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

Requiem for the Detective Novel: Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s “The Pledge”

Requiem auf den Kriminalroman:  This was Dürrenmatt’s own subtitle for his short and stunning novel, Das Versprechen [The Pledge] (1958).  It has no place in Sean Penn’s film version of the book  though this did keep the title, The Pledge (2001), and did not use the title of previous film versions, It Happened in Broad Daylight, which Dürrenmatt himself did not like. He meant what he said when he called the novel The Pledge or, one might say, The Promise: it is precisely about the keeping of a promise made by a detective. I think he also meant what he said when he gave it a subtitle. Recent translations have dropped the subtitle without explanation (e.g. The Pledge, tr. Joel Agee, 2006).  These days the titles of novels are frequently changed, seemingly at the whim of publishers, from country to country, continent to continent and some publisher might well have decided that the subtitle would not sell the book.  But a deliberate, if ironic, subtitle it surely is, not just a publishing frill.

Perhaps the translators left out the subtitle because if you try to translate the word “Kriminalroman,” you have to make a decision about what it means.  “Crime novel” which looks right doesn’t really do it, since it covers (and how) a multitude of sins.  You have to decide nowadays whether you are talking about a thriller, a noir thriller, a detective novel, a police procedural, a murder mystery  . . . or what.  Any one of them could be a “Kriminalroman”—they all have violent crime at their core—but to put the word into English in the subtitle you would have to be sure what the Swiss writer Dürrenmatt is talking about when he calls his novel a Requiem auf den Kriminalroman.  It is clear to me that he does not mean it to be a requiem for the crime novel in general but very precisely a requiem for the traditional detective story, for what P. D. James has called “the detective story proper,” which is, as she has said, “fundamentally concerned with the bringing of order out of disorder and the restoration of peace after the destructive eruption of murder” [Talking about Detective Fiction, p.13].

The Pledge focuses, as does the “detective story proper” and indeed the “cosy murder mystery,” on the process of detection rather than on the murder itself, but the process of detection in Dürrenmatt’s novel is very much not about instilling in the law-abiding citizen a comfortable or cozy sense of order restored; rather it is aimed at shaking the law-abiding citizen out of any belief that order can seriously exist in a world where chance is so often the ultimate arbiter.  As Dürrenmatt wrote in one of his “21 Points for Physicists,” appended to his play The Physicists: “The more human beings act according to plan, the more effectively can they be hit by accident.”

The Kommandant or Chief of Police in the Canton of Zürich—in, you might think, one of the most ordered countries on the face of the earth—says early on in the narrative of The Pledge:

People hope that at least the police know how to order the world—I can imagine no more pathetic hope—but unfortunately in all these detective stories there is another quite different swindle going on—I don’t even mean the fact that your criminals will be brought to justice. This delightful fairy tale is no doubt morally necessary.  It is one of the lies that keep the state going, as does the pious saying, crime doesn’t pay—whereas in fact you only have to look at human society to see the truth on that score.

He can accept all this, it’s a matter of business:  the audience, the taxpayer, has a right to its heroes and its happy end, and the police as well as the writers of detective fiction, are obliged to deliver this. The Kommandant is a pragmatist as far as the functioning of society is concerned, but what really upsets him is the way detective story writers build up their fictional plots. There the swindle is shameless: It’s all so logical—the criminal, the victim, the accessory , the beneficiary—the detective has only to know the rules and play the game by the rules, the criminal is caught and justice triumphs.

 “You do not try to deal with the reality that surrounds us, you set up a world that can be managed; this world may be perfect, but it’s a lie.”

Thus does he attack the detective-story writer who from then on only hovers in the background as listener to the Kommandant’s story.

The story that the Kommandant tells is that of his senior man, Matthäi, once a brilliant and dedicated police detective, Doctor of Law and First Lieutenant of the Swiss police in Zürich.  His methodical, compulsive but ultimately frantic attempts to solve a crime have led to his own self-destruction as well as the ruination of at least two other lives but they have not led to the discovery of the criminal. The criminal is discovered, but criminal justice does not triumph, and certainly not through the massive and well-thought out efforts of the ­detective. In the “detective story proper,” it is the best-laid schemes of the criminal that are pre-destined to go awry,  in The Pledge the best-laid schemes of the detective.

Do not imagine, however, that this novel reads like the formulaic demonstration of a theory. It does not. The story packs a real punch and I am not going to ruin that here by giving away details of the plot. Suffice to say that a little girl is horribly murdered, a peddler who passes by and reports the crime is accused of the murder, commits suicide in his first night in the police cell, and the police call the case closed. Matthäi, a fifty-year old man at the pinnacle of his career, about to leave his post for a prestigious position abroad, finds himself telling the parents of the girl what has happened, and makes a promise to the mother that he will find the murderer. He has already resigned his position in the police force and so, unconvinced that the peddler is the real murderer, he sets out on a personal crusade,  lasting the nine narrative years of the novel, to keep his promise and find the murderer, ultimately using another little girl as bait to catch the criminal.  He fails, and in the attempt he loses his mind to the obsession, helped along by alcohol and despair.

These are only the bare bones of the action.  It is the narrative itself that is a masterpiece. The story is propelled forward, slowly, inexorably, in the voice of the Kommandant, unhurried in his story-telling.   We, the readers, have been eased into the story by the writer of detective novels, the first-person narrator of the opening pages, who briefly tells of a not particularly successful foray into lecturing on the art of writing detective fiction at a provincial literary society meeting.  This comic-satiric beginning, in which the worthy citizens of Chur show much more interest in the lecture of the famous Germanist, Emil Staiger, on the late Goethe, than in the supposedly clumsy remarks of our surrogate Dürrenmatt, detective-novel writer, allows him to mock himself and to set the scene for open criticism of the genre.  The Kommandant has attended the lecture, more or less against his will, and did not think much of it, but is happy to drink whisky in the hotel bar with the lecturer until late into the night, and the following morning to drive this semi-hung-over writer in his car from Chur to Zürich.

. . . we were driving towards the Kerenz Pass--the road was icy again, and below us lay Lake Walen, gleaming, cold, hostile . . ."

In a gas-station early in that journey they encounter the broken man, Matthäi; the Kommandant launches into his attack on detective fiction, illustrating this with his story of how  Matthäi got to this point of decrepitude in his gas-station, a story which goes on, uninterrupted by any comments from the author-passenger, all the way from Chur to Zürich over the  Kerenz Pass, and then over a couple of bottles of wine in the Kommandant’s favorite eating and drinking place, the Kronenhalle in Zürich (a favorite eating place of Dürrenmatt himself).  There, when much of the story is told, the Kommandant pauses, as one might over a couple of bottles of wine, to make a few more didactic remarks directed at the author, commenting on the story he is telling and suggesting to the author how he might use it in his detective fiction, how he might create an ending, a twist, that would make a very nice story or film and uplift the reader, fulfill his hopes and satisfy his beliefs. But then, in the final crushing minutes of his narrative the Kommandant reveals to his listener and to us the truth of what happened, and the way he discovered it, slowly, slowly, while we turn the pages faster and faster, wanting to find out finally who the murderer is, discovering of course that there is no comfort and no moral uplift in this last dreadfully comic-grotesque coda which ends the narrative of the Kommandant and so of the novel.

The entire story of Matthäi’s promise and how he tries to keep it is told in hindsight, years after the actual crime,  by the Kommandant, who all the while knows the whole story, including who the murderer is.  The particular artistry of the novel, of the story-telling, is thrown into relief by the star-studded 2001 movie, The Pledge, directed by Sean Penn and starring Jack Nicholson, with cameo roles by Vanessa Redgrave and Helen Mirren, among others.  It is, in my opinion, a very good movie, though not, apparently, a super-successful one, but it achieves something very different from the novel.

