Review of Ben Miller: River Bend Chronicle. The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa

RiverBendChroniclehigh-resforWebAbsent from blogging for months, I am returning to My Place for Mystery with  a review of a fascinating memoir by a fine writer who is investigating his own past. One review on this blog that has consistently created a lot of interest was a discussion of Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending, certainly not a murder mystery either but a novel which created a mystery by playing on the unreliability of memory. River Bend Chronicle is a memoir in which the author delves deep into his own memory, not playing with notions of memory, but pushing his own memory to its limits.

BenMillerhigh-resforwebBen Miller is a writer known largely as an essayist. He has published in many literary journals and his essays have been reprinted or noted six times in Best American Essays.  The memoir that I am going to discuss here is a verbal tour de force. It is tragic, it is comic, it is unforgettable. I cannot get it out of my mind. That is why, after writing nothing for several months,  I am now writing about it.

River Bend Chronicle  was first published by Lookout Books, Wilmington, S.C., March, 2013.

This review was  first published as Book Review: River Bend Chronicle by Ben Miller on Blogcritics.

“I know this vicious minute’s hour;
It is a sour motion in the blood,
That, like a tree, has roots in you
And buds in you.”

DYLAN THOMAS

This is the epigraph that Ben Miller chooses for his River Bend Chronicle, a nothing-short-of-amazing memoir of his boyhood spent in urban Iowa in the 1970’s, “decade of cultural meltdown and baroque morass” (95). A far cry, you might think, from Dylan Thomas’s boyhood in Wales in the 1920’s, but Miller, like Thomas, is an inspired wordsmith, language cascading flamboyantly onto the page, converting the “vicious minute’s hour” into a river of narrative time, currents flowing every which way: The reader either surrenders and swims with the flow, or flounders, perhaps angrily, has the sensation of drowning and gives up. But do not give up on Ben Miller. Follow him on his journey into his own past, and, although Davenport on a bend in the muddy Mississippi River is probably a city you never wanted to know, you will see it, feel it, hear it, smell it, and not be able to forget it, Ben Miller’s “only hometown,” his immeasurable Dublin, his heartland Venice, his cornpone Athenian theater: “This city was my early grave, and the debarkation point of a future’s bones” (329).

In the poem chosen by Miller to set the tone of his book, Dylan Thomas, precocious teenage poet as he then was, wrote:

I want reality to hold
Within my palm,
Not, as a symbol, stone
Speaking or no,
But it, reality, whose voice I know
To be the circle not the stair of sound.

Ben Miller, writing in middle age, wants urgently to hold in his own palm the reality of his early years, knowing too that its voice is the circle not the stair of sound. Expecting a memoir, you will look in vain for straightforward chronology. There is a Prologue and an Epilogue that provide an ostensible chronological framework but there is no “stair of sound” for the reader to climb from a beginning to an end. There is a constant circling around and around, a digging deeper and deeper into the reality whose voice Ben Miller knows. Through a myriad of memories, impressions, descriptions, fantasies, he captures that reality in his palm and presents it to us in this “junkification of a boyhood idyll.”

The words “junk” and “idyll” are not casually used in the subtitle. They accurately capture the central paradox of this memoir, a memoir founded in paradox, growing out of it, one might say, but not in a quickly comprehensible progressive way. We feel the pain and the joy of this boyhood, see the ugliness and the beauty, the junk and the idyll, sometimes, often, at exactly the same moment. This is not light-hearted dada simultaneity but is closer to the deadly serious simultaneity of Picasso’s Guernica, or would be, if Miller’s sense of the comic did not pervade his language. Deadly serious however is his desire to get everything right, “and to get one little thing right, . . . I had to pry open my history entire . . . ”(43).

His tool for prying open history is and was writing itself:

Like a fervent paddlewheel my Bic pen churned in rooms and in cars and in stations and everywhere in between, trying to dredge up what was at the bottom of it all, what I was meant to reap from life’s vexing currents.(43).

This is a memoir of childhood, but Miller is constantly aware of the “one big trick of childhood . . . its connectedness to and separateness from the adult life. Our first and oldest experiences tangle relentlessly with all that follows . . .” (104). His memoir embodies this relentless tangle. The Epilogue takes Ben’s story up to the present day of his own middle age, but there is no closure there on his childhood. Nor does the Prologue begin at the beginning, but right in the middle of his recovery from a starvation diet that slashed his weight as a fourteen-year old boy from more than two hundred to a hundred pounds. “Fat Years and Thin Years,” this was the only calendar that held fast for him, outside this it was a struggle to get any date right (43).

The Prologue puts us on the first page of the book into the Writers’ Studio, meeting in a tenement in downtown Rock Island Illinois, across the river from Davenport, Iowa where Ben lived with his mother, father and five siblings. One of the Studio members finds him waiting outside the door for his first meeting and, writes Miller with hindsight, “produces an old key that opened the door to the rest of my life.” Years younger than any of the members, the young Ben in his post-anorexic neediness and his passion for writing is immediately accepted into their circle with kindness. “I was the fool for love,” he says, and he found there the kind of love he needed, altruistic but not detached, the love of decent, concerned adults, and it carried him all the way through to the time he left for college when they packed him a going-away basket with everything he might need, from pen and paper to toothpaste (37).This farewell event, narrated as it is in the Prologue, circles forward far beyond the time of that first Studio meeting.

In the “present time” of the Prologue, he stands outside after the meeting and calls his mother on a pay-phone to pick him up. Foreshadowing many times later in the memoir where his mother leaves her children waiting in dangerous places, Ben waits:

I stood for a half hour in the close and cavernous night. Little lights here and there cast little flares that in the sky, over dark streets, formed an oily shimmer which blotted out all but the brightest stars. (8)

The vivid and detailed memory of this half-hour wait in a “failed brick pedestrian mall” in deserted downtown Rock Island, on the Illinois side of the river, links the beginning of the boy’s recognition of his own sometimes rhapsodic feelings for his hometown Davenport, across the river, with sober social commentary filtered through the pen of the adult writer, Miller, on the deterioration of America’s downtown areas. Sober? Rhapsodic? In Miller’s hands, they run together.

Sidewalks—whether teal-blue in rain or silvered with snow or cratered as the moon—were a reliable way forward, maybe the only way, whereas diagonal mall bricks reflected no lunar light and led shoes only to the end of the mall, a few short blocks away (9).

The Prologue does not straightforwardly tell the beginning of Ben’s story, but it throws us directly into Ben Miller’s way of telling it. The boy stands and waits, “a castaway on the mall, a fly in Illinois aspic,” and the honking of his mother’s car announces her arrival: His sense of her jealous fears that her formerly fat, now frighteningly thin, favorite son has found a new intellectual refuge, outside her sphere of influence, are woven into the fabric of the narrative, into the ride home from the meeting, over the vibrating bridge grating onto River Drive, the voice of the mother going on and on while the boy “listened to the warm whistles of cool river wind, noted the blue and purplish gleams bejeweling the levees,” along the ghost road to 15 Crestwood Terrace, the “roach-infested address” (328), their home. The contours of Ben’s upbringing, “the low-octane mother-son odyssey (11),” begin to emerge, interwoven here with his newly strengthened Writers’ Studio ambitions to “make it in the Beauty and Truth racket” (27). The interweaving of past and present, of place and person, of impression and commentary, moves the story along, or better put, back and forth, narratives thick with detail, descriptions rich with narrative import.

Dylan Thomas wrote simply in an essay on how he began to write that he had “fallen in love with words.” Ben Miller undoubtedly also. But his manifest love of words is matched by his desire for precision, his delving into every detail to find its essence. The language of the memoir has come a long way in all the years since he was nurtured by the amateur writers of the Studio, but from time to time he drops into his prose clichés “in the parlance of the Writers’ Studio,” such as ”stopped in our tracks” (38) , “my chest throbbed . . . my head spun” (441) . This is not mockery, it is grateful, loving remembrance. At heart he remains always one with his Writers’ Studio friends, caught up still in the Beauty and Truth racket.

But so in a way are his parents, and this is another of the paradoxes that make this memoir endlessly fascinating and impossible to categorize. His well-educated parents, outrageously neglectful as they are, are caught up at some level in the same racket. Where does the boy Ben learn first to love poetry? As his friends in the Writer’s Studio might have said, at his mother’s knee. The mother, who undoubtedly abused him, the mother, who lacked the “patience, feeling and practical skills to care for one child, let alone six” (258), the mother who incessantly “misquoted the world’s loveliest poets” (27), the mother whose passion for literature he shared and who like him “always calmed down a little when there was a book in her hand” (272), this mother with her lectures on culture and on reading was, as he says, “a lot of what I had” (17). His father had himself written novels, unpublished but bound in expensive leather, enough to line a shelf (31) in their filthy basement. Does one not detect at times a perverse tinge of pride in the “literariness” of the house?

