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 www.sparklingbooks.com, Amazon.com, also on Kindle.

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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.)

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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.

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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  www.legardemysteries.com  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 www.legardemysteries.com. 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:

LEGARDE MYSTERIES

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)

MOORE MYSTERIES

Healey’s Cave (2010)

Terror Comes Knocking (January 2012)

For Keeps  (February 2012)

TALL PINES MYSTERIES

For the Birds (Coming soon, November 2011)

Essentially Yours  (Coming soon, March 2012)

AWARDS:

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.legardemysteries.com / http://www.mooremysteries.comhttp://www.murderby4.blogspot.com / www.aaronlazar.blogspot.com /www.aplazar.gather.com

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

The Country Mysteries of Aaron Paul Lazar

Aaron Paul Lazar is an all-American writer of popular mysteries. He sometimes calls them country mysteries, and this goes some way towards describing them. Because I come from Britain and have many connections with Europe, I might wish to call them “American country mysteries.” Certainly they are a far cry from the formulaic English country-house mysteries, and they do not in the least resemble the many English murder mysteries set (with notable lack of verisimilitude) in the charming little villages of the South of England. Lazar’s country mysteries are unique, at least in the context of my own reading.  And they are very American.  Why do I say that?  Because I cannot imagine finding anywhere but in the USA Lazar’s particular blend of romance,  family affection, church-going warmth, appetizing home cooking, enthusiastic gardening, breath-stopping suspense, villainous behavior with murderous intent, all put together with intelligence, good humor, story-telling skill and a bubbling-over of imagery, more than a touch of naïve and lovable optimism and an overpowering sense that although particularly nasty and violent men keep cropping up, East Goodland (well-named) in the Genesee Valley in upstate New York is still the best of all possible worlds.

Lazar is a prolific writer, and I am going to confine my discussion here to the first five of his Gus LeGarde mysteries. These are the novels that set him on the road to becoming a writer of mystery novels, and while he may have refined his writing skills in his later novels, these are the novels that drew me into his world, and I would like work out why, what is their attraction? Why do I keep coming back to see what is going on in East Goodland?

In order of their appearance they are:

Double Forté  and Upstaged, first published by Publish America in 2004 and 2005, and now re-issued by Twilight Times Books.

Tremolo: Cry of the Loon, published by Twilight Times Books in 2007

Mazurka, published by Paladin Timeless Books (a Twilight Times Imprint) in 2009

FireSong, published by Paladin Timeless Books (a Twilight Times Imprint) in 2011

All these novels are also available on Kindle and in numerous other e-reader formats, and since Aaron has agreed to be interviewed on this blog, I will be asking him more about the ways in which he wrote and published these novels, but today I want to concentrate on some aspects of the novels themselves.

The hero of this series of novels is Gus LeGarde—not a detective, not a policeman, but a professor. Not by any means a stereotypical professor. He is a professor of music in a local upstate New York college but we see a lot more of him in his house, his garden, his kitchen, his church, than in his college. These are no typical college mysteries with a cast of faculty members as suspects.  They are mysteries in which Gus himself is at the center, often not so much in a detecting role as in the role of potential victim of a dastardly character or characters who pursue him and his loved ones, often in hair-raising chases.  Professor he may be, but he is an outdoors type, who skis, rides horses, runs, swims and when necessary packs a mighty punch. He himself is the recipient of so many blows to the head that one would fear for his sanity if he did not have an amazing ability to get back on his feet and fight another day.

And yet Gus is not a violent man.  On the contrary, he is a loving, sensitive and of course musical soul who tends to get involved in crime only because he is concerned about his fellow men, and particularly about children, women—and animals too.  It is this concern and the compulsion to step in and help those in trouble that usually makes him, and often his wife, the direct target of various villains’ wrath.

When we first meet him in Double Forté, he is a widower, a middle-aged grandfather, who has already known tragedy in his personal life through the illness and death of his beloved wife, Elsbeth.  The circumstances of her death four years previously are gradually revealed in this first novel.  He often thinks of her and so she makes frequent appearances in this and the other novels. So does her twin brother, Siegfried, who is very much alive, and Gus’s best friend since they were all children together. Siegfried is one of the most appealing characters in a series full of appealing characters. He is a  strong and muscular man, six-feet-eight tall with blue eyes and a blond pony tail who suffered brain damage  in a childhood boating accident, and after years of therapy won back little of his childhood brilliance but developed into the “gentle giant” of the novels “without whom the family would be lost” (Double Forté,35).

Gus, the first person narrator of all these novels, is a man whose past is by no means banished from his present, and his thoughts often linger on events of his personal past, but at the same time he has a great lust for his present life, not only his romantic attachment, beginning in Double Forté, to a lovely young woman, Camille, nine years younger than he is, who continues to be a major player in all five of the novels. This is a tender physical relationship and Lazar describes its development right up to the honeymoon in Mazurka, and beyond.  His lust for life is also wonderfully manifested in his appetite for good food—grown and cooked largely by himself.  He prepares enormous meals for his big family—his daughter and her family live with him—and often for friends as well.  We see and smell and almost taste the wonderful fresh food at his table. (I write here as one who lives in New York City and have to make do with the Green Market at the weekend when farmers from upstate bring in their produce for us city-dwellers.)  Let your mind run on this “simple” Sunday dinner for the whole clan:

The aroma of roasted chicken filled the kitchen.    . . . I added four generous shakes of cinnamon to the apple sauce. I’d peeled and cooked several dozen twenty-ounce apples from Oscar’s tree in his backyard.  . . .  I lifted the collard greens from the stove and poured them into a strainer  . . . last night’s sudden early frost had turned their slightly bitter flavor into a sweet, musky taste  . . .I picked up a three-pronged fork and and poked the potatoes boiling in the large stockpot. I’d dug them from the cold soil that morning  . . .  (FireSong,215f.)

Gus often does some quite fancy cooking, but what pervades the novel for me, and plays a large part in giving them their healthy, homespun atmosphere, one might say, aroma, is the cooking of food straight from the soil. Musician as he is, a pianist who loves to play Chopin, Gus is close to the earth.

If you get caught up in his family  in the first two novels, you will be pleased to discover that the third novel, Tremolo, Cry of the Loon, returns entirely to the childhood of Gus and the twins, Elsbeth and Siegfried,  new immigrants from Germany. The scene is set in a  summer back in the sixties when the three children, ten and eleven years old, find themselves caught up in a series of adventures, launched in typical LeGarde manner by their desire to help a young girl whom they see fleeing through the woods pursued by an ugly, angry, predatory man, one of Lazar’s most villainous characters. Here they are not in East Goodland but in the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine in a lakeside holiday camp run by Gus’s grandparents. The world of this summer camp is beautifully conjured up through the eyes of the children, in the background not only the cry of the loon, a bird of the region, but various other sounds and signs of the times, from the songs of the Beatles to the movie, “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” to the assassination of Kennedy and the crusades of Martin Luther King.  I enjoyed this excursion into Gus’s past, since I already knew the middle-aged Gus, but I think it might well stand alone and be successful as one of those cross-over books that can appeal to children and adults.

Lazar is obviously a man who loves children, and he depicts them with ease and without self-consciousness or artifice. Gus’s little grandson, Johnny, plays an important role in this series. Seeing him grow through four novels from a two-year-old, we fear for him when he is in danger as for a child we know.  A member of Gus’s family, he is bound to be danger quite often! A mystery series that so intimately involves a whole family cannot but have a disproportionate number of disasters befalling its members, and in this series one might complain that there are a few too many skeletons in the closet, too many people who have committed crimes or been subjected to criminal behavior.  And yet the overwhelming impression made by these five novels is a happy one, one reviewer has said they are “feel-good” novels.  If you look through the reviews you will be struck by the frequent occurrence of such concepts as “comfortable,” “soothing,” “endearing,”  “great book for a quiet afternoon.”  At the same time, reviewers also talk about them as “page-turners,”  “electrifying story lines,” even “a chilling thriller.”  How does Lazar manage this?   One reviewer says, “The characters are just plain nice,” and this does sum up most members of the LeGarde family and their friends.  I like them too and would happily sit at their table and eat their splendid food. But these are not readable family romances. What changes them into something else is the intrusion of people who are just plain nasty into this nice world.  Not too many characters in a Lazar novel straddle the nice-nasty hurdle. They are generally one thing or the other.

The nastiest characters of all crop up in Mazurka, the honeymoon novel that does not take place at all in verdant East Goodland, but starts in turbulent weather in a plane across the Atlantic, where Gus and his bride, Camille, are on their bumpy way to Paris, taking Siegfried with them to visit long-lost relatives in Germany.  Lazar’s descriptive powers are not confined to upstate New York. He does a fine job of conjuring up Paris, seen through the eyes of excited American tourists on their first visit to the city on the Seine, and later on we have an equally happy picture of the Inner City of Vienna. I do not intend to destroy the suspense of the plot. Suffice to say that the nastiest characters in all of the five novels are the bunch of rabid Nazi youths in Mazurka  with whom Gus already tangles on the plane and who subsequently pursue Siegfried, whose mother was Jewish, and through him, Gus and Camille, through a series of hair-raising adventures, beginning with an astounding chase sequence in the catacombs of Paris and ending in an unspecified location in Germany or Austria where unspeakable events occur.  I did wonder here whether the later incidents were not too “over the top” in presenting a very frightening picture of right wing activity in Europe today.  Lazar did however make it clear that some of the ringleaders in all this were actually American Nazis, thus presenting it all as a global phenomenon rather than something designed to discourage Americans from touring Germany!

In fact the German language has a constant presence in the Lazar novels through Siegfried who in the disabling accident in his youth lost the English language for a while and reverted to his native German, which he has never completely managed to remove from his speech. Fragments of his speech are therefore often German, a device that is more effective than simply saying he has a German accent.

Lazar takes plenty of time describing his characters, not only Gus’s family but all the other characters, from the two very decent policemen who are his friends and helpers, to the ugly thugs who, by necessity, appear in his novels. Lazar is never in a hurry. People looking for purely action novels must look elsewhere. He pauses constantly to describe how the characters look, what they are wearing, what they are thinking, whether it has anything to do with the plot or not. He takes time to describe the sound of bullfrogs, the way fireflies look when Gus chases them with his grandson; one whole scene centers on shelling peas; he takes us through the making of a whole Thanksgiving Dinner; he even gives us two full sermons preached by the minister of his church (FireSong). Typical of his narration, he will pause right in the middle of an action to say, for example:

I was momentarily distracted by a small white-tailed rabbit who hopped out of the bush to my right. He sat up and twitched his whiskers then went down on all fours about ten feet from us, freezing in the open grass in a misguided attempt at camouflage (FireSong, 143).

And yet with all this delight in leisurely narration, Lazar has the ability suddenly to quicken the pace and create the kind of suspense that has you sitting on the edge of your seat, turning the pages rapidly as someone, usually Gus, races against time and all the odds to escape some dire force, be it pursuing villains, forest fires, rising waters – sometimes all of the above in one sequence. I have twice gone past my subway stop in NYC, caught up in such a sequence.  This is a very particular narrative ability, and Lazar has it. He also has the ability convincingly to describe complex physical feats, climbing up or down dangerous slopes, for example or struggling through mazes of underground tunnels in such a way that the reader is following step by dangerous step.

There are usually subplots in these novels that, depending on how you view them add richness to the central mystery, or upend the balance of it, such as the mysterious guest in Tremolo, the amazing family connection with a well-known composer in Mazurka, the hidden room on the Underground Railroad in FireSong.  Of these five novels, the one that most resembles a traditional murder mystery is Upstaged, precisely because it has no actual sub-plot, though it is, like the others, framed in the ongoing story of developing relationships within the LeGarde family. It is the most tightly plotted of the five novels, centering on a high school production of a musical written by Gus and directed by Camille. Strange accidents in rehearsals quickly turn out to be signs that someone is plotting against Camille, people are hurt, and an actual murder occurs. The cast of the play and those concerned in the production are the prime suspects, and Gus, along with his friends in the police force, gradually close in on the murderer, a particularly nasty (American) specimen though I for one did not recognize him as the culprit until close to the end.

One reviewer has described Double Forté as “a nice cozy mystery,” but I have hesitated myself to describe these mysteries as “cozy.”  Why?  They certainly do not contain gratuitous violence or sex. They deal much more in romance rather than in horror, even though there are plenty of fisticuffs and chases.  But another word, rather than cozy comes to my mind. The young boy, Gus, in Tremolo is taken to see “To Kill a Mocking Bird” by his liberal parents, who want him to understand something about America, and he is shocked at the racism and cruelty he sees in it. His parents try to explain to him the crimes of racism and rape.  The boy narrator says, “I was quiet all the way home thinking about Tom Robinson and his distraught family. I contemplated the acts of which some men were capable.”   And this, one feels, is what Lazar is always doing.  He can never quite believe that people can be as vile as he has to make them in order to make his mysteries work as mysteries. Perhaps these novels are, when all’s said and done, contemplative American country mysteries. This is not a word to set the mystery market on fire, but in my book it is high praise, whatever the market.

 Next week, I hope to ask Aaron Paul Lazar how he sees his mysteries himself.

Posted in country mystery, cozy mystery, murder mystery, review | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Fallada’s Portrait of a Police Detective in Nazi Germany

Fallada’s 1946 novel, Jeder stirbt für sich allein  recently acquired best-seller status in the English-speaking world through the translation of Michael Hofmann in the new Melville House edition, Every Man Dies Alone.  It was based right after the war on Gestapo-files, acquired for Fallada’s use by the writer, Johannes Becher, who had just returned from exile to the Soviet Zone of Occupation, and was engaged in the task of re-building post-war German culture along anti-fascist lines. He hoped to inspire Hans Fallada to take a leading part in these endeavors.

The files documented the case of a working class couple who for a couple of years at the height of the Nazi terror, 1940-42, managed to elude capture by the Gestapo while leaving more than 200 postcards with block-lettered messages in Berlin buildings, mainly in their own working-class district of Wedding. On the postcards, they condemned in simple and crude terms the Hitler regime. Eventually they were caught, tried, condemned to death by the so-called People’s Court—and beheaded.  This was the outline of the real case against a couple called Otto and Elise Hampel, who were executed with minutes of each other on the evening of April 8, 1943 in Plötzensee Prison in Berlin, and this case gave Fallada an outline for his last great novel where the amazingly dogged but doomed couple, a resistence-cell unto themselves, are called Otto and Anna Quangel.

Does this novel belong in a blog about mysteries, about detective fiction? It is not a murder mystery in the conventional sense where a detective tracks down a murderer and brings him or her to justice. It is however in large part a work of detective fiction in which a policeman tracks down a criminal, as defined in his own police state, and brings the person to justice, as defined in that state, now more readily defined as judicial murder. About three hundred pages of this 668 page-novel (in the latest German edition) focus on one police detective’s hunt for the enemy of the state who is distributing the cards.  Fallada fictionalizes the case of the Hampels—and one could write a great deal about how he does this (I might do that in a later post)—but there is not a character in the novel more interestingly fictionalized than the police detective who hunts down the Quangels:  Kommissar Escherich of the Secret State Police, known world-wide in its notoriously abbreviated from, the Gestapo—the Geheime Staatspolizei.

Who does not have a picture of the Gestapo?  The dreaded, ruthless, brutal body of men who in Hitler’s Germany and its colonies tracked down “enemies of the state,” from the small desperate cells of resisters who somehow maintained a presence, albeit small, throughout the Thousand Year Reich, to the individuals who committed a variety of smaller crimes such as listening to foreign radios or complaining carelessly about the conditions in the country or the conduct of the war. Many were the denouncers, who sold their friends and acquaintances for a lot less than  thirty pieces of silver, and many were the denounced who ended their lives in Gestapo cellars or concentration camps.  This was life in the Nazi state, and in the popular, sensational versions of it that have been aired many times across the film and TV screens of the world, chief among the responsible villains were the Gestapo, the SS, the known thugs of the Nazi world.

But where, one might wonder, were the ordinary policemen? Was there no civilian police force entrusted in a general way with keeping order in the country?  Was the entire police force of Nazi Germany engaged in tracking down, imprisoning and sending to their death all groups who “threatened the health of society,” i.e. Jews, as is well known, but also all kinds of  “asocials,”  homosexuals, handicapped persons, prostitutes, “foreigners” of various kinds  . . . and so on? There certainly were no police in evidence as protectors of these threatened people.

