Category Archives: Ben Winters

You’ll Learn Things You Never Knew You Never Knew*

Questioning AssumptionsOne of the real benefits (at least to me) of reading is that sometimes, what we read challenges our beliefs and invites us to re-think them. Books like that can be a little uncomfortable; it’s not always easy to question our own assumptions about life. But those books are valuable for just that reason. They challenge us to grow and to re-shape the way we think.

Everyone has a different list of authors, series and books that have had that effect – that have helped us to question what we ‘always knew.’ So your mileage, as the saying goes, will vary. But here are a few books and authors whose work has invited me to question what I always thought. And that’s a good thing.

Before I started reading the work of Deon Meyer, I always thought I knew what a thriller was (And I’m not talking here of espionage stories; that’s a different category): an action-packed, adrenaline-loaded book. The characters wouldn’t have a lot of depth and the plot might require some suspension of disbelief, but it could be a fun and exciting literary ride. Meyer’s work has taught me that really fine thrillers have well-drawn characters who act in credible ways. Well-written thrillers also have more depth to the plot than I’d thought before. I’m very glad to have learned that there’s a lot more to this sub-genre than I’d imagined.

I’d never thought of myself as a person who liked science fiction. I could appreciate some science fiction authors’ skilled writing, and there were some novels I liked. But as a genre? Not for me. Well… until a number of years ago when I read Isaac Asimov’s Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley series. Those novels are unquestionably science fiction. Yet they cross the line into crime fiction as well (for those unfamiliar with these novels, Baley is a New York police officer). And that fact tempted me to try the series. I’m very glad I did. I discovered that science fiction has a lot to offer. It invites us to speculate; it encourages us to think of solutions to real problems, and; it can be very well-written. Science fiction characters can be deep, human, and quite memorable, and the plots can be terrific. Just goes to show you how much I ‘knew’ before I read Asimov.

A similar thing happened with my assumptions about post-apocalyptic fiction. I never thought I’d enjoy it. I’m generally not one for that sort of bleak, sometimes despairing, story. So I’ve typically avoided it. Imagine my surprise when I read and enjoyed Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight. Those novels take place in a world where the supply of oil has been cut off; so needless to say, it’s a very different world to the one we live in now. The story of how one family tries to make a life after this catastrophe was – surprise! – interesting and engaging, at least to me. There’s also Ben Winters’ trilogy featuring police detective Hank Palace. Imagine me, who ‘always knew’ exactly what post-apocalyptic fiction was about, drawn into a very real, human set of stories.

Does this all mean I’ll ‘click here to purchase’ every new adrenaline-loaded thriller, sci-fi or post-apocalypse novel? No. I’m still cautious about them and in general wouldn’t choose them first. But I am a lot more open to excellent stories told in those ways. Perhaps I can learn…

I’ve also learned about about different people and things that I always ‘knew’ about before. For example, my assumptions about the sex trade have been challenged in the last few years. I thought I knew ‘all about’ why people become commercial sex workers, and why other people hire them. I didn’t. It’s a complex business, and people get into it for a lot of different reasons. The people who engage in the trade are not all cut from the same proverbial cloth, and they don’t all have the same experiences. Work by Angela Savage (Behind the Night Bazaar), John Burdette (e.g. Bangkok 8), Timothy Hallinan (e.g. A Nail Through the Heart) and Jill Edmondson (Dead Light District and Frisky Business) have all invited me to question what ‘I always knew’ about that business.

There’s also the matter of what I always ‘knew’ about Native Americans and First Nations people. I had no idea how much I didn’t know and how much I wrongly assumed until I began to read the work of Tony Hillerman some years ago. I was invited to develop a whole new perspective on a group of people I only thought I understood. I felt the same way after reading Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series and Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden/Fr. John O’Malley series. Oh, and there’s Scott Young’s novels and Stan Jones’, too. All of them have challenged my assumptions in a good way.

I could go on and on about things I’ve learned about history, other countries and so on that I always ‘knew’ before. I think you get the idea without that though. To me anyway, learning to question what I’ve always believed is one of the very good reasons for reading. What about you? Which novels and series have invited you to learn what you always ‘knew?’
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken’s Colors of the Wind.