Walk into any room in our home, and you encountered evidence of quashed literariness, the discarded notebooks, the capless pens, the anthologies butterflied on coffee tables—the luscious pulp innards of Dylan Thomas spilling out of butchered bindings” (28).

Yes, but only a tinge. The young Ben knew early on that this chaotic house, was a nightmare home to six children. His educated lawyer parents wanted to make great art and they lived in squalor, producing six children in just over a decade, children whom they “not so much raised as reordered or disordered” (90) in a dirty house, where cockroaches crawled through the laundry chute and over dirty dishes, where windows were never washed, where the refrigerator was unstocked, where sheets lay unwashed on the beds and unwashed clothes lay in piles on the floor from which children had to fish out soiled t-shirts to wear in shame to school. And yet, and yet, language, the boy Ben’s stepping stone to his own life, was the most important currency in this family of “word-junkies,” and he describes the “stabbing of dark by art” as being practiced by his mother delivering true-crime stories and Dylan Thomas lyrics with equal bobbing enthusiasm, as well as by the unsheathed and jotting pens in the Writers’ Studio (322).

That Ben learns in the Studio to distinguish between the desire to be artistic and the actual production of art is a testimony to the seriousness with which he and the Studio members regarded the writing habit. It is his passport to another life, and in another of the book’s paradoxes it almost kills him, and certainly breaks him down in middle age when an adult breakdown follows as the day the night the breakdown of the child who metamorphosed through sheer will-power from a fat boy to a skeletally thin boy and so escaped his mother. Except that even after the adult breakdown and the outward complete break from his family, he has not escaped her.

His mother, whose favorite he is, “escapes” with him, the fat boy, up to his fourteenth birthday to fast food restaurants, the younger siblings sometimes running in desperation after the car (209), left at home as they are to their father who sits seemingly incessantly behind his newspaper and a cloud of smoke. Ben cannot resist these escapes (“Let’s leave them all behind and go to the Mall”) any more than he can resist the Big Boy hamburgers and other fast food delicacies with which his mother plies him. As a child, he senses her need for him, and is aware that he is helping her by giving in to her less appropriate advances, as when in private moments at bedtime when no one else is around he focuses on the sound of the leaves rustling outside as she strokes him and talks about her marital problems, telling him stories—what stories? The Speck massacre of student nurses (anyone who lived through the seventies will remember that one), the Manson murders, all the while whispering to him advice about what he should do if he were attacked (12). Of course she is molesting him—moh-lesting,to use the word coined in this family of word-junkies. Miller, the adult, does not however cast himself unambiguously as victim–seeing that she asked with such need and desperation he sympathized more with her than with himself. Her hurting him became him helping her (12). Central paradox.

Writing, filling notebooks with words as a boy, he comes to see that she is hurting him, that it must stop and he throws himself into his hunger strike going down from 200 to 100 lbs. No simple chronology here. In telling of the years immediately before and after, he mingles the time frame to such a point that in one episode, the first book, chapter one, Twigmas, which tells the story of the Christmas Tree, made with astonishing and uncharacteristic virtuosity out of garden branches and twigs by the usually inactive father of the family, and christened “Twigmas” by the youngest daughter, the entire episode is told as if takes place in the earlier Fat Years when Ben was 12 and the youngest son Nathan, a new-born. But no, he realizes after narrating the episode, it all took place much later, including the hilarious trip downtown in the family car to get Christmas goodies from the bank teller at the drive-by window. He was actually fifteen, and thin, Nathan a tubby 5 year old, and the family had no car. No matter. The narrative stands.

Novelists like to play with ideas of the unreliability of memory. Julian Barnes did this recently with great success in his Booker prize-winning Sense of an Ending. Such play is generally less well received in autobiography. Miller, the autobiographer, is not playing with notions of unreliable memory. He is basically not playing at all. He is deeply and honestly researching his own memory. His narratives are packed with encyclopedic details of place and person, recreating “the curious glory of urban Iowa” as he experienced it, drawn, one can only imagine, from his own acute visual memory and from his years of jotting down notes in his “good old Mead notebooks” (272) as a child and teenager. He does not need to produce these notebooks as proof of veracity—they are probably long gone—but the details are marked in his being if he can dig down deep enough to find them. And find them he does.

Miller, the memoirist, does not need to withdraw the narrative of the Christmas Tree, or change the date to fit reality. Rethinking the memory, he notes the mistake, sees it in its context, and consciously allows the narrative to stand. More than one of the siblings, he suggests, would have insisted they had a car at that time. “Avid wishfulness,” he writes, “allowed us Millers to tolerate an unacceptably harsh—yet inescapable—existence. It warped the most obvious facts or even briefly trumped them to recreate a fraught series of noir fairy tales that were intoxicatingly lived . . . “(85).

The boy Ben himself grows up to be able to distinguish the noir fairy tale view of his family life, propagated unremittingly by his mother, from its ugly reality, and this separates him out from the rest of his family, causing his estrangement from them and winning him sanity at the price of several nervous breakdowns. He sees with painful clarity, as the other siblings do not, that their mother turned her lack of home-making ability into a virtuous bohemianism. In fact she does, Ben never fails to emphasize, many virtuous things, visiting her aged parents almost every evening, doing shopping for their neighbor, the elderly, orderly, bow-tie wearing Mr. Hickey, ably assisting “vulnerable urban Iowans” in her work at Legal Assistance (390) which supported the family for some time. She has impeccably liberal enlightened views—society is dominated by un-intellectual consumers addicted to needless conveniences (20). She can argue that the Miller family in its aggressive non-consumerism is fighting the good fight against philistinism. A small but dangerous step from here is to imply, as she frequently does, that cleanliness, neat clothes, decently cooked food, are inferior to the Miller household squalor.

She admires Brook Farm, the 1840’s utopian experiment in communal living where all shared the workload and all had time for intellectual pursuits and this gave her a shorthand excuse “for every family delusion.” She re-invents it, peopling it with a host of latter-day free-thinkers, and pretends that all her children are to be Brook Farm geniuses. Meantime in the real world of the household, “roaches made for the dishes below a splintered sill cluttered with pennies, hydrogen peroxide bottles, puckered soap slivers, a balding toothbrush flaked with baking soda (her toothpaste) . . .(222).   And yet, years later, letters from one of Ben’s siblings are still infused with his mother’s Brook Farm tone, the tone of:  “Aren’t we a wonderful family for setting ourselves apart from others, living weirder?” (421).

The mixture of idealism, self-deception and child neglect is too much for the young Ben to fathom. He loves and depends on his mother, as does any child, and consequently, he faces a devastating inner conflict: “If eager to be clear of her currents of pain, I was equally horrified of any final rejection and detachment” (15). That this should prove too much for a child will not surprise you, the reader, if you have ever fallen into an adult relationship with a person who in his or her own loneliness and need manipulates you, overpowers you constantly so that you, while wanting freedom become ever more dependent on that person’s love, that person’s need. Ben Miller’s memoir does more than evoke his own childhood, it embodies one individual’s attempt to escape this kind of bondage, an attempt that continues through his childhood into adulthood.

Years before the young Ben had met the decent souls in the Writers’ Studio, he had been driven by “many bizarre unbound nights with a despairing brilliant mother” to covet “solitude with pen and paper and books and blues records” and had at the same time been quietly educated by “the sweet courtly formalities” of daily visits to his elderly neighbor, Mr. Hickey (396).  He is well aware that his mother at her best taught him about “family tragedy and world literature and politics and gender complexity” (397) and much else, but he is convinced that the “plain good lessons” learned from Mr. Hickey saved him—everything from thinking of others, prizing discipline, to feeding sparrows, doing push-ups and using Kiwi shoe polish.

Mr. Hickey, a quiet, compulsively neat and orderly old man, is an unlikely lead character in a book packed with minutely drawn colorful characters—relatives, neighbors, school-teachers, school-mates: Mrs. Lombardo, ambitious mother of the little girl who wins tap-dancing contests and gets on TV, Mr. Rush, ninety-one year old neighbor, who has a passion for growing rhubarb, Mr. Creighton, father of a school mate, who invents and tries to market a backyard skating rink, Mrs. Rose, wife of the coarse and angry retired railwayman, who produces paint-by-number renditions of the Lord’s Supper, Mrs. Finch, Kindergarten teacher in heavy dresses, her face the marbled white of uncooked bacon—one could go on and on, but this is pointless, since it is not in lists and summaries that the point of the memoir lies, but in its pages and pages of descriptive environmental detail, the point being to dig deeper and deeper into the whole junkified idyll of the boy’s life.

