Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Libby Fischer Hellmann: Interview

All of us here at Read Me Deadly are fans of Libby Fischer Hellman. We admire her two series: one featuring Ellie Foreman, a video documentarian (An Eye for Murder, A Picture of Guilt, An Image of Death, A Shot to Die For), and another with protagonist Georgia Davis, a police officer turned PI (Easy Innocence, Doubleback, Toxicity).

We love the 2007 hardboiled crime-fiction anthology she edited, Chicago Blues. It's a top-notch collection of dark stories from twenty-one Chicago crime-fiction writers including Stuart Kaminsky, Barbara D'Amato, Sara Paretsky, Max Allan Collins, Michael Allen Dymmoch, Jack Fredrickson, David J. Walker,  Marcus Sakey, Sean Chercover, Michael Black, J. A. Konrath, and Libby Fischer Hellmann. As Publishers Weekly says, "This impressive volume has soul, grit and plenty of high notes."

Last year, Libby riveted us with a standalone book called Set the Night on Fire, a thriller with a heart that showed us events from the tumultuous 1960s in Chicago and their reverberations in the present day, and an e-collection of her own short stories called Nice Girl Does Noir. This year, she's published both Toxicity, a prequel to the Georgia Davis series, and a novella called The Last Page that she wrote with David J. Walker. And, in addition to another book in her Georgia Davis series, she's working on two new standalones in her "Revolution Trilogy": The first, A Bitter Veil, will be out next year. In that book, an American girl falls in love with an Iranian student, moves to Tehran with him, and the revolution happens around them. The second is set in Cuba during the revolution.

Libby is a former national president of Sisters in Crime, a 3,400-plus member organization committed to strengthening the voice of female mystery writers. She has participated on judging panels for crime-fiction awards. She blogs with 10 other Chicago writers at The Outfit Collective and on her own website, Say the Word. Libby has also begun teaching a one-day, interactive workshop on how to write crime fiction.

When does she sleep?

We forgot to ask her that question in our interview, but we did manage to at least slow her down long enough to get her to answer a few of our other burning questions.

In one sentence, please describe what the writing process is like for you.

How about one word? Excruciating.

Really. I'm a very insecure writer. Which is why I am a master at procrastination. I would much prefer to answer interview questions rather than write. And when I do sit down to write, I'm my own worst enemy. I equivocate, revise, and edit dozens of times. I'd still be revising my first book if there hadn't been a deadline.

Your crime-fiction series books are very specifically set in Chicago's North Shore suburbs. Have you considered setting a mystery elsewhere?

I have and I did. In An Image of Death, my third novel, several chapters took place in Armenia and Soviet Georgia. In Doubleback Georgia went to Arizona and Wisconsin. In Set the Night on Fire, there were scenes in Wisconsin and Michigan. Then I really got brave and set my next release, A Bitter Veil, almost completely in Iran. And the book after that will be set largely in Cuba.

Over the years I've experimented much more – and widely – in my short stories. I have stories set in Pre-war Berlin, Texas, Washington, DC during the Fifties, and the West.

Do you see any evolution in your prose over the course of the books you've written? What have you learned about what to do and what not to do?

No question. And you put your finger on it. It's not so much what to do, as what not to do. When you eliminate all the no-no's, you’re left with prose that often turns out to be rather straightforward. And that's the challenge. To turn that straightforward prose into memorable language, or language that immediately strikes a chord in the reader. Sounds so simple, but it usually eludes me. I love reading James Lee Burke for that reason. His prose is practically a prose poem and he inspires me. On the other hand, I love writers like Joe Lansdale and Val McDermid for the simplicity and punch of their prose.

What nonfiction do you love to read?

Biographies and histories, with a large measure of politics thrown in.

Do you ever get burned out on reading crime-fiction novel after crime-fiction novel, just to keep up with what's going on in the market? What other styles of fiction do you love? What from those other genres do you incorporate in your crime fiction?

I do have to switch it off for a while. Usually I'm reading nonfiction, but have been known to dabble in women's and contemporary fiction. Literary fiction less often.

Did writing a research-heavy novel, like Set the Night on Fire, tempt you to do more historical fiction?

Actually, I think it was my short stories that tempted me. The very first short story I wrote was set in the 1930s in Chicago. I also wrote a story set in the 1930s in Berlin. That gave me the courage to try other times and other places. By the time I started Set the Night on Fire, I already was "knee-deep" in historicals, but recent historicals. You'll never see me writing anything that hasn't occurred from the 20th century on. Of course, I said I would never write any historicals at all, so you have every right to be skeptical.

Which of your books was the most enjoyable for you to write?

Writing for me is NOT enjoyable. (See my answer to question #1). However, some are easier than others. I would say that Set the Night on Fire was pretty smooth sailing. A lot of it just flowed. Same with An Image of Death. I had a few moments of what I call "grace" writing those books, moments where the story was revealed to me, and all I had to do was follow directions. But that is rare. Usually it's a struggle.

Could you tell us about your previous experience in the news and communications business? Any thoughts about the current state of journalism and image management?

Many years ago I worked in broadcast news: at PBS, NBC, all news radio, and I even worked for (don't shoot me) Roger Ailes, when he ran Joe Coors' news operation, TVN. Charlie Rose and Charlie Gibson were there too, btw.

The second part of your question is another of those I-could-rant-forever responses. The state of broadcast journalism today is reprehensible. I hate the 24-7 news cycle. It has had the opposite effect of what was intended… now nothing seems important. It's all drivel. As well as being manipulated and sanitized by its corporate owners. Print journalism isn't far behind. The only thing left is long form or investigative journalism, and that, too, is too infrequent. I can't stand to be yelled at, and that's pretty much what happens in cable news these days. I just turn it off.

Although it might sound like an oxymoron, I do believe in image management… to the extent that I believe everyone has the right to tell their side of the story. Even corporate interests. What I do not condone is active obfuscation and lying, which is pretty much de rigueur these days. I hate to bring up the "good ol' days" – makes me sound pretty ancient, but when I worked in PR (which I did for over 15 years), we did try to stick to the truth. Sure, we'd try to spin it to our client's advantage, but we didn't lie.

Last thing I’ll say… I love Twitter for news. Not only is it my favorite procrastination tool, but I have an entire list of "news" organizations I follow… I can get lost in the links for hours. When I do, I become the best informed person I know about any exotic, strange topic. At least for an hour.

Please engage in a "what if" for a moment. You're not a writer, and your dream job has you doing what?

Um… producing major motion pictures or beautiful independent films with Viggo Mortensen as the star. I love being in the editing room, btw. Even more than shooting on location.

When did you first start reading mysteries and which ones most grabbed you as a new crime-fiction reader?

I came relatively late to mysteries. I gravitated toward thrillers in my twenties, but after a steady diet of them, they all started to sound the same. World in jeopardy of blowing up, hero saves the world, walks off into sunset with woman. My mother, though, was and still is a prolific mystery reader, and one day, when I was complaining gave me a copy of Jeremiah Healy’s The Staked Goat. In a word, I loved it. (You can find out why here: That started me down the road of reading mysteries. The rest, as they say, is history. Although I will admit to liking modern mysteries and suspense better than historical. Curious, since I'm writing historicals these days. But I am a World War II espionage junkie.

Has any book you read as a child or teenager had a lasting effect on you?

Blueberries for Sal when I was a little girl. Plink, plink.

Gone with the Wind when I was a teenager.

Catcher in the Rye also.

You look beautifully pulled together in every picture I've seen of you. How much of your heroines' wardrobes match yours, and how much is different, and why. In general, do you think women authors are more conscious of costuming--and are more secure about detailing it--than male authors?

First off, thank you! Most of the time I wear sweats, so when I do get dressed, it's kind of fun. Hmm… my protagonists... Ellie dresses like me. She'd rather wear jeans or sweats but when she needs to, she can pull it together, but only because her best friend Susan, the epitome of good taste, is her wardrobe consultant. Georgia opts for a spare, bare bones style. She wears pants and blazers, thick sweaters, and jeans. I think she only has one dress and one suit.

And yes, I do think women have traditionally been more conscious of clothing. We all know that what you wear makes a statement about your character. But what's interesting is that men are beginning to do it too, especially with their female characters. I think that's a hoot. For example, Joe Konrath has a character named Libby Fischer in one or two of his books. He called me at one point to ask specifically what she would wear.

I understand you're a major athletic talent. You won the coveted Worst Bowler trophy at the 1st Annual Bouchercon Bowling Tournament in St. Louis, Missouri, earlier this fall. How often have you been given a chance to brag about your prowess? Will you be defending your title next year? I'm afraid to ask about your practice regimen designed to decrease your bowling skills.

Ahh… I fully expect my athletic prowess will go down in the Guiness Book of World Records. It was quite a feat.

What comment from a fan has meant the most to you and why?

It didn't come from a fan. It came from a member of my writing group. I was reading the first chapter of my first Ellie book (An Eye for Murder) after having read two unpublishable books that featured two male cops. (Which was curious, since I was never a cop, and to my knowledge, a male either.)  At any rate, we read aloud, and the room was so quiet when it was my turn that you could hear a pin drop. Usually the other group members were busy writing down their criticisms of my work. When I finished I looked around and everyone wore a semi-stunned expression, and the woman who'd been the hardest on me said, "That was wonderful! You found your voice!" That is still the biggest compliment anyone has given me.

On your blog, Say the Word, you have some in-depth talk about traditional versus e-publishing. Bottom line, do you think the market for printed, 3-dimensional books is doomed, at least as anything other than luxury collectors' items?

Don't get me started… I'll never stop. No, I don't believe the book will just be a luxury item. It's really quite an efficient tool— portable, flexible, and relatively affordable. It makes no sense to me that we need to use a battery in order to read. In fact, I think the Big 4 (I think we'll lose a couple) are going to rally and ultimately control more of the ebook market than they do now, but they're going to have to move fast. I do think tablets are going to end up being the means by which we consume news and articles in the future, but books will always be around for lazy reads and stories.

A comet is due to end the world tomorrow. Tonight is your last dinner, and a chef will cook anything for you and three other people, none of whom can be your family or friends. In fact, for this dinner, you can raise the dead. What will you ask the chef to serve? Who will be your dining companions?

Viggo Mortensen. If he comes, I won't need anyone else.

The chef will sauté soft shell crabs, and whatever else he or she wants. Actually, I'd like to ask Abbie Hoffman if he thought he was for real. And I'd like to ask Harper Lee if Truman Capote wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and that's why she never wrote anything else. Oh, and I wouldn't mind having George Harrison jam with Dylan and Clapton after dinner. But Viggo is the only one I NEED to have.

Please tell us about a guilty pleasure.

Playing hooky and going to the movies in the middle of the day.

Think fast and say the very first thing you think of.

I hate this song:

These Boots Are Made for Walking (Nancy Sinatra).

I love this movie: 

The Godfather, 1 and 2.

My nightmare vacation would be spent in:

Washington DC in August.

Give me $100 and two hours and you'll find me at:


A "tchakabiskabockabob" is:

the same thing as a thingamajig in Russian.

Are you the sort of person who can't remember a joke to save your life or do you have one to share with us?

I'm a horrible joke teller. I forget every punch line. There's only one joke I do well, and it's a visual thing. (My daughter cracks up every time.) If you're lucky, maybe I'll make a video of it one day.

A must for a Chicagoan: Cubs or White Sox?

Cubs, Cubs, worthless Cubs…

Thanks, Libby. 

By visiting her website, you can learn more about Libby Fischer Hellmann and her writing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Talking Turkey

Have you had your fill of that feathered fowl with the wattle, with white meat, dark meat and giblets, but are now looking forward to a few days of sandwiches, soup and croquettes made from the same bird? Let's talk about a different kind of Turkey, the crossroads of Europe and Asia kind.

Blue Mosque
I have been sampling a variety of Turkish delights tinged by the dark side. Almost all the authors I will mention today use Istanbul for their backdrops. There is no place quite as exotic, mysterious, beautiful and complex. The ageless Bosphorus divides the city, as magnificent palaces like Topkapi and Tekfur capture the eye, and the ultimate in mosques like the Blue Mosque and the Sultan Ahmet lift the spirits.

Topkapi Palace
Each of these writers brings a different part of the city to life. My favorite writer whose stories are based in Turkey is Barbara Nadel. Her mysteries feature themes that focus on the multiculturalism  and the history of the area. Police Inspector Çetin İkmen of the Istanbul police is the head of the serious crime squad of Istanbul. He is of mixed background and it is hard to say what religion he practices, if any. His close subordinate, Mehmet Süleyman, is Muslim. Another associate on his squad, Balthazar Cohen, is Jewish. The crimes İkmen gets involved in cross many barriers as well. İkmen lives for his work and in Arabesk he complains that "I have this unpleasant feeling that when I don't work I actually cease to exist." He is on an enforced leave of absence while on sick leave due his ulcer problem. His son Sihan encourages him to read Orhan Pamuk's The Black Book, but he prefers reality to fiction.

Arabesque Pattern
Here in Arabesk, Nadel looks at this society that has existed for so many centuries and that still reflects the beliefs and cultures of the many invaders who have ruled for a while until they were replaced by other invaders. The Hittites, the Persians, the Romans, the Greeks and, finally, the Ottomans have left their mark on this part of the world. The title Arabesk comes from the popular music that is a blend of traditional Turkish music and ornate Egyptian laments. It has been called the "music of the slums." Most of its performers, many of whom come from the countryside, often have painful memories of poverty among the shanty districts and cheap tower blocks where the peasants live when they come to the city to work. The melodies are mournful as well as critical of the plight of the poor. Islam forbids the use of the human form in art, so in most art forms there are patterned designs that repeat almost infinitely. Mistakes are deliberately made to show that humans err. Arabesk is a story of errors that are repeated, leading to murder. The murder investigation itself is tortuous and also repetitive, but finally leads to a satisfying conclusion.

Underground Cistern
In Nadel's Harem there is much going on below the surface, both literally as well as figuratively. The sultans of yore had buried a system of canals and tunnels below the street surfaces so that they could travel from one part of the city to another in safety and secrecy. Many of these cisterns were in disrepair and close by crumbled walls that had been helped along in their disintegration by the terrible earthquake of 1999. One of the secrets in this exotic city is the use of young girls as odalisques–or female slaves–who fulfill secret desires for people of high rank. In this mystery, Nadel blends the past with the present subtly and beautifully. There are 13 books in this series, all with unusual cases in unusual places and I am making my way through them slowly because I enjoy them so much.

Lighter and frothier than these are the Hop-Çiki-Yaya Thrillers series by Mehmet Murat Somer. This phrase is used in comedy shows to mean gay. This series begins with The Prophet Murders. The protagonist is an unnamed individual who is referred to by several names including sweetie, "abla," meaning elder sister, hubby and baby. He/she calls herself a trannie (transvestite) and she is much more than that. She is a man or a woman as circumstance demands. She does martial arts, owns a nightclub, is a serious computer hacker and is apparently quite attractive, modeling herself after Audrey Hepburn. She gets into the murder business when she becomes concerned about the recent deaths of other transvestites in the community who are being marginalized because of who they are. The book is an education about the lifestyle, the rules of the community, and the ins and outs of the hierarchy of power in the transvestite community of Turkey–which probably isn't that different from anywhere else.

There are seven books in the series but only three have been translated so far. The tone is campy, but not overly so because our girl is serious and very real.

Another different taste of Turkey is from the perspective of a working woman in Istanbul. The novel is Hotel Bosphorus by Esmahan Aykol. But it is as unlike my working life as a doughnut compared to baklava. Kati Herschel is a German whose parents came to Turkey when the Nazis came to power. Her father was Jewish lawyer. She spent the first seven years of her life there before her parents returned home. She never felt at home in Germany, so she moved back to Istanbul and, after trying out several jobs, she opened the only crime bookstore in the city. She considers herself an İstanbullu despite the fact the fact that although she carries a Turkish passport and speaks excellent Turkish, the Turks consider her German. Her personal habits are quite un-Turkish in many ways: her friends consider her stingy because she offers them used teabags for tea, she walks rather than take a taxi, and turns lights off the minute she leaves the room. On the other hand, she is a smiley person and the Turks feels that that is really why she left Germany, because a cheerful person would feel out of place there.

One fine spring day, Petra, a friend of Kati's from Germany who is now a film star, arrives in town and gets reacquainted with her friend, but before the ice has settled in their drinks a man associated with the film is murdered. Kati has little faith in police of any persuasion and immediately decides that she'd better figure this thing out in order to help Petra. This story is written in a breezy, chatty fashion with asides to the reader. As Kati pursues clues across the Bosphorus, we learn more about the city and the past than the murder, but in the same way that she runs her store–and that is by the seat of her pants–Kati finds the answers she is looking for.

Exchanging sweet for sour, we leave Turkey for Germany, where Jakob Arjouni introduces us to curmudgeonly private eye, Kemal Kayankaya. He is Kati’s polar opposite. He is Turkish, but he was raised in Germany, holds a German passport, speaks German fluently but not Turkish. Jakob has too much experience of German resentment against foreigners. In the 1960s, Germany was having an economic resurgence and needed workers. A guest-worker agreement was signed with Turkey in 1961; Turks became the largest group of immigrant workers, and rather than going back home after 10 or 15 years, the workers stayed. Many of these immigrants do not speak German and prejudice is rampant. Kemal has his own attitudes about the local populace, so there is a bit of tit-for-tat going on as he describes Germans and, on one occasion, American tourists with far-from-flattering candor.

In Happy Birthday, Turk!, Kemal Kayankaya is asked to investigate the death of a Turkish worker, Ahmed Hamul, who was murdered in the red-light district of Frankfurt. Ahmed's family has asked Kemal for help; they know the police won't work too hard on the case. Kemal doesn’t have much training, but in the end he does have what it takes–which is the ability to survive multiple serious beatings in the course of his days on the job. Reasonable health care is a boon for Kemal. Arjouni's books are quite popular in Germany; go figure! I liked this Kemal guy and have the next book in the series on tap: One Man, One Murder.

I did read The Black Book, by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, after it was recommended in Arabesk. It took me a long time to get through and there are no words for my reading experience. I have been assured that I will get over it without help from pharmaceuticals.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sometimes a Cigar Is Just a Cigar (And Sometimes It's Not)

I don't know about you, but I enjoy reading about Sigmund Freud's theories. His model of the human psyche is fascinating. It involves a purely pleasure-seeking id ("Gamble, mud wrestle, drink, eat, have sex NOW!"); a scolding super-ego that casts morality in black-and-white terms ("What's the matter with you? You must obey every letter of every single rule all of the time!"); and the rational ego, which gamely attempts to strike a workable balance between the impulsive id and the harsh super-ego ("After work, I'll go home and make love to my partner. I'll be passionate but not weird.").

To pay Freud back for the entertainment he's provided me with his ideas, I wish I had the chance to offer him some good book suggestions. I think he'd particularly enjoy Scott Spencer's Man in the Woods, Libby Fischer Hellmann's An Image of Death, and T. R. Pearson's Polar. Characters in these books are right up Freud's alley. They deal with questions about civilization and their ids or super-egos in ways that might make Freud nod, but they could also break your heart.

"It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built upon a renunciation of instinct." (Sigmund Freud)

When Scott Spencer's Man in the Woods opens, Will Claff is on the run. He left a comfortable life as an accountant in Los Angeles when he lost a $5,000 bet on a basketball game and didn't have the money to pay it off. Someone was going to come looking for him, but just who that was, Will didn't know. The faceless quality of this someone casts him into a sea of paranoia. Soon, everyone seems to be looking for him; everyone's actions are suspect, even those of a dog he stole from a woman who had befriended him in Pennsylvania. It is this dog that Will is abusing in a park near Tarrytown, New York, when a good man named Paul Phillips makes a stop in the park on his way home. To Will, Paul is that faceless man. To Paul, Will is a man who needs to stop beating his dog. In a minute, they are rolling on the ground.
"[Paul] is coldly angry, and even in his anger he mainly wants to put a stop to the whole fight before the man lands another lucky punch. And even as his anger increases--as the numbness in his lips turn to pain, and he wonders if that head butt has cost him a tooth--it is not the kind of anger that is a portal to madness. No. What is taking place is more like a realignment of inner forces, in which the voice of reason grows fainter and the voice of animal instinct becomes more and more dominant, expressing itself in a long, low, gutteral roar. Except for that interior roar, Paul feels strangely calm."
When the fight ends, Will is dead, and a guilt-ridden Paul drives away with the dog in his truck. There is no question of abandoning the dog because it is "his witness, his confessor, he has seen it all and can still sit next to Paul, breathing with him, trusting him, the dog is the reason, the dog is what has been salvaged from the worst moment of Paul's life, the dog is the bridge which Paul walks upon as he inches his way over the abyss, the dog is God spelled backward." Paul will take the dog, now named Shep, home where he lives with his lover Kate Ellis, a recovering alcoholic who has written a best-selling inspirational book, and her 9-year-old daughter, Ruby, who were introduced in Spencer's A Ship Made of Paper.

Man in the Woods is a book of wry and stunning beauty, in which Paul, a carpenter whose work is so fine Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner employed him and a man who has always lived simply and followed his own personal code of honor, now feels set apart from his fellow humans because he killed a man. It's hard to say which Paul would find worse: that his killing remain undetected or be detected. He and Spencer's other memorable characters try to reassure themselves that they function in a rational world. As Detective Jerry Caltagirone says, "I don't accept the idea that things don't make sense. There's something out there, something that says this is okay and this is not okay." In Man in the Woods' waning days of 1999, amid fears of what Y2K will bring, Paul says that the things we think are going to happen, don't usually happen.

What happens in this book would make it an excellent book not only for Freud, but possibly for you, too. It is a psychological and philosophical thriller without the creepiness of a book written by Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine. It provides a chance for contemplating violence; happiness; the relationship between humans and the natural world; faith; fate; responsibility; and love, involving both people and a dog.

"The first requisite of civilization is that of justice." (Sigmund Freud)

To what lengths will a person go to save a relationship with a lover? To bring a criminal to justice? To simply survive? These are questions examined in Libby Fischer Hellmann's An Image of Death. The book begins with a prologue in which a young woman who has lost a tooth is making her way to a house in a bitterly cold Chicago. The landscape is so menacingly empty, so flat, that she wonders if she will take a step and fall off the edge of the world. In a bit, the scene changes to a different part of Chicago, where protagonist/narrator Ellie Foreman, a documentary video producer, receives a mysterious video that appears to show a woman being murdered. She feels compelled to investigate even after delivering the video to the police. This makes a full plate for her, as she's juggling a documentary on foster children; her teenage daughter; and her father, who lives in an assisted living facility nearby. Ellie's lover, who was raised in foster care, is obsessed with a desire for blood ties. Searching for his relatives in Europe is the most important thing in the world to him and, suddenly, his efforts may have produced results that threaten his relationship with Ellie.

While this tale unwinds in the present United States, in alternating chapters the clock turns back in the crumbling Soviet Union. Best friends Arin and Mika try to cope in Georgia as their husbands' military careers evaporate when rubles stop flowing in from Moscow. Months go by, and there is no money. There are no jobs. These brave young Georgians make reluctant compromises with their integrity just to survive. And when this story connects with the one years later in Chicago, it's clear that several murders result from their decisions.

Hellmann's writing is very well done, whether she's relating how the facets in a diamond are cut, creating dialogue, or painting the landscape of Chicago. She is effortlessly entertaining, and she has a gift for making a reader see the world through her characters' eyes, such as Ellie's, below:

"The storm dumped five new inches of snow on the ground, but the streets were clear by ten. So was my driveway, thanks to Fouad, who must have plowed before dawn. I was grateful. I was nursing a wicked hangover; I doubted I could have picked up a shovel. Turning onto Happ Road, I had to shade my eyes. Winter on the North Shore can look like one of those Currier & Ives scenes you see on cookie tin lids. Today, though, the sun shot bursts of light through the trees like artillery fire. Everything was too bright, too intense, too loud."

An Image of Death is the third book in Hellmann's Ellie Forman series. It isn't necessary to read the books featuring this likable protagonist in series order, but An Eye for Murder is first. Georgia Davis, a cop in this book, becomes a private eye in her own series, beginning with Easy Innocence. By the way, we're thrilled to say that our interview with Libby Fischer Hellmann will be published here this Wednesday, November 30.

"Like the physical, the psychical is not necessarily in reality what it appears to us to be." (Sigmund Freud)

While Hellmann's and Spencer's characters grapple mightily with their super-egos, one of T. R. Pearson's characters does no such thing in Polar. Clayton Dupree spends most of his day sitting in a chair with a head-grease stain and ruptured armrests, watching XXX-rated movies on his TV's Satin Channel. When he gets a chance, he likes to tell other people about the movies' plots, and he uses the meeting of his thumb and forefinger along the length of his arm to illustrate the male star's endowment (although one time Clayton "drew both hands apart as if he were describing a trophy carp"). The reader meets Clayton in the grocery checkout line, where he seems his normal self, "phlegmy, unshaven and fragrant in his ordinary fashion, wafting anyway his tangy burly leaf and sweat bouquet with his customary hint of livestock dander and his undertone of Scope." Clayton is in the middle of one of his pornographic descriptions when he suddenly stopped talking and "went exceptional on us." Here's how the nameless narrator, a resident of Virginia's Blue Ridge, describes it:
"That's when it happened. We're most of us in general agreement about that, but we're fairly fractured as to what exactly transpired. There's a school of thought that Clayton fell prey to the bar-code scanner, that the laser somehow bored clean through his pupils to his brain and fused together a couple of pertinent vessels. Among the Merck Manual devotees, spontaneous hemorrhaging is a popular choice, but that Quisenberry has sworn up and down that Clayton never so much as twitched or betrayed in any way that he was suffering some variety of distress. That leaves the considerable faction who subscribe together to the view that Clayton, with all of his vulgar talk and his pornographic pastime, had sorely tried the patience of the Maker who'd seen fit to render him simple, after a fashion, with His wrath."
Whatever the cause, the result is that Clayton lost all interest in pornographic movies. He now asks people to call him Titus, gets out of his chair only to add details with a stick of charcoal to a sting ray-shaped picture on his wall, and issues cryptic little announcements that foretell the future, but in ways that are understood only after the fact. So when Clayton says, "It's Melissa now. Sometimes Missy. Never Angela. Never Denise," a chill shoots straight through the laconic Deputy Sheriff Ray Tatum, who is still searching for Miss Angela Denise Dunn, who was a 3-year-old when she took a walk in the woods three years earlier and disappeared.

One doesn't read T. R. Pearson for the plot. There is a plot, but the joy is in the serial digressions, colloquial prose, and irreverent descriptions of the endearingly eccentric characters who populate Pearson's books of satire set in rural North Carolina and Virginia. This is a book that made me laugh out loud, but some tragic and tragicomic events and a general thread of melancholy tenderness weaving through the narrative make Polar, as well as Pearson's other books, a bittersweet and rewarding read. This is the second book featuring Deputy Ray Tatum. Blue Ridge is the first. After Polar comes Warwolf. I'd also recommend A Short History of a Small Place for readers who'd like to try this neo-Faulknerian writer. Pull up a chair and let Pearson engage your id.

One more id-engaging recommendation: any cookbook by dessert-maven Maida Heatter. Try her Maida Heatter's Best Dessert Book Ever. Heatter writes recipes that any person can conquer. And now, because I can't close without a quotation by Freud involving a man's mother:  "A man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Murder Most Fowl

For those who have never been there, Plimouth Plantation, site of the village built by the Pilgrims upon arrival in the New World, is a living history open-air museum near Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. Each actor, or "interpreter," represents as faithfully as possible the life of one of the actual residents of the Plymouth Colony in 1627. It can't be compared to a glitzy theme park or a Murder Weekend; in fact, it feels so authentic that it can be a bit disconcerting to visitors. Chickens and children on stilts or rolling hoops mingle with visitors and characters in the only street. Any character will gladly speak with visitors and try to answer their questions, but only in the framework and words of their character and period. Often they will let young visitors help to knead bread, saw logs, or husk corn.

When my daughter was around six we took her for the first time, although our already Epcot-saturated sophisticate was sure it would be a terrible bore. When the blunderbuss-carrying "guard" at the gate greeted us in friendly but archaic terms, she offered him a stick of gum. His response was perfect; he stared at it in wonder, asked what it was, then started to put it, still wrapped, into his mouth. By the time they found enough common language to explain (he seemed to think a wrapper was a garment), she was shaken entirely out of her complacency and prepared for the wonders to come. She watched beading and clam digging, and we finally had to drag her out of the apothecary's when the place was closing.

Near the Pilgrim village, you can visit the small 17th-century Indian settlement where actual descendants of the Wampanoags and other local tribes practice the ancestral skills of farming, fishing, beading, and boat building (hollowing out logs by burning) as practiced by their ancestors. It is well worth a visit at any time of year, although autumn is best.

Murder at Plimouth Plantation, by Leslie Wheeler, captures a bit of that enchantment. Eighteen-year-old Caroline, niece of protagonist Miranda Lewis, has come from her California home to spend a season at the Plantation "interpreting" Mistress Fear Allerton, a young wife and mother of the Colony. When Miranda, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, calls to check on her niece, Caroline bursts into tears and hangs up on her aunt.

Miranda drives down posthaste from Cambridge, but Caroline won't discuss her problem. Next morning, the very real severed head of the ex-policeman who plays Myles Standish appears in Mistress Allerton's work basket, and Caroline becomes the prime suspect.

The story is somewhat confusing, overrun with red herrings and several TSTL* moments for both Miranda and Caroline, but the descriptions of the setting and history are accurate and fascinating.

In Sarah R. Shaber's Snipe Hunt, recently divorced Simon Shaw is invited to spend a laid-back Thanksgiving weekend at a friend's cottage on North Carolina's rugged Outer Banks. He jumps at the offer–Marcus has a stellar collection of classic paperback mysteries he hopes to explore and three charming children who call Simon "Uncle." An archaeologist friend, David Morgan, has a dig in the area, so Simon travels down in advance and slovenly comfort in Morgan's RV to help sift through what a dredge is bringing up, looking for Indian artifacts.

When the dredge pulls up a barnacle-covered body in a World War II-era wetsuit, Morgan persuades the police chief to let him clean and classify the contents of the rubber collecting bucket congealed to the dead man's wetsuit. The body is identified as a local Navy frogman, member of the island's premier family, who vanished in 1942 when German U-Boats regularly patrolled the shoreline, spreading fear of enemy invasion.

The man turns out to have been stabbed to death, not drowned, and his collection bucket contained a small fortune in Confederate gold coins, apparently from one of the many wrecked ships just offshore. The story's combination of Civil War-era treasure, World War II local history, and current-day murder make quick and interesting reading. Forensic historian Simon doesn't get the restful long weekend he had hoped for in this well-written second in a series.

Whether you share your Thanksgiving feast with one or 30 people, at the beach or a crowded family table, watching (or participating in) a parade or football game, may it be bounteous with food, rich with friends and family, and sparkling with conversation. And maybe sometime over the weekend, with some time to pick up and enjoy a good book.

*Too stupid to live

Monday, November 21, 2011

Pass Me the Good Books and Mashed Potatoes, Please

My kitchen desk is a cascade of notes written with ever-increasing numbers of exclamation marks and capital letters. The notes reflect this week's chaos as my family counts down the minutes to our Thanksgiving trip to Grandma and Grandpa's house. My husband's parents live in Florida and it seems odd to me to visit them at this time of year. For me, fall is fires in the fireplace, piles of leaves to shuffle through, the honking of wild geese as they fly south and seeing my breath when I go outside. More than those things, however, the holiday of Thanksgiving is a time for being grateful, sharing with others and getting together with family and friends. Today, let's look briefly at books that examine ties that bind families and friends within the context of their larger societies.

From the first sentence in Assassins of Athens ("Andreas Kaldis once read or heard somewhere that the chatter never stopped in Athens."), we're taken into the mysterious social network of powerful old families and their influential friends who control Greece. The body of a teenage boy from a wealthy Athens family is discovered in a dumpster behind a nightclub. The investigations of homicide detective Kaldis take him to the heights of Athens society as well as its shadowy underworld and he finds friends in unlikely places. This is the second of an outstanding three-book series set in Greece written by Jeffrey Siger. It's even more fun if you've begun with Murder on Mykonos, although it isn't necessary. 

American writer Poke Rafferty has married his Rose. The "they-lived-happily-ever-after" ending for them and their adopted daughter, Miaow, whom Poke saved from life on the streets, is threatened by the appearance of a very bad man from Rose's past as a Patpong bar dancer, in Timothy Hallinan's The Queen of Patpong. This is a sumptuous literary thriller and the fourth book in a series set in Bangkok, Thailand. You don't have to read the series in order, but you'll deny yourself a treat if you don't. The first book is A Nail Through the Heart, in which we meet these characters and learn about Thailand through Poke's eyes.

When the eccentrically groomed and dressed Lucy Bellringer walks into the office of Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, he is reminded of a beautiful but tattered old bird of prey. Miss Bellringer insists that the death of her dear friend, retired school teacher Emily Simpson, could not result from natural causes and she's right. Barnaby and his sidekick, Sergeant Troy, put their noses to the trail and discover the relationships and events that led to this homicide. The Killings at Badger's Drift by Caroline Graham is the first book in a well-written traditional English mystery/police procedural series and is a fine book to read in a chair by the fire.

Eliot Pattison is a wonderful writer with three mystery/historical fiction series, all of which provide good reading. In the first Duncan McCallum book, Bone Rattler: A Mystery of Colonial America, McCallum's friend Adam Munroe is one victim in a series of killings onboard the Ramsey Company ship transporting indentured prisoners to colonial America. Because of his medical training, McCallum is asked to examine the evidence, but the crimes remain unsolved when the ship reaches America. McCallum's efforts continue against the background of the French and Indian War. This is a masterful book that depicts the struggles of individuals and conflicting cultures in the New World.

Gabriel Du Pré is of Métis ancestry (Cree, French and English) and he works as a Montana cattle brand inspector in a series written by Peter Bowen. In Coyote Wind, the first book of the series, Du Pré assumes the sheriff's role when the sheriff is shot in a case involving a long-ago homicide. This book is enjoyable due to Bowen's unforgettable characters and his knowledge of Cree culture and rural Montana. Du Pré is a warm and honorable man who doesn't break stride dealing with his lover and his two daughters, each more than a handful. Compared to Du Pré's friends and family, dealing with criminals is easy.

Helen Simonson's 2010 debut, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, is not a mystery but it is such a good book I'll mention it anyway. I read it at the suggestion of Sister Mary Murderous. When Major Ernest Pettigrew's younger brother dies, the 68-year-old Major develops a friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper. Their small English village, Edgecombe St. Mary, buzzes at the unsuitability of this relationship between two widowed citizens. The Major and Mrs. Ali are dignified, insightful, and completely endearing as they interact with their problematic families, the villagers and each other. I'd like to meet them in person, but meeting them on the page was a joy, in part because they both love books and have interesting things to say about them.

American Visa by Juan de Recacoechea Saénz  has been termed "sweet noir" by some of its readers. Mario Alvarez, an unemployed English teacher, arrives at the rundown Hotel California in La Paz, Bolivia, with a roundtrip airline ticket to the US, furnished by his adult son, who lives in Miami. Unfortunately, Alvarez has no visa and it's clear it won't be easy to get one. Fortunately, Alvarez is familiar with the enterprising characters of noir fiction so maybe that visa won't be impossible to obtain after all. I'm reading this book now and enjoying it very much. This is a creative writer who is new to me and I hope to find his other books available in English.

It's always a pleasure to share good books with family members and friends who love to read. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, do you have a book you could share?