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Filed under Alex Scarrow, Angela Savage, Ben Winters, Craig Johnson, Deon Meyer, Isaac Asimov, Jill Edmondson, John Burdett, Margaret Coel, Scott Young, Stan Jones, Timothy Hallinan, Tony Hillerman

It’s the End of the World as We Know it*

End of the WorldIt’s 21 December 2012 and despite all the speculation, the world hasn’t ended. All of the discussion of the Mayan calendar and the end of the world shows though just how fascinated people are with the future and what would happen if the world as we know it now ended. There’s been of course a lot of interest in real life and we certainly see it in crime fiction too.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death) for instance, we meet Howard Raikes. Raikes is a radical activist whose goal in life is to tear down the existing institutions and infrastructure and build completely new ones. To him, the established institutions are The Enemy; they stand in the way of a better world. Raikes is dating Jane Olivera, whose uncle Alistair Blunt is the embodiment of The Establishment. Blunt is a successful and powerful banker who stands for stability, order and prudence. Although Jane agrees with Howard about some things, she isn’t as radical as he is, and she is fond of her uncle. Their debates form a sub-plot to the major plot of this story, in which Blunt’s dentist Henry Morley is shot. Because Blunt is so influential, he’s made several dangerous enemies who might very well try to get at him at the dentist’s office, so at first it’s thought that Morley’s death might be a attempt-gone-wrong to get at Blunt. Chief Inspector James ‘Jimmy’ Japp is assigned the case and works with Hercule Poirot, who is also one of Morley’s patients, to find out who the killer is. The case gets complicated when another patient dies of an overdose of anaesthetic, and another patient disappears. The larger question of what the world should and could be like forms an interesting debate in this novel.

In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, Queen takes a house outside Hollywood so he can get some writing done. His dream of peace and quiet is ended when he gets a visit from nineteen-year-old Lauren Hill. Her father Leander has recently died of a heart attack that she suspects was deliberately brought on. She tells Queen of a series of macabre ‘gifts’ her father received and claims that he must have had a secret enemy. What’s more, Hill’s business partner Roger Priam has been receiving ‘gifts’ too. At first Queen doesn’t want to get involved but the strange nature of the puzzle intrigues him. So does Priam’s absolute refusal to co-operate in any way. So Queen begins to investigate Hill’s history as well as that of Priam. Then there’s an attempt on Priam’s life. Now Queen and the local police begin to get more involved. Queen finds that the key to Hill’s death and the other events in the story lies in the two men’s history. In the course of this novel we meet Roger Priam’s stepson Crowe ‘Mac’ McGowan. Mac lives in a tree on the Priam property where he’s built himself a house. He wears as little as possible, and much of the time nothing at all. Mac’s claim is that the world is about to end because of nuclear attacks, so he wants to be prepared for life after The Bomb.

Isaac Asimov speculated a great deal about what the future might hold if life as we know it ended. For instance, his The Caves of Steel takes place in and near a futuristic New York City in which humans have divided into two groups: Earthmen and Spacers. Spacers are the descendents of people who left the planet to explore other worlds. They look to other planets as the best chance for the survival of the species and their technology reflects that. They’ve also developed sophisticated positronic robots that are an active part of their society. Earthmen on the other hand are the descendents of people who never left the planet. They live in extremely large domed mega-cities and look to making more use of Earth’s resources to ensure the survival of the species. Earthmen and Spacers dislike and distrust each other; in fact, they live in separate communities. So when famous Spacer scientist Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton is murdered, the Spacers believe an Earthman is responsible. In order to ease the tensions between the two groups, New York Police Commissioner Julius Enderby assigns Earthman homicide detective Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley to investigate. He also assigns Baley to work with a new partner R. Daneel Olivaw. At first Baley treats this like any other investigation. But then he discovers to his dismay that Olivaw is a positronic robot. If there’s anything Earthmen hate and fear more than Spacers, it’s robots. So the two detectives have to overcome several barriers in order to find out who killed Sarton. In this novel, not only do we see Asimov’s speculation at work; we also see the fear of the future reflected in the Earthmen’s attitude towards space exploration, robots and other developments.

In John D. MacDonald’s The Green Ripper, ‘salvage consultant’ Travis McGee loses his beloved girlfriend Gretel Howard to a mysterious illness. When it turns out to be deliberately induced, McGee decides to go after whoever is responsible for her murder. He traces her death to a Northern California group called the Church of the Apocrypha, This group is committed to the tearing down and destruction of civilisation because the members believe that’s the only way that humans can be saved. McGee infiltrates the group so that he can find out why Gretel was targeted and take vengeance.

Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight both depict the end of life as we know it when the world’s supply of oil is deliberately shut off. In the first book Andy and Jenny Sutherland and their two children happen to be in different places when the oil supply stops. They try desperately to survive and re-unite and although the main plot in this novel concerns the reason the oil’s been shut off, I honestly think the Sutherland family and the way they cope is the more interesting aspect of this novel. But that’s only my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do. The second novel takes place ten years after the events of the first. By this time Jenny Sutherland has become the leader of a small group of survivors who have made a home for themselves on a former North Sea oil rig. The novel concerns what happens when they discover another badly wounded survivor in a nearby town, and when they learn that another group of survivors, who live in the Millennium Dome in London, may have fuel. In both of these novels Scarrow takes a look at a harsh new world in which everything we take for granted has changed.

And then there’s Ben Winter’s The Last Policeman. In that novel, a meteor will hit Earth in approximately six months. Most people are giving up on life, quitting jobs, using drugs and in general living as though the world will end. For them, it will. And different people are reacting to it in a number of ways. But police detective Hank Palace is unique; he’s still trying to do his job. That’s why he takes a special interest when Peter Zell dies.  Everyone thinks Zell’s death is a suicide like so very many others. But Palace doesn’t think so and investigates just as though there were no oncoming meteor. I confess I’ve not yet read this book, but it’s just too good an example for me not to mention it.

There are other examples too of course. Everyone’s got a different view of when and how life as we know it will end and it’s both fascinating and scary to speculate on it. No wonder authors face this demon in their novels.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REM’s It’s the End of the World as We Know it (and I Feel Fine).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alex Scarrow, Ben Winters, Ellery Queen, Isaac Asimov, John D. MacDonald

How Do You Measure, Measure a Year?*

Measuring the YearIt’s interesting how the end of the year often gets us into a reflective mood, whether or not we make and keep New Year’s resolutions. It’s often a time for taking stock of oneself – well, it is for me anyway. And no, I promise this isn’t going to be one of those ‘Best of 2012’s Reading’ posts. You’ll be reading enough of those as the next weeks go by. Besides, I don’t like to ‘stay within the lines’ like that. But here are a few things I’ve noticed about my crime fiction reading this year. If they help you make some reading choices, then I’m glad to have been of service.

 

 

Book That Has Caused Me to Re-Think My Assumptions

 

Angela Savage – Behind the Night Bazaar

Y.A. Erskine – The Brotherhood

Roger Smith – Dust Devils

Martin EdwardsAll the Lonely People

 

Most of us, myself included, have a set of assumptions about, well, everything. About people from other groups, about how to make the world better, about how to solve the world’s problems. But those assumptions can blind us to the fact that very few of life’s problems and inequities have an easy solution. All of these books present difficult issues (e.g. poverty, human trafficking, questions of racial equity) that do not have an easy solution. And these authors are all to be commended for not offering pat solutions. All of these novels have caused me to question what I always believed, and that’s a good thing. The book that has most caused me to really question myself though is Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar. In that novel, PI Jayne Keeney investigates the murders of her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse and his partner Nou. The trail leads Keeney to some ugly truths about child trafficking and the sex trade. I think we’d all agree that something has to be done to keep children safe and to stop human trafficking. But Savage shows us, without preaching, that there isn’t a simple solution. Not until we question what we assume to be true can we look at the source of these problems and try to solve them. This isn’t an easy, light book, but it stays with me in part because it has invited me to stop and re-think everything I always ‘knew’ about human trafficking.

 

 

Book I Am Very Annoyed at Myself For Not Reading Yet

 

Michael Connelly – The Black Box

Ben Winters – The Last Policeman

Deon Meyer – Seven Days

Vanda Symon – The Faceless 

 

Here’s the thing. There are only twenty-four hours in a day, and seven days in a week. And one has to eat and sleep and pay bills, etc…   So there simply isn’t enough time to read it all. I am a fan of all four of these highly talented authors, so it has nothing to do with my interest in their books. It really doesn’t.  I will read all of these books. However, I am most angry with myself for not yet reading Vanda Symon’s The Faceless. Symon is the highly talented author of the Sam Shephard series, and I was very much looking forward to this standalone release. I still am. I promise, Vanda, I will read it. Very soon. Folks, if you haven’t yet read it, give it a try. Symon will not disappoint you.

 

 

Pattern in My Reading That I Didn’t Even Notice

 

I Have Read More Canadian Crime Fiction This Year.

I Have Read More French Crime Fiction This Year.

I Have Read More Australian Crime Fiction This Year, Mostly Written by Women.

I Have Read More Thrillers This Year.

 

Did you ever catch yourself in a new pattern that you weren’t even aware of? Well, this year I found myself, and I promise it was unplanned, branching out in all sorts of different reading directions. I’m glad for that, as I am a better informed crime fiction fan for it. I’m all for ‘stretching oneself’ as a reader. And I am truly grateful for those who’ve helped me do that this year. The pattern that I’ve most noticed – that seems the strongest – without me even being aware of it is that I’ve read a whole lot more crime fiction by Australian women writers than I had before. This year I’ve read some terrific work by Sandy Curtis, Virginia Duigan, Y.A. Erskine,  Kerry Greenwood, Wendy James and Angela Savage, among others. I’m so glad I ‘met’ these wonderful ladies from down under. To all of you, thanks for sharing your work with us, and it is my great pleasure to mention it on my blog. Want to read some terrific crime fiction by Aussie women writers? Sure ya do! Check out Fair Dinkum Crime, which is the source for all Australian crime fiction. And check out the Australian Women Writers challenge. Go ‘head. You’re in for a real treat!

 

 

New Character I’ve Met This Year That I’d Love to Have a Drink With

 

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant

Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney

Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe

Alan Orloff’s Channing Hayes

 

All of these sleuths are absolutely terrific characters whom I’m really happy that I met. They’re all smart, interesting and I’m sure they’d be a lot of fun to know in person. My vote, by a slim margin (‘cause they’re all great characters) is Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant. Quant’s smart, thoughtful, interesting, and knows lots of cool places to eat and drink. I could truly enjoy sharing a bottle of good wine and swapping stories with him. His would probably trump mine by a long shot. Check out all of these protagonists, folks – they’re all worth getting to know.

 

 

Author Whose Next Release I Am Most Eager For (Fingers are Drumming and I’m Waiting……Still Waiting…)

 

Paddy Richardson

Adrian Hyland

William Ryan

James Craig

 

All of these authors have wowed me with their novels. And now that I’ve gotten hooked it’s really very unfair to keep me waiting. Come on, you folks!! Next novel, please!!!!!!  There are a few other authors who’ve gotten me hooked (e.g. Elizabeth Spann Craig and Donna Malane), but I know when their next books are coming out, so I’ll be patient. But I am especially eager to read the next book by… Adrian Hyland. Hyland’s Emily Tempest series is one of the finest series I’ve read, and I really truly hope there’ll be a new one soon. A-a-a-hem, Mr. Hyland!!!

So there you have it. A few reflections on my own reading as we face the last few weeks of 2012. Now, please don’t ask me which book I’ve liked most of all I’ve read this year. First of all, the year isn’t over yet. Secondly, I couldn’t narrow it down.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jonathan Larson’s Seasons of Love.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Alan Orloff, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Ben Winters, Deon Meyer, Donna Malane, James Craig, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Paddy Richardson, Roger Smith, Vanda Symon, William Ryan, Y.A. Erskine