Why I Stopped Reading Karin Slaughter’s New Thriller

I’ve been reading and reviewing crime fiction for years but haven’t opened a Slaughter book in awhile.  I remember the last one I read had too much “femjep”–a term mystery writers and readers use the author putting a woman in ridiculously threatening situations.

Still, I was drawn into her new book Pieces of Her because the opening scene was reminiscent of one in Joseph Finder’s terrific High Crimes (though not as well done). Andy is a self-pitying young woman who’s failed to make it in New York after five years and she’s gone home to Atlanta.  She’s having a mall meal with her tough-but-loving mother when crazy violence erupts, her mother acts way out of character, and the daughter has to flee.

The shocking disruption intrigued me despite very confusing choreography, but the daughter’s reactions were annoyingly slow.  She’s the kind of character in a movie you keep yelling at: “Don’t open that door!” or “Turn on the lights!” or “Run outside, not upstairs!”  And in fact, her mother plays just that role, because Andy is too feckless to get her ass in gear despite her mother’s urgent commands.

But the whole I-just-saw-my-mother-do-crazy-shit motif really hooked me, even though the writing in the book can feel surprisingly amateurish. Here are some gems:

Her brain felt like it was being squished onto the point of a juice grinder.

The last few days had been like tiptoeing around the sharp end of a needle.

Panic made her heart shiver inside her chest.

Andy’s head was reeling as she tried to process it in her mind’s eye.

Suddenly all of Andy’s nerves went collectively insane.

The editor in me started noting problems that went beyond Slaughter’s prose, mistakes that the author shouldn’t have made, mistakes a copy editor should have caught.  Both could have found the answers on Google, used wisely.

Churchill experts, for instance, will tell you that Churchill never said “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  George Santayana, however, did say “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  And Samuel Beckett is not best known as the author of “Irish avant-garde poetry” but as a playwright (Waiting for Godot) and a novelist.

Goofs like those in any kind of fiction throw me out of the story as much as iffy phrasing.  I start wondering how careful the author was in gathering her facts, and what other mistakes might lie ahead.  Here, the hot mess of errors and odd images almost kept me reading out of morbid curiosity–but the story got so convoluted and  repetitious that I finally gave up midway.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

This Flemish Thriller Will Keep You Guessing

Because I’ve had wonderful trips to Flanders in the past few years,I’ve been developing an interest in Flemish crime fiction. I recently discovered and reviewed Styx, a fantastic crime novel by Bavo Dhooge (pronounced Bah-voh Dough-hey). That book led me to another Flemish thriller, Baudelaire’s Revenge by Bob Van Laerhoven. Scandinavian crime writers currently dominate the discussion of European crime writing, but based on just these two marvels, maybe their Flemish cousins are on the way up….

Van Laerhoven’s written a colorful, complex, atmospheric, darkly sensual crime thriller set in a fascinating period.

The book’s events take place primarily during a national catastrophe: the Franco-Prussian war, which is about to devastate Paris. “With the trumpets of war blaring in the background and [Napoleon III] delivering pompous declarations about the grandeur of France, all sorts of things were apparently permissible.” The city has been frantic with real estate speculation, sexual and political corruption, séances, Satanism, and spiritualism. Opium and nude women dancing with snakes in nightclubs are just some of the escapist delights available for the cognoscenti.

A literate ex-army police commissioner who’s a combination of “hermit and whoremonger” is handed a bizarre case. The ghost of poet Charles Baudelaire might be committing grotesque murders—as revenge for his mistreatment while he was alive. It’s a terrific opening conceit. I mean, what author hasn’t imagined savaging his or her critics—more power to you if you can do it from the Beyond. But the criminality has a more improbable source, if you can believe it, and the novel turns on dark, nasty, sublimely twisted secrets—as well it should. This is a book where poetry and perversity reign, with a deft nod to Edgar Allen Poe.

The police commissioner is aptly, ironically named: Lefèvre (the fever), and the author has fun with other character names. Lefèvre has previously gone up against many insane killers, has a “bloodhound reputation,” bears “the scars of pitiless duels,” and is obsessed with sex and death. He’s not the only feverish character in the book: le tout Paris seems on the verge of hysteria, a breakdown, or revolution. And over everything, the increasingly gruesome murders drift like the foul miasma of a sewer….

Baudelaire wrote that travel teaches bitter lessons (amer savoir, celui qu’on tire de voyage), but for fans of international crime fiction, travel via thrillers only broadens our horizons. And as Laerhoven’s poetry-quoting, lust-driven inspector says, “murder sensitizes people to the mysteries that lurk behind everyday life.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  You can take creative writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, MSU Class of 2016

 

Don’t Miss this Terrific Mystery from Argentina

I reviewed crime fiction at the Detroit Free Press for about a decade and had a terrific editor who loved the genre. But she quit because she got tired of being constantly pushed to do “features about Stephen King.” This was at a time when book coverage across the country was shrinking.

