Thursday, March 29, 2018


Robert Bruce Montgomery, aka Edmund Crispin did something seventy-four years ago that made a fool of me yesterday. I'll probably forgive him, posthumously (he died forty years ago) of course, but I suspect The Case of the Gilded Fly is the very last of his Gervase Fen mystery novels to assault my ego and my pre-frontal cortex. It most certainly was the very first.

I'm listing my reasons randomly rather than by degree of irritation, and I do this with a heavy heart because two of my blogging friends think highly of the novels. That they enticed me to try them I don't hold against them, as there's no accounting for personal taste. And one of the friends did offer the caveat that she found Gilded Fly "only so-so," so I can't say I wasn't warned. That Gilded Fly is not only the first in the series but also Crispin's debut novel might explain the problem, but I fear that's only a matter of degree. I think the kind of mystery novels that are plotted like complex puzzles just don't work for me as a rule. The type I prefer rely more on the puzzles within the minds and hearts of the characters, not those of unlikely circumstance designed by the author.

Not understanding what to expect in Gilded Fly, and relying more on what the characters revealed of themselves as the story unfolded, I decided who the murderer was quite early. It seemed so obvious to me, especially as Gervase Fen, the protagonist professor/amateur detective, and Nigel, the journalist, both assured me they knew who it was, too, and made it clear they would not share with me what they knew until they had to. With this in mind, I plodded along feeling smug watching everyone else guess and argue and reveal themselves as too-likely suspects. And then Fen, whom I'd already found insufferable, pulled the rug out from under me. Pfui, as Nero Wolfe would have said. Such flummery would have wasted my time except for some witty writing—though too witty by half at times.

One good thing about reading a book on Kindle is that all you need do if you wish to check a word is to highlight it, and up pops the definition, complete with pronunciation, in a little box.

Yet, it irritated me that Crispin was so shamelessly showing off, violating rules of clear writing by using unnecessarily obscure words in several languages. I felt at times as if I'd stumbled into someone's doctoral seminar while looking for the men's room. I wrote in a marginal note: "He's the anti-Hemingway!" adding the exclamation mark out of pique, knowing full well exclamation marks are frowned upon these days.

If perhaps you think I'm complaining a tad much, here's the sort of thing of which I deride:

"‘Well,’ said Robert kindly, relapsing into the constatation of obvious extenuating circumstances which is employed in instructing the very unsophisticated, ‘I’d swear to the fact that she went back to that room. Naturally I can’t be certain that she took the gun away with her.’

"The Inspector dismissed this cautious and scholarly emendation with a slight frown."

And this: "‘And investigated it shall be,’ he said with something of the procrastinating valour of Achilles when required to fight against the Trojans..."

To which I said to myself, "Oh."
Edmund Crispin

I did get a healthy laugh after a slight gasp at something Crispin did—and was reputed to have been one of the few mystery writers to do, address the readers directly. Here's what I mean:

"‘That’s all very well in a detective novel, where it has to be put in to camouflage the significant things – though I must say I think some more entertaining form of camouflage might be devised –’

"Sir Richard roused himself acerbly. ‘Really, Gervase: if there’s anything I profoundly dislike, it is the sort of detective story in which one of the characters propounds views on how detective stories should be written. It’s bad enough having a detective who reads the things – they all do –’...

" Richard lifted both hands, palms outward, in the conventional mime for despair. ‘Oh Lord!’ he said. ‘Mystification again. I know: it can’t come out till the last chapter.’"

Which is when I found out who- and howdunnit, dammit.

I gather at least one other Gervase Fen novel follows the pattern of Gilded Fly, to wit: a group of people all hate one of their members, who are then all suspected of his/her murder when it comes about fairly soon in the tale. In this case the hated victim is a brassy young narcissistic sexy actress in a...oh, hell, I'll let the novel's blurb do the work here:

It is October 1940 and, at Oxford University, the term has just begun. Robert Warner, an up-and-coming playwright known for his experimental approach, has chosen an Oxford repertory theatre for the premiere of his latest play, Metromania. Together with his cast he comes to Oxford to rehearse a week before the opening, but Warner's troupe is a motley crew of actors among whom is the beautiful but promiscuously dangerous Yseut Haskell. She causes quite a stir with her plots, intrigues and love triangles. When she is found shot dead everyone is puzzled and worried – most of the actors have had a reason to get rid of the femme fatale and few have alibis.