The junk of the title, the crudeness of character, the ugliness of many events, all this is seen through the filter of Ben’s love for his hometown, his family and, yes, his mother. The masses of actual accumulated junk that have gathered at the bottom of the Millers’ garden are described themselves with ugly precision in an episode in which the boy Ben is ordered by one of his particularly brutal neighbors, Mr. Dankert, the Budweiser delivery man, to pick up the junk: “What’s it gonna be, turkey, clean-up or the posse?” The boy pulls out the front of his Penguin shirt and fills it again and again with the revolting mess, carrying it, plodding from alley to yard, yard to alley. Young Ben employs his usual method for dealing with horrors and fixes his mind on other things, wishing himself into a different time of day, the 10:30 hour when the whole Miller family actually sits and laughs together – at what? At reruns of the Monty Python show, the loudest laughter of all coming from the father of the family, the one who normally laughed least. “But it was not Python time, it was Central Standard Dankert Time” (359). Junkified idyll. From start to finish of the memoir, for all the sharpness of his observational powers, for all the masses of accumulated junk in his garden, Ben is the fool for love.

In the Epilogue to the book, the middle-aged Ben Miller carries the story through the actual years that follow his leaving home, some thirty years, and he describes his estrangement from his family, the way he deliberately cut himself off from his mother and father at the time of his complete mental breakdown, his father’s death, the death of one younger sister who had been addicted to drugs. For years he has had no contact except for minimal communication with one sister. But while some critics have suggested that this Epilogue therefore gives closure to the narrative, it seems to me that it still floats in the same continuous time flow of the whole memoir where things happen but nothing is finished. It is in the Prologue that Miller writes:“

I have everyone near, echo and profile. Daily I navigate the stormy presences of deep absences. Estrangement has not corrupted love nor made it less vital . . . (25)

But there is tangible evidence of the continual presence of deep absences at the very end of the Epilogue when he returns in his mind to a family scene at Shannon’s Cafeteria, “a 1930’s lunch phantasmagoria” which has figured in past episodes. He sees and describes as vividly as he ever did how Mother and he and his sisters, Elizabeth and Marianna (now dead), went there to eat in this “Depression-era hold-out” among the old habitués, with their unfashionable names and equally unfashionable clothes. “We saw our future in these ancients made of loose thread and thrombosis.” This past-time event is described in the very last pages of the memoir with all the vividness of a beginning.

Everyone, every scene is still near, echo and profile. Ben Miller is closer to his estranged family, the living and the dead, than many who have never lost touch with their own. The end of the Epilogue is still in the middle of the story. As is the beginning. Reality’s voice is the circle not the stair of sound. “Our first and oldest experiences tangle relentlessly with all that follows . . . and the new becomes old and the old new.”

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Talking to Sally Spedding about “Cold Remains”

Chilling suspense thrillers seem to be increasingly popular among readers of crime fiction.  They move in a world that is a far cry from the novels that introduced me to murder mysteries many years ago, the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, for example, with her genteel detective, Lord Peter Wimsey.

A straw in the wind: I recently read in the Harrowgate International Festival blog that chilling suspense thrillers lead the way in the 2012 Shortlist just announced for  Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award: “One of the most prestigious crime writing prizes in the country [UK], the 2012 short list reflects the ever increasing popularity of psychological and suspense-driven thrillers.”

I have often in this blog raised the question of why people read quite horrific thrillers for pleasure, but have not managed to provide answers to the question. After reviewing the sixth chiller thriller of the British author, Sally Spedding, I asked her some questions about this novel, Cold Remains, a novel as chilling as its title.  Her answers give us some insight into her motives and methods.

These questions and answers were first published as Interview: Sally Spedding, Author of Cold Remains on Blogcritics.

Cold Remains is one of your most chilling thrillers.  You have said in the past about your books, “I want to give people a fright.”  Certainly you frightened me with this one!  But I cannot believe that this is your only motive as a writer. You write extremely well, you plot brilliantly, you conjure up scenes with great skill—why, really, do you put your talents as a writer in the service of what some might call “horror?”

An interesting question which I usually shirk , not because to answer it honestly might lead some readers to think I carry too much ‘baggage,’ but because I have always possessed a heightened sense of the darkness in those people surrounding me and in the world at large, past, present and future.

I totally agree with the statement by one of Anne Enright’s characters in The Gathering, that ’people don’t change, they just reveal themselves.’ And it’s these revelations which have incrementally shifted the tectonic plates of trust and naivety that once—optimistically—underpinned my existence.  So my characters, such as Jason and Helen in Cold Remains will also have had their perceptions altered for ever.

Tennyson’s ‘little lacerations of the spirit’ are, to me, just as lasting as more obvious aberrations. They are the destroyers of dreams.

So I hope the ‘horror’ element in my work is rather more subtle than bloodied slash-fests.

One aspect of the ‘horror’ element in your work is the presence of ghosts. There are certainly ghosts in Cold Remains. One in particular might be called a main character, a mainspring of the plot. Heron House, the setting of the novel, is haunted in a terrifying and ugly way. This is perhaps a naïve question, but do you actually believe in ghosts?  And if not, isn’t it in a way cheating to let a ghost so strongly affect the action of what is in many ways a realistic novel?

I do absolutely believe in ghosts—or energies from those no longer with us—because I have experienced at first hand, the most extraordinary and inexplicable events. Even as I type this, the lounge door has just suddenly opened with a sharp ‘click,’ and I’m ‘alone’ in the house. It’s our dog who died two years’ ago, who always did that. That’s fine, but other incidents have put me in fear for my life.

I have seen the ghost of a man dressed in black leathers and huge black gloves with his rifle on his shoulder, when I went out on a bright dawn in Aldeburgh to watch the sea. The wind pulled his red hair pulled back from a face that was white, almost Cubist in its construction. One moment he was there, and beginning to point the weapon at me; the next, he’d vanished.

Then came our deeply haunted, brand new house in the Midlands, where men’s shouts could be heard on the landing which was always cold and where the dog’s hairs would stand up on his back. One morning, this led to my being almost suffocated in my bed by an invisible force. We discovered later that this development of new homes was built on a mediaeval graveyard, that we weren’t alone in experiencing bizarre happenings.

And there’s more . . .

I suggested however in my review of this novel that the real world of present-day Britain is as important to your narrative as any of the paranormal manifestations.  Is this so?

Yes. The realities of life in present-day Britain have left their mark on me, my family, friends and everyone else in different ways. Expectations wither. Unfairness and injustice seem unchanged despite numerous Government ‘sticking plasters.’ And for the young especially, such as Jason and Helen, the going is tough, with so many chasing too few jobs, and many employers paying as little as they can get away with. My parents were well-off, but I had to make my own way, with a succession of holiday jobs which later gave me plenty of material for my writing, but at the time, were degrading and exhausting.

As for many elderly people, their future too, seems grim. And don’t get me started on the sinister Liverpool Care Pathway for the terminally ill . . .

I think the writer has a duty to be realistic, because the saying that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ is often right.

You and I both know Wales, and so know that the story you tell in this novel is set firmly in Carmarthenshire, in and around the real village of Rhandirmwyn. The language of the characters and your language as a narrator is very much flavored by the Anglo-Welsh language, and the setting of this novel is not that of Celtic myth but of a recognizably contemporary Wales. How do local readers react to your placing horrific  happenings in this setting?

Rhandirmwyn’s  pub landlord happily came to the launch of Cold Remains and, like other residents, had previously been very helpful. To date, neither I nor Sparkling Books, my publisher, have had to field any criticisms on my fictional portrayal of this small village. I know several crime writers who are reluctant to use real places in their work. However, the very rural situation of Rhandirmwyn and the history and influence of its creepy, disused lead mines were pivotal to the story.

The real-world characters of Jason and Helen are very likable, and their developing relationship is important to the novel.  The end of the novel does leave us with question marks about them. Have you ever thought of writing a sequel? Or are sequels not something that interest you?  Having finished a novel, do you put it and its characters firmly behind you?

Another interesting question, and yes, the ending of Cold Remains does leave several possibilities open. Not least Helen and Jason’s future relationship in the context of both her shocking inheritances and his dogged belief in the power of his pen. Several readers have suggested I consider a sequel, and yes, I have already made tentative notes!

I can never put my characters firmly behind me, so they constantly lurk on the periphery of my sub-conscious. They have also appeared in dreams . . .

The plot of this novel is very intricate.  You have very cleverly interwoven events of the post-war period with events of the present, and so have gradually unraveled the secrets behind the story. Did you plot the novel carefully ahead of time or did it develop in such a way that it surprised and shocked you as much as it did me?

Thank you for these generous comments. Once I had the setting and the house, and the more I began to research the area (which brought a particularly gruesome discovery to light), I knew what the theme would be: A shameful past impinging upon the present. And, as in the film, The Whicker Man which lures the viewer into a false narrative, so my two unsuspecting incomers are reeled in. I’d also been mesmerized some years ago by the frank, shocking but exquisitely-written autobiography, The Kiss, by the U.S. writer, Kathryn Harrison.

