutality, survival and the limits of human endurance. McGuire writes with a present tense style that has the sensibility of a documentary.

This happened and that happened and so on. Now and now and now. Cinematic? Uh, yes.

At the core of the story are the ship’s surgeon, the drug-addicted Patrick Sumner, and the wickedly vile Henry Drax. The North Water starts in Hull and as the ship is preparing to venture off north toward the Arctic and from there it’s all downhill as the numbers of shipmates dwindle, as the ship busts apart (that cover illustration tells you all you need to know), as the survival begins, as the sense of bleakness and dread leaves a few tiny little human figures struggling against the vast white (where there isn’t blood) emptiness. If there’s a human bodily fluid or key internal organ that goes unmentioned, I’d like to know. It’s literally as if the inhabitants of this novel are turned inside-out.

Of course we have a hunch that not all will perish and McGuire adds a final coda back on dry land that deals with the moral fallout from a bigger crime that’s been underway all along, and partially forgotten as we have shivered and flinched and worried.

It’s a brilliant piece of writing. McGuire’s got a great eye for detail. The story flies. We don’t stop to learn about anything. McGuire leaves out all the parts that would Tom Clancy would not. We are simply immersed in a world that exists and asked to hang onto the gunwales, our knuckles whitening with each toss of the cold sea.

Finally, I have to point out that I listened to this on audio, narrated by John Keating. I firmly believe his reading enhanced the whole experience.

Keating has a bright, clean style. You can almost hear the smile in his voice, which contrasts so starkly with all the abject misery that voice is required to relay.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A full review follows.

First, a Q & A with Conan / Susan:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conan the Grammarian  cover-conan

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

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REVIEW:

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

Me, too.

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

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

Yes, grammar can be inspiring.

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

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

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

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

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

Herewith, three examples

Example 1:

On Euphemism

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

Example 2:

The Passive Voice

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

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

Example 3:

The Serial Comma

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll have a goldmine in your hands.