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  1. Around the time he published some of his mostly famous works—Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn, to name a few—Henry Miller handwrote and illustrated six known “long intimate book letters” to his friends, including Anaïs Nin, Lawrence Durrell, and Emil Schnellock. Three of these were published during his lifetime; two posthumously; and one, dedicated to a David Forrester Edgar (1907–1979), was unaccounted for, both unpublished and privately held—until recently, when it came into the possession of the New York Public Library. On March 17, 1937, Miller opened a printer’s dummy—a blank mock-up of a book used by printers to test how the final product will look and feel—and penned the first twenty-three pages of a text written expressly to and for a young American expatriate who had “haphazardly led him to explore entirely new avenues of thought,” including “the secrets of the Bhagavad Gita, the occult writings of Mme Blavatsky, the spirit of Zen, and the doctrines of Rudolf Steiner.” He called it The Book of Conversations with David Edgar. Over the next six and a half weeks, Miller added eight more dated entries, as well as two small watercolors and a pen-and-ink sketch. The result was something more than personal correspondence and less than an accomplished narrative work: a hybrid form of literary prose we might call the book-letter. As far as we know, Miller never sought to have the book published, and the only extant copy of the text is the original manuscript now held by the Berg Collection at the NYPL. Miller had come to Paris in 1930 or 1931, ostensibly to paint. Edgar probably met Miller sometime during the first half of 1936. At twenty-nine, he was fifteen years Miller’s junior. Edgar soon joined the coterie of writers and artists who congregated around Miller’s studio at 18 villa Seurat. His interest in Zen Buddhism, mysticism, Theosophy, and the occult apparently helped energize Miller to embark on his own spiritual pilgrimage, and to articulate what he discovered there in his writing. “I feel I have never lived on the same level I write from, except with you and now with Edgar,” Miller confided to Anaïs Nin. Miller left Paris in May 1939. Edgar eventually returned to the United States as well. Though the two men seem to have stayed in sporadic contact, they probably never met again. Except for a single letter from Miller to Edgar written in March 1937—a carbon copy of which Miller saved until the end of his life —no correspondence between them is known to have survived. —Michael Paduano March 17, 1937 Saint Patrick’s Day In the past I had many conversations, many discussions, with others—and they were very important events in my life, and perhaps too in the lives of these others. Nothing is left of them but the aroma, the fragrance, the aura. They are in my blood, these heated conversations, but they are impossible to recall in any substantial form. If I make herein some feeble attempt to preserve the flame of our conversations it is partly for your own benefit, mon cher Edgar. I write these notes in anticipation of the day when you will open this little volume and marvel at your own lucidity, your own wisdom. In talking to you I see always before me a man desperately seeking his own salvation. It is this primarily which has brought me back to you for renewed bouts. For in watching your struggle, in assisting at your salvation, I have taken strength and courage myself. In a way, then, all these conversations in the past, made so vivid now by our recent ones, had the same quality—that of vital exchange. As I listen to you, or even listening to myself, I hear again the themes which only under these auspicious circumstances are brought to light. The eternal themes because the problems are eternal. No, Edgar, make no mistake. We solve nothing. That is, no more than Socrates solved anything, or Goethe in talking with Eckermann. No more than Buddha in communing with himself under the “historic” banyan tree. We are solving the business of solving! Therein lies an illusion which is not only satisfying, but activating. I hear you saying often: “No, but freedom is not that at all—it is just the opposite, in fact!” And as you burst out with it I hear the cogs creaking and the chains slipping. I hear all my other friends in the past speaking with equal conviction, equal ecstasy, in the act of discovery. I believe that in these moments a very real movement, a forward push, is made. It is for these moments solely, whether as contributor or inspired listener, that I come back to the joys of conversation, which it seems to me is an art involving spontaneous creation, or else nothing. I see you often coming toward me out of the all-enveloping fog of the cloister, with the little notes you so frantically made in your room still clinging to the lapels of your coat. I see you coming toward me full of vital questions. “Look, I want to ask you something …” My dear Edgar, I know you want to ask me everything. I know that, for the time being, I am playing substitute for God. And if I am giving you back now a reflection of your enthusiasms it is nothing more than the little Bible which you have created in me through the act of revelation. So many times, in listening to you, I have had the feeling that the word neurosis is a very inadequate one to describe the struggle which you are waging with yourself. “With yourself”—there perhaps is the only link with the process which has been conveniently dubbed a malady. This same malady, looked at in another way, might also be considered a preparatory stage to a “higher” way of life. That is, as the very chemistry of the evolutionary process. In the course of this most interesting disease the conflict of “opposites” is played out to the last ditch. Everything presents itself to the mind in the form of dichotomy. This is not at all strange when one reflects that the awareness of “opposites” is but a means of bringing to consciousness the need for tension, polarity. “God is schizophrenic,” as you so aptly said, only because the mind, whetted to acute understanding by the continuous confrontation of oscillations, finally envisages a resolution of conflict in a necessitous freedom of action in which significance and expression are one. Which is madness, or, if you like, only schizophrenia. The word schizophrenia, to put it better, contains a minimum and a maximum of relation to the thing it defines. It is a counter to sound with … So where are we? Why at the “Bouquet d’Alesia,” at exactly that segment of the bar which you asked me to examine closely before answering definitively the question about “growth and decay.” In those eighty-five centimeters of the synthetic marble bar God took out his compass and drew a magic circle for us. “The bar is both alive and dead,” He said, in his usual jovial way. “Going toward death as functional concept; vitally alive as atomic compost. Alive-and-dead as bar to man and man to bar. Without extreme unction no birth, no death. Caught at 12:20 midnight in the stagnant flux of introspection … Pose another problem!” There was a button to be sewed on the sack coat, pockets to be mended, a fire to be made. The answer today before yesterday’s questions still caught in the typewriter roller. What to do? A lait chaud tout seule! [“Just a hot milk!” A more literal translation, which Miller plays on in the following two sentences, would be: “a hot milk all alone!”] Always, when cogitating and recogitating, a lait chaud. Always tout seule when answering the final question which is for tomorrow. What happened? I mean—today? Why tomorrow. A lait chaud! Being God imposes difficulties, godlike ones to be sure. For one thing there is neither Time nor Space. Then again there are no beds, no holes to be mended. Everything moves on casters on a waxed floor. There is no end to the floor—no wall, no exit. It seems to me we are now safely and snugly at home. No, not quite either. The missing blanket is a bit wrinkled at the foot of the missing bed. God is so snugly ensconced that he begins to have imaginary, and of course very very trifling but very very real aches and pains. He is like a sound and healthy man with an amputated leg just before the winter rains set in. He wants a real leg so that he will have an excuse for complaining. Now, as every scientist will tell you, the real leg, of course, is in the brain. That’s why it can hurt even when it’s missing. But God has no arms and legs, neither has he a brain, so the difficulty must lie elsewhere. It lies exactly, if my memory serves me right, a league and a half northeast of Neptune. The only real difficulty here, however, is in distinguishing north from south, and east from west. God knows that Himself, even though he is without a brain, and that, that alone, is the reason why He is troubled. “Donnez-moi de la monnaie, s’il vous plaît.” [Give me some change, please.] PLEH—not PLAY. Home with Expression and Significance … The lucidity of Keyserling is amazing. (The fire could be a little brighter, even if not warmer.) So is it with Krishnamurti. What was that again about Memory—the unlived residue? Or some such thing. (Wonder if that bugger Henry Miller is starting another volume of work.) No, often Henry Miller is already in bed planning the next day’s adventure. Henry has the faculty of knowing when to call it a day. He says ofttimes, just before falling off to sleep, “if I croak during the night it will be perfectly all right.” Dying peacefully with his boots on. That’s the way Henry takes it. You can do more than just so much each day, but on condition that you lose no time thinking about it. Just so I make a sort of mental and spiritual progression each time I meet you and we have it out. I learn by your mistakes and am fortified by your discouragement. You profit then by your friend’s misfortune? Oui, c’est ça! Je ne me blame pas. Content, très content, moi. Tout s’arrange dans la vie pour quiconque sait d’en profiter. Je ne me trompe jamais. Toujours droit et en avant. Avant et après—il n’y a que ça. Bien sure, il y a aussi des hypothèques—c’est à dire, des ennuis. Comme c’est beau, les ennuis! Comme la pluie septentrionale! La terre tourne. Et nous aussi. L’on tourne en place. Chaque minute compte. Chaque minute fait quelque chose irremédiable. C’est bon, ça. Tout juste. La vie se présente à nous en mille aspects. Chaque aspect a son valeur, son moment, pour ainsi dire. Faut en profiter. Il n’y a pas à plaindre. Faut jouir. Faut faire l’amour avec les sacrés moments qui sont vraiment sacrés. C’est tout, mon ami. Absolument tout. Pourtant, il y a quelque chose à ajouter … C’est pourquoi je ne m’arrète pas. Je continue … Je laisse la parole à Dieu. Il sait beau parler. Son métier, quoi! [You profit then by your friend’s misfortune? Yes, that’s right! I don’t hold it against myself. I’m content, very content. Everything in life works out for whoever knows how to enjoy it. I never make a mistake. Always straight and onward. Before and after—that’s all there is. Of course, there are also debts—that is, hassles. But what beautiful hassles! Like septentrional rain. The earth rotates. And so do we. We rotate in place. Each minute counts. Each minute is something irrevocable. It’s good that way. Just right. Life presents itself to us under a thousand aspects. Each aspect has its own value, its moment, so to speak. You have to enjoy it. There’s nothing to complain about. You need to have some bliss. You have to make love with sacred moments which are truly sacred. That’s all there is to it, my friend. That’s absolutely everything. And yet, there is something more to add … That’s why I don’t stop. I keep going … I give the floor to God. He knows how to speak beautifully. It’s his job!] “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The word was not a noun, or an adjective, or a preposition, or a conjunction (quel horreur!), but it was a Verb. You can see how God must be in the Verb—it’s so perfectly natural, so spontaneous and autochthonous. God does not come home each evening, after a hard day at the factory, and knock out words. Ah no! Pas lui! Il sait mieux faire que ça. [Ah no! Not him! He knows better than to do that.] You see, God doesn’t permit himself to get fatigued. He is awake twenty-four hours of the day, and each day he is becoming more and more wide awake. It’s his nature to be that way. Homer nods now and then—God never! Voila une petite différence très impressionante. Faut pas ignorer cela. [This little difference is very striking. Don’t overlook it.] Et comment ça se fait que le bon Dieu ne s’endort jamais? [And how is it that the good Lord never falls asleep?] Parce-qu’il se mefie de tous les mots qui ne sont pas des verbes. De preférence il se sert du “present participle,” comme on dit en anglais. Oui, il n’aime pas beaucoup le passé parfait, ni le subjonctif. Il se dit toujours = en anglais naturellement = “I am doing this … I am doing that … I am having a good time.” Oui, il rigole tout le temps. Il ne sait jamais ce que se sera demain, ni ce que s’est hier. Oui, un drole de type, lui. Il s’en fout toujours. [Because he is suspicious of all words that are not verbs. He prefers to use the present participle, as we say in English. Yes, he doesn’t really like the past perfect, nor the subjunctive. He’s always telling himself = in English, naturally = “I am doing this … I am doing that … I am having a good time.” Yes, he’s always joking. He never knows what it will be tomorrow, nor what it was yesterday. Yes, he’s a funny guy. He never gives a damn.] Et pourtant, il fait du progrès. Oui, c’est merveilleux ce qu’il a fait dans le temps—sans vouloir rien faire. L’on se demande parfois s’il l’a bien fait pour lui-même, ou pour nous. Moi je crois qu’il a fait tout pour lui-même. Je crois, moi, qu’il est tout à fait narciste. “L’univers, c’est moi!” il se dit toujours. Et il a raison. Parfaitement raison. Il s’y connait, ce type là. [And yet, he makes progress. Yes, it’s marvelous what he’s accomplished in time—without wanting to do anything. One sometimes wonders whether he has done it for himself, or for us. Personally, I think he’s done it all for himself. I think he’s a complete narcissist. “I am the universe!” he’s constantly telling himself. And he’s right. Perfectly right. The guy knows what he’s talking about.] Mon cher Edgar, tu te connais, toi aussi. Mais, permettez que je vous pose une toute petite question: est-ce que tu t’y connais aussi? C’est une constatation qu’on fait rarement. L’on ne se pose pas des questions pareilles. Mais on a tort. La santé morale n’est rien d’autre que les réponses automatiques à ces question intimes. Donc, pour mettre fin à cette partition francaise je me pose une question intime. “A quoi ça sert, toutes ces ruminations vagues et elliptiques?” [My dear Edgar, you, too, know yourself. But allow me to ask you one little question: do you also know what you’re talking about? It’s an observation that is rarely made. One doesn’t ask oneself such questions. But that’s a mistake. Moral health is nothing other than the automatic responses to these intimate questions. And so, to bring this French partition to a close, I ask myself an intimate question. “What’s the point of all these vague and elliptical ruminations?”] Je suppose que cela m’amuse. Voila! [I suppose it amuses me. Voilà!] Edited and translated by Michael Paduano. From The Book of Conversations with David Edgar, out from Sublunary Editions in May. Henry Miller (1891–1980) grew up in Brooklyn before eventually moving to Paris. It was there that he made the acquaintances that would bring about the publication of a remarkable run of books, including Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and Black Spring. Those early books, Tropic of Cancer in particular, drew intense criticism for its sexual candor and explicitness, leading to a landmark obscenity trial when it was finally published in the United States by Grove in 1961. He eventually settled in Big Sur, California, where he continued to write and paint until his death in 1980. Michael Paduano is a Canadian scholar and archivist. He has contributed prefaces to new French-language editions of Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy (Éditions Bartillat, 2022) and Quiet Days in Clichy (Éditions Bartillat, forthcoming), and is editor of the volume Imperfect Itineraries: Literature and Literary Research in the Archives (Éditions de l’Université de Lorraine, forthcoming). He is currently working on an extensive archival-based study of Miller’s creative process. He lives in Paris. View the full article
  2. On October 4, 2022, legendary author Peter Robinson, creator of the long-running Inspector Banks series, passed away after a brief illness. Beginning with Gallows View in 1987, Robinson delivered a novel in the series, or short story collection, almost every year until his death. He also managed to find the time to write three stand-alones. All told, he completed 34 books, 31 of them either Inspector Banks novels or related short story collections. His new, posthumously published Banks novel, Standing in the Shadows is now available. And while all of Robinson’s Banks stories can be read out of order, this book also completes the “Zelda” trilogy, and represents some of Robinson’s darkest work. Sheila Halladay, Peter’s wife, to whom he dedicated almost every novel, graciously agreed to an interview and gives his readers wonderful insight into his approach to his craft, his love of all kinds of music and literature and an overall picture of an exceedingly talented and warm human being. * “Peter had a very literary mind,” says Halladay, “after all he did have a PhD in English literature, so I think that he read not only for pleasure but would be analytical and try to learn from the styles of other authors. Once he started writing his own manuscript, he would stop reading crime fiction, because he was wary of getting into the unconscious habit of imitating other writers…He was constantly casting about for ideas for a book. Because he had such a wide range of interests, the basis of the plot could come from anything that piqued his interests. Peter always carried a notebook and was constantly making notes. I would often find scratching on bits of paper of ideas, a phrase of a description, or a thought for a character, strewn around the house.” With Standing in the Shadows, Robinson returned to one of his favorite stylistic techniques, the use of a first-person narrative and Banks written in the third. “He liked experimenting with the concept of two stories, in different time periods with different characters, that over the course converges into one narrative.” In Standing in the Shadows, the historical aspect of the plot is set in 1980 in Leeds, West Yorkshire, a time and place of both radical students and the terror of the Yorkshire Ripper. The plot is complex although never convoluted as it moves back and forth through the decades. Beginning in 1980, a student named Nick has been dumped by his strident activist girlfriend Alice for a flashier sophisticated man, Mark. When Alice turns up dead in a local park, Nick is suspected – is he maybe even the Ripper? Meanwhile, Mark vanishes at the same time. Fast forward to 2019. Banks and his team are called to investigate a skeleton – a very deteriorated one — found by a group of archeologists excavating a lonesome plot of land attached to a nearby field where a shopping center is to be built. How Robinson adroitly and convincingly ties these two deaths together is yet another example of his gifts for plotting amid diverse time periods and a disparate set of suspects and supporting cast. Halladay on how he put it all together: “While Peter was not a “plotter” in the sense of working out every scene in advance on cue cards or post-it notes, he did a lot of thinking about the book and wouldn’t start writing until he had a general idea of the overarching plot of the book. Because he didn’t write detailed outlines before he started writing and never knew exactly where the plot was going. As he was writing, he continuously researched details that were specifically needed to advance the plot. For, example he might need to know the differences in dental practice between the UK and North America, or research of different types of guns, or perhaps blood spray patterns or buttons on uniforms from World War II. “He used to say that the details of police procedure should not get in the way of a good plot,” notes Halladay. “So latterly he would write a scene first and then check with the experts to see if it could have happened that way. For example, one time he was told that a person of Banks’ rank would probably not head up a national investigation. Not a problem, Banks’ supervisor became incapacitated, and Banks got a promotion. “Peter was a very disciplined and committed writer and he always met his deadlines. Once Peter started on a manuscript, he was pretty steady. While he was flexible and didn’t commit to a strict schedule, he would generally concentrate on writing for three to four hours in the morning. I was very lucky that he did not wake up in the middle of the night to frantically write. He would tease that if the writing was going well in the morning, he would go back to it in the afternoon and if it was not going well, he would go to the pub. “As Peter was heading towards writing the conclusion of the book, his pace of writing would pick up. Because he did not plot out the books in advance, he had to keep all of the strands of the main plot, secondary stories etc. in his head. It was a like giant puzzle that he had to put together. The actual murderer was not particularly important to Peter and he would usually be over half way through the manuscript when he would announce that he knew ‘who did it’. He always found it amusing when people would tell him the page when they knew who the murderer was, and he would tell them that he didn’t know until much later.” A sense of place pervades all of Robinson’s Inspector Banks novels, and the primary setting is Yorkshire. In Standing in the Shadows, Banks goes for the first time to the landscape where the skeletal corpse is discovered, and is struck by the trees on the property. “They were odd-looking trees, not majestic and wide spreading, but squat, black, knotty and gnarled, with thick trunks and branches twisted into strange shape, like headless torsos or Prometheus trying to break free from his chains. Most still had a few leaves clinging to their branches and twigs. Banks thought they seemed creepy in the louring twilight and half expected one of them to start moving like the Ents in Lord of the Rings.” Halladay and Robinson traveled extensively over their marriage. “While Eastvale (the village setting of the stories) and the surrounding areas were clearly fictional, they were in fact based on actual places. When he first showed me around the Dales he would point out the spot where the body was discovered in a Dedicated Man or The Hanging Valley. We went to Thrushcross to see a dried-up reservoir and that became the basis for In a Dry Season. Or a walk around the abandoned racecourse north Richmond, led us into a remote dale that formed the setting for Before the Poison.” In terms of the violence in the stories, for the most part, Halladay says. it “…usually involved finding the body in a specific place. Most of the violence in Peter’s books was offstage, and while he would rarely actively describe violent acts he would often start books by vividly describing the gruesome effects of violent acts on the victim. He often said that one of the most interesting characters in his crime fiction was the one who wasn’t actively there – the dead victim. What was it in their past that led to someone wanting to kill them?” But in the previous two, Many Rivers to Cross and Not Dark Yet, the other key protagonist, Zelda, a previously sex-trafficked woman who lived with a friend of Banks’, seeks revenge on the abusers from her youth. In Not Dark Yet she does not mess around during an oral rape attempt by a man armed with a knife: “She closed her eyes, felt the cold steel on her skin, felt his hand press against the back of her neck, pulling her forward. ‘Open your mouth’. Zelda opened her mouth and felt him enter her. She almost gagged but managed to stop herself. Instead, she offered a prayer to the God she didn’t believe in and bit down as hard as she could.” Zelda mixes it up brutally as well in Many Rivers to Cross, when she drugs a captor and finishes him off with a knife. It’s as grim and grisly as Robinson gets. Halladay suggests that perhaps this almost unyielding somberness in the final three books may have come from coping with the pandemic. “While he started the trilogy prior to the pandemic, he continued writing throughout the time of social isolation. As you pointed out, the Zelda books were quite “dark”. While some writers commented that they got a lot of writing done during this time, Peter personally had difficulty concentrating on writing. He wasn’t by any means clinically depressed, but he often felt down, particularly when he thought of the state of world politics. But he got over it and I think that you will find when you read his last book, Standing in the Shadows, that Peter and his character Banks (although he was always quick to point out that they were not the same people), reached some sort of state of contentment.” A particular joy of the series for many readers is Robinson’s use of a very wide range of music that Banks listens to. From obscure folksingers to punk bands to classical composers, opera—Robinson demonstrates a depth of knowledge encompassing decades, all effortlessly incorporated into the novels. On Robinson’s website, readers can access “playlists” from several of the novels. Additionally, several of the titles in the series are from well-known songs: Piece of My Heart, Many Rivers to Cross, Bad Boy, Friend of the Devil. “Music was always a big part of Peter’s life,” acknowledges Halladay. “He was lucky to have been a student at the University of Leeds during the heady 70s and saw popular groups like The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Wings, as well as more traditional music like Lindisfarne and Fairport Convention. He would brag about actually being at the original Who, Live at Leeds concert at the Refectory of the University in 1970. “He always felt that the music was an integral part of his books and enhanced the atmosphere. Many people told him that his playlists were remarkable, and they were often introduced to new artist merely by reading his books. Even though he included a lot of musical references in the books he was very casual about it. A few days before Peter died, I heard music playing when I went into his into his room in the ICU. When I asked him what it was he said ‘Chopin. My nurse is Polish and I want to get on her good side.’ He always kept his sense of humour.” His greatest love was probably The Grateful Dead. During the pandemic he discovered a number of their concerts were available on YouTube and I would often find him listening in awe to Jerry Garcia riffs. What a long strange trip it’s been…” View the full article
  3. It’s summer in New England. The sun is just peeking over the mountains, but cars and trucks are already rolling into the parking lot of the local flea market. The vendors rush to unpack and setup. The first customers hurry down rows of tables and tents, hoping to spot a rare collectable or antique at a low price before other buyers arrive. Many of these customers are antique dealers, others are collectors, some are local homeowners or tourists. Before the morning is done, any or all of them may purchase something they’ll later regret. My name is Trish Esden. I’m the author of the Scandal Mountain Antiques Mystery series and a full-time antique dealer, a profession I’ve been involved with since my teens. I also spend a great deal of time at country flea markets. And, though I should know better, I have and still occasionally fall for flea market ploys. What sort of tricks am I talking about? The most common is what I call the ‘good story’. Like mystery authors, flea market vendors know the power of backstory. Sometimes the origin story they provide about a collectable or antique is total fiction. Sometimes it might be an embellished version of the truth. A rusty cast iron skillet becomes a lot more appealing when it was discovered in the summer kitchen of a great-grandmother’s Adirondack camp that was built in the 1890s. Notice, the seller didn’t say the skillet was made in the 1890s. It came out of a camp that was built around that time. The pan might well only be five years old and have become rusty from spending the winter outdoors, but those things aren’t mentioned. In this case, a manufacturer’s mark on the bottom of the pan, or its weight and construction might solve the age question. “How old is it?” a potential customer might ask. “I don’t know much about cast iron,” the flea market vendor could respond. Perhaps the vendor truly doesn’t know the answer or maybe they’re withholding the truth. Either way, the customer has essentially been told ‘buyer beware’. Of course, if the buyer doesn’t care about the skillet’s age or antique value, then there is no reason not to buy it as long as the price is the same or less than what it’s available for elsewhere—such as at Walmart or on Amazon. There is a vendor at one of my favorite flea markets who deals in unusual pieces. However, every time I express an interest in something he tells the same origin story. The story involves his world-traveling son and a host of other specific details. It’s not a bad tale to add appeal to an object, except it becomes unbelievable when I hear the same story about every item in his booth, week after week. The moral is: don’t base a purchase or an item’s value on the story a vendor tells. Base it on your own experience, research, and personal examination of the piece. The next category of flea market shenanigans is the ‘sneaky tricks and alterations’. There are lots of ways to make something appear older than it is, like in the case of the rusted skillet. Another simple trick is to remove a mass produced item from its original packaging and present it as if it is used, or better yet antique. Bejeweled hair clips purchased on Amazon can be mistaken for Victorian hair pins when tossed into an old box or beat-up jewelry chest. Unscrupulous vendors are known to make glassware look old by scuffing the bottom of a piece against gravel to create scratches that resemble natural wear. “This piece is very old,” the vendor says. “Look at how worn and scratched the bottom is.” Similarly, modern ‘made in China’ stickers are easily removed. Paint can also be artificially worn and crackled. It’s one thing to buy a distressed piece of furniture knowing that’s what you’re getting. It’s quite another to pay antique value only to discover you’ve been misled. Flea markets are by nature home to used items. Pieces that are honestly old, may also be damaged. Nicks, chips, cracks, repairs…damage of all sorts won’t necessarily be pointed out or mentioned by the vendor and can be easily overlooked if a buyer rushes instead of thoroughly examining a piece. Don’t feel pressured into instantly buying something. Look it over carefully and in good light. Chips can be disguised by coloring them with paint or markers. Foul smells—yes, don’t forget smell—can make a piece valueless. That pretty antique quilt or seemingly clean stack of linens, once put into your car may reveal themselves to be disgustingly stinky. And I’ll guarantee you, a majority of vendors will be glad to get them off their hands and not as willing to mention the stench ahead of time—or they’ll lie and say something like, “A quick squirt of Febreze or airing out will easily get rid of that smell.” The last category I’m going to bring up is ‘preconceived ideas’. Flea market vendors come in all shapes, sizes, age groups, and educational backgrounds. They are also generally very astute. They’re more than happy to let you believe you’re outsmarting them while they’re busy pulling the wool over your eyes. Don’t act like a know-it-all. It’s only asking for trouble. I read an article recently that said older flea market vendors are less likely to be active on the internet. Therefore, they are less likely to be aware of current antique and collectable values, and easier for buyers to outsmart. This is total malarky. Yes, there are flea market dealers who prefer to sell in person and for cash and don’t pay any attention to online values. But age isn’t a way to judge this. It also doesn’t mean the vendor isn’t well informed. In conclusion, there are tons of wonderful deals and items to be discovered at flea markets. Just don’t rush, don’t believe what you’re being told, and if that little voice inside you is whispering a deal is too good to be true, it probably is. If you enjoy novels featuring small time cons and shenanigans like the ones you can run across at flea markets, there are many books to choose from, classics and recent releases. In my Scandal Mountain Antiques Mystery series, the main character not only buys at flea markets, she’s also been a flea market vendor and is very familiar with tricks of the trade. The Lovejoy Mystery series by Jonathan Gash and the associated TV show are in some ways outdated and may make some modern readers cringe. However, they are ripe with tricks and devious small time antique related swindles. Jane K. Cleland’s Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries touch on a variety of things buyers need to watch out for. Priceless by Robert K. Wittman is nonfiction about the FBI Art Crime Team. It also includes tidbits which might open a person’s eyes to lesser swindles. TV shows such as Flea Market Flip, Antiques Roadshow, and Pawn Stars on occasion show ways people can be conned. *** View the full article
  4. I’m writing my seventh thriller, and six of them have been set in Seattle. What is it about Seattle, and the Seattle area, that makes it such a compelling place, such an attractive place to write thrillers? Why do I always come back to Seattle when I could write about New York City or Los Angeles or Chicago or Paris, other places where I have lived? For me, Seattle is a hidden jewel, an original, never-ending cache of unexpected surprises. I love writing about Seattle’s eccentricities, its quirks, its unique culture, its vibrant street life, the kids who are trying to create a place for themselves, the high school children in the young Shakespeare workshop producing his plays outside in public places, like a market, all summer long, the fresh fish vendors throwing fish for sale in the Pike Place Market, the gum wall – the long brick wall covered in used chewing gum, the outrageous wondrous things that so many people do, without calling attention to it. It’s a place where people come to reinvent themselves, and if you watch carefully, they actually do it. * There’s a wonderful 1989 movie, THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS, made in Seattle, that makes my point. In this movie The Baker brothers, Jeff and Beau Bridges, work together playing piano duets at middle level Seattle hotels, bars and so on. They’re quintessential Seattle characters, drifting, never talking too much about where they are or where they want to go. They’re having trouble getting work, and they decide to bring on a singer. They rent a small cluttered, nondescript space, a piano and place an ad. People start to come and none of them are right. When they’ve finished, unsuccessful, the brothers start to pack up. A woman comes in, unrecognizable, unfashionably dressed, no representative, no introduction, no description of her, her experience and so on. When they ask if she’s ever performed, the answer is no. Her occupation, she’s a call girl for an escort service. She’s chewing a large piece of bubble gum. Reluctantly, the brothers say they’ll hear her sing. She asks them to play More than you know, puts down the bubble gum, starts, then stops, asks the pianist, Jeff Bridges, to start again, slower. He begins again, then slowly, in small increments—it’s magical. This woman, Michelle Pfeiffer, is simply a marvelous singer, and the adventure begins. This is a very Seattle, unexpected surprise. This woman is reinventing herself, by herself, with no help, no agent, no group of admirers, fans, or friends, and in that instance, she becomes someone else. This Seattle characteristic, people reinventing themselves – and others leaving them alone, accepting their new identities – has played an important role in how I develop my characters, especially the villains, the antagonists, in all of my books. In Inside Passage, the first book in the Corey Logan Trilogy, Nick Season, the frontrunner for state Attorney General is the same man who framed Corey and sent her to prison by threatening her young son’s life. Nick is a monster, a pathological liar, a killer, a gigolo, and a razor smart, ruthless psychopath. This complicated, frightening thriller was more plausible in Seattle. Primarily, because Nick Season was able to reinvent himself, present himself convincingly as an exciting, even inspiring, candidate for State Attorney General and no one, except Corey, ever suspected, who he really was. In Danger in Plain Sight, the monstrous couple, the devil incarnate, our villians, Avi and Christy Ben Meyer, are masquerading as part of Seattle’s elite. These people are so confident in their elite status, that they regularly dine at The Bronze Pig, our heroine’s restaurant. Again, people are accepting their new identities, and they’re not even suspected of the first crime in the book – when Callie’s ex-husband is struck by a truck in front of her restaurant and blown through the front window of the The Bronze Pig. The ability to create plausible unsuspected criminals is only a piece of the pleasure of writing in Seattle. Writing in Seattle, one of the great delights is simply using the many varied landscapes in and around the city, as well as capturing the unique appearance of Seattlites. It’s a place where the wilderness is close by, and people know how to use it, where there are wonderful, unexpected restaurants, where you can fly fish all day floating the Yakima after driving over the mountains, then be at a fine splendidly run restaurant for a late dinner at Bell Town. People also look varied, unpredictable, and unique. They don’t dress like LA or NYC or anyplace else, and it’s not uncommon for people to ignore contemporary fashion and create their own. The unique Seattle culture makes it possible, easier, to write, to invent unexpected relationships. In the Corey Logan trilogy, Corey falls in love with Abe Stein, the psychiatrist who’s evaluating her to get her son back. Two more different people would be hard to imagine. Something happens between them, effortlessly. It’s as if they are able to connect, to understand each other, straightaway, without talking about it. When it happens, it’s just done, it’s never doubted or second guessed. They see it, they reach for it, and they evolve right into it. It was a treat to write. In Danger in Plain Sight, Callie discovers that her bartender, Cash Logan, is smuggling erotic ivory carvings, netsuke, into her restaurant. Callie pitches a fit, has him arrested, then famously says, “When you get out of jail, don’t ever come back here.” The challenge in this entire book is to make these absolutely incompatible people fall in love. What helps make this happen is that in their different ways, they’re both Seattleites. They’re not afraid of unconventional feelings, of doing something totally unexpected, out of character, outside of their supposed comfort zone. As they change, they’re each comfortable with who they are, as unconventional as that might be. Again, this is a very Seattle type of relationship. Unexpected, no one chasing after it, neither of them aware of what’s happening until after it happens. And when it happens, it’s done, unshakeable, forever. Seattle’s unique people and culture have, without me always being aware of it, helped me evolve as a writer. When I first began writing my book, Inside passage, I spent time with a young Seattle woman, who’d spent summers in Alaska, fishing commercially for salmon. She taught me about the long summer days, the potentially harsh weather conditions, the demanding life on a boat and so on. In doing so, she helped me understand, create, and finally write Corey Logan, an archetypal Seattle woman. * Two of my novels brought me to the inner-connected worlds of private school kids and the runaways who roam Seattle streets. I talked with Youth Care and spent time at their Orion Center learning about homeless teenagers. This is an ongoing issue in Seattle, and the growing numbers of homeless people make it a very real problem. It’s not a good situation, but it’s possible to learn about it, to think about its complexity as it evolves. In Seattle, it’s all there to see, good and bad, and there are lots of concerned people who will talk with you about it. The city is not so big and not so politically set up that all you get is a dogmatic point of view. For me, it’s been a good place to explore things that aren’t working and small enough that you have a chance to talk with influencers. In my experience, Seattleites genuinely care about their city, what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to change. They often disagree and certainly they can be opinionated. At the end of the day though, it’s a great place to think about, to examine and finally to write about things I care about. *** View the full article
  5. “The height of the Bush era was a weird, giddy time.” -Stephen Thomas Erlewine on Milli Vanilli’s Girl You Know It’s True (1989) Cop Rock (ABC, 1990) was a real television show that existed. It was a police procedural with musical numbers. The plot of the show chugged progressively from episode to episode like any police procedural. The songs in the show occurred with clockwork regularity, as in any musical. The characters—police officers, suspects, lawyers, bureaucrats—resembled characters in fraternally related shows like Law & Order, except that they sometimes burst into song. I promise this is true. I first learned of Cop Rock from a video posted almost as an afterthought by a friend on Facebook. When I watched the video—it was “Let’s Be Careful Out There” from episode seven—I went through a series of reactions. Is this a fan parody of Hill Street Blues? Is this an elaborate SNL sketch? I denied and disbelieved, and only gradually, with the help of Wikipedia, came to accept that the show existed. I am explaining this because you may be feeling something similar. Before you read any analysis of Cop Rock, you must believe that it aired, which is a process, not a light switch. Even when watching the show, its ridiculousness does not wane, but simply rolls over itself, like waves on the shore. By the end of the final episode, a viewer may have succumbed to a new reality in which Cop Rock is normal, but it’s a little like accepting cult conditions: it only occurs with immersion and a fatally open mind. Here are some other things to know about Cop Rock before we truly begin: The show ran for eleven episodes before cancellation. Its creator, Steven Bochco, had previously created Hill Street Blues (1981), A. Law (1986), and Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989). All of these shows were memorable and successful, although very differently so. Blues is easily one of the most influential television shows ever made. Another hour-long musical TV show, Hull High, also debuted in 1990. It ran for nine episodes. Across the eleven episodes, the cast sings 54 songs. All of the songs were recorded live, not dubbed and lip-synced. Twin Peaks also debuted in 1990. So did Beverly Hills, 90210. So, in fact, did Law & Order, which certainly would not exist, in any of its permutations, without Hill Street Blues. Genre Although Cop Rock is bad for apparent reasons—its musical numbers are exceptionally undistinguished, its dramatic tension is consistently undermined, its plotlines are slow and generic, its characters are either paper-flat or totally bizarre, and its tone never coheres for longer than half a scene—it’s also bad for fundamental, genre-based reasons. Any lesson from Cop Rock is a lesson about genre, and how genres work, together and apart. Police procedurals are a specific genre of television, one largely codified by Bochco’s own Hill Street Blues.[1] The police procedural (cop show) has a teeny-tiny wheelhouse with infinite items inside. Although networks can make a ton of different shows from the formula, the formula itself is quite restricted, limited to what can fit inside its doorway. Bochco’s success and expertise with this genre must have convinced him that he could combine it with another fairly regimented genre: the musical. He was wrong. I am certain that he did not know enough about how musicals work, and for all I know, he may have been mistaken about cop shows, too. The 1,100 hours of television comprising Law & Order had not yet passed through CRT tubes at the time Cop Rock ran, and that means all of us knew a lot less about how modern cop shows work. Musicals, in their mechanisms, haven’t changed much in a long time. For several years I went to as many operas as I could, attending live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera of New York in movie theaters, and it dawned on me somewhere in the middle of this obsession that Broadway musicals descend directly from opera. The latter used to be popular entertainment, after all; that it’s become an esoteric art form mainly enjoyed by rich people is a quirk of time and evolution, not an inevitable outcome. (Broadway musicals may be headed for the same outcome if ticket prices don’t even out.) The point is, songs in musicals accomplish many of the same purposes arias in operas do. They expand upon character, capture a ceremony, gather a crowd under a particular purpose, or explain a circumstance. Most importantly, songs and arias illustrate transitional emotional moments. Something is changing inside a character’s heart, or a character is revealing something inside her heart to others. It can be love, or joy, or heartbreak, or determination, or fury, or jealousy. It can be any number of emotions. But there is always a change in emotion that the song encapsulates, a move from one mood to another, both for the characters and within the show. The audience is prodded by the song to feel something, and likely it’s something different than we felt a little while earlier. The show transitions from mood to mood until the final bow, and then the experience is over. I’m sure there are exceptions to this general rule, but nearly every song I can think of from a musical follows it. Songs from Disney movies fall into limited categories, as Justin McElroy memorably pointed out, but even those categories are largely about transitional emotional moments, too. Songs from The Sound of Music, Repo! The Genetic Opera, Hamilton, Bye Bye Birdie, The Phantom of the Opera, Frozen, Cannibal! The Musical, Singin’ in the Rain, and many more conform. Not all songs featured in all musicals follow this rule, but I’d wager that most do, even if the emotion they express is satisfaction or stable joie de vivre. After all, what is music without emotion? Why say it with a song if not to infuse it with extra feeling? In Cop Rock, this rule does not apply. Some of the songs do indeed express an emotion that the audience would not access as deeply without the song, such as “She Chose Me” and “If That Isn’t Love.” But in other cases, a minor character (or even a character we never see again) sings an emotional song—“Beautiful Eyes,” and “Nobody’s Fault”—rendering a dead end of emotional exposure. In most cases, the song isn’t about an emotion of any kind—“Black Is Black,” “He’s Guilty,” “Let’s Be Careful Out There,” “For the Record,” “Clean It Up,” etc., etc. The majority of the songs on Cop Rock are situational, reiterating or embellishing a moment that could just as easily exist in dialogue. The songs, although often performed well, are needless, which makes them awkward to sit through. This is an essential, insurmountable problem with the show. The songs, although often performed well, are needless, which makes them awkward to sit through. A moment that would take a few lines of dialogue on another police procedural is stretched into a three-minute song (“Baby Merchant,” “LaRusso’s Back,” and perhaps most regrettably, “Bumpty Bumpty”). There are also flashy fantasy numbers that don’t fit at all, like “Perfection,” and pointless songs that remind us upsettingly what 1990 was like in music, such as “Lineup,” and “In These Streets.” None of this arises from emotional urgency or genuine feeling, but instead functions as gimmick. Or as requirement: sing five songs per episode, no matter how crappy or shoehorned they may be. Since they don’t happen naturally, the songs fail, on the whole. There are exceptions. “Good Life” is sung by partners who have been coping with unwelcome sexual tension. Although the fantasy elements of the song (the partners magically change outfits and a phantom wind blows at their clothes) are out of place, the song showcases and heightens the tension, it’s sung well, and considering the rest of the show’s catalog, it’s not badly written. “Garbage In Garbage Out,” a song about bureaucracy and recidivism, has strong energy and a palpable emotion: frustration. Some of the songs, if stupidly written, are extremely well-performed, like “Reasonable Doubt” and “You Lied.” Still. The reason for the song is rarely organic, which leads to an audience wondering why we’re sitting here listening, when the point of the song has already been made. Steven Bochco, in an interview, proudly noted that all the songs advanced the plot. This is not true, but even if it was, it’s not what songs are for. This basic misunderstanding of why musicals work the way they do is a columnar problem with Cop Rock, but it’s not the only genre-based problem. Plenty of genres can blend into musicals surprisingly well, but police procedurals are uniquely poorly suited for this task. Membrane In any fiction, a membrane exists between the audience’s real world and the fiction’s false one. The thickness of this barrier depends upon a slew of factors, genre not least among them. Rupture the membrane, and the audience remembers or realizes they are absorbing a fiction, and their relationship to the art changes. Sometimes this is a deliberate action (Deadpool, Funny Games), and sometimes the art is so unconvincing that the audience is thrown, disappointed, out of hypnosis. Musicals have a funky relationship with the membrane.[2] The very idea that one would break into choreographed song due to unfettered emotion might be enough to shatter the spell, but if not, only in certain stories is it unsuspicious that all the characters within the fiction can sing and/or dance professionally enough to entertain outside the fiction. Lots of musicals write in professional singers and dancers as characters (Swing Time, Chicago), or are backstage musicals, written to capitalize on this dynamic instead of succumbing to it. You have to think about it, when you’re writing a musical. You have to make the musical so captivating, cast such a spell, that an audience will fall in love with what you’re doing enough to forgive you for the farce of your premise. And the audience has to walk into the musical willing to forgive. Any cynicism (theirs) or shoddiness (yours), and the whole framework of the thing will collapse. Police procedurals, on the whole, intend to display realism. To a fault, perhaps. Writers of cop shows try to tackle current issues, consult with real police officers, be gritty. Nothing about a police procedural communicates that you’re watching a fantasy.[3] It asks of its audience only minimal suspension of disbelief: the ordinary kind of “get metaphysically absorbed in these small moving pictures that are plainly simulacra.” What we’re asked to believe once we’re in there is not different from what could conceivably happen if we were living in the circumstances depicted by the show. Compare this to the audience investment required in a musical, with its proliferation of fantasy. Everything about a musical is fake—not simulated, as with many fictions, but falsely conceived. In the course of their ordinary lives, people do not ever behave as they commonly do in musicals. In short, a cop show asks its audience to believe we’re watching something real, while a musical contracts with its audience to watch something artificial. Blending these two genres was just never going to work. Or, at least, it wasn’t going to work under these circumstances—in 1990, on television, with the demands of a major network in play. This isn’t to say that drama has no place in musicals. Terrific dramatic musicals exist, like Les Misérables (in its time, a novel that realistically showcased wretched poverty). But dramatic material has to be poured carefully to move from one genre jar to another without spilling the whole lot. A dramatic musical has to offer extremely compelling context for the characters to sing. Les Mis is an all-sing for a reason; it’s less jarring that these starving revolutionaries sing everything they say to each other than it is to imagine them having dialogue-driven scenes together and occasionally deciding to sing. Mood Mood and tone also require careful management in a musical, and these elements are often simple or even monolithic in a cop show. Occasional flares of dry comedy barely disturb the undulating dramatic mood of the average cop show. Meanwhile, in a musical, the mood of a song will dominate the scenes around it, and ordering the songs manages the audience’s emotions across the course of the piece. The creators of Cop Rock did not understand this at all. The songs that do have emotional resonance (few and far between) are placed without regard for the episode’s story-based momentum, and the songs that have some other purpose disrupt the episode’s emotional momentum. A song like “Baby Merchant” is profoundly jarring not just by its own lights (its lyrics are impossible to take seriously, its melody poor), but because the smug, surreal tone of the song contrasts with the dramatic situation. Two undercover cops are pretending to be a couple desperate for a child in order to arrest a…well, a baby merchant, and the cops’ preexisting sexual tension plus the dual performance aspect are plenty to manage. The song overloads the scene until it collapses into comedy, which puts the surrounding dramatic scenes in jeopardy. Besides, it’s a particularly pointless song. The singer is a bit player at best in a wider dramatic arc. The song’s purpose is theoretically to convince the play-acting couple that the singer can get them a baby, which they already believed before the scene even began. It’s not the only song that completely halts an episode for a baffling tone change. In “Choose Me,” a passel of female officers are disguised as prostitutes for undercover work, and they sing and dance suggestively to convince the male officers they’re realistically prostitute-y. This song is a waste of time in every possible way. Before it starts up, the tone is a bunch of cops at a briefing, and then suddenly we’re watching a PG-13 stripper number (amazingly, the second one in the episode). It’s sexist and gratuitous, and the situation isn’t even an important part of the overall plot. The number, meanwhile, is almost a leap into fantasy. The audience should be able to understand a fantasy song as a jump away from the ordinary, but should also be prepared to accept it as part of the fabric of the work. Neither of these requirements exists in “Choose Me.” In Grease, “Beauty School Dropout” works because nearly everything about it is visually distinct from the rest of the film—the sets, the costumes, the lighting, Frankie Avalon—thus marking it as a fantasy, but also, the tone of the film is generally light, and a goofy number like it is not conceptually off the table. In Cop Rock, occasional fantasy numbers (“Perfection,” “Your Number’s Up”) don’t work at all, because they only exaggerate the regular surroundings, and because the tone of the show is mostly dramatic—and, again, realistic, as a police procedural, not fantastic, as a musical. Indeed, the songs vary much more widely in mood than the rest of the show does. Generously, the songs attempt to vary the overall mood of the show. But they are so poorly integrated into the plot and character development that they just amplify the shoehorned feeling most of the songs already convey. 1990 The sheer mediocrity of Cop Rock’s music represents one of the larger problems of the show. It doesn’t grab an audience well or immediately. And even if the audience believes the characters are genuinely motivated to sing their feelings (which we almost never do), it’s even harder to imagine that the characters’ feelings could or should be expressed as feebly as this. Again, the crunch of a weekly 45-minute show, answering to network producers nervous about the rise of cable channels, is probably the worst imaginable context to write and deliver 54 musical numbers. Given that, and the contemporaneous music (Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, Michael Bolton), it’s no wonder that Cop Rock’s songs are mostly crap. But it remains astonishing that such crap was aired. The songs are largely synth junk, strings of idiom and cliché, and shallow, repetitive melodies, along with a surprising amount of vamping from certain singers (Carl Anderson, of Jesus Christ Superstar fame, plays a judge twice; Loretta Devine, of the original Broadway cast of Dreamgirls, kills it as a singing juror). However, the show’s musical talent includes Randy Newman, who composed the theme song as well as songs for the pilot. My opinion of Newman is not high, and I realize this opinion is not commonly shared, so I’ll say only that his work on this show is fairly typical for, and recognizable as, his. The sheer mediocrity of Cop Rock’s music represents one of the larger problems of the show. That opening credits sequence, though. It depicts Newman performing “Under the Gun” in a soundstage rigged as a studio. There are other musicians in the semidarkness, including a second pianist and three woo-woo girls, and Newman is in headphones. Cuts show the main cast of Cop Rock sitting around in directors’ chairs or standing nearby, watching and enjoying the song. Some are bopping along. Some are smiling in a manner that does not seem voluntary. All are dressed in clothes that don’t resemble the characters’ costumes on the show, and they are eye-catching, even for 1990—ugly sweaters, huge jackets, hideous patterns. I watched these credits many times, and they only got weirder on each repeat. No realism in sight: the lighting is such that musicians can’t see to read their music, and the acoustics in the space seem unacceptable for recording. So it’s clearly a setup for the sake of filming the credits sequence, yet it continually tries to convince us that it’s a spontaneous thing. Ronny Cox, shouldering a tote bag, walks up to stand next to Barbara Bosson’s chair, as if he’s just arriving on the set for a day’s work. The actors continually look at each other and grin: “Hey, wow, this is really cool, huh?” They move to the music as if it’s awesome, as if they’re feeling it, but that is simply impossible, given what we are hearing. Anne Bobby has an openmouthed smile that suggests she can’t believe what she’s seeing and has chosen amusement as her reaction. This sequence oozes artificiality, but it purports to be showing something real. That’s really a key assessment for all of Cop Rock. It crashes the fakery of choreographed musical numbers into the (purported) realism of a police procedural. With better music, more time, and more complex plots and characterization, this collision might have resulted in a pleasurable, paradoxical tension. But 1990 was the wrong moment in pop culture to try it, cop shows being early in their evolution and music being what it was at the time. Sometime around the year 2000, Stephen Thomas Erlewine retrospectively reviewed Milli Vanilli’s 1989 hit record, Girl You Know It’s True, for Allmusic.com. I have remembered this review for twenty years, as its assessment of the pop gestalt in the early 1990s is so sharp and so intriguing. Ironically, at the end of the ’80s, MTV changed the rules for mainstream pop, putting the emphasis on image and overall package, to the extent that major artists lip-synched in concert so they could deliver better dance routines. So, it really wasn’t that extreme to have a group with two faces—one to make the music, one to market it. And, face it, the fluffy dance-pop and slick ballads on Girl You Know It’s True were of their time…The fact is, with dance-pop (especially Euro-dance!), just like Playboy, artificiality is the name of the game, and that’s what is good about it. It’s the distinguishing characteristic, its identity, the core of its being. On that level, it’s hard not to listen to Girl You Know It’s True and marvel at the level of [producer Frank] Farian’s studiocraft, since it doesn’t even sound like he programmed a computer to make this music; it sounds like something the machine wrote on its own accord. There are no natural sounds or human emotions on this record, just a bunch of shiny hooks and big beats, all processed and precisely assembled to be totally irresistible to a mass audience. […] The height of the Bush era was a weird, giddy time, when the mainstream was filled with effervescent, transient pop, and nothing sums up that era as well as Girl You Know It’s True. This isn’t just music that’s all surface, this is music that gives the impression of having a surface, then not delivering on that. He’s talking about the texture of the record, and I’ve been talking all this time about the way fakery manifests more broadly, in genre. But the way these ideas conjoin in Cop Rock continues to fascinate me. At a time when pop music was especially dumb and powerless, Cop Rock tried to alchemize two naturally opposed genres with pop music. The experiment could only fail. The credits sequence epitomizes a lot about the show: how enthusiastically everyone involved threw their lot in with Bochco’s terrible idea; how very much a product of 1990 the show is, a quality which becomes more noticeable with every passing year; how thoroughly the genuine is papered over with badly made fakery, and how that seems like it’d be cool and fun and instead is obvious and awkward. Showing the actors out of costume and character (although, no doubt, they are acting) also hints at metatextual concerns, which pop up again unexpectedly, and perhaps transcendently, in the finale. Finale In all these words, I haven’t offered a summary of the story arc across the eleven episodes of Cop Rock, nor have I said much about the characters. When I considered what I wanted to say about this show, these elements kept slipping to the back of my mind. I found them irrelevant to an assessment of Cop Rock, because they are inconspicuous compared to everything that makes it fail so spectacularly, everything that makes it a rare artifact. Still, they do require a mention before we tackle the finale. The major plot threads have to do with a wrongful police shooting and its consequences, a drug addict who sells her baby daughter, uneasy partnerships between different genders and races of cops, the mayor considering a Senate run despite her unfortunate looks, the batshit insane chief of police, and various marriages. There are shorter plotlines about a movie star and her stalker, a rookie losing his innocence, and the mayor’s gay assistant. These are all pretty undistinguished. Only one of the show’s threads interested me enough to feel faint regret that there was no more to the story, and that largely because the characters and their actors were likeable, not because the story was especially original. For the most part, the characters only pop out of cliché in order to be really odd (the police chief is obsessed with cowboys, a female cop goes full Pepé Le Pew on her partner after breaking up a fight). Elaborating on them would be to point out how indistinguishable they are from characters on other cop shows. The actors in this experiment are generally game, and they acquit themselves well enough, although some of them haven’t learned the trick of singing and/or listening to singing with stillness that belies the song’s length. The songs mostly seem long and out of place, and although the most meaningful reasons for that are laid out in detail above, the actors are also inexperienced at staging them properly. Aside from this, they’re appealing, particularly Anne Bobby and David Gianopoulos. Even some of the weirder scenes have undeniable chemistry, with Ronny Cox and Vondie Curtis-Hall presaging the greatness of Aidan Gillen and Reg E. Cathey in The Wire. The show does not indicate that it might be ending until the final scene of the final episode. Prior to that, the plot churns on, slowly, dully. But then, after a song that concludes in meaningful looks from two decent cops about the reinstatement of a corrupt cop, Curtis-Hall walks into an office set and sits across from Cox, who says, “I can’t believe they cancelled us.” The two actors have a conversation about the songs they sang in the show, and how much they enjoyed the experience of working on it. Cox presses a button, a door off the set opens, the cast (not in costume) spills in, and the music begins. The cast starts singing, all together, and the handheld camera captures them as well as the musicians playing just off the set. The number grows more elaborate, showing a zaftig woman on a swing that rises up into the air (“it ain’t over till the fat lady sings”) as the cast vamps shamelessly. The song’s lyrics refer to the show and its folly—name-checking famed disaster Heaven’s Gate and Cop Rock’s network, ABC—but has a generic positive message of overcoming obstacles and fond farewell. The final shot is a crane angle of the set, cast, crew, lighting, etc. on the soundstage. This blindsides the audience completely. We had no indication at all that the episode, much less the series, was properly over, and all at once we are deep in metatext, watching actors rally in song about the cancellation of their dreadful show. Although there’s plenty of precedent for metatext in musicals, there’s very little in police procedurals, which adds incongruity. I must credit this move for being clever, but this was not a particularly clever show, which makes the number yet stranger. Perhaps it’s fitting that the opening credits and the finale song both traffic, to different degrees, in metatext. Cop Rock is so weird, top to tail, that it’s almost impossible to become absorbed in it as art, even if the art had been original and exceptional enough to warrant that absorption. We might be able to set aside our shock and surprise about the existence of the show for the length of a scene, but back it rushes once a song begins. Both the opening and finale sequences ultimately leave me at a loss, gaping at them, all my intellectualizing about their function and context fading to a murmur. I can use everything I’ve read and seen to interpret what they’re doing and how and why, to illustrate similarities and conclusions, but I cannot tamp down my amazement that they really went on film and then on the air. Even in 1990. Feeling If you’d like a look at how a genre-restricted television show can do musical numbers successfully, watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s sixth season episode “Once More with Feeling.” Even the title acknowledges what the writers of Cop Rock did not understand about musical numbers: their basic purpose is to convey a transitional emotional moment. Every major song in the episode reveals a character’s emotional struggle or situation, and even the miniature filler songs about parking tickets and removed mustard stains have actual moods behind them (pleading and joy, respectively). These songs reveal character in ways that have been building all season long, and in ways that will drive the plot in following episodes. “Once More with Feeling” accomplished something great: it blended two kinds of art that shouldn’t go together—or, at least, that usually don’t—and it made of them a unique harmony. In my kinder moments, I wonder if Bochco was trying to do something similarly great. “Once More with Feeling” was a tremendous risk, and so was Cop Rock. But Bochco didn’t do the work to understand the trickier of his two ingredients. In the spirit of the early 90s, I believe, he wanted it all to happen quickly and synthetically. To dazzle with a light show instead of creating authentic illumination. _________________ From JUNK FILM: WHY BAD MOVIES MATTER. Originally published on Bright Lights Film Journal. Copyright © 2023 by Katharine Coldiron. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Castle Bridge Media. [1] Dragnet started the engine, and structurally, cop shows still do more or less what Dragnet did. But the shakycam, the production design, the typical characters, the blending of private and public life, the “realism” are all modeled on Blues. [2] To me, all genres have at least an interesting relationship with this barrier, but if I enumerated them all, I’d be writing a totally different essay. [3] Although of course it bears saying that these shows always offer a fantasy version of police officers and departments, whether they intend to or not. View the full article
  6. Jakob Hübner. Mancipium Fugacia argante, 1806. Everything we see is expression, all of nature an image, a language and vibrant hieroglyphic script. Despite our advanced natural sciences, we are neither prepared nor trained to really look at things, being rather at loggerheads with nature. Other eras, indeed, perhaps all other eras, all earlier periods before the earth fell to technology and industry, were attuned to nature’s symbolic sorcery, reading its signs with greater simplicity, greater innocence than is our wont. This was by no means sentimental; the sentimental relationship people have with the natural world is a more recent development that may well arise from our troubled conscience with regard to that world. A sense of nature’s language, a sense of joy in the diversity displayed at every turn by life that begets life, and the drive to divine this varied language—or, rather, the drive to find answers—are as old as humankind itself. The wonderful instinct drawing us back to the dawn of time and the secret of our beginnings, instinct born of a sense of a concealed, sacred unity behind this extraordinary diversity, of a primeval mother behind all births, a creator behind all creatures, is the root of art, and always has been. Today it would seem we balk at revering nature in the pious sense of seeking oneness in manyness; we are reluctant to acknowledge this childlike drive and make jokes whenever reminded of it, yet we are likely wrong to think ourselves and contemporary humankind irreverent and incapable of piety in experiencing nature. It is just so difficult these days—really, it’s become impossible—to do what was done in the past, innocently recasting nature as some mythical force or personifying and worshipping the Creator as a father. We may also be right