Author Archives: mysterypeoplescott
-Post by Molly
David Liss left his dissertation on 18th century British literature to write historical detective novels full-time, and after enjoying many of his novels, I firmly believe he made the right choice. His first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper, won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and he has now written eight novels, almost all of which are firmly immersed in an eighteenth century world. Liss has recently published his first novel since 2011’s The Twelfth Enchantment, and his new book, The Day of Atonement, makes for a perfect Jewish New Year read.
While Benjamin Weaver, the thief-taker hero of many of Liss’ books, makes a cameo appearance, The Day of Atonement is a stand-alone novel. The plot follows Sebastian Foxx, born Sebastião Raposa, raised and trained by Benjamin Weaver. Ten years before, at a tender age, Sebastian was forced to flee Lisbon after the arrest of his converso parents by the Portuguese Inquisition. After years of anger, a new commitment to practicing Judaism, and not much resolution of his childhood traumas, Foxx decides to return to Portugal and find his revenge. Sebastian aims to not only avenge himself against his family’s betrayer, but also to target a priest of the Inquisition, and possibly reconnect with his lost lady love. Upon his arrival in Lisbon, Sebastian quickly becomes tied in the fortunes of those around him and builds a group of allies to aid him in his quest. As the novel continues, Foxx finds himself embroiled in complex schemes and facing much more than a simple quest as he weighs his own goals against the safety of those around him.
Liss’ enthusiasm for the time period is present in every corner of this novel. He carefully constructs the world of eighteenth-century Portugal in a way that brings the Lisbon setting alive while also firmly grounding the reader in the novel’s historical context. A small brushing-up on the Portuguese Inquisition may be in order (I scanned the Wikipedia page), but the plot is as engaging as the historical context is detailed, and readers at all levels of interest in the time period will find Day of Atonement to be just as satisfying as the rest of David Liss’s oeuvre.
While I was reading The Day of Atonement, I couldn’t figure out if the book was more of a Jewish version of The Count of Monte Cristo or a Inquisition pastiche of Europa, Europa mixed in with Inglourious Bastards, but whichever of these comparisons you choose to appreciate more, know this: David Liss can write some seriously ass-kicking Jewish characters. Despite the book’s title, The Day of Atonement may be a bit too enjoyable to read on Yom Kippur itself. I recommend reading it the day after.
Copies of The Day of Atonement are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
-Post by Molly
If you’ve been keeping an eye on the MysteryPeople blog, than you might have heard mention of the Northern Irish author Adrian McKinty in regards to his outstanding Troubles Trilogy, finished up earlier this year with the concluding volume, In The Morning I’ll Be Gone. McKinty has written fourteen previous novels, and now he has another book out. This one’s set far from Northern Ireland in the 1980s.
McKinty’s latest, The Sun is God, is set in the corners of European empires in the dawn of the twentieth century. This is a story about the limits and consequences of empire, and bears some small resemblance to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The novel begins in South Africa at the tail end of the Boer War, then moves quickly over to New Guinea, and then to a remote island off of an already remote shore. On this island lives a colony of sun-worshiping German nudists, subsisting on a diet of coconuts and liquor infused with Bayer Chemical’s new “non-addictive” heroin, and convinced their special diet will grant them immortality. When more of the colonists die off than even their atrocious diet would seem to indicate, the only man around with police experience is summoned to the task of first, detecting foul play, and second, solving any crimes he may stumble upon.
McKinty’s protagonist, former military police officer Will Prior, is haunted by his memories of wartime atrocities but otherwise living well on a plantation in a German colonial enclave. The German colonial administration has different plans for Will than just a quiet retirement, however; he must instead go to the island of the sun-worshipers and search for wrong-doing. Unfortunately for Will, nightmares, opium, and beautiful naked noblewomen keep getting in his way.
