Lucia Berlin, “A Manual for Cleaning Women”

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s precisely the feeling you get.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rachel Howzell Hall, “Land of Shadows”

land-of-shadowsOne word: energy.

Another: attitude.

Rachel Howzell Hall’s writing has both.

In abundance.

Add a terrific issue (urban renewal), a likable and feisty detective (Elouise Norton) and a vivid setting (a glam-free L.A.) and you’ve got a winner. Land of Shadows is just that.

More than anything else, however, Land of Shadows is Elouise “Lou” Norton. This is her book. Hall infuses Norton with such a strong point of view that you can’t help but go for the ride.

The lines fly:

“After working all day and then being called back in, I need a Billie Holliday. Vodka, grenadine, and ginger ale, all living happily ever after in my bloodstream.”

“The more time passed, the more witnesses forgot and the more people grew reluctant to talk. How far you got in the first forty-eight hours helped determine whether you would be taking victory laps or playing a sad trombone.”

“Greg had sent creamy brown roses when he had been cheating on me with Amarie. And when I had busted him texting her while he was supposed to watching Letterman, he upgraded my Ford to the almighty Porsche. Purple roses … Who was the lucky whore now? And what would he buy me next? A space shuttle?”

“He was so shiny that he probably bled Windex, so clean, he probably peed Lysol.”

You get the idea. Lou is full-blooded, opinionated. And she’s trying to hold her own in a world of male cops, including a new partner, Colin, fresh from Colorado Springs. “He was almost hot but then, in the LAPD’s candy shop, perfection didn’t matter.”

And this new case leads her through a whole bunch of men. And (see quote number three above) there’s the questionable husband always in the background.

Snappy with a line and quick with a comeback, Lou Norton also has a heart. She feels the pain of her victims. That’s in part because she lost her own sister Tori, mysteriously, twenty-five years ago. And this new case, involving a young teenager found hanging in a closet, may lead back to the same set of characters that knew something about what happened to Tori. Lou and Tori were from the heart of “black Los Angeles.” Lou knows every inch of this ground and this case forces her to re-live the most haunting moments of her youth.

“Sometimes, I wished that I could read something horrible in the newspaper and say, ‘Wow, that’s too bad,’ then drive down the hill to buy a handbag and a Frappuccino. But I can’t, no matter how hard I try, even when I’m doing just that. One day I will luck out. One day, a callus will form around that part of my heart, and then I will stop caring like some cops, and then I will be as good as I can be. This will lead me to Hell, but at least I won’t care only because I can’t.”

Land of Shadows draws its plot straight out of the controversial, real-life issues surrounding the attempted re-development of Santa Barbara Plaza. That project’s intractable issues were the source of considerable real-life news coverage that entangled big-city politicians and big-time developers. Hall takes full advantage of the chance to highlight the complexity of such “renewal” efforts, spotlighting those who line their pockets and locals who left out in the cold.

Hall ramps up the suspense to a taut finish and sets up a beautiful hand-off to the next book, Skies of Ash.

What a book.

Movie producers? Television series writers and developers? Come check out Elouise Norton.


Rachel Howzell Hall’s website.


Val McDermid, “Forensics”

forensicsEvery crime scene tells a story.

Don’t it?

Answer: yes.

In fact, in so many ways.

In this beautifully written book, Val McDermid shows us the latest science and how far it has evolved in reading the story of what happened and beginning the process of tracking down the who done it? or who is this? 

Crime writers? If you want to keep it as real as possible (from everything I know, as a pure amateur), this is a must read.

Readers of crime fiction? Loyal consumers of the CSI television franchise? Consumers of detective movies and detective shows on television? For all of you, this is your chance to be the knowledgeable insider, the couch potato know-it-all who can either vouch for the plot or scoff in polite disbelief.

Forensics—What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime—is thoroughly entertaining (if you’re not too squeamish). Scottish crime writer Val McDermid is a storyteller and her talents are in full force here. She illustrates each of the chapters with the details from a vivid crime that highlights the investigative technique about to be, well, dissected. One of the fun sub-themes here is how each new advancement was first introduced and then how wriggled its way into the legal process as accepted method for bolstering (or refuting) a theory.

Most of the book is smooth, matter-of-fact exposition of crime scene analysis–fire scene investigation, entomology, pathology, toxicology, fingerprinting, and so on–including a detailed walk-through of how a typical autopsy proceeds. A final chapter, “The Courtroom,” briefly looks at alternative ideas for how all the evidence might be better processed by the legal system. Rest assured, McDermid is hardly strapping on the pom-poms to lead to lead the cheering section over the quick advance of technology and scientific analysis. She interweaves cautionary tales about the limits of the data and the fact that it’s human beings who are responsible for interpreting every precious scrap.

However, in other cases, the science is nothing short of mind-blowing, particularly (to me) in the area of blood splatter analysis and facial reconstruction. McDermid goes back in time to show the first uses of each technique then brings it forward to demonstrate the current applications.  Some cases are famous (Jack the Ripper, O.J. Simpson) and some obscure.  The body count, especially given that she discusses the use of forensic anthropology in looking at cases of genocide, is high.

You’ll not finish with an upbeat view of humanity. Murderers, in case you did not know, will try anything. But you will be impressed with the creativity of scientists and what’s possible with the smallest bits of human traces and tracks. Seriously, your ghost might not help you get away with anything you’re planning.

Final note, I “read” this on audio and was treated to the cool, enticing British accent of Sarah Barron. A great way to go.

Q & A #51 – Barbara Nickless, “Blood on the Tracks”

blood-on-the-tracksQuite simply, Barb Nickless’ first book Blood on the Tracks is blowing up.

Go ahead and check that big online book retailer; I’ll wait here.

The e-book was released Sept. 1 and has already garnered over 900 reviews.


Note the five-stars. Go ahead and scan a few of those—or read all 900. You’ll get the gist. Blood on the Tracks is hitting a chord. It was the number one selling e-book for days and days—weeks? I’m not sure. And today (Oct. 1) is the release date for the book book, the print version.

The success couldn’t happen to a nicer person. I know Barb through Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America (what a great group) and she was kind enough to ask me to write an advance blurb for Blood on the Tracks last spring.

I finally got around to reading it a couple months later. I was immediately sorry it had taken me so long.

For the record, I’d like it noted that I sent Barb that blurb on August 22—before her book sales went crazy. Here’s what I wrote:Blood on the Tracks is a bullet train of action. It’s one part mystery and two parts thriller with a compelling protagonist leading the charge toward a knock-out finish. The internal demons of one Sidney Rose Parnell are as gripping as the external monster she’s chasing around Colorado. You will long remember this spectacular debut novel.”

A full review follows.

First, Barb was kind enough to answer a few questions by email:


Question:  Where did the whole idea of Blood on the Tracks come from? How long have been working on this story?

Barbara Nickless: I wanted to write a story set in a gritty milieu. When I learned that railway police have the same jurisprudence as traditional police, I knew I had what I wanted: an unusual detective in a little-explored world. I had the idea before 2012, but it took having my house burn down in a wildfire to get me moving on this project. I worked on this book for two years while recreating a home for my family.

Question: I have to say the structure is unusual. And effective. The story starts with a thriller quality to it (chasing a train) and then turns into a mystery and back into an action-packed finish.  Where is the line, do you think, between thriller and mystery?  What was your intent starting out?

Barbara Nickless: I never really thought about whether I was writing a thriller or a mystery. I wrote the story that interested me. When people asked, I said I was writing a police procedural, which was always my intent. But the thriller aspect seemed to go hand-in-hand with the world I was creating. The murder that kicks off my novel calls for sleuthing skills; but action, even violent action, is intertwined with the characters and their situations and hanging around 400-ton locomotives.

Question: Okay, Railroad Police Special Agent Sydney Rose Parnell. How did you do all the train research? And all of Sidney’s backstory as a war vet?  And her K9 partner Clyde? Hobo camps? It seems like this story must have required many research challenges.

Barbara Nickless: For me, writing is an excuse to take my insatiable curiosity and turn it into something concrete. This book started with my interest in hobos and expanded from there to the Marines and PTSD. Then, as I got to work, I kept getting diverted by bright, shiny research objects. So in went the military working dog, and Mortuary Affairs, and the what it is like to go to war. Honestly, it’s a good thing I wasn’t thinking about SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) while I worked on this novel.

Question: Obviously, Sydney Rose is heavily impacted by her experiences during the war. How did you land on her specific role in the military? And research it?

nickless-bw-17-lr-editBarbara Nickless: I knew I wanted Sydney to be a Marine because I wanted to address what our troops have gone through in multiple theaters of war. When I heard Terry Gross interview Jessica Goodell on NPR’s Fresh Air, I knew what Sydney’s job would be: serving in the unit that processes the dead. Ms. Goodell, the author of the wonderful book Shade it Black, struggled with a difficult job, dealt with being a woman in a traditionally male environment, and then had to try to leave it all behind when she redeployed. I had so much admiration and respect for what she’d done in Iraq, and with her strength and determination when she returned stateside. Once I knew about Mortuary Affairs, I followed up with additional research.

Question: Did you know the entire plot before you waded in to writing? Or did you tackle it organically?

Barbara Nickless: Organically. Definitely. I’d love to be a plotter. But I’m too impatient to get to the writing. I had my characters and my ending, and that was it. After the first draft, I had a train wreck, if you’ll pardon the pun. It was a lot of work to try and transform the book into something with good plot bones.

Question: Like every other relationship in her life (father, brother, etc.) Sydney Rose’s relationship with her dog is strained at the outset, too. How did you go about thinking about their bond and how it would change?

Barbara Nickless: I wanted Sydney to be pretty isolated at the beginning of the novel. Cut off from normal relationships, including that with her K9 partner. An island, as John Dunne would say. I figured if she felt that way, why not Clyde? He’d lost two handlers in Iraq; I figured he probably wasn’t much into relationships, either. When they finally learn to trust each other—that’s when they can start to grow and heal.

Question:  Okay, one-word question: Wiggins?  How did you settle on Wiggins as a place to wrap things up? Did you have fun writing about the Front Range? Denver and around? Don’t you live further south? Why not set Blood on the Tracks closer to home?

Barbara Nickless: Poor Wiggins. I was entirely unfair with that town. My choice was purely a practical one—I needed a locale that fit with the timing of the story. Writing about Denver and elsewhere was another research challenge, as I live in Colorado Springs. But in Colorado, the big freight railroads operate out of Denver, so my detective had to be there, too.

Question: This is your first novel but has already won awards.  Can you explain its history? And you’ve been writing short stories before this and have been published in the UK. How did that come about? Are you still writing short stories?

Barbara Nickless: Writers work long hours by themselves, often with little feedback. Writing contests such as the Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence, the Zebulon Fiction contest, and the Colorado Gold are great chances for writers to get feedback and encouragement. I entered the Daphne and the Claymore (Killer Nashville) for that reason. As for short story writing—I once belonged to a critique group in which we agreed to write a short story a week. Talk about honing your writing skills and learning to work under pressure! When some of those stories sold here and in the UK, it was a terrific boost. But it’s been years since I wrote a short story. I talk too much to be a good short story writer.

