Terry McDonell, “The Accidental Life”

Terry McDonell’s The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers is insightful, interesting, blunt, witty and packed with a selection from the A List of fiction and non-fiction writers from the last handful of decades.

Scan the contents, there you go, and you’ll get an idea of the wordsmiths McDonell edited during a colorful career.

Do I have to list them? It might fill this whole review.  Jim Harrison. Ed Abbey. Peter Matthiessen. Tom McGuane. Richard Ford. James Salter. Jan Wenner. George Plimpton. Hunter Thompson. Richard Price. (I’m scratching the surface. Yes, diversity factor is low.) On and on.

McDonell’s credits? Try Sports Illustrated, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone. He was editor-in-chief of Esquire. There’s also a stint at Newsweek and a magazine he started called Smart. There’s the fact that he was founding editor of Outside and Rocky Mountain magazine. Is that enough? No. McDonell is a screenwriter and novelist, too.

The title alone—The Accidental Life—gives you the sense that despite the bright credits McDonell does not think of himself as anything special. Only a guy who cares about language. “Editing is about ideas, but it is mechanical, too. You have to get under the hood of the language, and editors use many tools.” One of those tools is word counts—knowing the length of something you’re about to read helps you understand its shape and pace, he argues. (Thus the title of every piece is followed by the word length to come.)

Most writers like to overshoot their assigned word length. “No writer I ever edited wanted to go short, anyway. Neither do I, but I also know that the best pieces seem to find their own length. That’s the alchemy.”

Reading The Accidental Life you hope some gold dust will fall on your keyboard, just by reading about what it is like to work with all these feisty, funky, mostly inscrutable bunch of truth tellers. You hope for some “how to” list of handy tips. How to edit. How to reject. How to know the right story to report—and when. How to cut.

Well, not quite. The editing nuggets are there. They are in the mix. But The Accidental Life is mostly stories about big time writers and McDonell’s relationship with them. (Just a hunch but I think those relationships is where the editing begins.) Along the way, McDonell riffs on photography, headlines, layout, the changing nature of the business, and what is like to be around Sports Illustrated during swimsuit season (February) and some of the jaw-dropping numbers for sales when there is so much female skin on the cover.

The Editing 101 stuff is there, but McDonell deals out those bits around stories (good ones) of his celebrity writer pals.

“Good editors, like doctors, develop a bedside manner. My editing was full of questions—all the same question, really. What is the story. What’s the point of it? What do these sentences mean? Do they mean what you want them to mean? What if I told you they read like walk-ons in a Pirandello play?”

This is from a brief entry, “Bibliomemoir.”

More: “To diagnose is an excellent verb for editors to keep in mind. But what are you trying to say? Is not always an easy question, and the story isn’t always what the writer says it is. I thought often about what it was like to read the writers I knew best, how direct their prose seemed and how the work spoke for itself, yet that made them even more mysterious. It was that way with all of the writers whose work I loved.”

McDonell celebrates certain passages—and quotes them. Whether fiction or non-fiction, he seemed to be on a quest for truth tellers, whether the prose is fiction or non. Sure there is a difference between what comes out of the imagination and the stories a reporter tells, but McDonnell seems interested, in both cases, in sharp observers who don’t flinch from hard truths. It’s a “commitment to revealing the shadings and complexities of the human condition,” he writes in the “Fiction, Nonfiction” entry.

I only hope The Accidental Life isn’t a reflection on what will be considered a golden age of journalism—the second half of the 20th century and maybe the first decade or so of the 21st century before The Internets gutted the budgets of big-city daily newspapers and magazines.

McDonell was there in the prime of magazine publishing—limos, fat expense accounts and fatter advances. These tidbits may be fantasy land for someone writing long-form today.

I’m writing this on the day that The Denver Post announced yet another wallop to its newsroom staff—another 30 staffers slashed from the newsroom, down to 70 total reporters and editors—it’s hard to not think back to the day when we took steady streams of good daily journalism for granted. And it’s hard to imagine how many writers and reporters won’t get a chance to develop their craft simply because the jobs aren’t there.

Do you write? The Accidental Life is a must-read. Do you read? Ditto. Some suggest to read these entries at random. I started at the front and read straight through, glued the whole time and wanting to go back and pick up some old Jim Harrison stuff or early Hunter S. Thompson.

Great read.


Final note: I listened on audio. James Culp’s blunt, punchy narration was terrific.

Final, final note: In the piece called “Swimsuit,” McDonell talks about the fact that the selection of the final cover model and cover shot is the result of research, not whim. “The models all thought the editor decided, and that was true. It wasn’t just about instinct or relationships. It was about questions in malls in places like Trumbull Connecticut.” Of all the places for Terry to mention—Trumbull was the hometown of my friend Barry Wightman, the guy who recommended this book to me. Strange! And, thanks, Barry.




A few thoughts about using precise words for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog here.


Barbara Nickless, “Dead Stop”

Barbara Nickless’ first thriller featuring special agent (a.k.a. railroad cop) Sydney Rose Parnell, was Blood on the Tracks. It’s a beauty. The shape of the story was unusual. The story starts out as a heart-pounding, cinematic thriller and then morphs into a heavy, gripping procedural. And with her debut Nickless turned loose in the world a compelling, resolute, heavily burdened protagonist and her dependable sidekick Clyde, who is equally wise, equally tough, and all Belgian Malinois.

In Blood on the Tracks, the case was so horrific that Sydney Rose ended up in five months of work-mandated counseling. In Dead Stop, the follow-up, Sydney thinks back on what she’s been through. “If the therapy hadn’t helped with the flashbacks and the nightmares and the ghosts, at least I’d weaned myself off the pain meds and the Ativan, off the cigarettes and self-reproach, working hard to find my way back to a clear head and a clean conscience.”