In Fallada’s Escherich, we see a police detective well on into the years of Nazi domination in the early war years of the forties. What kind of a policeman is he?  He introduces himself at one point, with the deliberate intent to intimidate: “I am Kommissar Escherich of the Gestapo.”  But he is not a uniformed Gestapo officer. When he makes his first appearance in the novel, Fallada describes him as “a tall gangling man with a loose sandy moustache, light gray suit, everything about him so colorless you could have taken him for an outgrowth of the file cabinet dust” (Hofmann’s translation), and when he makes his last exit from the novel, by self-inflicted violence, his thuggish superior Gestapo officer describes his exit as  “desertion! All civilians,” he rages, “are swine! Everything that doesn’t wear a uniform . . . belongs behind barbed wire.”

Escherich is one of the non-uniformed police inspectors, and he is proud of his status, as he often says, as an old “Kriminalist.”  He clearly comes out of the generation who were detectives of the old school and he has a much higher regard for the police methods of the old detectives than for those of the new Gestapo. “If we had a real police force,” he says at one point, “the postcard writer would be in our hands in twenty-four hours.”  Escherich works methodically, putting his little flags on the street plan of Berlin, to show where his boogey-man, as he calls him, has left his cards, gradually narrowing them down to three streets where no cards are found, and where he therefore assumes the man lives; he is no hurry to make arrests, preferring to do time-honored police work, and wait for the perpetrator to make a mistake and thus reveal his identity.  His superiors in the Gestapo headquarters want a lot more action, and have a greater inclination to nab possible subjects or witnesses and beat the truth out of them. Not so Escherich.

Do not imagine, however, that Fallada ever tries to suggest that this is because Escherich is a man of old-fashioned principle, a man who is out of sympathy with the state he now serves, or in any way in sympathy with the people he is tracking down.  The latter are of no interest to him. “Escherich hunted,” writes Fallada. “This old Kriminalist was a real hunter. It was in his blood. He hunted criminals as others hunted pigs. That the pigs and the criminals died when they were tracked down, that didn’t bother him.”  When he is handed the first card, and the functionary who gives it to him asks what will happen to the perpetrator, Escherich replies sardonically: “Do you really want to know? . . .People’s Court and off with his head. What’s it to me? What forces this guy to write such a silly card that no one will read or want to read? No, it’s nothing to me.  I draw my salary and whether I sell postage stamps or stick little flags in a street map, it’s all one to me. . . But when I get the guy . . . I’ll invite you to the execution.”

He says this in mocking tones, a way of impressing his listener with his superior posture of the disinterested professional—he may be indifferent to the kind of state he is serving, but Fallada leaves us in no doubt that he knows exactly what that state is all about. He knows that dropping postcards about the place denouncing Hitler leads straight to the executioner’s block.  Not his problem. Escherich knows what he is doing and for whom he is doing it.

So no doubt did Kriminalsekretär Püschel know, the man who in reality hunted down the Hampels in a similar methodical way.  Manfred Kuhnke, in his well-researched book on Fallada’s Last Novel (Falladas letzter Roman. Die wahre Geschichte) has assembled a good deal of information about Püschel, the externals of his life, the slow, stubborn way in which he pursued the Hampels  through two years of old-fashioned detective work and brought them in to the Gestapo prison and to the People’s Court, how he, along the way, pursued for a while the false trail of a work-shy gambler, and how he was himself kind enough in his manner (“I had the most pleasant treatment from the Kommissar” writes Hampel of Püschel, the man who knowingly turned him over to his executioners).  Püschel had been a policeman since 1924 and since 1934, a police detective, and shortly after the beginning of the war, he was transferred to the Gestapo in Berlin. This might have been Escherich’s career up to this point, since his career as a “civilian” police detective clearly predates the days of the Gestapo, but Kuhnke has traced Püschel’s career up to 1947, so, unlike Escherich, Püschl outlived the war and the Nazi state. It is possible that, like many other policemen of the Nazi era, he went on to pursue his career in post-war Germany. Kuhnke found no further trace.

Fallada had some of these details, but whereas he saw a mug-shot of Hampel, he never saw an actual picture of Püschel, and his colorless Escherich with the sandy moustache is purely his own creation.  He repeats these external descriptive details in classic leitmotif fashion again and again, but his Escherich, as he develops, turns out to be anything but colorless. How does Fallada create his living, breathing, fictional man out of the routine police officer and hard-boiled detective of the Gestapo files?  Not by filling in any of his personal life—we only ever see Escherich on the job.  What Fallada does is show the gradual transformation that takes place in him over his two-year obsession with his boogey-man, a transformation  nowhere to be found in the documents available to Fallada on the real Püschel.   Escherich becomes more and more obsessed with his boogey-man as a person, and ends up wanting to know what it is that makes this man do what he is doing. He is more and more under pressure from his thuggish superiors to show some action in the case, and it is essentially in the process of trying to keep them off his back and allow him to pursue the case in the way he knows best that he finds his own picture of himself and his job changing.

He is from the beginning a skilled interrogator, and Fallada never pretends that he has sympathy with the victims of his interrogations. He does not go in for fisticuffs—the man who succeeds him in his job frequently strikes his interlocutor, man or woman, in the face between questions—we never see Escherich hitting anybody, but he takes considerable long-drawn-out pleasure in verbally tormenting, for example, the pathetic Enno, the work-shy gambler (of the Gestapo files), tying him in knots, trapping him into signing a false confession. He literally kicks the small-time crook and denouncer,  Borkhausen out of his office, and cheerfully lets the bigger thugs outside in the corridor kick Borkhausen downstairs.

Because of the slowness of his methods, his lack of quick results, he eventually becomes himself the quarry of the men who drink themselves into a stupor, who scream at their victims, who punch them in the face.  Escherich is no hero. When his own teeth are knocked out onto his own office carpet, yes, then he realizes what violence really feels like.  When he is kicked down the same stairs as Borkhausen was, he feels in his own bones the distinctly unfunny side of physical violence.

There are commentators on the novel who suggest that when he is exposed to physical violence against himself, Escherich realizes that he has assimilated into a corrupt system.  I would say rather that he has always known it was a corrupt system, and it is not so much the experience of violence that illuminates for him his assimilation into it, but the slow dawning on him which begins much sooner that he is himself already corrupt. The actual turning point in Escherich comes when he blatantly violates his own policeman’s ethics by deciding that he will pass off the whining little gambler Enno deliberately as the perpetrator, even though he knows himself very well that he is not.  This decision leads him to one of the most impressively frightening and brilliantly narrated scenes in the novel when he, to use the jargon of our times “takes out” Enno for no better reason that to gain time for himself. I shall not describe this scene and so ruin the effect for a reader of the novel (this after all is a mystery blog), but it is to me a highpoint of the novel, and surely the low point of Escherich’s moral disintegration, rather than the scenes of his later mistreatment in the hands of his superiors. It constitutes the dramatic turning point in his career as a man and a police officer. Fallada signals this, describing how Escherich leaves his office on that fateful night, “with the dark suspicion that he will not be the same man when he comes back. Up till now, he was a civil servant, who hunted men as other people sell postage stamps, decent, industrious, according to the rules.”  When he comes back, he will be different.

And so Fallada shows the slow rot taking place in the man who knowingly but almost incredulously in his hunt for criminals becomes a criminal himself.  What happens later in the novel as Escherich is himself brutalized, is rescued from the Gestapo cellars to search again for the card-dropper, finds him, is then forced by his superiors to join in the physical tormenting of Quangel in his cell, recognizes that Quangel is a better man than he is, and puts an end, highly dramatically, to his own life, recognizing that he is the only actual convert that Quangel made, all this is pure Fallada drama and highly effective fiction. The melodrama of the last scene is heightened by a detail restored to the text in the latest unexpurgated version of the novel where the sandy moustache of Escherich is seen hanging bloodily on a lamp. (The early Aufbau editor did well, in my opinion, to leave that out.)

The last-ditch “conversion” of Escherich has, I would suggest, impressive though it is, not much to do with the reality of what went on in the police force in Nazi Germany.  But the sense of inner rot that enters his soul with the disposal of Enno, this does perhaps come close to the reality of what actually happened to the rank and file of the police in Germany, the mass of the police after the initial widespread weeding out of potential trouble-makers, as they gradually accommodated themselves to the undeniable fact that they were working for a vicious and criminal state.

