The Perfect August Read for Spy Novel Fans

 

In my many years as crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, one of the best mysteries I ever reviewed was Dan Fesperman’s Lie in the Dark, set in war-torn Bosnia. It was brilliantly plotted, beautifully written, and stunning in every possible way.

His latest book is just as thrilling.  Set in the chaos of a crumbling communist East Germany not long after the Berlin Wall has been breached in 1989, Winter Work tells twin stories of an American CIA agent and a former Stasi agent whose lives connect in surprising ways. 

Long before East Germany (the DDR) was falling apart, high-ranking Emil Grimm felt “irretrievably” convinced “that the state he served had become corrupted beyond salvation, and that he had become a willing party to its inevitable decline.”  Having relished his Stasi privileges and having used his own power for revenge, he was filled with remorse–and that’s not his only secret.  Grimm’s personal life involves a bizarre sort of ménage-à-trois which might condemn him in the eyes of even liberal-minded Westerners.

Grimm and a Stasi colleague have hatched a plan to escape from the ruins of their country which hasn’t even reached its 50th birthday, by attempting to trade information to the Americans.  But they’re not the only ones on the market as “CIA people were scurrying all over the Berlin area, seeking to make friends of their old enemies in hopes of prying lose their secrets.”

One of those CIA operatives is young Claire Saylor, tasked with contacting a Stasi agent whose name she doesn’t know and whose information is mysterious but presumably valuable.  Her on-site boss is critical, suspicious and withholding, and Saylor has to rely on a retired agent for backup on each rendezvous.  His spycraft augments hers and they forge a dynamic and entertaining  bond.  Unbeknownst to Saylor, however, the KGB has her and Grimm in its sites and a mission that looked relatively simple becomes hair-raising, dangerous, and bloody.

That’s because in the DDR, someone is always watching: “After more than forty years of training their citizens to keep their eyes one another, one could never take lightly the idea of having your movements go unnoticed in the German Democratic Republic.”

Inspired by real events and deeply researched, Winter Work has everything you expect in a top-notch mystery/thriller: characters to care about, a fascinating setting, and a plot that keeps you guessing and on edge.  Fesperman was a Berlin-based journalist and his knowledge of the city is crucial in making this book both intimate and electrifying.  There aren’t many crime novels I lose sleep over, but this was one of them and I didn’t mind because the rewards were so rich and satisfying.

The short opening paragraph of Winter Work perfectly sets the book’s tone:

In winter, the forest bares its secrets.  Hill and vale are revealed through disrobing trees.  Mud and bone arise from dying weeds.  Woodpeckers, taking notice, pry deeper on leafless limbs and rotting logs.  Their drumbeat goes out like a warning.

Lev Raphael is the author of ten crime novels and seventeen other books in many genres.  A former guest author at Michigan State University, he currently mentors, coaches, and edits writers at https://www.writewithoutborders.com.

Every Writer Needs an Editor (Guest Blog by Meredith Phillips)

Guest blog by Meredith Phillips

Everyone needs an editor–even editors. Why? Primarily because an editor brings objectivity to your writing. When you proofread your own writing, you sometimes see what you expect to see, what you meant to write, on the page or screen before you. The editor brings an outsider’s view and is much more likely to pick up typos or mistakes. And truth be told, auto-correct or spell-check will not pick up homonyms.

Furthermore, because of editors’ training and wide reading background, they can spot an infelicity, misstatement, or erroneous fact—not to mention a plot hole. The editor’s job is to make the writer look good by preventing the reader’s confusion, making things as clear as possible. If you’re not “traditionally published,” which would presumably include professional editing, you should hire an editor at your own expense. You’ll find it is well worth the money.

When it comes to traditional or legacy publishing, after acquisition or commissioning a book, ideally several levels of editing take place. Those can range from development and/or substance editing to line and/or copy editing to proofreading. My own experience is mainly in fiction editing, the majority being crime fiction, but I’ve worked on all kinds of nonfiction as well, from cookbooks to handbooks to how-to guides. Over forty years I’ve edited hundreds of books and I still love it. I’d rather spend my time with red pen in hand, or these days with Word Review on the screen, than doing most other things. This has served me well during the pandemic.

***
How does anyone become an editor? I doubt that any children say they want to be editors when they grow up. And I suspect that most editors originally began as writers, as did I. After first writing magazine pieces, a guidebook, and then a mystery, I decided that I’d rather tell other people how to write than do it myself. And I’ve done so ever since (although a certain amount of writing of catalog copy, blurbs, press releases, etc. is inevitable in the job). As well as learning by doing, I read books and articles on editing and joined professional organizations.



I spent the first ten years alone at Perseverance Press, editing and publishing new mystery writers who usually had other kinds of writing backgrounds. After ten of these books, some award-nominated, I went “on hiatus” and concentrated on freelance editing for mystery writers with NYC publishers. I was lucky enough to again be working with professional writers and didn’t have to deal with newbie writing problems.

But freelance editors are definitely at the bottom of the publishers’ totem poles, and liable to be blamed for all snafus. Then came the opportunity to partner with an old friend who wanted a mystery line in his small independent publishing company. And from 1999 to 2021, John Daniel & Co. / Perseverance Press published more than eighty traditional mysteries by established writers. This idyllic arrangement came to an end with John’s death, so I’m a freelancer again. And I was lucky enough to be available when Crippen & Landru needed an editor last year for their respected collections of Golden Age short fiction.

***
Does editing mysteries differ from mainstream fiction editing? Not a lot. The plot structure is usually tighter in mystery/suspense, and attention must be paid to suspects’ activities and alibis. In the end, order should be restored and readers should feel that they had a chance of figuring out the puzzle. The background environment, geographical setting, and/or the historical period in a mystery are often rendered in detail, as they may contain clues. The conscientious editor should do some research (via Google and Wikipedia these days instead of a trip to the library) to be conversant with the milieu depicted by the author. I’ve bought a lot of books on editing but have found only a few of real use: Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, which I’d recommend to all writers.

Do mistakes still happen? Of course! In my early days I let an author get away with putting the protagonist in “a room with no doors or windows.” And much more recently, a main character kissed a man who wasn’t her fiancé, whom she didn’t like, and who wasn’t even in the same place as her. This goof sneaked by the author, me as the editor and two proofreaders. But of course it was pointed out in an Amazon review!

That takes me back to the first line, above….

[Free Images from Pixabay]

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.

 

 

𝐃𝐨𝐧’𝐭 𝐁𝐞𝐥𝐢𝐞𝐯𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐇𝐲𝐩𝐞 𝐚𝐛𝐨𝐮𝐭 “𝐅𝐚𝐥𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐠”

I was eager to read the airplane thriller Falling because I’d been watching terrific movies set in the air: Red Eye, Executive Decision, Air Force One, Flight Plan, and Non-Stop.  I also re-read Chris Bohjalian’s dazzling, beautifully written thriller The Flight Attendant

So I wanted to love Falling, but the book falls flat again and again despite the insane hoopla it’s been generating. 

As the crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, I often saw my fellow reviewers across the country rave about books that were badly written.  Sometimes they even admitted as much, or came close to it, but shrugged off indifferent or even dreadful prose because they liked the plot.  Their cascading kudos, plus blurbs from best-selling authors and good packaging, could easily make a bad book successful.

That seems to have happened with T.J. Newman’s debut thriller about a pilot being given the choice by a terrorist to crash his plane or have his family killed.  The book has a beautiful cover but goes wrong in the very first chapter when the author grossly cheats her readers: the nightmarish flight she describes is only a nightmare.  That’s an amateurish mistake a conscientious editor should have warned her to avoid.

The frantic shifts in the opening chapter from one character to another are just as wrong-headed, and even worse, there are lines that need to be re-read because they don’t immediately make sense.  Despite a slew of blurbs from writers like Stephen King, Ian Rankin, and Diana Gabaldon, this book is marred by writing that’s either weak, confused, ungrammatical, or trying too hard.  Here are some examples:

Jo immediately understood why Big Daddy had failed to put a finger on the man’s essence.  He had an intangible mysteriousness, a mercurial quality of shadow.

A hollow dread seeped out of his heart.

Carrie stared at the floor.  The kettle began to screech and she shut off the burner.  The noise gradually softened until it was only the clock making noise again.

Daddy covered his mouth, a glint of Eureka! gleaming in his eyes.
 
A cold and hollow ache pooled at the base of his spine.
 
Stepping off the jet bridge stairs onto the tarmac, Bill squinted under his hand’s attempt to shield the sun.

Turning it clockwise, yellow digital numbers descended toward the new frequency.

Lying at Bill’s feet, broken and bloodied, her jaw hung open but no words came.

The author also doesn’t seem to know what “residue”  means or the difference between “definite” and “definitive”–among other problems with diction.

The story’s momentum is damaged by sometimes pointless flashbacks, one of which is three pages long.  Aspects of the plot don’t always make sense either, and that’s even more problematic.  Would a mother with young children let in a repairman who shows up unexpectedly without an ID–and then offer him tea?  And it’s unbelievable that her husband sees this man at home but a few hours later doesn’t recognize him on a video call. 

Perhaps the strangest element is the author’s relentless attempt to humanize the terrorists, whose reason for choosing this particular pilot is never really clear.  Almost as screwed up: the baseball players at targeted Yankee Stadium decide to keep playing even when they’ve been warned to evacuate because the plane is headed their way. 

Ten years as a flight attendant have given the author deep knowledge about planes and on-board protocols, but she overdoes the details at times, adding to the book’s overall weakness. It’s not entirely her fault, of course. Knowing that Falling had been rejected by 41 agents, her publisher should have given the book the editing it badly needed.  They didn’t, which is either careless, cynical, or both. 

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery and has been a newspaper, online, and radio book reviewer for over twenty years.

 

 

Kate Winslet’s Bore of Easttown

After years of reviewing crime fiction for the Detroit Free Press and other news outlets, I’m used to genre misery. Mare of Easttown is no exception. It’s set in a grimy middle-American Pennsylvania town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. The first two episodes have dealt up a suicide, a missing girl, alcoholism, lousy parenting, teens gone wild, bad marriages,  catfishing, stalking, two assaults, an angry mob–and of course murder.

That’s pretty heavy, but to be expected. It’s a show about crime, after all. What I don’t expect with a crime series is clichés swarming like bees.

Mare herself is way overdone.  She’s a stereotypical rude, super-tough detective given to wearing a parka and flannel shirts as if daring someone to offer her a makeover.  She of course eats cheese steaks in case you didn’t realize she’s in Eastern Pennsylvania, and she chugs beer out of the bottle. She also stomps around town with a sour expression like a basilisk who’s lost the power to kill people with a glance.

The murder case she’s handling has so many local complications it feels like the family tree of the Hapsburgs. People don’t trust her to solve it alone, and she’s predictably pissed off when some wide-eyed detective is brought in from out of town to assist her. She won’t even shake his hand. Isn’t that original? The ice starts to melt when he brings her coffee and she accepts it. Wow. That’s as lovely as a fairy tale and just as stale.

But things look a bit sunnier for Mare when a shabby-chic Pulitzer Prize-winning author inexplicably moves from Vermont to the small local college nearby (what’s his story?). They meet at a bar and he of course confesses his pick-up line was practiced and cheesy–and yes, he actually calls her beautiful. That’s the best the writers could do. He’s played by Guy Pearce and seems too smooth for his own good. Or hers. They hook up of course–what else?

By the way: he never wrote another book. Cliché Alert!

Failed/Successful Writer invites Mare to a college shindig in his honor. Damn, I thought, here come more clichés. And yes, they tumble out like rabbits from a frowzy magician’s hat.

Mare is going to have trouble figuring out what to wear. Check. She’s going to open up a chaotic makeup drawer and some of that mess she scrabbles through will likely be gross. Check. She’ll show up at the event looking really pretty but still be ignored—by every single person there. Because of course nobody present has ever interacted with her in a town where everyone knows everyone else. Check.

There’s more and this one’s the topper.  She’ll be offered a canapé and she’ll try it, scowl, spit it out in her napkin, wrap it up and gauchely hide it someplace–like under a cushion or tuck into the couch. Check to all of that. Oh, yes, she and Pearce will argue because she’s been ignored. Check again.

This whole sequence is apparently the Human Interest Break from the crime and grime, unless of course it turns out that Mr. Adorable is a psycho killer. Then it’s Human Interest Red Herring. Tune in if you can stay interested or want to hate watch.  I’ve only hit the cliché highlights.

Putting her through her paces the way they have, it’s as if the writers of the series consulted Crime Writing for Dummies, Chapter Seven: Low-class Miserable Women Sleuths. Winslet deserved better, and so did viewers.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of twenty-seven books including the just-published mystery Department of Death which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable” in a starred review.

(Pixabay image by Robin Higgins)

Hot Sex, Violence, and Devastating LA Fires

Get ready for a rough and extremely raunchy ride: Terrill Lankford’s Shooters is a propulsive, hypnotic, sexually explicit, blistering exposé of the American hunger for more, more, more.  A hunger that leaves people empty inside, desperate for meaning–no matter how gilded their cage might be.

This thriller has the sheen and danger of that classic cult film The Eyes of Laura Mars, which it cleverly echoes.

Arrogant Nick Gardner’s the same kind of fashion photographer as Faye Dunaway’s character, creating advertising photos that simmer with violence and eroticism.  But he’s much rougher around the edges.  Highly promiscuous, Nick is the kind of guy who’d “rather have sex with a complete stranger than kiss a friend with meaning.” 

He’s a self-confessed “asshole” who loves showing off his mad driving skills in his Lamborghini and the ultra-hot women who want to ride along.  Think of him as a  foul-mouthed Gatsby with a dark past and an even murkier future. 

Nick has made it big in his field, but he’s keenly aware of how fragile success can be in a city littered with failures.  Musing about all the people who linger in Los Angeles even though their dreams have died, he thinks:

“The city is like a terrible drug.  Addictive in the worst way.  Everyone hates it, yet most of them stay no matter what the cost.  Some manage to leave, only to return a year or so later.  Very few have the intestinal fortitude to kick the insanity for good and live elsewhere.  The dream is always there, a brass ring only inches outside their reach.”

There you have a perfect diagnosis of  our cultural sickness, more than fitting for our dark times in 2020.

The book opens with the threat of wildfires engulfing parts of the city and that threat hovers over everyone and everything until it explodes.  It couldn’t be more emblematic of the fire inside Nick and everyone he meets.  They’re all burning for something: drugs, sex, thrills, money, success, fame.  Some will be destroyed.

Feeling blocked one day at work, Nick hits a party he shouldn’t attend and leaves with a hot blonde coke fiend he should never have even talked to–but of course he can’t resist.  Their orgiastic, drug-crazed night ends badly and Nick ends up traveling down some surprisingly mean streets to solve a crime he’s the prime suspect for.

Following his violent stint as an amateur private investigator, we learn about his unsavory past in a town filled with ugly secrets.  Some of them are not for the easily shocked.  Nick is an anti-hero whose trajectory in the novel is always down, and justice is served in unexpected ways.

In all my years reviewing crime fiction for The Detroit Free Press, this is one of the only thrillers I’ve wanted to re-read on a regular basis.  It never fails to blow me away, which is why I’m thrilled to have been asked to write the afterward to the Kindle edition.   The writing is fierce, brutal,  unrelenting–and unforgettable.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, including the recent State University of Murder.

 

Knife: Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Fire: Image by Николай Егошин from Pixabay

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.

Review: 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.