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.

The White Devil is an Amazing Gothic Thriller

It’s rare that I re-read crime fiction, but working on a new mystery of my own, I’ve been picking some of my favorite books to revisit for inspiration. The White Devil was at the top of my list, and here’s what I wrote about it for The Huffington Post back in 2011:

I’ve been reviewing crime fiction for well over a decade on-air, in print, and on-line, and always look for something original. I found it in Justin Evans’s amazing thriller The White Devil, my favorite crime book of the year.

Ask yourself what’s worse: thinking you saw a ghost or having it confirmed that you did actually see one?  Andrew Taylor faces that creepy dilemma and a lot more in a book that ingeniously mixes literary detective work, a horror story, young love, academic satire, and cultural conflict between Americans and Brits. If that sounds like a lot, well, Evans is terrific enough to keep all the balls in the air at the same time. The White Devil is truly one of the most compelling thrillers I’ve read in the last few years.

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The title is an obvious clue you’re signing up for a dark thrill ride since it’s the name of a play by John Webster, one of those grim Jacobean authors given to writing about ghosts, conspiracies, and revenge.

Sinister revenge is at the heart of the book, but Taylor doesn’t want anything dark at all when he comes to the elite English school Harrow. He’s screwed up big time at his previous prep school and this is his last chance, made possible only because his father gave Harrow a lot of money. Taylor desperately needs a fresh start and good grades, but he bears an unfortunate resemblance to Lord Byron, who also attended Harrow two hundred years ago. And Byron left some bitterness behind, bitterness that reaches out from another dimension and snares Taylor.

The writing in this novel is quietly beautiful and so balanced, so appropriate to the material that despite the propulsive story, I stopped now and then to read passages aloud to my spouse or just to myself. I wanted to savor and share the excellence of a superb storyteller. When it was over, I felt lucky to have spent a weekend with this gifted writer’s second book, even though I lost some sleep because the book was so fine it was hard to let it go.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books including the Nick Hoffman mysteries set in the wild world of academia.

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“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.

Should I Be Writing Faster?

I’ve been a member of the same health club for a long time and lots of people there read my Nick Hoffman mysteries set in a college town that might remind them of the town we live in.  No matter when I publish a book in the series, somebody always asks, “So when’s the next one coming out?”

That could happen the same week there’s been a big article in a local paper or a couple of local radio interviews.

And if there’s no news soon about another book due to appear, telling people that I recently published a book doesn’t seem to count.  I get blank stares. The assumption seems to be that I’m lazy.  Writers apparently should be churning out more than one book a year.  Two or three, really.

man_in_hammock-e1437520839805My publishing schedule has never been regular over 25 years. Some years I haven’t published anything and one year I published three different books (in different genres) just because that’s how the publishers’ schedules worked out, not because I’d actually written three in one year.

My second novel took almost twenty years to finish.  Yes, twenty–while I was writing other books, of course.  That’s because I kept re-thinking and re-conceiving it, starting and stopping, and trying to figure out what exactly its shape should be. I’m glad I did, because The German Money got one of the best reviews of my life. The Washington Post compared me to Kafka, Philip Roth and John le Carré and I was sent on book tours in England and Germany to promote the editions published there.

heidelberg-castle(Heidelberg, a stop on two of my German book tours)

But some books took me only a year or even as little as six months to finish for various reasons.   So when people ask me “How long does it take you to write a book?” there’s no definite answer.

You can’t explain that to the cheerful guys who call you “Dude!” and ask about your next book while you’re on the way to the showers just wearing a towel and flipflops. Or people who decide to chat with you while you’re sweating on the treadmill.

The majority of folks seem to think that there’s a simple answer to questions about the writing life and that popping out another book can’t be  difficult, since it’s not as if writing is a real job, anyway, right? 🙂

If you’re a writer, what’s the question non-writers ask you most often?

writing is a businessLev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (A Guide to the Writing Life) and 24 other books you can find on Amazon.

God Save the Nazi King?

The 19th century American Quaker abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier is best remembered for his refrain that the saddest words are “It might have been.” But  writers of alternative history fiction would disagree.  What could be more exciting than hijacking a major world event and upending what really happened?

SS-GB, Fatherland, Dominion, The Man in the High Castle are just some of the fascinating novels imagining a victorious Germany in World War II. Tony Schumacher’s debut thriller The Darkest Hour gives the story an exciting twist by making its hero an actual war hero.  John Henry Rossett, a former policeman, is known as “The British Lion” for his heroism against the Nazis, but a cop once again, now he’s been ordered into the German unit rounding up Jews for transportation to Poland.

darkestHe follows orders.  He knows what he’s doing is wrong and doesn’t want to know where the Jews are really going.  Like most other people in London and England, he wonders if the “stories” are rumors.

But he doesn’t really care.  Yet.  He’s a shattered man.  His wife and son were killed by a Resistance bomb, and though he’s ruthless in his work, he’s dead inside until something unexpected happens during what should be a routine roundup.

tony

(the author of The Darkest Hour)

Schumacher does a splendid job of showing how Rossett is unexpectedly brought back to life.  The author creates a London sunk in misery, despair, dankness, corruption, and fog while maintaining an almost breakneck speed through the course of the book. I really wanted to put everything else aside and just read, read, read.  The intense action scenes can sometimes be too choreographed, but they’re exciting and believable; Rossett’s stubbornness, strength, and fury always make sense.

london_fogChurchill and the King are in Canada in case you wondered, and there’s a “new King” we never see.  There’s also a resistance movement and the IRA is somewhere in the shadows, too.  America has left the war after FDR’s death, but we don’t get much more detail about the rest of the world or even Britain. And Schumacher’s German characters often seem more English than German at times–but those are minor flaws.

The Darkest Hour is wildly compelling and filled with surprises as well as a fascinating stream of slimy characters at all levels of society. The few decent people are candles in the wind.

How good is this book?  When I finished it, I picked up the sequel right away: The British Lion.  You probably will, too.

Lev Raphael is the author of The German Money and 24 other books in many genres.

Why I Love Writing Mysteries

I grew up in a household where my parents read a handful of different newspapers in more than one language.  My mother read Georgette Heyer and Agatha Christie as well as Thomas Mann and Margaret Mitchell. Not at the same time, mind you, but the model of reading she set for me was broad and enlightening.

That meant I was never told what not to read, and I carried that freedom with me through my school years, reading whatever interested me for whatever reason, delving into science fiction, the history of France, dolphin studies, biographies of the Founding Fathers, you name it. If it grabbed me, I grabbed it off the library shelf and carried it home, curious and expectant.

I was often inattentive in class because I was thinking about my library books, wishing I could be home reading them. Each one seemed to open to a world that was larger, more fascinating, and more liberating than my cramped classroom. Nowadays, I would probably be diagnosed as needing of Ritalin, but what I wanted was escape.

Thinking man silhouette and red sunset on a ferryBut not just from class. My parents were Holocaust survivors and this dark tragedy too often set the tone for our household: angry, depressed. Reading offered relief and distance, especially the alternate worlds of science fiction and history. Mysteries promised something better once I discovered them: the assurance that things made sense, that evildoers were punished, and order could be restored. It’s the balance Oscar Wilde mocks in The Importance of Being Earnest: “The good end happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

I’ve published 25 books in many genres and almost a third of those have been mysteries in the Nick Hoffman series, satires set in the world of academe. My mother developed dementia before she could see me become successful and before she could read even one mystery of mine.  But writing and publishing each of them, I’ve thought of her. I’ve thought of a woman of wide tastes and deep education, a woman who spoke half a dozen languages, who had a rough smokey laugh–and how mysteries made her happy. Remembering all that makes me happy.

Lev Raphael’s Nick Hoffman mysteries are available from Amazon.

Should Writers Follow Elmore Leonard’s “Rules”?

Every now and the I see people post and re-post Leonard’s well-known rules for writers. Some of them are common sense, like “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”  Taken together, though, they seem to suggest that you should write in a very lean way.  Like Leonard himself.

elmore_leonardOne of the rules is “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”  He references Steinbeck and Hemingway, but does Leonard follow his own advice? Below are some passages about the thug Richard Nobles in the novel LaBrava  (aren’t those great character names?)

He was thick all over, heavily muscled, going at least six-three, two-thirty.  Blond hair with a greenish tint in the floodlight: the hair uncombed, clots of it lying straight back on his head without a part, like he’d been swimming earlier and had raked it back with his fingers.  The guy wasn’t young up close.  Mid-thirties.  But he was the kind of guy–LaBrava knew by sight, smell and instinct–who hung around bars and arm-wrestled.  Homegrown jock–pumped his muscles and tested his strength when he wasn’t picking his teeth.

An ugly drunk.  Look at the eyes.  Ugly–used to people backing down, buying him another drink to shut him up.  Look at the shoulders stretching satin, the arms on him–Jesus–hands that looked like they could pound fence posts. 

Nobles, with his size, his golden hair, his desire to break and injure, his air of muscular confidence, was fascinating to watch.  A swamp creature on the loose.

labravaI see plenty of rich, evocative detail there, and it’s all well-chosen.  We get bits and pieces of the physical that create Nobles as an individual who’s anything but noble.  We also see him as a type known to LaBrava who’s assessing him, and the images are powerful (swamp creature, pounding fence posts).  Better yet, we have an evocative portrait of Nobles’s impact on people, the violent aura created by his mood and by his muscles.

Lean?  Not really.

It’s easy to quote Leonard, but it’s far more interesting to read him and see how closely he sticks to his own rules.  One question is, does it matter?  Another, the more important one is this: why should what works for Leonard–or what he implied worked for him–work for you?

I think in the end you can learn a lot more about writing from reading Leonard’s books than reading and slavishly following his Rules.  It’s also more fun.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books including Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Abs, Death, and Femjep

Characters in thrillers–especially the women–live in a parallel universe, don’t they? 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 even now, heading past the middle of the decade.

Take Jennifer Lopez in this year’s erotic thriller The Boy Next Door.

She plays a high school teacher of classics–that’s right, and in a school that offers a year-long course in Homer. The poet, not Homer Simpson. It’s one helluva well-paid job because she drives what looks like a Cadillac SUV.

lopez my blogOf course, who cares since you’re either ogling Lopez looking gorgeous in every scene or drooling over ripped Ryan Guzman, the sociopath who moves in next door, befriends her nebbish 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.

ryan-guzman-step-up_0It 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. Duh! 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. More mayhem ensues…and Lopez shrieks enough to win a Yoko Ono Award.

You’d think after Scream had eviscerated this kind of plotting years ago (pun intended), 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 The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.