In Cold Remains my characters also carry the story forwards by their desires and mistakes. And people are full of surprises. Plot ‘cages’ are not for me, and a brief outline is all I have when I begin. Like life itself, the novel is a journey.

I said in my review that we find a resolution to the plot, but no comforting restoration of order at the end of your novel. This has seemed to me to be so in your other novels too, and in a recent interview you implied that as far as you were concerned there was no “order” to be restored.  Would you like to comment more fully on this?

You are right. I don’t do the ‘comforting restoration of order,’ because I don’t think human beings – including the restless undead – are remotely capable of sustaining it, and because so often the official forces of law and order get it wrong. Experience and observation has shown me that lies, corruption and cronyism are everywhere in the world. Law enforcers are as flawed as the rest of us. We are too trusting, too afraid of disturbing our comfortable thoughts. Which is why good, investigative journalism is so vital to us all.  Writers or not.

The late Gitta Sereny remains my heroine.

Where are you going with your writing after Cold Remains?

It took me some time to recover from writing Cold Remains, but I’d already finished The Nighthawk, the first of a trilogy set in the Languedoc region of France, featuring an ex-DI from Nottingham who has retired too early and regrets it. After Cold Remains, I began and finished Carcass, the second in the series, and am currently working in longhand on the third, The Leper House.

Malediction, which I wrote six years ago and never dared showed my agent, is to be published by Sparkling Books on 17th September 2012, and to them I shall always be grateful.

Thanks, Sally.  Shall we dare to read this book?  I hope your remarks may give rise to some discussion about the why, the wherefore–and the current popularity–of chiller thrillers.

Cold Remains was published by Sparkling Books in 2012, reviewed in this blog a few days ago.  You can find more information on the work of Sally Spedding in her website and on the Sparkling Books website.  A review article of three of her earlier works appeared on this blog in October 2011.

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Back to the Chilling World of Sally Spedding: “Cold Remains”

“Who reads such chilling thrillers as Sally Spedding’s?  Mysteries that do not fit into any one standard genre but skirt the edges of several: crime novels, yes, but also horror novels, paranormal,  historical, they will not be categorized. Sally Spedding has herself said: “I’m not writing for your archetypal over-60’s female who lives in Okehampton and enjoys ‘cozy crime.’ I want to stir things up a bit. Give readers a fright.”

I wrote this at the end of my review in this blog of three of her earlier works, and now in Cold Remains, her sixth novel which has appeared in 2012 in the US, she has certainly done it again. She has given readers another fright – certainly this reader.  I find her novels terrifying, and I am still asking myself the question I asked last time: Who are the many people who read such chilling thrillers as Sally Spedding’s, and why do they willingly, enthusiastically give themselves such a fright?

I have just reviewed Cold Remains for Blogcritics,  and I am going to post this review here, and return in a few days with some of my questions about the novel, answered by Sally Spedding herself.  Article first published as Book Review: Cold Remains by Sally Spedding on Blogcritics.

Cold Remains is the sixth novel by Sally Spedding, well-known in Britain for her chilling thrillers,  hovering on the intersections between crime, horror, mystery, the historical and the paranormal.  Increasingly read in the U.S., she is a writer to reckon with, to dive into if you can handle truly creepy thrillers, to avoid if you want to curl up with a cosy mystery.

Sally Spedding is tough, as a writer, a thinker, an observer of the human race. She is a top-notch narrator, and in Cold Remains she tells a shocking  story, set in the present day in her native Wales, but harking back to the post-war years in rural Carmarthenshire, a Welsh county of great natural beauty, shading off in this novel to the horrors that lie beneath its verdant surface. These horrors are filtered through into the present by the tormented soul of a girl who lived and died in that earlier time, yes, certainly, a ghost who intervenes in the action of the novel. But this is not a ghost story set in the unreal landscape of someone’s imagination. No, like all Spedding’s novels, it is a narrative firmly rooted in reality, in the real life of present-day Britain where people, very much including the two main protagonists, are struggling to survive in increasingly uncertain economic circumstances.

But ghosts there are. The prologue to the novel, a one-page sustained moment of horror, experienced by a young woman on Christmas Eve, 1946, introduces in classic Spedding style the mystery that underlies the plot, and that will gradually, very gradually, be revealed as the plot unfolds. The Prologue entices us into the story; we do not know what to make of it,  whether we can trust the narrator to be telling the truth of what happened, the truth as seen by the young woman, or a version of the truth deliberately created by her. But we want to know. Our curiosity is aroused, and we do not forget that prologue although it is left hanging mysteriously in the air of 1946 while the narrative of the novel picks up in our own time, March 2009.

A young man in London, made redundant in his latest unskilled job, is now at his wits’ end—a realistic enough event of our times. Jason sees a notice by chance in a magazine in a doctor’s waiting-room. It advertizes a writing course in Heron House in the “beautiful Upper Towy Valley,” and since he is an aspiring writer of thrillers with nowhere to go, he impulsively makes a phone call to Heron House, and so takes his first step on the anything but beautiful road to that dark mansion with its large moss-covered roof and two tall but unmatched chimneys, “its gabled upper windows jutting out like mean little eyes,” a house where the big black rooks fly, sometimes even in through the windows.

Once at Heron House, he meets his shifty host, the supposedly successful Irish writer, Monty Flynn, and his two seedily sinister old retainers, a couple locked in mutual antagonism with the other main propeller of the plot, an attractive young Welsh woman, Helen Jenkins, a recently graduated art student who, like Jason, has come to Heron House out of economic necessity. She has a job there as a cook, an unlikely position for a girl whose primary culinary achievement is making stacks of white-bread sandwiches. These two, Jason and Helen, have seemingly wandered into the enigmatic world of Heron House by mistake – or have they been lured into it? — and the narrative is propelled forward by their gradual unraveling of the secrets of the house, as they uncover the horrific events of the past when a group called The Order committed unspeakable acts of debauchery and violence, events stretching their ugly tentacles into the present.

Spedding is a top-notch plotter, and the reader moves step by step through the terrible voyage of discovery made by these two perfectly ordinary, perfectly nice young people, gradually falling in love with each other, but also increasingly absorbed, each in an individual way, with the mystery of Heron House. The plot of this long novel is developed chapter by short chapter, the suspense growing as the chapter-perspectives  in the 2009 time frame alternate among Jason, Helen and occasionally one of the undoubted villains of the piece. And, every so often, one of most fascinating aspects of the way the plot is developed, we are privy in chapters of his own to the perspective of a good man of the 1946 time-frame, one Lionel Hargreaves, headmaster of the local school.

This is not a short novel in which characters are sketched in, and action is all.  We come to know the characters, inhabitants of the small Welsh village of Rhandirmyn, past and present, some psychologically damaged people whom we might prefer not to know in such detail, but some instantly likable human-beings, made eminently comprehensible in their setting. Through the chapters in which we follow Mr. Hargreaves, for example, an Englishman marooned in Wales, not speaking the Welsh language but trying to build a genuinely good school curriculum for his Welsh-speaking pupils,  Spedding builds a convincing portrait of the very different time-period in Carmarthenshire when the strange goings-on in Heron House began. As well-drawn and realistic a character in his time as Jason and Helen in theirs, we see him in his school with his pupils, children who appear in the second time-frame of the novel as adults. Mr. Hargreaves is not at all in the know, but he, like Jason and Helen, takes it upon himself to investigate Heron House and ultimately pays the highest price for his investigations. Thus are we led step by step through the unraveling of the mystery in the two time frames, post-war and present, coming together finally to show us the real truth of the narrative.

The strands of the plot are brilliantly interwoven.  And when we think we know it all, what happened in the past and where our two young protagonists are now, Spedding throws us a final twist of the plot.  If you have allowed yourself to be involved in their fate, this will knock you off your feet. Some “cold remains” have certainly been brought to light, there has been some resolution of the novel’s mysteries, we know now finally how to interpret that provocative prologue, but do we find any comforting restoration of order?  No, Sally Spedding does not aspire to this.  On the contrary, we find ourselves re-reading the title of the novel with a new even more horrifying verbal emphasis: Surely the cold remains.”

This novel was published by Sparkling Books in 2012, and is also available on Kindle and Nook.

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Interview with David Swinson

David Swinson, author of the new genre-bending detective novel, A Detailed Man, talks to us here about his novel, and opens up connections between his own life as a police detective and the complex portrait of Detective Simeon of the MPDC, the “detailed man” of the title.

David Swinson spent the 1980s as a punk rock music producer and film producer on the West Coast. In 1994, he returned to his home-town of Washington D.C. and joined the police force. He was a tactical plainclothes officer, targeting narcotics and crimes in progress. When he was promoted to detective, he worked robbery, burglary, and homicide details and was later assigned to the Intelligence Unit and Major Case. He became one of the city’s most decorated detectives.

But, as he tells us here, he was always a writer.

[First published as Interview: David Swinson, Author of A Detailed Man on Blogcritics.]

A Detailed Man is your first novel. The central character is a member of the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington DC. For sixteen years, you were too. People will therefore tend to slot your novel automatically into the police procedural sub-genre of crime fiction writing. Given the complexity of your novel, this disturbs me. Does it disturb you?

What disturbed me most was when my agent originally sent it out to a test group of about a dozen editors with some large publishers, and although most of them responded with very positive responses, they were hesitant because they didn’t know what category to fit it into. The book came close to getting a deal more than once, but “genre” was always the issue.

When I began to write this book it was always in the back of my head to try to bend the crime fiction genre. I wanted it to be a book that could be found in both fiction and crime fiction. I never thought of it as a police procedural, or a mystery, though. It is simply a book about a somewhat complicated man, who happens to be a police detective. The investigations and the mystery were always secondary to the protagonist’s journey through a short period of time and his take on the life and death around him. Yes, I was a real police detective and my protagonist is a police detective so I can understand how the book would be categorized as a Mystery/Police Procedural. I think being put into the mystery category bothers me more, but not because I look down on the genre or don’t want to be there. Far from it! It is a very difficult genre and some of the greatest authors write mysteries. But if you read A Detailed Man thinking it’s all about the mystery then you’ll be disappointed.

I plan on writing more Detective Simeon books. I have this naïve and probably unrealistic idea that I can redefine the crime fiction/police procedural genre in some way, make it more appealing to the general fiction audience as well as those who enjoy a decent detective novel.

You say in your bio that after years of working as a punk rock music promoter and film producer, you “pursued another passion—law enforcement” and joined the MPDC.  Can you explain your passion for law enforcement?

First and foremost, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Promoting punk and college music concerts in the 80s, co-producing a spoken word record for Atlantic Records and an indie film for New Line Cinema were things I just fell into after college—one right after the other. A natural segue of events, a wide-eyed naiveté. At that time I never realized the obstacles, how difficult certain things really were. There came a time, after the film with New Line and the subsequent struggles trying to get some other projects made, that I did realize everything. It wasn’t fun. That’s when I decided that this wasn’t what I wanted to pursue in life.

My father worked for the government and I grew up in places like Beirut, Mexico City, Stockholm and Mallorca.  Most of my childhood was spent moving from one place to another, never staying anywhere longer than four years.  I never really knew what my father did, but I always had this sense that it was something important—meaningful. Washington, DC was always home base between countries. I grew to love that city. All this came into play when I realized I needed to “reinvent” myself and do something radical.  I always loved the idea of police work, since high school. Deciding to pursue a career in law enforcement is not something you take lightly. It was something you had to be passionate about. I knew that much. Like Simeon, I was idealistic. I wanted to make a difference. At the same time, I knew I was a writer at heart. But I knew writing was something that would always be with me. I didn’t want to get to that point in my life where it’d be too late to try so I applied to the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC. I was accepted. I honestly didn’t realize how my life would change, and how so much of my life would be consumed by the work.

I consider your novel to be a definite genre-bender, but its plot does center on criminal cases and a detective who is assigned to these cases. Have you ever thought of writing something completely different, a novel with no crime to be detected? This may be the one way really to escape the shackles of genre categorization.

I’ve had a wealth of life experience, even before my life as a cop. Much of that is revealed in A Detailed Man. I’ve had other story ideas, but I’m always drawn back to those experiences left to me by my life as a cop, not only what I’ve learned and seen, but what I’ve felt. It changed me. Right now, I’m not finished with exploring that lifestyle. It has nothing to do with the process involved in solving crimes, even though that’ll always be a part of the story. I’m more intrigued with character studies, environment and ambiance.

Your Detective Simeon is a man who has suffered disappointments in his personal and professional life, and on top of that, he is afflicted with Bell’s Palsy. He is constantly battling weariness and depression in private while in public he is an impressively professional cop. Did you deliberately set out to create an anti-heroic hero?  And if so, why?

Yes, I wanted him to be a very broken man. Broken, but committed. Broken, but not realizing how broken he really is. The reality and sometimes downfall of those involved in police work is that the working cop will never allow things like depression and the stress of the job to reveal itself. If it’s something realized, you keep it hidden. Years of living like that can have a devastating effect on the body and mind. I like the idea of working with a character like this.

You do not pull any punches in your book as to the difficulties of being a cop in Washington DC. Simeon is not the only detective we meet who is over-worked, close to the end of his tether, and unsure that justice is being served in the system. But there is, I think, no cynicism in your portrayal of the police. On the contrary there is a strong sense of fraternity and of a desire to do a good job despite everything.  Does this come from your own experience?

Yes, definitely. As Detective Simeon said, “ . . . a bond created by fraternity, years and years of sodality engrafted in us through the installation of some magical oath.” Unlike any other career I can think of, it is a job that becomes a way of life. Your life does not belong to you. Realizing that can be difficult at times, but you find strength in that fraternity and the original commitment you made when you were sworn in. I realize how corny that must sound, but it truly was like that for me and always more than just a job.

 The fraternity of the police force notwithstanding, there is an amazing understanding in Simeon of the young men who early become criminals and have no hope in their lives. To me, this understanding shines through a very dark picture.  Can you say anything about this?

It is the victims and the families of victims that will always concern me most, but there is a socialization aspect when it comes to a certain type of criminal. I had empathy for some of those defendants because they were not only the product of upbringing, but also a failed system. Most correctional facilities are not designed to rehabilitate, merely house. As a result, most prisoners (mostly related to crimes committed as a result of an addiction to crack or heroin) go in sick and come out sicker. On the other hand, when it comes to juveniles and adults who commit violent crimes or are involved in the drug trade, being sent to prison is like going to college. It can be the wrong kind of education. They come out tougher, and usually smarter.

As a cop, I took it on myself to try something different and get close to some of these guys and gals – going a step further after their arrest. Sometimes that meant working with the prosecutor who in turn would work with the defense and ultimately the judge, to get them the help they need while imprisoned. There are a lot of good programs, but most of these guys and gals are just locked up and don’t get the benefit of some of these programs. The obvious objective is rehabilitation, the idea being, that my job and the job of my co-workers would be made easier and the general public safer because we wouldn’t keep seeing the same faces over and over throughout the years.

When writers set their novels in foreign countries, one always wonders how they will create authentic dialogue. Your novel, playing in some of the seediest streets in Washington, is in a foreign country to many readers. Simeon, the narrator, varies his language brilliantly from the jargon of the cops to his own literate thinking to the street language of the young street corner thugs.  Did you do this consciously?

Yes, that is what you learn to do on the job. A necessity, but you quickly learn never to attempt to be anything other than who you really are. The manner in which you speak to someone might differ, but you should always be true to who you are. It’s obvious when you’re not.

Some of the best scenes are interrogations. Everyone who writes detective stories creates interrogation scenes. Most have never interrogated anybody!  The twists and turns of your interrogations are brilliant. Are they based in your experience?

Yes. One of the things I loved most about being on the job was getting “in the box” after an arrest. Also, I often debriefed defendants through the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I never considered what I did interrogating, though. They were interviews, discussions, finding what it was you could most identify with about the person. It didn’t matter how heinous the crime was. You had to set that aside. The obvious goal is a confession, but it starts with their story, sometimes their life story.

There are lots of words and abbreviations in the text not immediately comprehensible to the lay reader. These add to the authenticity of the language and the tone but would you think it very pedantic to add a glossary? 

That would have taken away from the reality I wanted for my protagonist, Simeon. Because of his voice, something like that, in my opinion, would hinder the flow. I’d like whoever reads it to simply be with him on every page.

Your novel involves various cases assigned to Simeon. This means that there are essentially several unconnected plot lines threading through the novel, and you hold them together very well through the character of Simeon. Did you map out your novel at the beginning, deciding where these cases were going and how you would juggle and entwine the narratives, or did the story evolve as you were going along?

I didn’t want to know where the investigation would take him. Having been a real police detective, I wanted to approach that aspect of the book as if it were a real investigation so I didn’t know how it would end. The story took on a life of its own. Often that really set me back because I’d have to figure out what to do next.

 Your Detective Simeon is a reader, he owns a lot of books and quotes from writers as relatively obscure as, for example, William Gifford (“Countless shades…”). When I read that Simeon had been a public school teacher of English, I wondered whether you had been afraid that people would not believe in such a literate cop.  Did you think this needed an explanation?