The recent exhibit in the German Historical Museum in Berlin documents in terrible detail the Nazi take-over of the police.  It proves what one might have not wanted to know, namely that there was ultimately no distinction to be made between “ordinary policemen” doing their duty and servants of the Nazis fulfilling all the duties of the racist, totalitarian state. I quoted in an earlier post on this blog from the introduction to the Catalog from the section entitled,  “The War against Crime.”

Promises of career advancement were an important reason for the fact that that many criminal investigation officers after 1933 acted not merely as opportunists and receivers of orders, but worked quite consciously for the Nazi-regime and developed their own initiatives in keeping with the wishes of their superiors. There were indeed policemen who withdrew into niches of supposedly innocuous crime detection work;  some few even helped the persecuted. Typical however were the others: policemen who did not hesitate to use their time-honored methods of law enforcement searches, their finger-printing and photographic techniques and their card-catalogues of criminals in the service of the Nazi-system, civil servants who put into action the guidelines and procedures of the Nazi war on crime with bureaucratic precision and decisiveness  . . .  (p.48)

Here we see policemen of the generation of Escherich and Püschel, civil servants, concentrating on maintaining and furthering their professional standing as detectives, doing what they were told with zeal, no matter what it was. By the time Escherich or the real Püschel takes the stage in 1940-42, the chances of any active opponent of the regime remaining in office were virtually nil. The exhibit documents the way in which the Nazis very early went about eliminating any and all men and women in the police force who opposed or were likely to oppose them.  A prime example: the Berlin Police President, Grzesinski, his deputy Weiss, and another commander Heimannsburg, all of whom were outspoken defenders of the Weimar Republic, were imprisoned as early as 1932 and only released on their agreeing to give up their offices.  And by 1936 already, the leadership of all the police came under the office of Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler.

There is no evidence at all that Püschel in reality suffered a change of heart because of the example of Hampel. But Fallada cannot resist making his Escherich a much more interesting character than the Püschel of the files.  Fallada makes Escherich aware of his own inner rot.  Not, I suspect, because he necessarily imagined that this was typical of German policeman—that is something we will never be able to judge—but because inner rot was something Fallada knew about. This is not a novel by a writer who is trying to imagine what life was like in Nazi Germany. He had lived and worked there, and had himself accommodated in various ways to the Nazi-regime. He was certainly not an instrument of the Nazi horror, as his Escherich was, but neither was he a resister, like his Quangel.  Kuhnke describes how, when Fallada was first asked by Willmann, general secretary of the Cultural Association for the Democratic Renewal of Germany and close colleague of Johannes Becher, to write a novel based on the Gestapo files on the Hampels, he firmly refused, saying that he had not been a resistance fighter himself, he had let himself be carried along in the mainstream, and he did not want to appear better than he was (p.16).  The reasons for his changing his mind and writing the novel belong in another discussion, but Fallada with his many weaknesses had a certain honesty about himself that shines through his character-creation in his many novels.  In “Every Man Dies Alone,” Fallada gives his police detective a kind of self-knowledge, born not of Fallada’s knowledge of the German police, though in his own checkered career he had known many policemen, but born rather of his knowledge of himself.

Details of easily available editions of the novel in German and in English are given in my last post.

10 Amsterdamer Strasse, site of the house where the Hampels lived

Manfred Kuhnke’s book on the reality that underlies the fiction is, as far as I know, only available in German, but  perhaps he will be prepared to answer some questions for this blog.  I do not think that this post is my last word on Fallada. I hope interested readers will stop by and make some comments.

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Detecting Crime in a Police State: Fact and Fiction, Quotes

Reading William Ryan’s The Holy Thief and getting to know Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev of the Moscow Criminal Investigation Division set me to thinking about the role of a police detective in a totalitarian state, often called a “police state.” What does a regular police detective, someone used to seeking out criminals as a way of enforcing of law and order, do in a police state?  My mind went automatically to Hans Fallada’s Jeder stirbt für sich allein,[Everyone dies alone], and in particular to his police inspector Escherich, investigating crime in Nazi Germany.  And then I saw the exhibit in Berlin in the Historical Museum,(1 April to 31 July 2011): Ordnung und Vernichtung. Die Polizei im NS-Staat [Order and Destruction. The Police in the Nazi State]—an impressive and disturbing comprehensive study of this topic.   I am soon going to write on Fallada’s Escherich in this blog, but here are a few quotations to set you thinking about the issues involved.

From William Ryan, The Holy Thief , Chapter One

 Korolev scratched his neck as he mounted the stairs toward the second floor and considered what the removal of Commissar Yagoda’s statue might mean for the Moscow Criminal Investigation Division. Up until now the Workers’ and Peasants’ Militia, to give the Soviet Union’s regular police its full title, included among its responsibilities maintaining public order, directing traffic, guarding important buildings and sundry other tasks, not least of which was, of course, the investigation and prevention of criminal activity—which was where he and the rest of Moscow CID came in.  Most of the political work was left to the NKVD—State Security—although when you lived in a worker state, almost everything was political to some extent. In some people’s eyes, any crime was an attack on the entire socialist system, but the distinction between traditional crimes and political crimes still remained, for the moment at least.

And from Chapter 15:

[Speaking to Korolev]  “You’re an honest man. And you are a Believer, aren’t you?” Kolya seemed to be weighing him up.

“It’s none of your business.”

“Maybe it isn’t. But what if, at some stage, you have to decide between your loyalty to the church and your loyalty to Comrade Stalin. How do you think you would decide?”

“I’m a loyal citizen of the Soviet Union.”

“But no Party member . . .”

An the last line in this chapter:

. . . Korolev knew the time for choosing between duty and life had come.

From: Ordnung und Vernichtung: Die Polizei im NS-Staat [Order and Destruction: The Police in the Nazi State], Catalog of the Exhibition, (Dresden, Sandstein Verlag, 2011) (my translations)

Exhibit No.64  Esslingers Entlassung aus dem Polizeidienst [Esslinger’s Dismissal from the Police Force]  Dortmund, 9 December 1933

Police Officer Eduard Esslinger took part on 19 April 1932 in Dortmund in an action against violent SA-men, in which the police stormed into an office of the Nazi party. Because of this, Esslinger and several colleagues were indicted on a charge of severe bodily harm and disturbing the peace. The court case against the policemen was conducted by a judge known to be sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Esslinger was sentenced to 15 months in jail. The sentence was upheld on appeal in 1933. The Nazi-press celebrated the verdict as a victory over the “Marxist soldateska.” Democratic newspapers criticized it as disproportionately harsh.  Many policemen interpreted it as a warning not to act against the National Socialist Party (p.132).

[My note: I have tried to find out what happened to Officer Esslinger later, but so far have found nothing. Does any reader know anything about him?]

From the introduction to the Catalog, Section entitled,  “The War against Crime.”

Promises of career advancement were an important reason for the fact that that many criminal investigation officers after 1933 acted not merely as opportunists and people taking orders, but worked quite consciously for the Nazi-regime and developed their own initiatives in keeping with the wishes of their superiors. There were indeed policemen who withdrew into niches of supposedly innocuous crime detection work;  some few even helped the persecuted. Typical however were the others: policemen who did not hesitate to use their time-honored methods of law enforcement searches, their finger-printing and photographic techniques and their card-catalogs of criminals, in the service of the Nazi-system, civil servants who put into action the guidelines and procedures of the Nazi war on crime with bureaucratic precision and decisiveness  . . .  (p.48)

From Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone, translated by Michael Hofmann: (Longtime police inspector Escherich is roughed up in his own office by an SS-man)

The inspector feels a vivid pain and the disgusting warm taste of blood in his mouth . . . he thinks, I must make my position clear. Of course, I’m ready to do anything. Door-to-door searches the length and breadth of Berlin. Spies in every building  . . .  I’ll do whatever you want, but you can’t just tell your stooges to punch me in the face, me, a long-serving detective and holder of the Iron Cross !      . . .

The Obergruppenführer watched the wretched inspector with sadistic pleasure. Then he turned away from Escherich with an angry “Bah, scum,” and asked Zott [Senior Police Investigator], “Do you require this man for briefing purposes, Herr Zott?”