The police are at a loss for answers and are ready to proclaim the incident as suicide, but Gervase Fen, an Oxford don who thrives on solving mysteries, is ready to delve further."

He does, of course, and in the process batters my ego and sours my enthusiasm for puzzle mysteries perhaps forevermore. But I'll give him the last word: "'The trouble is, we’re all so damnably intelligent at Oxford,’ he said irritably. The fact of murder, which rouses an immediate instinct of self-preservation in the unsophisticated, has to penetrate to our animal souls through a thick barrier of sophisms...'"

Indeed it does (I lied).

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, March 22, 2018


The people who framed NYPD Detective First Class Joe King Oliver, killing his career, his marriage, his respect for the law, his self-respect, and nearly his sanity, thought they'd gotten rid of a weed when they pulled it up in their criminal garden. But rather than toss it in the incinerator to make sure, they left it lying on the ground with its roots intact. Dangerous mistake.
"They wanted to make you die," one of the conspirators tells Oliver later, but they decided instead to destroy his highly decorated reputation by using his darker reputation to bring him down.

My particular problem with women was, at one time, my desire for them,” he tells us thirteen years later. “It didn’t take but a smile and wink for walk away from my duties and promises, vows and common sense, for something, or just the promise of something, that was as transient as a stiff breeze, a good beer, or a street that couldn’t maintain its population."
The setup was clever: dispatched with a warrant to arrest a woman for car theft, Oliver finds her gorgeous and willing. The carefully edited video of what happened next was shown to his wife and to the prosecutor. After three months in solitary confinement at Rikers Island the rape charges were dropped. He was released and booted from the force, a broken man without a family or a job.
When I got off the bus at the Port Authority on Forty-Second Street I stopped and looked around, realizing how hollow the word freedom really was.”
With the help of one of his few remaining friends in the police department he obtained a P.I. license and opened King Detective Service. The unusual word “service” for a detective agency was all it took to win one customer, because, she told him, there was “duty and dignity in the use of such a word.”
His daughter, now a teenager who still lives with his remarried ex-wife, works after school as his receptionist and office assistant. It’s clear their relationship remains close. “I love my daughter,” he tells us. “If I had to spend the rest of my life in a moldy coffin buried under ten feet of concrete with only polka music to listen to, I would have done that for her.”
The “polka music” adds comic emphasis to this pledge as Oliver is a dedicated jazz lover, dropping names of famous musicians and describing their styles with more than passing knowledge. He’s also an avid reader, at one point discussing Herman Hesse with a college student on a Manhattan commuter train.
No dunce, it doesn’t take him long to put into play his suspicion from the moment of his arrest that he was set up and cut down presumably because his investigation into what appeared to be the biggest heroin smuggling operation in New York history was pushing too close to someone within the police department. Hired by a client to investigate the possible attempted murder by two policemen of a black civil rights activist, Oliver soon finds threads that seem to link that case with the one that ended his police career. His excitement is palpable. If he were Sherlock Holmes this is the moment he would say, “The game is afoot!” Here’s how he put it to us:
“I was born to be an investigator. For me it was like putting together a three-dimensional, naturalistic puzzle that in the end would be an exact representation of the real world.” Elementary, it would seem.
Walter Mosley
It’s at this point Down the River Unto the Sea veers from the gritty, harrowing, dark realism Mosley did so well with his Easy Rawlins series into a cinematic sort of adventure fantasy that requires some serious suspension of disbelief in order to stay with the story. Instead of having a childhood killer friend as his backup in dangerous situations, Oliver’s criminal sidekick is a man who lives up to the evil his mother cast upon him from the day he was born, including naming him after Satan. Now supposedly gone straight and returned to his prison-trained job as a watchmaker, he offers to help Oliver because the former cop gave him a huge break that kept him from a bank robbery conviction back in the day. Melquarth Frost might have given up robbing, torturing, murdering, and whatnot, officially, but for his old/new pal Joe Oliver, well, pretty much anything goes.
By sheer happenstance Oliver hooks up with Roger Ferris, a billionaire ex-crook octogenarian who’s sweet on Oliver’s sassy octogenarian grandma. Both are residents of a ritzy nursing home. “When you went to the can,” Ferris tells Oliver after the three enjoy a luxury breakfast at the nursing home, “your grandmother told me that you might have some trouble coming up.”
“‘You know grandmothers,’ I said. ‘Sometimes they get overprotective.’
“‘Well,’ the billionaire replied, placing a hand on my shoulder. ‘If she’s right, you just give me a call. You’ll find that there’s not much in this world that scares me He handed me a business card and gave me a nod.”
Of course that business card does come in handy when the fat nearly hits the fire--in more than a clichéd metaphoric way. Down the River Unto the Sea is considerably more rough and tumble and dark and ghastly than the Easy Rawlins stories I have read. I must say Walter Mosley’s gone quite far down the noir highway since his debut novel Devil in a Blue Dress, to which he has Joe Oliver make a wry reference when a client enters his office wearing a blue dress “reminding me of the femme fatale of one of my favorite novels.”
If I had to guess I’d give even odds we haven’t seen the last of Joe Oliver and his King Detective Service. And I’d be surprised if evil “Mel” Frost and Grandma’s big-bucks beau were not hanging around as well. They’re too interesting to abandon.
Oh, the ending of Down the River? Crazier, yet with a more realistic feel than any crime fiction I can recall. Mosley’s become a master of the genre.