Question: What writers inspire you?

Barbara Nickless: There are so many! John Hart, Jeffery Deaver, Dennis Lehane, John le Carre, James Lee Burke, Tim Johnston, and Mo Hayder. To start. 

Question: Is Sydney Rose coming back? What’s next?

Barbara Nickless: Sydney and Clyde will be back next summer in Dead Stop.


Barbara Nickless’ website
On Twitter: @barbaranickless



Blood on the Tracks starts out as a thriller, morphs into a mystery, and turns back again into a movie-ready action-packed finish. But if you mention “movie,” that sounds like this story hits the usual marks and follows the normal arcs. It doesn’t. It’s messy–in a good way–because it feels so driven by character. It’s ambitious and sprawling. The story swoops from big picture (hey, stop that train!) to intimate. It’s both violent and raw. Blood on the Tracks is about the ghosts of war, racism, class, rank, a harrowing search for identity and, of course, truth and justice. It rolls all those topics, and more, into a multi-faceted manhunt, at first, and clue-finding mystery.

Railroad Police Special Agent Sydney Rose Parnell is one complex and interesting character. She sees dead people, for one thing. But don’t think paranormal. Uh, hardly. These are “skills” she doesn’t necessarily want.  She’s haunted for many reasons, including the fact that she worked in corpse retrieval in Iraq. She was also involved in a situation covering up certain atrocities over there.

The plot involves the murder of young woman who was known for her kindness to hobos and drifters. She is murdered in vicious fashion. The victim had been “sliced and diced.” The killer scrawled  bloody hobo symbols nearby so Sydney and her K9 partner Clyde are pulled into the investigation and soon working to stop a northbound freight train as they hunt for the killer. Clyde is a great character, too. He’s got his own darkness. Something is broken inside him, too. They are a good pair.

But this is Sydney’s story—all Sydney. She is very much a loner. She had a “ragged” childhood, effectively without parents. Her father abandoned the family. Her mother murdered her new boyfriend. By age thirteen, “after a long period of furious, wounded rebellions,” Sydney Rose thought she had buried her demons “and set out to prove she was nothing like them.”  She joined the Marines and later the railway police “out of courage” and tried to find a new identity, but kept realizing that the angry thirteen-year-old had never quite disappeared.

Sydney Rose wants nothing to do with murder and mayhem, but can’t avoid getting sucked into this one. She also has railroads and diesel in her blood, and this case goes straight to her heart. “I just wanted to be a regular twenty-seven-year-old woman, holding down a decent job, enrolled at the community college, and studying whatever caught my interest while I tried to figure out my life. Maybe later I’d want something more, but all I cared about right now were the simple things—my grandmother and my dog and a roof over our heads and not losing all of that because of something that went down in another life on the other side of the world.”

After Sydney Rose leads a big scene where they stop and search a freight train bound from Denver north toward Ford Collins. Sydney and the cops all think they’ve got their man—or do they? The guy in custody is Tucker Rhodes and here’s where Blood on the Tracks gets layered and rich. Rhodes is a war vet, too, and he’s dealing with the same mental struggles and a “war-broken heart.” Do you think there might not be something fresh about a character struggling with PTSD? Think again.

Tucker seems like the obvious culprit but based on the number of pages left to read we know there are some problems coming. Those problems start rushing at Sydney in waves. The hunt leads to big-picture conspiracies and into the deadly lair of white supremacists and ultimately into a terrifying confrontation with a predator during a snowstorm in Wiggins. In the end, there is blood on the tracks and many other places, too.

Sydney Rose is a terrific character. Her demons feel real. She broods about them but keeps pressing forward, too. She quotes Hemingway and Shakespeare (not Bob Dylan?), but doesn’t overdo it. Nickless no doubt put a ton of research into finding just the right credible details about railway cops and freight trains and all the flashbacks to Iraq, but nothing bogs this story down. Nickless gives Blood on the Tracks a chugging, relentless appeal. You will long remember this spectacular debut, especially after they make the movie.



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen and Joyce Singular. Photo by Kerry Ransom.

Stephen and Joyce Singular. Photo by Kerry Ransom.

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

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

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

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

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

Steve & Joyce Singular:  That seems very unlikely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question: What’s next for you two?

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Q & A #39 – Ray Daniel, “Terminated”

TerminatedI met the ever-friendly Ray Daniel in Long Beach at Boucheron in 2014. We’re both fellow ‘Inkers.’ That is, we’re published by the same cool house, Midnight Ink. I’ve run into him at other writing conferences and he’s a fellow board member with Mystery Writers of America.

Terminated is the first in the mystery series featuring uber-geek and hacker extraordinaire Aloysius Tucker.

The Boston Globe called it “a smart novel with plenty of witty asides (and) slam-bam action.” Corrupted Memory followed and Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review (“compulsively readable”). Coming this summer is Child Not Found. 

Daniel’s short story “Give Me a Dollar” won a 2014 Derringer Award for short fiction and “Driving Miss Rachel” was chosen as a 2013 distinguished short story by Otto Penzler, editor of The Best American Mystery Stories 2013.

Daniel’s short fiction has been published in the Level Best Books anthologies THIN ICE, BLOOD MOON, STONE COLD, and ROGUE WAVE; as well as in the Anthony-nominated anthology MURDER AT THE BEACH (Down and Out Books).

A full review of Terminated follows but, first, Daniel was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail.


Question: So much crime and mystery fiction has been set in Boston, did you find it a challenge to do something different with the setting or did you just go with the flow? And, by the way, why is Boston such a great setting?

Ray Daniel: I know authors who worry about setting books in a city popularized by Parker and Lehane, but that comparison has never worried me.  We all live in our own version of our cities.  The aspects of the city that strike me aren’t the ones that struck previous authors.  Also, Boston keeps changing, so there’s always some new wrinkle to examine.

There are several reasons that Boston is a fantastic setting for stories. The first lies in the varied neighborhoods crammed together into such a small space.  It’s only a 45-minute walk from the North End to Fenway Park and in that walk you’ll pass Faneuil Hall, Downtown Crossing, the Boston Common, Beacon Hill, and the Back Bay.  It’s easy to cram different types of people together in Boston.

Another reason that Boston makes a great setting is that it has been a great setting many times.  Readers and moviegoers are familiar with Boston and so feel grounded in stories there.  It’s been said that people argue whether New York or L.A. are the best settings, but both sides agree that Boston is next on the list.

Ray Daniel

Ray Daniel

Question: Software designers and software debuggers—is it really two different camps? Two different mindsets? Will designers ever be able to design a hack-free computer or device? Is there always a weakness? And why don’t the debuggers sit in when the architects are working and point out mistakes?

Ray Daniel: Three great questions. As to the mindsets or camps, you might compare it to authors vs. editors.  While it is possible to have someone who is good at both roles, people definitely have strengths in one direction or the other.

The author/editor split also applies to the question of having debuggers involved in the architectural process. The problems a good editor solves are not usually apparent until the entire story is written.  The same can happen with software.

As for whether it’s possible to create hacker-proof computers or devices, it is possible as long as the device doesn’t do anything.  A brick is pretty hacker-proof. Once you start adding functionality you are almost certain to create security holes that can be exploited.  Even something with no electronics at all, a lock, can be hacked (or picked in that case.)

Question: Terminated relishes the particular joys of the modern day industry convention. You sound like an old pro and these things. Do you enjoy, hate, endure…or a combination? Any convention survival tips you’d care to share?

Ray Daniel: I’m an extrovert who feeds upon the energy of crowds, so I love conventions and conferences. My biggest tip is that if you are working a convention (for example if you are at the American Library Association Conference signing books in your publisher’s booth) never stand on your booth’s carpet.  Always stand in the neutral walkway carpet.  This keeps out you there meeting people.

When you meet a new person always ask, “Have you seen our booth yet?”  That way you have a next step whether they answer “yes” (“What brings you back?”) or “no” (“Let me show you around.”)

Question: Tucker’s three days in Terminated are, to choose one word, harrowing. How did you determine how many close shaves he could handle?

Ray Daniel: Poor Tucker takes it on the chin every time I think the audience may get bored.  Since I’m paranoid about boring my audience, he takes it on the chin a lot. Also I’m a big fan of books in which the main character is in real physical danger, so again Tucker bears the brunt of it.

My biggest challenge as a new author was learning how to write the scenes where Tucker responds to his close shaves.  Being in danger is an emotional experience, and it would be flat if Tucker didn’t respond to the danger.

Question: The exchanges between Tucker and his dead wife Carol, who materializes at surprising moments, are both colorful and, again, funny. How did you develop this idea? Have you ever had an experience like Tucker’s, seeing and talking with the dead?

Ray Daniel: Carol was an in-the-moment inspiration when I was writing the scene where Kevin had left Tucker alone for a moment in his office.  I wanted conflict in the scene, but Tucker was alone, and the idea for Carol popped into my head at that moment.

Once I had the idea I wanted to make sure that Carol didn’t fall into the category of “My sainted dead wife.” That’s become something of a cliché.  That’s why they fight so much.

Also, once you’ve been married long enough, you don’t need the other person around to have the fights.

Question: Favorite Boston (or New England) writers—go. And, sure, feel free to mention any others you like, maybe a few unsung heroes of yours.

Ray Daniel: This question and the next question have the same answer: Robert B. Parker.  I used to tell people that I liked reading “First-person, wise-cracking, Boston-based mysteries.”  So, when I started writing I wanted to write first-person, wise-cracking, Boston-based mysteries, and I do.

Question: Who or what inspired your mystery writing career?

Ray Daniel: <above>

Question: What’s next?

Ray Daniel: Tucker’s third book, Child Not Found, publishes on June 7th. Tucker takes his cousin’s daughter sledding on Boston Common and loses her in chapter one.  I really liked what Kirkus had to say about this book: “As usual, Daniel is more than generous with the violence, guilt, tweets, craft brews, and compassion.”

I love the fact that I’ve reached a point in my career where a reviewer can use the phrase “As usual.”  It looks like I have a recognizable style!


Ray Daniel’s Website



Terminated begins with a bang. I’ll let you figure out which kind. The first two words of the book, however, offer a somewhat helpful clue. “Morning sex…”

The five days of plot in this brisk novel, after the opening action, never let up. Our erstwhile techie hero Tucker manages to get in a few stops for various bits of Boston nosh and beverage along the way. This guy needs a drink. Or four. He’s had it rough and it’s going to get worse.

Tucker and his wife Carol developed controversial security software. They were a team, of sorts, at a company called MantaSoft (what a great name). Carol was viciously murdered in their home six months prior to the gauntlet of mayhem that takes place from Sunday to Thursday within the pages of Terminated. It turns out that Tucker and Carol’s marriage had plenty of bumps and not much going on in the bedroom. But that doesn’t mean Tucker doesn’t care who killed her. He cares, in fact, very much.

But now “Carol” follows Tucker around and he can often be seen having conversations with her in public, though the Bluetooth gizmo prevents others from questioning his sanity.  Yes, this is a familiar device but Ray Daniel’s uses it sparingly and Carol pops up, appropriately, at some wonderfully inopportune times. And they continue to bicker about what went wrong. Hilarious.

A few pages into Terminated, Tucker’s pal at the FBI is letting him in a new lead, a somewhat worrisome photo of a woman, someone Carol once hired when she worked at MantaSoft.  She’s dead. And someone thinks Tucker may have played a role in the woman’s demise, further fueling Tucker’s need to find out what’s going on at his old company.

Tucker can hack or debug anything. “You really solve puzzles through a flash of insight,” he says. “Then you work your way back through the logic so you can explain it to others. After years of debugging software, I was good at generating flashes of insight.”

And he’ll need them. By the time Tuesday rolls around, Tucker makes Jack Reacher look like nothing more than the captain of a Swan Boat in Boston Garden.  Tucker isn’t likely to take on five big men with only his fists, but he seems to attract as the violent type. He’s a mayhem magnet.

Humor and violence live side by side in Terminated. And Daniel flashes some very funny lines.

“If you took a bowling ball, taught it to talk, and bought it a custom bowling-ball suit, you’d wind up with Agent Bobby Miller.”

“The prosperity of the 1960’s blew past Boston’s dying textile industries. While other cities were making money and dropping down the architectural equivalent of bell-bottom pants, Boston was too broke to build.”

“The beach still curves gracefully toward Nahant, but the only noted attraction is Kelly’s Roast Beef, which is ‘World Famous,’ according to its sign. I’d once asked some folks from Budapest if they had heard of Kelly’s Roast Beef in Revere and they had not. It was very disappointing.”

Tucker has lots to sort through. Not everybody is what they appear to be. And Tucker will soon realize, despite a sharp ability to debug anything, that his smart aleck ways are helping leave an easy trail for would-be assassins to follow.

Terminated (a title that probably carries quadruple meaning here) is a fun and hair-raising romp through the streets of Boston. It ends, like it starts, with a bang. I’ll let you figure out which kind.





Q & A #37 – Christopher Merkner, The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic

411hmzqv7tL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Skip this intro!

Go down to the Q & A.

Then find yourself of copy of The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic.

What, you’re still here?

Okay, know that Christopher Merkner is worth following. He teaches classes through Lighthouse Writers here in Denver, so go get yourself some Merkner.

He’s teaching a class on Deborah Eisenberg and Joy Williams beginning in April; check it out.

Last summer, Merkner’s volume won the 2015 Colorado Book Award for best short story collection. Also among the finalists was the previously quizzed Wendy J. Fox.

So, now: read the Q & A.

Oh, a full review follows.


Question: Short sentences. What gives? Are you comma adverse? Sure, you have some long sentences but it seems as if you really prefer them short, punchy. True? And why?

Christopher Merkner: With Scandamerican Domestic, my position was Less Is Best. The primary characters are all white heterosexual men feeling very badly about themselves for no objectively defensible reason. So, while I have little doubt that these men “in reality” would have no qualms about carrying on and on, eloquently and otherwise, my thinking was that it seemed appropriate and necessary to neutralize them with a language they more fully deserve, which is a language with as few words as possible.

Question: “Scandamerican” – is that a thing? And what about the domestic aspect here? Did you know when you gathered these stories that there would be a lot of child rearing, coupling, and painting walls? Of negotiating roles and responsibilities?

Christopher Merkner: As far as “Scandamerica” is concerned– it’s definitely a thing, Mark. C’mon! It’s huge! Next time you’re in Rockford, Illinois, stop by the Stockholm Inn. Very much alive, Scandamerica, I assure you, and when you are there they will treat your just right.

As far as the domestic aspect, my whole life is my wife and kids. I haven’t had a drink outside our house in perhaps five years. I have three friends, maybe two. I have no hobbies. I listen to my parents complain on the telephone from their home in Illinois. I haven’t spoken to my sister in Wisconsin in about two years. I dwell on and lament memories of my youth, when I had what some would allege was “a life.” I go to a grocery store between ten and fifteen times a week. I try to play catch or Frisbee with my daughter and son. I drive the kids to swimming lessons, then back home again, sometimes strongarming them into a grocery store on the way home. I find this life pretty rich, and I really enjoy it, so I write about it – not my life, necessarily, but the life that exists around me as I conduct this life with my family. Maybe that makes me imaginatively narrow. I’m sure it does. And for now that’s okay.

Scandamerica built up around these stories and this life, not the other way around, and I just feel grateful daily that someone was kind enough to say, “Yes, this is a book.” I could not be more grateful, nor could I be more aware that I should be grateful, given the amount of important creative work being created out there that isn’t getting published.

Christopher Merkner

Christopher Merkner

Question: Why is the family unit such a source of amusement, if that’s the right word, to you? Or terror? Do amusement and terror live side by side?

Christopher Merkner: Amusement and terror, at least for my writing, are just aesthetic tools. Family by contrast is a concept, and it’s a really important concept for me, very close and dear to me, and amusement and terror are the tools I apply to the expression of that concept because I personally find them both vastly better fits than their alternatives in helping me say what I want to say about family and families in America today.

Question: The Missouri Review said: “In Merkner’s stories, the things that tempt us come to pass.” There does seem to be a free-fall to some of these stories. You can’t believe a husband is going through with, say, holding a party for his spouse’s ex boyfriends. All of them. Do you agree with The Missouri Review’s conclusion? Is that a fair thread? Care to discuss?

Christopher Merkner: It became pretty clear, pretty early on, that Scandamerican Domestic would not be interested in realism, anyway, so in many ways this idea that wouldn’t “likely happen” doesn’t really apply. But I guess I’m also pretty confident that the men who tell the stories in the book definitely see their lives in free-fall, just as most Americans like these characters do. And this is of course ridiculous and founded on all of the most ridiculous foundations of their privilege. There really isn’t a narrator in the book that isn’t authoring the hardship by which they find themselves feeling victimized. I have very little patience for men, especially angry and stunted-feeling white ones in the middle and upper-middle class, and I imagine that must be creating this sense that things that “probably shouldn’t happen” are happening to them. They author these things in a world where they are free to author almost anything they want. They set themselves up, foolishly, and I’m just helping them find their inevitable realization. Maybe that’s too political. And maybe that’s just too cruel and unfair. I don’t mean it to be.

Question: There are several (many) stories that involve negotiations between husband and wife and that show the struggle with roles and responsibilities. Why does this space draw such interest? And does your wife check your work before you submit?

Christopher Merkner: Molly reads everything I write. If I have anything as a writer, I owe it to her. And we’re both in agreement that the “crises” of the characters in these stories are as incriminating as they are authentic.

Question: “Last Cottage,” I must say, is particularly warped and fantastic. Can’t we all just get along? You write that one from the collective “we” perspective, almost like the “we” is the whole community’s consciousness. The town wants every spare bit of shorefront commercialized—or else. What sparked this one and using that larger “we”?

Christopher Merkner: It has to be pretty normal to discover your creative work is really nothing more than an unwitting synthesis of your personal concerns, feelings, memories, attitudes, ideas, people, anecdotes, etc. Imagination is part of it, of course, but I think imagination is servant to these other pressures. Or, at least, that’s what’s going on here with me. This story started off as a sort of warm, commemorative note on the town I really grew up in—Wauconda, Illinois. But I feel like there’s no way to control this sort of thing, at least not with such an oppressive constraint as “commemorative,” so in revision it just kept expanding, drawing more fully from a fuller range of attitudes, issues, and practices I’d experienced in that town, with those people, my parents, friends, and my sister. And myself. I think it’s important to say that I am very much part of this “we” in this story, not in any sort of literal way, but in the way that one is invariably drawn into one’s own metaphors. Anyway, the deeper that story went into revision, the more fully it became clear that the characters were complicit in their own demise, all parties, all of them white and fairly, relatively solidly upper middle class. Why can’t we all just get along, indeed! But that’s the point or function of the book as a whole: Americans who really have no actual or real problems, relative to the broader world, working diligently to create problems for themselves.

Question: For folks out there like myself who have spent a long time working on full-length novels, what is the advantage, do you think, of working on your short story craft? I saw in another interview that you might be working on some longer pieces. True? Is it a difficult transition?

Christopher Merkner: For me, anyway, there are no advantages. For me, stories pester tirelessly. They are indefatigable, incessant naggers, and I think that’s because there are just so many of them to be attended to, always desperately needing something. The novel, I’m finding, is always beholden to these demands. The novel is louder, yes, but it frankly can’t compete with the multitudes of nagging, needy voices, at least not without becoming angry – and anger doesn’t flatter the novel, at least not for me. Maybe it’s a maturity thing, the way that grandparents can “handle” grandchildren with relative indifference to their annoyance, and still carry on their daily lives without being upset by or having their days ruined by the demands of their grandkids. But at this point in my life stories are just very much needing constant attention and the novel is just like a teenage kid doing its own thing, off a bit on its own, capable of enormous damage, moving toward something awesome but forever stepping on the brink of its own demise, but the stories…I just can’t stop paying attention to their needs. And the transition between the two is annoying when I think of it as annoying. I just try to just stay in contact with them both and give them each the kind of attention they seem most pleased to receive…and of course I’m inadequate to the cause. I mean, that’s the prevailing feeling, inadequacy.

Question: Lydia Davis. Is there anyone else out there like her? Who considers each word with such surgical precision and who gets so much done in so little space?

Christopher Merkner: Lydia Davis is the gold standard, at least for me. I am so grateful to her. If I look past her, back to the writers that I admired before I’d really started valuing Davis, I have to admit that it was Donald Barthelme who opened the door to the room in which I found Davis, and so I could not possibly forget him. Other writers that I find in this same room with Davis? Let me just say it this way, as I’ve said it before: I think everyone should spend some time reading Selah Saterstrom (Slab), Meg Pokrass (Damn Sure Right), David Leavitt (The Marble Quilt), Padgett Powell (The Interrogative Mood), Josh Russell (My Bright Midnight), Margaret Luongo (If the Heart is Lean), Imad Rahman (I Dream of Microwaves), Chris Bachelder (The Throwback Special), Tara Masih (Where the Dog Star Never Grows), Spring Ulmer (Benjamin’s Spectacles), Josh Harmon (The Cold Season), Wendy J Fox (Seven Stages of Anger), Luke Rolfes (Flyover Country), Danielle Dutton (Sprawl), Greg Howard (Hospice), Sara Veglahn (The Mayflies), Chris Narozny (Jonah Man), Erik Anderson (The Poetics of Trespass). These are good people writing good books.

Question: What’s next?

Christopher Merkner: What’s next, indeed. I have to try to get my kids to the mountains once more this winter; I have to get groceries for their lunches; I have a birthday party to get my daughter to Sunday, and my son needs to do his physical therapy stretches more consistently. They both have homework. The entrance to the house needs to be vacuumed. The laundry is backed up. It’s hand-to-hand combat here in this house, Mark, and what comes out of it all, in terms of writing, is still in process, and I won’t know it until it’s let me know it, I’m confident. But I’m grateful for you asking!


Christopher Merkner’s Website



A few of the words that came to mind while reading The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic:

Acerbic. Biting. Caustic.

And absolutely, in spots, hilarious. In a sort of morbid fashion.

Christopher Merkner doesn’t waste time revealing his sensibilities. He kicks things off with the first-person narrator of “Of Pigs and Children” worried about how he’s going to explain how he “accidentally gaffed” his uncle in the temple “with one of my musky bucktails on a very simple and heaving backcast.” He needs to explain what happened to his mother but she’s distracted by her Vietnamese potbelly pig. The story of Uncle Ackvund’s demise comes to us in bits and pieces and we soon learn all the grisly facts, from wheelbarrow to “slop in the culvert,” about the narrator’s miserable attempts to save his uncle’s life.

The opening sentence of “In Lapland” is a perfect example of Merkner’s breezy, easy style: “On Thursday my wife returns from work and says she needs some color in the house, can’t live in this cell-hole another minute, what have we done to bring ourselves to this way of living at our age, we aren’t twenty-five-year-old twist, not anymore.” When the couple encounters a color snob in the form of saleslady who tries to talk them off the “Country Rill” green they are chasing, they bottle up their wrath. “We’ve reserved all this direct outrage for the car ride home and really let the car windows have it,” the husband reports.

The painting project is really, in fact, all about their sexual dynamics and sexual tension between the couple and Merkner isn’t subtle. He goes after the blush.

“Friday, the brush is frayed and starchy, limpid and stiff at the same time—caked in a sort of translucent lacquer and generally incapable of offering a stroke of Country Rill that does not somehow ruin a previous stroke. My whole rhythm is off. I’m doing harm. My wife just winces, says things like ‘Oh, Guud.’”

Merkner finds humor in the ordinary. The stories seem to ask, why are things the way they are? Do we have to accept them just because? How did I get here?

Merkner pushes the envelope, surreal in spots and sardonic in others. Merkner’s characters seem to simultaneously participate in the story and turn to at the reader and say, “can you believe this is happening?’ You catch a wink like Kurt Vonnegut, a flash of humor like the best of Tom Robbins, and then a fun patch of prose a la John Updike.

The titles are ample clue to the tone, “When Our Son, 26, Brings Us His First Girlfriend” and “Check the Baby” and “We Have Them To Raise Us,” a story about a wife who goads and cajoles her husband into helping plan a party with her ex-boyfriends—all 36 of them. (“We Have Them To Raise Us” would make for a great episode of “Portlandia.” So would a few others.)

The last story is a doozie. “Last Cottage,” told in the collective “we” third-person that speaks on behalf of an entire community that’s in favor of “progress” in the sense of commercial development. The “Larsons” have been coming to Slocum Lake for fifteen years and possess the only waterfront property that has not succumbed to The Borg.

The Larsons have been subject to a series of bullying tactics but so far seem oblivious to the collective message to give up their quaint family ways and see the light. So a plot is hatched to electroshock the lake and cover the Larsons’ beachfront in dead fish. The Larsons greet the escalating affronts with pluck, resourcefulness and an innocent shrug. How infuriating!

The ending borders on Kafka country and reminded me of Thomas Berger’s fine novel “Neighbors” in its ambiguous moral compass around a tale set in a place where we’re all supposed to get along.

“Getting along,” in fact, might be the dark undercurrent here—the notion of what we’re supposed to do in middle class, Midwestern America versus how things actually play out.

Merkner’s characters reference the general suburban-Scandinavian-porcelain gene pool, but seem to recognize the pros and cons of their heritage. “My specific roots are northern Midwest, settlers near Green Bay,” the narrator of “We Have Them to Raise Us” informs us, “and while we know our way around the labyrinth of deception, because we are half the time misleading ourselves, we are not actually well prepared genetically for the confined chambers of overt and sustained lying.”

Such explicit self-analysis is rare. More often than not, Merkner’s characters are genetically well prepared for standing in wonder. They don’t often fight. The sabotage in “We Have Them to Raise Us” is sweetly mounted but only after we get some insights on the benefits of passivity. These are not journeys of self-discovery but surreal views of family intimacies that turn the world cock-eyed and make you wonder what we all take for granted.

Two quotes to keep in mind as you read The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic:

Salvador Dali: “Surrealism is not a movement. It is a latent state of mind perceivable through the powers of dream and nightmare.”

Frank Kafka: “I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.”

Darkness and, in the case of Merkner, a healthy dose of humor.


Ausma Zehanat Khan – “The Language of Secrets”

The Language of SecretsEsa Khattak is just too cool.

He’s thoughtful, careful and analytical. He sees the world in subtle, complex ways. Best of all, he knows who he is and what he’s up against. He’s a Muslim. He’s a detective. He works in multi-cultural Toronto. And he just happens to work in the special community policing division, handling sensitive cases. And he’s coming off a rough outing for how he managed the investigation of the murder of Christopher Drayton (in The Unquiet Dead). That case required diving into a tight community of survivors of the war in Bosnia and, more specifically, the massacre in Srebrenica.

Licking his wounds, and fully aware of his shaky reputation among his superiors, Khattak is handed a new case in The Language of Secrets. Again, Khattak wades into tricky, pricklish turf. The murder victim, Moshin Dar, was an estranged friend. Moshin “believed in the Islamic nation, a supernatural community whose faith transcended language, sect, ethnicity, and borders, tied together by a spiritual commonality.”

But when he was murdered, Moshin Dar was on an undercover mission for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And Khattak is asked by the federal intelligence agency to figure out what happened all while not disrupting or giving away the ongoing undercover work into a terrorist cell that operates out of a Mosque and is running commando training in the suburban woods. To make matters worse, few cops trust Khattak. He’s constantly being reminded of his missteps and, occasionally, being baited into “anger and indiscretion.” Oh, and one more thing. Khattak’s sister is involved with the erstwhile leader of the Muslim cell.

These are just a few elements that frame this layered novel. As in the first installment, Khattak works with his partner Rachel Getty, as purebred Canadian as they come. But agnostic Rachel must first go undercover to the mosque as a potential new recruit, as someone who is thinking about converting to Islam. The only religion Rachel cares about is ice hockey. While Khattak turns to prayer to ease the “ferment of his thoughts,” the only thing she’ll pray for is to have her cherished Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup.

Khattak and Getty are a terrific pair. One of my favorite things about these two is how considerate they are of each other. The cliché approach requires tension between odd-couple protagonists. The cliché approach requires quick-fire repartee and rapid retorts, but Khan avoids the tired tropes and puts two real people on the page who are struggling with their own self-doubts and struggles. She admires Khattak’s “understated elegance” and hopes to emulate it. He wants to expand their relationship to genuine friends—just because. He shows her a few things about how to approach the case, but he would never ask her to moderate her partiality to the “young and dispossessed.” They like each other, get along. The point is to see this case from two different vantage points and Khan slips effortlessly back and forth, alternating chapters as we absorb Khattak’s more nuanced intake of the clues and as Getty bounces, more youthful and a touch wide-eyed, into the heart of the fray.

It’s Khattak’s ongoing struggle with his identity that gives The Language of Secrets its weight. It’s also his ethics and his interest in simple truths about how the story of his people (his faith) is being skewed and skewered in public. Khattak is fully aware of his secret fears. He has ample reason to sink into an abyss of cynicism and anger, but he remains a believer in peace even as his dusk prayer breaks his heart anew each night. Ultimately, of course, it’s Khattak’s keen knowledge of the culture that begins to break the case and soon Rachel Getty finds herself in deep jeopardy. In the tense finish, Khan takes full advantage of the rugged Canadian winter and Rachel’s familiarity with ice.

Language across cultures (meaning, emphasis, subtleties, nuance) and secrets (between people and within both Rachel and Essa) play critical roles in unraveling the conspiracy, which is based on a real-life case from 2006. Esa Khattak, in a beautifully written scene, isn’t afraid to whisper to an “unseen presence.” He’s also not afraid to listen—and observe—with care. The whole issue of subordination to existing authority versus a higher spirit, in Esa’s case, is fascinating. What makes these first two Khattak-Getty novels click is the space between two interesting, contrasting characters who model thoughtful, mutual respect.


Previously reviewed–The Unquiet Dead, including Q & A with Ausma Khan.

Unquiet Dead



Helen Macdonald – “H is for Hawk”

H is for HawkDon’t we read, sometimes, to be surprised? H is for Hawk is one of those books. It’s almost indescribable.

How many topics does it weave together? Brit Helen Macdonald trains a goshawk. She explores grief over the death of her father, a news photographer. She reflects on writer T. H. White, who wrote his own manual (in 1951) about training the goshawk. She shows us the connection between White’s personal life and his approach to telling tales about King Arthur (The Sword in the Stone). She ruminates on  oppression, World War II, homosexuality, repression and oppression. She is also very aware that she is writing another animal book—and that they don’t always end well.

And, somehow, she pulls it all together.

The training of the hawk, which she names Mabel, becomes a prism for processing her thoughts. She’s an experienced falconer before her father dies, but the goshawk (much feistier and edgier than some birds of prey) represents a new challenge and so does her state of mind: “While the steps were familiar, the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief and numb to the hurts of human life.”

The goshawk is part alien. It’s a loner. T.H. was part alien. And a loner. At least, he knew he was different—and Macdonald’s dredging up the business about White’s fantasies about spanking boys, while not easy to read, shows Macdonald’s drive to confront as many of those “hurts of human life” as possible.

Macdonald pours herself into Mabel, lives through her—and kills alongside her. Her father taught her to look through a viewfinder as a way to distance herself from the subject and to compose photographic, organized thoughts about the images coming through the lens. Mabel becomes Macdonald’s viewfinder and she hopes to find herself in the training and hunting and, yes, killing. The two connect. While I found it a bit hard to believe that a bird’s moods could be deciphered as easily as say, a dog’s, Macdonald convinced me.

This is a mesmerizing memoir. It’s slow in parts. It skews dark. I’ve seen some other comments that Macdonald comes across as self-absorbed but that never occurred to me; she stirs the pot with so many other issues and ideas and observations that I was never bored.

A sampling of the writing as Macdonald meets Mabel for the first time:

“A sudden thump of feathered shoulders and the box shook as if someone had punched it, hard, from within. ‘She’s got her hood off,’ he said, and frowned. That light, leather hood was to keep the hawk from fearful sights. Like us.

“Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.”

(Porpentine…arachaic for porcupine.)

“Nature books” don’t get much more rich than H is for Hawk.

It’s about nature – including the human kind. In looking at herself so deeply at a time when she was going off the rails, and pulled herself back up, she looks at all of us, from our darkest moments to the brightest. H is for Hawk is like “daylight irrigating a box.”