Transposing the action from Switzerland to Nevada means, as thriller-writer Sally Spedding recently remarked to me, that the essentially claustrophobic atmosphere of the novel is lost.  This is inevitable and it is not just a matter of geography. The loss of Swiss local color and the role it plays in the novel is also considerable. Dürrenmatt thrives on small asides that poke fun at the Swiss and at Switzerland: thus the Kommandant, talking about his untidy office says, “It is everyone’s duty in this well-ordered state to create, as it were, islands of disorderliness,” or talking about the humorlessness of Matthäi, he says, “he had a superb brain, but because of the way our country is all too solidly constructed,  he had lost his feelings, he was an organization man.” Such jibes, and they are numerous, can be harmless and amusing, but he also uncovers a potential for horror lying under the peaceful surface of the country, creating for example a frighteningly believable crowd scene in a picturesque little village where a lynching is only narrowly avoided (one thinks of The Visit). Some of the worst events of the novel happen on a Sunday with church bells ringing,  and twice the Kommandant mentions in passing that there were two hundred cases a year of child-molestation in the Kanton of Zurich alone—hard to believe against the picture-book prettiness of the area, and I have no idea whether this is an accurate figure.  But Dürrenmatt’s stock-in-trade is horror that lies beneath the surface, underlying Swiss order, in particular, but potentially beneath human order in general, and the most extreme instance in this novel is in the grotesque and appallingly comic coda that brings the story to its end. The invective against the artificial orderliness of the detective story is part and parcel of the invective against what Dürrenmatt sees as the superficial orderliness of society. It is not surprising that the Swiss have often found him and his outspokenness hard to take, a famous instance being the speech he made in 1990 on the occasion of Vaclav Havel’s visit to Switzerland, entitled, “Switzerland, a Prison?”

All this is inevitably missing in Sean Penn’s Nevadan The Pledge, where Matthäi is transformed into Jerry, a police officer in Reno, just retired. Nicholson plays a brilliant role, and the film starts and ends with him, hardly ever moving outside his consciousness, quite different from Matthäi of the novel who is only ever seen from the perspective of a third person.  It starts with Jerry’s retirement party in downtown Reno, shots of which are interspersed with shots of the murdered child in the woods. The action of the film holds closely to the action of the novel as far as the events of Matthäi’s involvement in the case are concerned, his promise to the mother, his subsequent increasingly obsessive determination to find the murderer, from outside the police force.  Chance does, in fact, thwart his crusade for justice, but we see this in the time-perspective in which the fatal accident occurs, and this changes greatly the impact that the intervention of chance makes on the viewer’s perception of the plot.  By completely abandoning the narrative framework of the novel, the film does not turn the conventions of the detective story on their head, as the story does, but rather takes a conventional detective story and concentrates unconventionally on the mental disintegration of the detective.  Sean Penn creates an original and very upsetting psychological thriller of his own, using Dürrenmatt’s story as his story-line without looking with Dürrenmatt’s critical eyes at the story.  And why should he?  Dürrenmatt has done this brilliantly for himself.

A brilliantly told story.  A work of art.  “Very good for a detective story”?    No, purely, simply, without qualification, a very clever, very upsetting, very well-written novel.  Absurd to relegate this novel, this stunning piece of writing to a secondary place either in Dürrenmatt’s own oeuvre or in the literary canon.  In academic discussions of his work, it is listed under detective fiction, which of course it is. Unlike Julian Barnes, recently discussed in this blog, Dürrenmatt wrote his detective fiction under his own name. But he has been known to call his detective stories “Brotarbeit”—work done to make money.  There was a time in his life when he badly needed money, and his detective fiction belongs in that time. But so does his major world success, the drama Der Besuch der alten Dame/ The Visit which began, as we say, to make his fortune.  One does not think less of The Visit because it made him money.  Any more than, presumably, Julian Barnes thinks less of The Sense of an Ending because it won him the Booker Prize – surely a money-making achievement. And yet it does sound disparaging when it is said of Barnes’s Duffy novels, his detective novels, written under a pseudonym, “Duffy helps pay the rent” [Conversations . . .,22).  So after all does The Sense of an Ending help pay the rent.  So did The Visit as well as The Pledge.

Am I protesting too much? Am I falling here into the trap of writing an apologia, trying to say that detective fiction is on a par with “real literature”?  I think there is an ambiguity on this among the writers of detective fiction themselves, and Dürrenmatt did not escape such ambiguity. He wrote his Requiem for the Detective Novel and put to rest in grand style the “detective story proper.”  But he did so in a great piece of crime fiction.  And where would he have put his crime fiction in the canon of his work?   In 1954/55 he gave a lecture in various cities in Switzerland and Germany called “Problems of the Theater” in which he was not writing about crime fiction; he was discussing in a characteristically disparaging way criticism of literature and particularly the theater by professional and academic critics. But his last words in this essay were:

How can the artist exist in a world of educated and literate people? The question oppresses me, and I know no answer. Perhaps the writer can best exist by writing detective stories, by creating art where it is least suspected. Literature must become so light that it will weigh nothing upon the scale of today’s literary criticism: only in this way will it regain its true worth.”

And that is, I think, the beginning of another discussion.

[The translations in this post are my own, except for the last quotation from “Problems of the Theater” which comes from a translation by Gerhard Nellhaus, 1958. I have not seen this essay in German so cannot vouch for the translation.]

Thanks for help with pictures, links and for good conversations about Dürrenmatt with Annette Kym and Klaus Drexl.

Thanks to Sally Spedding for first drawing my attention recently to The Pledge in an interview in this blog.]


Posted in crime fiction, detective fiction, literary mystery, movie thriller, murder mystery | Tagged , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Julian Barnes: “Life is not a detective story.”

When Julian Barnes, 2011 winner of the Man Booker Prize, was asked (2006) whether the readers of Arthur and George expected him to name the culprit in that novel, he replied, “Well, one or two were disappointed that they didn’t find out. That’s why it’s a novel, and not a detective story” (Conversations, 146).  The same kind of answer could perhaps be given to readers who were similarly disappointed by  The Sense of an Ending, Booker prize-winner.  You need only peruse the readers’ reviews on Amazon to sense some irritation  because the novel does not really solve the mystery it sets up.  The central character, a not very remarkable man in later middle age, is accused at key junctures of the novel of “not getting it,” and some readers in their comments pick up quite angrily on this, along the lines of “Who can blame him? I don’t get it either.”   Barnes drops clues throughout the novel, but in the end readers don’t quite get it, any more than the central character does. Some people object to this, and many don’t.  In any case, perhaps Barnes would again say, that’s why it’s a novel and not a detective story.

In a detective story, you can legitimately hope to get it by the end.  The writer of a detective story cannot however legitimately hope to get the Man Booker Prize, the UK  reward for the “very best book of the year.”  Dan Kavanagh, writer of four crime novels, has never been short-listed for the Booker Prize, as Barnes was three times before winning it,  even though Dan Kavanagh is Julian Barnes and  Julian Barnes is Dan Kavanagh.  “Life is not a detective story,” said Barnes in the same Conversation of 2006. “In life you don’t necessarily find out who did it” (146).  In Dan Kavanagh’s novels, you do find out who did it.  Is that why they are detective stories, and not novels—not novels at any rate that would be in the running for the Booker Prize?

Intrigued by this whole question, I recently read all four novels in Kavanagh’s  one-volume The Duffy Omnibus—not so easy to get hold of anymore, but there are some secondhand copies available, here and in the UK. I learned of the existence of Duffy through reading a piece by Declan Burke in his blog, the title of the piece a nice demonstration of crime-writer Burke’s wit and precision: “On Putting the Boot into the Booker Prize.”  When he heard that Barnes had won the prize this year, he vaguely remembered liking two of Barnes’ earlier novels but didn’t remember too much about them;  on the other hand he did remember hugely enjoying Kavanagh’s  Putting the Boot In,  the third of the Duffy novels set largely in a local professional Third Division football club in London.  “So there you have it,” writes Burke, “ a Booker Prize winner with a rather decent half-canon of crime novels under his belt  . . . Have we shuffled another step closer to the day when a fully-fledged crime writer scoops the establishment’s glittering prize?”

