Telling Tales

storytellerCrime writer and fellow blogger D.S. Nelson has offered this terrific ‘photo of a storyteller as a story prompt. Below is the story that came from it. Thank you, D.S., for the inspiration! Now, please go visit D.S. Nelson’s excellent site, and try her Blake Heatherington mysteries. You’ll be glad you did.

 

Telling Tales
 

Alison looked through the shop window at the displays of books. She’d come back to her home town for just a few days to do some research for her own next book, and she was looking forward to seeing some old friends who still lived in town. One of them was the manager of this little independent bookshop. She smiled at the display, and went in, pulling off the knitted hat she’d worn as a protection against the early frost. She shook out her tumble of tight, ash-blonde curls, and headed for the counter.

‘May I help you?’ asked the young woman at the cash register.
‘Yes, I’m wondering if I could speak to Tommy Shafner? He’s expecting me, I think.’
At the mention of the owner’s name, the woman looked up with interest. Then her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open a little. After a moment, she recovered herself. ‘You – you’re Alison Browne, right?’
‘That’s me,’ Alison answered with a friendly smile.
‘I’m – I’m a really big fan of your work. I read every book of yours that comes in here. It’s a real pleasure to meet you.’
‘Thank you. That’s very kind.’
After a moment of awkward silence, the young woman said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m – I’m Mikayla. You wanted to speak with Tommy?’
‘Hi, Mikayla. Yes, I’m doing some research for my new book, and I wanted to talk to Tommy about some questions I have. He and I are old friends.’
‘Of course. Let me go get him.’

Mikayla watched as her boss chatted with Alison Browne. If only she could hear what they were saying. She’d try to talk to Alison later if she could. For now, she really ought to get back to work. Well, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to listen, just for a minute. After edging as close as she could, she was able to pick up a little of their conversation. When she heard what they were talking about, her throat closed and she had to swallow hard.

Twenty minutes later, Alison passed by the register on her way out. She noticed Mikayla looking at her closely. As she got nearer, she saw that Mikayla didn’t look well at all.
‘You all right?’ she asked. ‘You look awfully pale.’
‘I’m OK,’ Mikayla mumbled. ‘Just a little tired is all.’ Then she looked thoughtfully at Alison. ‘You’ll be here for a few days, right?’
‘That’s right.’
‘Maybe we could talk, you and I? I could really use your advice. I’m working on my own writing, and I’d love some tips.’
‘No problem. How about if I stop in again tomorrow? About the same time?’
‘That’d be fabulous. And thanks.’

The next afternoon, Alison found herself back at the bookshop. It always excited her when writers asked her for advice. In a way, though, it was awkward. She didn’t feel like an expert. She hadn’t even taken a degree in literature or creative writing. It was just a fluke that she’d been published in the first place. She didn’t see that she had that much to offer, but she’d do her best.

Once inside the store, she saw Mikayla wave to her from one of the aisles.
‘You came!’ Mikayla said when Alison got close enough.
‘Of course I did. I’m no super expert, but I’d be happy to help.’
‘Great! I brought my notebook and pen, but I left them in the back room. Do you mind if we talk there?’
‘No, not at all.’
‘Let me just lock up, so we won’t be disturbed.’
‘All right, if you think you should.’
‘Definitely.’

Five minutes later they were seated at the small table in the back room. Mikayla started the conversation. ‘So, what’s your new book going to be about?’
‘Well, it’s a fictional account of a murder that happened not far from here.’
‘Really? Which murder? Not that there are many.’
‘Do you remember Jacqui Dale’s death? Her body was found in the lake?’
‘Sure do. You’re raking that up again? I thought they put her boyfriend away for that.’
‘See, that’s the thing,’ Alison said. ‘I’m not sure he did it. So I’m trying to find another explanation. Something else that explains the facts.’ Then Alison noticed the look on Mikayla’s face. ‘Wait. You know something about that murder?’
‘You could say so. I knew her.’
‘Would you be willing to talk to me about it?’
Mikayla bit her lip. ‘You don’t want to go bringing that whole thing up again, do you?’ It’d be much better to leave it alone. Just completely leave it.’
‘But what if the wrong person’s in jail for murder?’
‘Just leave it! Please!’ Makayla’s voice had gotten high-pitched and tense.
Alison felt her stomach turn. She slowly got up from the chair. ‘You do know something about this, don’t you?’

