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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen and Joyce Singular. Photo by Kerry Ransom.

Stephen and Joyce Singular. Photo by Kerry Ransom.

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

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

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

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

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

Steve & Joyce Singular:  That seems very unlikely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question: What’s next for you two?

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

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REVIEW:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kent Haruf – “Our Souls At Night”

our-souls-at-night-mmpSpare, clean, and beautifully wrought, Our Souls At Night is a dollop of Kent Haruf’s signature prose but just as evocative and heavy as Plainsong, Eventide or Benediction. If you’ve read those three, don’t miss this one.

This last entry from Haruf may look slight. It’s 179 pint-size pages. Don’t let that fool you. It’s got as much weight and grounded pathos as the others. It’s as if Haruf truly figured out the “less is more” magic.

It took me a long time to get around to it—and I’m extremely glad I “read” it on audio. In print, Haruf doesn’t use quote marks. I don’t mind that (too much), but narrator Mark Bramhall’s easy, matter-of-fact recording is so good, well, why not take this one in your ears? It’s as if Haruf is sitting there reading you a story.

The ingredients here are simple. Addie Moore reaches out to a neighbor, Louis Waters. She’s a widow. He’s a widower. “I mean, we’re both alone,” she says. “We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.” Addie says she is talking about “getting through the night.”

I knew the general premise going in and I was prepared for long chats between these two—reflections and ponderings and musings. Uh, wrong. Our Souls At Night is well-populated and busy. Addie and Louis drive around—to Denver or nearby towns on the eastern plains of Colorado—and interact with relatives. Addie shakes off town gossip. Louis prefers to keep their relationship on the down-low, but slowly comes around.

Haruf’s gentle, sing-song prose propels the story with a gentle hand. His style glides like an old rocking chair. “At midweek they packed Louis’s pickup and drove west up out of the plains toward the mountains, watching the mountains rise up higher as they got closer to the Front Range, the dark forested lower foothills and farther back the white peaks above tree line still with patches of snow even in July, and drove onto U.S. Highway 50 and went through the few towns.”

When Haruf stopped by my blog in 2013, he said this:  “I don’t want to call attention to the writing—to me, that’s a mistake. John Gardner had that idea about putting your reader into a narrative dream and anything that stirs the reader out of that dream is a mistake.”

Haruf fully succeeds at that goal in Our Souls at Night. (Full interview here.)

Two real people growing old in a small town—thinking back, looking ahead, imagining what might have been. I’ll be interested to see how the movie comes out. Redford and Fonda are fine, but I wish the folks in Hollywood could make a movie with regular people. That’s all Haruf seemed to care about—regular people figuring out how to get along.

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Q & A #49 – Wendy J. Fox, “The Pull of It”

pullcoverThis post goes up the day after a big celebrity breakup.

I’m not going to waste another byte on their names but they appeared to be so tight–their outward image to the world–that they were referred to by one merged, mashed-up name.

One of those.

Who can see inside a marriage? Who can really know what’s going on?

Wendy J. Fox, who stopped by the blog last for Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories, is back with her first full-length novel, The Pull of It (launching today).

It’s about marriage and also about diving into a new culture in a distant land, in this case Turkey.

A full review of this memorable novel follows.

Wendy was also kind enough to answer a few questions by email.

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Question: What was the original spark for The Pull of It?

Wendy Fox: The original spark was for The Pull of It was when the US invaded Iraq for the second time, in 2003. I’d been in Turkey for six months, and the university I worked at was adjacent to a military base. The cadets disappeared to the border and the US issued a travel warning. A woman I only marginally knew who was in country on a Fulbright went home. I remember calling the embassy in Ankara from a payphone and they were like, Oh, it’s fine. It happens. I wasn’t sure whether to be shocked or comforted by their flippness about it.

Before this, I had been having a bit of a hard time, and half-heartedly looking for a reason to return to the U.S., and then suddenly I had one, a real reason—no one’s going to argue with fear, with war—but I didn’t take it, because there was something holding me.

The Pull of It started there, when I realized I could go with minimal questions asked, but chose not to go.

Question: Did you take notes at the time or do any writing there? Did you need to do any research more recently, without the benefit of being there?

Wendy Fox: Yes, it was 2002 – 2004, and the last time I visited was 2007 (and that was only for four or five days).

I started the novel when I was teaching in Kayseri, in central Anatolia, and worked on it later when I lived in Istanbul. I did have many notes, and I also had all of the emails I had sent to friends and family in the U.S., and luckily my mom and a few friends saved the letters I wrote them which helped with little details.

I’m not much of a photographer, but I did take a great deal of pictures when I was there, and I was grateful for the record.

Question: The biggest challenge in The Pull of It, among many challenges, was making Laura likeable, given that she is leaving her family and traveling around the world for an extended period of time. How did you approach this issue? Were you concerned about reader reaction to Laura’s decisions?

wendy-j-fox-2Wendy Fox: It’s interesting, because at first I was really not worried about making Laura likeable, because likeability is not something I particularly care about as a reader or a writer, and I also feel like this burden is unduly placed on female characters (and writers).

Yet, as I got feedback about the manuscript, I had to be realistic about people’s perceptions—I realized it’s fine for me not to prioritize likeability, but if no one wants to read the book, that’s a problem.

In the published version, Laura is still a challenging character, but in revisions, I tried to focus more on her motivations, and did a great deal of restructuring so that more of what was at first her backstory came sooner. I hope that this serves to, if not make Laura “likeable” at least understandable.

Question:  Why is marriage such an endlessly interesting topic for writers? Laura is keenly aware of how she and Julian “spiraled inward” during the marriage and how they couldn’t live up to the outward appearance of togetherness and coupledom. What drew you to this subject and why did you send Laura so far away that she may as well have disappeared?

Wendy Fox: Other folks who write about marriage and coupledom may feel differently, but my perspective is that this is such a rich topic because the stakes are so high. Who one partners with can have massive implications for one’s life (whether good or bad)—it really can be quite radical. Laura is an example of someone who did not consider this, particularly; she gets to where she is, for many years, by just letting life happen, rather than making choices. And when I began this book, that was a fundamental fear of mine, being too passive.

It’s true Laura’s reaction is pretty extreme, but I wanted to send her so far away to give her courage to be on her own. The circumstances aren’t the same, but her motivation is based on how I felt when I left the United States. I took a job, I had a commitment. It’s not like it would have been impossible to back out, anything is possible, but the effort of it helped me stay on, even when I was lonely and culture shocked and frustrated. Again, when the State Department travel warning came, I would have had a reason to bolt, but I didn’t take it.

In writing Laura, I wanted this same barrier for her to return, and it needed to be harder for Julian (her husband) to show up on her doorstep. You’ve nailed it when you say “may as well disappeared.” If she was just hiding out at one of her brothers’ houses, she could have simply hopped a bus. Or Julian could have been a short flight away. The distance was required to sustain her absence.

Question: What was goal in sending Laura to a place where she was completely immersed in such a different culture?

Wendy Fox: The goal of immersing Laura in a different culture was to completely destabilize her. For Laura to get down to the core of herself and to understand what she wants, she had to be in a realm that was totally foreign to her. Otherwise, it would have been too easy for her to fall back into the trappings of domestic life, and too easy for her as a character to just check out.

Question: How did you go about developing the character of Yasemin? And did you know before you started about all the situations that Laura would face, both in terms of relationships and incidents?

Wendy Fox: Yasemin started out as a very minor character, just a gal who owned a little hotel. Yet, as I developed the story, it was clear that Laura needed an ally, and Yasemin was just as likely as she was unlikely.

Yasemin was much more of a process of discovery than Laura, and it was important for me to portray her as an educated woman who was more culturally Muslim than fundamentally Muslim, because that echoed many of the women I met.

I think of the burkini debates that are going on now, and Yasemin definitely would wear a burkini, and wear it happily—the burkini means you can swim in something like a wetsuit, instead of something like dungarees. Turkey has in the last decade been on a path to conservatism that is not positive, but even in conservative places, women do find ways to keep their space. If one thinks that Muslim women are uncomfortable with their bodies, I think, Eh, you’ve not been to the hamam—so Yasemin is also in part meant to give a nod the many women within Islamic traditions who are whip-smart and nails-tough, but who also feel cultural pressure.

I didn’t know how important Laura’s friendship with Yasemin would be in the earliest drafts, but I did know part of what Laura would face, because I wrote most of the ending first. It was a question of how she would get there.

Question: Please describe your fixation with minerals. And chemicals.  You drew on them in your short story collection and they appear here, too. Sulfur, aluminum, arsenic…

Wendy Fox: The whole using science in writing thing that I drew on for the short-story collection and for this book started with Yasemin. She’s a chemist by education, if not by trade.

My general fixation is that for someone who is very deeply interested in the emotional lives of my characters, the language of science gives me a way to write in a way that is much more concrete. The words sad and sulfur are very different; something like sulfur has more specificity: it has a color, it has a smell, it has distinct properties. Sad is more nebulous. Sad requires more exposition.

So there’s this kind of concision that the language of science can offer.

Question: What was the hardest part of going from writing short stories to a full-length novel? And what was the best or easiest thing about the change?

Wendy Fox: The hardest thing, for me, is sustaining the narrative and negotiating longer lines of plot. While a short-story might do, in quick time, some of the work of a novel (as in, containing a story) a novel is not the converse. A short can be a compressed novel in a way a novel cannot simply be an elongated short-story.

The best thing about this shift is that as a writer you have more time to develop the setting and the characters. You get a little more room.

However, I will say that in working on larger projects, I still try to break these down into 10 – 20 page chunks (short-story size) because smaller, discreet sections help me focus.

Question: What’s next?

Wendy Fox: Thanks for asking! I’m starting on revisions of a second novel—I think it is almost, but not quite there, and I’m also working on a book of linked short-stories that are stylistically very different than most of my other writing, which is challenging, but it’s nice to have a challenge.

Neither of these projects are anywhere close to having a home, but it’s exciting to both be in the thick of creating and having work coming out.

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Website: Wendy J. Fox 

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REVIEW:

Lydia Davis ends her brilliant, enticing introduction to A Manual for Cleaning Women, a short story collection by Lucia Berlin, with a quote pulled from one of Berlin’s stories:

“So what is marriage anyway? I never figured it out. And now it is death I don’t understand.”

Yes, what is marriage anyway? Is it as unknowable as death?

To Laura Clarey, the complex main character in Wendy J. Fox’s first full-length novel The Pull of It, the answer to the second question might be “yes.”

In the very first moment of The Pull of It, Laura hears a comment from her husband Julian that makes her wonder whether she’s married the right guy. It’s a simple comment about whether it’s a good idea to bring in a “holiday babysitter” for New Year’s. If a teenager doesn’t have somewhere to go on New Year’s, Laura thinks, is she appropriate to watch their seven-year-old daughter?

Julian, “ever practical,” tells Laura to stop wondering so much about other people’s lives.

And there’s the rub. Laura does wonder about other people’s lives. It’s in her DNA. And she wonders if she wants to be married to a man who does not.

Big deal? Little deal? Does it matter?

Right out of the shoot, on the second page, we are keenly aware that Laura Clarey would prefer to have spent New Year’s with her daughter and not hanging around a boring party where “everyone was so deeply coupled.”

Laura, we know, is not so “deeply” intertwined. Hardly.

It’s Julian who suggests a vacation. Laura is unemployed but there is a contingency fund. It’s supposed to be a few weeks. But Laura wants distance—and she gets it.

Istanbul—and then into the interior of Turkey, to a village.

And Laura stretches a “vacation” into something much more.

At the heart of this brisk novel is a prickly concern: how can a married woman leave behind a seven-year-old daughter and go search for answers to questions about her marriage in a country half-way around the world where communication is both dicey and infrequent?  That’s the challenge Fox gave herself and she pulls it off. Laura Clarey may not be 100 percent sympathetic, but if you’re married or otherwise “deeply coupled” in any way you will recognize the search for identity. The novel dances down a taut, interesting path.

Laura moves to a town in Turkey’s vast interior and takes a job in a twenty-room guesthouse run by a woman named Yasemin. Interspersed with flashbacks to Laura’ early life and early relationships and early interactions with Julian, Fox layers-in information about Laura and how she’s been built to respond. Then, Laura meets one man and then another and I’ll only say here that The Pull of It is not all interior contemplation. Stuff happens and it isn’t all pretty.

To fans of Fox’s Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories (a finalist for The Colorado Book Award in 2015), the clean, spare writing will come as no surprise.  “That’s the way marriage goes sometimes, I suppose. As our friends around us paired and coupled off, I would say, Congratulations. I would say, I hope this is exactly what you want. But you can’t know, ever, until the marriage is happening, and by then, you’re already battened down every available hatch.”

The Pull of It ventures into space where many novels have tread but you won’t soon forget the messy, uncomfortable space that Laura inhabits or the surprising, grounded conclusion. Is this book for guys? Any husband who is in relationship where there are questions in the air (more questions than talk, let’s say) should go with Laura on her not-so-little trip. And think, “what is marriage, anyway?”

 

Q & A #48 – Elizabeth Greenwood, “Playing Dead – A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud”

playing-deadIf you got desperate, could you do it?

Could you fake your own death? Could you try to leave your problems behind and start all over again?

Would it work?

In a book as funny as it is insightful, Elizabeth Greenwood offers a look at the issues involved in pretending to be a goner.

Playing Dead—A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud is a cautionary tale, to say the least.

Bottom line: you better think twice.

A full review follows. First, Elizabeth was kind enough to answer some questions by email. If you enjoy her lively answers, you’ll love the book.

NOTE: If you are out there and have successfully pulled off the business of simulating your own demise, this is your chance to explain how you avoided all the pitfalls she uncovered. So, if you are one of those, Elizabeth Greenwood would like to hear from you.

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Question: By definition, you knew starting out on the research that you would never be able to interview anyone who was entirely successful at Playing Dead, right? Were you daunted by that fact? And did you have any idea when you started where the research would take you, The Philippines and England?

Elizabeth Greenwood: You know, despite the fact that no one in their right mind who has successfully faked his or her own death would ever come forward to speak to a journalist, I always remained hopeful and do to this day! So, if any undead out there want to chat, hit me up!  I knew that reporting and writing this book would be tough for that reason, but also because there was no central narrative that already existed—I was exploring a world and taking a reader along for the ride. The Philippines and John Darwin’s native England were high on my list of places to visit, but I had no idea if it would come together. I got very lucky.

Question: Steve Rambam is such a great character in the book—and the whole process of negotiating your way into his inner circle took some effort. Were there any dead ends, so to speak? Somebody else out there you tried to track down or trips you made that didn’t yield a character like Rambam or “Canoe Man?”

Elizabeth Greenwood: Oh, I could fill a whole other book from the cutting room floor!  In any type of reporting there is necessary excess because you just don’t know which lines of inquiry will be fruitful.  But since this is my first book and since I became so derangedly invested in the subject, I went a bit further down a few rabbit holes. One story that didn’t make it into the book was about a banker in Oregon who staged his own suicide and got convicted with nearly 3,000 counts of identity fraud.  He served time, and then decided he wanted to disappear again.  I wrote about that story on the Powell’s Books blog. I was so fascinated seeing this second attempt, so fascinated, in fact, that the chapter I wrote about him weighed in at 20,000 words. My editor wisely counseled me to ditch this episode.

Question: Okay, there are a lot of mistakes you can avoid if you want to fake your death and do it well. Your book would be quite helpful for those who are thinking along those lines. You can’t leave a trail of evidence as you plan your death (like, buying a copy of your book) and you have to stay disappeared and not be overly curious how folks are reacting in the wake of your “loss.” Have you imagined the perfect staged death?

Elizabeth Greenwood

Elizabeth Greenwood

Elizabeth Greenwood: The perfect staged death is one that is clean, elegant, and not overly detailed.  The story of Marcus Schrenker, an Indianapolis money manager who staged a fatal plane crash, for example, is cinematic and captivates the imagination, but unfortunately contains too many moving parts. Most people assume that faking a drowning would be fool proof because it may eliminate the onus of a body. But bodies do indeed materialize usually within a few days of a water accident, so a drowning-sans-body will always raise red flags for law enforcement. But going out for a hike one day and never returning? There you have a more open-ended scenario, and, sadly, many people do disappear while out in the woods.

Question:  College debt and ennui? Wouldn’t either reason be enough?  Just kidding. How did go about deciding how much of yourself to include n the story? Are there any immersion journalists you admire or have learned from? Or just non-fiction writers you enjoy reading? And have you written any stand-up comedy?

Elizabeth Greenwood: Ha! One thing I learned through interviewing people who had faked their deaths themselves with varying degrees of success is that your garden variety student loan debt coupled with a petite existential crisis is a tiny drop in the death-faking bucket. Sam Israel, the hedge fund manager from New York, staged his own suicide because he had absconded with half a billion dollars of investor money and was facing a twenty-year prison sentence.  So, a tad different.

When I was drafting the book, I wrote everything out to its fullest expression, including all my “witty” (and not-always-so-witty) observations and ideas. Then, in the editing process, I cut anything that felt like I was tap dancing, or just throwing in a joke for a joke’s sake. I really wanted my presence on the page to illuminate certain emotional moments or intellectual paradoxes, but not to compete with the people I was writing about.

I worship Jon Ronson, Ted Conover, Susan Orlean, and Truman Capote. Janet Malcolm would probably not consider herself an “immersive” journalist but she is now and will forever be my hero.

Question: That moment at the end when you discuss the issues of entitlement by the “playing dead” perpetrators, when did that come to you?  Did your views on the morality of this whole charade shift from beginning of your work to the end?

Elizabeth Greenwood:  Yes, I experienced a big shift from when I set out. I saw death fraud as a victimless crime, especially if you choose not to commit life insurance fraud (which you should not!). But then I met family members who had been in some way caught up in a loved one’s ruse—like one woman who thought her dad had been dead since she was a toddler and then learned in her thirties he had been alive the entire time, or a young man who colluded with his father to cash in on a life insurance policy and wound up serving time in jail. Hearing their stories and how they had been adversely affected really threw the idea into new relief.

Question: I saw on your Twitter feed and comment or RT of an article about Lucia Berlin. Isn’t she incredible? Did you take any writing inspiration from her or other fiction writers? Are you developing a knockout crime fiction about someone who well, you know, fakes their own death in masterful fashion?

Elizabeth Greenwood: Lucia Berlin is everything!!! I’m so glad she’s getting the readership she deserves.  I am simply in awe of fiction writers generally, and of crime writers especially. The ability to invent whole worlds from thin air simply floors me. Unfortunately, I have not been gifted the imagination of a novelist. I’m sticking with reveling in other people’s real lives for now.

Question: What’s next?

Elizabeth Greenwood: I’m currently at work on another nonfiction book for Simon & Schuster about people who pursue relationships with incarcerated criminals. Thus far, I’ve walked a bride down the aisle of a max security prison for her jailhouse nuptials, exchanged letters with a convicted murderer about the unsolicited marriage proposals she receives, and interviewed dozens of people holding down fulfilling relationships in the face of staggering obstacles.

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More: Elizabeth Greenwood’s website.

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REVIEW:

Playing Dead is thorough rundown of all the pros and cons of trying to fake your own death.

Mostly cons.

Here’s the bottom line. If you’re planning to do this, you need a transporter beam to zap you away when nobody is looking and deposit you clear on the other side of the world following a complete surgical reconstruction of every distinctive human feature you possess. You’ll also need a doppelganger corpse to stand in for your “body,” right down to the DNA.

If you want to start over, it might be better to gain your “theoretically superior version,” as Elizabeth Greenwood puts it, through a complete self-reinvention right out in public while everyone is watching.

No tricks.

That said, it’s fun to read about those who have attempted to head down the road and try to go poof.

It’s not so easy. A quick spin through this book will dispel your dreams.

(Of course, by definition, Greenwood couldn’t profile anyone who had done it successfully. The ones who have managed to start anew are by definition unreachable and unknowable. They are presumed goners. Maybe it is possible.)

Greenwood follows her own curiosity about the “black comedy” of “manipulating your own mortality” and rails against her personal mountain of college loan debt to hilarious effect. (This is a very funny book; some Mary Roach-esque touches.)

Greenwood follows the case of Sam Israel III, a failed hedge funder who attempted “pseudocide” on the day he was supposed to be reporting to prison for a 22-year prison sentence. She interviews and grabs the highlights from fellow writer Frank Ahearn, who wrote “How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails and Vanish Without a Trace.” Ahearn considers himself a “privacy consultant” and has advised on famous cases of missing persons, such as the Boston gangster Whitey Bulger. A former skip tracer, Ahearn makes a convincing case that “death fraud” simply doesn’t work. There’s too much connectivity between death records and social security numbers these days. It wasn’t always so.

Greenwood interviews “elite private investigator” Steve Rambam, who contracts with life insurance companies to investigate suspicious claims.  “When fishy death claims that exceed a certain amount get filed (think seven figures),” Greenwood writes, “Rambam hops aboard a plane, treks out to the scene of the crime, and finds where the bodies are not buried.” Rambam is a moving, busy target and becomes a recurring figure in the book. He’s tenacious and possesses “sheer hardheadness.”

She covers the death fakers who try to take advantage of true disasters like 9-11 and she visits in England with “Canoe Man,” who pulled off a fake death for an extended period of time and who seems confident he could have done it for longer. She visits with conspiracy theorists who are sure Michael Jackson pulled off a fake-death stunt and then jets off to the Philippines to see what it takes to go down this path of securing the documents that declare you officially dead. You won’t soon forget Snooky and Bong and Greenwood’s tour of the “death-faking hot spots” in Manila.

Throughout, the writing is brisk and witty. To wit, “I can come up with all the creative costuming and backstory, but establishing the cash flow necessary to sustain oneself is where things get hairy. Coming up with the funds and then finding a way to obscure them while waiting to commit another financial crime—insurance fraud—means going from MacGruber to Jason Bourne with a touch of Gordon Gekko overnight.”

And she closes with some thoughtful self-analysis about the morality of going down this road, including what it takes to ignore the impact on those you leave behind. (Remember, if you’re considering this, you want as few people as possible—nobody—to know of your “plan.” Everyone you tell will be questioned by the likes of Steve Rambam.) And she makes a good case that a law might not be a bad idea to further discourage such attempt death fakery, even if no outright fraud is committed in the process.

A fun, interesting read from start to finish—even if you are planning no such dramatic exits from your current world.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Erik Storey’s website.

On Twitter

On Facebook

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REVIEW:

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.

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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NAKED SHALL I RETURN on Amazon

Follow Christopher Bartley on Twitter

Previously reviewed: THEY DIE ALONE

They Die Alone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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REVIEW:

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.

 

 

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.

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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!

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Ray Daniel’s Website

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Review:

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.

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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!

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Christopher Merkner’s Website

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Review:

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.

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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.”