“City on Fire” Has Big Aspirations

In my many years as a book reviewer I’ve seen publishers wildly hype their books as if the whole publicity department was on coke, but the jacket copy for Don Winslow’s latest book hits a new high for hyperbole.

His publisher lauds the book as “a towering achievement of storytelling genius” and “a contemporary Iliad.”  I guess they had no choice about the latter label since the author heads each section of the book with an epigraph from that poem.

But City on Fire is not an epic and doesn’t deserve that kind of adulation.  It’s a fairly clichéd story about warring Irish and Italian mobsters that feels as if the author binge-watched The Departed, GoodFellas, The Godfather and The Sopranos (and possibly Casino) before hitting his laptop

Familiarity isn’t the only problem. The characters are pretty one-dimensional and Winslow introduces too many of them too quickly, without enough identifying traits to make them clearly individualized.

One Amazon reviewer tartly observed that too many characters in the book have similar names: “You need a note card to keep track of who is on which side.”  Why didn’t Winslow’s editor suggest more variety?  That would have fixed passages like this one:

“They walk out onto the beach, where Pat’s helping Pasco dig clams out from the pit, and Peter and Paulie and their crew are standing there watching them.”

There’s a seemingly endless series of hits and counter-hits that can make you feel trapped in a violent Groundhog’s Day. And who thought it was a good idea to have several chapters of flashback after the opening chapter?  Or later on, dedicate almost twenty pages to one character’s backstory? 

As for the upper-crust femme fatale Pam who’s the catalyst for escalating violence, she’s way too bland and her Greenwich, Connecticut background too clichéd.  There’s also something comical about her being described as wearing a bikini “that does more to accentuate than conceal” her body.  Aren’t bikinis revealing by definition? Doesn’t the publisher employ copy editors?

When writing about Pam, Winslow can sound like a bad romance novelist.  Describing her transformation from a plain, acne-ridden girl to a beauty, he says this:

“It would be an exaggeration to say that it happened overnight, but it seemed to have happened overnight.  Looking into the mirror to scrub her face, she saw skin that was almost clear, as if some compassionate goddess had come during the night and stripped her of her shame….Over the next few weeks, the sun turned her skin a clear tan, baked her body into fine marble, bleached her ‘mousy’ hair to a golden blond, her eyes an oceanic blue.”

On the plus side, there are intriguing and sometimes humorous details about Rhode Island, a state most Americans don’t know much about.  By far the strongest aspect of City on Fire is the tough guy voice, but it’s not enough to carry the slow-moving and overly talky story for 350+ pages.  The heavy use of the present tense makes the book drag even more. 

In the end, epigraphs from The Iliad do not transmogrify any of the criminals in this book into Greek or Trojan heroes.  They just make everyone seem puny.


Lev Raphael was the longtime crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press before moving to public radio where he had his own interview show.

Patrica Cornwell’s “Autopsy” is a Dud

I was surprised to receive a review copy of Patricia Cornwell’s 25th Kay Scarpetta book, and I can’t imagine this book getting published by a newbie.  It’s a meandering, slow-mo crime novel that’s badly written and badly edited.

The book is filled with odd usages like “right much” for “very” or “a lot,” and dialogue between family members and spouses that sounds overly formal, almost British. Even tough characters keep saying things like “I’ve not” rather than the more common “I haven’t.”

Whole passages in this book read like a murky first draft, and there are many lines like this one where the writing is seriously off:

My next stop is the kitchen table, what’s actually a butcher block that no doubt belongs to the house.

Just as damaging is the way Cornwell interweaves present tense and past tense–too often I had to go back and figure out what was happening when.  Cornwell’s use of present tense is painful anyway, as when Scarpetta gets dressed and each item of clothing is mentioned in a separate line while she’s on the phone with someone.  Pages like that feel like filler.

Scarpetta is meant to be a uniquely talented, supremely experienced medical examiner but she often seems like an amateur and a jerk.  She’s annoyingly obsessed with minutiae outside her field, griping about a murder victim who didn’t water her plants or recycle, for instance, or use the right storage container in her fridge. 

And for someone scared half to death at one point, the shout of “Goodness!” makes her sound like Miss Marple, not a strong woman at the top of her profession. 

Her overall character seems oddly realized. She lets colleagues, family and even her new secretary bully her, which comes across as annoying and unbelievable.  And for someone who rhapsodizes at length about fine French wines, she thinks pedestrian appetizers are somehow special.  Calling ordinary cheeses “antipasto” doesn’t make them exotic.  If she’s been to France and adores French wine, how comes she’s clueless about its many fabled cheeses?

Her husband drives a Tesla SUV which costs over $100,000 and it gets lavish attention in the book, but they can’t afford an actual wine fridge and she has to jerry-rig something in the basement?  Is that–and plebeian cheese–supposed to appeal to readers who can’t afford expensive wines?  Then why show off the fancy SUV?  These things don’t add up and they exemplify the problem of disconnection that runs through the whole book. 

Time and again, there are places where there’s a kind of logical hiccup, some missing connection.  Like a scene where Kay and her husband are alone in the Oval Office with the president and vice-president, but suddenly he’s talking to “those assembled behind closed doors.” Huh?  And while some characters aren’t described at all, others are described well after they appear on the scene. 

As for the denouement–it fells like a cheat, but saying why would be a spoiler.

Autopsy is often so disjointed you wonder if it was written by a committee. In the end, the uneven mix of forensic thriller with industrial espionage, outer space drama,  office politics, biomedical engineering and AI makes the book seem overstuffed yet weirdly underfed.  

Former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in many genres.  He mentors, coaches and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com, with clients across the U.S., in Europe and Asia.

 

 

An Amazing Rave Review Thrust Me Into the Spotlight

The New York Times ruled in my family when I was growing up in Manhattan.  My mother especially loved the Sunday Magazine articles, my brother relished the daily puzzles, and I enjoyed reading book reviews and features about authors.

I wanted to be an author myself as early as second grade, when I started writing short stories.  And of course, I wanted to have a book of mine reviewed in the Times, someday because I thought that would be the ultimate sign I had made it.

Well, years later, I was heartbroken when I heard from a writer friend that he had heard my first book of short stories was going to be reviewed there.  I waited and waited, but nothing happened.  Then I published a biography and study of Edith Wharton’s fiction.  No review.  Two strikes.

At that point, I was discouraged enough to think I would never be reviewed in the Times.  I should have taken hope from lines Russian poet Joseph Brodsky wrote:

But, as know, precisely at the moment/when our despair is deepest, fresh winds stir.

One Monday, I got a call from my agent that my second mystery had just gotten a rave review from Marilyn Stasio, the most important mystery reviewer in the country.  My agent’s assistant faxed it to me and as I read the review, I actually jumped up and down for joy.  Friends started contacting me, my editor was thrilled as was my publisher, and I started hearing reports that the book wasn’t just being shelves in Mystery and Gay Literature sections in bookstores, but sometimes in Fiction right next to Edith Wharton.  And face out, which makes a big difference when it comes to sales.

The review offered great pull-quotes like this one:  “Killing is too kind for the vindictive scholars in Lev Raphael’s maliciously funny campus mystery.”  And because it was in the New York Times, publishers would use various parts of the review on  mysteries I’d write after that one.  Likewise, many people introducing me at events where I’ve done talks and readings have referred to the review.  It’s a kind of touchstone, even though I’ve gotten many more good ones in other newspapers and magazines since then.   The Times is that impressive.

The Edith Wharton Murders has recently been re-published with a gorgeous new cover, a foreward by noted author Gregory Ashe, and an introduction the publisher asked me to write.  Seeing it reborn brings back the thrill of being a new author having his biggest dream come true.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His work has been translated into 15 languages, and Special Collections at Michigan State University’s Library archives his literary papers.

 

Review: De-cluttering Can Be Murder In Hallie Ephron’s New Mystery

Has the de-cluttering craze made you long for more order and space in your home?  Do you dream of perfectly folding everything within reach and having closets that radiate so much serenity they can double as meditation rooms?

Or are you perhaps living with a hoarder who can’t get rid of anything and keeps adding to their stash of stuff which expands through your house hour by hour, day by day? Do you feel troubled, squeezed, invaded?

Well, after you read Hallie Ephron’s funny, deep, dark new mystery you might decide to leave well enough alone and get on with your life no matter how cluttered it is or how much hoarding you have to endure.

Ephron fields a heroine, Emily Harlow, who’s started a business helping people cull their stuff, boosted by a clever Internet presence that’s earning her fans and drawing in customers. If you’re not hawking yourself online you’re not going anywhere right now and the author spoofs that reality with finesse.

But helping people with the mess they’ve made of their homes unfortunately makes getting involved in their messy lives all too possible.  And it can lead to trouble.  Big trouble.  That’s exactly what happens to Emily.  Two new clients present challenges she never dreamed of and end up bringing the police into her life.  In one gripping scene after another, Ephron cannily demonstrates how innocent people can be tricked and even railroaded by sneaky interrogators.  That’s something well on display in the Netflix series When They See Us about the Central Park Five.

The dark side and humor are effortlessly blended here. What perhaps makes Ephron’s satire of the Marie Kondo spirit most appealing is the fact that Emily is married to a hoarder and they argue about his habits versus hers all the time. Their interactions are sad and all too realistic, and Ephron’s portrait of a troubled marriage couldn’t be more astutely drawn.

Emily’s husband behaves in surprising ways, given that he’s a lawyer with a sharp mind: when it comes to auctions for unbelievable junk, he’s hypnotized.  He’s also way too full of advice, even though it’s good, especially when it comes to the law, which plays a surprising role in this well-plotted crime novel.

Best of all, Hallie Ephron’s tantalizing mystery doesn’t begin with the clichéd corpse, it starts with socks.  Yes, socks.  Specifically, organizing them as a panacea.  That’s something Freud wasn’t thinking about when he wrote Civilization and its Discontents.  But maybe he should have.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.  He reviewed crime fiction for a decade at the Detroit Free Press and is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His latest mystery is the academic satire State University of Murder.