It was an unwritten rule that all long-serving detectives transferred to the gestapo stayed together through thick and thin, just as the SS itself stuck together—often against the detectives themselves.  It would never have occurred to Escherich to betray a colleague to the SS, whatever his faults; rather he would have been at pains to hide his shortcomings from them. And now he had to look on as Zott, with a cursory glance in Escherich’s direction, coldly said, “This man? For a briefing? No thanks, Obergruppenführer.  I’d do a better briefing myself.”

“Take him away, boys,” screamed the Obergruppenführer .

I shall come back to Fallada’s police detective.  If you have not read the novel, and you read German, you will find a new edition now easily available, Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Berlin, Aufbau, 2011). This edition is based on Fallada’s original typescript in the archives of the Aufbau, Staatsbibiliothek, Berlin, and differs in some small but interesting ways from the text we already know. Readers of English can turn to the very successful translated version of Michael Hofmann, Every Man Dies Alone (New York, Melville House Publishing, 2009), from which I have quoted above.  The U.K edition of this version is sold under the oddly changed title of Alone in Berlin.

More on all this very soon.

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Interview with Frank Tallis

Frank Tallis in the Freud Museum, London

Frank Tallis is a clinical psychologist and an expert in obsessional states. He is the author of “A Death in Vienna,” “Vienna Blood,” “Fatal Lies” and “Vienna Secrets,” as well as seven non-fiction books on psychology and two previous novels, “Killing Time” and “Sensing Others.” He is the recipient of a writers’ award from the Arts Council England and of the New London Writers Award from the London Arts Board. A Death in Vienna was short-listed for the 2005 Crime Writers’ Association Historical Dagger Award. Tallis lives in London. (See also author’s website.)

I recently chose to review Frank Tallis’s 2010 novel, Vienna Twilight [Random House], because I regard him as a master of Viennese mysteries, in which I have a personal interest, and because his psycho-analytic detective novels, set in Vienna in the early nineteen hundreds, are possibly unique in the way they link the process of psychotherapy with criminal investigation; they are well-researched historical novels and at the same time a highly entertaining read. I am very grateful to Frank Tallis for agreeing to answer a few questions on his particular genre of crime fiction.

DJ.  So many things intrigue me about your “Liebermann papers” that I hardly know where to begin.  My own first interest in these novels was Vienna itself, so I will start there. The novels are rooted in the city of Vienna. You are, I take it, an Englishman. Did you start setting your novels in Vienna because you knew and liked the city and its language, or perhaps because as a student of psychology, you became interested in Freud, and for this reason delved into the life of the city?

FT.  The latter. I wanted to write a psychoanalytic detective series—which suggests Freud—and if you’re going to feature Freud, then the setting has to be Vienna. Fortunately, the city of Vienna and Freud’s time proved to be a gift for a novelist. Vienna in 1900 was an extremely exciting place. Revolutionary ideas were emerging in all areas of human endeavour: art, literature, philosophy, science, and most notably, psychiatry.

DJ.  The Max Liebermann novels are detective novels. You have called them “psychoanalytic detective novels,” and have suggested that they exploit parallels that exist between the process of psychotherapy and criminal investigation.  This is to me a source of endless fascination in your novels. Could you perhaps expand a bit on the idea here?

FT. Psychoanalysis and the detective novel are very similar. Clues are like symptoms, and the detective is like a psychoanalyst, attempting to find a root cause. It is very interesting that Freud himself recognised that there is a close relationship between psychoanalysis and police detection. He pointed this out in one of his lectures. It is also interesting that Freud was a great fan of detective fiction. One of his patients (known as The Wolfman) wrote a memoir and in it, he reveals that Freud was a great fan of Sherlock Holmes. Apparently, Freud had a great deal of respect for this kind of writing. The Wolfman said that Freud valued it as much as the writings of Dostoevsky.

DJ.  Freud appears in the pages of your novels. I enjoy his conversations with Liebermann, and they are, as you demonstrate in your acknowledgements, very much based on the writings of Freud himself.  What would you say to those people who become irritated by what they see as too much text-book psychologizing, and not enough actual detection. I might suggest that they should perhaps read other novels, but you might have a better answer.

FT. If people don’t enjoy ‘psychological’ explanations of human behaviour, then they’re not going to enjoy my Liebermann books very much. I understand that; however, I tend to put a great deal of authentic psychology into my books for a simple reason. There are many crime books that are described as ‘psychological thrillers’—but they don’t have any psychology in them. I wanted my Liebermann books to be genuine ‘psychological thrillers,’ informed by psychological theories and ideas.

DJ.  In this blog, we have discussed “cozy mysteries.”  Your mysteries are anything but cozy.  In fact, you  incorporate into your narratives many  horrific details of crimes committed and of autopsies on the bodies of victims. And your novels are very successful. Can you make any comments on your own motives for including horrific details and on the motives of others who clearly have no problem reading them and perhaps even enjoy them?  This is a part of a larger kind of questioning that goes on in my own head about the motives that I have myself for reading murder mysteries of any kind.

FT.  Murder is horrific. Therefore—for me at least—it has to be described as something horrific. Horror is also emotionally engaging—something absolutely necessary if a reader is to suspend disbelief and enter an imaginary world. As for why we ‘enjoy’ reading horrific descriptions, I would suggest the following: children learn about ‘bad things’ in the world through listening to fairy stories – which can be pretty gruesome. This is healthy and children who have had exposure to fairy stories are better prepared for life’s adversities. As adults, we continue to come to terms with ‘bad things’ in much the same way. A narrative context makes the experience of horror ‘enjoyable’ – but I think something very healthy is going on. Fiction is a ‘safe place’ from which we can view the world and explore.

DJ.  I am very interested in the language of your novels.  In my opinion, not only do you, through your language alone, conjure up brilliantly the atmosphere of an earlier time, but, without Germanizing your English, you manage to make us believe that your characters are speaking German. Can you make any comments on how you did this?

FT.  I think it’s less about the detail of the writing and more about the context. I try to create an authentic Germanic atmosphere – so naturally, this creates an illusion of authenticity with respect to the speech of my characters.

UK Title of Vienna Secrets

DJ.  In some of your Vienna novels, you deal much more directly with the history and politics of Vienna than you do in Vienna Twilight. The crucial topic of anti-semitism, for example, is very much in the foreground in your Vienna Secrets, or “Darkness Rising,” as it is called in the UK.  Obviously it is not a good idea to overload a novel with lectures on history, but there are times when too much shorthand may be dangerous.  I had some problems, for example, with the way, towards the end of Vienna Twilight, you connected the theme of dying in an ecstasy of love (Liebestod) with the central theme/crime of killing in an ecstasy of love, and pointed forward to the terrible future of the Viennese with the line, “We Viennese, what will become of us?”  Perhaps you could say a word about the complicated role of historical hindsight in conjuring up a past era in a fictional setting.

FT.  Historical hindsight completely colours the reading of a historical novel. In a way, it would be pointless writing a historical novel if – as an author – you weren’t going to make use of it. Sometimes, hindsight does lead to crude and simple connections being made. However, I’m a novelist and not a historian. Subtle arguments and grey areas lack drama. A simple statement – albeit a crude one – seems to work better for me in a fictional context.

DJ.   A  practical question: I have read your comments elsewhere about  “interesting developments that might revolutionize publishing.”  E-books, you have suggested, have the potential to shift the power structure of publishing and there may perhaps be more opportunities for new writers in the future. I think readers of this blog, many of whom may be involved in self-publishing, would like to hear more on this topic from a well-published author, such as you certainly are.

FT. Children will always want to hear bed-time stories. People will always want to read books. Changing how books are made and distributed will not lead to the end of civilization as we know it. At present, British publishers and authors are extremely pessimistic about the future of the industry on account of E-readers. Well, maybe the industry will have to change—or  maybe the industry in its present form will disappear altogether—but books are here to stay. I am not unduly worried by technological change, because I firmly believe that basics are just the same. Story tellers make up stories—and people who want to read them will part with money for the pleasure.

 

DJ.   I am looking forward to reading Death and the Maiden, the next Liebermann book, as soon as it is readily available in the U.S.   I am among your many readers who never tire of the Rheinhardt/Liebermann detecting duo. I am not among those who look for character-development, and for, e.g., some fulfillment in the Liebermann/Lydgate relationship.  Is it too intrusive to ask whether you intend to go on with the series, more or less in its present form?  I certainly hope so!

FT.   I am worried that if I write many more Liebermann books they will become too repetitive—even for those who like familiar characters and situations. Therefore, I intend to give Max Liebermann a rest for a while and to write some ‘supernatural’ novels as F.R.Tallis (just so that readers know that these new books are something different). The first of these has been completed and is set in the medical world of late 19th century Paris. It will be published in the UK next year.

Many thanks to Frank Tallis for his remarks. I will miss Liebermann and Rheinhardt, but I certainly look forward to the new novels of F.R.Tallis.   The switch from Vienna to Paris is something I do not want to miss. And in the meantime, many of us in the U.S. still have Death and the Maiden to look forward to!

 

Posted in historical fiction, psychoanalytic detective novels, Vienna mysteries | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Review of Frank Tallis’s “Vienna Twilight”

Viennese mysteries are close to my heart, and Tallis is surely the master of Viennese mystery. He writes historical, psychological thrillers—nothing cozy about him, despite the number of cakes that are consumed in the course of his novels.  They are set in the early years of twentieth century Vienna, where the young doctor in the developing field of psychiatry, Max Liebermann, helps his friend, Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt, investigate one strangely perverse crime after another.

Those readers who think there is too little serious detection and too much psychiatric speculation in these novels should note that Tallis, from the beginning, described these novels as “The Liebermann Papers,” thus making it clear what his own bent of detection was. He is openly interested, in the words of Freud, quoted recently on this blog, in discovering “the hidden psychic material.”

My reading of mysteries in the course of a lifetime has been serendipitous, and it was by chance that I came upon Frank Tallis in my local bookstore in Vienna where I saw a novel called: “Wiener Tod” [Viennese Death],  looked inside and saw that it was the translation of an English mystery novel, “Fatal Lies,” written by a practicing British clinical psychologist who lived in London.  I was immediately hooked. Living in Vienna myself at that time, I was writing a murder mystery set in present-day Vienna, and so I was immensely curious about what this Englishman would do and how he would do it.

Translated by Lotta Ruegger and Holger Wolandt, it read very naturally in German, transporting the reader through choice of words and manner of speech as well as through actual scene-setting into an older Vienna, and I wondered how Tallis had managed this in English. I have read five more since in Tallis’s own English, and he certainly pulls it off here too, not of course by writing any kind of Germanized (Austrianized) English, but by his own stately and somewhat mannered version of English prose, using words and expressions with a flavor of the past.

I am going to talk today about the latest Tallis novel to appear fully in the U.S (i.e. also on Kindle) under the nondescript title, Vienna Twilight [Random House]. The U.K. title of the same novel is Deadly Communion which gives a much stronger impression of the novel’s content and also says more about the way Tallis uses language.  I will quote here a small passage from the first chapter to give the flavor of this language: It is a description of a very nervous patient, Erstweiler:

Liebermann scrutinized his patient: early thirties; dark hair infiltrated with gray; a thin drawn face; tired bloodshot eyes; fingermarks on his spectacles.  Erstweiler’s brow was scored by three lines—short, long, and short. Their depth suggested indelibility. He had neglected his toilet and his chin was scabrous.  Erstweiler placed a palliative hand over his frantic heart.

Not in the least German, but not quite twenty-first century English either. Tallis largely sustains this style through his hundreds of pages, and it does not become wearisome, at all events, not to me.

Such genteel language serves well to describe the drawing-room scenes in which our two detectives make music, Rheinhardt with his rich baritone voice and the young piano-playing doctor, Liebermann.  It serves well to conjure up the turn-of-the-century houses of haute couture where loose and lovely “reform dresses” are beginning to “liberate the ladies from their whalebone corsets,” and to describe the décor of Moser and Hoffmann which Liebermann, a devotee of all things modern, “surveys in a state of blissful enchantment.” It serves well to bring to life Mahler’s conducting of the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde in the opera house, “wielding his baton like a scalpel, like some great anatomist, revealing mysteries that had hitherto remained beyond the reach of human comprehension,” and to color conversations with Sigmund Freud where he sits at his own desk, opening his mouth to release “a cloud of smoke that tarried in the air before losing definition in the already opaque atmosphere.”

But do not imagine that this same genteel language in any way softens the impact of the horrible crimes that provide the story with its plot.  This is no cozy mystery in which a murder is quickly recounted and then fades in its literal detail out of the picture so that the reader can concentrate on the “fun” of the detection process.  On the contrary: One of the main components of Tallis’s detection process is the close analysis of the act of murder itself and this involves the detailed  examination of each corpse.

Night after night on our modern TV screens, watchers of crime-series see morgues and  autopsy tables float before the camera, but rarely does one come as close to the work of the pathologist as in Tallis’s Vienna where Professor Mathias, the elderly “gnome-like pathologist” goes about his macabre business before the sometimes averted eyes of the ever shockable Detective Inspector Rheinhardt,  his young consultant, Dr. Liebermann and the much cooler scientific gaze of Miss Amelia Lydgate, a very proper English lady,  a student of pathology at the University, a talented microscopist, an “expert on blood,” and an early feminist with “sororal sympathies.”

Stately language serves here not to mask the horrors of this process but to make them quite palpable, as when Mathias, burying his face in the underwear of the victim and inhaling deeply,  explains his actions to a mystified Rheinhardt:   “I am employing my nose—a somewhat underestimated organ—to detect . . .” he paused before adding, “masculine traces.”  In the next autopsy, Miss Lydgate, amazingly (amusingly?) follows suit in the examination of the corpse itself: “she did so with the serious determination of a convalescent eager to experience the invigorating tang of a coastal breeze.”  Rheinhardt has recourse to smoking a cigar, with the Professor’s permission.

Taken thus out of context, such descriptions may appear comic, and so, in a sense, they are. Tallis can make one smile during the most horrific descriptions of autopsy on the young women who are murdered in the course of the novel.  But horrific they remain.  The murderer in this novel is a psychopath who “murders in the midst of consensual love”—I am here betraying nothing that is not said on the cover of the paperback version of the novel, whose front cover is charmingly adorned with the murder instrument, a hat pin. We find this out early in the novel, and very early in the novel too a voice begins to speak to us, in italicized sections, unidentified, but after the first or at latest second section, we recognize this to be the murderer’s voice describing the origins and the development of his murderous proclivities, beginning with his early fascination with death. We are privy to these pages, but our detectives who do not read them until the end are not. And yet our young psycho-therapist Liebermann recognizes him by the fiftieth page as being a thanatophiliac, aroused and excited not by the dead, but by the act of dying.

Dr. Liebermann does his detecting largely by ratiocination with a good dose of dream analysis, driven by the new psychoanalytic theories of Dr. Sigmund Freud whom he reveres and with whom he has the privilege of discussing the cases he has on hand, his own patients as well as the cases of murder where he steps in to help his friend.  Rheinhardt sometimes finds the psychoanalytic musings of his young friend hard to take, but usually comes round to following his advice, while himself preferring to plod through the “terra firma of conventional detection,”  interviewing one by one, for example, the gentlemen whose names are found in the address book of one of the victims.

Each man has his own case to investigate—Liebermann, the psychiatric patient, Erstweiler, who sees his own doppelgänger, ­and Rheinhardt,  the serial murderer with his hat pin—and each helps the other to a solution. It so happens that the “Sophocles syndrome,” better known to us nowadays as the Oedipus Complex,  discussed by Liebermann with Freud, is at the heart of both—love of the mother, hatred of the father, unresolved in childhood, resulting in hideous crimes in adulthood.

I unashamedly enjoy the repeated, stylized sections where Liebermann and Rheinhardt perform Lieder, and then repair to the smoking room to discuss the songs, whose topics are atuned  of course to the cases they are investigating, here Schubert’s song, “To Death,” for example, and his “Doppelgänger.” A good second to the music-making for sheer reading pleasure are the cake-eating sessions. The “portly” Rheinhardt is a devotee of Viennese cakes of all kinds, and is constantly slipping into coffee houses to strengthen the body and soothe the soul, but the younger thinner­ Dr. Liebermann is also no slouch in the cake-eating area and can put away a dobostorte with the best of them.

Some of the most appealing (appalling?) exchanges take place with cake, thus Miss Lydgate, for whom Liebermann suffers agonies of unrequited love, sits with him in the Café Central: They discuss pathology, her great passion, and the possibility of her attending the autopsy of Professor Mathias in the dreadful case under investigation, while all the time eating the most delicious scheiterhaufen, which “exuded a potent fragrance of vanilla, cinnamon and rum. The thick slices of bread were sprinkled with raisins and icing sugar and were dripping with molten apple puree.” The relationship between the two reaches the closest it ever comes to a climax in their mutual enjoyment of this particular confection, when, having secured Liebermann’s support for her participation in the autopsies of Mathias, the young doctor takes another mouthful of scheiterhaufen, “his enjoyment of which found a corresponding quintessence in Amelia’s satisfied expression.”

Ah yes, there may be those who find precisely this kind of stylized episode is wearing a little thin in this, Tallis’s sixth Viennese novel, those who want to see development in the characters, in the relationships, but it is the delicate dance of the main characters, repeated again and again, that I unabashedly like. It is for this, conjured up in the illusory Viennese setting,  that I am prepared to swallow the horrors of the murders themselves, described as they are in excruciating detail.  I am even prepared in this novel to endure the fantasies of the serial killer, described in his own words, and culminating in one ghastly scene that takes place after he is in custody which I will certainly not describe here.  Well, at least, this is what I tell myself.  And yet, and yet, I wonder with horror, is there something in me and in others that draws us to such scenes too?

I am reminded of Rheinhardt’s own comments, which I quoted recently in this blog:

Rheinhardt looked troubled: “Sometimes I wonder whether some minds are so deranged that nothing useful can come out of their study: Krafft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis has sold thousands of copies and because it is a scientific work, respectable gentlemen read it without scruple. Yet do they really read those cases—page after page of horror, sickness, and moral degeneracy—to improve their understanding of mental illness? I think not. They read the Psychopathia Sexualis because it is sensational and it arouses in them a dubious prurient excitement.

Oh dear.  Does one read the descriptions of horrors in Tallis’s novel because they “arouse a dubious prurient excitement”?

I really do not think so.  And yet, and yet … I was quite shocked just about a week ago to read on the Op Ed page of the New York Times an article by Jeff Lindsay on his own novels in which he writes in the first person about Dexter, a psychopathic serial killer. People love these novels, Lindsay tells us, and women have crushes on Dexter.  He has made Dexter, he tells us, a sympathetic character in order to bridge the gap between the psychopath and the “normal person.”  Tallis most certainly does not make his hat-pin-wielder a sympathetic person, though he does analyze in considerable detail what has made him into the psychopath he is.  His two very attractive detectives live in quite another emotional world from the murderers they hunt down. They feel, for example, nothing but disgust for one of the suspects, the artist Rainmayr, who paints obscene pictures of emaciated young girls for rich gentlemen who like that sort of thing.

Tallis does, however, draw identifying lines between his fictional Vienna and the Vienna of history, and sometimes these lines disturb me.  Almost at the end of this novel he explicitly associates the death wish with the “German soul.”  Liebermann is at the opera, eating chocolates with his colleague, Rheinhardt, and is finally overcome by the passion and power of (inevitably) Wagner’s Liebestod. In this moment of high emotion, he lines up the characters of the novel, the murderer, the psychiatric patient, with Wagner, Mahler—“they were all sick,”—yes, and he even had to include himself.  He wants at this moment to die, in love. Looking at Rheinhardt whose cheeks are streaked with tears, he thinks, “We Viennese, what will become of us?”

Inevitably, the reader, who knows only too well what became of the Viennese in the twentieth century, sees that familiar line leading mysteriously from the nineteenth century aesthetic/intellectual “death wish” straight to Hitler.  This is in itself a gigantic over-simplification, and I wish, though it makes a neat ending, that Tallis had not fallen into it. Happily, he adds a small down-to-earth coda or two, Rheinhardt moving matter-of-factly against Rainmayr, for one.  But this, along with the whole question of how deeply the novels really examine the contrast between the rich and the poor, is material for another essay. I hope you will add your comments, and perhaps, if we are lucky, we can have a conversation with Tallis himself.  He is still, in my book, the master of Viennese mystery.

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

Interview with William Ryan

William Ryan, author of The Holy Thief, was born in London in 1965 and attended Trinity College, Dublin. He practiced briefly as a barrister before completing his master’s in creative writing at St. Andrews University. His work has appeared in the short story collection “Cool Britannia.” He lives in London with his wife. The Holy Thief is his first novel.

In this blog, I am interested in exploring the phenomenon of detective fiction, of crime novels, of so-called mysteries, and I chose Ryan’s novel, “The Holy Thief,” for my first review because it is a highly complicated and impressive example of the genre—a  “genre-stretcher,” if ever there was one. There is a certain stigma attached to the notion of genre-fiction, and yet genre-fiction is immensely popular with vast numbers of readers. I am grateful to Bill Ryan for giving me the chance in this interview to zero in on his own thoughts about his novel, about where he sees himself on the genre-spectrum, and whether this even matters to him.

DJ.  “The Holy Thief” is your first novel. It might be called a crime novel, a detective novel, a thriller based in a police investigation, a large panoramic historical novel. It is all of these things.  I wonder whether, when you decided to write a novel, you wanted to write a detective/crime/thriller, and chose to set it in Russia in the thirties, or whether, on the other hand, you wanted to write a big novel about Russia in the thirties, and came upon the idea of using the investigation of a particular crime to drive the plot and focus on particular characters?

WR. It was during the thirties that the initial optimism of the Russian Revolution ran into Stalin’s desire to completely control of every part of Soviet life and the result was enormous political oppression, famine and hardship for the peoples of the Soviet Union. It’s a fascinating and tragic period, all the more so because Hitler would invade a few years later, causing tens of millions more Russian deaths.

 The idea of writing a detective novel set against this background came around a little bit by accident, but once I’d had the idea it seemed to me it would  be a book that I’d find interesting to write and that I hoped people would find interesting to read. The more I thought about a detective investigating a murder at a time when the State was murdering millions, the more I thought what a strange job it must have been – particularly given that the Soviet State was also manipulating truth and justice for political ends on an industrial scale. Korolev, as a policeman trying to do the right thing, has a difficult path to follow – he’s aware of what’s going on around him but in order to survive he must adapt himself to this strange reality, not question it. He knows, as we do, that to voice even the mildest concern about the collective insanity that surrounds him is to risk almost certain arrest and worse, so, as a result, he decides to believe what the State requires him to believe and accept the strange truths it requires him to accept, while at the same time having parallel and private views that are quite different. I think that that’s how people cope with totalitarianism of that nature – by essentially having two personalities.

DJ.  Did you have a particular personal interest in Russia in the thirties it that drew you into investing so much time and talent into tackling such an immensely difficult topic? It is obvious from this novel that you have plenty of  talent in writing, in scene-setting, in plotting, in drawing characters, and could as well have written a major novel set, say, in London where you live.  Why then give yourself all these extra hurdles? And for your first novel?

WR. I’ve always been drawn to Russia and Russian literature but the starting point for The Holy Thief was probably reading Isaac Babel’s short stories set in the underworld of Odessa and During the Russian Civil War. At the time I was half-heartedly writing screenplays for a film production company that paid me largely with kind words and I thought that Babel’s very visual fiction might translate well onto the screen.

As it turned out, nothing came of the Babel idea but the research I undertook at the time did spark an interest and one that was fuelled by the fact that there was very little fiction set in the period. Eventually I started writing The Holy Thief but without a very clear idea as to how the novel would develop and Babel somehow ended up in the story, which made a nice circle.

I’m not sure writing a contemporary novel set in London would have been much easier to write – one of the good things about historical fiction is that the research often helps out the plot. For example, a scene at the end where soldiers are carrying an inflatable village in preparation for a march past the Kremlin comes from a photograph of a Red Square parade I came across. Once I saw the balloons, I thought about them being let go and this village floating above Moscow and so I had a nice ending to the book.

If readers of historical fiction are sometimes looking to escape from the world around them for a few hours, maybe the same is true of writers of historical fiction. And it’s certainly true that you can get away with a lot more stylistically when you’re writing in a different time period, which is something I enjoy as well. Writing The Holy Thief was hard work but it was also like stepping into a different world, even if it was a world I’m very glad I never experienced firsthand. I’m not sure I would have found so much to interest me in a period and place I was familiar with on a daily basis.

DJ,  I imagine that you speak Russian, and obviously you must read the language.  I know from my own experience that it is not easy to write an entire novel in English in which the characters are speaking English but ostensibly speaking another language.  The last thing one wants, of course, is to have them speaking some kind of phony English. Still one wants the reader to accept the authenticity of their nationality.  Did you find this a problem?  Your dialogue certainly flows, and we who know no Russian can accept it as “Russian.” Did you think much about this?  What did you do to make it possible? I am talking here more about the language than the content.

WR.  My “Russian” in The Holy Thief is pretty deliberately constructed. I think you have to accept with all historical fiction that 100% accurate dialogue would probably make novels unreadable, particularly historical fiction set in non-English speaking countries. If, for example, Hilary Mantel’s characters in Wolf Hall spoke the English of late Tudor Britain most readers probably wouldn’t get past the first chapter, and the same is probably true for The Holy Thief.

There’s basically a fine balancing act for writers and screenwriters, because the same problem exists in historical films, where we try to create a feeling of authenticity while writing modern, easily comprehensible English. Fortunately for me, most readers will be familiar with how people spoke in the thirties from old movies and I very much had all those great James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart movies at the back of my mind. As I’m Irish, my “Russian” definitely has an Irish twang to it but I use that to create a slightly foreign feel to the dialogue. On top of this I’ve spent the last five years collecting Russian sayings, which I slip in whenever I think I can get away with it. Finally, I tried to follow the Russian conventions when it came to using names. I know my “Russian” occasionally annoys real Russians but, even though The Holy Thief is now being translated into Russian, it wasn’t really written for a Russian audience and compromises had to be made.

DJ.  It will be fascinating to see how Russians react to the novel in Russian, to the characters as drawn and their thoughts as expressed.  Your main character, Korolev, is what some people would call a simple man, a man of the people, not an intellectual in the normal sense of the word, but quite definitely a thinker, and you make us privy to many of his thoughts.  How did you satisfy yourself that this is the way a Russian in his position would have thought and expressed his thought to himself?  Does this in fact matter if his thoughts interest us in themselves–his thoughts about God, about the Party, about his responsibilities to his country? These constituted the moral dilemma at the heart of the story and were to me the most absorbing aspect of the book. Did you find it necessary to seek evidence that a man like him might have thought in this way at that time?

WR. With a complex society that’s so different from the world that most modern readers of The Holy Thief live in, I had to try to create a reality that was sufficiently detailed that they could get a sense of the period, without overloading them with research. The best historical fiction is written as though addressed to a reader from the same time and place as the novel is set, and that means the writer doesn’t need to explain every single little detail. If the writer gets it right, the reader trusts him on that basis. To give an example, a modern author writing a novel set in Victorian London is probably trying to have the same relationship with the readers as a Victorian novelist might have. Modern readers can read Dickens and accept the world he’s reporting and modern writers try to recreate that.

That having been said, there’s very little completely reliable contemporary fiction from that period of Soviet Russia – anything that was published then was required to have a pro-Revolutionary message which means that you have to be very careful when reading it now. There were writers like Mikhail Bulgakov, Andrei Platonov and Lydia Chukovskaya writing novels “for the drawer” that eventually emerged after Stalin’s death, but these are relatively rare. Memoirs and fiction written later by survivors of the Terror such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Victor Shalomov, Evgenia Ginzburg and Nadezhda Mandelstam give insights into life at the time however and modern historians have produced some fascinating non-fictional studies of everyday life from diaries, memories and even NKVD investigations, so I definitely had material to work. All the same there’s often a large element of guesswork involved – after all, almost no-one was being honest at the time. 

Fortunately, I’m writing fiction so I’ve a bit of flexibility – most novels involve a writer taking facts and asking “what if”, which is pretty much what I did. I’m not sure how accurate historically a character Korolev is, because someone in his role would probably have been more involved with political crimes then he is in the books. In order for The Holy Thief to work however it was essential that he’s a simple detective looking for justice in a State that had a very skewed view of that concept.

DJ.  There are real historical characters in the novel alongside the fictional characters, notable among them Isaac Babel. I had some problems with this, but I’m not sure why.  Babel himself, as we know, was himself tortured and executed just a few short years after 1936, the year of your novel.  Why does this make one somewhat uneasy at finding him here in the pages of a piece of fiction?  It would be interesting to know why you chose to put real people into your fictional plot. It certainly works—your Babel is a very lively figure in the novel.  Was your purpose in introducing him to add authenticity to the fiction? Or what?

WR. Babel is the reason I started researching the period in the first place so that’s why he’s in there. I do understand that for some people it’s a little difficult to have a such a tragic figure in the book and I share some of their concerns. Ginzburg, the poet who appears in The Holy Thief is based very closely on the poet Osip Mandelstam who also died in the Gulag system. Likewise the film director Savchenko in my second novel, The Bloody Meadow, is based on Sergei Eisenstein. In both cases I thought it better to change the names and cover my tracks a little.  With Babel, I felt more relaxed about him appearing and I’m not entirely sure why.

DJ.  The only thing that made it difficult for me to read the novel was the detailed description of the torturing of certain human beings.  I do not doubt that this a realistic part of such a story as you tell here. Plenty of torturing went on.  It must surely be difficult for many people to read, however, and I somehow imagine that it must have been difficult for you to write.  Perhaps you could comment on your incorporation of such passages into your novel, one very prominently on the first pages that the reader encounters on opening the book. Did you think about how readers might react? Or did you divorce yourself from such considerations?

WR.  Because it was a debut novel I wanted to have a very strong first chapter. I knew the opening scene was pretty graphic – it’s actually been toned down in the published novel – but I wanted to grab the attention of agents and publishers, even if it meant some of them wouldn’t like it at all.

Writing it was a pretty technical job in many ways, because it had to be jarring and at the same time show the victim’s quiet courage. Because it was such an important part of the book, it was rewritten a great deal and after the first ten rewrites or so, I’m not sure I was too aware of the violence when I was actually writing it. Researching it was more difficult I would say, as torture is deeply, deeply unpleasant but apparently ordinary people seem to do it for various countries around the world, even today, including some not too far from home. That was something I wanted to make clear as well – that sometimes the torturer is a victim as well. 

All in all, I don’t regret the violent scenes In The Holy Thief but I’m probably not going to write anything that graphic again. Aside from anything else, extreme violence can overwhelm a book and I think there’s an element of that with The Holy Thief. Still, torture and violent death were very much part of the reality of that period of history in the Soviet Union and perhaps it’s necessary to remind people of that – sometimes the sheer scale of the Great Terror can obscure the way in which it affected individuals.

DJ.  Yes, I certainly take this last point.  I recently quoted Hans Fallada who wrote along these lines in the Foreword to his 1946 novel set in the Nazi period  which he lived through himself.

But back finally to the genre question: You are about to publish a second novel about Korolev, The Bloody Meadow.  Do you sometimes think that the crime-investigation plot can be a straitjacket?  Did you sometimes wish in your second novel that you could escape certain necessities that such a plot brings with it, and write more freely without it?

WR.  I think a crime novel provides an interesting basis for an investigation into the Soviet world, particularly for the tragic period the Korolev novels are set in. I really dislike the concept of “genre” though, it seems to place literary novels on a  higher level whereas I think many of the best novels being written at the moment are so-called genre novels. At the end of the day, a novel often stands or falls on its ability to hold the attention of the reader – obviously there’s a little more to it but it’s still a good starting point for any novelist. I like that genre novelists are focused on entertaining their readers and having a good, solid plot.

Many thanks to William Ryan for his detailed response and illustrations.  I hope the readers of this blog will have some responses for him. His second  Korolev novel, The  Bloody  Meadow, is scheduled to appear in September of this year. I am looking forward to it with great interest.

Postscript,  July 1: The Holy Thief has just been shortlisted for the 2011, Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of  the Year Award, one of the most prestigious crime-writing prizes in the U.K.

Posted in historical fiction, murder mystery | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments