Crime Writer C.S. Harris Gets the Regency Right

Critics lavished Bridgerton with praise for supposedly making the Regency relevant to a modern audience–as if that had never been done before.

But without gross anachronisms or improbable plot lines, C.S. Harris has been writing a dazzling world-class mystery series since 2005 that couldn’t be more relevant to our time.

The Regency she offers us has plenty in common with the American world we’ve recently been living in.  There’s a vast gulf between rich and poor; intolerance and hypocrisy among the powerful; a war that’s lasted for decades; grievous childhood poverty; a skewed judicial system; xenophobia; a sexist culture suppressing women’s opportunities; widespread and rampant violence. Oh yes, and a seriously disturbed head of state.  Sound familiar?

Her touchstone for all this reality and relevance is a nobleman, Viscount Sebastian St. Cyr.  He’s no superhero, but he’s a strong, determined man with a troubled past who invariably finds trouble when it doesn’t find him.  A  freelance crime solver, he has access to the high and mighty through family and marriage connections, and the rest of London through myriad contacts across its many different social classes.  There’s little he can’t discover, sooner or later.

His case in What the Devil Knows, based on a true crime, involves unbelievably brutal murders that defy understanding and shake even a man like him who’s seen the horrors of war.  A wanton killer who has even slaughtered infants and their mothers seems to be at loose again in London and St. Cyr can’t help but worry about his wife and young son as he scours the city for clues.

From lavish parlors filled with exquisite rosewood furniture and ballrooms crowded with London’s most powerful men to alleys filled with rotting fish heads, we follow the indefatigable sleuth interviewing English citizens high and low.  Harris excels at giving readers entree into a world beyond the rich and powerful, but one filled with myriad professions including bakers, maids, sailors, rag pickers, brewers, cooks, tavern keepers, seamen, night watchmen, landladies, vicars, valets, prostitutes, drivers, thieves.

On the home front, Harris writes about St. Cyr and his wife Hero with deep sympathy, but she’s never maudlin.  The details of their daily life and the lives of everyone around them ring with authenticity.  That warmth makes the extreme violence St. Cyr faces more terrible, violence that might for some readers conjure up recent attacks on peaceful demonstrators and the 1/6 assault on the Capitol.

She doesn’t indulge in foolishness like the hokey duel in Bridgerton that totally ignored the strict rules of that ritual.  Harris respects the past and has brought it to life in book after book with prose that’s smooth and seductive.  She’s one of the most evocative writers in crime fiction today.  She makes you smell the nasty, ever-present London fog; hear the creak of wheels over cobblestones or the whinny of horses sensing danger; treasure the tender warmth of candlelight; dread the footfall of a robber.

In What the Devil Knows, you won’t feel mired in the bonbon-eating Lifestyles of the Rich and Vapid, but you’ll relish a world where people do more than just live for the next scandal sheet.  Many of them are desperately trying to make a living, and since this is a crime novel, some are just trying to stay alive.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and other publications as well as several public radio stations.

 

 

Review: Russian-born Producer Takes Readers Through The Looking Glass

Russia has been in the news for the last few years but mostly in terms of election interference, the war in Ukraine, or climate change.  Information about what the country is really like doesn’t seem to interest journalists or their editors.

Luckily for us, Russian-born TV producer Peter Pomerantsev has done a deep dive about his experience making documentaries there and meeting people from aspiring small town models to obscenely powerful oligarchs.  Nothing is True and Everything Is Possible examines a country that shifts like a kaleidoscope on steroids as its leaders stealthily fight for global supremacy and tens of billions of dollars illegally slosh through its economy in often unchartable ways.  A country that seems to have lost its mind in the rush to grab wealth wherever it can.

One thing you can count on with today’s Russia is insane impermanence, especially in Moscow. The city itself is in a perpetual paroxysm of building and rebuilding, and the author’s descriptions of those changes are so memorable. “Whole swathes of town are demolished in fits of self-destruction, wastelands abandoned for years and for no apparent reason, skyscrapers erupting before there are any roads leading to them and then left empty in the dirty snow.”

This re-invention frenzy dwarfs anything that Americans have experienced. People become wealthy there with the speed of light and for “its new heroes, life is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and any position or belief is mutable.”   The whole book captures the bizarre reality that has taken hold of Russia and squeezed it dry, while making some people so desperate to feel positive that they’re hypnotized by TV charlatans and self-help cult leaders.