Her replacement actually told me, “I’m not a book person.” But Editor no. 2 had definite ideas about what I should be concentrating on in my column: best sellers. This was when bricks and mortar book stores were still flourishing and I felt that readers saw best sellers in newspapers ads and on full display in book store windows, in the stores themselves on walls, in end cap displays, on the best seller tables.

There was no reason for me to exclude best sellers, but why not keep my main focus on great books readers might miss: books by new or under-appreciated authors; books from independent presses; books that had been translated into English. That last category was especially important to me because with Americans tend to avoid books in translation.

If I did review a translated book, I only picked that novel if the translation felt smooth and natural (beyond the story being good, of course). Claudia Piñeiro is Argentina’s best-selling crime writer, someone I’ve just discovered, and her book A Crack in the Wall is all of that and more, thanks to its highly unusual structure and focus.

Pablo Simó works in a boutique Buenos Aires architectural firm. He’s a bit of a dreamer and something of a weirdo. He obsessively designs a building he doesn’t seem destined to ever build, and he takes a circuitous subway route home instead of a direct bus for reasons that take some time to become clear. What also evolves is the nature of the crime the book is built around.

In Chapter One we discover that he and his colleagues are somehow involved in a murder and its cover-up, but the how and why emerge slowly, in the context of his messy family life and all the ways in which he’s really living a life of quiet desperation. When excitement and sex enter the story it’s both a surprise,and the psychological depths the author explores drive the story forward in exciting, gripping ways. Diving deep into verities of love and marriage, the author lays bare the city’s convoluted building practices and takes us on a fascinating virtual tour of the city’s architecture, especially some of its famous Art Nouveau structures.

I’ve been reading and reviewing mysteries for years, but don’t remember anything quite like A Crack in the Wall. It’s one of those books you finish with a “Wow!” or maybe even “Damn!”

Lev Raphael is the author of eight mysteries set in Michigan along with a wide range of books in genres from memoir to vampire fiction.

“Flashmob” is a Hot Winter Read

The opening line of Christopher Farnsworth’s clever new international thriller Flashmob sounds like something Huck or Charlie might say on Scandal: “It’s not easy to find a nice, quiet spot to torture someone in L.A.”

The narrator John Smith is actually facing torture when we meet him working “executive protection” for a Russian billionaire’s son. But he’d make a great addition to Olivia Pope’s Scandal team because of his unique talent. Ex-CIA and Special Forces, this former “psychic soldier” can read minds. Messy minds, simple minds, and everything in between.

That means he’s able to anticipate an opponent’s moves; silently interrogate anyone interrogating him; and disarm people just by hitting them with vicious memories or activating parts of their brain to use against them. That’s not all. As Smith puts it: “I’ve got my wired-in proximity alarms, the radar in my head that tells me whenever someone even thinks about doing me harm.” So it’s almost impossible to surprise him or sneak up on him.

Almost. Otherwise there’d be no thrills, right?

But all that knowledge comes with a price. It leaves him with a physical and psychic burden he can only ease by heavy doses of Scotch and Vicodin—and even Valium and OxyContin on top of the mix on a really bad day. Reading and manipulating minds is a curse as much as a gift. Other people’s thoughts, memories, and feelings stick to him like he’s some kind of emotional fly paper and he powerfully describes it at one point as something far more disgusting. Still, while he may be a freak of nature, there’s no way you won’t empathize with him because he’s not a psychopath, he’s one of the good guys.

I’ve been reviewing crime fiction since the 90s in print, on air, and on line and it’s almost a cliché for authors to make their protagonists wounded in some way. Contemporary readers want their sleuths to be touched by darkness. In this case, it’s Smith’s amazing strength that profoundly weakens him at times. That offers a very original twist in a creepy tale about stalking, social media madness, celebrity, the Dark Net, privacy in the digital age, Internet cruelty, cyber crime, and mob psychosis.

The author’s also a screenwriter and journalist, which is a bit surprising, because the book could have used less exposition and tighter flashbacks. In effect, Smith is an omniscient narrator and while it’s intriguing to see him navigate “the competing agendas” inside people’s minds, sometimes his excursions into other characters are a drag on the plot’s momentum. Conversely, his descriptions of places and people lack color.

But in the end, none of that detracts from the deft story-telling and the explosive finale which made me think of master thriller writer Joseph Finder. Flashmob is truly disturbing. It’s one thing to worry about computer programs that can perform highly intrusive surveillance on you, it’s another to think of people who can insidiously do the exact same thing mentally while drinking a cappuccino just a few tables away from you at Starbucks.

Lev Raphael’s Nick Hoffman mysteries explore the terrors of academia. He’s reviewed books for the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report, Huffington Post and three public radio stations.

Travels Through Europe’s Heart of Darkness

I was born in New York City to immigrant parents, and when I was young, the question “Where do your parents come from?” wasn’t an easy one to answer.

My father had grown up in the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia which had different names over the course of his youth: Subcarpathian Ruthenia, Carpathian Ruthenia, and the Carpatho-Ukraine. But it didn’t belong there anymore. It had been absorbed by the Ukraine and was now part of the USSR.

Some people didn’t even seem to know where Czechoslovakia was, anyway. Now of course, it’s not on the map at all, having split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The city my mother grew up in northeastern Poland was Wilno, but as Vilnius, it was the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. In her years there as a child and a young woman before the Holocaust, it had been variously part of Russia, Poland, Lithuania–but for the majority of those interwar years a Polish city. It had also twice been invaded and ruled by the Germans.

Both my parents spoke a bewildering array of languages and lived in borderlands, as Pulitzer-winning author Anne Applebaum calls them in her dazzling travelogue Between East and West.

Armed with fluent Polish and Russian, the author records amazing interviews and fascinating, lost history as she travels from the Baltic to the Black Sea, visiting almost two dozen cities like Odessa and Minsk whose names are well known in the West. But she mainly stops at smaller cities and towns who have been pinballed over the centuries, swept up in endless wars, invasions, and border changes. En route, she also traverses some areas of Eastern Europe likely unknown to most Americas, each with its own dramatic, many-layered history: Ruthenia, Bukovyna, Moldova.

Some cities have been crushed by neglect, Sovietization, bombing—or all three. Others seem like lost jewels. Everywhere she goes, people from peasants to professors open up to her to reveal contradictory identifications. Russian speakers across these lands, for example, might think of themselves as Ruthenian, Polish, or Ukrainian. The locales she travels through have known immense suffering and chaos, and many of her interviewees come across as shipwrecked. Best of all, her grasp of complicated history in every location is faultless. She’s as observant, canny, and in command of le mot juste and just the right quote or anecdote s Rebecca West was in her masterpiece about the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Here she is in discussion with a fascinating Ukrainian linguist with a Turkish surname who tells her he feels like an outsider in his own country:

“And that, he said, was the most Ukrainian thing of all: to read the history of your country as if you were reading it through an outsider’s eyes. It is the fate or borderland nations always to know yourself through the stories or other, to realize yourself only with the help of others.”

Between East and West is one of the most compelling and thought-provoking travelogues I’ve read in years—and vitally important cultural/historical background now that places like Crimea and the eastern Ukraine keep blasting into the news.

Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love, A Novel of the Gilded Age, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Is “What Belongs To You” Truly An Instant Classic?

Back when I reviewed for the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers I used to feel that my colleagues sometimes had a pack mentality. One would start howling praise for a book and soon the cries would echo across the nation. The raves were sometimes so over-the-top they often triggered the contrarian in me: was the book really stupendous? When I’d go on a tour for one of my own books, people at all sorts of venues would take me aside and confess that they didn’t like this latest literary sensation, and seemed embarrassed to admit it.

Last year, the panegyrics about Iowa MFA graduate Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You  put me off, especially one by James Wood in The New Yorker, since he’s not a critic whose opinion I rely on. But when a student recently told me he was reading the book, I decided to check it out.

The narrator’s a gay American teacher in Bulgaria who gets involved with a hustler he meets in a public toilet. One British reviewer said the novel made her tremble; another hailed it as “incandescent”; a New York Times reviewer hailed the novel as an “instant classic.” Many reviewers have marveled at the prose, but I found too much of it dull and straining for effect. Using initials for characters’ names also seemed like a gimmick to make the book feel edgy.

But the major problem I had was with the hustler who’s a dull, obnoxious, demanding, dishonest grifter. We’re supposed to believe in the narrator’s intense attraction to Mitko, yet his most distinguishing features are a chipped tooth and a big penis. The sex scenes are very bland, which is problematic since the narrator’s obsession is what drives the plot forward, or at least nudges it. The novel’s framing sections are just way too languid. The middle section works best because the prose is more direct and compelling, less writerly, as we experience the narrator’s terrible nightmare of shame growing up with a brutal father and a treacherous, manipulative best friend.

I didn’t quiver reading that part of the book, and my iPad screen didn’t get brighter on its own, but I felt the author was more deeply engaged. He spoils it, though, when he has the narrator find a horse in a Bulgarian monastery at the end of the section. “It was tied up, I saw, it could have wandered off anytime it chose; but there was nowhere for it to go, of course, and the cart I supposed was heavy and there was something meager to be had there where it stood.”

Did we really need a heavy-handed reminder that the narrator was trapped in Sofia and living on emotional crumbs? This was like one of those melodramatic songs at the end of a movie whose lyrics explain what you just saw–in case you weren’t paying attention for the previous two hours.  I almost stopped reading at that point because it struck me as the sign of a writer who didn’t have faith in his readers’ intelligence.  Or in his own talent.  I kept going though the novel never really recovered from that low point.

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in many genres, from memoir to mystery. His most recent book explores police over-reaction: Assault With a Deadly Lie, which was a Midwest Book Award finalist.