Saturday, January 28, 2017

Murder Mysteries -- An Essay

image from 8Tracks

Or why I quit reading one book without finishing it and go on to one of my goto writers even if I've read their book before. I know, I know -- where's the mystery in a mystery book you've read before. Or if you're binge watching TV and it's the fourth time you've seen that episode of Blue Bloods? You know whodunit already.

And we're talking mysteries here. Not thrillers. The difference? Well, in a thriller you know whodunit. Or, maybe not. But you're inside the whodunit's head and you know what he's going to do, but the hero doesn't. Or that poor dumb ingenue at the head of the steep, dark stairs into the dreaded basement. Why do they always go down there?

Okay, so I don't like thrillers. They're like horror movies. They're either really dumb or really scary. Either way, I'm not interested. And I sure as hell wouldn't go down those stairs.

What brought this on? As you might know, I am recovering from total knee replacement surgery, which here means that between pain meds and restricted activity, I just haven't been writing. I have, though, learned many important lessons: You can sleep on your back. But not in your bed. That's what lounge chairs were invented for. Rehab exercises can be painful. That's what pain meds were invented for. And when you take pain meds you can sleep on your back in lounge chairs. But you cannot string thoughts together in any kind of coherent fashion. You can read and you can watch TV. Especially if you've already read that book or seen that episode. But you cannot write.

Maybe I'm far enough along in my rehab that I can write. Nothing deep and maybe not particularly thought provoking unless thoughts come to you largely unprovoked. But here goes.

I finished the 14th and last book in Robert Jordan's fantasy series Wheel of Time a couple of weeks after the surgery. I'd read them before, but as always there were things I'd missed or forgotten. And it didn't matter much if I drifted off to sleep, I knew where I was when I woke again.

Then I went to John Lescroart's Dismas Hardy murder mysteries. I'd only read them once before. I was still enough in a fog that my previous reading didn't get in the way of my enjoyment -- once I got past that editor-in-my-brain who kept saying "I'd write it this way!" Obviously my health was improving.

I ran through the first four books in a little more than a week. It's just fascinating how many ways murder can be done and for how many reasons.

Anyway, I didn't have the fifth Dismas Hardy book on my Nook and I can't navigate the stairs (even with the lights on) into the basement where our library lives so I don't know if I have that book in hard copy or not.

I could have asked my husband to look for it. But I'd already asked him to find our Bend It Like Beckham DVD and he never did. Maybe he forgot. But, hey! He's been doing the laundry, cooking, dishes, grocery shopping, driving me to doctor's appointments and physical therapy, and cheering me on. So, what I'm doing here is what my Grandmother used to do. She never complained. But she did point out exactly what it was she never complained about.

I do appreciate him and all the help he's being. And he knows we'll be doing this all again in a couple of months. He's a rock! And it doesn't hurt that he's pretty cute, too.

Anyway, under all the detritus on my side of the bed (that I am only just now being able to sleep in again) was a Ken Follett book, A Place Called Freedom, that I'd never read. I don't even remember buying it, but it has a pink sticker on it marked $1.99. So I'd say I got it at ARC, my favorite thrift store. And now you know why I usually steer clear of their book section. If I go there, I'm gonna buy one. Or, at these prices, a dozen. And the money goes to good purpose.

I like Ken Follet's work, but ....

Having grown up in Oklahoma, I'm quite familiar with my country's despicable history with slavery, segregation, and discrimination. And the continuing ramifications. Interestingly enough, I'm always a bit surprised to discover that slavery was not peculiar to the American South, indeed, not peculiar to America at all.

A Place Called Freedom takes place just before the American Revolution. It follows a young man from his life as a miner in Scotland -- where miner's children were 'dedicated' during their baptismal rites "to work in [the laird's] mines, boy and man, for as long as he is able, or until he die.'' Not strictly legal, but the miners didn't know that. They were required to go down in the mines as children and if they worked in the mine one year and one day following their 21st birthday, they were the mine owner's property for the rest of their lives. And that part was strictly legal.

Malachi McAsh escapes the mine, Scotland, and eventually England, too. But so many bad things happen to him with no let up that I just could not continue reading the book.

You know, I almost quit reading in the middle of one of the books in the Harry Potter series. I don't remember which one it was but it was the one with Dolores Umbridge as the onsite bad guy. Probably the only reason I kept reading Harry Potter was that I was so invested in Harry that I couldn't quit and after I'd read that particular volume, I knew I didn't ever have to read that one again.

Chances are good that I'll never know how Mr. McAsh's life turned out.

Murder mysteries? Why on Earth would I leave a book following a character who is constantly besieged by perfectly dreadful events and turn to a murder mystery? Speaking of 'perfectly dreadful events.'

Because! Especially because it's John Lescroart's murder mystery. His characters are all three-dimensional. Four dimensional, actually, because the books not only show their whole selves, but their selves as they live through time. They experience: dark thoughts in dark events overseen by dangerous people in their work as policemen and attorneys; humorous interactions with people they love; joyous events in their lives quite separate from their work; and, sometimes, even sad events in their lives separate from their work.

And in John Lescroart's murder mysteries we're given things to think about. Like this from Nothing but the Truth. Dismas Hardy's cop friend Abe is half Jewish, half Black and all homicide inspector for the San Francisco Police Department.

Abe's father is thinking:
     "Lots of times when he'd been younger, he'd been less than diligent at keeping the Sabbath,
     but now in his eighth decade he'd come to believe that the Ten Commandments had gotten
     everything exactly right if you wanted to have a world full of healthy and productive
     people. People should pay attention to the wisdom in all ten of them, he believed. They
     really should. Keeping the Sabbath, taking a day off, kept you sane."

Now this passage may not help you or the book's heroes solve the mystery, but it goes a long way to tell us who our main characters are and how they got that way -- all the while dispensing some very useful wisdom.

Plus! At the end of most murder mysteries, we as readers have the satisfaction of not only finding out whodunit and why, but the baddies get their just deserts. (With a nod to Lemony Snicket) which here means "what they deserve."

"...the word 'desert' — [when pronounced with the accent on the second syllable like the word dessert] — ...refers to a deserved reward or punishment. Therefore, someone who does wrong and is punished in a suitable manner has received his 'just deserts.'"

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Dead Irish --- A Book Review

Dead Irish 

This is the first of fifteen crime fiction books featuring Dismas Hardy by New York Times Best Selling Author John Lescroart. And I've read them all.

In the beginning our main character, Dismas Hardy, describes himself as a bartending, divorced ex-marine, ex-cop, ex-attorney thirty-eight-year-old who doesn't know who he is.

Sounds like almost every hard-nosed, plain-spoken, crime-solving Vietnam veteran ever, doesn't it?

Then his boss's brother-in-law comes up dead. A probable suicide. Other people end up battered or dead. All connected. Or possibly not. And Dismas is among the living again.

The plot has twists and turns and enough suspects to keep me turning pages. Even this second time through, and I know whodunnit.

Named for the good thief crucified with Christ, Dismas Hardy is floundering. It's been ten years since he lost his baby, his wife, and any future worth caring about. He keeps his few friends at arms length for fear of losing yet more. He avoids anything that might rekindle any passion for life. Hardy has two interests -- competitive darts and an old but well-cared-for iron skillet.

Hardy's best friend and boss -- a buddy from Marine days in Vietnam -- Moses McGuire owns the Little Shamrock, a typical San Fran neighborhood bar where Hardy's flotsam self has washed ashore.

Frannie Cochran (nee McGuire) is Mose's much younger sister. It's been just the two of them since their parents died and Moses loves her more than anything in the world. When her husband Eddie Cochran is found dead of a gunshot wound, the plot's afoot. The McGuires and Cochrans are Catholic so suicide presents a certain complication. Not to mention that life insurance doesn't pay out on suicide.

No one who knew Eddie Cochran wants to believe he could have killed himself. He was too idealistic. He had plans. He loved his wife. They had a future. But there's nothing at the scene that substantiates any other possible cause of death. McGuire asks Hardy to look into it.

Abe Glitsky is a hard-working homicide detective with San Francisco's finest. He and Dismas were partners back in Hardy's days as a cop. Their friendship is still there, but it's been allowed to lie fallow. Naturally, Hardy contacts Glitsky for help.

Abe is up for promotion and a much needed raise to support his growing family. There are three men in the running for that promotion, a white man, a Latino, and Glitsky who is half-black and half-Jewish. Now we've got department politics in the mix. Abe didn't catch the Cochran assignment. The white detective did. Which puts Glitsky in the position of stepping on a fellow officer's toes if he helps Hardy. And that officer is prickly enough without the competition.

As events unfold, even Hardy's ex-wife Jane and her father Judge Andy Fowler show up .

What Lescroart does so well (and why I read him) is his character development. Each of them is unique and recognizable.

These people will show up in the next fourteen books. And by the end of Dead Irish, that's what they are. People -- not characters. They grow and change. Friends die. Babies are born. And you're left looking forward to the next book in the series.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

When the Writer Can't Write -- Nonfiction

image from Harvard Business Review

Yep. I've got post-surgery, drug-induced writer's block.

The surgery went well. Rehab is coming along. Ten days in and counting. I still have trouble putting thoughts together in any consistently coherent way. A writer can't write if they can't think.

I can't stand another moment in front of the TV. TV News? My thinking is so muddled, I can't even maintain appropriate depression. Daytime TV? All those talk shows? They're just so much noise. Those folks are less coherent than what's going on in my head. Nighttime TV? There is PBS, but I can't seem to keep up with anything. Except the cooking and travel shows. Even with them, I tend to dose off which, admittedly, is not terribly unusual for me. But this is ridiculous.

I have been reading. Finished A Memory of Light, the 14th and final volume of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. I did just fine with it. Of course it's my third time through and I'm thoroughly familiar with the umpteen characters. And Memory is 885 pages of the "Last Battle." How could anyone get confused about what's going on there?

I still was not ready to write. So the thing to do was to start another series that I've read before -- so I don't have to figure out who's who or what's going on.

John LesCroart's Dismas Hardy series. Unlike Wheel of Time, each book is a complete crime fiction story. But you need to start with the first one, because the stories are in the same world with the same characters. The thing I like about them is that the well-developed characters live and change as the stories go along. I have a vested interest in them.

So last night I started Dead Irish. Also, it was my second try at sleeping in my bed after the surgery. I haven't been able to get comfortable sleeping lying down. I've been sleeping in a recliner. So...I took the book, cuddled down in my bed, next to my warm husband, and prepared to read myself to sleep.

He likes to read himself to sleep, too. Normally, I am courteous enough not to interfere.

I'm reading along quite happily when I come to this paragraph:

       "In a way, he thought it was too bad the plane hadn't crashed. There would have
        been some symmetry in that -- both of his parents had died in a plane crash when
        he'd been nineteen a sophomore at Cal Tech."

My mind kicked into editor mode.

"Listen to this," I said interrupting Scott's reading. He didn't care about the crime novel I was reading. But he's in his care-giver mode right now. He's a nice man. He'd've been courteous regardless of my medical situation.

Anyway I read him the paragraph as Mr. LesCroart wrote it. And proceeded to followup with the wording I thought the writer should have used. And why.

        "It was too bad the plane hadn't crashed. (No need for the attribution. It was third person close. Obviously, we were inside the main character's head.) There would have been symmetry in that -- his parents died in a plane crash when he was a nineteen-year-old Cal Tech sophomore. (Fewer words, same information. Stronger language.)"

"Hmmm," my husband said.

For several days now, I've been verbally rewriting the dialog on TV commercials. And in syndicated episodes of  Blue Bloods, one of Scott's favorite TV shows.

If a writer can't write, there is only one alternative. Edit!

I think my husband is going to be glad when I've completed rehab and started writing again. Maybe then he can watch his shows and read in peace.