Review: “The Accomplice” is a Terrific Spy Thriller

His publisher says that Joseph Kanon writes for adults,  and that’s not hyperbole. Kanon’s intense and thrilling spy novels are subtle, sophisticated, and beautifully written.  His mastery is evident on every page and reading one of his thrillers you can feel like you’re on one of those luxury river cruises with a master chef, an expert guide, and a stateroom fit for an Egyptian pharaoh.

I’ve re-read some of his books as well as used excerpts in creative writing workshops, and every contact I have with his work makes me admire him more (and inspires me in my own fiction).

In The Accomplice, danger looms and crackles on every page.  The plot is simple, the execution satisfyingly complex.  CIA desk analyst Aaron Wiley lost some of his family at Auschwitz and lives in the shadow of their murder.  But it’s not until his Nazi hunter uncle recruits him to track down a major war criminal that he becomes an agent in the field.  Against his better judgment–at first, anyway–Aaron is soon hunting for one of the insanely sadistic doctors who performed horrific medical experiments on Jewish prisoners.  This doctor was personally responsible for the death of his mother and his cousin.

Wiley is understandably haunted by the specter of that demonic figure his uncle aches to find and hand over to the appropriate authorities.  And all seems to be proceeding to plan until life throws Andrew a  gigantic curve: He meets the killer’s daughter and becomes enthralled by her.  Kanon has made her a perfect femme fatale.

Kannon handles the tangled relationship that develops between them with absolute believability.  It’s so twisted, so fraught, so inseparable from the hunt for the woman’s father–and the prose seems to echo those dark emotional realities. Kanon’s writing in this book is replete with sentence fragments and jagged shards of dialogue and memory as the story drives inexorably forward.

The narrative also raises important questions.

What do the Holocaust war criminals deserve?  Can any punishment possibly be commensurate with their hideous crimes?  How did they co-opt prisoners to help them commit their atrocities?  What is the burden of being a son or daughter of one of these beasts?

The form of the book is classic, almost Hitchcockian: an ordinary man is swept up into events he could never have imagined taking over his life, and he struggles to survive and make sense of it all.  Wiley is a hero, but he’s no superman.  As Kanon notes about him, “Everyone at the agency had been trained to handle a gun, but he’d never shot anyone, had never hunted anything.”

The action, both dramatic and emotional, is non-stop, the denouement is shocking, and there are two fabulous scenes set in cemeteries that might take your breath away. The second one reminded me of the ending chase in North by Northwest.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres, most recently State University of Murder.  He currently teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

How Dumb Can a Thriller Character Be?

Picture yourself after being hit by a car.  You wake up in a hospital bruised and battered, with big gaps in your memory. Your foot is damaged and you can’t walk without assistance when you’re released because it’s painful and difficult.

So when the husband you don’t remember brings you home to the enormous house you don’t remember, and says that you can sleep in the guestroom on the first floor, you of course insist on sleeping in your bedroom up a double flight of stairs, right?  You obviously need the challenge, and you “don’t want to be any trouble.”

That’s the case even though you don’t know your way around, you don’t have crutches (standard issue in a situation like this), but you did get a measly little cane which barely supports you when you try to walk and which you keep dropping.

You haven’t made any attempt to contact your friends at work or any other friends while you’ve been in the hospital, and even though you can’t seem to get internet service at home, you don’t really question your husband about these missing colleagues and friends.  You just let it slide.

Trying to jog your memory, you study a photo album where you notice that the hair on the back of your husband’s head in a mirror is a different color than the rest of his hair. Of course you’re only mildly puzzled since you’ve never heard of Photoshop.

When you finally discover that your husband isn’t who he claims to be, you crisscross the extravagant kitchen multiple times in your attempts to escape (and make a phone call) and while doing so, you avoid picking up anything that could be a weapon. You just hobble back and forth and don’t bother grabbing a knife, a weighty meat tenderizer, a pot or a pan.

Why? Because you’re an idiot. Because you’re a heroine in a film that gives “femjep” a bad name.

You’re not the only idiot on screen. The detective who figures out that there’s something fishy about your husband comes to your house alone. No call for backup. An ex-cop I interviewed for my latest mystery recently told me that this is one of the most frustrating things he sees on TV and in films: cops going cowboy. “It doesn’t happen,” he said.

But it has to happen in films written by people who think the audience is too dumb to know better.

Secret Obsession is only about ninety minutes long, but it’s a black hole of stupidity. There’s a pretty house to ogle and the leads have nice hair, but that’s about the best it can offer.  Don’t waste your time, unless you enjoy yelling at characters who just can’t seem to do anything right.

Lev Raphael is the author of State University of Murder and two dozen other books in many genres. He offers creative writing workshops, editing, and mentoring online at writewithoutorders.com.

When Friendship Goes Terribly Wrong

Has a new friend ever seemed a bit too friendly, too helpful, too willing to please? This friends gets close to you very fast, sharing intimate life details while doing everything possible to basically seduce you.  It happens at time when you’re desperate to break out of your isolation and depression. You share confidences really quickly and this friend becomes a lifeline.

Until the friend shows flashes of something troubling and things start to go wrong….

That’s the premise of Andrew Kaufman’s terrifying thriller What She Doesn’t Know which manages to turn this situation into electrifying high drama while keeping it very intimate.

Riley Harper is a pariah in her small town but doesn’t have the money or energy to escape.  Falsely accused of killing her teenage daughter, she’s spent time in a mental institution and even her sister Erin isn’t sure about what happened.  It doesn’t help that Riley flies off the handle way too easily and is intensely paranoid.  This state of mind has roots in a very troubled childhood and it’s no surprise when she starts stanning a beautiful, wealthy neighbor.  Riley is obsessed by this woman’s lifestyle and actually breaks the law to wallow in her obsession.

But she has a roller coaster of shocks ahead of her.  Her new friend Samantha Light, living off inherited wealth, may be beautiful, generous, and affectionate–but she has darkness in her past as well and the two women bond around shared misery.

On the surface it starts out feeling like Christmas.  Samantha treats her to a shopping spree, lets Riley drive her luxury car, and gives Riley the kind of affection and support she desperately needs from her sister but isn’t getting.  Life couldn’t have taken a better turn for someone who is barely scraping by and can’t be sure that she knows what’s happening in her own crappy apartment.  Is she forgetting where she put things–like a big kitchen knife?  Is she being stalked, perhaps by a detective who was determined to convict her of her daughter’s murder?

And then Samantha reveals another side to her personality that throws Riley off kilter.  Is Riley over-reacting?  Is she too sensitive?  Or is she in deep trouble?

The prose is lean, the story moves like a high speed train, and the emotions are utterly believable.  Riley is the kind of character you keep yelling at: “Don’t do it!”  But of course she does, and it makes sense at every turn because the author understands the depths of despair and the craving for a lifeline. Kaufman’s constructed a tale with some wild twists and Riley’s plunge into a new kind of darkness is likely to keep you reading through the night.  And make you wonder about a new friend’s possible hidden motives.   Riley’s paranoia is almost contagious, and that’s a fabulous achievement.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk! and two dozen other books in many genres. He offers creative writing workshops, editing and mentoring online at writewithoutorders.com.

When an Author’s Quirks Get in the Way: Chris Bohjalian and “The Flight Attendant”

Chris Bohjalian’s most recent novel of suspense tells a gripping story about an alcoholic flight attendant, Cassie Bowden, who wakes up in a luxury hotel bed in Dubai next to a murdered man she slept with the night before.  His throat’s been slashed and there’s lots of blood in the bed.  When she drinks too much, she has blackouts, and she’s wondering if she could have killed him, though she can’t imagine why.

What should she do now?

Cassie has a history of bad choices and some of what she does immediately and in the days after her horrific discovery is truly off the wall–when it’s not just plain dumb.  The lawyer who eventually tries to help her has no problem calling her crazy.

So who killed Cassie’s sexy, wealthy hook-up?  And was he really a hedge fund manager?  Cassie doesn’t know, but before long she starts suspecting that she’s being followed.  In classic thriller style, her troubles escalate as the story unfolds, and often because of her own mistakes.  Cassie is almost a total screw-up, but it’s hard not to sympathize with her, given the alcoholism in her family.  And given that she’s painfully aware of how stuck she is in very bad patterns:

She wanted to be different from what she was–to be anything but what she was.  But every day that grew less and less likely.  Life, it seemed to her…was nothing but a narrowing of opportunities.  It was a funnel.

The details of her work life in the air and on the ground are fascinating, ditto how she interacts with her fellow flight attendants, and Bohjalian is at his best describing Cassie’s shame about her alcoholic blackouts.

But the writing is a bit odd at times. Streets and aisles are described as “thin” rather than “narrow” for no apparent reason. The author has a fondness for unusual words like “gamically,” “cycloid,” “niveous,” “ineludibly,” “noctivagant,” and “fioritura” which stop you right in your tracks.  The last one is a doozy.  It refers to vocal ornamentation in opera and seems totally out of place in describing a lawyer’s complaint to her client.

At a point when Cassie is longing for a drink, it’s not enough for Bohjalian to call it her ambrosia.  No, he has to pile on synonyms “amrita” and “essentia.”  Seriously?

You get the feeling with all these splashy word choices that Bohjalian is showing off, but why would a best-selling author bother?  Does he somehow feel that he has to jazz up his thriller with fancy-shmancy diction to prove that he’s more than just a genre writer?

Bohjalian also spends way too much time on Cassie’s amygdala, her “lizard” brain, and mistakenly thinks it’s a seat of reflection.  It isn’t.

Almost as annoying as his vocabulary or his weak grasp of neuroscience is the fact that his American characters sound British when they use “rather” as in statements like “I rather doubt that–” Even the narrative employs “rather” as a modifier way too often.  This is apparently a tic of his that nobody’s bothered to point out to him. Likewise, Bohjalian uses formal phrasing in a story that’s anything but formal, so time and again there are constructions like this one: “She hadn’t a choice.” Given the book that he’s written, “She didn’t have a choice” seems more direct and natural.

Despite the distracting quirks, I stuck with this thriller because the protagonist is a fascinating hot mess and Bohjalian is a solid story teller when he gets out of his own way.  The novel has some fine twists and a satisfying and surprisingly heartwarming ending.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres including the newly-released mystery State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com where he also offers editing services.

Writers: Have You Ever Had Your Work Stolen?

The New York Times recently did a story looking at possible plagiarism in A. J. Flynn’s best-selling novel The Woman in the Window because it seemed very similar in ssignificant ways to Saving April by Sarah A. Denzil.

This is murky territory, because as someone who’s reviewed crime fiction since the 90s, I find thrillers often work with similar ideas and even plot twists. Is it theft? Or is it the fact that the genre has certain tropes that appeal to readers and smart authors stick to the tried and true?

I have been definitely plagiarized in my own career. Years ago I was the first person studying Edith Wharton to notice that the feeling of shame cropped up all through her fiction. Searching the literature about her, I found that nobody had examined this theme or even remarked on it.  I started publishing articles about shame and her fiction, working with Silvan Tomkins’ Affect Theory.

In addition to unveiling this neglected them, I also discussed works of Wharton’s that had never been written about in any academic article.  I shared copies with one Wharton scholar whose next book lifted my ideas without any footnote. When I contacted her about it, she said brightly, “Well maybe we were working on similar tracks at the same time.”

When I reminded her of the articles I had sent her, she was silent. I asked if she could have her publisher add an erratum slip, which academic publishers do when there’s an error in the text. This small printed slip of paper tucked into a book is an inexpensive way to make a correction or note something was left out. Sounding agitated, she said, “But that would look like plagiarism.”

That was very revealing.

Then there was a less obvious borrowing when a well-known author in The New Yorker lifted something I wrote about Edith Wharton and William Dean Howells in an online magazine. He and I had previously appeared in the same issue of that magazine, so I assumed he had read my article as I had read his there.  I wasn’t being paranoid to think he was lifting what I wrote because a professor at Michigan State University noted the similarity and said, “He owed you a reference.”

More recently, after a terrific week in Ghent, Flanders, and because I’d published travel blogs and a travel memoir, I pitched a “36 Hours in Ghent” article to the New York Times Travel section.  They hadn’t done one before and I was planning a return trip. There was no reply, but this week, sure enough, a “36 Hours in Ghent” article showed up in the Travel section. Was the author working on the same idea seven months ago when I made my pitch? Maybe.  Maybe not. It definitely felt creepy,.  You’d think if the Times had already assigned a piece like that–or was planning to–they would have rejected my query with an explanation.

That’s unfortunately the life of a working writer.  And while I haven’t had direct theft of actual lines, these experiences have been bad enough.

If you’re a writer, have you ever had your work stolen?  Add your comment below.

Lev Raphael offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.comHe’s the author of the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in a wide range of genres.

Literary Snobs Aren’t The Only Genre Snobs

Writing in The Guardian, author Emily Maguire complains about literary snobs who look down on the sorts of books she likes to read, without listing any of them.  In general, though, they’re not in “the canon,” not written by :”dead white men.”

As if the canon has never changed and has never included Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, George Eliot, the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton–and many others.

Literary snobs may have gotten in the way of her self esteem, but genre snobs  come in all shapes and sizes. The owner of Michigan’s wonderful mystery bookstore, Aunt Agatha’s, once griped on Facebook about academics in her college town dissing mysteries, and rightfully so. But mystery fans themselves aren’t above genre-bashing.

I’ve been on a mystery readers’ and writers’ listserv for about fifteen years and way too often a predictable thread emerges. Somebody complains about being sneered at for reading mysteries by somebody else off-list who thinks they’re silly, trashy, mindless “escape reading.”

The list starts to seethe: some of the “victims” quickly turn victimizer and start trashing “Literature” or “literary fiction.” What’s that? Well, as defined by a best-selling mystery author at a conference I attended years ago: books where not very much happens to people who aren’t very interesting. Wasn’t he insightful? He certainly knew his audience—people roared their approval. Snobbery clearly works both ways.

What usually happens next on the list is that more people chime in with complaints about Proust or whoever they think is highfalutin and boring. That expands to include all Modern or Contemporary Fiction, however it’s defined, which is usually whatever book that person doesn’t like. Or disliked in high school. Or was told was brilliant but they hated. Or anything dubbed “classic.” And the authors and their fans are of course elitist.

The contempt these mystery readers sometimes feel directed at them seems to get recycled as they express disdain for books which have been written and enjoyed by people they have to denigrate. That’s not an argument or even a defense: it’s insecurity.

Sometimes they’ll point to all the crime writers on the bestseller list and sneer that literary novels only sell “a few copies” and are usually written “for the author’s friends.” Or they’ll make lavish claims and say something like “Anne Perry is a better writer than George Eliot.” I’ve had dinner with Anne Perry and I doubt she would make that claim. I’ve also read Eliot’s novels extensively. You can’t compare the two authors.

I’ve done radio and print book reviews since the early 90s and I’ve found plenty of bad writing in every genre. If you don’t like a certain kind of book, don’t read it. But trashing a whole genre doesn’t make you sound authoritative or thoughtful, it only makes you sound like you’ve got a giant chip on your shoulder.

Lev Raphael is the author of The State University of Murder and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing at www.writewithoutborders.com.

Looking for Sexy, Exotic, Escapist Fun? Try “Tidelands”!

After the Polar Vortex kept me housebound for a few days, I was in the mood for something on the trashy side, so this past weekend I binge-watched the Netflix Original from Australia, Tidelands.

This exotic, eight-episode series is set in a small seaside town in Queensland (northeast Australia) and its heroine Cal–who resembles a young Isabelle Adjani–has just been released from prison where she served 10 years for murder after being incarcerated at 14. Those years have made her tough, indomitable, and resilient.

Growing up, Cal always felt a bit different, even freakish, and the town she returns to is every bit as weird as she is. Apparently sirens–those mythical creatures luring men to their deaths with their song–are real and have been preying on the town’s men forever. The men drown, but later on the sirens give birth (you can fill in the blank).

There’s a whole small community nearby made up of Tidelanders, half-human, half-siren who all have mommy issues. Their queen is Adrielle, an imperious woman given to satin nightgowns as daywear. Fans of the Fast and the Furious movies will recognize the actress as Elena.

While Cal is trying to discover how she wound up in prison as a teen and why the town is so screwed up, Adrielle has one of those fantasy thriller missions: assembling the shards of an object that will give her tremendous power. It’s been broken and scattered around the world and finding the pieces costs a fortune, which she can spend because of her involvement in a drug smuggling ring.

Don’t ask why the dingus wasn’t pulverized in the first place.  Or why Russian mobsters play a big role in the story.

There’s lots of murder here along with magic and a mysterious prisoner.  The handsome cast also has lots of sex at unexpected moments, and not always with the partner you might expect.  There’s even a soft core orgy scene.

Cal’s full name is Calliope who was the Greek muse of epic poetry. There’s nothing poetic about this show, but it does resemble the musical instrument calliope. It’s goofy at times, fascinating at others, and perfect popcorn entertainment. This is apparently the first series in Australia combining a thriller with supernatural elements. No word yet on whether there’s going to be a Season 2.

Lev Raphael is the author of the supernatural novella The Vampyre of Gotham and 25 other books. He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithotuborders.com.

When A Character Seems TSTL

TSTL is a term used in the mystery reading/writing community for Too Stupid To Live. These are the characters in books and on big or small screens who seem to be smart but then make ridiculous mistakes that totally undermine their credibility. It’s the person who’s fully aware that a serial killer is on the loose who walks into their house and doesn’t turn on any lights. Readers or viewers howl in disbelief, press the pause button, or toss the book across the room.

I was recently watching an excellent British crime series that features some very strong woman detectives, and was very disappointed with a sudden plot twist.

The capable, resourceful, dedicated, and fiercely intelligent woman detective got a call and rushed off to meet someone, refusing to take anyone with her.  She also didn’t say where she was going or why.  The source she was meeting was closely connected to more than one murder and was possibly going to supply crucial information the detective’s whole team had been unable to get.

So what happens?  We see her in conversation at a restaurant but don’t see who it is (though we can guess), and she excuses herself to make a call to her chief to let him know she’s on to “something big.”  Okay, informing her superior is believable, and so is wanting some prvacy, but she doesn’t just step outside of the restaurant.

She crosses the street.

And walks down a dark alley.

With her back turned to passersby and traffic.

So of course she’s attacked before revealing what she knows.  The ambulance can’t get there quickly enough.  She dies.

This was infuriating.  There was no reason at all for her to behave the way she did, from start to finish, and it contradicted her character arc over four+ seasons.  Yes, she was impulsive, but never stupid.

Another term in the mystery world that applies here is “femjep.”  That’s when writers of whatever kind put a woman in ridiculous jeopardy.  It serves the plot, but it’s both retrograde and foolish.  Here, it was especially infuriating because you felt the writers wanted an unhappy ending to the season, and so they wrenched the character way out of whack.

Lev Raphael loves crime fiction and is the author of the acclaimed Nick Hoffman mysteries.  He teaches online creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

Are You Tired of “Femjep”?

Characters in thrillers–especially the women–seem to live in a parallel universe. A universe where they’ve never read a thriller or seen one on TV or in a movie theater. Because otherwise they wouldn’t behave like idiots….

Take Jennifer Lopez in the recent erotic thriller The Boy Next Door. She plays a high school teacher of classics–that’s right, and in a school offering a year-long course in Homer (the poet, not the Simpson). It’s one helluva well-paid job because she drives what looks like a Cadillac SUV.

Of course, who cares about reality since you’re either ogling Lopez looking gorgeous in every scene or drooling over ripped Ryan Guzman, the sociopath who moves in next door.  He befriends her nebbishy son, displays his body for Lopez at night in a well-lit bedroom across the way, seduces her, and then stalks her in escalating scenes of nightmarish threat and violence.

It all ends with bizarre family togetherness, but before that, Lopez goes dumb in major ways aside from having humped a high school sociopath. Her bestie phones Lopez to come over right away because she’s in trouble. When Lopez pulls up and the house is totally dark, is she cautious? Nope. Does she call first? No again. She rushes inside. When the lights don’t work, does she back out and dial 911? Well, you guessed it. She proceeds alone and unarmed into the large dark house, calling out her friend’s name.

And in her final confrontation with the psycho hunk, when she gets a chance to take him down, she clunks him on the head just once. When he’s knocked out, she doesn’t finish the job or even kick him a few times to further incapacitate him, despite knowing how dangerous and twisted he is. He’s tied up her husband and son, threatened to kill them both, killed her best friend, and was going to turn the barn they’re all in into a giant funeral pyre. So of course she turns her back on him.

And of course that one blow doesn’t do the trick. He predictably rises up and attacks her again, like one of those monsters in a horror or sci-fi movie that just won’t die. More mayhem ensues…and Lopez shrieks enough to win a Yoko Ono Award.

You’d think that after Scream had eviscerated this kind of plotting years ago, writers would be embarrassed to have their characters behave like dummies, but Hollywood keeps churning out femjep films. Sadly, this one was co-produced by Lopez herself.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 other books in many genres, including the novel of suspense Assault With a Deadly Lie.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

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.

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.  His latest book is the suspense novel Assault With a Deadly Lie.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.