Mikayla stood up, too. Alison started to move towards the door, but Mikayla blocked her exit. She pulled a knife from where she’d hidden it, between two cartons of books. ‘I tried to tell you! I tried to get you to drop the whole thing, but you didn’t listen.’
‘Mikayla, don’t! I –’ Alison never got to finish her sentence. And the world never heard the story of how Mikayla had been furious with Jacqui for stealing her boyfriend. Or how she’d taken Jacqui out to the lake for ‘a private talk.’ A talk that had ended when Jacqui drowned. As far as Mikayla was concerned, that was a tale that didn’t need to be told. And if that moron was in jail, good for him!

The next morning, Tommy came into the store. ‘You look like you haven’t slept in days!’ he said when he saw Mikayla.
‘Yeah, kind of a late night last night,’ she said.
‘Oh, by the way, I’m having lunch with Alison Browne today. She’s stopping by around one, just so you know.’
‘Oh, she called. Told me to tell you she won’t be able to make it,’ Mikayla said.

13 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Please Don’t Leave Me*

returning-to-authorsAbout a week ago, I did a post on what happens when an author disappoints readers. That can happen for any number of reasons. For one thing, authors aren’t perfect. For another, there’s the matter of personal taste. An author may write a book that just isn’t to a reader’s taste, and that may disappoint. There are other things, too, that can leave a reader unhappy about a book.

At the time of that post, I asked you to let me know what you do when that happens. Do you come back to the author? Do you return if you’re a fan of that author’s work? If the disappointment wasn’t too serious? Or do you choose not to return to authors who’ve disappointed you?
 

Here’s what you had to say, and many thanks for responding.

 

returningtoauthors

 

As you can see, you’re a forgiving group of readers. Of the 22 of you who responded, 20 (91%) are willing to return to an author who’s disappointed you. Eight (36%) of you are usually open to returning in just about any case. Twelve (55%) will do so if you’re a fan of the author, and/or if the disappointment isn’t too upsetting. Two (9%) don’t return to authors who’ve disappointed you.

Why this willingness to return when an author’s let you down? After all, there’s only so much time available for reading. And there are many, many more good books available than anyone can read in a lifetime. Based on the comments you offered, and on what I’ve heard elsewhere, here are my thoughts (with which, of course, feel free to disagree)

One reason may be that you’ve seen that a given author is capable of writing excellent books. This gives you at least some confidence that a disappointing book is just one book, not a pattern. So you’re willing to return, because you’re fairly certain the payoff will be worth it. Of course, your patience probably has its limits (that’s a topic for another blog post, I think). But in general, you believe in authors whose work you really admire.

Of course, that explanation only accounts for those cases where you’re let down by an author whose work you love. What else might be going on? A few of you mentioned an extra willingness to try an author again if the disappointment came from a debut novel. Many authors need a novel or two to find their voices. Even Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was rejected numerous times before she finally found a publisher. And lots of Christie experts think her best novels came later. So you might be more willing to give a debut author another chance, with the hope that the second novel will be better.

There are personal factors involved, too. As one of you mentioned, you might have read that disappointing book at a time that just wasn’t right for it. Or when you were in the wrong mood for it. There’s the ‘personal taste’ factor, too. A book might tackle a subject that doesn’t interest you. And yet, you liked the writing style, characters, or something else about it. So, when the author has a new release (on a different topic), you’re willing to try it.

A few of you choose not to return to authors who’ve disappointed you, and that’s understandable. After all, no-one has the time to read everything. And we’ve all experienced the frustration of spending our time on a book that lets us down. Why set yourself up for that? In the main, though, you’re willing to try an author again, especially if it’s an author whose work you love, and/or the disappointment wasn’t too severe.

In looking at this and reflecting on the question, I wonder whether there’s a difference between writers and people in other professions when it comes to trying an author more than once. Are writers more willing to forgive (because writers understand as few people can how difficult it is to write a book)? Or, are they harsher critics (because they see ways in which the book could have been improved that non-writers may not)? What do you folks think about that? If you’re a writer, does that fact make you more forgiving?  Less forgiving? Or doesn’t your writing impact your willingness to give an author another chance?

Thanks again for your help with this question!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Norman Whitfield and Edward Holland, Jr.’s Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.

23 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Use Your Freedom of Choice*

banned-books-week-2016In a recent post about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I mentioned that it could be thought of as a crime novel. Certainly there’s an argument that it has several of the elements we often see in crime fiction, especially in noir stories. Whether you agree that it’s a crime novel or not, I think it’s safe to say that the book has earned its place as a classic of literature.

So, we could argue, has Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In one sense, it’s a coming-of-age story as Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch learns about friendship and about the consequences of judging people and events by appearances. She also learns important lessons about ethics and about justice from her father, attorney Atticus Finch. This could also be seen as a crime novel. After all, a main plot thread concerns Tom Robinson, a black man who’s been accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Robinson claims he’s innocent, and Atticus Finch defends his case. Because of the time and place that form the book’s setting, the proverbial dice are very much loaded against Robinson. The case, the trial and its outcome have become iconic, and you could certainly classify the novel on that score as crime fiction.

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood counts as crime fiction as well. This novel is the fictional account of the 1959 murders of Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife, Bonnie Mae, and his children, Nancy Mae and Kenyon. Richard Hickok and Perry Smith were arrested, tried and convicted of the crime, and it turns out that their motive was money. The killers had heard during an earlier prison stint that Clutter had a lot of money buried on his farm. That wasn’t true, but Hickok and Smith believed that it was, and that was enough to seal the Clutters’ fate. This story explores the histories of the two killers, their relationships, and the impact on a small Kansas community of the Clutter murders. This novel has become iconic among what I think of as ‘untrue crime’ – fictional retellings of real murder stories.

There’s no debating whether John Grisham’s A Time to Kill is crime fiction. In this novel (Grisham’s debut), Clanton, Mississippi attorney Jake Brigance gets an extremely important and difficult case. Carl Lee Hailey has been arrested for shooting Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard, as well as for wounding a police officer. There’s no doubt about whether he did the shooting; there were witnesses. And it doesn’t help his case that he’s black and the victims are white. But the case is not at all simple. Cobb and Wilson had recently attacked, beaten, and raped Hailey’s ten-year-old daughter, Tonya. There’s a great deal of sympathy for Hailey, and many people say privately that they’d have done the same. At the same time, vigilantism can’t be condoned. Hailey knows Brigance, and asks for him specifically when he is arrested. Brigance likes Hailey, and certainly understands why he did what he did. And Brigance knows that this case will generate a lot of media attention – the kind that propels attorneys into very well-paying positions. So he agrees to defend Hailey. This novel proved to be the beginning of an extremely highly-regarded writing career for Grisham. And the story itself has gotten all sorts of praise.

So has David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. That novel’s focus is the murder trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, a Puget Sound fisher. He’s alleged to have murdered another fisher, Carl Heine, Jr. Alvin Hooks prosecutes the case; Miyamoto is defended by Nels Gudmundsson. As the trial proceeds, we learn that the histories of the two families involved goes back to the time before World War II. Miyamoto’s father had made a deal with Heine’s father to, in essence, protect his family’s land, since Japanese immigrants weren’t allowed to own land. The idea was that the Heine family would ‘officially’ own the land, but would return it to Kabuo Miyamoto (who was born in the US, and is therefore a citizen) when he turned 20, and could take possession of it. Things haven’t turned out that way, and there’s a great deal of anger, resentment, and prejudice involved in this case. This novel has won prizes and been adapted both for film and for stage.

All of these novels are well-regarded as literature, and as crime novels, too. But they have something else in common. They’ve all been banned or challenged. There’ve been different reasons for banning/challenging in each case, but the end result has been an attempt to keep those books from being circulated in libraries and in classrooms.

These are just a few of the many, many novels that have faced banning/challenging. Sometimes the challenge comes from individuals or local/regional groups. Sometimes it comes from governments. Here’s the thing about banning, though. It doesn’t just restrict access to a particular book, author, or topic. It’s an attempt to restrict thinking and critical reasoning. What’s more, it can prevent people from reading truly fine novels.

But banning doesn’t really stop people getting ideas. It doesn’t prevent curiosity, reflection on the human condition, or interest in certain topics. So banning doesn’t work in terms of keeping people from thinking.  It can, though, prevent open discussion and debate about what’s in a book. And that in turn keeps us from dealing with issues we need to face.

This week (25 September – 1 October) is Banned Books Week in the US. It’s intended to call attention to efforts to ban books, and to remind us to preserve our freedom to read what we wish, and our freedom to write what we wish. I, for one, cherish this right. That’s how ideas are created, shared, debated, and refined. And that’s what moves us forward. Yes, writers are responsible for what they write, with all of its consequences. But they should not be prevented from telling their stories. And readers should not be prevented from experiencing them.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Devo’s Freedom of Choice.

30 Comments

Filed under David Guterson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, John Grisham, Truman Capote

Science Lab ;-)

science-in-crime-fiction-quizEveryone’s back in school for the autumn or spring term. It’s time to tackle those chemistry labs and biology experiments! All of this has put me in mind of…

 
 
 
 

…a quiz! Oh, stop it! Did I force you to come to this blog today? I don’t think so!😉
 

Detectives couldn’t solve cases without good science. And as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know all of your crime-fictional scientists, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question to the correct answer and see how well you do.