No, because I’ve always been a reader. I grew up reading Dickens and having my father read me Graham Greene. I know countless cops who are incredibly well read, and come from backgrounds as diverse as mine. I made Simeon a public school teacher because he always wanted to have a hand in affecting lives. He started off in life as a naïve idealist.

 What do you read for pleasure?

I grew up with books. I used to smell the pages. I still do. I have a lot of books in my home office. Most of them are like family members, old friends, or works of art hanging on a wall. I’ve always been a big fan of Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Hardy and of course all those writers filled with despair like Dostoyevsky, Kafka, and Bukowski. I’m also a big fan of Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, and John Banville. When it comes to crime fiction I love Henning Mankell and the husband/wife team who are the mother/father of all Scandinavian police procedural fiction,  Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I’ve read all ten of their books, which span ten years in the life of Investigator Martin Beck.  

 Are you writing another Detective Simeon novel? If so, can you do it without being unduly influenced by what people have written about the first one? I certainly hope you are doing it, and holding to the inspiration of A Detailed Man.

I am going back and forth on how I want to approach the second novel. It will definitely involve Detective Simeon. I’m not finished with him yet.

Glad to hear that. There are many readers out there waiting for the next one.  Thank you very much for talking so openly to us.

You can find more information about David Swinson and his novel A Detailed Man on his website: http://davidswinson.com

Review of A Detailed Man last week on this blog


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Review of “A Detailed Man” by David Swinson

“That’s the life of a detailed man.  You never have anything of your own. Everything’s borrowed. Even the time.”

Detective Simeon is this detailed man.  The author, David Swinson, has himself worked robbery and homicide details.  Some readers may wonder what “a detailed man” is. Swinson is writing from inside the head of a man detailed to the homicide unit of the Metropolitan Police in Washington DC.  The MPDC is the setting in which Ezra Simeon lives, breathes and has his being.  He carries us into it, and we sink or swim in his consciousness.

[Parts of this article were first published as Book Review: A Detailed Man by David Swinson on Blogcritics.]

A Detailed Man is destined to be categorized as a “police procedural.”  David Swinson is destined to be categorized as an ex-cop. He is that. He is also a first-rate writer, and his Detailed Man is not easily slotted into a sub-genre of crime-writing.

In this blog, I wanted to think about all kinds of murder mysteries, past and present, not in any particular order, but as they cropped up in my mind, in my memory, on Twitter, in conversation—the same kind of serendipitous selection that has always guided my reading of mysteries, a fairly light-hearted business, though with twinges of conscience at using murder for entertainment.  I have tended to shy away from police procedurals. Why?  I know very little about the police. I know a fair amount about fictional police detectives, and, yes, I have had the temerity to write a couple of murder mysteries with a police detective conducting the investigation. But do I really know any policemen? No.  Well, now I know Ezra Simeon, and this detailed man has had a profound effect on me.

This is not because Swinson is setting out to educate the reader about the work of the police force.  Yes, in his novel, the standard police-related topics (as listed in the Wikipedia definition of a police procedural) crop up: forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation. Of course they do. Ezra Simeon is a policeman. And it is Ezra Simeon that Swinson is writing about. Better put, it is Ezra Simeon’s voice that we hear, consistently, from start to finish, telling in the present tense and the first person what he is seeing, thinking, feeling, doing, over a period of winter weeks, Thanksgiving through Christmas and beyond.

The first line of the novel puts us, laconically and without preamble, straight into the unfortunate physical condition that Simeon has to live with throughout these weeks, and then into the work ethic that dominates his life:

People think I’ve had a stroke. They say, “That’s what happens when you work too hard.”

Simeon’s face is paralyzed on one side, not by a stroke but by Bell’s palsy. He doesn’t deny that he has worked too hard, but he doesn’t want people to use his condition “to justify their low work ethics.”  Simeon, we quickly find out,  is a worker, compulsive in the pursuit of his cases, and he is not the only cop in the novel to be driven into ill health and even death by overwork. Simeon is detailed to homicide to fill the place of a former Police Academy buddy of his, Scanns, who has died of a massive heart attack, “a body and mind rendered insensible by exhaustion” [27].

Just before,  Simeon had been “detailed to Cold Case.” This, we discover on reading further, is the unit that houses unsolved cases. The expression Cold Case is simply thrown at us in the text, that is, in the voice of Simeon, unexplained, like all the other in-vocabulary of the police.  Either we figure out things from the context, or we look them up. Perhaps people who have read a lot of police procedurals know such things. In any case, Simeon does not explain words, nor yet abbreviations, of which there are many, such as the ubiquitous VCU, mentioned at least six times before we come across the actual term, Violent Crime Unit.  Some might think this obvious, but does anyone outside Washington D.C. know that ANC stands for Advisory Neighborhood Commission? Well, go figure. Meanings usually become obvious from the context, and only real pedants like me will go rushing to Google to check them out, and to look up street maps of Washington DC to see where things are. A pedant might suggest a glossary, such as one finds in a novel out of, e.g. the old East Germany, where acronyms are also rife—the comparison is not that far-fetched—the mean streets of Washington DC are a foreign country to most people who only dabble in murder mystery for fun.

But to read this novel is to hear the authentic voice of Ezra Simeon without narrative overlay.  It is this authentic voice that penetrates your head from start to finish and stays with you when you have read the last line. No monotony here. The voice has an amazing range, playing on images that we do not always immediately recognize as images. It is the voice of a detective who knows well how to write plain unadorned documents like a Death Report.  “No literary masterpiece of criminal observation,” comments Detective Simeon, reading a cold case description of a corpse left by a shooting at the intersection of 7th and O Streets. But then it turns out that this particular location will echo through the novel—7th and O—accruing  highly evocative connotations of street justice. Thus does a street corner become a poetic device, and a plot-turner. The voice of Detective Simeon is also the voice of a man who reads books—he has hundreds of books on his shelves.

Listen to Simeon’s voice. He has just returned from the funeral of his old buddy, Scanns,  who died not at home with his wife, Celeste—Simeon had been best man at their wedding years before—but in the apartment of a girlfriend:

It’s strange how silent this evening is. The city is quiet for lack of sirens, horns, loud people and the sound of their bottles breaking in nearby dumpsters. I hate funerals. I’ve never understood the custom of viewing the dead. Cremate my human remains and if there’s a need for any ritual,  just keep the ashes in a clean pickle jar on a shelf beside your favorite book. I won’t have anyone charged with such a burden as arranging burial. You can count on that.

I haven’t moved from this couch since I got back from the funeral. That was about four hours ago. I feel the loss but not the pain. The dead grieving the dead.  That’s how I feel and why I will sit here, all night if I have to, in an effort to find real tears.

‘A weary lot is thine.’ Yes, it surely is [34].

First we hear the silence. We hear it through the city noise that mysteriously isn’t there. Then the undercutting of any hint at sentimentality in connection with the funeral, speaking directly, as this voice often does,  to you, the reader, the unnamed listener to his story: The hard-boiled realist tells you to put his ashes in a pickle jar. Then, not so hard-boiled,  he conveys succinctly the pain that he says he cannot feel. A quotation crops up in his head:  A weary lot is thine—Swinson upholds  the device of non-explanation, rarely saying where his not infrequent quotations are from.  It matters as little as whether you decipher ANC or not.  You may or may not hear an echo of  Sir Walter Scott’s  Rover’s Adieu, “A weary lot is thine, fair maid,” the sad fate of the girl deserted by the soldier. Be that as it may, echoing through your mind at the moment, as through Simeon’s,  must be Scanns’ grieving widow, deserted in death by her husband, though she did not know it, and echoing there too are the murdered prostitutes, victims in the primary case in his case jacket. Pretty young “escorts”, their terrible fate as undeserved as any fair maid’s.

A weary lot is thine, Detective Simeon. Yes, it surely is.  He is a man in middle age, a failed marriage behind him, a career that is wearing him out, and that has not brought him to a  settled position, detailed as he always is from one unit to another.  There is  one woman in his life whom he seems to love but whose friendship he does not want to lose through ill-advised declarations of affection. He often goes into a kind of trance that removes him from the scene into a place of no-feeling; sometimes he calls it a “foggy haze.”

His weariness is a thread running through the novel, along with afflictions resulting from his Bell’s palsy–his inability to eat or drink without dribbling things down his chin, to smile without grimacing, to look in a mirror without shocking himself, and then his personal procrastinations, always looking at the belongings of his buddy, now packed into  boxes around his desk, and promising himself that he will soon take them to Celeste, the widow, but not facing up to it until the very end. But this thread does not set the keynote of the novel;  it does not overwhelm the highly suspenseful plot-line.  Rather it throws into  sharp relief the dogged detective’s unrelenting pursuit of the depraved, the cruel, the truly criminal, assigned to him in his case-jackets, a pursuit attended, despite everything, by his clear-headed, regretful but unsentimental recognition of the way young criminals are created and can have no hope.

David Swinson’s knowledge of real crime gives his novel a frightening authenticity authenticity that is bound to give pause to readers and writers who dabble in murder mystery for fun.  This comes out not only in graphic descriptions of ugly crime scenes, of run-down police quarters, of Washington’s seediest streets. It also surfaces in comments made calmly by Detective Simeon on the neighborhoods that he knows well from his time as a plain clothes detective in the narcotics detail, the place where he honed his skills and “learned how to talk to people:” Speaking of  the young man , Grim, gunned down on his street corner, he says:

I knew a lot of mothers too and a lot of kids like Grim who used to walk and talk like little kids should. I watched most of them grow, some not. They all learned how to walk like Grim and all the other big boys who trailed behind him who were slinging dope on the corner ever day.  And talking to most of them, they all knew their time was short.  Even the somewhat decent mothers knew it was bound to happen.

It paid the rent. It bought the food. It never lasts [p.11].

Simple devastating prose.  Simple devastating truth.

Not for fun. I don’t think David Swinson is writing this for fun.

But if I seem to be moralizing and even pontificating  here, please note, Swinson does neither of these things.  Ever. He tells a great story that keeps you rapidly turning pages.  Simeon in his dogged way, tracks down a serial killer, he fights the lethargy of colleagues who would prefer to see the case quickly closed, he brings justice and some peace to a decent family destroyed by senseless thuggery, all the time using the language and the understanding he has built up of  young street-corner dealers  in their “baggy, low rider pants” to convey his own differentiated versions of justice.

There are several great interrogation scenes in the novel, none cleverer than the one when Simeon arrests a young drug-dealer on a lesser charge only to lead him in the direction of confessing to a greater crime.  Simeon is no do-gooder. His sympathies are no more engaged on the side of the perpetrator than they are left cold by the sufferings of the victims and victim’s families.  What is impressive is that this man, who talks again and again about his inability to feel—“I feel like the walking dead”—conveys in spare unemotional language sometimes bursting into striking images his acute involvement in the lives of the people he is dealing with, none of them, you would think, subjects for a poet.  But Swinson has a poet’s sensibility.

And a poet’s ability to structure complexity without tying up all the ends neatly.  Various unconnected cases run parallel through the novel—typical, I am told, of the police procedural as distinct from the traditional one-case detective novel.  But Simeon’s own connection to each of these cases gives the sense of a unified plot.  The novel comes to a strong conclusion, not only in the obligatory action-scene in which the detective is pitted gun to gun against the primary criminal of the novel, but in a strangely affecting postscript in which two officially unresolved cases leave us on the one hand with pity for another likely victim of the worst crime in the book but also with fellow-feeling for the perpetrator of another crime. The last paragraphs of the novel encapsulate some of this and are a poetic masterpiece. But you would have to read the whole novel to see why. A reviewer may not tell you the end of a murder mystery.

Murder mystery?  This is a highly complex novel. At one point, Simeon is driving along and thinks of something he has just read. He had told us earlier that he was reading G.K.Chesterton’s biography of Dickens.  He was having trouble finishing it, he said, but a sentence from it comes into his mind: Our lives can be like a tangle of unfinished tales. As always, Swinson drops the quotation into his text and leaves it there. But Chesterton does indeed say this in his biography of Dickens, contending that Dickens’ best autobiography was David Copperfield, and that autobiography to be honest must be turned into fiction. “A touch of fiction is almost always necessary,” writes Chesterton, “to the real conveying of fact, because fact as experienced, has a fragmentariness which is bewildering at first hand and quite blinding at second hand. Facts have at least to be sorted out into compartments, without this selection our life seems a tangle of unfinished tales, a heap of novels, all volume one.”

Detective Simeon certainly does not discuss this point. But what David Swinson does in his Detailed Man is to capture the fragmentariness of fact in an amazing piece of fiction. Call it a police procedural if you will.  Or a tangle of unfinished tales.   And the most interesting unfinished tale of all is that of Simeon himself, the man detailed to homicide, who says of himself, “I feel as though my whole career has been one big detail, never having the time to settle in some place. Even at the district, everyone coming and going, like Union Station most of the time. And I’m like the guy sitting on the bench waiting for the train.”

I very much hope the guy sitting on the bench will tell us some more of his unfinished tales.

There are many things that remain to be said about David Swinson’s first novel, and I am glad that he has agreed to be interviewed in this blog. If you have any questions for him, please let me know. I will post a longer bio at that time. For now, a few facts:

David Swinson began his career at the height of the punk rock movement in the early 1980s. After attending California State University as a film major, he booked and promoted punk rock and alternative music at Fender’s Ballroom, Melody Dance Center and Bogart’s Nightclub in Long Beach, California. He produced spoken word events with Hunter S. Thompson, Dr. Timothy Leary, John Waters and Jim Carroll and the cult classic film Roadside Prophets starring  John Doe (of the band X) and Adam Horovitz (of the Beastie Boys).

In 1994, Swinson pursued another passion – law enforcement. He returned to his home base of Washington DC, where he joined the Metropolitan Police Department and worked robbery, homicide and narcotics details. He became one of the city’s most decorated detectives.

He currently spends most of his time with his wife and daughter in Northern Virginia, where he is working on his second novel.

[Footnote: I have read the paperback and the Kindle e-book versions of A Detailed Man and these editions could do with more careful editing. There are mistakes that could easily be corrected. Since I am sure this novel will go into other editions, I imagine the corrections will be made.]

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Posted in crime fiction, detective fiction, literary mystery, police procedural | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Excursus into the Paranormal with Aaron Paul Lazar

[Parts of this article first published as Book Review: Healey’s Cave by Aaron Paul Lazar and  Book Review: Terror Comes Knocking by Aaron Paul Lazar on Blogcritics.]

Aaron Paul Lazar is a writer of popular country mysteries. He is a master at conjuring up warm family life in his corner of the world—rural upstate New York—and disrupting his happy families with murder and mayhem. He has himself described his novels as “relatively wholesome mysteries that skirt around the gruesome details of murder.” I agree with that assessment, although, having read many kinds of mysteries since I started really examining the genre in this blog, I would say that “relatively wholesome” is an understatement. Very wholesome is nearer the mark.

One of his main strengths as a mystery writer is in creating a realistic context, complete with sounds and smells of countryside and garden as well sounds and smells of cooking garden produce. I always come away from reading Aaron feeling hungry for good fresh food and nostalgic for warm family life. Within his kind of wholesome setting however he is also a master of building suspense, especially in extended chase scenes in which the good guys are either being pursued through a variety of hair-raising circumstances or are themselves in hot pursuit of the bad guys. One is rarely in doubt in a Lazar novel as to who are the good and who are the bad guys. These highly suspenseful scenes are so well narrated that one turns the pages very fast and completely suspends disbelief while the down-to-earth characters perform amazing feats of strength and courage.

A different kind of suspension of disbelief is required in his latest series of novels, the Sam Moore series. Lazar leaves the terra firma of realistic story-telling and risks entry into the “paranormal” genre. The central character of this series, Sam Moore, a newly retired family doctor, is in many ways a typical Lazar character in that he is a kind, loving man who adores and cares for his wife, Rachel, a sufferer from multiple sclerosis, a strong character in her own right. He grows food and, with his wife, cooks it for the whole family. Sam Moore, like Gus Legarde of the earlier series, is a man with children and grandchildren, and scenes in which Grandpa interacts with the children, whether they advance the plot or not, are important in creating the atmosphere of the series. But–enter the paranormal—in the first novel of the series, Healey’s Cave, Sam finds a green marble in his garden which turns out to have magical properties. This, I will freely admit, would be enough to turn me off the novel if I did not already have a soft spot for Lazar’s good guys and the life they lead.

I have never been remotely interested in the paranormal genre per se, but I thought I should take a look at it in this blog, if only for the sake of completeness, and I was curious about how a writer with his feet pretty firmly on the ground of the real world would deal with it. In Healey’s Cave, somewhat to my surprise, I found that I was able quite soon to accept without smirking the notion that Sam Moore could be whisked into the past when the mysterious green marble glowed. The plot centers on the unexplained disappearance fifty years previously of Sam’s beloved kid brother, Billy, and throughout the novel, Sam’s magical trances take him back into episodes of his childhood, which, piece by piece, open up the mystery of what happened to his brother. Yes, the development of the plot relies on the paranormal, but it does so in effect through a series of flashbacks into the childhood of Sam himself, and also of his friends, several of whom figure in the present and the past. Thus in the course of discovering who was responsible for Billy’s disappearance, we get to know three of the prime suspects, Sam’s best friends, both as children and as adults. This turns out to be a clever plot device.

After my initial, “oh, come on “ reaction, I could accept that when the marble glowed, Billy was trying to guide Sam to the truth of what had happened. I could do this, in part, because the scenes of childhood conjured up by magic were not in themselves “supernatural,” but were quite realistic representations of events that happened when the sixty-year-old men were only boys. Lazar is good at the depiction of childhood and young boyhood. He has written several novels in the Gus LeGarde series which are set entirely in the childhood of his main characters (e.g. Tremolo), so reading Lazar one is quite used to being whisked into the past, not by magic, but by the narrative skill of the writer. The magic marble in Healey’s Cave does move the solution of the mystery forward, but it might be said to work the way a psychiatrist (or a novelist) might work on opening up a person’s memory of the distant past.

In Terror Comes Knocking, the second novel in the series, I found it harder at first to accept that Billy, through the magic marble, could now assist Sam in solving a new mystery, one that plays almost exclusively in the narrative present, a present that includes some of the main news topics of our time, such as terrorism and the Iraq War. The mystery in this novel centers on another disappearance, the disappearance of Sam’s grown-up daughter, and it took a more difficult suspension of disbelief to accept that Billy, child of the past, was showing Sam actual visions of where she was now, in the present time-frame of the novel. Sam’s son has been posted to Iraq, and in one scene, Billy even takes Sam there. It turns out, however, that the long-gone past of Sam’s childhood, in which Billy was a living participant, does, through one of the characters, play a part in the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Sam’s daughter. This character as a boy, and now an older man, binds the two time-frames of the plot together – that of the long-dead Billy and that of the retired doctor Sam. The device of Billy’s other-worldly guidance goes then some way toward satisfying the rational demands of the mind that is not too convinced by the purely paranormal.

But perhaps I am doing my own rationalizing. Again, as in all Lazar’s novels , in Terror Comes Knocking, the relationships between the characters are to me paramount. The characters are, and I say this without any big-city irony, very decent Americans. The loving relationship of Sam and his wife, the heart-breakingly touching way in which they both deal with her illness, their refreshing tolerance in coping with the love-relationships of their children, and their attempts to be fair-minded in the face of people very different from themselves who may or may not be involved in terrorism—all these things add up to the Lazar appeal. The “terror” of the title refers not to the abstract form of terror that may be equated with “horror” but to the quite concrete threat of destruction by terrorists. This is indeed the mainspring of the central adventure of the plot, and justifies the Terror Comes Knocking title, but I prefer nonetheless the title One Potato, Blue Potato which, we are told in the introduction, was the original title of the novel. I like it because it refers, as you will discover if you read the novel, to the parents’ loving acceptance of their children, surely the mainspring of the family dynamics in the novel.

In an interview with Mr. Lazar on this blog, he said that he included family scenes and vignettes in his novels, partly as a device of “tension and release,” but also because he wanted his readers “to love and care for his characters.” Perhaps he does not have to answer the question of whether his primary concern as a novelist is the depiction of family relationships or the telling of a cracking good adventure story. Perhaps he is faced with this decision only when he has to create a title for his book. There is plenty of excitement in Terror Comes Knocking, and certainly a publisher might want to emphasize this.

The novel culminates in a classic action scene in which Sam Moore, to save the local population, and even the President, from terrorists, makes a mad dash into the town on, yes, a golden and white horse, a palomino no less (cf. Trigger, Roy Rogers’s horse!). This is a great scene, not paranormal, just a lot larger than life, in other words, pure Lazar, and to be taken at face value If you are, as I invariably am, completely caught up in the desire to see the hero overcome impossible odds and save the day.

Thus does Aaron Paul Lazar, writer of good-humored country mysteries, bring off a paranormal novel so that even an old dyed-in-the-wool skeptic like me is only too willing to suspend disbelief.

I wonder what he will tackle next?

Posted in country mystery, paranormal, review | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

New Viennese Mystery by Jaya Gulhaugen: Review

Jaya Gulhaugen was born in Berlin three months before the 1949 Airlift. She moved to Vienna in 1956 just before the Hungarian Revolution broke out. She was a teenager in the Congo during the Simba Rebellion. Growing up, she just took it for granted that life was a series of exciting adventures.

Diplomatic Impunity is the first mystery in what Jaya Gulhaugen hopes will be a series of Peggy Gilman whodunits set in exotic locales full of intrigue.

A shorter version of this article was first published as Book Review: Diplomatic Impunity by Jaya Gulhaugen on Blogcritics.

Diplomatic Impunity is a book with a distinctly cozy cover: a delightful still-life shot of a table-top, set with pretty china pieces, complete with whipped cream and Sacher Torte. The cover captures the atmosphere of this Viennese Christmas Mystery, which in its overall tone and writing style is also distinctly cozy with many a domestic scene and family outing. No need for the timid reader to fear anything resembling horror in this portrait of an American family, even though the father of the Gilman family is a CIA operative, even though he has been posted to Vienna at the height of the Cold War in the fifties, even though the opening scene of the novel depicts an ugly broken body, fallen  onto the floor of a ballroom.

The sound of the fall, we are told, was muffled by “the high-spirited singing of Christmas carols.” The body has fallen to its death on Christmas Day, and after showing it to us, with some gruesome detail,  the narrator, who sees and knows all,  takes us back eight days to describe the events that led up to this mysterious fall. This eight-day narrative occupies the first half of the novel, and here the reader may be forgiven for wondering whether the mystery itself is not being muffled by the high-spirited family preparations for Christmas. There are many charming descriptions of family events, outings of parents and children to such places as the then famous Dianabad swimming-pool, the English Reading Room (“one of the family’s favorite spots in all of Vienna”), the outdoor skating rink near the Stadtpark, the American Protestant Church in the Dorotheergasse—these and other places that will evoke much nostalgia among readers like myself who actually remember Vienna in the fifties.

There is no doubting the authenticity of the Viennese atmosphere, as experienced by foreigners in those chilly, gray post-war days. Totally authentic too is the interaction between the American parents and their four children, dealing as they are, often amusingly,  with living in a foreign country.  So much is one caught up in the comings and goings of their lives that not until the second half of the novel where the mystery of the death on the ballroom floor begins to be unraveled, does the reader realizes, bit by bit, that in almost all of these earlier scenes of seemingly innocent amusement were buried clues to the solution of the mystery, or characters who turn out unexpectedly but plausibly to be bit-players or prime movers in the central drama.

This is, I think, very cleverly done. We have here a Viennese jigsaw puzzle where we can slowly work out how the pieces fit together, not actually seeing the whole picture until the last piece is put into place by the American wife, Peggy, who herself once worked for American intelligence, and has not lost her sleuthing instincts.  This is fun, but what we also have is a portrait of an American family.  Jim Gilman, a very benign CIA man, has the diplomatic cover of an attaché at the Embassy, and the family is living the privileged life of US diplomats in the midst of impoverished fifties Vienna, not long after the end of four-power-rule.  Having seen the Vienna of those days myself from the angle of a poor European student who looked at rich Americans, as it were, from the outside, it is fascinating for me to look inside the lives of these people from another world, and see them as the Gilmans, kind, friendly, civilized, (including the CIA father) reveling in their good fortune at having a Viennese posting with a sometimes naïve but often endearing good will.

The characters come alive from the first page—in  particular, I think, the American and British embassy types with their various kinds of class-consciousness and  hierarchical thinking. The novel has its third person author-narrator who tells the story, but Peggy Gilman is the main character and carrier of the plot, and we see the characters essentially through her eyes. She sees more incisively into the American characters than into the important Viennese characters, such as the cook and the piano teacher, though their stories also figure, as we discover, importantly in the plot.

This novel will appeal to those readers who like an entertaining mystery, and are happy to immerse themselves in a foreign culture as full of stories and histories as the Viennese culture in the fifties was.  Austria’s Nazi past, the war, the post-war scene, the temporary breaching of the Hungarian border in ’56,  all these play a part not only in the setting of the novel but in its actual plot, and Jaya Gulhaugen is well on top of the history and of attitudes to it, such as the Austrian desire in those years simply not to talk about the recent past.

Sometimes perhaps, because she knows so much, she gives a little too much explanation, just as, knowing so much about her own characters, she gives a little too much direct explanation of their pasts, rather than allowing their dialogue (which is very good) and their actions to speak for themselves. In the first chapter, especially, she handles the exposition in perhaps too discursive a way for readers who want to get into the action of the story. But even if this disturbs you, read on, and you will  be enticed gradually into trying with Peggy to solve the mystery of the body on the ballroom floor.

This novel is a thoroughly entertaining piece of story-telling and, for those who want to see it, a fascinating glimpse into a time that has passed.

Posted in historical fiction, murder mystery, review, Vienna mysteries | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments