Yeah, maybe they should have gone back to Melbourne. The warning was right there. They were told the island was like “Jurassic bloody Park.” But the kids want to see a koala. The kids are Olivia and Owen. Dad is Tom. The new wife is Heather. “The kids weren’t quite sold on her yet, but they’d get there,” thinks Tom.
The Island gets plenty scary. Like, Deliverance-level tense. (I swear on all my reviews I wrote that line before reading Adrian McKinty’s acknowledgements.) The tension ramps up out there on Dutch Island and then it ramps up some more. But, for my money, what happens off the coast of Australia is all set up by the first three chapters, before the family rides the flat-bottomed vessel out to the “decrepit wooden jetty” on the other side of the bay.
McKinty gives us three chapters to get to know the family. Characters first, action second. We get the family dynamics loud and clear, with Heather as the newest member of the foursome. It’s important to see Heather at this stage because she’s got a rugged road ahead. “She had known this was going to be a tough trip but she hadn’t realized quite how tough.” Over the course of the first five days traveling with her new family, she’s “barely had a moment to herself.” (And we haven’t even left the Airbnb on the beach.) Soon, she’ll need to channel her inner Katniss Everdeen, her inner Imperator Furiosa.
In a quick, smooth bit of exposition-via-dialogue, Heather talks via phone with her girlfriend Carolyn back in Seattle. And we learn that Heather, a massage therapist, has given up a potential career as a singer of an actress to become a “twenty-four-hour live-in nanny with benefits.” Tom is a quirky, wealthy, orthopedic surgeon. He complains to the rental agency about getting the wrong Porsche. They’re on a trip to Australia that combines a work conference and vacation. Tom decides to prioritize the kids’ interests and that leads to the decision to pay the exorbitant fee to head out to the island where, they are told, there are “animals everywhere.”
To put it mildly.
The Island is an escapist high-adrenaline romp. Escapist, yeah, but you will feel very, very trapped. Stuck. Confined. Cornered. Screwed.
Heather and Tom make one bad decision and that leads to the next decision to lie about what happened and soon they are dealing with a backwater family led by a woman, “Ma,” with her pink slippers, eye patch, and copper-colored wig. Ma is deliciously over the top. “When she reached the bottom of the stairs,” McKinty writes, “the woman wheezed heavily and then continued her progress across the living room like an old pope arriving at an inquisition.”
To “Ma,” everything is fine on the island just the way it is. “We have to go forward, Matthew,” she tells one of her sons. “Forward. Forward into the past when everything was prey.” To Ma, Heather is the monster, the mythological bunyip.
Like any family, there are cracks. A few of the offspring wouldn’t mind rebranding or opening up the island to the outside world. It’s all up to Heather to exploit those divisions, protect her new family, and figure out how the hell she’s going to survive.
Want to feel trapped? Pick up The Island. Otherwise, go back to Melbourne.
(BTW, I listened on audio and the narration by Mela Lee is terrific.)
Tara Westover, improbably enough, is working with Professor Jonathan Steinberg at King’s College, Cambridge University.
“What relationship between these phrases are you hoping to establish?” he says.
That simple question and the entire scene, well into Westover’s memoir Educated, is gripping moment of an important academic exchange. (Yes, comma placement is a big deal.) Why? Because it’s so hard to imagine how far she has come, and against all odds, out of the darkness.
To think that Tara Westover is having a conversation about punctuation at one of the finest universities in the world and half-way around the world from her upbringing in a remote corner of Idaho, after being raised by a father who abhorred formal education and who trumpeted ridiculous conspiracy theories, is like a flat-earther stepping onto the surface of the moon.
In addition, Professor Steinberg is an expert on the Holocaust and Tara was raised with no knowledge of World War II.
Tara Westover’s father is a paranoid Mormon who is suspicious of everything. He makes doomsday preppers seem like regular folks. He hates hospitals and public education—really, anything to do with the government. He regularly belittles Tara’s attempts to seek “solid ground.” At first, Tara’s brother Shawn seems like an ally but he starts beating her up when she starts to expand her horizons.
What are the little things that make one child eager to leave such a fringe family, while others cling tightly to the family’s core beliefs? Tara is the youngest of seven children and pushes to get an education. She’s inspired in part by an older brother to study for a college-entrance exam and gets accepted to Brigham Young University. A fellowship leads her to Harvard University and then to England.
It’s a long way from home, where her herbalist mother and survivalist father, who works in scrap metal, channels “revelations,” and warns against the evil charms of the “the Illuminati.”
In some ways, Tara didn’t exist. Tara and three siblings didn’t have birth certificates. None of them had medical records because they were all born at home and had never seen a doctor or nurse (mom’s tinctures and herbs to the rescue). None of them had school records, either, because none of them had stepped foot in a classroom. At least, at first.
Westover’s account is harrowing. And complex. She makes progress getting out—the first engagements with real schools or starting a romance with a guy named Charles, whose appearance in Westover’s life is apparently what turns her brother against her. Despite knowing what she wants, Educated makes it clear how hard it is to shake the bonds even if chaos and danger await. (Westover recounts several harrowing traffic accidents as well as a fight with giant grinding machine.)
“Every night for a month, when I came in from the junkyard, I’d spend an hour scrubbing grime from my fingernails and dirt from my ears. I’d brush the tangles from my hair and clumsily apply makeup. I’d rub handfuls of lotion into the pads of my fingers to soften the calluses, just in case that was the night Charles touched them. When he finally did, it was early evening and we were in his jeep, driving to his house to watch a movie. We were just coming parallel to Fivemile Creek when he reached across the gearshift and rested his hand on mine. His hand was warm and I wanted to take it, but instead I jerked way as if I’d been burned. The response was involuntary, and I wished immediately that I could take it back. It happened again when he tried a second time. My body convulsed, yielding to a strange, potent instinct.”
Why the struggle? Because of her father’s equally abusive, horrific attitudes and how he raised Tara. Charles’ touch makes her think of her father uttering the word “whore,” even over an innocent interaction of human touch. Educated is a horror story in memoir form of both psychological torture and physical abuse. And in the end, when the daylight arrives, a tale of pure redemption. It’s tale of learning how the world works—including history—and it’s an education a soul. Westover does a great job of detailing the guilt and complex feelings that come from her escape.
Educated is a winner, every comma in its perfect place.
Yes, Janet Fogg is the co-writer (with Bob West) on Twenty Miles of Fence: Blueprint of a Cowboy. But she’s here on the blog so her name goes in the headline. That’s the way it goes.
Janet is a modest, quiet, unassuming writing force.
She writes fiction and non-fiction. She’s won awards for both.
She’s the historian for the 359th Fighter Group and has written several books, along with her husband, about the World War II aviators.
Janet Fogg is also writing a serialized science fiction novel, Shadow Patterns of Melt, for Kindle Vella. She has written romance and westerns for young adults.And she’s been recognized as an “Honored Guiding Member” of one of my favorite writing groups, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.
Twenty Miles of Fence is another interesting entry in her varied writing career. For years, Janet worked as CFO for Oz Architecture in Boulder. Over the course of many years, she developed and drafted the memoir for her business partner Bob West. The book chronicles West’s dreams of purchasing and running a cattle ranch.
Janet was kind enough to answer questions about her work on the book, below. (Any writer currently looking for an agent or publisher should check her example of a very clever opening to her query letter for Twenty Miles; the whole project is also a lesson in playing the long game.)
A review of Twenty Miles of Fence follows.
Question: Can you walk us through the process of co-writing Twenty Miles of Fence? Did it start with interviews? What did the drafting and writing process involve?
Janet Fogg: I think it was around 2006 when my friend and business partner Bob West mentioned he’d kept diaries of his and his families’ time working on the 3,600-acre Wyoming ranch they purchased and rebuilt. I encouraged him to consider writing a book and told him I’d lend a hand. He knew I’d been writing novels and that I was a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.
Bob brought me copies of the diaries to read, and also to evaluate whether there really was a book lurking within those pages of sketches and cattle counts and goals. I thought there might be, and over the course of a year or so I transcribed his diaries. I then did light edits, but didn’t spend significant time as we were both working full-time (50+ hours a week), and there simply wasn’t any hurry.
I don’t recall how much either of us worked on the manuscript until 2014, when Bob and Alanna invited me to go to the National Western Stock Show with them, then to join them at their small ranch near Livermore, the Whiskey Belle Ranch. (The Wyoming ranch had been sold years before.) It was great fun watching them negotiate for their wonderful brute of a bull, Brodgar, then Alanna and I headed to the ranch while Bob and a handler loaded Brodgar. They soon followed, and that bull was none to happy about the two-hour trailer ride. He might have knocked down a shed by rubbing his now halter-less face against one of the structural posts, if not for that post being a 100-year-old 24-inch-thick tree trunk.
In-between their ranch chores we went riding and hiking, might have enjoyed a glass or two of wine, and Bob and I spent many hours reviewing where we were with the manuscript so we could plan our next attack.
Over the next few years, I had a number of books published, but when time allowed, I would work on revisions of existing chapters, and Bob drafted new chapters.
During the pandemic we decided to really focus on the manuscript and had many conversations. While they weren’t interviews, they triggered memories about other events he thought relevant to the memoir. His adult sons also reminded him of events he might want to include. Bob drafted those, and I got serious about wordsmithing—by creating an evocative (we hope) memoir that captures his passion for ranching and preserving the cowboy way.
We completed a “final” draft in the spring of 2021, and the search for an agent or publisher began.
Question: You had known Bob West through your work at the architecture firm, correct? Did that make it easier or harder to consider taking on this project?
Janet Fogg: Yes, Bob and I met when I joined Everett, Zeigel, Tumpes & Hand (which evolved into OZ Architecture, one of Colorado’s largest architectural firms). We were named associates the same year, and over the decades became principals (owners) then managing principals.
We created many documents together, answering Requests for Proposals and Requests for Qualifications for projects, so we already had experience writing together. A big plus? I could read his handwriting. (I’m not kidding.)
Question: Was it difficult to condense many years of experiences and adventures for Bob West into a fairly compact book?
Janet Fogg: I’d suggested we target a minimum of 60,000 words, and we came in right at that. In fact, Bob added a few chapters fairly late in the process, which worked perfectly. We’ve also included sixteen photos and five sketches.
Question: What was the hardest thing about writing Twenty Miles of Fence? The book is told in first in Bob’s voice—was that hard to do?
Janet Fogg: In my experience, architects, artists, and many creative people view the natural and built environments with a clarity that, for example, pairs light and shadows and sometimes something as simple as the ripple of grass to that moment in time. I care about the west, and know how passionate Bob is about preserving and protecting the land, so I wanted to find a voice for his story that would at least be expressive if not evocative—to try to convey what he sees and the emotions created. That was the most challenging aspect, for me.
With that said, I’d never written in first person, and more than once slipped up. Fortunately, Shannon Baker, who ranched in the Nebraska Sandhills, did an early read, and she caught those errors. She also contributed to the story-telling aspect, in suggesting we move one story thread from the back of the book toward the front. Made a big difference in the progression of the story. Wise woman.
Question: I’m wondering if you purposely spent time on the ranch to get a good feeling for the land and the business? For Wyoming?
Janet Fogg: My husband and I have spent quite a bit of time in Wyoming over the years—in fact, our brief honeymoon started at Little America then we drove over the Snowy Range. Since then, we’ve spent many a road trip hiking in the west, from desert country to the prairies, to the Rocky Mountains and Canadian Rockies.
Bob was always generous with invitations to the ranch, and I did spend time there on several occasions. One time when I visited with several others from OZ Architecture, we were snowed-in—the highways were closed due to blizzard conditions. I remember Bob and our friend Gary drinking scotch and fishing in the midst of that snowstorm. I stayed by the fire!
Question: Were the themes obvious at the outset or did they emerge as you worked and wrote?
Janet Fogg: The themes were obvious, though I knew we needed a strong ending. Early on, when I wanted to discuss that, Bob became evasive. He knew what he wanted to share, but told me, “I have to have a few drinks and write some demanding chapters. Then you’ll understand.” I did. He impressed me with his honesty in sharing painful lessons learned that he’d never mentioned to anyone.
Question: Can you give us an idea how long this project took to write, edit, and publish? How did University of Nebraska Press come about?
Janet Fogg: I’m not able to judge how long this project took to write, as we worked on it in spurts and fits. First round of serious editing? Probably six months. Final round of serious editing? Perhaps eight months. Then we had the Press’ edits. We were blessed with a great editor and fantastic copy editor.
I will always be amused by and regret what I told Bob when I thought we were ready to send out queries. I cautioned him that it might take a year or two to spark interest. Of course, we researched agents and publishers before querying. He spent time looking at his own bookshelves of cowboy books and online to suggest publishers, while I visited QueryTracker to target western memoir publishers and agents.
Mid-summer 2021 I drafted a query letter and emailed it to Bob. Here’s where working with a friend is good—he told me it sucked. While the letter included all of those items we’re “supposed” to include in a query, it didn’t grab Bob’s attention. After I re-read the query, I sighed and agreed. Boring.
A couple days of revisions ended with the first few sentences of the query being a quote from the manuscript:
“How do you describe the utter vastness of Wyoming prairie? The smell? The clarity of the air? The inability to judge distance?
“Where you can hear the sun set.”
Then we briefly described Bob’s life and his quest to become a cowboy. After that, some of the almost metaphysical events that Bob embraced as he delved into the history of the ranch, the region, and the life of his great-great-grandfather, who served with the Union during the Civil War and very likely visited the ranch on more than one occasion.
Back to the University of Nebraska Press. We emailed a query to the Press on September 20, 2021, and to one literary agent in New York. Both queries included sample chapters. The next day (!) an editor with the University of Nebraska Press called Bob to chat and they requested a full.
Bob and I discussed the pros and cons of working with a university press, but as we re-reviewed their publications, it became clear that Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, was a perfect fit.
After approval by the Press’ editorial board, a peer review followed, and we signed a contract on December 7, 2021. We then had four months to edit the manuscript to conform to the Press’ guidelines, gather final suggested images with releases, write captions, finalize chapter titles, and create a bibliography.
From mid-April to mid-May, 2022, our editor reviewed the manuscript and suggested changes, which we agreed with, for the most part. A month later, copy edits began, then in October, page proofs. And we were done! Twenty Miles of Fence: Blueprint of a Cowboy will be released by Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, on March 1, 2023.
BTW, I don’t think Bob will ever let me forget how I lost all credibility, as far as how long and difficult a journey it can be to be traditionally published. (Kidding! Sort of.)
Question: Is there anything you learned in writing this project that will help with your other writing projects?
Janet Fogg: I think my primary focus on creating the right voice for Twenty Miles of Fence will definitely help future efforts. Plus, who knows when I might need to know what scours is? Or whether liquid protein or cake is better cattle feed? (Cake? Then at $162 per-ton it isn’t the devil’s food treat that graces so many birthday parties.)
In the vast array of writing credits you now have to your name, what’s next for you?
My plan, which often changes without notice, is to finish my mainstream, Bright Shining as the Sun, then start Shadow Patterns of Melt—Book Two. I was almost derailed and incredibly flattered to receive a request to write a book about the restoration of a WWII ME109 (German fighter), which will be the only flying example in the United States, and one of only three or four that still fly in the world. But I’d like to return to fiction for the foreseeable future.
Twenty Miles of Fence: Blueprint of a Cowboy asks a simple question: what does it take to become a cowboy?
More specifically, can a professional working architect from Boulder, Colorado reinvent himself on nearly 4,000 acres of “rocky windswept plains” ranch in southern Wyoming?
Well, there’s a small mountain of things to learn as Bob West makes the leap and Twenty Miles of Fence, a kind of A Year in Provence with wind, harsh winters, and vast landscapes. And cattle.
Calving. Bloodlines. Feed. Branding. Vaccinations. Fence installation (and repair). Coyotes. Water. Water rights. Winter. Wind. More wind. Hired help. Firing hired help. And money.
Fortunately, Bob West isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty—helping rope calves so they can be treated for scours, training a “high-strung” and wild-eyed horse named Black Jack, and killing rattlesnakes with a shovel. West shares the mucky and grim details of ranch financing. And he’s thoroughly aware of his status as a newcomer, especially compared to an experienced neighbor.
“To cowboy up didn’t mean strutting around with spurs jingle-jangling.; It meant embracing your life and livelihood with modesty, admitting and apologizing for wrongs while inspiring others to do their best. I hoped I did all of that, always here and with our architectural firm.
“Cowboys like Shockley inspired me to do better, to emulate their very nuance, even when they had to be laughing at the quasi tinhorns living next door. Again. I grinned at my own ineptitude as the storm grumbled my way, announcing its true power with a pair of lightning bolts spearing from the heights to hit the ground about three miles distant. Being the tallest thing on the prairie made me a target. So I straightened and urged my horse to skedaddle back to the barn. We galloped home.”
Yes, West comes into the project with critical resources. He expands and improves the ranch’s facilities, enjoying the freedom of designing and building without those pesky city bureaucrats in the way. Sure, who wouldn’t build a “drinking deck” overlooking the Upper Laramie River? (The events in the book happened decades ago but are taken from detailed journals.)
But West brings deep appreciation for the landscape, wildlife, and the history of the land as well. He acknowledges the “ghostly force” of centuries of Native Americans who lived on the same acreage and also the fact that his great-great-great grandfather likely played a role in helping the U.S. Calvary deal with the “Indian problem.”
Beautifully and cleanly told, Twenty Miles of Fence provides an up-close look at the transition from corporate city dude to a guy living right smack on the land. It’s an impressive move. Whether you’ve got money or not, nothing is going to make a blizzard less intense, a cold rain easier to handle, or a calf any less ornery when its being roped. Did West make it all the way to full, undeniable cowboy? Maybe. At least he got as far as “pretty good ranch hand.”
I met Steve Singular in 2007. (His good memory, not mine.) We watched the Super Bowl together at a friend’s house. I had worked as a journalist and in communications in Denver since 1980 and the name Stephen Singular was always up there among the list of well-known writers and reporters.
We soon started playing music together in a band called Blue Streak with Steve’s wife Joyce on lead vocals, my friend J.D. Townsend on drums and my former fellow Denver Post colleague Mike Keefe on guitar (among several band lineups).
Steve was always a huge help to me in thinking about stories and writing. He taught me a few things about music, too.
Steve could talk comfortably about the O.J. Simpson case, Jon Benet, Columbine, Warren Jeffs, the B.T.K. serial killer and a host of other tough-subject stories he wrote about over the decades, the vast majority in book form.
Now, he’s published an intriguing memoir called The Heart of Violence. It goes where reporters are not supposed to go: inside the self. But Steve interweaves the story with the people he’s written about, his love of music, his childhood, and his current battle with cancer.
What follows is a transcript of a chat I had with Steve over Zoom. You’ll get the idea of what he was after in writing the memoir and also some key stories from the book itself. A full review of The Heart of VIolence follows this conversation.
Question: We’re talking two days after the death of one of the best guitarists whoever graced the planet – Jeff Beck. I mean, we could probably talk music and nothing but music for the next three or four hours or three or four days because you and I both love music so much. That’s what makes us happy. But music also plays such a big role in in your book. And it’s just it’s so interesting how you weave together music, your own personal medical challenges, and then all this reporting work on so many different true crime stories. And then the other layer is just this history of violence, starting out with your father in war, parachuting down. I mean, I’m just wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you pieced all these different themes together?
Stephen Singular: In 2020, I was diagnosed with two types of cancer. One was pancreatic and the other was prostate cancer. I’d resisted writing this story for a long time, for fairly obvious reasons, which will come out as we talk. I decided it was time to do it because of my medical situation and the medical situation provided a narrative, a timeline. You get sick. You go through treatments and then hopefully you get well. Or maybe you don’t. The illnesses provided a timeline for telling a story that encompasses about 70 years.
The story begins with my father in World War II as a bombardier pilot and then later as a POW in Germany for about a year. My emotional background was largely established by his experience, which of course occurred before I was born. That isn’t something I understood for a long time. You grow up and you think you are who you are and you have your personality and you have an emotional makeup, but maybe it’s more complicated than that.
I was born five years after the war, in 1950. My father came back from Germany with PTSD before anybody knew what that was or even used that term. He was very nervous. He had a lot of anxiety, a lot of medical issues—stomach issues, ulcers, all of those things. When I was a teenager, I’d try to talk to him about his wartime experience. He just was completely and utterly shut down. Every now and then he’d be overcome with nerves and would go into the hospital, the VA hospital in Topeka, for a few days. He’d come out and be alright for a while, but he absolutely wouldn’t talk about his experience.
I grew up with a lot of repression, a lot of not saying things I wanted to say, maybe not even feeling things I wanted to feel because they seemed like they weren’t acceptable in the environment and household I was in.
In the 1970s, I became a journalist in New York City. In my 30s, I moved to Denver. One of the first things that happened to me in Denver, in September of 1981, was that I heard a man on the radio named Alan Berg. He was very controversial, outspoken. He talked a lot about racial and religious issues and he fascinated me. He was sort of the opposite of what I was and would say whatever came into his mind on the air.
I decided to meet him and write about him for the Denver Post’s Sunday magazine, “Empire.” That article came out at the end of 1982 and about 18 months later he was gunned down in his driveway by neo-Nazis from the northwest. A group called The Order. I was asked to write a story about this for Rolling Stone and that evolved into my first book project, Talked To Death.
I was very drawn to this subject because I was a lifelong radio nut. Music was my lifeline to the larger world — through the radio. When I came to Denver, I was interested in all the programs in this market. And this connection introduced me to writing about true crime. I had no intention of doing that, but once I did it, I found it very interesting. I was intrigued by the crimes, the perpetrators, the victims, their families. The sort of ripple effect of what one murder could have on a family. Maybe, in Berg’s case, even on a community.
I liked being in the courtroom. I liked dealing with lawyers, police officers, private detectives, all those people. And that led to more books about true crime. Five of them are set in Colorado.
I was having some success in my professional life, but as I got older I was very upset and increasingly disturbed by my emotional realities. Instead of getting stronger with age, I felt more fragile. I couldn’t really understand why this was happening. I wasn’t suffering in any obvious kind of way, but writing the Berg book and having some success loosened something within me and I started to fall apart a bit. I had longstanding angers and fears and they seemed to be getting more powerful as I got older.
I also had recurring nightmares since I was a young boy. In one, we lived in a two-story house with a basement and there were alligators and crocodiles in shallow water in the basement. I’d be going down the stairs and they’d try to attack me, my feet and ankles. If you’re looking for a symbol, I guess the upstairs is sort of the conscious mind, where you’re living your life, and the downstairs is the unconscious mind, holding many unresolved things inside of you, but especially your fears and angers.
In another dream I was walking down a country road and older men were stabbing me with me needles and knives. Really frightening stuff. And I wondered, Where is this coming from? I’m not under attack. My life is pretty good in most ways, but these things are bubbling up.
I had a mini-breakdown in 1987 and 1988, following the publication of the Berg book, which was ironic. I thought writing the book would legitimize me as an author and bring me money and some good recognition. This was, after all, what I’d been striving for throughout the past 15 years. I achieved it and then I just hit bottom. I was clearly looking for something beyond writing a book, but didn’t understanding that it was something to help me cope emotionally.
And this is the part I’ve avoided writing for 30 years. Because when you write about certain things and open yourself up, you leave yourself vulnerable and open to all kinds of criticism. I’ve operated in the field of journalism from 1974 on and my experience with journalists is that they aren’t terribly open to spiritual types of experience. When the subject was discussed among reporters and I was present, I sometimes heard ridicule. To be fair, I might have made similar comments earlier in my life, but I’d reached a point where I was willing to listen to something new.
In 1988, my longest running friend invited me to come out to California. He wanted to introduce me to someone. We’d been friends for about 15 years and I was probably closer to him than any man I’d ever known. I went into a small room in a home in Southern California and met a man who’d been in a successful professional up to that point.
I’d never experienced the phenomenon of what you’d call channeling. An intelligence, if you will, coming through this person, this man. Throughout his life, he’d been extremely straight, a military veteran with a wife who was a nurse and he’d been a solid professional. They had children and he’d never had any involvement in what was about to happen to him. Neither had I.
During this experience and later ones with this intelligence, laid out in detail in The Heart of Violence, I was told that there were parts of myself that I was not aware of at all. They were unconscious and formed the foundation of my emotional reality. You may think, I was told, that you’re this successful adult writer but you’re really nothing more than the collection of your childhood angers and fears and that’s what’s at the core of your personality. And you have the opportunity to become more aware of these processes and to work with them instead of remaining in the dark about them.
All of this connected to a third nightmare I’d had as a child. It was not a physical assault of any kind, but the most haunting of the three. In it I could look through the three-dimensional reality that we all live in. I could look behind it and there was nothing there. Nothing at all and it was frightening.
I couldn’t relate to organized religion at all and had had bad experiences with it as a boy. The minister in my small hometown was a pedophile. And that, in addition to some other things, soured me on religion at a very early age.
After repeatedly having that third nightmare, I concluded that the only thing that exists is what we can perceive with our senses. There’s nothing else. And you’re totally alone in life with that realization. That was kind of the haunting feeling I grew up with. I also grew up in a place where I couldn’t really talk about these things. I loved my parents and they were good people, but we didn’t talk about religion or emotions or any of these things. As I said, the environment was repressed. And so here I am at age 37 walking into something completely and utterly foreign to me. And I oddly resonated with it and was willing to try something different. The further I went into this journey, the more my perception about the emptiness behind everything began to change. There was more to me, and more to the world, than I’d realized.
Before this happened, I’d reached a point where my personal life wasn’t working. I’ve been in and out of a number of relationships with women, had been married and divorced. And I just had this sense that I wasn’t going to progress in life if I didn’t confront some of these things. I felt this for some time, but didn’t know how to confront any of it in a meaningful way.
In both New York and Denver, I’d gone into therapy, but the therapists didn’t have a base of knowledge that could help me because they didn’t know what I was dealing with. If I didn’t understand my problems and couldn’t articulate them to these people, how could I expect them to help me? For me, therapy was a Band-Aid and that wasn’t enough.
Here’s the point in the story where we take the leap into other dimensional realities, if you will. We use the term soul all the time. We talk about soul in regards to music. We talk about that guy or that woman—they really have soul. But what does that possibly mean? Eastern religions are much more attuned to some of these things than we are in the West. They acknowledge that there are parts to us that we don’t perceive and they are components of what a human being is. And that’s what I was told in the course of these interactions — that the soul is an actual thing that I could work with to learn more about myself.
Eastern religions acknowledge what are called chakras or energy wheels that surround the body, going from the base of the spine to the crown of the skull. There seven of them and I was told that they, in fact, make up the soul. That information was not entirely new to me, but the next part was. I was told that the soul creates our experience so that we can observe it. And that the soul will keep creating the same experiences again and again — until we’re willing to observe them for what they are and clearly see our role in them, not as victims, but as participants. And until we do that, the soul will create them in more and more painful ways.
If there was ever a description of my emotional life up to that point, it was this: a pure repetition of the same patterns, the same angers and the same fears, the same disappointments, the same frustrations. Things had only gotten worse as I’d gotten older. And I didn’t know how to get out of any of this.
I had nothing to lose so I thought, I’ll test drive this.I’ll see if there’s anything to it. I looked at it like the journalist I was. Is it true or is it not true? Is it real or not real? And the only way you can do that in this particular realm is through personal experience.
I began this process in 1988. A story: when I was a boy, I was very attached to my dogs. We had hunting dogs and non-hunting dogs. And as I say in the book, and I mean it somewhat humorously, I really couldn’t talk to anyone in my family so I talked to my dogs. I had a real connection with them.
But the dogs kept dying. One got run over by a truck. One got attacked by a neighbor’s dog. Another one got run over and these were all tough losses for me. As an adult, after becoming involved in the process I’m describing, I asked the soul to show me a core fear and anger so maybe I could handle them in a different way.
I’d just moved into an apartment in downtown Denver after living in the suburbs. My dog was my basic and my best companion. I was divorced and living in a fairly small apartment. I’d gone through a rough winter with the dog and we were close. One day not long after I moved in, there’s a knock on my front door. I open it and a man is standing on my front porch and he’s enraged. He says he lives next door and tells me that my dog barked two or three times the night before and the dog is disrupting the neighborhood and if he ever does this again, the man will call the police and they’ll destroy my dog. This is described in detail in the book, but the essence of it is that he has the power to set in motion the process that will take the dog away and kill it.
Question: This situation could have turned very violent, clearly.
Stephen Singular: Yes. My immediate response was anger and outrage. My dog had barked twice last night, before I went out and brought him in, and this guy wants to get rid of him. Other dogs in the neighborhood barked at night because the neighborhood had petty crime. My dog might have been barking at somebody who was prowling around. I was very conscious of the dog when he was outside and did not let him bark for any length of time. When he barked, I went out and brought him in.
This guy who was threatening my dog looked bad and smelled worse. As he spoke, he waved a legal pad in my face and I just lost it — basically telling him to get off the porch and leave me and my dog alone. I went back into my apartment, sat down on the bed, and mumbled the word “psycho.” Gradually, I calmed down. And then I said, Well,I think a fear has found me. A fear I’ve had from childhood has actually found me.
The process of confronting oneself that I’m talking about here is built around something called the Contemplation. Prior to this, I’d done some meditation, but in my experience meditation is rather passive. They might give you a mantra, which you say over and over again, and I found this to be good for relaxing, but in my case it didn’t lead to anything else. The Contemplation is a very active process in which you address the chakras I referred to earlier and you go through all seven and ask to see the fear for what it really is. The first part focuses you into this process, the second gives you the steps through the fear, et cetera. The key aspect of the teaching is called discernment. Help me discern what part of this creation is mine and what part belongs to someone else? I went through all this and waited to see what would happen.
A few days later, I’m getting ready to go on a journalistic trip. I hear a bang on my front door. The whole apartment shakes. Bang, bang, bang. The dog jumps up and runs toward the sound. I’m right behind him. Before I reach for the door knob, I tell myself to stop. To stop completely and do nothing. To become still. I did this and began to observe the process of violence building within. That is why the book is called The Heart of Violence. I observed or felt adrenalin firing inside of me. My muscles tensed, my hands rolled into fists, and my body coiled, ready to lash out. It was an animal response to anger, to fear, to threats. It was literally the animal part of me rising up to defend and attack.
I stood there and observed this chemical, reactive response, knowing that I was ready to strike at this guy. And then I observed that I’d lost control of myself and was letting someone else control me, my emotions. The dog was snarling at my side, but for about 15 to 20 seconds I did nothing and could actually start to feel the chemicals within me subside.
I opened the door and the man was standing there in front of me, looking and smelling just as bad as before while waving his legal pad in my face. He launched into a tirade about my dog and how now he was a two-time offender and he was now going to get rid of him. I didn’t do anything, except to listen.
I didn’t react in any way. The chemicals were leaving and I’d started to calm down. Interestingly enough, the dog also calmed down and quit growling. After the man delivered his tirade, I said, “What can I do to help? What can I do to help you?”
And he launched into another speech about how he’d recently gotten divorced and had lost a bunch of money. He’d had a tenant who was living in the apartment in his home, but she’d moved out because she didn’t like the neighborhood and that had cost him more money and he had another tenant now and he couldn’t afford to lose any more money if my dog was loud and that person moved out. Then he stopped for a moment as and asked me if I’d ever been divorced. I said I had and we talked for a bit about that.
And then he turned around and walked away. He went into his house, closed the door, and never came back. I walked into my bedroom and lay down. And I thought, This is the first time in my life I’ve felt my own personal power. Power over myself. Power to not let myself be pushed out of control. The power to observe my emotions and not let them control me. The power to observe something for what it is as opposed to reacting from anger and fear and seeing myself as a victim.
And in the course of doing another Contemplation soon afterwards, I heard that my neighbor was my teacher and I was his student. Not exactly what I’d been expecting.
A week or two later, there was an incident where my car windows had been smashed and I got them fixed. One afternoon as I was walking back to my apartment, I saw five, young, tough, Black kids standing around my newly-repaired car.
Of course, we don’t think of ourselves as racist. I grew up in utter and total admiration of black culture and all of that. Black music, especially. Talked to Death was all about the ugliness and cost of racism. But to be honest, we all have fears about certain things. These kids looked tough and menacing. And they were leaning on my car.
In that moment, I had to decide what to do. They didn’t know it was my car and I could have walked right past them. But I told myself, I’m going to confront this. I started walking toward them. The leader of the bunch said a few things to me, a few nasty things, and again I didn’t respond. I just moved toward the fear rather than away from it — the most concise way I can put it. They began to back peddle away from me, perhaps thinking I was crazy and dangerous. I’ll never know.
They went away and never came back. And I began to think that using the techniques I was now using had some merit. When I was confronted with anger and/or fear, I tried to look at it my own involvement in the event and see what I could change about myself. I asked myself, Was I a victim in this set of circumstances or a participant? That was always the fundamental question. And most times I was participating, whether I thought I was or not.
Because of my father’s experience, I was fascinated by World War II and that entire massive destruction of humanity. I was anti-violence during the Vietnam War and then, much to my surprise, I ended up writing about violence again and again as I became an adult journalist.
I always wanted to know more about the roots of violence and my connection to that. When I lived in New York, I had some very unresolved issues and would easily become angry. There were a few occasions when I’d get on a subway and see people who seemed to be looking for trouble. And I’d think, Just say one thing to me, just one thing, and I’ll blow. I had my own issues with violence, but it wasn’t until I started this practice that I began to understand more about this and how to deal with it. I think much of my anger was that as a boy I’d unconsciously absorbed my father’s emotions, his angers and fears from the war, and they were buried deep inside of me and I wasn’t aware of this. I could only start to pass through and release them through a conscious process of confronting them when they arose. And that’s what happened to me again and again, once I learned more about how I actually functioned.
So I found a way to explore this process both professionally, when writing about violence, and personally when dealing with my own challenges. That’s what I’ve documented in The Heart of Violence. After the Alan Berg book, I went on to write 14 more books about violence in the true crime genre. And in subtle ways I tried to apply some of these understandings to those stories.
For example, there was a case in Colorado Springs of a woman named Jennifer Reali, 28 years old, married with two kids. A smart, sensitive, decent woman at the start of this book, which is called Sweet Evil. Her husband’s in the army and she starts up an affair with an insurance salesman, a born-again Christian. It’s a casebook study of a woman who begins doing things she doesn’t feel she should be doing, like plotting a murder. She’s violating her beliefs and principles, but she’s afraid to say no to this man. She’s won’t confront the truth of what she’s involved in or talk to her husband about it or her family or anybody. And there’s this progression throughout the book where her fears get bigger and bigger. She controlled by his emotions and her fears. She keeps doing what he tells her to do and it ends with the murder of the insurance salesman’s wife.
So it’s a case of somebody who could only see herself as a victim. At the same time, she’s a very active participant in the crime itself—every step of the way. Getting the murder weapon, getting the clothes for the night of the crime, and going through all the plans. But once the murder is over she wants to portray herself as a victim of this man, which to some degree she was. But none of it had to happen. One ounce of honesty, one ounce of confronting herself and the truth of what she was actually involved in — and the man’s wife would be alive.
I tried to apply some of what I’ve learned about my own processes. It was there as a tool in the toolbox to try to penetrate more about why we live in such a violent society. Why had 600 mass shootings last year and we have the highest murder rate of any developed country in the world? Why we are so bent on that kind of destruction?
The discussion around this subject tends to revolve around guns and gun control, which I’m all for. I refer to guns as the hardware of the equation and our emotions—what drives that adrenaline process and the reactions inside the body that leads one to pick up a gun — as the software. I think they’re both important and in The Heart of Violence I’ve tried to address the emotional part of it.
The more I learned about how my own software worked, the more I wanted to write something in this realm and go deeper into examining the roots of violence. That was the origin of the new book.
I believe that I’ve overcome some of my angers and fears, but no one does that completely and I’d never suggest that I have. I think I have a different relationship with these things now and a more conscious awareness of how they operate and how I operate. That’s probably the best I could do.
After I encountered these teachings, I got married again and stay married for the last 30-some years and we raised a son and I was able to move forward in that part of my life. Without a better understanding of my emotional reality, I don’t know if any of those things would have happened.
Question: What do you think if more reporters worked on why as opposed to what?
Stephen Singular: I think it would be helpful. Journalists tend to cover the surface of events. That’s basically what the job is. The why is difficult to get to and there often isn’t time. This is sort of what I encountered when writing Talked to Death. While I was researching it, I felt there was more to the story than I could grasp. I felt there was another level to it, a choreography that I didn’t comprehend. It’s strange to say that if I’d understood myself better at that time, I might have been able to make the book better.
In later writings, I did to try to put some of my “spiritual” experiences into the work, but I was shot down by publishers or editors. More than once, so I gave up. I waited for 30 years and a cancer diagnosis before trying to write about this subject. It’s somewhat out of bounds, especially in the world of journalism. I don’t know of any reporter who’s written a book like this and I hope it has value and interest beyond my personal self.
Because of my father’s experience, or at least with that as a starting point, I’ve always wanted to contribute something toward a better understanding of violence. That became the big why for me — delving further into why human beings feel compelled to be this destructive.
And, obviously, we’re still ensnared in this. America sees mass shootings almost every week, if not more often. These are essentially rage shootings – it’s almost always men expressing their angers and fears in the worst possible ways. If we could reach kids at a young age and teach them more about emotional awareness, I think it would be very useful. I’d advocate doing this in whatever way we can to try to help them manage their inner lives better. For me, that’s the starting point.
“Reporters usually write about effects—what can be observed and documented—and less about underlying causes, especially if they’re invisible. It had become clear to me that what had driven my most repetitive and potentially destructive behaviors had been unconscious for nearly four decades. Only through consistently confronting my angers and fears had these mechanisms become more conscious within me, letting me understand more about why people explode into violence.”
That’s a passage deep into The Heart of Violence, a gut-check memoir by a journalist looking back at his own career and the emotional rollercoaster he rode—primarily a time in the 1980’s, shortly after achieving his first national acclaim, when he found himself low and miserable.
The Heart of Violence is an inward journey by a guy who is used to observing other troubled lives.
Stephen Singular has devoted his reporting career to tough, often dark subjects. Two of his books were New York Times best-sellers. When Men Become Gods looked at polygamy in The Mormon Church. Unholy Messenger covered the chase and capture of a serial killer in Wichita. Shadow On The Mountain dug into the murder of Aspen socialite Nancy Pfister. Presumed Guilty, the JonBenet case. The Spiral Notebook, the Aurora theater mass-shooting. The Wichita Divide explored the murder of a doctor who performed abortions. (I’m only scratching the surface of his career. Many of his books were researched with his wife, Joyce Singular, or co-written with her.)
Singular’s first book was Talked to Death, about the 1984 murder of Jewish Denver radio talk personality Alan Berg by a Neo-Nazi group called The Order. The book brought Singular national attention. And the success sent him on a downward spiral.
“Instead of bolstering myself image and intellectual credibility—as I’d once imagined publishing a book would do—it had triggered my collapse. Instead of my mental abilities (and desire to be smart) protecting me, they’d become a maddening source of torment. I made my living using words, but couldn’t describe what I was going through because I didn’t have the vocabulary; maybe I wasn’t that smart, after all.”
Singular confesses he had no “emotional strategy” for dealing with murder victims’ loved ones, their relatives, or even Neo-Nazis. He felt, in short, like a pretender. Like he didn’t belong.
The Heart of Violence goes where no journalist is supposed to go—to the inside. Singular looks, essentially, at how he was raised. At his interior emotional landscape, starting with growing up in a family that bottled things up. A family that taught him to repress parts of his personality in order to fit in. His father was a World War II veteran with harrowing experiences but refused to talk about them. Another major figure in his early life, a new Methodist pastor, turned out to be a pedophile. We see the early development of Singular’s exploration with music, a steady drumbeat throughout the whole memoir, and becoming a reporter.
And then Singular takes us on his journey of self-exploration, to experiences in California with a person known as “Y” who helps him understand why he is “fundamentally angry” and harbors violent impulses. Y helps Singular understand himself, to explore the survival mechanisms he developed as a child and to grasp the fact that his soul is a collection of angers and fears.
Something, as he notes, that had been unconscious for four decades.
But of course good, upstanding journalists don’t talk about their spiritual experiences. Singular is even advised that to do so could be a career killer. But Singular, no spoilers here, comes to discover how he processes the world. And he tests a new way of behaving when confronted—a new way of understanding the inside chemistry of how humans depend on old, self-defeating formulas for survival. With a new understanding and a new paradigm for reporting on human behavior, Singular sees what causes people to act—and act out—the way they do. With fresh perspective, Singular dives ahead into a career that takes unflinching looks at his subjects.
In brisk, fast-moving fashion The Heart of Violence deftly moves from deeply personal to big-picture takes on today’s ugly cycles of violence and how they are covered in the media. The memoir was sparked by Singular’s ongoing battle with cancer. Singular does not hold back on the medical details—it’s as if he’s saying that if readers are going to see the inside of his emotional landscape, it’s only fair to learn the physical woes, too.
The Heart of Violence is about regaining a sense of balance, of understanding the power of self-awareness, of looking for new ways to process the world. The book is very much about the “why” and very little about the “what.” The Heart of Violence is also a bold and courageous piece of writing. More reporters should read it—and ponder the personal battles that might be coloring the black and white world of journalism. But anyone with an interest in self-care and self-discovery will find lots of thought-provoking material, alongside keen observations and critical insights looking back on a remarkable reporting career.
Settle in, it’s a long ride. Briskly told, no question, but Five Decembers is in no rush. That’s part of the charm. The story is epic. It’s adventurous. The story zooms in on the details of one private detective’s life and one particular case. It zooms out to the bigger details of World War II. Nothing is forced. Nothing is overdone.
You don’t know where Five Decembers is going. Even when you start, you won’t know where it’s going. I highly recommend that you read precisely zero about this novel before diving in. Feel free to stop reading this review now, in fact, and start on page one.
Joe McGrady was looking at a whiskey.
There, I just saved you a sentence.
I recommend going in knowing precious little. It’s better that way. Novel? Yes. Mystery also? For sure. (Five Decembers won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2022.)
Honolulu police detective McGrady plays the long game. Correction. The long, long game.
Here, to me, is the secret to getting all us readers to go along with the story. Within a few pages, we already like Honolulu police detective Joe McGrady. He’s a likable team player. He’s willing to chip in on a murder case when his bosses need him—even when he’s got “essentially zero” experience for investigating a double-murder. In this case, a grisly scene. In fact, Kestrel ups the heinous factor so we know McGrady is up against a truly vile antagonist. Don’t be squeamish. Hang with McGrady. He’s in the process of getting his ire up.
We soon see McGrady’s ability to analyze and to comprehend the story that the crime scene reveals. Kestrel doesn’t skip on the details, particularly at the autopsy. Time might forget. Joe McGrady will not.
And then there’s Molly. Joe has got heart. He cares about Molly. He treats her well, treats others well. Five Decembers is a love story. Even if he is human, he’ll never forget. Joe McGrady is a man of few—i.e., careful—words. We’ve met plenty of private detectives like Joe McGrady, but not one who will do what Joe McGrady is about to do. He thinks he’s on a simple mission when he heads to Hong Kong to track down the lead suspect. He would be wrong.
Early on, at the double-murder crime scene on Oahu, there are signs that point west to Japan. There are signs that point east to Germany. World War II as backdrop. World War II as fabric. World War II is the “now” of Joe McGrady’s life. Never once did I feel that James Kestrel (a pseudonym for Jonathan Moore, who has written several suspense novels under his own name) added anything to the story that McGrady wouldn’t have known at the time and in the moment. Nor did Kestrel overdo it all with the war, even as the war intertwines with his case and even as the war explodes in scale.
The writing keeps it real. The mood is downcast. It’s as dark and moody and foreboding as the cover. The style transfixes. Kestrel paints in short, sharp brushstrokes.
“Tokyo spread and sprawled. It was as though someone had built a medieval village on a New York scale. They passed through vast wards of low wooden houses. He saw women drawing water into buckets from public wells. He saw men struggling against the wind, pushing wood wheeled carts. Miles like that. Then they entered richer neighborhoods. Western influences. Stone and brick buildings many stories tall. A train station that might have been plucked from central London. Intricate brickwork topped with bronze domes. Its hotel blazed with electric light. Past the station was a castle, surrounded by a moat. Its outer wall was made of hewn stones the size of boulders. Ancient willow trees dangled their winter bare branches toward the frozen water.”
Fifteen sentences, 123 words. (Average eight words per sentence; that’s taut.) Two commas. The whole book unspools like that. One fact follows another. The style builds credibility. And trust.
Five Decembers is sweeping. Five Decembers is intimate. Five Decembers goes around the world and comes right back home. Joe McGrady is trapped in every way a man can be trapped. There are historical implications to the story. There are major personal ramifications, too. There are things to learn about the world. It all works. One stubby, stubborn sentence to the next.
I got nothing to prove, I got nothing to sell I’m not buying what you’ve got, I ain’t ringing no bells I got a mint in my pocket, got a bullet in my teeth I’m going straight in the fire, I’m gonna talk to the high priest
Those are the opening lyrics to “Been To The Mountain” off Margo Price’s new album, Strays. It’s a feisty track, loaded with attitude. The whole album is terrific. It features a variety of styles, but it’s never not interesting. It’s not pure country—at all. There’s a touch of rock, a few flashes of psychedelic guitar, and edge in abundance.
“Light Me Up,” with Mike Campbell on guitar, is a multi-layered epic. “Radio,” featuring Sharon Van Etten, starts out with a pulsing electronic heartbeat. “Lydia” is six minutes of contemplative reflection. More than anything, Strays is personal.
What makes for a great songwriter? What goes into great songwriting?
Maybe We’ll Make It, Price’s memoir, gives us a glimpse. At least, it gives us the blow-by-blow of a long hard slog. It’s a portrait in determination. And who among us Coloradoans knew that in 2006, after raising $2,500 in a yard sale in Nashville to finance a cross-country sojourn, that Margo Price and her boyfriend Jeremy Ivey drove to Boulder and busked on the Pearl Street mall? They camped in a secluded spot near Grand Lake, two-and-a-half-hours away, and made treks to Boulder to play on the street.
“We opened our cases, got our guitars out, and began to play. We played originals, but usually covers got better tips because people recognized the melodies. We worked up ‘One More Cup of Coffee’ and ‘Oh Sister’ by Bob Dylan and peppered in some Simon and Garfunkel, Beatles, Joni Mitchell. We cased people as they walked by and played what we thought they might want to hear.”
Busking became their gig. “Once we had enough money for dinner and a bottle of cheap wine, we packed up, filled our bellies, and went about the business of getting drunk.”
Booze, shrooms, joints, whiskey are ever-present in Maybe We’ll Make It. Price celebrated hard, commiserated harder. She leaves no detail out here. (Of course, I don’t know that. But let’s hope she didn’t tone it down to protect us.) She’s plenty blunt about her consumption and, for the record, I might be able to keep up for the first quarter-hour. Today, Margo is now two years sober.
But the real thirst she’s got is for music and all that’s come before here. Price cobbled together various bands over the years, including one called Buffalo Clover that attempted a number of self-financed tours in rickety vehicles, depended on kindnesses from fellow musicians or the occasional handout of a garbage bag full of day-old bagels that the band nibbled on for a week. A guitar is always ready at hand for either Margo or Jeremy to start plucking, playing, and writing.
The most harrowing chapters in Maybe We’ll Make It cover the loss of one of her two twin sons shortly after childbirth. Son Ezra was diagnosed with a heart defect prior to being born. The post-birth surgery was unsuccessful. The weight of this loss is heavy and Price walks us through the “fog of grief” including recurring nightmares. These chapters are harrowing. The tragedy, as one would expect, lingers hard.
Despite being “naïve and disorganized,” Price leads Buffalo Clover to England for one tour and then another. But nothing changes. It’s always back to the same old Nashville scenes and clubs. Price writes about betraying her marriage and the band scraping along. “I was living a full-blown lie, and I never reached out to tell anyone I was drowning.”
But, songwriting. Always writing songs. That’s the one constant. Price puts together an outfit called “Margo and The Price Tags.” She plays a gig at The Basement in Nashville and it’s strong enough that legendary Kenny Vaughan (another Denver connection, for those who remember Leroy X) told Price that she had “it.” Yes, “it.” The elusive “it.” Vaughan told her she had to keeping singing “because it would eventually pay off.” How did Vaughan know? What did he sense?
It’s notable that Price doesn’t say “here’s the magic formula.” She’s got no step-by-step formula for climbing up to the next level, of getting a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist.
For every step up, Margo Price heads out on tours that run, apparently, on fumes. And, finally, a break. A two-record deal with Third Man Records and suddenly a spot on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, an NPR party at SXSW in Austin, and then a big-spotlight gig on Saturday Night Live. Still, anxiety. Still, dealing with self-image and self-doubt. And still dealing with the negative industry messages and naysayers who don’t believe. Maybe We’ll Make It offers plenty of proof that all any songwriter can do is just keep writing, playing, and writing some more. And get to a point where you can confidently say that you got nothing to prove. You’ve seen it all, done it all, and you know you’re good.
“After all most of us are mowing someone else’s lawn one way or another, and most of us can’t afford to travel the world or live in New York City. Most of us feel like the world is giving us a big fat middle finger when it’s not kicking us in the face with a steel-toed boot. And most of us feel powerless. Motivated but powerless. Entertained but powerless. Informed but powerless. Fleetingly content, most of the time broke, sometimes hopeful, but ultimately powerless.
And angry. Don’t forget angry.”
Lawn Boy, er, covers a lot of ground. Capitalism. Exploitation. Elitism. Racism. Identity. Classism. And work. And personal will. And search for dignity. And knowing what you want out of life.
And all done in a breezy, funny, sad, biting, enchanting style. Mike Muñoz is our chatty, casual narrator who switches casually from third person to first.
“You see, old Mike Muñoz would like to figure out who the hell he actually is, what he’d actually like to do with his life. He aches to be a winner. I’d like nothing more than to spread my proverbial wings and fly the **** away from my current life, or maybe just get above it for a while. At this point, I feel like I’m nothing more than what everybody needs me to be or whatever the situation demands of me.”
Mike’s mother works double shifts at the Tide’s Inn. She’s had three husbands and has had it rough. Her “go-to” beverage is Chardonnay on ice. Mike often babysits his developmentally disabled brother Nate. He has a thing for a waitress. He wants to write a novel, but he knows that’s not the wise choice given that he should be making money.
Lawn Boy is about Mike’s self-confidence, his efforts to get a solid foot on the first rung up the ladder—that is, if that’s where he wants to go. If that’s who he is. Is he willing to play the games he’s got to play, like the art of earning (and cashing in) favors as his childhood friend Doug Goble, now a slick and successful real estate dude, tries to teach him? Goble is always ready with a meaningless bromide. Such as: “It’s all just a big game of Monopoly. Dummies and nice guys always lose.” Goble, Mike recalls, “started distinguishing himself as an entrepreneur” in sixth grade.
We bump along with Mike Muñoz as he tries to figure this all out. He’s hapless, definitely luckless. His mower gets ripped off. His truck is fidgety. He gets fired. When he’s briefly in the money, we know it won’t last. He yearns for the waitress Remy and has a few dates. He dreams about writing a novel. He wants his name on a novel. “But the thing of it is, I don’t really know how to think big. God knows, nobody every taught me.”
But nobody has to teach Mike Muñoz about the power of a potentially embarrassing encounter from his youth. From fourth grade. It’s a moment he lives with and it involves Doug Goble and it’s stayed with Mike because he doesn’t know what to do with it and he doesn’t know what it means because he was a kid. Does Doug remember it? And so what if he does?
Lawn Boy is about finding yourself, finding what you’re good at. It’s about that old-fashioned concept of gumption and belonging. The best thing about Lawn Boy is that it’s about a lot of things and it’s narrated in a seamless voice by an insightful character. We know he’s smarter than he gives himself credit for because we see how Mike Muñoz thinks and we root for him from page one to the last. He’s smart enough to know to look outward, instead of obsessing over “the murky, undefined recesses of his heart.”
Says Muñoz, “In my experience, a kid doesn’t gain much through introspection. A kid gets more by throwing a ball or wrestling with a dog or burning ant hills with a magnifying glass. Sometimes I wish I could just go back and tell little Mike Muñoz to quit biting his fingernails and have some laughs. That’s what kids should do, they should laugh. If there’s a better, righter sound in the whole world than the laughter of children, I don’t know what it is.”
How can we not pull for a kid like that? More laughter, less anxiety. That’s a recipe for positive mental health, no?
To all the detractors with their phony alarms, I say “whose lawn are you mowing?”
So smooth, so steady. And such a calm, unforced style.
Story first, style second. Seeking college-educated prose? Seek elsewhere.
Oh, is there a pandemic? Connelly smoothly interweaves the issue into the story as deftly as a magician. It’s just more backdrop and fodder to work with. Renee Ballard plays the “get vaccinated” now role. Harry Bosch is full of excuses; he’s too busy and can’t be bothered. He doesn’t go anywhere anymore so it’s safer to stay home. He claims.
But the pandemic never overwhelms the story, just plays its part. There is still justice to be served. Even as this story rolls up on the Jan. 6 insurrection and attempted overthrow in Washington, D.C., the event resonates back on the themes of government mistrust and government authority. These nods to real-world events ground The Dark Hours, and most of Connelly’s crime fiction, in guess what? The real world. You can feel the shoe leather hit the ground.
Billed as “A Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch Novel,” The Dark Hours is 80 percent Ballard and 20 percent Bosch. That’s a guess. I listened to this one on audio and it was great to hear Titus Welliver handling the Bosch dialogue. Christine Lakin is fantastic as Ballard.
I have run a bit hot and cold with Connelly in the past, and I’m hardly a Connelly completist, but the more I read in general the more I appreciate Connelly’s ability to lay the groundwork for a story and build events to a strong, satisfying conclusion. He is not afraid of complexity, but he parses it out cleanly for readers.
There are two crimes that bring Bosch and Ballard together. One is a New Year’s Eve murder of a body shop owner. That case quickly connects with an old case from Bosch’s files. And there is Ballard’s work tracking down the “Midnight Men.” There have been two “Midnight Men” cases and they are both connected by “modus operandi, not DNA, because the Midnight Men were careful not to leave DNA behind.”
Ballard’s work on the second case leads to agonizing decisions about how much public information to release, and therefore protect potential future victims, or hold the cards close and not alert the bad guys that you are onto their methods so you can more easily catch them in the act the next time they attack. Oh, and along the way weigh whether the media will clobber the LAPD again for withholding crucial information from the public. Ballard struggles with this. One of the underlying themes in The Dark Hours is about navigating the police bureaucracy itself and balancing protocols with what might be best for the individual versus what’s good for the case. Bosch resists the vaccine. At least, it doesn’t fit with his schedule at first. “You should make an appointment, Harry,” says Ballard. “Don’t turn it into a thing.” And Ballard, soon enough, resists all medical advice to get thoroughly checked out and watching carefully for concussion-related injuries after falling down a set of stairs and banging her head on the concrete.
In The Dark Hours there is plenty of detailed, police procedural work. Bosch guides Ballard here and there, jumps into the action as needed. Their interplay is respectful. Ballard, however, rejects Bosch’s advice in planning a trap for the Midnight Men and, well, things go awry. As they should. As we know they will. I’m a bit tired of fictional cops getting suspended, and suddenly free to investigate in their unorthodox ways so the story can progress, but it’s done here very seamlessly.
The ending builds beautifully as Bosch and Ballard travel a road to a “horror show” of atrocities. In The Dark Hours, with Bosch and Ballard in their “front-row seats” to a very ugly world, the pair demonstrate that there’s the badge and there’s always a rulebook but sometimes it’s the human being underneath that makes the difference and sometimes that human being has just got to scramble to get the job done.
Blood on the Tracks (Sydney Rose Parnell No. 1) was gritty, grounded, terrific. With a dogged railroad cop as lead, and plenty of ghosts haunting Sydney Rose, it’s a novel that bends the genre and follows its own course. Six years ago, I noted how it had 900 ratings and reviews and how readers were loving it. Today, that title has nine thousand ratings and the overall opinion hasn’t wavered. One bit.
Dead Stop (SRP No. 2) was equally enjoyable. Readers voted “yes,” too. Go check. I didn’t keep up with the series after that but I have no doubt I would savor SRP No. 3, Ambush, and SRP No. 4, Gone to Darkness.
Why do I have no doubt? Because I just read At First Light, the first book in Nickless’ new series and it’s got that trademark Nickless feel. And readability. It’s smart. It’s got a wonderful sense of interior headspace for both main characters—Chicago detective Addie Bisset and forensic semiotician Dr. Evan Wilding.
I was worried about the “forensic semiotician.” Give me a railroad cop over an ivory tower brainiac any day. But I need not have worried. Nickless infuses Bisset and Wilding with so much humanity we slip into the story with ease and soon we are on the hunt in a puzzling case that pulls in a multitude of signs and symbols, Viking lore, runes, Norse mythology, bog bodies, Beowulf, Valkyries, and poetry.
Nickless wastes precisely zero time getting us into the thick of things in At First Light. We’re along a “forlorn section” of the Calumet River. And Detective Bisset is staring at the body of a man “murdered more than once.” The victim has three wounds. Each wound could have been fatal and “all were cruel” but she can’t be sure which wound took the life. “Had it been the slashed throat, the tightened noose, or the bone-crushing blow to the head?”
There are long wooden slates pressed horizontally into the mud around the dead man’s head and arranged to look like rays of the sun. And each stick contains tiny etchings “like letters in an unknown alphabet.” Addie pulls in Dr. Evan Wilding, a.k.a. the Sparrow, for assistance. He’s a Brit with dwarfism. He’s into falconry. He’s also into Addie. He wants to “concoct the perfect verse that would render Addie putty in his hands.” (He even chastises himself for thinking in clichés, a nice touch.) Their relationship is friendly, but platonic. Dr. Wilding would like more.
Nickless flips points of view with each chapter, however, and we know that Addie is not without some interest in Dr. Wilding, making for a fine underlay of romantic tension.
But the main thing is the hunt. There’s a second victim and indications of more to come. At First Light develops a rich intensity. Dr. Wilding puts the smarts in smarts. He attended Oxford University at age 11 and earned two PhDs by age 17. Addie has brainpower, too. She might be a touch more flawed. She’s not great at picking boyfriends. (“Someone had once told Addie that she went through men the way a rat terrier chewed through vermin—quickly and with ruthless efficiency.”). And Addie is not a big fan of rats. That’s about it. Neither is a tortured soul. (Refreshing!). Nickless lets them match wits with the killer and his complex ciphers and careful staging of his crimes. Along the way are some juicy morsels about the history of burial rites and cultural signifiers of death.
And some insightful information about semiotics. “Every human is a semiotician,” says Wilding. “That is, a reader of signs. All of us, every single day, interpret—or decode—the signs around us. Traffic lights. Road signs. The silhouette of a man or woman outside our bathroom doors. We’re constantly interpreting the manmade world around us.”
Nickless’ love for English runes and medieval literature is spelled out in her acknowledgements. Her rich background in the material comes through in abundance throughout At First Light. Dr. Wilding (who can read this book and not think of Peter Dinklage?) brings his wealth of knowledge to this case. But Addie is no slouch when it comes to analysis and seeing details. Nickless makes it enjoyable to watch the pair parse poetry and dissect words.
Thinks Wilding: “This case was like the jigsaw puzzles he used to work while he sat in hospital waiting rooms as a child. Pieces missing. Pieces from other puzzles mixed in. Half the time, the lid was gone, so you didn’t even know what picture you were trying to create. You had to fill in the blanks using your imagination. And imagination, as Sherlock Holmes told Dr. Watson, was the mother of truth.”
There is action and genuine jeopardy in At First Light, but when was the last time you read a mystery and thought: It’s just fun to watch these detectives think?