Somehow, I doubt it.  In a recent article in the Guardian, the week in 2010 when the Australian crime writer, Peter Temple, won the top Australian literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, Alison Flood discussed the possibilities of a detective novel’s winning the Booker prize.  The former chairman of the Booker judges,  John Sutherland, has said that he doesn’t expect it any time soon. Flood quotes him as saying: “The twice I’ve been on the Booker panel, they weren’t submitted. There’s a feeling that it’s like putting a donkey into the Grand National.”  Oh dear. Strong words indeed.  Sutherland fears that awarding a mainstream literary prize to a work of genre fiction would devalue the reputation of the prize.  But best-selling crime novelist, Ian Rankin, thinks that attitudes are shifting: “Slowly the barricades are falling,” quotes Flood.  She also quotes Morag Frazer, however, a Miles Franklin judge for past six years, who suggests that most crime novels will never win the Miles Franklin or any other literary prize “because they do not work the language hard enough, and they do not think originally and with sufficient depth and imagination . . . they may gratify, but they do not surprise the way great literature does.”

The question of gratification versus surprise  brings us back to Barnes’s suggestion that a novel does not have to name the culprit as a detective story does.   One of the ways the detective novel surely gratifies is in its ultimate naming of the culprit.  Michiko Kachitani, reviewing Barnes’s  The Sense of an Ending in the New York Times recently called it “a sort of psychological detective story,” and says that it manages to create genuine suspense.  And so it does.  The central character, Tony, is searching his own memory for an understanding of the past, and of how the past created his own present.  Throughout the novel, one senses that an explanation of the key mystery is just around the corner. Why did his college girl-friend treat him as she did? Why did his old friend commit suicide? Why did his girlfriend’s mother leave him five hundred pounds and his old friend’s diary?  Why did his girlfriend then withhold this diary from him – and from us, the readers –so that we never really know for sure why his friend did what he did?  We are allowed to read only a tantalizing extract from the diary, as is Tony.  Yes, a dramatic disclosure at the end of the novel opens Tony’s eyes, and ours, to a part of the story, but he will never know it all, and nor will we.

When Barnes said, life is not a detective story, in life you don’t necessarily find out who did it, he was talking,  not about The Sense of an Ending but about Arthur and George, a novel based on a real crime story:  in 1903,  George Edalji  was accused and convicted of the ugly crime of ripping horses open with a knife, wrongly accused and wrongly convicted, and ultimately vindicated by the efforts largely of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  This was a real case, and here Barnes certainly “manages to create genuine suspense.”  This is a page-turner and one follows anxiously the ins and outs of the case.    Edalji is finally vindicated in part, as he was in reality, but the actual culprit is not/was not found.  Precisely because the novel is built up with much suspense centering on the figure of George, it is surely frustrating to the reader of the novel when the crime is never actually solved (I speak for myself), but of course Barnes could not invent a solution to a real crime that in reality was never solved.  In life, you don’t necessarily find out who did it.  In The Sense of an Ending, where we know that Barnes, the writer, has created the story, has created the mystery, it seems to be a more arbitrary thing, this withholding of a solution.  Does it perhaps make the novel more of a novel, more of a candidate for literary prizes, to leave the mystery only half-solved?  Well, yes, it probably does, but this is a cynical way of looking at it.  The Sense of an Ending does capture in a tantalizing way the real inadequacy of memory in reconstructing one’s own past—and  so it is closer to life than a detective story where all is made ultimately plain.

But  what about our man Duffy, the tough, bi-sexual ex-cop, now owner of the one-man business, Duffy Security, who brings all four of his mysteries to a gratifying solution, the first one, Duffy, set in the sleazy territory of pimps, prostitutes, punters and porno in London’s Soho, the second one, Fiddle City, in an airport setting that will put you off flying from Heathrow ever again, the third one, Putting in the Boot, in a football club, and the fourth one, Going to the Dogs, in an English country-house the likes of which you will never have seen in a cozy murder mystery. What  are these mysteries?  No, not Booker Prize winners.  Yes,  detective stories.  Not novels then?  Not life?  Not Julian Barnes?  In his printed books, they are generally not included in the lists, front or back, of his earlier works.  In the British Council Newsletter, Literature Matters, we are told that Julian Barnes is, among other things, a “master of suspense in the persona of his alter-ego, pulp-fiction writer, Dan Kavanagh.”  Julian Barnes, one might suggest, is a master of suspense in his Booker persona also. Are his Kavanagh novels  “pulp fiction?”  I think this whole question deserves a closer look.  Please, readers, send in any comments or questions you may have.

I am also going to look in this context at another writer, known well in the literary canon who also wrote “detective stories” but who did not separate them off and write them under a  different name:  The Swiss writer, Friedrich Duerrenmatt.  His name came up in my recent discussions, published in this blog, with Sally Spedding, chiller-thriller writer who is a great admirer of Duerrenmatt.   Thinking then of what detective fiction was all about, I asked her what she thought of P.D James’ much quoted dictum that detective fiction was not about murder but about the restoration of order.  Sally replied succinctly with a question: “What order?”  Now be it said that P.D.James has been chair of the Man Booker Panel (1987) but she has never had a novel nominated for the Booker Prize.  She is certainly the grande dame of UK detective novels. She certainly brings all her novels to a gratifying conclusion in the sense of leaving us with a clear sense of who did it. She does, in her own work, restore her own order.  Barnes’s Booker-eligible novels are not about the restoration of order.  When he says, “In life you don’t necessarily find out who did it,” he also says, “you don’t necessarily get justice”  (Conversations, 146). You do find out who did it in his provocative, often shocking,   often very funny detective novels, but do you get justice?   What order (see Spedding) is there to restore in the world of Duffy?   Starting point for another piece.

Posted in crime fiction, detective fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Interview with Sally Spedding

Sally Spedding was born in Wales to a Dutch father and Welsh mother. She studied sculpture at Manchester and at St. Martin’s, London, and when still a practicing and exhibiting artist, won an international short story competition. She was approached by an agent who encouraged her to write a novel. She continued writing while teaching full-time, until Wringland, her supernatural crime novel, was published by Macmillan in 2001. Her sixth chiller, Cold Remains, will be published by Sparkling Books, February 1, 2012.  Sally is also an award-winning short story writer and poet, and is married to the painter Jeffrey Spedding. They have kept a bolt-hole in the Pyrenees for many years, which, like Wales, continues to inspire her. For relaxation, she enjoys singing and horse-racing.

Last week in this blog I discussed three of Sally Spedding’s chilling thrillers. I am very glad that Sally has now given me the chance to ask her some questions about her work.

DJ.  Your novels and short stories stand at the intersections of various genres—mysteries, thrillers, paranormal and more. Where do you see them yourself on the genre spectrum, and is it important to you into what genre other people—readers or publishers—put them?

SS. I think your word ‘intersection’ is apt. My tentacles do indeed touch these other genres, as does much more crime writing today. For me, the most interesting crime novels reflect real life in all its huge variety, which cannot possibly be forced into a neat box. Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room is an excellent example of genre-bending. There are even grainy black and white photographs of his icy setting at the novel’s end.

Mark Z Danieleski’s ghost story, House of Leaves with its varied fonts and quasi-academic footnotes, blew me away. Also Philippe Claudel’s Grey Souls.

I’d love to say I didn’t care what genre my work is put in, but when Wringland was marketed as Sci-fi and reviewed by e.g., SF X magazine, I saw then how publishers and retailers felt uncomfortable with such a cross-over ‘product.’ As I’ve said,  times are changing . . .

DJ.  You have published five novels and in the next two years two more will come out. I believe they are all “chilling thrillers”—novels of suspense in which characters find themselves in appallingly frightening situations and in which terrible acts of violence and cruelty occur. You are a highly skilled writer and could no doubt write other kinds of literature. Have you ever written or been tempted to write fiction of a different kind?

SS.  An interesting question. The answer, however, is ‘no.’ Although I did once draw upon humorous real-life situations for two comedy scripts, the fun didn’t last long!  I actually believe that my writing so-called ‘fiction’ is a search for what really lies beneath our clever exteriors and those of beguiling places too where – especially in France and Wales, both with compelling histories – one false move can prove deadly. The Whicker Man, set in a remote part of Scotland, perfectly conveys this idea and I have explored it in two of my earlier novels, A Night With No Stars and Prey Silence.