McKinty, while writing in less personally familiar territory than his previous novels, has clearly done his research, and the novel is full of interesting tidbits about colonial and indigenous cultures in the early twentieth century. Even the cult of the cocovores (so named for their dietary obsession) did in fact exist, although given the conditions, it did not last particularly long. As historical fiction about cults, The Sun is God tackles a subject generally reserved for true crime books. The plot is as driving as any of McKinty’s novels, and the author’s research is seamlessly incorporated into the narrative and only adds to the mounting strangeness and horror as Will gradually discovers how crazy the cult members are. The Sun Is God, at its conclusion, sets the scene for a century of confusion and horror, and continues the themes of colonial disintegration set up by McKinty’s previous novels. I can’t wait to see what he writes about next.
Copies of The Sun is God can be found on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
MysteryPeople Review: Elmore Leonard’s FOUR NOVELS OF THE 1970S: FIFTY-TWO PICKUP / SWAG / UNKNOWN MAN NO. 89 / THE SWITCH
Over a career spanning decades, Elmore Leonard was not only one of the best crime fiction writers in the US. He was one of our country’s best writers, period. Like Twain, Hemingway, and Chandler, he turned the American idiom into art. It is therefore fitting that The Library of America has chosen to publish a three volume set of Leonard’s works, edited by George Sutter, Leonard’s friend and researcher. Each volume will contain four books. The first volume, subtitled Four Novels of the 1970s, was released this month. The selected titles are great representations of his first full decade in the crime fiction genre, sometimes referred to as his “Detroit Period.”
The first book in the collection, Fifty-Two Pickup, tells the story of a businessman, Harry Mitchell, being blackmailed for an affair. When he refuses to pay, the blackmailers kill his mistress and frame him with doctored evidence they threaten to release if he doesn’t pay a higher amount. This starts an involved cat-and-mouse game playing the three villains against each other. Here you see Leonard’s aptitude for writing criminals. While sleazy and vile, each is familiar and believable, with great dialogue.
The second title, Swag, features criminals as the leads. It is the first appearance of car thief Earnest “Stick” Stickley Jr. Stick meets car salesman Frank Ryan while trying to boost a car off of Ryan’s lot. Frank has some shady get-rich-quick schemes and pulls Stick into a series of robberies that rest on a series of rules he has concocted, including the old adage, “Be Polite”. Leonard takes a close look at middle class criminals and the modern American dream. Stick is one of the first characters to display the “Leonard Cool,” existing only in the moment. The notes section in the back contains a passage he discarded from the novel.
I was happy to see one of my favorite Leonard novels, Unknown Man #89, included. The lead is Jack Ryan, the protagonist from his first crime novel, The Big Bounce. Ryan is working as a process server with a reputation for finding anyone, especially those who don’t want to be found. He’s hired to to track down an unknown stock holder to deliver the news of his good fortune, but it soon becomes clear that Jack is not the only one looking for his target, and that the others have much deadlier intentions., leaving Jack stuck in the crossfire.This book is tougher than his better known, later work, painting Detroit street life in its gritty glory.
The final book, The Switch, is the closest to the kind of story Leonard became known for. A crime fiction take on O’Henry’s The Ransom Of Red Chief, the story concerns the kidnapping of a businessman’s wife that occurs right before he is about to file for divorce. It is full of Leonard double crosses, switching alliances, quirky characters, and fun dialogue. Leonard like his characters from The Switch so much he put two of the characters in one of his nineties novels, Rum Punch.
All four novels are packaged in a beautiful edition with a detailed history of Elmore Leonard’s life. It shows him in the processing of developing his voice, after twenty years of writing westerns, to become one of crime fiction’s most original voices, influencing even those outside the genre. Most of all, you get an understanding of how distinctive that voice was at the start.
Copies of Four Novels of the 1970s can be found on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
Mike McCrary’s Remo Went Rogue is a wonderful piece of mean, nasty fun with a slimy lawyer getting his comeuppance. It’s a book that never stops moving. We got a chance to catch up with Mike for a few moments to answer some questions.
MP: How did the idea for Remo Went Rogue come about?
MM: I’ve always been interested in defense attorneys and the special brand of absurdity that their jobs require. Don’t get me wrong, I know they are an extremely important part of keeping our legal system humming along. I don’t want to discount that, but as a writer, the idea of defending the worst people on the planet and, in some cases, getting paid a ton of money to do it presents a strange and wonderful morality playground to hang out in. So that’s where it started and I just tried to come up with a story to build around that basic idea. That and I love characters that are a complete mess. Remo more than qualifies.
