Thursday, April 18, 2019

On rediscovering the joy of reading.

Jenny Bowen is going home. Boarding the Caledonian Sleeper, all she wants to do is forget about her upcoming divorce and relax on the ten-hour journey through the night.
In her search for her cabin, Jenny helps a panicked woman with a young girl she assumes to be her daughter. Then she finds her compartment and falls straight to sleep.
Waking in the night, Jenny discovers the woman dead in her cabin ... but there's no sign of the little girl. The train company have no record of a child being booked on the train, and CCTV shows the dead woman boarding alone.

I spent most of my childhood and teen years escaping from the world in fiction, and it feels like its been a while since I did so with any regularity. Oh, there are still writers who I will devour, into whose worlds Ill happily bury myself, but a sense of professional obligation you have, says the prevalent wisdom, to keep abreast of whats current if you want to be a writer of commercial fiction can sometimes suck the joy out of the act, make it more work than pleasure.

What She Saw Last Night (or, from here on in, WSSLN) is one of those books whose premise youve seen before. Its The Lady Vanishes on a contemporary train, crossed with elements of the Jodie Foster movie Flightplan.

But its in the execution that the book soars, and in the sheer rollercoaster exhilaration of the plotting that I forgot I was a crime writer and remembered how amazing it can be when a book just grabs you like quicksand and wont let go.

Saying anything much about the plot will inevitably involve spoilers, so let me avoid this by stating simply that the initial premise is swiftly subverted: The whole thing doesnt take place on board the train and so the claustrophobia of the previously noted pieces is discarded and replaced, instead with a classic paranoid chase thriller.

There was a girl. And there are some very and I mean very bad dudes who want to stop anyone asking questions about her.

In Jenny we get a classic everywoman hero: Someone whos out of her depth but uses her real-life skills (shes a wonderfully prosaic IT project manager) to attack the puzzle logically, and the couple of references to Agile (a project management approach that basically seems to boil down to poke it with a stick and, if it hisses at you, back off and try poking another part) made me chuckle heartily, while allowing Jenny to steadily unpick the mystery, unknowingly getting closer and closer to the very bad dudes running the show.

WSSLN is a perfect beach read, a perfect commute read, a proper page-turner thriller and one that reminded me of how much joy there is in a story that you cant wait to get back to. Highly recommended.


Derek Farrell is the author of Death of an Angel and three other Danny Bird Mysteries.

The books have been described as "Like the Thin Man meets Will & Grace," like MC Beaton on MDMA," and - by no less an expert than Eric Idle - as "Quite Fun."

Farrell is married and lives with his husband in West Sussex.

They have no goats chickens, children or pets, but they do have every Kylie Minogue record ever made. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Cereal Killers Lucky Charm

I'm kind of a serial killer hipster. I was a fan before they were popular.
Well, not a fan, but I was intrigued by the macabre, and now they have absorbed enough American kitsch that they are corn on the macabre. (That pun is for Dave White).

Before I read The Silence of the Lambs I was a gore punk who read about Ed Gein and watched Faces of Death and thought I was so cool because I knew about killers like Albert Fish and had read the journals of Carl Panzram, one of the earliest documented psychopaths. It's a sheltered suburban kid thing. And while I did grow up on the literal wrong side of the tracks (see photo), those tracks were in the town where Martha Stewart graduated high school, so they were relatively cushy, even if we had a superfund site, played soccer on a former quarry capped with landfill, and found gay porn novels and used contraceptive sponges behind our grammar school.

After Hannibal Lecter nibbled his way to America's heart, serial killers were everywhere in movies, books, and TV shows as the go-to bugaboo, and they have stayed at the top ever since. The FBI profiler and self-salesman John E. Douglas wrote a bunch of books with Mark Olshaker expounding his genius, and ignoring all the times his "profiles" failed, like with the Baton Rouge serial killer Derrick Todd Lee, who was able to avoid capture while the police looked for a white man, because the victims were all white women, and we were told that serial killers--ahem, SK's, sorry, gotta use the lingo--preferred victims of their own race. This would later stymie attempts to capture the D.C. sniper, as well. I'm not saying that it isn't a good rule of thumb, but when you use it to automatically exclude suspects, you need to take into consideration that profiling is not a hard science.

I was an acolyte of Mr Douglas for a while, and even began a successful petition to keep a child murderer that he helped capture from getting early parole. So I'm going to talk about two lesser-known serial killer movies, one good, one bad, because at first glance the good one looks bad and vice versa.

The first one stars Charles Bronson in his post-Death Wish days and the second stars Kevin Kline as a brainy police sleuth. See where I'm going? I'm less inclined to think Kevin would star in a stinker, but The January Man is probably one of the most entertaining, yet badly written movies about serial killers out there. Now, the movie has a lot going for it, and if you ignore the serial killer's modus operandi, you can enjoy it. Kline co-stars with Susan Sarandon, Alan Rickman, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and the script was written by John Patrick Shanley, who also penned Moonstruck, Joe Vs. the Volcano, and adapted Doubt for the screen.  He's no slouch!

The January Man was released in 1989, so I can't imagine the screenplay being written to latch onto the success of Silence of the Lambs, which was published in 1988. Where did he get his ideas about how a serial killer behaved?


I'm about to ruin the twists of the movie, which really isn't about the twists anyway. It's about spending time with Kline, Sarandon, Rickman, and Mastrantonio, as they hunt a killer who strangles women who live in high-rises, exclusively. How does he choose them? I forgot that, honestly. But I do remember that he chooses the floor that his victims live on by pretending all the high rises in the city are a musical scale, and their windows occupy the spaces that the notes to "Calendar Girl" by Neil Sedaka.

Yes, really. Mastermind Kline manages to predict the building and the floor of the next victim because the previous ones are done to the tune, and Mastrantonio poses as bait, wearing a neck protector so they can catch the killer. And when they pull of his mask, someone asks, Who is he?
"Nobody," Kline replies. Because at this point we weren't overwhelmed with serial killers, and expected the killer to be someone we could deduce from the cast. Aha!
The movie is far from satisfying, but you get to see Alan Rickman play a painter who works in nudes, and Mastrantonio and Kline are always fun to watch. My friend JD at Radiator Heaven wrote a detailed review, if you want to dig deeper. The movie will frustrate anyone who isn't a big fan of The Cell, which was another movie with great visuals and a terrible script, where the killer gets off on drowning women in a box kept in secret locations, on a timer, while Vince Vaughn races against the clock. The part where Jennifer Lopez enters the mind of Vincent Donofrio (the killer) to unravel his psychosis and find the victim is idiotic but beautiful, like a unicorn trying to play the piano.
Oh, Vincent.

So, what's the surprisingly good serial killer movie? 10 to Midnight, starring Charles Bronson. This one was written by William Roberts, who wrote the screenplay for The Magnificent Seven, and it's lurid and sleazy, but portrays a much more realistic serial killer. Gene Davis plays the part and gives it all. He's a often a small part character actor, but this role has him glaring at photos of his mom while sucking raw eggs out of the shell, chasing victims through the park while completely naked, and otherwise gnawing the scenery with his mental torment.
Now, this doesn't mean the movie is a masterpiece. It's an exploitation slasher in the vein of Vice Squad and makes the misogyny of its killer very obvious if oblique, with Bronson scowling as he recites lines like, "this killer mistook his knife for his penis."
Bronson with the killer's jackin'-off-hammer.

To be honest, the most memorable part of the movie is the ending, which I'm going to spoil for you. Bronson catches the killer, after he leaves a bunch of naked young women dead. And being who he is, the killer has to brag that he's sick in the head and will be released soon, and come after his daughter, and "you'll see me again!"
Let me see if you can guess what Bronson says before he shoots the unarmed killer in front of everybody.
Hurray for extrajudicial executions! Who needs laws?

So I spent all this time slamming serial killer stories. I really like Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, and feel that is the paragon of the form. I'm told By Reason of Insanity predates it, but after slogging through The Anvil Chorus by Shane Stevens, I won't be reading him again. The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood is quite good, but even modern serial killer novels often rely on lazy tropes like The Evil Foster Child and The Serial Killer Gene, when it doesn't work that way. I'd be interested in a fictional take on the BTK Killer (other than Red Dragon) now that he has been captured. His family claims to have been completely unaware of his sideline as a family slaughterer, and he was a deacon in his local church. He was able to stop, something we're told serial killers don't do.

You know what they say, sometimes you have to write it yourself.
The next book I'm working on will continue this old story of mine, The Uncleared.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Three of a Kind

Among the four books I've had published, none has been over 48,000 words.  The current book I'm working on will almost certainly be no longer than this.  It should be no surprise then that I'm always on the lookout for great short novels, genre-related or not. I never get tired of reading those authors whose every authorial fiber works toward compression.  Maximum impact in a minimum amount of time.  How is emotional conflict conveyed with brevity?  How does the author create mood, atmosphere, a sense of place - the richness and fullness that come with a novel - and yet do it so succinctly?  In a great short novel, the author may make something brief on the page seem longer than it is when considered by the reader in retrospect because of the density of the writing, the perfection of the details.  The reader might well have the type of recollection akin to what Grahame Greene describes (in one of his memoirs) about his experience with Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead RevisitedBrideshead itself is not a short novel of the type I'm talking about, but Greene describes a passage that exemplifies the kind of reading experience I'm getting at.

In this passage, a character takes a train trip.  It's an important journey in the novel and a trip most evocative, and years after reading the passage, Greene remembered it as being several pages long.  How shocked he was to discover, on re-reading the novel eventually, that the passage was barely a page in length.  His memory had played a trick on him and his imagination had filled in a lot that wasn't actually on the page.  To be able to accomplish this, Greene opined, was genius, and whether or not I would call it genius, I would at least say it's literary magic. A kind of magic made possible by the author's craft, use of language, and manipulation of details and sensations.  The great short novels, in essence, achieve this effect in their entirety, leaving you marveling at how much the author relates, and suggests, in 80 or 100 or 120 pages.  And I for one ask myself after I've finished such a book how the author pulled it off.  These are books I love to re-read, not only because they're short and you can read them fast, but because I feel I can learn so much.

Here's a few recent books Iike this I've read and that I expect will stick with me:

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaegy

Translated from German, this Swiss novel runs 101 pages in the edition I have.  It's set in post-WWII Switzerland, in a girl's boarding school.  Eve, the narrator, describes her time at the school when she was 14, and there is something about her narration that is at once ice-cold and burning with passion.  She describes what becomes her obsession with the new girl at the school, the too perfect Frederique, and she formulates schemes and meditates on the ideas of control and madness.  Is there a plot?  Not in the conventional sense, but the prose is crystalline and the tension in the story among the characters, the feeling that at any moment something among them might explode, in their isolated school in the Swiss countryside, lends the entire narrative tension and energy.  There's not a slack moment in the 101 pages, and at the end, you realize that you've been reading the entire time as if holding your breath.  Despite the lack of a point A to point B to point C plot, there's a lot of suspense.  This book is a beautiful dip into darkness.

So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano

163 pages, a little longer than Jaegy's book.  And Modiano always has plots - of a sort.  He loves mystery stories and the literary tradition of noir, and So You Can't Get Lost in the Neighborhood is another one of his explorations into memory and storytelling.  Here the main character, Jean Daragne, gets a phone call that draws him into an old murder mystery that may be tied to a childhood trauma he experienced.  Though he uses few words, nobody describes Paris more evocatively than Modiano. It's both a real city and a landscape of the mind for his recollection-haunted characters. Modiano has written nothing but short works over his 50-year career (over 30 books in all) and I'd say that length has served him well, if you consider a Nobel Prize a measure of success.  His books are moody and ripe with atmosphere and full of people conducting investigations.  And he'll keep working over similar themes from book to book.  That's another approach that stands in contrast to the person writing the long novel that tries to pack in a bunch of things.  Say what you have to say in short book after short book. Do variations on a theme.  I love how Modiano does that.

The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

77 pages in the translation I read. Clarice Lispector's final work (before she died) about a young woman named Macabea, a typist from northeast Brazil who goes to live in the slums of Rio.  In the words of Lispector, she "was so poor that all she ate were hot dogs".  She has nothing going for her in life and the novel doesn't end well for her, but somehow she is inwardly free.  We get inside her heart and mind through language that is like no one else's because Lispector (and I think everyone who reads her says this) sounds like nobody else ever did. But it's not only Macabea's story.  There's also the narrator telling us that he's telling us Macabea's story, and the continual back and forth between the two modes, as Colm Toibin says in his introduction, produces a novel in which "Nothing is stable in the text". From one sentence to the next, without warning or transition, the book swings from metaphysical speculation to Macabea's most comic or mundane actions.  You empathize with her, then shake your head at her gullibility, then pull back when the narrator does and watch her with detachment.  And the narrator, too, is hard to pin down. Continuing with Toibin, "It is hard to decide who to feel more sorry for.  Macabea or the narrator, the innocent victim of life, or the highly self-conscious victim of his own failure.  The one who knows too little, or the one who knows too much."

I know one thing.  I'll keep reading these masters of the short book to keep on learning from them.