DJ.  When I am reading your novels and your short stories, I feel as if I am inhabiting a strange and frightening world, well, not altogether strange, because it is the real world and not a fantasy one, and because of this, the things that happen are even more disturbing.  I am very impressed with the artistry with which you handle this content. Do you keep a personal distance from the horror by concentrating on the artistic and technical aspects of writing? Or are you genuinely caught up in the terror yourself? I never feel that you are just playing with the subject matter. Does your own work frighten you too?

SS.Thank you for saying my writing deals with the ‘real world.’ Yet it’s a world many would pretend doesn’t exist. A horse being battered to death with a sledgehammer in Mexico. The more casual cruelties, the ‘lacerations of the spirit.’ No, I don’t keep a distance from the horror I’m dealing with, because I do really empathise with those characters who become unwittingly involved. If I didn’t, then the work would simply be a vehicle for gratuitous evil. I am often so much caught up in their fear that I have to down tools and head for the piano, or the newspaper’s racing page or the garden . . .

DJ.  Do you have a strong sense of the kind of audience you want to reach, or are you absorbed in the subject matter and essentially writing for yourself?

SS. Another interesting question. I do have a strong sense of the kind of audience I want to reach. Readers who’ve faced challenging situations, known betrayal, loss and injustice. Who sense there may be more to this life than we are programmed to accept. I’ve met many such inspiring people on my travels. They demand more than the usual police procedural fodder where a young woman is always the victim. Where the ends tie up neatly. Happily. (Especially for, I was told, the American market.) As Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s narrator in the wonderful novel The Pledge, tells his writing students, things don’t happen like that in real life . . .           

DJ.  Your novels are carefully plotted: Complicated plot threads are introduced early on by various characters, and gradually in the course of the novel, they are woven together so that the mystery into which we are initially launched is only fully revealed at the very end. There is no one person–detective or murderer or victim—who carries the plot, but the several characters gradually reveal where they stand in relation to the central mystery.  Do you plot all this out before you start? Or does the story develop through the characters, only revealing itself fully to you, as well as to the reader, by the end?

SS. I don’t begin with what some call ‘a plot cage’ to start with. But I do have the theme I want to deal with. Whether it’s contemporary planning greed on the Fens colliding with a hundred year-old tragedy (Wringland); or a small group of damaged French priests turned terrorists in 1997, the European Year against Racism (Malediction, due out in 2013).   I then decide upon the setting/s and weather in some detail. The relevant socio/economic histories. Even the geology. I either know the place/s well or make several visits and write, surrounded by photos and artefacts. The main characters (with their own agendas, who may or may not be unreliable witnesses) will, without too much intervention on my part, reveal themselves. The work inevitably develops through them as if my pen is just a conduit . . .

DJ. The two novels that I wrote about last week in this blog,  Prey Silence and A Night with No Stars, take place in very specific geographical locations, one in the French Pyrenees and one in the mountains of Mid-Wales. The settings in each novel are more than scenic background: The life and culture of each of these areas play an important in the plot. You live and have lived in both these places. Why did you choose them as settings? Neither novel is exactly a tourist agent’s dream! Are your novels read in the places where they are set?  How do the locals react?

SS.  In A Night with No Stars, I wanted a complete contrast with the life in London of the main character Lucy Mitchell, and Rhayader in Mid-Wales offered this, with its almost quaint, old-fashioned character. The sense of the Celtic otherworld too, was palpable, especially around the ruins of the Abbey Cwmhir. Lucy’s house actually exists – we went to view it and my first thought was, ’no-one will hear you scream’ . . . We got away as quickly as possible!

                In Prey Silence, set near Cahors, I also wanted that contrast between the familiar and the unknown. Also, the French presidential election was in full swing, with the Far Right gaining ground especially in rural areas. I encountered significant anti-foreigner feeling which resonated with what I’d learnt of my own family’s wartime tragedies in Europe.

                Yes, the novels have been read in their settings (except in France) where I’ve had books signings and given talks to either readers’ groups or at library events. Reactions have, to my surprise, been positive. However, I have received letters and emails from French readers who defensively argue that we too, here in the UK, have plenty of BNP thugs. All grist to the mill . . .

DJ.  You also write poetry. And each chapter in A Night with No Stars is prefaced by a verse that purports   often to be written by a character in the novel, identified only by initials and sometimes in the form of traditional Welsh short poems, englynion.  How did readers react to these atmospheric superscripts? And outside the novel, how important is your poetry writing to you? Does it occupy a different place in your work and, if I may so, in your heart, from fiction?

SS. The readers I’ve spoken too felt that these poetic additions added to the Celtic flavour of the novel, and were also quite useful to the plot, where one brother tries to ape the other.  As for my own poetry, it’s also very important to me, and although a different discipline, requiring even greater honing and pruning than prose writing, the ideas it deals with are not so far removed. Not separate in my heart, but yes, in my study  . . .

DJ.  You write short stories. I included your collection of short stories, Strangers Waiting, in my remarks last week, a collection that takes its name from a prize-winning story in the collection.  Your novels are on the whole quite long, by standards of modern mystery writing. And yet I thought that the shape of your short stories resembled the shape of your longer works, no small achievement. Do you like writing in the short story form? Do you plan to do more with it, or does your main ambition as a writer lie in the novel?

SS.  I always have a short story in progress, because its theme, setting and characters have in the past provided the seed for a full length work and I hope will do so in the future. My second crime novel, Cloven began as the short story, Strangers Waiting, favourably reviewed by The New Writer. Encouragement enough to pursue it further. Clan (in the Strangers Waiting collection) formed the basis for The Yellowhammer’s Cradle – a gothic crime novel which is still under wraps . . .

                Both forms are important to me.

DJ.  You have said that Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s “The Pledge” is your favorite crime novel.  An interesting choice, and, having read your novels, I think I can see why you chose it. But I would like to hear what you have to say about that.

SS. My copy of The Pledge – barely more than a novella is old and battered now, but it’s my alternative Bible. The almost kitsch, claustrophobic Swiss setting, Inspector Matthäi’s obsession with finding Gritli Moser’s killer, the gradual deterioration of his mind, and the eventual creepy outcome, all make this such a memorable read. In all my Creative Writing teaching (if one can indeed ‘teach’ it) sessions, I use it shamelessly!

DJ.  In my review last week, I quoted P. D.  James’s well-known comment, “ What the detective story is about is not murder but the restoration of order,” and I said that your work was at the opposite pole of crime-writing. It is about murder and it is not at all about the restoration of order.  Would you like to comment on this?

SS. Where, I ask, is the restoration of order? And anyway, for how long? In both my short and long fiction, I like to think there’s a realistic resolution to what’s gone on before, and so far, (touch some wood!) I haven’t had any complaints about this vital aspect. In one crime novel by a best-selling writer that I read recently, the killer’s name just popped up two pages from the end. Until then, there’d been no mention of him. No chance to get inside his head or have other character’s views on him. A real let-down.

       My former agent did once suggest an alternative ending to Come and Be Killed  before submitting it to publishers, but my characters wouldn’t let it happen. How weird is that?

DJ.  I’m not sure that it is weird at all. Characters, if they are real to the writer, take on a life of their own, and are more powerful than any agent.  So much to talk about. We’ll have to come back to some of these questions.

But for now, perhaps you can tell us what you are working on now, and where you want to go from here.

SS. I’ve almost finished the long-hand version of Carcass – second in a trilogy featuring an ex- DI from Nottingham who finds himself in the Poitou region, helping to find an abducted eight year-old boy, and his father’s racehorse. The first, The Nighthawk, is set in Roussillon.

As for the future, I just hope to keep having the time to dream, to research and write, and also to create screenplays from these two latest works. As part of the Aesthetica Creative Works poetry prize in 2009, I was offered such a course with Arvon. At last, I’m going!

DJ. Are there any other comments you would like to make.

SS. The French have an expression for what some believe to be our previous lives. ‘La vie antérieure.’  Without, I hope, sounding wacky, I do believe that, as we inherit our ancestors’ genes and physical features, so we inherit some of their memory. I read recently that we are all becoming more ‘spiritual’ as an alternative to organized religion.

An interesting journey, then . . .

New Year.

Cold Remains will  be available February 1, 2012 from,, also on Kindle.