MP: What do you have to keep in mind when you’re doing a book with no “heroic’ characters in it?
MM: I think you have to find something human and/or relatable about them. At very least they have to be interesting. The reader has to have something to cling to, something to keep the pages turning, make them want to keep reading. If there’s nothing, it makes it tough to slog through an entire novel. You might not agree with everything Remo does and you sure as shit don’t want him living next door, but he is interesting and fun to read about and has some qualities that are even noble, kind of.
MP: While the book has an original voice, it also has the feel of an old school hardboiled novel. Did you draw from any influences?
MM: Thanks man. Yeah, there are influences all over the place. I’m an average reader at best, but there are without question authors that have put their stamp on me. Not all of them crime/noir. Don Winslow, Savages to me is the gold standard. Charlie Huston, Caught Stealing really opened my eyes. Johnny Shaw, Big Maria = genius. Gillian Flynn is no joke, man. John Rector, his stuff is a master class in stripped-down prose and how economy of words can work wonders. Check out John’s Cold Kiss and Already Gone. Chad Kultgen,The Lie: just read it. There’s others, of course. Obviously Elmore Leonard. A couple more big ones would be Chuck Palahniuck, Richard Stark (Parker novels) and Duane Swierczynski (more about Duane later.)
MP: The shoot-outs are visceral and clear. How do you approach writing action scenes?
MM: Thanks again, man. I have a background in screenwriting so the visual stuff is a byproduct of that style of writing. I was a script reader years ago. So I’ve read a lot of action scripts and I started to see the way different writers attacked action scenes and took note of what I liked. But with books the biggest influence was Duane Swierczynski. I read Severance Package and it was like the world changed for me. I don’t think I realized books like that were out in the universe. His stuff is so big and fun to read that I sat back and said, Holy shit. You’re allowed to write like that? It was almost like that book gave me permission to try. So, thanks Duane. As far as approach? I basically drink a shit ton of coffee, crank the AC/DC and Nine Inch Nails and try to write down what I see in my head as fast as I can. It’s not much different from when I was kid playing with Star Wars action figures. Minus the coffee and the questionable music.
MP: What made Remo a fun character to write?
MM: Assholes are always fun to write, I think. Assholes in crisis are even more fun. Remo will say and do almost anything so you pretty much get to unleash and put the hammer down. At the same time there is a human quality to Remo that grounds him and makes him accessible to the reader. That’s the challenge, I guess, making an asshole fun and loveable. Haven’t worked that out in the real world, but I’m hopeful. Just kidding. I’m a expletive peach, ask anybody.
Copies of Remo Went Rogue are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
-Post by Molly
Melville House has just published Marek Krajewski’s The Minotaur’s Head, his last in the Inspector Mock Investigation Quartet, excellently translated by Danusia Stok. Krajewski began the series in 1999 with Death in Breslau and now has four translated volumes available from Melville International Crime. Despite the fact that The Minotaur’s Head is the last in a series, I came to it as a stand-alone, casually picked up in my spare time. I read it through in a day and a half and now intend to read the whole series. Krajewski is committed to providing background for the characters. Despite not having read the previous novels in the series, I felt quite at home in the narrative.
The Minotaur’s Head is set partly in the Polish city of Lwów and partly in the Silesian city of Breslau. The story takes place in 1937, close to the start of World War II, and in a world already preparing for brutality but still immersed in a prewar miasma of small crimes. Krajewski begins the novel with the murder of a child and accusations of blood libel in 1939, and then moves backward in time to 1937, where several women have been found murdered, each violated and cannibalized by an elusive stranger defined only by his hideous face.
When a German citizen is murdered in Lwów, Inspector Mock, of the Silesian Police, is happy to leave behind Nazi-dominated Germany to go to comparatively free Poland in search of her killer. Detective Edward Popielski, his Polish partner on the case, is less than enthused about their high-profile task as he becomes more and more worried for his daughter’s safety. The detectives spend as much time being hungover and eating herring as they do searching for any criminals, and have petty personal vendettas of their own, but these qualities only enhance the jazzy rhythm and historical cadences of the narrative as it moves toward a shocking, modern crescendo.
Period detail seeps into every part of the narrative. The Minotaur’s Head not only fills the book with historical tidbits, but makes the book feel as if it was written during the time period it portrays. His characters are lively and rebellious against the strictures of their world, yet perfectly conform to the range of attitudes available at the time in both their liberalism and intolerance. Inspector Mock, in particular, evokes the hedonists of the 20s, in futile and subtle rebellion against his new Nazi masters. Marek Krajewski has done what many have tried to do – capture the multi-ethnic and culturally vibrant world of Poland before the destruction of WWII in a way that is simultaneously affectionate, terrifying, stylish and realistic.
The Minotaur’s Head is available on our shelves now and via bookpeople.com.
James Ellroy‘s Perfidia is a monster of a book, in scope, size, and ambition. Perfidia takes place in LA during America’s first month in World War II. The book runs close to seven hundred pages, with at least four lead characters and what feels like hundreds of supporting ones. Most of them are corrupt or are about to be. Ellroy’s version of “The Greatest Generation” is blinded by ambition, fear, xenophobia, greed, or just the pure thrill of putting the hurt to someone. if you are up for a plunge into the ink-black heart of history and humanity, this book is for you.
Ellroy’s central character, Japanese-American Hideo Ashida, works as a forensics specialist in the LAPD. He is assigned to a murder case involving a Japanese family the day before Pearl harbor is attacked. The investigation puts him in the middle of an inter-department war between soon-to-be Chief Parker and Dudley Smith, the gangster-cop who served as a villain in Ellroy’s LA Quartet. The case also entwines in a scheme involving the internment of Japanese Americans.
The book is is packed with characters from both Ellroy’s LA Quartet and Underworld USA Trilogy. Tarnished cops Lee Blanchard and Buzz Meeks work in Dudley’s squad and FBI Agent Ward Little also comes in at one point. Kay Lake, an important character in The Black Dahlia, has a prominent role here acting as spy for Parker against some feared but mainly harmless leftists. Ellroy emphasizes noir’s rich theme of fate through the use of familiar characters and historical figures. .
What Ellroy captures so well is the collective mindset of an embattled USA. Mass emotion feeds into riot and murder. The thin line between patriotism and rage is vividly demonstrated when the character of Kay tries to enlist and a group of men attack her for being a leftist and “red”. We see how greedy and unscrupulous men are given allowance to move against the constitution and plain decency. As one character says, “There is no proportion. Pearl Harbor took care of that.”
While taking his characters further into their past, Ellroy creates a novel for perfect for our present. With it’s political hysteria, a right wing running rampant, a left that only preens and poses, and cops on overkill it is difficult not to relate in this post 9-11 and Ferguson world. Ellroy may be holding a dark mirror in our collective faces, but it is hard not to see the truth in it.
You can find copies of James Ellroy’s Perfidia on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
Molly blogs about international crime fiction the third Thursday of each month. Last month, she looked at the Tartan Noir novel Laidlaw, the first of the Laidlaw Investigation Trilogy, by Ian McIlvanney. Since then, the second novel in the trilogy has been released and is now available on our shelves. This month, she features Jean-Patrick Manchette’s classic noir, The Mad and the Bad, recently released by New York Review Books Classics with a new translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith.
I have been a fan of the New York Review of Books and their releases my entire adult life, ever since I figured out that every single one was bound to blow my mind. The Mad and The Bad, by Jean-Patrick Manchette, released in July of this year, is no exception to this rule. Manchette wrote the novel back in 1972, but the themes of the novel, including an in-depth exploration of mental illness, feel incredibly modern. Manchette combines Tarantino-esque ultra-violence with haunting evocations of fairy tales gone horribly askew, as well as a joyful, burn-it-all-down attitude to provincial middle-class culture.
As The Mad and the Bad begins, we first meet Thompson, a highly paid killer for hire with a stomach ulcer; Hartog, a wealthy industrialist with a penchant for surrounding himself with damaged people; Peter, his spoiled orphan nephew and heir to his wealth; and Julie, a recently released asylum inmate with a poor hold on reality and much better grasp of survival. Hartog has hired Julie as Peter’s new nursemaid, and when Peter is kidnapped, Julie takes her duties surprisingly seriously, becoming a more dangerous foil to her adversaries than anyone could have imagined. Their confrontation leads to a chase across France more epic than that of a storied outlaw.
Manchette has created a tenacious and fascinating female protagonist in the character of Julie. Her capacity for violence and self-preservation serves as a reminder that noir has long had authors interested, willing, and able to write heroines not particularly interested in romance and quite capable of protecting themselves. Julie has as many weaknesses as strengths, however, and each of her actions realistically vibes with her character.
Jean-Patrick Manchette began his career writing screenplays in the sixties, and when the seventies hit, decided to expand into crime novels. His previous career is evident in his cinematic dialogue and stripped down descriptions, with nary a wasted word. Every scene moves the plot forward, and as the novel continues, the pace becomes frenetic in its intensity. The book even takes about the same amount of time as a film to finish.
Manchette represents the best in French crime fiction, with characters whose moral ambiguity and marginal existences come right out of a Jean Genet novel. James Sallis’ excellent introduction discusses the book as one of the defining examples of the neo-polar detective novel where storylines take a hard line against corruption and injustice while affectionately portraying society at the margins.
This book serves as an excellent reminder that the French don’t just analyze American noir – they also write their own, and for some authors, noir does not serve as code for unrelentingly depressing. Some of them write, instead, fairly gleeful noir, and this book will make you think, just for a second, that maybe shooting someone’s foot off or burning down a department store is, in fact, not such a big deal after all. It might, in a twisted way, even be fun.
In Blindspot, Reed Farrel Coleman takes over Robert B. Parker’s
alcoholic small town police chief Jesse Stone. He puts Stone in the
middle of a case involving the mob, revenge, and some folks from in
days as a Minor League baseball player. Reed answered some questions
through e-mail we had about the book and his approach to this
MP: I’m sure there are challenges about taking on an established
character, but what’s fun about it?
RFC: The fun is the challenge of respecting the characters and the history
of the series while carving out a piece of it for yourself. It is both
yours and not yours and that is unique.
MP: Was there an aspect about Stone that gave you an “in” to approach him?
RFC: Indeed. It was his unresolved regret over the injury that ruined his
baseball career. Dealing with unresolved regret is something we all
can relate to and gave me my in to Jesse’s spirit.
MP: I heard that Parker wrote Jesse Stone to push himself into
different territory with third person omniscient. It has also showed
off other aspects of your writing we haven’t seen often. What muscle
did you enjoy exercising the most?
RFC: I am known for my intimate first person, which is in some ways the
polar opposite to how Mr. Parker wrote Jesse. The thing I enjoyed was
trying to bring an intimacy to Jesse, but not by being as intimate as
I am used to being with my own characters. Moe Prager, for example,
wore his heart on his sleeve. Jesse barely wears his sleeve on his
sleeve. So I had to learn to reveal Jesse through his actions. It’s
made me a better writer. At least I hope it has.
MP: One thing you get to do is cover the criminals point of view. Did
you notice anything different in writing for the bad guys?
RFC: Well that is one great advantage of third person omniscient with
multiple points of view. You can, if you so choose, get into the bad
guys’ heads. But the great pleasure for me in the book was getting
into all the bad guys’ heads, not just one. I think readers will be
surprised to see how not all bad guys are the same. How even the most
cold-blooded killer can change, even grow. I believe that subplot is
my favorite piece of BLIND SPOT. Jesse is such a great character:
complex, brave, stubborn. He is a study in strengths and foibles. But
it is writing the bad guys that was the most fun.
MP: You use a reunion of Jesse’s minor league baseball team as a
starting point. What drew you to that part of his past?
RFC: See my answer to your first question. It’s his biggest vulnerability.
MP: It seems that we get to see more of your humorous side than we
normally get to. Do you think there’s something about Stone or the
series that lends itself to that?
RFC: Absolutely. Jesse is actually quite funny in a kind of wry, quietly
sarcastic way. And I like that he can see his own follies as well as
others. I believe you will only laugh along with others who laugh at
MP: Can you tell us about your original series your launching in the spring?
RFC: The novel is titled WHERE IT HURTS and it features retired Suffolk
County (New York) cop Gus Murphy. Gus is a guy who thinks he
understands the ways of the world, but when tragedy strikes his family
he realizes he understands nothing. It is the story of Gus healing
himself as he solves the murder of a petty criminal.
Today is the release of our MysteryPeople Pick Of The Month, Cry
Father. It’s Benjamin Whitmer’s follow up to his brilliant debut, Pike,
and will definitely be be seen on my year end top ten list as well as
many others. It deals with Patterson Wells, a tree cutter in disaster
areas whose grief over his dead son leads him into violent
circumstances. It is a brutal and beautiful book. Ben was kind enough
to take some questions from me on it.
MP: Pike and Cry Father seem like two twins raised differently, you see
the shared DNA, yet they both successfully achieve different things.
What do you see the main difference being?
BW: Well, Cry Father was written right on top of Pike, so it made sense
that a lot of the things I was thinking through got carried over. The
first draft was actually finished in 2010, it just took a long time to
get it published. If Adam Wilson at Gallery Books hadn’t seen
something in it (and, for that matter, if Sophie Littlefield hadn’t
suggested I send it to him) it probably wouldn’t even be published in
English. I’d pretty much decided to skip America and go straight to
France when Adam called my agent.
To me, the main difference is that Cry Father seems more open. I was
less scared to hit on the themes I was interested in. I don’t know if
they came through, but I hope so. In Pike I was more just trying to
establish a kind of tone — I’m new at this book-writing thing, and
still trying to figure out what I’m doing — and in Cry Father I felt
like I had a little more room to move.
MP: Patterson’s job as a tree cutter is both unique and a perfect
metaphor for what he’s going through. How did you choose that
profession for him?
BW: That was actually a gift given to me by one of my oldest friends,
Lucas Bogan. He’s the real deal and actually does what Patterson does.
(I should note that the similarities end right there: Patterson’s
faults are all his own.) Like you said, it seemed like the perfect job
for Patterson. And for me, I like characters who are grounded in the
work they do. It seems to me that a lot of novels skirt work. I’ve
always had a day-job and hated them all, but they consume the greatest
part of your waking hours whether or not you like it.
MP: The idea of fatherhood comes up in many forms. What did you want to
explore about it?
BW: Fatherhood’s probably never gonna be far from anything I write. I’m a
single father with two kids, and my relationship with them is the most
important thing in my life. But it’s a constant game of
second-guessing, doubt and guilt, as you understand all the things
you’ve done wrong. Not to mention all the things that you can’t
protect them from or do for them. It’s a fairly brutal crash course in
understanding how inadequate you are. Likewise, as a father with a
male child, I’m always thinking about the constructions of masculinity
that get passed down from father to son. That was a lot of what I was
trying to think through. As you can probably tell, though, I’m better
at negative examples than positive ones.
MP: There is always a lot of talk about the violence in your books, but
you use very little dramatic embellishment on it. How do you try to
treat it when writing?
BW: I think violence can reveal character just as surely as sex, love,
parenthood, or anything else. I try to write violence in a way that
people feel it. I don’t know if I succeed, but I don’t want anyone to
skim a violent scene. I want it to be ugly and heartsick. And in the
same way, to show that it’s attractive, too. It’s a balancing act. I’m
never gonna write it the way everybody wants it written, because it’s
such a touchy subject for people. But the attraction and repulsion has
to be there, I feel.
We’re more conflicted about violence than anything in this country.
Even sex. We’ll expel a kid from school for a fistfight, but there
hasn’t been a single year in my lifetime where we haven’t been bombing
the hell out of somebody and gloating about it. And we won’t even get
into what we’ll put up with from our police, like in Ferguson. I’m not
a pacifist, but the separation between what we tell ourselves we
believe and how we actually behave is so wide that I wonder that
folks’ heads don’t just start exploding from the cognitive dissonance
of it all.
MP: Many of the characters in Cry Father talk about freedom. Do you
think that’s what they are really looking for or is it something else?
BW: I think it’s a question they’re asking themselves. It’s a question I’m
always thinking about, anyways. I believe in freedom, the real
tangible kind. And I’d argue that we have less of it, in the real
tangible sense, than any of us would like to think. Most of freedom in
this country is just talk, and that disturbs me. When you’ve got more
people in prison than any other country in the world and every move
you make is legislated, I don’t know how the hell you can talk about
freedom with a straight face. I know that’s not a real popular
opinion, and we’re supposed to believe freedom is some kind of
metaphysical quality that we receive by virtue of being able to vote
once every four years, but I have trouble buying that.
Still I’ve also been around long enough to see how people get
destroyed by freedom. And I’ve come close myself at points in my life.
So I don’t know. For me freedom is a question, not an answer. I think
my characters are as lost in the question as I am. I think a lot of
people are right now.
MP: Can you tell us what your next book is and please promise it won’t
take four years before we get to read it?
BW: I have two in mind, actually. One is a jailbreak novel which I’m
really enjoying. I can’t promise it won’t take four years to get it
published, but I can say that it’s about half done and I should be
finished within the next year. I’m also working on a proposal for a
non-fiction book about one of my best friends, Paul Schenck, who was
killed by the police after a shootout last year. I’m not sure anybody
will want it – or either one of them, I guess – but I’m hoping so.
On Tuesday, September 23, at 2 pm, the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club will be discussing Tana French’s award-winning debut novel In The Woods. The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets every third Tuesday of the month on BookPeople’s third floor.
When Tana French released her debut psychological thriller In the Woods five years ago, the novel became an instant classic of the genre. It also became one of those rare books to be immediately recognized as an uncategorizable work of fiction that comfortably straddles the line between literature and genre fiction in a way that makes one question the need for categories at all.
The mystery fan has naught to fear, however – Tana French may write beautiful, literary prose, but she also understands how to craft an impeccable murder mystery. In The Woods is just the first of her Dublin Murder Squad series, which now number five; her latest addition to the series, The Secret Place, was just released this month. Each novel of the series is from a different character’s perspective, and each protagonist has already been introduced in a previous novel, whether as a minor character or a major character. In this way, French has managed to create a multi-voiced drama that also allows the reader to delve deep into the psychology and potential unreliability of a fascinating host of characters.
In The Woods, like many detective novels, tells a story of two crimes. Instead of the usual trope, however – two seemingly unrelated crimes that then, rather unsurprisingly, turn out to indeed be related – French’s protagonist suspects the two crimes to be related from the start. In 1984, two children vanish from a wood in the Irish countryside, leaving a third behind with no memory of where his friends had gone. Twenty years later, Adam Ryan, the boy left behind, has joined the Dublin Murder Squad. With his amateur-profiler partner Cassie, he is called back to the place where the children had vanished so long before in order to investigate the murder of another child, found arranged on a Bronze-Age sacrificial stone on an archeological site. Ryan, rather than admitting to his emotional connection with the site of the murder, decides that he can perhaps recover his own memories while working to solve the present-day murder. Thus begins his descent into increasing instability, even madness. What other authors would turn to as solutions, French posits merely as theories. As the detectives investigate each theory, the book’s plot becomes increasingly complex (although never convoluted) and the book moves forward relentlessly to a shocking conclusion.
Tana French has an intuitive understanding of the experience of trauma and how to portray its lasting effects. She knows that suffering becomes much more apparent through understatement. As Ryan delves deeper into the memories he does possess, the extent to which he has been psychologically damaged by the events of his childhood becomes increasingly obvious. French also has an innate ability to portray both male and female characters, and the relationships between – whether romantic, working, or friendly – in a realistic and human manner. The once-in-a-lifetime friendship between Cassie and Adam is more convincing than any other buddy-cop story I have ever read, and French portrays the dysfunctional relationships in the story just as acutely.
Tana French’s transformation into one of the world’s most psychologically astute detective novelists is almost as mysterious as her books. She has built a successful career as an actress, and perhaps this fact is a key to her incredible ability to analyze motive and to place herself in the shoes of others. After finishing In the Woods, I stayed up half the night thinking about it. Given how much thought French must have put into the novel, I felt it was only fair.