Corruption and bribery rule in every sphere of life, whether getting a driver’s license or snagging exemptions from being drafted into the army.  That’s simply how things get done.  But one of the most egregious examples is the Sochi Olympics.  Those games cost tens of billions more than the previous Olympics–the extra money just drifted away.

That’s what seems to happen across the country with one venture after another, and much of that money has been buying real estate, soccer teams, fabulous art, and companies in London and all across Europe.  Rapacious, dangerously charming Russians seem to have colonized that city, appearing as brash arrivistes but slowly becoming “classy” and moving on from plush city addresses to country estates.

Deep Russian paranoia is stoked by state-controlled media that makes Fox TV seem as anodyne as a chirpy Hallmark greeting card. Against an apocalyptic backdrop, it constantly warns viewers against “Gay-Europa,” Western fascists and the CIA infesting Ukraine, Western plans for genocide against Russia, and “American-sponsored fascists crucifying Russian children on the squares of Ukrainian towns.”

That media machine has produced weeping women who testified to those appalling horrors.  Of course they were fake. It’s all fake news meant to keep the government in power and hide the reality of corruption so widespread that you can’t say it permeates the state. It is the state.

The author notes that the Kremlin “has finally mastered the art of fusing reality TV and authoritarianism to keep the great, 140-million-strong population entertained, distracted, constantly exposed to geopolitical nightmares, which if repeated enough times can become infectious.”

You have to wonder if this is a warning to readers that the same thing could happen in Western countries, perhaps with less drama and less notice–because who could imagine it possible?

Lev Raphael  has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and many other media outlets since the mid-1990s.

 

 

Review: John le Carré’s Cunning New Spy Novel Will Keep You Guessing

Is there any writer who knows the workings of intelligence agencies better than John le Carré?  The famed novelist served in MI5 and MI6 and every book of his opens up those worlds with stunning authenticity.

His latest is set in contemporary London, a city over-heated by Russian and Ukrainian billions snatching up real estate. Nat is a middle-aged, slightly stuffy, introspective handler of agents who is finally back from missions abroad and expecting a much quieter life. Ed is a young, gangling, motormouth  “researcher” who is bursting with scathing opinions about Brexit, the United Kingdom, and Donald Trump.  He rants and Nat listens with only occasional comments.

What’s brought this odd couple together? Badminton. That’s right. Nat, who’s the novel’s narrator, is a champion player at a ritzy club where Ed seeks him out in order to challenge him.

Since this is a spy novel, you wonder immediately if either of them is telling the truth about themselves and what their motives are in this relationship–though how they feel about the sport seems real enough.  And the game itself, as Nat describes it, sounds a bit like spying: “Badminton is stealth, patience, speed and improbable recovery. It’s lying in wait to unleash your ambush.”

Ed’s brashness may just be due to his youth, but the witty, cultivated, silky smooth way Nat tells their story raises alarm bells for any fan of spy novels–and of course for the countless readers of one of our most admired authors of the genre.  What is he up to?  What has he done?  Why is he recounting this tale and who is his audience?

The story unreels.  The two men play, they grab a drink after their games, they talk. Well, Ed talks. Ed overflows with opinions about how Brexit is a colossal disaster, ditto the Trump presidency, and even though he agrees, you have to wonder why Nat bothers listening.  In part, it’s boredom with his new assignment: being in charge of a small Russia-focused London intelligence outpost that feels like Cinderella left behind while her stepsisters flounce off to the Prince’s ball.

But life at that sleepy little substation suddenly turns dramatic with a surprising resignation, hard work for a mission that’s aborted, Nat’s unexpected trip to meet a cynical old agent of his in the Czech Republic, and the search for a highly-placed traitor.  As the story heats up amidst inter-service rivalry and bureaucratic sniping, Ed seems to fade from view until he and Nat watch the notorious TV appearance of Trump and Putin at Helsinki.

That bizarre encounter with the press is matched by one delicious twist after another in Agent Running in the Field.  The book triumphs in multiple ways.  First there’s the author’s enthralling exploration of spycraft and intelligence tools that makes you feel you’re being taken through a secret museum with an excellent tour guide in Nat.

Then there’s the voice of that guide: elegant, seductive, amusing, with a touch of world-weariness.  Or as he might put it–because Nat loves tossing out  the odd bit of French–a soupçon d’ennui.  And finally, Nat and his wife, a successful human rights lawyer, make some surprising decisions that blow up everything you thought was going to happen.