Flashbacks, nightmares and ghosts. That’s Sydney Rose.

She served in Iraq carrying dead bodies off the field of battle and, well, who can blame her for carrying around her world-weary burdens, her bruised soul? We know that a “clear head” is a long way off. She’s a brooder, a deep thinker on mortality who punches her way out of the darkness by taking up the cases of others and delivering justice with little concern for her own well-being or safety. Sure, that could be description for many a jaded cop but Sydney Rose balances darkness with relentless determination and genuine empathy—particularly for the dead.

With Dead Stop, Nickless keeps Sydney Rose in battle mode. There’s a dead woman on the railroad tracks, “a slick, shadowy mess of shattered bones and destroyed flesh were all the remained of a once-beautiful woman.” The dead woman might be a jumper—a suicide. Or maybe not. And here comes the empathy. “I closed my eyes and pictured Samantha Davenport as she had looked on  her driver’s license photo. The luminous dark hair falling behind her shoulders. The high curve of her brows. The knowing look in her eyes that spoke more of inborn wisdom than vast experience. I pressed my hand to my heart and, in my mind, I made her whole. I gathered what the train had scatted and I washed away the blood. I smoothed her hair, brought the life back to her eyes, and restored a pulse beneath her skin.”

There’s a missing child. There are major issues around the management of railroad crossings and railroad land acquisition. Layers of cop bureaucracy swirl around. Sydney Rose’s interactions with all the cops—local level and all the way up to the FBI—come across as believable and grounded. Nickless has done her research on the train business. Credibility oozes from every page, even when the blood flows. (Any indication you see out there that Dead Stop might be a bloodless cozy, ignore at your peril. The presence of a pup does not alter the gritty factor here.)

Sydney unravels secrets, digs into history, and keeps up her tireless search for the answer to one curious piece of evidence. The “inevitable tide of loss” pulls Sydney Rose down into the undertow. (Well, in fact, she rarely bobs to the surface.) The solution is the result of relentless work, sharp eyes, and shrewd logic. But nothing is going to change for Sydney Rose, even if she falls for one of the come-ons from the “real” cops who want to recruit her skills and services. After all, “The dead are a load you can’t set down. They weigh nothing. And everything.”


Previous review of Blood on the Tracks with Q & A:


Q & A #62 – Bill Beverly, “Dodgers”

Bill Beverly’s Dodgers was a finalist for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 2017.

I heard Bill talk about his book during a panel the day before the awards were given out last April in New York City.

I could tell there was something different about this story and I liked the way Bill talked about writing.  Dodgers sounded different. I put it on my to-be-read list.

And so glad I did.  Dodgers is one of the most original, unusual, haunting-in-its-own-way stories I’ve read in a long time.

That’s in part because it’s not straight crime fiction, though I completely agree with the Edgar Award nomination from Mystery Writers of America. (It didn’t win Best First last year, but it has won a slew of other awards; check out the header on Bill’s Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/BillBeverly.)

Bill was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail about Dodgers (below). His wry, insightful answers give you a flavor for his direct style. Then a more complete review follows.

In addition to Dodgers, Bill is also the author of On The Lam: Narratives of Flight in J. Edgar Hoover’s America. He teachers at Trinity University in Washington, D.C.


Question: I’m wondering if you started out thinking Dodgers would be a ‘crime novel’ or a ‘mystery’ or just a ‘novel’? And, by the way, what’s the difference in your mind? Okay, sorry to pile on a bunch of questions here but did you ever think about putting a heavier police presence in the story, to make East and the others sweat a bit more as in a ‘traditional’ piece of crime fiction?

Bill Beverly: Really just a novel. I had just stopped trying to write a novel about a football coach, an overlong novel. I promised that if I ever tried again, I’d write something short. Short, bloody, and saleable.

But I think there are all kinds of sweat. All sorts of law. And East feels it himself. He needs no more police; he’s not sweating over being arrested. He’s sweating over what he’s seen and done.

Question: Any struggles or issues (or doubts) about writing about gang kids from L.A.?

Bill Beverly: Sure. I woke up one night and thought, son, what do you think you’re doing? I considered changing particulars, shifting the characters or setting, but decided to stick it out. I’d rather tell the story as it made most sense, and face questions later about my credibility and motivations. Ultimately the work defends itself, or fails to. Artists’ statements can be likable and amusing, but they should be read suspiciously, if at all. They are extrinsic.

Question: Did you have this linear, wandering Odyssey-esque approach in mind when you started writing Dodgers? What was the specific point of inspiration?

Bill Beverly: It was and is a simple story. Yes. I had read a lot of fugitive stories. And Huckleberry Finn. And Clockers. And Native Son.

Question: Without giving too much away, did you know East would be your main focus at the outset? Did you know the fates of his mates in The Van when you put them on the road?

Bill Beverly: Yes. I changed Ty’s return. My first thought was to have Ty show up wounded, on the brink of death. But the brothers’ relationship helped me conceive a different end by the time I was drafting it. Fortunately, I was open to it when it came.

Question: East is haunted by a killing in L.A. but not so much by some other “events” as their travels progress. Do you agree? And … why?

Bill Beverly: I think East is haunted by all of it. I think his own violence, and the sparseness and asceticism of his journey, show his horror. But, yes, the Jackson girl’s face is the face that keeps swimming up, that he can’t outrun.

Question: The American West & Midwest. Did you hit the road to write about these landscapes and cities and towns? Or have you driven it enough to know what you wanted to describe and what you wanted the boys in The Van to see and experience?

Bill Beverly: I have spent my life on these roads, trying to find words.

Question: I noticed in another online interview that you are a member of the James M. Cain fan club. Care to share a few thoughts? Do you revise and polish as much as he did (particularly with Double indemnity)? Most overlooked James M. Cain title?

Bill Beverly: Am a huge fan. Mr. Cain’s house is on the other end of my zip code, a mile or so away. I drive by it now and then. I am typing this now over in his neighborhood, which used to feature a big dark woods, but now features a parking lot with this coffee shop behind it. I am in that shop with a cup of coffee. Mr. Cain would have had something elegantly bitter to say about the leveling of this woods. He would have made a young, earnest thug out of the developer. The developer would have gotten the girl, at least at first.

I don’t know what people overlook. I am an academic. In that world, all Cain is grievously overlooked. I look forward to reading The Cocktail Waitress this spring.

I revise like I’m cleaning the jail cell I’ll die in. Like it’s the only task in the world.

Question: From what I’m gathering online, Dodgers has been brewing for quite some time. What elements changed the most as it marinated in your mind?

Bill Beverly: I am lucky to have caught it. But clearly it brewed a long time before it was done. The end changed, as I’ve said, and Walter’s character evolved steadily. I didn’t have a good feeling for Walter for a long time, but I used him to solve problems.

Question: Favorite writers and current inspirations—fiction and non-fiction?

Bill Beverly: I grew up on Roald Dahl, and happily, that diet suited my child, so I have revisited him these last years, and discovered more. The writers whom I have most consciously learned from are Denis Johnson and James Baldwin. And in the last few years, I have grown fascinated with Gwendolyn Brooks, whose career is larger and richer than most people credit it being.

Question: And, what’s next?

Bill Beverly: I’m in the middle of writing a little story right now. I hope someone will publish it. I’m grateful to Dodgers – it changed my life, it’s not hyperbole to say that. To follow it is not simple, and I’m taking pains to get it right.



Humanity seems to ooze from every syllable of Dodgers, which is either a Great American Novel with crime fiction undertones or a crime novel with not a care in the world about the expected tracks of the genre’s normal grooves.

Dodgers is a road trip. It’s brothers. It’s strangers in a strange land. It’s episodic. It’s scenic and sharp-eyed. It’s big sweep and little details. It’s both pastoral and gritty. Given part one, The Boxes, you think you’re in for a grim going-nowhere claustrophobic urban gangbang novel like Clockers or Freedomland (by Richard Price) or season one of The Wire.  (Opening line: “The Boxes was all the boys knew; it was the only place.”) But by part two, The Van, you’re on a cross-country road trip where the skies open up and the possibilities seem endless, though violence lurks.

Dodgers is about four black kids from Los Angeles. They are East, his brother Ty, Walter, and Michael Wilson (who goes by both names). East is 15. He “had never been a child.” Ty is 13 when the book starts, but he moved out the house when was 11. Ty has a “sharp easiness” to him. “Ty didn’t care. He didn’t want to be loved or trusted. He was capable and unafraid and undisturbed by anything he’d seen or done so far.”

East is the focus. In the opening section, East is held responsible when the house he is holding is seized in a police raid. East knows it, too. In debt to his boss, Fin, East is sent to Wisconsin (in The Van) to kill a witness in an upcoming trial. This is a job. They are to avoid looking like “ignorant gang boys” but more like “mama’s boys going to a family reunion.”  They are given Dodgers shirts because white people love baseball and white people love The Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s their job to keep Fin out of jail. No motels. Use rest stops to wash up.

There is the matter of navigating. And driving on highways. The Van gets vandalized. The foursome works to avoid trouble. Old reflexes won’t do them any favors. There are guns to pick up—and tense negotiations over the price—along the way. The great outdoors of the American Midwest makes East wonder what he’s made of. He dreams differently. Tensions rise. There are mistakes, miscommunication. Ty is impulsive and determined not to be made a fool.

Beverly’s writing is spare and beautiful.

“East liked driving here—the flat, unruffled fields with no one in sight, blind stubble mown down into splinters, maybe a tractor, maybe an irrigation rig like a long line of silver stitches across the fabric of earth. The flatness. There was more in the flatness than he’d expected. The van’s shadow lay long, and the fields traded colors. The boys slept in intervals or complained. Riding in a car for more than a few hours, he thought, was like suspended animation—somewhere under the layers of frost, your heart beat. To the left, a thunderstorm hovered, prowling its own road.”

East watches himself change, watches the group dynamics ebb and flow, too. The posse of four whittles down (that’s all I’ll say) and East is alone in the third part, Ohio. East forges new ground, fashions relationships with strangers, finds the perfect job in a “lifeguard chair” making sure combatants in a paintball shooting gallery are playing fair and square. (How perfect.) In Ohio. He is back in a box but the rules and consequences have all changed. He is watching white men running around trying to pretend kill each other and East (who has given himself a new name, Antoine) can imagine a new life.

But, no. East’s old life isn’t done. No spoilers here. Dodgers is memorable and gripping in its own way from start to clean, perfect finish.


Q & A #61 – Ausma Zehanat Khan, “A Dangerous Crossing”

The Unquiet Dead debuted in late 2016 and, with it, Ausma Zehanat Khan introduced readers to a pair of unusual detectives in Toronto who focus on culturally sensitive cases and vulnerable communities.

Esa Khattak is a Muslim. He is keen on solving cases but he is also on a long, inward quest. Rachel Getty is, well, Canadian and youthful. She digs hockey.

The first book dealt with a long trail of misery following the genocide of Srebrenica. The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly and The Washington Post all raved.

Three more titles followed, including A Dangerous Crossing (launching next week). In all four books, Khan let Khattak and Getty explore cases drawn from international tensions. Among the Ruins found Khattak in Iran. A Dangerous Crossing focuses on Greece and travels all over Europe and into Turkey. Readers have watched Khattak explore his core beliefs and they watched the space between Getty and Khattak grow and change shape.

A full review of A Dangerous Crossing follows but Ausma, who has been here before, was kind enough to answers some questions (by e-mail) again.

Note: The Khattak/Getty mystery series has been optioned for television by Lionsgate. Ausma is also the author of a fantasy series for Harper Voyager. The Bloodprint, Book One of the Khorasan Archives was published in October 2017.

Ausma holds a Ph.D. in international human rights law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. A British-born Canadian and former adjunct law professor, she now lives in Colorado with her husband.

Ausma will be at The Tattered Cover (Colfax) on Thursday, Feb. 15 at 7 pm for the launch of A Dangerous Crossing.


Question: When you started writing Esa Khattak, did you have an idea of what kinds of issues and situations you would ask him to face? Did you have an idea how far he would travel—both internally and around the world?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: Yes, definitely. I’ve been thinking about books I wanted to write long before I began to write them. I’ve had a varied career but it’s been focused on some consistent themes: the exploration of identity, alienation, and belonging—and how those things might be weaponized. I knew what I wanted to do with a character like Esa in terms of his internal journey as a man of faith in a world that is hostile to his identity. He begins from this place of being very sure of himself, but as the series progresses, he finds his convictions challenged at every turn, and has to struggle to figure out a way to reconcile the different sides of himself. Based on my own background and my academic research, I knew there were a range of global issues and human rights crises that I wanted to examine in these books, and Esa’s perspective was a natural fit for exploring these issues.

Question: Rachel started out relatively green in your first two books, but she’s grown quite a bit. What was it like to write about her reactions to what she experiences in A Dangerous Crossing?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I love seeing Rachel come into her own and grow in confidence, it’s the natural progression of her journey as a police officer, and as a woman. Many of us know very little about what day to day life is like for refugees in camps like Moria or Kara Tepe, so Rachel having to respond and react to those realities provided an entry point into that story. I’d interviewed volunteers and read several volunteer blogs to document what that experience is like. To move from not knowing to be immersed in firsthand knowledge, and to have all your assumptions challenged, takes not only compassion but grit. And no one is more suited to that than Rachel.

Question: Is it easier to write Rachel’s scenes? Or, Esa’s? Did you start planning or figuring out romantic entanglements at the outset of the series? Are you surprised how things have turned out for each of them?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: It is always easier to write Rachel’s scenes because Rachel is a character who’s allowed to be herself and have her experiences, and to falter or grow without constraint. Writing Esa is more challenging because like all Muslims in the public eye, he has to do more than exist as a character. He has to carry the weight of a dangerous and hostile discourse about Muslims on his shoulders, so when I write his scenes I’m conscious of how his actions may be interpreted, and what he needs to be able to convey about his own humanity. I spend a lot of time on that and take a lot of care with it because I view it as a kind of speaking back.

In terms of romantic entanglements, I had a general sense of what I wanted to happen with Rachel and Esa right from the beginning of the series, but it hasn’t turned out exactly how I planned. I expected certain things for Rachel and Nathan Clare to happen in A Dangerous Crossing, following on from the relationship I established in earlier books. But by the time I was able to put my master plan in action, Rachel and Nate took the reins right out of my hands and confounded all my plans. With Esa, I wanted to ground him in his own history and community, so a very important part of that was to decide whom (who?) he might love and why. I suggested otherwise in The Unquiet Dead—that history and community might not be as important when weighed against his feelings for a certain woman, but by this latest book, he’s back where I expected him to be. Where he needs to be to stay true to his own beliefs. But that doesn’t mean I have any intention of making things easy for him. He’s going to fall and fall again.

Question: How did you research so many foreign locations—Calais, Athens, Lesvos, The Netherlands, Cesme, etc?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: It was mainly a lot of reading: travelogues, human rights reports, even a useful little article on the weather and sheep-farming on Lesvos. In some cases I conducted interviews with people who had firsthand knowledge of the camps on Lesvos. And there was quite a bit of documentary-watching, plus prior travel to parts of Europe and Turkey. One of the things that has been incredibly helpful with research is the amount of photography and video online: it helps me assess the nuances of specific locations.

Question: Why do you think the Syrian refugee crisis ebbs and flows here as a news story? It’s ongoing. It’s happening today. Right now. Tensions haven’t eased in years. Cities being destroyed, etc. Is this just a chronic, forever battle or something that will eventually be resolved? What’s it going to take to bring Assad down and to bring stability back to Syria?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: When fighting erupts in Syria, and a new flow of refugees is created, that makes the news. But most of the major fighting in Syria is over. The conflict has produced more than five million refugees—the worst refugee crisis of the past twenty-five years. In the last rebel-held province of Idlib, Assad has launched a new offensive that may produce a new flow of refugees.

As for the future of Syria, there can be no stability or genuine peace as long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power. The Assad family has ruled Syria with an iron fist for nearly half a century. The Assad regime is responsible for the vast majority of the atrocities that have been committed during the current conflict, resulting in a death toll of approximately half a million people. The foremost issue deterring a resolution in Syria is that the international community has refused to confront Russia and Iran, the two key players who have shaped the course of the conflict. Over the course of the past seven years, Russia cast eleven votes at the Security Council that blocked international action on Syria. Unless this changes, Syria will continue to be ruled by the Assad family, and most refugees will be unable to return. The forces of radical extremism are among the biggest beneficiaries of this state of affairs—a factor that will contribute to the region’s instability for decades to come.

Question: Without giving anything away, A Dangerous Crossing looks at all the different layers and motivations for how people in crisis can be exploited. Did you know your antagonists going in? Or did events and motives unfold as you wrote the story?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I follow developments in international criminal law, so I knew exactly what I wanted to write about: the question of how massive human rights violations continue to be committed with impunity. It’s that space between impunity and the pursuit of justice that I’m interested in examining, so writ large, I knew I would be writing about who is responsible for the destruction of Syria, and what the nature of that destruction is. For a full year I focused my research on the human rights crisis in Syria, and as I read in that area, I was able to put the pieces of a much larger puzzle into place. The book was about the Assad regime’s oppression of the Syrian people, but then it spiraled out into a discovery of all the others who opportunistically prey upon the vulnerable and displaced. Some things were so shocking for me to read, in terms of dangers that refugees are exposed to, that it was absolutely vital that they become part of the story.

Question: A Dangerous Crossing deals with, among many issues, the ‘disproportionate burden’ issue—how countries negotiate and decide how many refugees they can take in. If you were benevolent dictator of the world, how would you resolve this? How do you address the roots of the crisis? The United States’ non-interventionist approach, as you write in the author’s note, cedes control of the crisis to Russia and Iran, which is not a path to resolution. What to do?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: As defined by the Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person with a well-founded fear of persecution, based on certain discrete criteria. So I wonder if we had substantive public education about how these criteria have been met in the case of Syrian refugees, we might see a greater willingness to resettle them. There’s a significant gap between the perception and reality of which nations host most of the world’s refugees. The the top five refugee-hosting countries are Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, and Ethiopia. Germany is the only Western nation to make the top ten. So that disproportionate burden actually falls upon some of the world’s poorest countries, when it should be allocated more reasonably between all the signatories to the Refugee Convention, so that treaty obligations are met.

We’ve talked about the root causes of instability as directly related to refugee flows. While the crisis is complex and military intervention could lead to greater instability, there are a number of steps that merit consideration. First, the Russian and Iranian position in Syria could be challenged. That would require a commitment to establish a safe zone within Syria, and a no-fly zone over Syria, allowing moderate opposition groups to establish an alternative to Assad’s rule. Tipping the balance of power in Syria could lead to serious negotiations. In 2013 and 2015, Assad was close to being toppled. The Russian and Iranian foreign ministries acknowledged this, and in turn stepped up their intervention to rescue the regime from imminent collapse. If things were to change, a plan for the day after would also be needed, one that would encompass security, stabilization, reconstruction and national reconciliation. To be successful, any such plan would require the full participation and support of the Syrian people, in tandem with global leadership on a scale equipped to recognize and respond to the realities on the ground. As you can see, there is no easy prescription for success.

Question: How do you switch back and forth from writing a fantasy series to writing mysteries?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: When I write about human rights issues in my mysteries, it’s critical that I write from a solid foundation of knowledge, and that I neither overstate nor understate the magnitude of the crisis I’m writing about. So my research is more extensive, and I check and re-check the accuracy of my facts. I try to provide a range of perspectives on an issue, without creating a false equivalency. Genocide and war crimes should never lend themselves to false narratives that fly in the face of the evidence. I’m thinking particularly of the material I had to tackle while writing The Unquiet Dead. And again with A Dangerous Crossing. I begin from the premise that there is no ideology that can justify the violation of human rights. But you’d be surprised by how many people take issue with that premise.

So writing my fantasy series is much easier for me. I come to those books almost with a sense of relief. There’s more narrative space to be inventive, and I’m able to indulge my curiosity about the world without quite as many constraints.

Question: What’s next for Esa and Rachel? And for the fantasy series?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: Next up, Esa and Rachel return to Canada, where they’re asked to lend their support to an investigation into a mosque shooting in Quebec. I’ve been slowly unraveling this theme in the series through Esa’s eyes: what is like to be a Muslim in the West today? What realities does he confront as part of his daily existence? Does Esa believe that battle lines have been drawn? The fifth book in the series brings these issues out into the open to force Esa to a moment of reckoning. Rachel’s reckoning is more personal: is she going to go after what she wants—personally and professionally? Does she believe that she’s worthy of happiness? What might that look like for her? Strangely enough, this has been the easiest book in the series for me to write.

And Book Two of the Khorasan Archives—The Black Khan—will be out in fall of 2018. I’ll tease it a little: expect smoldering romance and an epic battle where women are at the forefront of the charge.


Ausma Zehanat Khan’s website.



In Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty dug into the genocide at Srebrenica to get to the root of a stunning murder in Toronto, where they are based. In The Language of Secrets, the pair infiltrated a terrorist cell brewing up wicked plans within a mosque. In Among the Ruins, a personal trip to Iran put Khattak smack into the middle of a decades-old murder that peeled back the cloak of history, particularly the deadly prison system.

Given the track record of this compelling duo, it’s no surprise to find them embroiled in the Syrian refugee crisis in the latest entry, A Dangerous Crossing, a story that stretches to Turkey, Greece, The Netherlands, and France.

Inspector Khattak and Sergeant Getty are given the task of finding Audrey, a woman who has vanished from a Greek island. Audrey was working for an NGO, helping to implement Canada’s efforts to resettle Syrian refugees. The missing woman’s brother is a childhood friend of Esa’s. The missing woman is not only implicated in a double murder, but any hint of violence and controversy could take its toll on Canadian political leadership, unless the truth of her disappearance is uncovered.

As with all three previous books, there’s a steady undercurrent of emotions between Khattak and Getty. But to add to the tension here, Khan brings back Sehr Ghilzai, a former prosecutor first introduced in The Language of Secrets, to tempt Khattak out of his devout, often inscrutable shell.

Khattak’s serene Muslim faith gives the entire series a unique flavor. Getty is more carefree, less burdened by the world—but no less dogged or sincere.

After a few set-up scenes in Toronto, we’re off to Athens and eyewitness accounts of the inhumanity, the camps at Kara Tepe on the island of Lesvos and cinematic scenes on cold beaches at night as waves of (literally) huddled masses of refugees wait by campfires, hungry and wondering what’s next. Rachel, ever empathetic and smart enough to know what she doesn’t know, is the one to loan her coat to a shivering little boy.

Rachel’s reactions to what she sees are visceral.

“As she watched at the girls playing in the mud, her despair was overcome by self-contempt. Each person in this camp could likely tell a story more painful than her own … The temperature had dropped and the water was cold, the pristine shoreline marred by detritus on the beach: black flotation devices resembling rubber tires, stacks of orange life jackets, the occasional dinghy that would never float again, odd bits of clothing, mismatched shoes, a single sock.”

Esa, meanwhile, contemplates the tragedy within the context of his faith, the Muslim concept of ummah (community). “It was instinctive to him as a man of his faith to be deeply concerned about the ummah. He thought of the cruelty that characterized the abuse of dissidents in Iran. He knew the situation in Syria was worse on a scale that defied imagination—of a nature to wring tears from a statue of the Madonna.”

How can Esa reconcile what it feels like to be proud of his faith, proud of his beliefs, proud of his heritage—and know that many horrors were being meted out in the name of the same community?

How can Esa justify the well-funded search for one privileged Canadian, a woman with connections and resources, when so many souls are being set adrift, instantly homeless, into a cruel world?

Esa’s struggles are internal—and he keeps them, for the most part, to himself. “These were scales Esa had been weighing all his life, an actuary of the dead and disposable.” (What a great line.)

The story is driven by the puzzle of deciphering Audrey’s last communications with her brother—and her actions. Why had Audrey risked a trip to the Turkey-Syria border? Why had she taken two children with her?

All around them as they work are the vast sea of needy refugees and the many ways they can be exploited. Khattak and Getty’s work shows how nations find a way to justify dusting their hands as if nothing is going on. There is, as Esa notes, plenty of blame to go around.

A Dangerous Crossing is driven by mystery, but it’s also poignant and complex. As her team bounces from country to country, digging into documents and confronting power, Khan does not shy from intricate global politics. A Dangerous Crossing is another gripping Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty Mystery brewed from the depths of mankind’s capacity for brutal inhumanity to others.


Previously reviewed:

The Language of Secrets







The Unquiet Dead

(This post also includes an earlier Q & A)


When I’m 64

A piece about a certain song and … writing.

For Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.


Q & A #60 – Carter Wilson, “Mr. Tender’s Girl”

Kirkus Reviews:

“Wilson turns the creep factor up to 11, balancing his prose on a knife’s edge. A highly satisfying high-tension thriller.”

I agree. Wilson’s latest is a heart-pounding tale told by a storyteller who possesses a live-wire (and dark) imagination.

Carter Wilson’s last two books each won the Colorado Book Award in the thriller category–Revelation in 2017 and The Comfort of Black in 2016.

It’s not hard to imagine that he’s going to need a bigger shelf for the awards headed his way for his latest.

Full review below but, first, Carter was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail.

(NOTE: Carter Wilson will be at The Tattered Cover (Colfax store) one week from tonight on Tuesday, Feb. 13 for a launch event. 7 PM.)


Question: What was the spark for Mister Tender’s Girl? Something that actually happened (I certainly hope not)?

Carter Wilson: The book is loosely inspired by the true-life Slenderman stabbing in 2014. I remember reading the article about these two girls who stabbed a classmate out of tribute to a graphic-novel character, and it chilled me.  Then I read how the victim survived and I immediately stopping reading, because I knew my next book was going to be based on this. But I didn’t want to know more. I didn’t want to be driven by the actual story. Instead, I became very focused on the life of Alice, the victim in my story, and what struggles she has nearly fifteen years after surviving a horrific attack.

The Slenderman crime became culturally very significant and even was the focus of an HBO series, but to this day I haven’t seen or read anything more about it than about four paragraphs from the initial news story.

Question: Why New Hampshire and Massachusetts and back east for the setting of this one? And did you go to London and to research the quite atmospheric scenes over there?

Carter Wilson: I knew my story was going to take place over the last two weeks in October, culminating at Halloween. I wanted a setting that provided the right atmosphere, and I knew New England could do that. But I didn’t want a big city like Boston, so I settled on Manchester, NH. I spent a few days out there and skulked about a bit, and it was just perfect. I also liked the ties of New England to Old England, and the link of Manchester, NH to Manchester, England. I’m a big fan of Manchester Brit rock from the 80’s, and that’s carried through to Alice’s coffee shop, the Stone Rose.

I didn’t visit London for the purposes of this book, but I’ve been there several times so was confident I could capture the feel.

Question: Both Revelation and Mister Tender’s Girl rely, in very different ways, on stories-within-stories.  In the case of Mister Tender’s Girl, in fact, several stories. It’s an interesting approach. Conscious? Unconscious?

Carter Wilson: Yeah, it seems a lot of my books end up like that. The Boy in the Woods had that as well. It’s not necessarily conscious, I don’t think, since I don’t have a fully formed idea of plot when I start something. But clearly something is rattling around in my head about making my stories a bit on the meta side. In the case of Mister Tender’s Girl, I had a sudden moment of writing where I envisioned Alice receiving an unpublished Mister Tender graphic novel in the mail, and it just felt nice and creepy to me. And there were the stories of Chancellor’s Kingdom, an idea taken directly from childhood stories I made up for my kids at bedtime.

Question: One of the troubling, underlying ideas in Mister Tender’s Girl seems to be the whole issue of how we watch one another and make up stories about people we don’t even know. A feature of the modern age, no? Do you have something you’d care to say about the dangers of our online reputations?

Carter Wilson: I think we have moved on from the idea we can somehow hide as individuals. You really can’t. You can be as conscious as you want about being anonymous, but in reality it’s very difficult to do. If someone wants to find you, they can. If someone wants to spread information about you (true or not), they can. For Alice, she learned the struggle wasn’t how to remain hidden, but how to fight once she’d been found.

Question: The last time we had you here for questions about Revelation, you called yourself the “quintessential pantser,” which we know means you don’t sit down and plot out your books. But in the case of Mister Tender’s Girl, was there a touch of plotting? It seems like you must have needed to be very careful as you built this one. Yes? No?

Carter Wilson: Mister Tender’s Girl was definitely a pantser effort. I knew who Alice was, what had happened in her past, and then set the opening scene where she finds someone calling himself Mister Tender on her dating app. From there, I wrote willy-nilly, throwing as much as Alice as I could for about a hundred and fifty pages. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. But in that process I came up with the backstory of Chancellor’s Kingdom, Alice’s father, and the character of Mr. Interested. Then I spent the next two hundred and fifty pages tying everything together.

Being a pantser requires a lot of rewrites, because some storylines end up going nowhere or not making any sense, while others suddenly become much more interesting. But it allows for surprises, which I think it a great weapon for a thriller writer. I had no idea where the last fifty pages of Mister Tender’s Girl where going to go until I got to writing that part of the book.

Question: Okay, “Alice.”  There is one famous Alice in fiction who is to sort through a fair amount of crazy stuff and is also constantly wondering what is real. Conscious choice? And, related to that, you seem to like fairly common given names—Alice, Jack, Richard, Charles, Thomas. And so on. Is this also a conscious choice?

Carter Wilson: No, using the name Alice wasn’t a cognizant tribute to Lewis Carroll, although it certainly plays nicely along those lines. I wanted a simple, English name. In fact, I wanted classic names throughout the book, names that didn’t distract. I’m a big fan of common names, and I tend to avoid shortened versions (Thomas instead of Tom).

A bit of a weird thing I often do when looking for a name idea is search databases of U.S. Civil War infantry registries. There are some tremendous names in there.

Question: The notion of making victims a fetish—is this a subject you researched and/or have observed? Is this something more likely in today’s world given social media, do you think? Do you set out to write a cautionary tale?

Carter Wilson: I didn’t set out to write a cautionary tale but rather a story I just thought was intriguing. But certainly the idea of becoming obsessed with a famous victim is much more plausible today than, say, a couple decades ago. Just about anyone can be the subject of someone’s obsession these days. I didn’t research whether victim festishism is real concept or not, mostly because I’d be too creeped out to realize it was. But it probably is.

Question: How are you going to top this? No, that’s not the right question. What I meant to ask is, what’s next?

Carter Wilson: I’m always writing. I’ve been working on a new book for some time now that focuses on lost memories. I think I’m almost done, but I’ve pantsed the hell out of this thing and there are re-writes aplenty in my near future.

Aside from that, I’m very busy with the launch of Mister Tender’s Girl, and have a good number of appearances and marketing efforts to undertake over the next several months. We’ve also recently optioned the rights of Mister Tender’s Girl for the possible development of a television series, so fingers crossed we could see the story translating to the screen.


Carter Wilson’s website.



Alice Hill has done everything she can think of to leave her past behind.

She’s an ocean away from where it all happened. She’s changed her name, kept her head down, hoped that time and distance would disconnect her from a nasty, grizzly event that nearly took her life.

When she was fourteen and growing up in England, she was stabbed by two “friends” who were convinced they were being commanded by a graphic-novel character named Mister Tender.

That character, it turned out, was created by Alice’s father. Her parents split up in the aftermath of the near murder. Alice’s mother, after gaining sole custody, brought Alice to the United States. Years later, after her own self-described “descent into darkness” with a drug dealer named Jimmy, Alice buys a coffee shop in southern New Hampshire. It’s called the Stone Rose. Alice has developed a hard external shell. She likes how she’s changed on the outside, but it’s her insides that froth and churn with anxiety. Alice, for good reason, makes sure her work and home world are knife-free.

Mister Tender’s Girl is a taut, punchy thriller that’s constructed like a Matryoshka Doll of stories. (All the threads and inter-weavings are a snap to follow). First, there’s the Mister Tender stories themselves. Mister Tender was a bartender—“part human, part demon.”  Mister Tender was a master bartender—with an evil twist. He would listen to his customers like the most sympathetic mixologist who has even slung a cocktail, but then convinced those very same customers to do “very bad things.” Second, there are the stories Alice recalls that her father recounted, on the spot, at bedtime when Alice and her brother Thomas were kids. In fact, Mister Tender was born as a character in the fanciful “Chancellor’s Kingdom” where the stories took place.

The chills in Mister Tender’s Girl come early, fast and often. Alice is much like a more famous namesake in a bizarre wonderland. But Wilson’s Alice is not looking for anything other than privacy and to keep her secrets secret. And someone has found Alice. Searching a rarely-used dating app one night, she is matched with a certain “Mister Tender.”

Found, that is, and followed. Stalked. Alice, needless to say, is jumpy. And getting jumpier. Did I mention her father was later murdered and the killer was never caught? And now there is a mysterious package with an unpublished (or is it new?) Mister Tender story and an elaborate website and ample proof that Alice Hill’s true identity is well-known. Someone out there names himself “Mr. Interested” and suddenly Alice feels like her whole life is being viewed like she’s the salacious subject of one dark peep show.

In a few brisk pages we’re off into a dark, gripping page-turner told with a cool, matter-of-fact style. Alice, shaking off her role as victim, is forced to take matters into her own hands. There’s an edgy section in England when Alice revisits the scene of the crime in Gladstone Park and finds the sisters, The Glassin Twins, who attacked her. Secrets abound. Alice extracts them in grim, persistent fashion. Alice’s troubles are many—including a troubled relationship with her mother, an uncertain relationship with her brother, a wary relationship with a neighbor, and the fact that she hasn’t completely shaken a crime committed during her time with Jimmy.

Sound rich? It is. Sound complicated? It’s not. Carter Wilson deals these cards in a straightforward manner. In the midst of a creepy, sometimes bloody thriller (the events come to a tense climax on Day of the Dead, if that gives you a clue), there is a strong morality tale about victim fetishism and how today’s technology makes it easy to unmask anyone’s backstory and haunt them like a demonic ghost.


Previously reviewed:




Christine Carbo, “The Weight of Night”

Come for the scenery, stay for the characters.

Christine Carbo’s setting for her three books to date—The Wild Inside, Mortal Fall, and the new one, The Weight of the Night—is Montana’s Glacier National Park. Against the rocky-snowy backdrop, she has conjured an ensemble cast of characters who drive rich, complex, and character-driven stories.

In The Weight of the Night, Carbo’s tag-team co-protagonists are forensic expert Gretchen Larson and park police officer Monty Harris. Both are wracked by guilt from nightmarish incidents from their youth.

Gretchen suffers from parasomnia, a severe form of intense sleepwalking. During one of her unconscious sojourns when she was growing up in Norway, she committed a brutal act of violence.  She was fifteen years old. All her other sleepwalking incidents had been “fairly innocuous.” Except for this one horror. In fact, she earns the media nickname, “Nightmare Girl.”

For Monty, it was the disappearance of a childhood friend. Monty may have been the last person to see his friend Nathan disappear into the dark forest. Monty was twelve.

Gretchen showed up as a minor character in both The Wild Inside and Mortal Fall. Monty played a side role in The Wild Inside and was featured heavily in Mortal Fall. In her third fictional trek, Gretchen and Monty are front and center. (Sure, read the earlier two but The Weight of Night is easily read as a standalone.)

Carbo alternates Monty and Gretchen in each chapter as they circle two troubling cases—and each other. The first case is a disappearance of a teenage boy. The second is prompted by the discovery of a shallow grave, and human remains, uncovered as firefighters battled a wildfire that is causing alarm and prompting evacuations. Gretchen examines the details at the informal grave: “I could see the skull, slightly tilted to the left as if it was keeping an eye on the ridge, waiting to see if the fire could be controlled.” A metal detector turns up a belt buckle. That’s all.

Carbo gives honest narrative. Both Gretchen and Monty are told in first-person and Carbo dives equally deep into each point of view. Gretchen is aware of the incidents that haunt Monty. Monty is clueless to what weight Gretchen is dragging around. He only knows she doesn’t want to get too close. “Not that she ever said it directly—I could just tell by the precise and utilitarian way she treated me, treated everyone around her, for that matter. She had a lot of boundaries for reasons I didn’t understand but ultimately accepted.”

Monty knows about “emotional burial.” But “damn if I wasn’t curious,” he thinks.

So are we.

Gretchen’s deep, troubled world view is palpable. Once we know her inner landscape, we know how her past imbues every exchange and thought as she moves forward on the case. There is no short-changing here. The parasomnia bit is no gimmick. Gretchen’s dread is 24-7.  She wears the incident like a “cloak of guilt.” Except, of course, when she sleeps—and does everything to protect herself, including sleeping inside a sleeping bag with mittens and various tricks to prevent her from finding an easy way out to civilization should an episode occur.

Monty is haunted, too. Yes, there are things he could have done to perhaps prevent Nathan from vanishing. Such as, follow Nathan. But Monty’s woes are more generalized. All he must do is avoid doing the same thing again, including being a 12-year-old. Monty is plenty aware of his emotional baggage, but it’s Gretchen’s sleep cycle (and the condition she does not want publicized) that makes us nervous. Still, both are keenly self-aware of their emotional DNA.

As the case moves forward, Gretchen approaches clues via the elemental details. In a land of tracking and wide-open vistas, it’s a man-made bit of fiber that puts her on the right trail. Threads. Monty has more of the standard police work to do—interviews and theorizing, trying to come up with scenarios. Both Monty and Gretchen encounter the rugged, raw citizens of Montana that Carbo has portrayed before. Government distrust runs deep.

As the fire roars, Gretchen and Monty find themselves in increasingly close orbit and Gretchen, laying down to rest in an unfamiliar spot after an arduous day, unwittingly gives Monty a harrowing glimpse of the power of parasomnia. When you think Carbo might take a trip down romance road, you breathe easy knowing the writer isn’t looking for a cheap thrill or a cliché entanglement. And then Gretchen finds herself in a dire spot and the only way out is to do precisely the thing that both her unconscious and fully-awake self would never contemplate again—that is, injecting fear in another human being. (I know that’s not a spoiler, you’ll be too carried along by the story and depth of character to feel cheated by that little give-away.)

Will these cases help Monty and Gretchen better understand? Or cope? Or see a future? A way forward? Is it enough to merely survive?

Carbo leaves us with the characters—two very real human beings finding their way in the world and still struggling with the weight of life and their pasts—and some crackling good questions that resonate down deep in our bones.


Final note: I listened on audio and the reading by Sarah Mollo-Christensen (Gretchen) and R.C. Bray (Monty) were knockout. Sarah in particular used a breathy, thoughtful cadence inflected with a Norwegian accent that brought the brooding to life in terrific fashion.


Previous review of Mortal Fall (with Q & A with Christine Carbo).






Previous review of The Wild Inside.