Posted in murder mystery, thriller | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Chilling Thrillers of Sally Spedding

Sally Spedding does not write cozies.  Some people have called her novels “creepy chillers.”  They are not for the faint-hearted. They frighten me. But that, I think, is what they are supposed to do, and they do it with style, with top-notch plotting and narrative skill, with brilliant, gradual build-up of suspense that keeps you turning the pages even when something deep inside you whispers, this is dangerous stuff, you will not be able to banish it from your mind.

My own interest in her work was caught first by her biography. She comes from Wales, as do I, and lives partly there and partly in the French Pyrenees. Most of her novels and stories are accordingly set in what the English call “foreign parts,” Wales being as foreign to many Englishmen as anything in the Pyrenees. The settings are very important in her work. She conjures them up in bone-chilling prose. Landscapes that you might previously have thought to be picturesque emerge slowly in her narratives as darkly terrifying places. These are surely “noir” mysteries, with a vengeance.

In her novels—she has published five and there are two more on the way—we do not follow the adventures of a set of characters, getting to know them and perhaps like them more and more from novel to novel. Quite the contrary.  Each novel and each short story is a world unto itself.  A unique cast of characters peoples its own landscape. There is no familiar detective who seeks to bring criminals to justice, and who gives readers a comforting sense that they know who is in control.  P.D.James has famously said, “What the detective story is about is not murder but the restoration of order.” The thrillers of Sally Spedding are at the opposite pole of crime writing. They are about murder, and they have nothing to do with the restoration of order.  Perhaps all they have in common with the traditional detective story is that they do have mysteries to be solved. Early on in Spedding’s novels, mysteries are hinted at, lurking horrors are obliquely suggested, dark secrets are pointed to, and then slowly, inexorably, horrifyingly, these dark secrets are uncovered, not giving us, the innocent readers, a sense of order restored, but rather a frightening sense that if ever there was ground under our feet, it is there no more, that our innocence itself is an illusion.

How does Sally Spedding, master of this particular craft, do this? I am going to look at two of her novels and a collection of short stories

My introduction to her work was the novel Prey Silence (2006). Open up the book, and look at the prefaced “Problem Page,” where fictional readers in little ads ask for helpful hints about how to deal with life in France, one of them Wardle-Smith, a main character in the book.  You might be forgiven for thinking that the novel will satirize the Englishman’s dream of having a country house in the beautiful French countryside. If you look at an actual web site, e.g. Living France, you will see plenty of examples of the “real thing:”  English couple finds happiness and fulfils dreams in rural France.  The coolness (froideur) of the locals towards foreigners, mentioned with bewilderment on Spedding’s “Problem Page,” is only a tiny first hint of a different reality. As we all know, there is no more love lost in France than in Wales between the local inhabitants and the foreigners who move in buying land and property, pushing up prices and so on. But any thought the innocent reader might have that Sally Spedding is going to write a light satire on such social questions  is dispelled right away in Chapter One. The farewell cocktail party given by a neighbor in a comfortable English suburb for the Wardle-Smith family of four, about to set off on their French adventure, borders on that kind of satire, but there are already too many hints of weirdness in the family, the Prozac-taking wife—her apple juice untouched in her glass, her gaze fixed on what, he couldn’t fathom—the nine-year old son looking up at his father with huge calf-like eyes, in Dad’s stomach, a knot of panic. Small notes of anxiety amidst the macho banter with his male friends that attempts to paper over the ever-widening cracks will fail.

The scene is thus set in England for what is doomed to be a disastrous move, and Spedding then takes us to France: Section after section of  third person narratives introduce  the various viewpoints of the main French characters who will people the landscape into which the Wardle-Smiths are about to insert themselves: the neighboring thug-like veal farmer, his beaten-down mother, the attractive young woman, a motor-bike riding activist investigating the disgusting farming methods of the veal farmer, we meet each one in person, and tiny pieces of the frightful history which has preceded the arrival of  the Wardle-Smiths are sparingly distributed, so that by the hundredth page of this 450-page novel we are desperately wishing that the Wardle-Smiths would  go back home, would not move into what turns out to be a filthy, unfurnished fermette with a dirt floor, no plumbing or electric light, a dark and dreadful cellar.  And yet amazingly, by this time, Spedding has built up the story in all its detail of character and place in such a way that we know and even horrifyingly understand that Wardle-Smith must go through with it. And so he does, as the action builds up faster and faster to the bitter end. And so do we, caught up against our will in the mystery of it, turning the pages to find out what really are the secrets buried in this horrible house, and in the hearts and lives of the local inhabitants, so casually and characteristically dismissed by the English at the opening cocktail party as “frogs” and now exposing their much less than casual hatred of the “rosbifs,”  the “Anglais,” who have descended on their land.  Like it or not, these 450 pages are a narrative tour de force

I do not know the Pyrenees, but I do know the mountains of Mid-Wales, the setting of  another Spedding novel, A Night with No Stars (2004). I know the way the Welsh talk English in Rhayader,  I know the language of the chapel and the attitudes of suspicion that abound in the country as whole toward the English, the Saesneg.  Sally Spedding captures the cadences of speech. She captures the  beauty of the landscape—in bad weather a very bleak beauty.  I have rarely seen it as bleak as it is in this novel. Spedding  colors the scene to creepy effect it with words out of the Celtic heritage, Samhain, the Celtic Halloween and Beltane, the Celtic May, with people who dabble in Druidic myth—and with the dreadful ravens  always hovering in the background, deeply symbolic in Celtic mythology, as the “heroine” of the novel learns. This central character, Lucy Mitchell, is not Welsh, but she has read a book in her childhood, Magical Tales from Magical Wales, and has an interest in Celtic beliefs; she has also (surprisingly) written a dissertation on the Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas, whose view of Wales is considerably bleaker than that of her Magical Tales, but when in the first chapter of the novel she is brutally and humiliatingly assaulted in her workplace, an upmarket publishing house in London, she sets off with a small inheritance to buy a property in Wales, hoping to find rural peace and Celtic regeneration. (She should have read R. S. Thomas more closely.)

Another outsider with a dream about to turn into a nightmare. The closer she gets to Wern Goch, the house on the Ravenstone estate that she wants to buy, the more her happy fantasy of the rural life fades, and the greater her fear grows that she going in the wrong direction, but simultaneously greater grows her sense that she cannot turn back. When she reaches the turn-off on the road to her dream house,  a classic Spedding passage draws us a literal picture of this twofold recipe for disaster:

The unmade track in front of her was barely wide enough for a car let alone anything bigger and once she’d manoeuvred the Rav into its tight confines, she could hear the scraping of hawthorn against her paintwork. No way could she stop to check the damage because there wasn’t enough room to get out. A wave of panic hit her. She must keep going because the longer she was there, the greater the risk of something else meeting her head on and wanting to pass.

And so she goes on deeper and deeper into trouble and less and less able to turn back, and we with her. As in Prey Silence, the other characters are introduced early on in their own voices though in third person narratives, thus Mark Jones, the son of the house owner, handsome, crazy, a poet, a laborer, a man with strange rapport with the huge ravens that inhabit the land; other characters too, not even in Wales, whose connection with the central plot is still a mystery. There are secrets in Wern Goch that Lucy begins to know about, but no one will explain them to her. The wife of the owner, mother of Mark, was horribly murdered fifteen years before in this house, but why? By whom?  We, the innocent readers are early caught up in the plot, tantalized by the pieces of mystery that are dropped into our laps, reading on, guilty of going with Lucy on this dangerous path, guilty of wanting to know the worst, not comforted by the small suggestion of a new order at the very end, our heads and consciousness saturated with the horrific images that have “solved” the mystery.

Spedding’s collection of short stories, Strangers Waiting (2008) might be a place for readers to start who would like to get a first-hand sense of her work quickly.  She succeeds amazingly in even very short pieces, some as short as 4 pages, in setting up immediate question marks in our minds, with unsettling details,  hints as to an underlying enigma and then an ever-faster moving story on to the climactic end that brings its horrific revelation.  The two novels that I have discussed happen to tell the story of outsiders who try to penetrate an impenetrable homeland and pay the price. There is one such story in this collection, but apart from this, every one has a radically different plot.  They run the gamut of Spedding settings, from France to Wales, with occasional forays into the rest of Britain.  All third person narratives, each story has one point of view, one language to suit the character, sometimes the victim, sometimes the murderer – for these stories are all about murder, about the darkest places of the human psyche.  We watch with horror as a cold and vicious French woman,  respectable, a retired school teacher, cleaning her windows with hatred in her heart, moves towards her own destruction:  A realistic slice of life? We see an elderly lady, a poet, on a cruise designed for those who have lived too long: A piece of science fiction? We see a girl on a beach in 1851, she has loved her father, her brother, has hated her mother, has she? has she? the story loops back and we follow it through until the revelation of the beginning brings us to the terrible end: A historical fantasy of hate?  Every story in this collection is a brilliant piece of narrative.  Much too brilliant to read if you do not want the balance of your own mind to be disturbed.

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.”  The three works that I have discussed here have given me a fright, many a fright.  But, as readers of this blog know, I have my own problems with “cozy crime,” because crime, as we all know, is not cozy. Murder is horror. Is Sally Spedding looking this fact in the face while cozy mystery writers are simply avoiding it and writing murder mysteries for fun?  But, and this is still a mystery to me, do people read horror stories for fun?  Sally has agreed to be interviewed for this blog and I am looking forward to this very much.  Many questions to ask.

Books discussed here:

A Night with No Stars. London, Allison and Brody, 2004 (novel)

Prey Silence. London, Allison and Brody, 2006 (Novel)

Strangers Waiting. London, Allison and Brody, 2008 (Short Story Collection)

(The title story in this collection, Strangers Waiting, was first published in CWA’s best British Mysteries, 2005. It was also winner of the H.E.Bates Short Story Prize.)

Posted in murder mystery, paranormal, thriller | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Review of William Ryan’s “The Bloody Meadow”

“What will William Ryan do with Korolev’s dilemma, as the 30s in the Soviet Union grind on into more and more terrible times?” This was the question I asked at the end of my recent review of William Ryan’s first novel The Holy Thief, set in Moscow in 1936.

Now, in The Bloody Meadow, it is a year later and we are well  into the most intense period of repression and persecution, time of the infamous 1937/38  purges when Nicolai Yezhov or Ezhov was head of the Soviet Secret Police, the NKVD. The Bloody Meadow takes place in the Ukraine,  and we never actually encounter the dreaded Ezhov, but his shadow hangs over the novel, and it is Ryan’s Ezhov  who sets the plot in motion. It is at his behest that our Moscow police detective, Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev, is dispatched to Odessa to investigate the apparent suicide of a young woman, Maria Lenskaya, a film production assistant working on the film, The Bloody Meadow. She has been found hanging in the dining room of an old manor house, now an agricultural college, where the cast and crew of the film are staying, and she happens to be a special friend of Ezhov’s.  Discretion, extreme discretion, is urged upon Korolev by his immediate superior, Rodinov of the NKVD, who wants the investigation of the suicide to be directly under his jurisdiction, i.e. not in the hands of the local militia.  And here we are right away in the heart of Korolev’s dilemma. The scene of the crime, a manor house with a ready-made group of suspects in place, seems traditional enough. But Korolev is in a very different place from a traditional detective. How is he going to conduct a thorough and honest investigation of a suspected crime, when his superiors who hold his career and indeed his life in their hands seem to want a certain outcome from the investigation and when he, Korolev, does not even know what it is?

Korolev is a decent man, a man at any rate who wants to be decent and do a good job, and he has a limited capacity for deviousness. He does know how to “keep his face expressionless” and he does this quite often when faced with dubious propositions whose outcomes he cannot quite fathom. He has a dogged, conscientious approach to the pursuit of criminals that is no different from that of  policemen in run-of-the-mill detective stories: His job is to “establish possibilities and then prove or disprove them;” it was “going to be a question of  “gathering information from interviews, analyzing it, then exploring the lines of enquiry it suggested;”  he must investigate the case to the best of his ability,  “put the evidence together, sift it, weigh it and come to conclusions, same as he always did.”  He has few illusions about himself, about what he sees in the mirror, “an average man; not ugly, not good-looking, no genius but no idiot either.”

So what is it about this average man, going about the business of detection in a conventional, methodical way, that for me puts the suspense level from the beginning notches higher than many other detective stories, that keeps me on the edge of my seat, very involved with him as a human being, urgently wanting him to succeed . . . and to survive.  Korolev is a likable guy, yes, in a hateful time, and Ryan succeeds brilliantly once again in this novel in transporting his readers to his 1930’s Russia, conjuring up an amazing cast of characters, some historical figures, some based on historical figures, some purely imagined, and all moving around on the chess board of the mystery, gradually, piece by piece, giving the game away. But it is Korolev’s dilemma that draws me back into his world, prepared to face the horrors of it again, in order to see how this man juggles his two levels of consciousness, the inner and the outer, coming through to a kind of justice, not selling his own soul, but not satisfying his conscience either.

Korolev is not the only character in the novel who is juggling various levels of consciousness. The film which gives the novel its name alludes to Eisenstein’s repeatedly edited, changed, and repressed film, Bezhin Meadow, though Ryan does not use Eisenstein as a character as he does Babel, who in fact did work on the screenplay of Eisenstein’s film. Our film director in the novel, Savchenko, is having difficulties making the kind of film his political bosses want him to make. As was Eisenstein’s film, Savchenko’s The Bloody Meadow, is based on a famous story of a boy who denounces his father for counter-revolutionary behavior and who is murdered by his family in revenge for this act of betrayal. The act of betrayal, as seen by the family, is to be portrayed as an act of heroism, the boy a martyr in his loyalty to the State and the Party.

Savchenko is having difficulty making this message clear in his film and the suggestion is made that some citizens, Korolev among them, “might just harbor the suspicion that the brat had got what was coming to him.” Such suspicions are voiced publicly by nobody, certainly not by Korolev.  Nor are his suspicions that “they might talk like Bolsheviks, but in their hearts, Russians would always be Believers.”  In this novel, as in the last one, the paradoxes surrounding the belief in God and the belief in the Soviet State abound – the believing (Christian, vicious) Thieves of Moscow, again play a crucial part in the plot of the novel, and the amazing chase and shoot-out in the labyrinthine passages underlying Odessa ends with a classic crisis of conscience on Korolev’s part which you will have to read for yourselves.

There is no end to the central mystery of this novel. Yes, the case is solved. We know by the end who committed the act of murder. We know, more or less, who was sleeping with whom. We, and Korolev, know who are the counter-revolutionaries, who are the Ukrainian patriots, who are the Party loyalists; the complicated plot has been worked through to its surprising conclusion, but the real surprise, for us and for Korolev, is ultimately in the hands of Rodinov, of Ezhov, of the powers that hold all these little people in their hands.  Or, we think with hope, do not have complete hold of them  because there is still Korolev who will, this time, live to see another day.

Note for American readers: The Bloody Meadow will be officially released on January 3, 2012, under the title, The Darkening Field. I do not know why the title had to be changed. The original title retains the allusion to Eisenstein’s film and to the Turgenev story that preceded it.  The paperback edition of The Bloody Meadow that I obtained from Amazon is the British edition was published by Mantle in 2011 and  it contains a very useful list of characters. This helps a lot in keeping track of the Russian names, patronymics etc. Anyone who wants more background information can find it in William Ryan’s website, where there is very good glossary, pictures etc.

For some very interesting comments by William Ryan on his own work, see interview with him on this blog.

Posted in detective fiction, historical fiction, murder mystery, thriller | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Interview with Aaron Paul Lazar

Aaron Paul Lazar is the author of  three series of mysteries, the LeGarde Mysteries, Moore Mysteries, and Tall Pines Mysteries.  He lives in the Genesee Valley  in upstate New York, and enjoys the countryside where, in his own words, his characters “embrace life, play with their grandkids and dogs, grow sumptuous gardens, and chase bad guys.”  He “writes to soothe his soul.”

You can follow up his work and publications at his website  He has won various awards, listed below along with publishing details of his books.  I met Aaron on Twitter, and recently reviewed five of his LeGarde mysteries  in this blog.  I am glad that he has agreed to be interviewed here.  And to send me some of his pictures of the Genesee Valley.