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

Monday, March 19, 2018

XANTHIPPE AND HER FRIENDS – Beate Sigriddaughter

As a man raised in a "get me a Grant's" culture ordinarily I would shy from a book titled after a woman portrayed in history as having poured the contents of a chamber pot over the head of her husband. That the husband was Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, and wondering what he might have done to deserve it, helped me overcome this inherent reluctance. But what made the difference was that Beate Sigriddaughter wrote the poems in Xanthippe and Her Friends. Were I ever so unfortunate to have someone empty a chamber pot on my head, for whatever reason, I cannot imagine a person more appropriate to administer the retribution than a gentle, sensitive, good-humored, sublime soul who writes like an angel. I don’t know from personal experience if Beate Sigriddaughter meets those qualifications, but from her writing I’ve no doubt she’d measure up. I’ve been reading her for years, and each of those qualities shines with a celestial magic through her carefully chosen words, such as these:
“Sun glints on muscle and desire to go deeper into words and destiny like Michelangelo cutting at marble to meet his angels in the stone.”

My problem now is to discuss this profoundly enlightening and enjoyable volume of writing while remaining vigilant to unconscious traces of an upbringing that encouraged me to feel superior to women, not merely because I have a penis and they don’t but for their being generally regarded as “the weaker sex.” Had someone turned me on to Kipling when I was much younger I might have shaken some of those silly notions off before they became ingrained. I have grown wiser with time, yet the damned reflexes still twitch on occasion despite my unmitigated and humbling certainty of which is indeed the deadlier gender. If I’m cautious here it’s not from fear of a metaphorical chamber pot but of contributing even an iota of additional pain to the feminine sensibilities of any who may read my words.

Another concern with reporting on Xanthippe and Her Friends is that its contents are poems, about which my learning is mostly auto-didactic and recent. I know precious little about the traditions of formal structure or its practitioners, or the language and criteria of formal criticism. I enjoy a poem mainly for the beauty of its associations, the ideas and feelings and visual impressions it conjures. An effective poem for me works like an exotic drug, relaxing certain tensions of thought and stimulating my imagination to unfold in the safety of a wondrous playground of sensual ideas. Often the effect is contained within a fragment, like this:
“with you I dreamed of wandering side by side, confirming our exquisite place in this maelstrom of molecules in the whirling of stars.”
Without question Sigriddaughter is a feminist, but the common injuries and inequities she addresses are delivered in a contemplative voice, the sharpness of its pain and rage clothed in a sense of nuanced irony. In The Wedding: Snow White, these selected lines bring into focus the inhumanity of a culture that encourages lethal competition and its consequences:
at my wedding celebration my unsuccessful stepmom is condemned to dance to her death on heated iron slippers. They are bringing them in now with smoking tongs.
How am I to enjoy my wedding night with this orgy of vengeance still fresh on my mind?
Here are my choices. Gloat and rejoice, dilute myself with drink or Disney bliss, or stand up to my true self at last,
This wedding is canceled until we find a better way. Any woman’s dishonor diminishes me.
The poet bravely addresses a personal frailty beyond her struggle to free herself from the conditioning of male-dominant tradition. A simple need of one woman. “Deep within me,” she tells us, “is an ancient fear that loving myself simply won’t count. And God, invoked for all-purpose love, turns out to be too distant for comfort. Would you please dance with me, if only just a little?”
Beate Sigriddaughter
Xanthippe was “not exactly the beloved wife of...Socrates,” Sigriddaughter tells us in the collection’s dedication. “For a long time her name was used as a synonym for shrew. I want to honor her memory, together with the memory of all women, sung or unsung, who bravely made and continue to make their way through this complicated existence of questionable attitudes with grace and rage and sadness and joy.”
Yesterday I tickled grass. I wanted to hear laughter, but it was just crickets rubbing legs in the wind.
Today grass tickled me. There are asters too now, yellow centers full of summer scent and whispering goodbye. –Beate Sigriddaughter

Thursday, March 15, 2018


There were at least 2,341 other things I wanted to be doing that December morning. Tramping around a dirty alley in fifteen-below temperature was not one of them. The alley lay behind the Avanti, the sort of chic restaurant where BMWs just naturally go of their own volition, not unlike homing pigeons, and where a mid-westerner like myself can pronounce no more than three of the items on the menu.
Had I heard this at a reading of A Cry of Shadows I just might have jumped to my feet and shouted BRAVO!, clapping maniacally and perhaps even stamping my feet in astonished admiration. Okay, maybe that's a slight exaggeration of my enthusiasm for the novel's first paragraph despite it's being one of the—if not the—very best ever written. And if the reader were willing, I would be there in the front row rapt and goggle-eyed hearing the entire novel.

In retrospect of my reading of the novel I would do Prometheus Hall of Fame author F. Paul Wilson one better when he predicted of the book’s 1990 debut, A Cry of Shadows will touch you as deeply as anything you'll read this year.” Read yesterday for the second time since then, it touched me as deeply as anything I've read in recent memory.
Maybe Wilson suspected somehow what I now know, something that takes me to a level of poignancy and mystery deeper even than the sublime excellence of the novel itself, that it would be Ed Gorman’s final tale featuring cop-cum-P.I./actor Jack Dwyer. Without a whisper of warning Gorman moved on to other crime series, abandoning Dwyer after his fifth outing.
On second thought maybe Jack Dwyer moved on, too, accompanying his creator into the ten-book Sam McCain series. As an actor Dwyer, with a little makeup, likely would have little trouble slipping into the role of the young, big-hearted lawyer/P.I. who makes his living in Black River Falls, Iowa, where he grew up and where more murders occur per capita than in Chicago or New York City—all of them solved, of course, by the intrepid McCain. Dwyer, in fact, grew up in an unnamed town quite similar to Black River Falls, as we learn in his penultimate adventure (as Dwyer), The Autumn Dead.

I daresay there’s yet another clue to Dwyer’s evolution, in yet another novel—Gorman’s debut, Rough Cut, which one publisher mistakenly labels the first Jack Dwyer mystery. This is understandable, as the protagonist, Michael Ketchum, is clearly Jack Dwyer trapped in an advertising executive's body, which Gorman evidently recognized at some point, releasing him to be himself in the subsequent Dwyer/McCain novels. I’ll even go so far as to suggest that Dwyer also portrayed Dev Conrad in a later series about a political operative with scruples and a humane soul in addition to the requisite dog-eat-dog savvy.
The fact that Ed Gorman’s background included advertising and political speechwriting, and, despite the cut-throat reputation of both fields was deemed by all who knew him even peripherally as a friendly, kindly man, gives us an insight to the true incarnation of these fictional characters. In the very next paragraph, the novel’s second, where Jack Dwyer describes the tawdry rear of the fancy restaurant his agency’s been hired to check out for possible security flaws, he finds a tiny kitten where dogs and cats are scrounging for food among the Dumpsters and garbage cans this freezing night. He picks her up and puts her in his overcoat pocket “so she could get warm for at least a while,” he tells us.
Even beneath my lined gloves I could feel her frail ribs tremble with cold. I carried her around and every once in a while she’d poke her head up and look at me with those sweet little eyes, but then she started clawing in such a way that I thought she might need to pee. So 1 set her down and damned if she didn’t immediately lift her cute little tail and make a small clump of snow corn yellow. Then she bounded off and I wondered if I maybe shouldn’t have taken her home.”

In the same paragraph, he sheds enough more light on his character to avert our mistaking him for a spinster cat lady in disguise. He tells us “the woman I see” had been gone a week on a skiing trip (with people from an advertising agency—aha!) “and I was in need of company...In some peculiar way, I felt jilted by the kitty, which should tell you something about the state of my self-esteem.”
Although the kitten shows up again in this story, Dwyer wastes no time pining for her, at least not after he meets one of the restaurant’s bartenders: “She had intelligent brown eyes and a sad sweet face. There was an air of irony about her, as if she had seen enough to know that little of it was worth any personal grief. She carried an extra fifteen pounds with erotic elegance. In her white blouse and black slacks, she looked newly showered and fresh. She had radiant, thick dark hair that tumbled to frail shoulders. She smelled wonderful.” Uh huh.
  While I missed this when I first read A Cry of Shadows, for good reason, as the political landscape was a tad different back then, this time I couldn’t avoid the astonishing irony of one of the central characters—Richard Coburn, one of the restaurant’s owners. In the 1990 novel he’s described as a blond, oversized, obnoxious bully:
He was a big, violent child who was almost psychotic about getting his own way. He had very specific goals and they mostly had to do with money and power and he didn’t let anything stop him from reaching those goals...I kept thinking of him as Jay Gatsby, the poor boy trying so uselessly to be something he was not and never could be, destroyed ultimately not by the mendacity of others but by his own self-indulgent naïveté.”
It was approval. That’s what he wanted,” one of Coburn’s many sexual conquests tells Dwyer. “I mean, I don’t think he suffered from satyriasis or anything. But he did need approval. From men he got envy. He took pleasure in taking things away from them— their money or their businesses or their women.”
A male acquaintance told him, “Whenever Richard got real low, he’d start hitting on the women really hard. He liked his booze but nothing seemed to work for his self-esteem like women.”
Prescient, maybe? One might dream, but in real time more likely just archetypal.
Coburn had hired Dwyer’s agency because he suspected some undefined trouble at the restaurant. Soon after Dwyer’s inspection, Coburn is found shot to death in his car outside the place. The immediate suspect is a young black busboy Coburn had lashed out at in Dwyer’s presence for tracking mud on the ballroom floor. Dwyer, who doesn’t believe the busboy did it, has plenty of suspects to investigate, including homeless people who hang around outside scrounging for food like the dogs and cats and harassing customers near the entrance. Coburn’s three bouncers helped him intimidate these people and run them off. Many of the homeless have mental problems and live at a nearby former church, now run as a shelter.

We walked ten yards into the darkness,” Dwyer says, “it was like being banished from Eden, the rich warm restaurant light receding, receding—and in the gloom I began seeing them, the ragged gray forms of the homeless staring at us, filthy faces and mad eyes.
Problems this intimate proximity of luxury and poverty create seem eerily allegorical to the society at large. Dwyer muses on the disparity now and again from a dispassionate viewpoint, more realistic than ideological. “I was at least as much a snob about rich people as rich people were about working people,” he tells us. “From my years as a policeman, I’d learned that malice and evil come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and social levels. It’s tidy to divide the world into the evil rich and the noble poor but it doesn’t work that way.”
Ed Gorman
As a mystery I found A Cry of Shadows to be the most artistically clever and baffling I have read, perhaps ever. The ending pulled my jaw down in utter aghast amazement. The larger mystery, of why Jack Dwyer vanished from the Gorman canon can no longer be solved, as we lost Mr. Gorman himself last year. But the legacy he left us of his deeply human characters and their gripping, haunting stories will be with us as long as people have the ability and the will to read. For me A Cry of Shadows sits atop that sumptuous list.

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

Monday, March 12, 2018

I BRING SORROW – Patricia Abbott


Back in the day, when I worked for a small daily newspaper, "Coal," as the first sentence of a news story, won high praise from our editor, and for a while was imitated by some of the writer's colleagues. It was lauded as original and catchy, more likely than the ordinary first sentences we'd been writing to entice readers into stories.

Alas, an opening like that in I Bring Sorrow might have been sorry as a lump of coal attempting to entice any fiction lover beyond a momentary gape and head shake.

Here's how Patricia Abbott successfully enticed me to read Lamb of God, one of the twenty-five tales in her astonishing collection of "stories of transgression":

The first time Kyle Murmer’s mother tried to kill him, he was nine.

Or this opening of Old Friends:

Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit,” Henry swore through clenched teeth, “You’re sure this is the right road, Gillian?”

Ah, the glorious unmitigated freedom to be bold, to jolt, to tell the truth! People say they prefer nonfiction because it's real. They say fiction is fantasy. Well of course facts are imaginary in fiction, but anyone reading I Bring Sorrow could not but agree that while no mainstream newspaper would dare take such liberty with the above-mentioned slangy term for feces, it’s how real people talk.

I read all of the stories, including those that didn’t entice me with startling starts. I read them all because I’d read and enjoyed Abbott’s two crime novels and knew that even were she to begin a story with the word “coal” her writing is so sly and original she’d have me gasping with delight and admiration by tale’s end. I shan’t reveal whether in fact she did start a story in this collection with “coal” but I will say she left me gasping with delight and admiration after every one of them.

One of the most intriguing of these is the title story—full title: I Bring Sorrow to Those I Love. There’s big-time sorrow here, big and hauntingly familiar. Yet there is a delicate, mystifying, almost comical aspect to the relationship between the cellist and her lover. I said “almost comical” because the two characters are so real I cannot help but feel empathy for them in their dilemma—for each of them. But who is the bringer of the sorrow? Should the blame be shared, as it usually is? Or is there another, a third sorrow bringer? One more selfish and wicked than we mortals can be expected to imagine? I think I hear the cello’s mellow voice now—it’’s plucking the theme from The Twilight Zone...wait...yes! Yes, I can hear it!

The collection’s first story, On Pacific Beach, is a tender one with a much more conventional sorrow. It’s about a woman who periodically visits her homeless, mentally ill mother wandering the beach with her grocery cart filled with oddities. The mother never recognizes the daughter as her daughter but as a familiar face she’s given an unfamiliar name. This poignant sentence touched my heart:

“She’s gotten her hands on a bright blue boogie board, which she strokes possessively. She’s a vessel of maternal gestures she never expends in the usual ways.”

The mother refuses treatment or conventional shelter, and seems perfectly happy making do completely on her own in her own unfathomable way. The daughter’s concerns for her safety heighten dramatically when she reads that a serial killer’s been murdering women on her mother’s beach.

This story’s ending made me sigh, with a chuckle mingled in.

I Bring Sorrow is a delicious salad of styles and tones and fiction genres. I could see Papa Hemingway grinning from the cockpit of his yacht, Pilar, as I read the fishing story “Um Peixe Grande,and Flannery O’Connor smirking enviously while sneaking a peek at Is That You?

And is that Philip K. Dick or Murray Leinster nodding approvingly at The Annas, set in 2097?

A Kid Like Billy takes place in Lebanon, Pa., but it might as well be some small town in Iowa or Texas, with Ed Gorman or Bill Crider watching us shed a tear as we read this poignant, tragic, heartfelt tale of senseless violence and a kind of understanding that allows justice to be handled with compassion.

Need a good laugh about now? Give Stark Raving a looksee. Two adult siblings fighting over the legacy of their recently deceased mother: five hundred Beanie Babies. This has a few twists to go with the nuttiness, but no real Beanie Babies were abused in the making of this story.

There are some tales of well-deserved revenge that brought out the worst in me as I laughed and almost cheered at the conclusions.

My favorite story though (I admit I had to pick this one at random because they’re all so damned good) is The Cape. It’s a spooky yarn with Gothic overtones and a plot arc that brings to mind great Russian writers of the Gogol/Turgenev ilk. It’s mysterious as hell to start with, based on a true story (which I confirmed on Wiki) about a forbidding man with aristocratic bearing who wants a humble tailor to make him a very unusual cloak. That’s all I shall say about it except...heh heh heh heh...

Twenty-five stories, and I’ve only scratched the surface. For interviews with Ms. Abbott and reviews by folks with vastly greater literary insight than I, click here.