Ready? Go into the lab to begin…if you dare!😉

 

sciencelab

36 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

In The Spotlight: Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels don’t fit neatly into the conventional ‘crime novel’ structure. And that can be good for the genre, as it makes it more flexible and inclusive. That’s the sort of novel Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that story today.

Wealthy and successful São Paolo businessman Olavo Bettencourt has a life many people would envy. He has a beautiful home in an exclusive, well-guarded part of the city; he has a beautiful ‘trophy wife,’ Mara, and a healthy young son, Olavinho.

Olavo is an advertising executive, so he’s very much in demand by people who want their businesses to do well. And with Brazil’s government getting more open, political candidates are using advertising more and more. All of this draws Olavo into a web of corrupt deals and dirty business. He likes the money and power, and he certainly likes the ‘perks.’ But he’s really much more trapped in that web than he thinks. And his world is not nearly as perfect as he’d like to think it is.

Olavo’s vulnerability becomes all too clear when a gang decides to kidnap Olavinho. It’s a logical choice, since Olavo has a great deal of money, and would likely do anything he’s told in order to get his son back. The plans are made, and the gang sets everything in motion. On the appointed morning, the kidnappers wait near the Bettencourt home, where they’ll abduct Olavinho as he’s being transported to the private school he attends. But they end up kidnapping the wrong boy.

Instead of Olavinho, they’ve abducted the mute son of the Bettencourt’s housekeeper.  Now, the gang has to decide what to do with the boy they took, and what to do about their plans to kidnap the real Bettencourt son. For his part, Olavo has to decide what to tell the media and the police. After all, the more that’s known about him, the more vulnerable he is to criminal investigation.

As frantic efforts are made on both sides, the story follows the various people involved, and readers learn a great deal about how business is done in contemporary Brazil.

In one sense, this is a thriller. As the action plays out, there are various twists and turns in the plot. There’s violence, too. And the pacing is fairly swift. That said, though, (at least for me), the story doesn’t require the number of suspensions of disbelief that are sometimes seen in thrillers.

As the story unfolds, we get to know the characters, and we see beneath the public masks they wear. Olavo Bettencourt, for instance, is a much-disliked person. He is venal and corrupt, and thinks he’s a lot more important than it turns out that he is. He’s usually dismissive of his wife, treating her more as an ‘arm decoration’ for parties and a ready bed partner than an actual person. And he can be verbally cruel to her, too.

For her part, Mara is also deeply flawed. She’s clawed her way up from being a poor girl from the proverbial backstreets, and has done a lot of questionable things to get there. She likes having security and comfort, but she loathes her husband. And as the book goes on, she gets more and more disgusted with playing the role of his beautiful mannequin. To say the least, this isn’t what you’d call a functional family.

There are some sympathetic characters in the novel. For example, it’s easy to feel for Irene, the family housekeeper and mother of the boy who has actually been abducted. She sees everything that goes on in the family, and does what she has to do to survive in a country that offers few opportunities if you don’t have money.

And the country – contemporary Brazil – is an important element in the story. As we learn about Olavo’s many deals and the people behind them, we learn how politics, corporate money and wealth work together there. We also see some of the stark differences among the social classes. While it’s hard to have sympathy for the kidnappers, it’s not hard to see how one might take advantage of an opportunity for quick, easy money, where nobody’s supposed to get hurt.

The story is told from several different perspectives. There’s Mara’s, there’s Olavo’s, there’s Irene’s, and there’s the point of view of one of the kidnappers. There are also other characters whom we meet. Readers who prefer one point of view will notice this.

It’s also worth noting that this novel isn’t told in a linear, chronological fashion. It begins with the kidnapping and its fallout, and then slowly tells the story of what led to it. Then the story continues with the aftermath, approaching it from a variety of perspectives. Readers who prefer a story to be told chronologically will notice this. Each section is identified by the date and time, so it’s a straightforward business to work out when the events happen. But it does ask for attentiveness.

This isn’t a light novel with a happy ending. But there are signs that life will go on. Some of the characters make choices that suggest that things will get better; and we can see how some things will be all right again. The ending leaves the door open, as the saying goes.

Happiness is Easy takes a look at modern Brazilian society through the means of a high-profile kidnapping and its aftermath. It features some not-very pleasant characters (and some sympathetic ones), and raises some important questions about corruption, wealth and what really ‘counts’ as valuable. But what’s your view? Have you read Happiness is Easy? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 3 October/Tuesday, 4 October – The Good Boy – Teresa Schwegel

Monday, 10 October/Tuesday, 11 October – Inside the Black Horse – Ray Berard

Monday, 17 October/Tuesday, 18 October – The Gentlemen’s Club – Jen Shieff

24 Comments

Filed under Edney Silvestre, Happiness is Easy