DJ. As you know, Aaron, I am exploring in this blog the phenomenon of the mystery novel. I’m reading various kinds of mysteries, detective novels, thrillers etc., and considering what their appeal to their readers is. I decided to write about your mysteries because, as far as I am concerned, they are something of a genre unto themselves. You have suggested that they might be called, “country mysteries,” and I picked this up in my recent review. Do you think this describes them adequately?

APL. Dorothy, I’ve been trying to figure this out since I started writing these books! I always just called them mysteries, because they felt like elements of the mysteries I’d read my whole life – not exactly like them, but closer than any other genre. Some folks suggested “adventure,” but I didn’t think that really fit, since they aren’t a gun-slinging or sea-diving type of book. One publisher told me they reminded her of the good old-fashioned mysteries of her youth, and I took that to be a compliment! Now, people often die or have died in the past (ala Elsbeth in Double Forté ) in my books, but there isn’t always a murder, so to speak. So they aren’t classic “murder mysteries,” and they certainly aren’t “detective mysteries.” Of course they aren’t crime novels, either, because there is no detective or PI present (except for the cops who are Gus’s friends), and so much more happens in these stories than would be acceptable in a by-the-book crime novel.

Some people have called them “literary mysteries,” and on occasion, “cozies,” but they don’t really seem to fit in those categories either. So I dubbed them “country mysteries,” because they all take place in the country, the book settings explore and showcase nature, my characters are soothed by the country (as opposed to the city or suburbs), and they are always out in their gardens, or cooking stuff from the gardens, or walking in the woods, or sledding, or riding horses… it just seemed to fit. ;o)

DJ. What do you think about the genre name “cozy mystery?”  I balk at using the term for your novels, though they do fit the bill in not being excessively bloodthirsty and in depicting sex in a distinctly romantic way –and in moderation!  When someone says of my one murder mystery, “It’s not a cozy,” I tend to regard this as a compliment. Do you feel the same way? Or do you think the term could be profitably applied to your novels?  Are they “cozies” to you?

APL.  Yes, I feel the same way about not being categorized as a cozy writer. I don’t really think they are cozies. There’s much more pathos and deep-seated emotion and pure evil that invades these books (like it does your novel!), and it’s not shown in a cozy fashion as Agatha Christie would have done. Granted, I try to keep the gratuitous violence and sex down to a bare minimum (the operative word here being gratuitious), but it’s impossible to avoid violence when you’re talking about villains like neo-Nazis or sociopaths. For example, I don’t think in a cozy one would describe the way the eyes of a dead man gelled and turned gray, as I did at the end of Double Forté with Baxter’s death. And perhaps one wouldn’t expect so many fistfights, chases, or scenes where someone has a knife or gun pushed into their ribs in a cozy. I believe that brings my books beyond the definition of cozy. That said, there are elements of these books that are comforting, and “cozy” in that manner, if you know what I mean. When I have Gus LeGarde sitting on his porch steps with his dog, patting him, with the sun beating down and flowers bending and swaying around them…it’s comforting for both Gus and the readers. It may not be critical to the plot, but it’s critical to the job of getting the readers to know and care about Gus, in my humble opinion.

DJ,  You have written that you turned to writing novels after losing a number of members of your family. You were seeking solace.  Why, at such a time, would you choose to write mysteries?  In fact your novels are family stories, and the drama within the LeGarde family is by no means all dependent on the mystery plot, though the plot is often moved forward by family dynamics.  Could you have just written family novels?

APL. What a great question! I never really considered writing “just” about family. I’ve always been excited by the idea of secrets being overturned or mysteries being solved. And I’ve always read only mystery. Maybe I’ll have to consider this some day. ;o)

DJ. I have called your novels “romantic.” You have, it seems to me, a romantic view of love, of family relationships, of the relationship between human-beings and nature. How do you square this with the need in a mystery to introduce all sorts of quite un-romantic things, such as murder, beating and brutal men? You picked up on some comments of mine in my recent review and talked about the “operatic separation of heroes and villains.” Would you like to expand a little on that here?

APL.  I’ll never forget the summer when I took off on my horse by myself for hours. I’d find a great spot in a pasture, let the horse eat grass, and I’d read a book either turned around with my elbows on his soft hindquarters, or on the ground beside him under a tree. My father said, “He’s going through a Romantic stage now.” Heh. I guess I never outgrew it.

I think part of my difficulty accepting things not beautiful (un-romantic) has to do with the fact that I was raised in a very sheltered and almost utopian environment. No, we didn’t have much money. But we had all the basics and plenty of love. We had one very old car, one tiny B&W TV, a very cold house in the winter, etc. But we lived in the country (much like I do now) and grew big gardens, had family feasts, took in all the stray animals, and of course, found a way to keep my horse. He wasn’t anything special, but I adored him. We got him for a few hundred bucks from a local woman, but the life I had every day on his back, playing with my pals who also had horses, was so incredible, it just set my expectations for how life is supposed to be. It didn’t cost so much back then to keep a horse. Now you have to be rich, or at least prioritize your life in a different way.

I also flat-out loved opera in my teens and twenties, and went to as many performances as I could. My favorites at the time were Tosca, Carmen, Aida, Rigoletto… talk about romantic! I guess I never progressed beyond the point of showing villains for who they really were. I didn’t worry too much about humanizing them so that the reader felt sympathy. After all, they were the “bad guys.” I know many of today’s writers are quite concerned about character arcs (having their character grow and change) and also that it’s popular to have a seriously flawed hero. I remember my wife originally asked me “why don’t you make Gus an alcoholic, or something interesting like that?” I couldn’t do it! Why? Because I wouldn’t be able to use him then as the example of a good dad, good grandfather, good husband.

I never meant to use my characters as teaching models – not in my conscious brain, anyway. But it seems they have ended up doing just that with many of my readers. One reader actually told me that Gus taught him how to be a better father! Imagine that? I still treasure that comment.

DJ. In all five of the novels that I reviewed, the plot is set in the framework of developing family relationships, and in three of them there are also major subplots that only connect tangentially with the the main mystery plot (the mysterious visitor in Tremolo, the connection to the nineteenth century composer in Mazurka, and the hidden room and Underground Railroad in FireSong).  Traditionally, murder mysteries are tightly plotted, more in the style of your Upstaged, and the reader’s attention is firmly directed throughout at the detection of the culprit.  Are you deliberately subverting the genre in your subplots, or do these simply pop into your head and you cannot resist them?

APL: Dorothy, I love your questions. They are so deep and so far beyond what I’m normally asked! Okay, let’s talk about the subplots you mentioned first. In Tremolo, I thought it would be lovely to entwine the feelings and emotions of 1964 in the book in some tangible ways. You know I used Beatles songs, movies of the time (“To Kill A Mockingbird”), radio programs that hinted at the fears of the day, like bomb scares and such. But I wanted to bring closer one of the most powerful events that happened in that decade, and that was the assassination of the President. By having a mysterious visitor come to camp, as yes, a definite sub plot, I felt I could integrate the event more closely to my characters and their lives.

In Mazurka, the only way I could get Siegfried to accompany Gus and Camille on their vacation (because I could not imagine leaving him out of this story!) was to concoct a very good reason for him to have to go with them. By having this deep dark secret about Chopin that his great aunt needed to pass on to him, I created the mechanics of him coming along. But remember, there are also many strains throughout the books about Chopin. Elsbeth always adored this composer. Gus is writing a book about him. Gus’s grandson dances around the great room to the strains of Chopin mazurka’s, etc. There were already the elements planted in the series that reached way back in time to this event, making it fit.

In FireSong, there are a lot of plot lines. Maybe too many. But I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to link the criminal activities beneath the church and town to something historic, to Gus and Camille. By finding the secret room in their house with Underground Railroad relics in it, I firmly linked Gus and Camille, and the original owner of their house, Mary Hill, to the current day happenings in the town. Remember that Mary was found in a very unexpected place – and it all linked back to those criminal activities that were ongoing. How else would we have found her if there hadn’t been the original cave in at the mines? Or the forest fire? I think it all linked together in important ways, but maybe I had too much going on in this one.

DJ.  A related question: You have a leisurely approach to narration—in my review I used the word “contemplative”—and some whole sections contribute nothing to the actual plot—e.g., Gus playing with his grandson, Gus and his friends and family cooking, the minister preaching.  Do you deliberately slow down the pace of the plot in this way in order then to take your readers by surprise when you throw them into fast-paced chase scene where the narration is highly concentrated and very precise. How much planning do you do of pacing?  Or do you, as it were, follow your nose and let the characters and the story lead you?

APL. I do the latter, Dorothy. My characters lead me where they will.

But I also believe that I have always intentionally employed the device of “tension and release, tension and release.” Like a sine wave, actually, I position scenes or vignettes of Gus’s family life in between the action scenes. It’s very purposeful. I think the reason I do it is to make my readers love and care for my characters, to expose their personalities, their weaknesses, their fears. I do it to let the reader relax a little between the tense scenes, and also to make the story seem more real. If all my characters did was run around from or after villains the whole time, that would make my books probably into suspense or terror. But they aren’t, they definitely aren’t. It’s almost become second nature, but this interchanging of relaxed versus tense scenes has always been my intent. I do very little planning, except to collect a few vague ideas about subjects I’ll cover or problems my characters will develop, or new characters I’ll feature. And I don’t outline.

DJ. You are a prolific writer. You did not begin writing novels until about 2004 (if I am right) and since then you have written fifteen, with six on the market now and the rest in the publishing queue scheduled for near term release. I am in awe of this ability since it takes me several years to write one.  How do you do it? Particularly when you also hold down a full-time job as an applications engineer—and then there is your family, to say nothing of your garden, your dogs and cats . . .

APL.  It isn’t easy, Dorothy. But I budget my time very carefully. I rarely watch television, so that helps a lot. I work hard and fast on the household and garden chores, and I am forever behind. The house is never perfectly clean; the weeds are never fully pulled. There are always fifty jobs waiting for me when I come home. But I figure if we are living in a relatively clean environment, eating fresh produce and healthy meals, etc. then I can take a few hours a night (or early morning) to devote to my books. When I’m writing a book, I do about a chapter a day. Normally it takes about three months to get a draft done when I’m on a roll. After that, it may be years before the book comes out, and it goes through many editing phases. So it’s just a matter of priorities. My wife and family come first, then my writing. All the other stuff can be done whenever I can squeeze it in.

DJ. Your novels show more than a passing involvement with European culture—music, language, some European cities. Mazurka plays almost entirely in Europe, in Paris, in Vienna. And several of your characters have European roots, not only the twins, Elsbeth and Siegfried. Siegfried’s German is even scattered through the texts.  Your own life seems to be very well rooted in upstate New York. Where does your interest in Europe come in?

APL. When I worked for Kodak, one of my jobs was liaison with our German counterparts in Muelhausen, in our German factory. I loved this job, and frequently visited for a week or two at a time. In 1986 my whole family was invited to live in Germany while I worked with my counterparts there. We lived in Denkendorf, a lovely little village outside of Stuttgart. You’ll see an appearance of Denkendorf in Mazurka, as well as many of the shops and restaurants we frequented. While we lived there, my wife and I were able to take long weekend trips to various locales – Paris, Wien, Austria, the Black Forest, etc. etc. (my in-laws came along with us to Germany to help care for our three little girls, and we took turns every other weekend traveling when we could!) Most of these locales are featured in Mazurka. Now, years later, I work for a Germany company with headquarters here in Rochester, NY. I’ve been overseas twice now in the past year and am delighted to reconnect with the German people and culture.

DJ.   And now a nuts-and-bolts question:

Many people these days are trying their hand at self-publishing.  You have yourself published with small publishing companies and you have had success with e-books. Do you have any advice, based in your own experience:

a) for writers who are interested in self-publishing?

b) for writers who are interested in getting into the e-book market?

Can you make any comments on the current trend towards publishing oneself on e.g. Kindle, doing all the formatting oneself, setting the price, and simply selling.

APL. Dorothy, all I can say is the world is rapidly changing in this arena. People are completely bypassing publishers these days and becoming enormously successful. Or failing miserably. Folks are still snagging good agents and being well represented by big publishers; and others in the same boat get little in the way of promotion or sales. The market is so changeable, the opportunities so open and amazing… and there is no zero sum game here, especially with eBooks.

My eBooks have sold far more than my print books, and I’m delighted with this. My publisher does all the work on formatting, etc. I wouldn’t know where to begin! She is a master at this.

My wife and I are buying probably ten times more books in general now that she has her Kindle and I use my little iPhone to read. A year ago, I would have laughed at the idea, but it has really taken hold and grown. We are constantly downloading books for free or 99 cents that are wonderful reads. Of course, once we hit on an author we like, we gladly go back to research what they’ve written and frequently buy at full price without questioning the cost. So there’s a lesson to be learned here re. promotion.

I wish I had the magic bullet answer – but I think it’s still and always will be the same. Write the best book you can. Put it in the very best polished format. Find a way to get it to your readers, and keep on writing so they will come back for more!

DJ.  What are you writing now and where are you going?

I’ve just finished polishing and rewriting my old books – the first two books I wrote, Double Forté and Upstaged. My current publisher (Twilight Times Books) has picked them up and they will come out as “author’s preferred editions” next year. So I’m free to start a new book, and I’m very excited to be in the thinking stages about a third book in my Tall Pines series. I have ten books in LeGarde, three in Moore Mysteries, and two in Tall Pines, so it makes sense to add one to the new Tall Pines series before I go on.  I intend to keep writing these three series indefinitely, God willing.

Next I’ll likely add a book to the Moore series, and then will probably either go back to spruce up one of the four remaining LeGarde books that is waiting in the wings, or I’ll write another “young Gus” book. I have two now in that sub-category of LeGarde Mysteries, and would like to continue that series within a series. ;o)

11. What kind of audience do you hope to reach?

 I must say that originally I never wrote for anyone but me. It was my world, my pleasure, and under my control. LOL. But now, I’ve seen that I can reach and connect with readers of all ages. I have ten year olds who have read and enjoyed Double Forté and 99 year olds who read all the books. It seems my stories span the ages. The Tall Pines series, however, is aimed a little more at women (although I think most men will like it, too). But we shall see how they are received when they come out!

DJ.  Anything you would like add?

APL. First of all, thank you so much for these brilliant questions and wish you the very best with your own book, which I loved. Secondly, I’d like to say that connecting with my readers, learning what they liked and didn’t like, seeing how the books impacted them – it’s all my favorite part of being an author. Folks can connect with me on facebook, twitter, or my many blogs. My main website is You can also email me at aaron dot lazar at yahoo dot com to sign up for my quarterly newsletter.

Thank you, Dorothy, and don’t forget to write like the wind.

Postscript, September 28: Healey’s Cave has just been shortlisted in the EPIC Awards (Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition Awards) for 2011 in the paranormal category.

Further information on the work of Aaron Paul Lazar, supplied by this Kindle best-selling author:

Twilight Times Books:


Double Forté, (Author’s preferred edition, 2012)

Upstaged  (2005)

Tremolo Cry of the Loon (2007)

Mazurka (2009)

Firesong (July 2011)

Don’t Let the Wind Catch You  (April 2012)


Healey’s Cave (2010)

Terror Comes Knocking (January 2012)

For Keeps  (February 2012)


For the Birds (Coming soon, November 2011)

Essentially Yours  (Coming soon, March 2012)


WINNER 2011 Eric Hoffer BEST Book, COMMERCIAL FICTION * GRAND PRIZE FINALIST Eric Hoffer Book Award 2011 * 2X FINALIST Global eBook Awards 2011 * Preditors & Editors Readers Choice Award – 2nd place 2011* Winner of Carolyn Howard Johnsons’ 9th Annual Noble (Not Nobel!) Prize for Literature 2011 *  Finalist Allbooks Editors Choice Awards 2011 * Preditors&Editors Top 10 Finalist  *   Yolanda Renee’s Top Ten Books 2008   *  MYSHELF Top Ten Reads 2008  * Writers’ Digest Top 101 Website Award 2009 & 2010

See also: / http://www.mooremysteries.com / /

Posted in country mystery, cozy mystery, murder mystery | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments