Wednesday, October 19, 2016

THE DIG – Cynan Jones

I might never have read the startlingly good short novel The Dig had a poet friend whose eclectic tastes I respect but don’t always share not recommended it. I still might not have read it had she spoken in the same breath—as well she might have--“Cormac McCarthy”, a name that has irritated me ever since I read enough of Blood Meridian to hear in the author’s self-consciously poetic voice an unmistakable celebration of cynicism that made me want to dash a glass of cheap beer in what I imagined to be his smug face.
It didn’t help to know of his brilliant success, which for me elevates nothing more than my ordinarily healthy blood pressure. Had I a lawn and saw him on it I’d grab my 12-gauge and order him off. But enough of him whom I would name only a pet vulture after. We’re here to talk about The Dig. Despite critics comparing its writing to that of the aforementioned vulture’s namesake, I would read anything Cynan Jones wrote.
This young Welsh author seduced me at The Dig’s get-go. I came near to short-circuiting my laptop with drool (that’s hyperbole, for which I apologize, recognizing the need to calm down a tad before my blog administrator pulls the plug on this report). Jones seduced me even before I reached the following description, which some reviewers cite in their comparison with...the other:

He was a gruff and big man and when he got from the van it lifted and relaxed like a child relieved of the momentary fear of being hit. Where he went he brought a sense of harmfulness and it was as if this was known even by the inanimate things about him. They feared him somehow.
He opened the back of the van and the wire inside the window clattered and he reached for the sack and dropped the badger out. He spat into the dirty tarmac beside it.
The dogs had pulled the front of its face off and its nose hung loose and bloodied, hanging from a sock of skin. It hung off the badger like a separate animal.
Ag, he thought. The crows will sort that.

Were The Dig to continue in this vein, with “the big man” (we’re never given a name) carrying the entire weight in a saga of cruel, earthy brutality, the polite faint praise I’d have felt compelled to offer likely would have strained my friendship with the poet (one avoids outright dishonesty in literary relationships of this nature, and snarling or shouting discourse is unthinkable except perhaps when either or both parties are hearing impaired). It was our good fortune the other weight-bearing character is farmer Daniel, a decent fellow mourning the violent death of his wife, obviating any need to ponder those scenarios.

TBM and Daniel live near each other in a rural Welsh community, but they apparently have never met. Yet their lives, different as can be, appear on a collision course. Both men live alone, although Daniel feels a constant presence of the wife he lost recently when a horse kicked her head. TBM makes his living with his dogs, exterminating rats for farmers by day, and, by night, illegally digging up badgers from their burrows to sell to gamblers who pit them against dogs. We find Daniel birthing lambs by hand, an exhausting and occasionally heartbreaking job especially with the ever-present grief for his wife.
Scouting the countryside with his map of badger “setts” (burrows), TBM sees Daniel’s farm as a good prospect for his next dig:

The first sett he had in mind was too close to outbuildings with men and dogs he did not know. This might be the place.
He’s weak, the big man thought. He’s weak and he is a farmer by himself. He will be occupied. News spread out here, soaked out, and he knew about the loss of Daniel’s wife and why he was at the graveyard. He’s trying to get through on his own.
He knew the setts locally and knew that this sett was relatively distant from the house of the farm. It was walkable from his own place. It’s the one, he said to himself. A man on his own, what can he do?

It’s a setup crying out for the Peckinpah treatment: Borgnine as TBM, of course, and Hoffman as Daniel with Eva Marie Saint in the ghostly flashbacks. Alas, Rin Tin Tin and Lassie are obliged to sit this one out.
Facetious again, a tic I’ve acquired to protect my manly cover sometimes in the presence of beauty and elegance. The writing, oh, the writing, the story. The setting. Hemingway came immediately to mind as I marveled at the spare perfection of Jones’s word choices and his pacing and tone. Then I started thinking. Much of Hemingway’s pared-down prose and structure betray a studied dramatic air. In its time, this was new and different and it dazzled. Today it stands out a tad threadbare.
None of that in The Dig. It’s simple reality, stark naked humanity, this alone.

[find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog:

Thursday, October 13, 2016

ALL DAY AND A NIGHT – Alafair Burke

Alafair Burke had already published a dozen novels before I had any inkling she existed. And when it finally sank in that she did, I put off reading anything she wrote until a couple of days ago. Took me awhile to get used to the idea the Alafair I had watched grow up in her father’s novels wasn’t the same. Even then I no doubt shall always see the real one, the nonfiction daughter of James Lee Burke, through the same Louisiana bayou’s misty glow as Burke’s fictional character, Dave Robicheaux, continues to see his grownup Alafair:

Whenever I looked at Alafair, I saw the little El Salvadoran girl I pulled from a submerged plane that went down in the salt by Southwest Pass. I saw a little girl I called Alf who wore a Donald Duck cap with a quacking bill and a T-shirt with a smiling whale named Baby Orca and tennis shoes embossed with the words LEFT and RIGHT on the respective toes. The image of that little El Salvadoran girl will always hover before me like a hologram.

That’s from Burke’s most recent of his twenty elegant Robicheaux crime novels, published three years ago with the Alafair character a graduate of Stanford Law School and writing her second crime novel. And still instructing her father, as she has from about the midpoint of the series, to stop calling her “Alf”. I’d be willing to bet (were it not illegal, of course) that Alafair Burke, a graduate of Stanford Law School, a former prosecutor and now a law professor in New York City, instructs her father as well to stop calling her “Alf”. Knowing this, and knowing the power of richly imaginative writing and how it can carry you to a magical landscape from which it is hard to take leave, maybe it helps to understand my ambivalence toward venturing from the bayou’s misty glow into another, perhaps more objective light, even and especially one emanating from the same corpuscular soup (despite the myth being more fun, the real Alafair is JLB’s natural daughter). There’s the curiosity and the caution. Ultimately the first prevailed when I decided to read Alafair Burke’s ninth crime/suspense novel, All Day and a Night.

Not her father’s style in any way, but smart and engaging in her own. All Day and a Night is the fifth and most recent in a series starring Ellie Hatcher, a thirty-something (I think—maybe fortyish) New York City homicide detective. She grew up in Wichita, same as Alafair Burke. The plot uses a familiar serial-killer trope but with several clever twists. Hatcher’s boyfriend, an assistant district attorney, arranges for her and her partner to re-investigate the murders of five prostitutes for which a man is already serving life without parole (known in prison parlance as all day and a night).Why the fresh look? Because the victim of a new murder was mutilated in the same way as the others, a way that was never made public, suggesting the real killer is still unknown.

At the same time a ruthless, publicity-hungry defense lawyer lures brilliant young corporate attorney, Carrie Blank, from her prestigious firm to help spring the convict. The attraction for Blank, whose half-sister was one of the victims, is that proving the wrong man was convicted might help lead police to the real killer.

Alafair Burke and her father

Complicated indeed. And it gets more so, much more so, before eventually it all comes together. There’s something of the classic police procedural here as well as edge-of-the-seat suspense. And the writing is deft. So are the main characters. Here’s a taste, right at the start, right after Hatcher has won a bet with her partner, J.J. Rogan, that she’d be the one to finesse a confession out of the woman they were interrogating in the stabbing death of her cheating husband. This is the banter shortly afterward in the squad room between Hatcher, Rogan and another detective:

Rogan was handing Ellie a crisp new set of twenties from his wallet when John Shannon emerged from their lieutenant’s office and witnesses the transaction. “Looks like a nice wad of dough you guys got there.”

Ellie could already see where this was heading. The most effort John Shannon ever put into the squad room was cracking wise. With money changing hands from Rogan to Ellie, his wee brain was probably overheating from the collision of potential barbs: Would it be the attractive female detective earning her money the old-fashioned way, or yet another comment about Rogan’s family wealth? Lucky for Ellie, more often than not Shannon had a way of opening the door for her go-to retort.

You mean like those wads of dough you snarf down every morning at Krispy Kreme?” She tapped out a “bu-dump bump” on her desktop. “I’m sorry, man. You just make lame cop-eating-doughnut jokes so...damn...easy.”

When you got it, you flaunt it,” he said, patting his oversized belly. At least the guy had as good a sense of humor about himself as he expected in others.

Ah, dear little Alf, look what you've become.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Monday, October 10, 2016

Death's Honesty (13)

Callahan was standing alone at the defense table studying a sheet of paper in his hand when Blow emerged from the judge’s chambers. Gobble, who had left the hearing room shaking his head and making a demonstration of checking his watch as if in a hurry, was nowhere in sight. Blow stood for a moment, eyes on Callahan, still trying to fathom whether his imagination was playing tricks or if he was seeing an aspect of the cop he’d not noticed before.
Callahan raised his eyes from the paper, and Blow knew his second notion was the more likely. It was something in the way he held his head. The chin a little higher than usual affecting the planes of his face to give the cheekbones more prominence and foreshorten the aggressive nose. It was a pugnacious sort of tilt, yet it held a subtle mitigation. The tension ordinarily associated with this posture seemed missing. There was an absence of challenge. And the eyes corroborated this sense. They were fixed on Blow but the skin between them had creased, suggesting an incongruous uncertainty. Blow offered a single nod as if acknowledging a stranger.
Anyone still in there?” Callahan tilted his head toward bench, behind which the door to the judge’s chambers was closed. The tension missing in his visage was in his voice.
I’m the last one. Judge went out the back way.” Blow saw the effect his own stiffness had on the other—head position returned to normal after a quick swivel to either side surveying the empty courtroom. The creases were gone.
Let’s go to my office.”
I’m exhausted, Carl. Been a long day.”
Tell me about it. Witness room OK?” Blow nodded. Callahan folded the paper he’d been studying, and put it inside his jacket. He led them to the room on the west side of the building and opened the blinds enough to let in the late afternoon sunlight giving the room a coppery cast. He sat at the long table with his back to the window and Blow took the chair directly across, near enough that now even half-silhouetted by the back lighting he could see in Callahan’s face the same weariness he was feeling. The cop passed a palm over his shaved head and leaned forward with both forearms in front of him on the wooden table top. After a few halfhearted starts at small talk sputtered like the flooded engine of a lawnmower, he blew air through his lips, shaking his head a couple of times as if bewildered and fixed his eyes on Blow’s.
I think the bitch is back.”
Blow felt he knew exactly what Callahan had just said and what it meant but, unsure just how to respond, how much to give away if he was right and more importantly how much Callahan knew and suspected Blow of knowing or suspecting, he merely furrowed his brow and nodded, thinking to convey he had heard the words and was processing the various implications. But he quickly saw this wasn’t enough. Callahan was staring at him as if he’d lobbed a ball over the net and was waiting for the return. Blow had to say something.
You mean,” he started, staring back with matching intensity. He’d stopped nodding, let his words hang. Callahan’s turn.
You know who I mean, Joe. The Connie Rodriguez lookalike who always seems to show up in Leicester whenever we get a big-ass murder, who’s had federal warrants on her head for three years now in the theft of classified military property not to mention the murder of an FBI agent. That one. Last we heard she was calling herself, umm--
Moriarty.” He hesitated a beat and added, “What do you mean she’s back?
I said think. I think she’s back. Teach said he saw somebody looked like her last night. At the scene.”
Blow’s eyebrows shot up of their own volition. He eased back in his chair. “Did he talk to her?”
He did not. Says he was checking on the vics and looked up and there she was standing by the pier, looking straight at him. Homer was putting your future client in Teach’s unit—by the way, I advised him not to resign. Ogie’s in North Carolina trying to catch a marlin or some damned big-ass fish, so I told Homer to take a leave, that I’d write it up for him. He’s too good a man to cut loose like that. I trust him not to cross his wires working for you on this. I reminded him that just in case something like that were to happen, even inadvertently, Ogie’d fire his ass and get his P.I. license yanked. I probly didn’t need to tell him that but Homer didn’t seem to take offense, anyway--”
So what about Moriarty? Teach saw her, that’s all?”
Pretty much. Teach says he thought it was Rodriguez responding, although she was off duty and out of uniform. When he finished checking the vics she was gone. He called out. Nothing. There you have it. I checked with Connie this morning. Says she was home all night. I believe her.”
Well shit.” Blow knew he sounded natural despite his other concerns about Moriarty and the ever present possibility Callahan was trying to put something over on him. His voiced chagrin had more to do with the added complication to his agenda than with what Callahan undoubtedly expected of him. Good enough, although his scrutiny of the cop seated across from him had grown keener.
Yup. My reaction precisely,” Callahan said, and Blow caught no irony in voice or face.
Blow was in his truck when it occurred to him he hadn’t turned his cellphone on after leaving the hearing. He did so now and found he had one unplayed message. It was from the secretary at Patmos Evangelical, sent within the past hour. She was hysterical, her voice shrill, words coming between gasps.
Mr. Stone? Something’s happened to Rev. Curtis. That car came back. One of them. One of the ones that took that woman. They sat out there and honked the horn and Chris went out to see what they wanted and a man got out and it looked like they were arguing waving their arms and shouting and I got up to go out to see what was wrong but when I got out the door they were gone and I think they took Chris with them oh please--” The message broke off.
Blow pushed the button to reply. Got the answering machine.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

THE GLASS CHARACTER – Margaret Gunning

Might not be too late to flip The Glass Character from flop to fortune in one fell swoop simply by changing the title to Glass Girl. Sounds cynical, but I like to think it’s more the steak's-sizzle school of salesmanship. Implying of course ultimately one is selling the steak and that unless one is a charlatan one’s steak will live up to its sizzle. And if bacon happens to be the sizzle everyone wants, one perhaps should think twice about pushing steak. The hot sizzle in fiction right now is girl, and it’s been so for several years.

Girls, Girls, Girls: The Buzziest Word in Book Titles” screams the headline in a July 17 Departure article by Elizabeth Siles. Its subhead: “The one word publishers can’t get enough of.” And this June piece in USA Today: “Book publishing goes wild for 'Girls'.” Even The New York Times declares its hip, albeit with more restraint, in this May head: “This Summer, Girls in Titles and Girls in Peril.” Stieg Larsson launched the burgeoning modern craze eight years back with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Four years later came Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, followed in 2015 by Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train. The five biggest U.S. publishers came out with 20 girl books that same year, and the figure has jumped to 30 this.

Margaret Gunning’s The Glass Character hit the bookstores two years ago. It’s barely been reviewed. Not even kicked around by the NYT’s literary executioner Michiko Kakutani. Had girl been in the title I can’t imagine anything stopping it from arriving on Maureen Corrigan’s desk and thence aired on NPR.
Gunning and Lloyd

I trust it’s not too late for the disclaimer: The Glass Character is the only book ever in which I am honored with a dedication. Margaret Gunning, a Canadian author, and I, a Virginia scribbler, have been Internet friends for over a decade. I read an early draft of her novel and offered encouragement during the long arduous months she spent hawking the manuscript to publishers. We rejoiced when Thistledown Press, a boutique house in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, bought the book we’d hoped would be Margaret’s break-out novel. It was her third. The first two—Mallory and Better Than Lifeboth published by small Canadian houses, had received excellent reviews but no widespread marketing. The Glass Character was a more ambitious project, built around the all-but-forgotten silent movie comedian Harold Lloyd. The title refers to his fake signature glasses, which he wore to set himself apart. So why title such a novel as if it’s about a girl? Because it is. You don’t think I’d try to sell you a sizzle without the steak! Here’s the review I wrote after receiving my special copy of The Glass Character:

In case the name doesn't ring a bell, he's the guy with the straw hat and Woody Allen glasses, in the suit, dangling from a clock on the side of a building so far above a busy avenue the cars below look like ladybugs on wheels.

Harold Lloyd.

Movie comedian of the silent 1920s. Called himself the "Glass Character" because his trademark glasses were fake. No glass in them. The guy was a nut. Blew one of his hands to Kingdom Come fiddling with what he thought was a stage prop bomb. It was real. Deliberately gave himself powerful electric shocks to get his hair to stand straight up. Did his own stunts--the clock dangle, the shocked hair, pretending to trip and stagger on building ledges up in the sky, netless--a brave, some would say foolhardy, genius. Nut.

Knowing this and being acrophobic, I can't watch his movies anymore. It even scares me to look at the photos. I'll let Margaret Gunning watch the movies and look at the photos, and I'll read her reports. Well, then again, I don't have to anymore. I've read The Glass Character. It's all in there.

Margaret, poor girl, is in love with Harold Lloyd. It started out as just a fascination with soundless images. Love snuck up and struck her dumb somewhere amid the exhaustive research she was conducting for a book about what was then still just a fascination. Love. Alas. A happily married grandmother, Margaret is still far too young to leap the gap into the day when her beloved Harold held sway with the girls of a baby Hollywood. Fortunately, for her and for us, she's a novelist. She has the skill to weave the magic carpet to carry her backward in time to those days of yore, those Harold heyday days, and set her gently down along the path the love of her dreams must follow for there to be a rebirth in the imaginations and hearts of Harold Lloyd admirers evermore. She's woven that carpet. It's large enough to take us with her on that long strange trip. I rode along on a test flight. We made it back, and I'm still agog.

When we stepped off the carpet in la la land I saw that Margaret had changed. No longer the familiar author of two of my favorite novels--Better than Life and Mallory--she'd become sixteen-year-old Jane Chorney, a virgin and erstwhile soda jerk in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a terrible crush on movie idol Harold Lloyd. Soon after we landed, Margaret /Jane (and later "Muriel", as you will learn) decided to pack up her meager belongings, cash in her chips (two cents shy of fifty bucks) and head to Hollywood and into the arms of her eternal love. I might have tried to instill sense in her were I anything more than invisible eyes and ears. Unfortunately I had lost my voice and corporeal substance upon alighting in the Santa Fe dust.

So it was off to Hollywood via a wearying, bumpy bus ride, Margaret/Jane/Muriel full of glitzy dreams and innocence, and me hunkered weightless, mute and unseen on her delicate shoulder.

I won't say more. I took no notes and had to avert my gaze any number of times during moments that really were none of my personal concern. The Glass Character is Margaret/Jane/Muriel's story, not mine. What I did see and hear, and learn during our holiday in history is captured with such lucid, insightful poignancy I can't help but wonder if Margaret didn't in fact remain there, dictating her journal to a holographic image of herself in the distant future tapping on a keyboard somewhere in a place called Coquitlam, B.C.

So. Disingenuous to drop the The and the Character and add Girl without changing the novel even a wee bit? I don’t see why. Might Glass Girl sell a few more books and still have a chance to get read on NPR and maybe kicked around or, should hell cool down a notch, actually praised by Kakutani? Maybe get a movie deal? I don’t see why not. Wouldn’t hurt to try, I reckon.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Death's Honesty (12)

General District Judge Melanie Lambert held the bond hearing for Chip Morowitz in her chambers Saturday afternoon. It was the first such court proceeding known in Virginia in which some participants were present via Skype. These were Chip’s parents, who had been unable to get a flight to the U.S. until Monday morning. Judge Lambert had agreed to the unusual arrangement, including the Saturday hearing, in large part to avoid the crush of media attention certain to be in full fettle as early as Monday. As of yet the only news organization aware of the killings was the Leicester Weekly Messenger, whose reporter, Mary Lloyd, attended the hearing.
She would be posting on the Messenger’s website that evening, thus breaking the story for any of the region’s several papers and TV stations with staff savvy or diligent enough to check, and from thence via commercial networks to anywhere in the world the double murder of two talented young people searching for Blackbeard’s treasure and involving a probable love triangle would sell newspapers and stimulate TV ratings. On orders from Leicester’s sheriff, Buford Oglethorpe, the usual bored weekend reporters making their routine calls were given no notice of the incident, as no formal charges had been placed at that point, nor had the social media grapevine yet reached critical fruition.
No.” The judge said it so quietly Blow wasn’t certain he’d heard it correctly, as if there might have been something more, or as if she’d spoken just to herself. Or maybe he only imagined she’d said it, as “no” was the word he was thinking. It was the word hovering in the judge’s chambers. Even Chip Morowitz was thinking “no”, a different “no”, Blow knew from the hunched, cringing shoulders in the too-large orange jumpsuit and the pursed lips warding off the “no” he feared was an instant away condemning him to another two nights in the Leicester County Jail.
The only “yes” in the room was coming from the squeaky, hidden speaker in the laptop on Judge Lambert’s desk. But of the two faces on the screen, only the one displaying a repertoire of emotional contortions under a carefully cropped cap of sandy curls could be heard arguing in the affirmative. And the argument was directed not at the camera on the digital device in Heidelberg but at the other face in front of the camera, the sharp-featured snowy white composed face partially visible through the artfully mussed cascade of auburn spirals Blow found it difficult to keep his eyes off.
I don’t think so, Allen,” Julie Morowitz had said, her calm contralto resonating with adenoidal conviction as she countered her husband’s too-earnest defense of his suggestion their son could spend the two nights with his sister and her husband, whom, Blow could tell from the discussion’s dynamics, Julie Morowitz didn’t like. Her final response to her husband’s repeated insistence the Newport News couple could stay at the Morowitz home those two days, after the judge stipulated Chip must remain in Leicester County were she to release him on bond, was simply to gyrate her head several times, jigging the auburn spirals like a miniature hula skirt.
Allen Bradley Morowitz II seemed to be trying one more time, but Blow heard nothing beyond “but” when his attention jumped to what he thought the judge had just said.
Blow had asked in his motion for bond that Judge Lambert consider releasing Chip to a relative until the parents were home, anticipating two days at the most before they could get a flight out of Germany. His intent was threefold: The first as a pro forma gesture to the parents whom he assumed would want their boy out of jail as soon as possible. At the same time Blow hoped to divert the judge from thinking yes or no on any pretrial release, as Fred Gobble would follow the prosecutor’s requisite to insist on no bond, period, because granting bond in any capital murder case was invariably a dicey proposition.
More importantly—more important than the de rigueur theoretical safety of the community--was the boy’s safety in light of what apparently had happened to Blow’s confidential informant, the elusive, unquestionably dangerous woman calling herself “Jamie Moriarty”. If in fact she had been arrested by Leicester deputies, this was one thing. As her attorney, Blow was responsible for following legal procedure to determine her status. But she had not contacted him since the curious text message he’d received less than an hour before the arrest—if that’s what it was, and if the men who appeared to be Teach and Callahan were in fact Teach and Callahan. If they weren’t, or, even worse, if they’d been chosen to resemble Teach and Callahan, Blow’s concern to keep Chip Morowitz from a death sentence by the court might well be moot. Callahan—the real Capt. Carl Callahan, whom Blow had come to trust as far as he’d trusted any cop in his career, was in the courtroom at that moment waiting to testify if needed. He’d gotten there before Blow and was talking with Gobble when Blow arrived. The two had acknowledged each other as usual with polite nods and muttered greetings, but Blow remained unable to shake a feeling he’d not quite recognized a dissonant nuance in what appeared to be Callahan’s routine professional manner.
Blow’s big gamble of the day was about to break. He’d requested the Skyped inclusion of his client’s parents on the chance they would make a favorable impression on Judge Lambert. He’d met Chip’s father handling a real estate matter for him, and found him to be intelligent and engaging. Blow had not met the mother, but he’d noted her pleasing appearance and dignity and the respect the two exhibited toward each other when he’d spoken with them earlier via Homer Price’s Skype connection. He was betting this impression would tip the scales with the judge, encourage her to feel more comfortable releasing Chip to these two people pending his trial. He knew the early release now was impossible, and hoped the “no” he’d thought he heard was for that and not for releasing the boy to his parents when they got home.
Melanie Lambert had won her appointment to the bench succeeding Roger Pendleton when he advanced to the circuit court. This had taken place not long before Blow opened his practice. He knew her appointment had caused some ill-feeling in the Leicester Bar, as she had been a York County lawyer. Presumably the most ill-felt was Fred Gobble, who had assumed the district court would be his by tradition. Gobble never complained, nor had he shown any resentment in his appearances before Judge Lambert. But Blow’s father, retired Circuit Judge Joseph Stone, hinted to him that Gobble had been devastated. Nonetheless his response to Lambert’s ruling was not surprising, as any prosecutor would have been expected to drop his or her jaw in consternation, feigned or natural, when she issued her ruling after interrupting the parents.
No more arguments, please,” she said in her soft, languid voice, which matched her heavily lidded pale blue eyes, the combination of which lured more than one inexperienced Leicester lawyer to learn the startling consequences of underestimating her in court when the voice suddenly hardened with a snapped reprimand followed by reddening of the normally pallid cheeks in a fashion that reflected only the embarrassment of her displeasure’s recipient. “I’m releasing Mr. Morowitz on bond, which I’m setting at five hundred thousand dollars, surety or property, to the custody of his parents only.”
But--” Two voices, simultaneous, from Chip and from his father via the laptop speaker, cut short by the hardened alto of Judge Lambert: “This hearing is adjourned.”
She flipped the laptop off, and motioned to the bailiff to take his prisoner back to jail.


Thursday, September 29, 2016

A MOMENT ON THE EDGE: 100 Years of Crime Stories by Women – ed. Elizabeth George

I committed a crime a year ago paying a mere 50¢ at my public library’s used-book sale for an excellent copy of A Moment on the Edge: 100 Years of Crime Stories by Women. I take some comfort knowing my crime was shared by the library itself for letting this sterling anthology of exemplary fiction go for what would be called in the ironically apt vernacular “a steal.”

The book, one of hundreds piled on long tables stretching across the library’s community room and arranged in no recognizable order, caught my attention with the name of its editor, Elizabeth George, a top-tier crime fiction author. Aha, I might actually have muttered aloud, as crime fiction is quite definitely an area of particular interest to me. Closer scrutiny of the cover revealed some of the contributors’ names scrolled around the perimeter. A few were already favorites of mine, and others I recognized as long overdue to feed my insatiable appetite for good crime stories. Clockwise from the top: Antonia Fraser, Nadine Gordimer, Shirley Jackson, J.A. Jance, Ngaio Marsh, Joyce Carol Oates, Sara Peretsky, Ruth Rendell, and Dorothy L. Sayers.

With these august names reaching out for me I could not afford to dawdle long enough to open the cover for the other 17 contributors and risk missing out on other treasures among the other volumes tempting the mob of other insatiable bibliophilic appetites stalking the narrow aisles I’d not yet attempted to navigate. I therefore thrust the intriguing volume into my voluminous Friends of the Library canvas bag, eventually making my way to the cashier who relieved me of five bucks and change for a bagful of books the combined weight of which came near to dislocating my shoulder by the time I’d toted it out to my pickup and thence from pickup to apartment where they’re yet stacked on the floor, those anyway that did not find room in the three nearby bookcases.

A Moment on the Edge remains in a special stack next to my descendent of the favorite-of-Anthony-Boucher Morris Chair (which I had to Google after seeing its ubiquitous mention in The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars and to my delight learned of its ancestry to the recliner I’ve just this second named “Morris” in Mr. Boucher’s honor.) Ensconced thus in the privileged pile, A Moment on the Edge has served me faithfully female contrived crime fiction over the past year as the occasional cerebral aperitif, dessert, or nightcap. I should suggest a precaution regarding my most recent sampling of the anthology’s piquant offerings: Ms. Oates’s Murder-Two likely is not the most tranquilizing bedtime reading one might choose. But then anyone who knows Ms. Oates’s work knows she does dark so dark it can leave one wondering if light ever really exists (we’re speaking metaphorically here, as one might wish to leave the bedside lamp lit after inadvisedly reading Murder-Two while nestled between the sheets). I read it this morning, and might well leave my bedroom light burning throughout this night as a ward against awakening in the dark, sweat-soaked from a dream of coming home to find my beloved mother dead at the foot of the stairs, her head in a pool of black fluid.

Squid ink”, teenage Derek Peck says is what it seemed like to him when he came home and found his mother in said circumstance. He’s horrified, in retrospect anyway. We’ve little doubt his horror is less for his loss than for the murder he’s suppressing. We strongly suspect this for two reasons. The first is that Ms. Oates loves to build suspense in the manner of a boa constrictor strangling its prey, wrapping muscular coil upon muscular coil upon muscular coil, squeezing and, the reader. She doesn’t do surprises. You see everything coming. Coming incrementally into focus, gathering definition in a maddeningly glacial pace.

The second reason we suspect Derek Peck smashed the back of his mother’s skull in with one of her golf clubs is that the story’s very first sentence tells us to: This, he swore. Yeah, right, son, the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God uh huh. Oh, we know the little punk did it, and we know Oates will string it out as she loves to do, building building building. And this is no police procedural. In fact I don’t recall a police presence in the form of a character appearing at all. Everything takes place, as is Oates’s genius, in the characters’ heads. Essentially there are only two characters besides the mother-murdering punk: his brilliant defense attorney, who’d gone to school with the mother, and, we gradually see, hated her, and, we quickly see, is helplessly in lust with her client.

The other character? The mother, of course.

Joyce Carol Oates

Oates’s sleight of voice moves with the slippery grace of a psychic viper through the living characters’ heads. Starting from an omniscient viewpoint, soon, quick as a wink, she has slithered into the head of the character she’s describing, becoming that character, and then back out again, and in and out, floating in through one eye and out the other. The way Robin Williams did with personae in his stand-up routines, only in writing—and there’s no laughter in Murder-Two.

But the writing. As girls of Derek Peck’s milieu would say: Oh. My. God. Snake-slick. Deathly deep. Super savvy. Astonishing. Sample? Here you go:

When Marina Dyer was introduced to Derek Peck the boy stared at her hungrily. Yet he didn’t get to his feet like the other men in the room. He leaned forward in his chair, the tendons standing out in his neck and the strain of seeing, thinking visible in his young face. His handshake was fumbling at first then suddenly strong, assured as an adult man’s, hurtful. Unsmiling, the boy shook hair out of his eyes like a horse rearing its beautiful brute head and a painful sensation ran through Marina Dyer like an electric shock. She had not experienced such a sensation in a long time.

In her soft contralto voice that gave nothing away, Marina said, “Derek, hi.”

Her? The mother-murdering punk’s lawyer. 

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]