Fast-paced, wildly topical, and worthy of another prestige mini-series like The Night Manager, John le Carré’s latest novel is as thought-provoking as any he’s written in over fifty justly celebrated years.  It’s a fast read, and it’s a devastating look at power, loyalty, and the current chaos of international relations.

Lev Raphael is the author of State University of Murder and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He’s reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and many other media outlets.  His intro online creative writing workshop “Mystery Writing 1.0” runs December 1-31.

Sometimes Planning a Trip is Almost as Good as Going

I’ve been lucky over the years to travel abroad extensively on book tours, but primarily for research or just for fun. I’ve been to France, Belgium, England, The Netherlands, Italy, and Germany many times.

My French and German are good, my Dutch passable, and I can manage “travel Italian” though I know my accent needs work.

Many of these trips fulfilled dreams. I’d always hoped to one day teach abroad and I wound up with a six-week gig in London where the museums blew my mind and I fell in love with the Pimlico neighborhood I was staying in. For years I’d fantasized about visiting Bruges in Belgium and my week there doing research forr a book was unbelievably fulfilling. The food, the historical sites, the museums and churches surpassed my expectations. Oh, and then there’s the beer. I tried local varieties but also beers I’d had at home in bottles, this time they were on tap and tasted so much better. In Bruges I felt like Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited: drowning in honey.

I’d spent some time studying Dutch before my trip and found it really made a difference doors when shopping or ordering food or chatting with the B&B owner.  I ahd somehow even picked up a word for “amazing” that the owner, from the French part of Belgium didn’t know: verbazingwekkend.  When I used it, she was delighted.

As backup, my French was very handy and I once even found myself asking directions in German from someone whose accent in Dutch made it very clear where he was from.

I’ve had that same feeling of bliss elsewhere. Like standing on a bridge in Paris at night my first evening there with my beloved spouse, gazing at the buildings glowing with light and watching bateaux mouches glide down the river.  Once, through some scheduling mix-ups on one German tour, I ended up with something rare: free time. It happened to be in Munich and I actually had two entire days there for tourism, slow, fantastic meals in a number of restaurants, and a whole afternoon at the Nymphenburg palace and grounds.

There was a time I thought I might be teaching in Sweden, so along with studying Swedish (which I loved), I spent months researching sites across the southern part of the country for myself and whoever my students would be.  I read deeply about Swedish history and customs, tried out my Swedish on a friend with Swedish family and even studied a Swedish art song in my voice lessons.

The trip fell through for complicated reasons, but I’d been so immersed in what might be happening, watched so many videos, it felt as if I’d actually been there.  For a whole year and a half, I was dedicated to the idea of being in Sweden for a month and a half, and when it didn’t happen, I somehow wasn’t as disappointed as I expected to be.  The same thing has happened with trips to Nice and other cities where I had tremendous fun just planning: studying everything from train schedules to walking tour maps and restaurant menus.  When I plan a trip, I buy books, watch travel videos, study the destination in depth and the immersion is all-consuming.

It’s said that the journey not the arrival matters, but sometimes, for me, the journey doesn’t get father than my iPad–and that’s fine.

How about you?  Have you ever felt like this about a trip that didn’t happen?

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.  He is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association.

 

Surviving London/Loving London

Four years this week I was just back from teaching a six week summer program in London.  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

I had injured my knee forty-eight hours before my flight from Detroit, and the surgeon said I’d be okay with a knee brace and Aleve, but would need surgery as soon as I got home.  So I went because I didn’t want to disappoint the students, or myself.  teaching abroad had been a dream of mine for a very long time.

Now, I’d never taken Aleve before and it kept me from sleeping.  Ditto the pain when the Aleve wore off and I couldn’t take more.  I was also besieged by the unexpected 90-degree heat in London, which didn’t feel any better no matter how many times people told me the weather was unusual.

To my horror, the flat that had been rented for me was a duplex, which meant I had to limp up and down the stairs there countless times a day, even though the surgeon advised me to avoid stairs.  My phone or tablet always seemed to be on whichever floor I wasn’t on.

My flat was at the top of the building and got so hot by late afternoon that it shut down my iPhone.  The classroom I taught in at Regent’s College wasn’t air conditioned and the inscrutable powers-that-be would only give us a fan for one day.  I had to teach while I was in pain, sleepless, and stressed by the heat.  It was brutal.

To truly add insult to injury, one night I tripped over the wild fringe on one rug, smacked my hand on an oak table on the way down.  It swelled up grotesquely and I was soon in an emergency room where I passed out because the pain in my hand was so bad.  I ended up with a cast which my students signed, hoping that I would survive till the end of the program.

But my students–!  They were amazing.  In my many years of teaching, I’d never had a group so dedicated, funny, talented, and compassionate.  No matter how I felt on any given day, spending time with them was joyful.  I felt as if everything I’d ever learned about how to work with student writing and how to approach reading literature was focused with the intensity of a laser beam.  Watching their writing blossom was one of the grandest experiences I’ve ever had as a teacher.  And unlike the regular classes I taught back home with twenty-five students, I had only fifteen in each one, which made getting to know them and their work much easier.

As I finally got my insomnia and pain  under control, I was able to fully enjoy museums, plays, and relish the good food and drink at local restaurants and  pubs.  A friend from Germany came to spend the weekend nearby and we had great, intimate, sometimes uproarious meals together.  I loved staying in Pimlico on a quiet square, and though London has never been my favorite city in Western Europe, right now, I miss being there.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in many genres and teaches creative writing at www.writewithoutborders.com.

 

The Joys of Teaching Creative Writing At Home And Abroad

I picked my college in New York for one main reason: I had heard about a young, amazing creative writing teacher there I wanted to study with.  That was the smartest decision of my life.  I took every course she taught, writing or literature, and she mentored me both as a writer and a teacher.

Her style was remarkable: she was funny, relaxed, had a high tolerance for what might seem like chaos to some people.  I remember once a professor from another class actually complained that we were too boisterous in her class.  We were just having fun.

I found her consistently, quietly determined to bring out the best in her students.  She was never censorious or arrogant, and in workshops she somehow managed to help us revise our fiction without turning it into something different.  Without making it like what she thought it should be.

For the last six years I’ve been teaching creative writing again at Michigan State University as a guest and I’ve had wonderful, smart, talented students–and been lucky to do independent study or senior theses with some of them.  Even better, I got to teach a six-week summer program for MSU students in London.  The writing class blended fiction and creative non-fiction and the focus was writing about difference, examining themselves as Americans in London and also studying English culture as outsiders.

We read Bill Bryson’s hilarious book about England, Notes from a Small Island along with Miranda Seymour’s powerful memoir Thrumpton Hall and Val McDermid’s expert collection of short stories Stranded.  Both Seymour and McDermid were able to visit the class and talk about their work, which was a unique experience for all of us.

We faced some obstacles.  London underwent a heat wave, and our classroom was cramped, airless, and on the broiling west side of a building whose lawn was occasionally the scene of noisy events nobody warned us about.  Acquiring a fan  proved to be impossible.  Don’t ask me why.  We even had to deal with power drilling and hammering in the basement below us at one point.  But the students were good-humored.  More than that, they were inventive, supportive, hard-working, talented–and there were only sixteen of them.  That’s close to an ideal size for a creative writing class.  It allowed them to bond quickly around their writing and get to know each other’s styles and strengths intimately.

I encouraged everyone to take risks in their work, sharing times in my career when I did so myself, and I watched students develop astonishingly in the short weeks we had together.  Some of them told me afterwards I inspired them, but they inspired me, twice, to write short pieces that I shared with them.

When it was over, I felt grateful that I’d had a writing mentor in college who had modeled dedicated, patient, relaxed, non-bullying work with students. And modeled not changing what your students write but doing your best to bring it into fuller bloom.  That isn’t easy.  You have to be present, focused, and aware–but it’s amazingly rewarding, and an amazing high when it goes well.

My mother was a teacher In Brussels after WW II, and when I met a group of her former students while doing research there for a book, they told me that sometimes she would get so excited in class that she would just hug herself with delight.  I know exactly how she felt.

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

 

I Survived a London Heat Wave

Temps in London have been off the charts for weeks, and that’s reminded me of a six-week stay there when the unexpected heat felt like my nemesis.

I was teaching creative writing in a summer program where I had amazingly productive and fun students, as well as superb guest speakers like authors Miranda Seymour and Val McDermid.  I was subbing for someone and the flat he had arranged for was in Pimlico, which was away from the crazier parts of the city, quiet, scenic, and filled with terrific restaurants and pubs.

But the heat that summer was fiendish, sometimes passing 90 degrees.  My flat was on the top floor of a small building and hotter than that because it had no air conditioning and heat rises.  It got so hot there that I had to point a small fan at my iPhone which kept overheating. Opening windows for cross ventilation was not a good idea because for some bizarre reason the gusts were so strong they blew everything off the table I worked at, and the wind was so strong it even unrolled the paper towels in the kitchen from their rack.  The room looked like some poltergeist had paid me a visit.

I had arrived in London with a knee injury and had to stay off public transport, but I found car service drivers reluctant to turn on their AC or turn it up.  I explained over and over that I was prone to migraines and that usually did it, but stepping into a black car at midday was highly unpleasant anyway.  They’d comply and leave their driver side windows open or cracked, evidently afraid of getting a chill.

And then there was Regents University where I taught, which was un-airconditioned.  My afternoon classes got way too much sun and sometimes my students looked on the verge of passing out. When I appealed to the powers-that-be for a fan, we got one.  For just a day.  And I was made to feel that I had overstepped some invisible boundary by even asking for it.

People kept telling me everywhere I went that “It never gets this hot,” but that wasn’t very comforting. What kept me cool was grocery shopping at a deliciously cool Sainsbury’s, dining out, attending a concert in a Victorian church, and visiting fantastic museums like the Tate Modern where I saw epic Matisse and Malevich exhibitions.  People were remarkably friendly wherever I want, and honestly, I fell in love with Pimlico.

Eventually the AC-phobic drivers and everything else making me fry started to seem almost funny.  Why?  Because on my first-ever summer trip to London years before, I was so cold I had to buy a woolen sweater. So by the end of my six week stint in 2014, I was calling it my deluxe and safe Caribbean vacation.  No fear of sunburn, no sharks, no sand in my clothes.  And terrific Gin and Tonics.

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

Feeling at Home, Abroad

As a writer, I’ve always had a particular kind of wanderlust: I’m not into doing anything extreme or uncomfortable.  I like going someplace where the challenges are along the lines of learning a new language, or deepening the command of one I already know.  Someplace where I’ll be drawn into deep contemplation of a landscape, a street, even a marvelous meal.  I have hungry eyes.

I’ve never felt the need to rack up “points” by seeing a lot, though. I want to savor a place I visit.  When I was in London a few years ago, I went to my favorite museum The Wallace Collection twice, timing my second visit when there would be as few other visitors as possible so that I could spend as much time as possible contemplating paintings I wanted to see again and truly appreciate.  And a perfect day in Florence for me was visiting a church and enjoying its art, savoring a long lunch, then taking in another church followed by a long dinner–with both meals at the Piazza Santo Spirito, and the churches nearby.

If I’m abroad and I find a restaurant or café I enjoy after having tried a few others, I keep going back.  I don’t need to continue trying others, looking for some Holy Grail of Dining.  In the new city the familiar setting, staff, and menu appeal to me and I’d rather try as many different dishes on that menu as I can.

Spending a week in Ghent recently, it didn’t take long sampling eateries around the train station of Gent-Sint-Pieters to decide that Café Parti was where I could happily have lunch and dinner as often as possible.  The vibe was hip and neighborly. The staff was friendly and I used as much of my newly-acquired Dutch as possible, though my French is so much better.  I got good recommendations for specials, and I chatted just a bit about what I was doing there, where I was going (Antwerp for the Rubens Museum), and when I got back, the differences between Antwerp and Ghent.  It made me feel as If wasn’t just skimming across the surface of the culture.

In the same way, I took more cabs than trams in Ghent because I’ve often found that I learn a lot from cab drivers in foreign cities.  My father was a cab driver years ago in New York and that’s always a point of connection; I sit in the front passenger seat to make conversation easier.  When my Dutch failed me, I asked if I could switch to French, which was usually fine, but there was always English as a fallback.  I learned that in Ghent, tourists came predominantly from Germany, The Netherlands, France–and China.  And, unexpectedly, that the park near my hotel wasn’t especially safe at night.  I got a colorful and detailed warning despite not needing one, but hey, he was being friendly, and Ghent prides itself on being “The City of Trust and Love.”  Of course, for me as a writer, there’s a story in that conversation….

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 24 other books in many genres.