Category Archives: Paul Levine

Pressure, Pushing Down on Me*

In the US, one of the last major hurdles for Ph.D. candidates is defending their dissertations. I understand it’s the same in many other places, too. If you have a Ph.D. yourself, or you’ve sat in on one of these events, then you know it’s a very intense experience. As this is posted, it’s my ‘dissertation anniversary,’ which has me thinking about the process. Candidates spend weeks or even months preparing their presentations of their material, as well as responses to possible questions they may get from members of their dissertation committees (and, at times, the audience). And, of course, those questions may be about any aspect of the dissertation, so the candidate needs to be thoroughly familiar with every bit of the material. It’s nerve-wracking, to say the least.

The thing about defending a dissertation is that it’s a bit difficult to describe, since it doesn’t have a lot of obvious parallels in other fields. But a look at crime fiction can help give a few insights.

Getting ready to defend a dissertation is a little like rehearsing for a performance. Just as actors must know their lines and musicians must know their pieces, Ph.D. candidates have to have their presentations well-prepared. We see the intensity of rehearsal in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, Christine Poulson’s Stage Fright sees her protagonist, Cassandra James, asked to adapt a Victorian novel, East Lynne, for a stage production. She’s Head of the English Department at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge, and her specialty is Victorian literature. So, she’s the right choice for the job. All starts out well enough, and rehearsals begin. But then, Melissa Meadows, who is to take a leading role in the play, tells James that someone is stalking her. Then, she goes missing. This throws rehearsals into chaos, and, when she doesn’t return, leads to the investigation of a possible murder.

Fans of Ngaio Marsh, Simon Brett, and Deborah Nicholson, among others, will know that their novels also take the reader ‘backstage.’ In such novels, we see how many times material has to be prepared and how important timing is. We also see the suspense, nerves and tension that come out under so much pressure. It’s the same when one’s preparing to defend a dissertation.

Defending a dissertation isn’t really entertainment, though. Candidates need to be prepared to address challenges to everything about their work. They need to examine each aspect of their dissertations, from the topic, to the data collection, to the data analysis, and more. In that sense, preparing to defend a dissertation is a little like preparing for a trial. A good attorney prepares thoroughly for each trial. That includes working with witnesses and, possibly, the defendant. It also includes looking carefully at each aspect of the case, and addressing possible weaknesses. Attorneys know that any serious weaknesses in a case will be exploited by the other side. So, they do everything possible to prevent that. Admittedly, the Ph.D. candidate doesn’t risk prison. But it’s still quite a high-stakes process.

We see that sort of preparation in work by, for instance Scott Turow, John Grisham, Robert Rotenberg, and Paul Levine. The writing team of ‘Perri O’Shaughnessy’ also explore this sort of pre-trial work in their Nina Reilly novels.

Presenting one’s material before the dissertation committee, and fielding questions, isn’t exactly like a trial. The role of the dissertation committee is to support the candidate. After all, if the candidate doesn’t do well, this reflects on the committee, too – in particular on the candidate’s advisor/tutor, who generally chairs the committee.

In that way, defending a dissertation is a bit like a major sports competition. On the one hand, the player has to work very hard, and coaches can be difficult to satisfy. The Olympic Games, the World Series, the World Cup, and other such contests, all require discipline and focus. And coaches and trainers push and challenge players to get the most from them. At the same time, their role is to be allies and support systems.

Alison Gordon’s crime novels give readers a good look at what it’s like to play for a Major League baseball team. Readers see how important the actual games can be, and what the roles of coaches and trainers are. John Daniell’s The Fixer offers some similar insight into the world of rugby. And there’s Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar series, which takes the perspective of a sports agent. In all of these novels and series, we see how pivotal a game or series of games can be. That stress and tension is quite similar to what it’s like to defend a dissertation.

As I say, it’s a little difficult to describe getting ready to defend a dissertation. It’s a singular experience, and it challenges Ph.D. candidates to think about their work in ways they probably wouldn’t otherwise. But there is nothing quite like being informed you’ve passed, and having your committee address you as ‘Doctor.’ I often think it would actually be a solid context for a crime novel. There’s tension, intense preparation, possible ego clashes, and there’s no telling what the candidate might uncover in pursuit of that all-important data set. If you went through this process, I’d love to hear your experiences. I still remember mine, even after a number of years.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure.

28 Comments

Filed under Alison Gordon, Christine Poulson, Deborah Nicholson, Harlan Coben, John Daniell, John Grisham, Ngaio Marsh, Paul Levine, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Turow, Simon Brett

I’m Back to Livin’ Floridays*

FloridaAh, Florida – the ‘Sunshine State.’ Home of beautiful beaches, fresh citrus, delicious food, great nightlife, and Disney World. Florida attracts millions of tourists from all over the world, and with good reason. You’d think it would be an idyllic spot, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong.

There’s certainly real-life crime in Florida, and there’s plenty of fictional crime, too. From Pensacola to Key West, there are all sorts of fictional dirty doings in this southeasternmost state of the US.

One of the best-known series set in Florida is, of course, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. Fans of this series will know that McGee lives on a boat he’s named The Busted Flush. He won the boat in a card game (hence the name), and is content to live there. The boat is moored at Lauderdale, on Florida’s Atlantic coast, but McGee does travel at times. He refers to himself as a ‘salvage consultant,’ by which he means that he helps his clients recover property that’s been taken from them. His fee is steep: half of the value of the property. But his clients know that they have few other options, and would rather have half than nothing. In The Lonely Silver Rain, for instance, McGee is hired to find a wealthy friend’s yacht. He tracks it down, but when he goes aboard, he makes the gruesome discovery of several bodies. That discovery puts him right in the middle of South Florida’s ‘cocaine wars’ (the book was written in 1985). And it serves as a reminder of Florida’s history as a hub for drug smuggling and trafficking.

Slightly further south, Miami is the home of Paul Levine’s Steve Solomon/Victoria Lord series. Victoria Lord is a former prosecuting attorney from a privileged background. She prefers to do things ‘by the book.’ In Solomon vs Lord, the first of this series, Lord is fired from the job she’s had at the Florida state’s attorney’s office. She switches sides, as the saying goes, when defending counsel Steve Solomon hires her. In many ways, he’s her opposite. Where Lord prefers to play by the rules, Solomon’s view is, ‘when the law doesn’t work, work the law.’ Her law degree is from Yale; his is (barely) from the Key West School of Law. In this first novel, the two clash when they defend Katrinia Barksdale against the charge of murder. She’s been accused of killing her wealthy husband Charles, so there’s all sorts of money, sex and other juicy gossip to keep the local media in a frenzy.

Dave Barry’s Big Trouble also takes place in Miami. That novel features Arthur Herk, vice-president for a very corrupt local corporation, his wife, Anna, and daughter Jenny. When the boy next door, Matt Arnold, sneaks into the Herk home one night, his only goal is to use a squirt gun and best Jenny in an ongoing game of ‘killer.’ But Anna and Jenny think at first that he’s a real burglar and try to attack him. As if that’s not enough, Arthur tries to get involved, and ends up narrowly avoiding being killed by two hit men who’ve also snuck onto the property. Before they know it, the Herks, the Arnolds, the police, and a vagabond who lives in a tree on the Herk property are all caught in the crossfire, as the saying goes, and intertwined with an illegal arms trafficking scheme.

As you can see, South Florida isn’t exactly a safe place. What about Central Florida and the Everglades? Not so fast. Carl Hiaasen’s work shows just how unsafe it can be there. In Lucky You, for instance, features writer Tom Krone is assigned to do a story on JoLayne Lucks, who’s just won $US114 million. She wants to use the money to buy and preserve a piece of land in Florida. But everything changes when a group of neo-Nazis steals the ticket, with the idea of using the money to fund a militia. Before Krone knows it, he’s drawn into a complicated plan to get the ticket back. But neither he nor JoLayne has counted on the group of ruthless land developers who will do anything to keep the land free for development. Hiaasen’s done other novels, too, that feature the Florida landscape, and the ongoing debate over ecology and land preservation vs economic considerations and the tourist trade.

Howard Rigsby’s short story Dead Man’s Story shows that it’s no safer to live in the Florida Panhandle than it is anywhere else. Joe Root is a Florida game warden who knows,
 

‘..every swampy piece and piney stretch and bayou from Port St. Joe to Pensacola.’
 

One night, he comes upon a group of game poachers and confronts them. They try to first bribe him, then threaten him. He responds to neither approach and refuses to back down. The poachers think they’ve solved their problem when they kill Root. But they haven’t reckoned with Joe Root. He has his own way of bringing these killers to justice.

I don’t think a discussion of Florida crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Elmore Leonard. Many of his stories, including Maximum Bob, take place in Florida. In that novel, Florida Department of Corrections Officer Kathy Diaz Baker is starting her own life again after ending a disastrous marriage. She no sooner gets settled than she begins to get some very unwelcome attention from Judge Robert ‘Maximum Bob’ Gates. Gates isn’t a particularly nice person, especially if you ask the many people he put behind bars (he got his nickname because of his fondness for issuing the longest sentences the law allows). Baker is not fond of Gates, but she can’t ignore it when she learns that one of her parolees may be trying to kill the judge. But it turns out the judge has plans of his own. He’s sick of his New-Age wife, Leanne, and plans to get rid of her by frightening her to death with a dead alligator. Of course, this being an Elmore Leonard novel, things don’t go the way any one of these characters plan…

As I say, Florida is a beautiful place with a lot to offer. Those beaches, that food and drink, that climate, well, it’s all enough to entice anyone. But do be careful…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jimmy Buffett’s Floridays.

45 Comments

Filed under Carl Hiaasen, Dave Barry, Elmore Leonard, Howard Rigsby, John D. MacDonald, Paul Levine, Uncategorized