in occasionally deeming old forms of piety somewhat silly or shallow, believing instead that the formidable, fateful drift toward philosophy we see happening in modern physics is ultimately a pious process. So, whether we are pious and humble in our approach or pert and haughty, whether we mock or admire earlier expressions of belief in nature as animate: our actual relationship with nature, even when regarding it as a thing to be exploited, nevertheless remains that of a child with his mother, and the few age-old paths leading humans toward beatitude or wisdom have not grown in number. The simplest and most childlike of these paths is that of marveling at nature and warily heeding its language. “I am here, that I may wonder!” reads a line by Goethe. Wonder is where it starts, and though wonder is also where it ends, this is no futile path. Whether admiring a patch of moss, a crystal, flower, or golden beetle, a sky full of clouds, a sea with the serene, vast sigh of its swells, or a butterfly wing with its arrangement of crystalline ribs, contours, and the vibrant bezel of its edges, the diverse scripts and ornamentations of its markings, and the infinite, sweet, delightfully inspired transitions and shadings of its colors—whenever I experience part of nature, whether with my eyes or another of the five senses, whenever I feel drawn in, enchanted, opening myself momentarily to its existence and epiphanies, that very moment allows me to forget the avaricious, blind world of human need, and rather than thinking or issuing orders, rather than acquiring or exploiting, fighting or organizing, all I do in that moment is “wonder,” like Goethe, and not only does this wonderment establish my brotherhood with him, other poets, and sages, it also makes me a brother to those wondrous things I behold and experience as the living world: butterflies and moths, beetles, clouds, rivers and mountains, because while wandering down the path of wonder, I briefly escape the world of separation and enter the world of unity, where one thing or creature says to the other: Tat tvam asi (“That thou art”). We look at the simpler relationship earlier generations had with nature and feel nostalgic now and then, or even envious, yet we prove unwilling to take our own times more seriously than warranted; nor do we wish to complain that our universities fail to guide us down the easiest paths to wisdom and that, rather than teaching a sense of awe, they teach the very opposite: counting and measuring over delight, sobriety over enchantment, a rigid hold on scattered individual parts over an affinity for the unified and whole. These are not schools of wisdom, after all, but schools of knowledge, though they take for granted that which they cannot teach—the capacity for experience, the capacity for being moved, the Goethean sense of wonderment—and keep mum about it, while their greatest minds recognize no nobler goal than to constitute a step toward such figures as Goethe and other true sages once more. Butterflies, our intended focus here, are a beloved bit of creation, like flowers, favored by many as a prized and powerful object of astonishment, an especially lovely means of experience, of intuiting the great miracle, of honoring life. Like flowers, they seem specifically intended as adornment, jewelry or gems, little sparkling artworks and paeans invented by the friendliest, most charming and amusing of geniuses, dreamed up with tender creative delight. One must be blind or terribly callous not to delight at the sight of a butterfly, not to sense a remnant of childhood rapture or glimmer of Goethean wonder. And with good reason. After all, a butterfly is something special, an insect not like any other, and not really an insect at all, but the final, greatest, most festive and vitally important stage of its existence. As driven to procreate as it is prepared to die, it is the exuberant nuptial form of a creature that was until recently a slumbering pupa and, before that, a voracious caterpillar. A butterfly does not live to eat and grow old; its sole purpose is to make love and multiply. To that end, it is clad in magnificent finery. Its wings, several times larger than the body, divulge the secret of its existence in contours and color, scales and fuzz, a language both refined and varied, all in order that it may live out this existence with greater intensity, put on a more magical and tempting display for the opposite sex and glory in the celebration of procreation. People across the ages have known the significance of butterflies and their splendor; the butterfly is simply a revelation. Furthermore, because the butterfly is a festive lover and stunning shape-shifter, it has come to symbolize both impermanence and eternal persistence; from time immemorial, humans have embraced the butterfly as an allegorical and heraldic figure of the soul. As it happens, the German term for butterfly, Schmetterling, is not very old; nor did all dialects use it. This peculiar word, while energetic in character, also feels quite raw, unsuitable even. Known and used only in Saxony and perhaps Thuringia, it did not enter the written language or general usage until the eighteenth century. Schmetterling was previously unknown in southern Germany and Switzerland, where the oldest and most beautiful word for butterflies was Fifalter (or Zwiespalter*), but because human language, like the language and script found on butterfly wings, is a matter not of reason and calculation, but of creative and poetic potential, a single name did not suffice and, as is the case with everything we love, language instead produced several names—many, in fact. In Switzerland today, butterflies and moths are usually referred to as Fifalter or Vogel (“bird”), with such variations as Tagvogel (“day bird”), Nachtvogel (“night bird”), and Sommervogel (“summer bird”). Given the multitude of names for these creatures as a whole (including Butterfliegen, or “butter flies,” Molkendiebe, or “whey thieves,” and a range of others), which also change according to a region’s landscape and dialect, one can imagine how many names must exist for individual butterfly species—though this will soon read “must have existed,” for they are slowly dying out, like the names of local flowers, and if not for the children who discover a love of butterflies and collecting, these monikers, many of them marvelous, would gradually vanish as well, just as many areas have seen the wealth of butterfly species die out and disappear since industrialization and the rationalization of agriculture. And on behalf of butterfly collectors, young and elderly alike, a further point bears mentioning. The fact that collectors kill butterflies and moths, stick them on pins, and preserve them, that they may endure and retain as much of their beauty as possible, for as long as possible, has been deemed—often with an air of sentimentality—an act of rank barbarism since the age of J.-J. Rousseau, and literature written between 1750 and 1850 features the comical figure of the pedant unable to enjoy or admire butterflies unless they are dead and skewered on pins. What was mostly nonsense, even then, is almost total nonsense today. There are, of course, collectors of all ages who will never content themselves with letting the creatures live and observing them in the wild, but even the roughest of this lot help ensure that butterflies aren’t forgotten, that certain wonderful old names endure, and, at times, they contribute to our dear butterflies’ very survival. Just as a love of hunting teaches nothing less than to tend one’s prey, butterfly hunters were the first to recognize how the eradication of certain plants (e.g., stinging nettles) and other acts of violence in an ecosystem can lead to the rapid dwindling of butterfly populations. Not that the cabbage white or a similar foe of the farmer and gardener would suffer any losses; instead, it’s the finer, rarer, and prettier species losing the battle and disappearing whenever humans get too involved in a landscape. A true butterfly lover does more than treat the caterpillar, pupa, and eggs with care; he also does what he can to allow for as many types of butterflies as possible to flourish in his area. I myself, though many years have passed since my days as a collector, have been known to sow nettles. Every child with a butterfly collection has heard of the much bigger, much brighter, much more brilliant butterflies found in hotter climes, in India, Brazil, or Madagascar. Some have even laid eyes on them, in museums or personal collections, because these days one can purchase exotic butterflies, preserved (often beautifully so) and mounted on cotton under glass; even those who haven’t glimpsed them have seen reproductions. When I was younger, I remember, I very badly wanted to see one particular butterfly that my books told me could be found in Andalusia in the month of May. And whenever I encountered some magnificent specimen of the tropics in a museum or a friend’s collection, I felt that indescribable delight of childhood tugging at me, something akin to the thrill I had, for instance, experienced as a boy the first time I spotted an Apollo. Accompanying this delight, which contains its share of melancholy, at the sight of such wondrous creatures I would often take that step out of my not-always-so-poetic life and into Goethean wonder, experiencing a moment of enchantment, devotion, and piety. And later, what I never thought possible happened to me, as I myself sailed the seas to disembark on sultry foreign coasts. I traveled by crocodile-infested waters through tropical forests to see tropical butterflies in their natural habitat. With that, many of my boyhood dreams came true, and in coming true, some also tarnished. The fascination with butterflies, however, never flagged; this little door to the ineffable, this lovely and effortless pathway to awe, has rarely quit me. *Translator’s note: The use of the word Zwiespalter for butterflies is in reference to the bipartite quality of their bodies. From Butterflies: Reflections, Tales, and Verse by Herman Hesse — selected by Volker Michel, translated by Elisabeth Lauffer, and illustrated by Jakob Hübner — to be published by Kales Press later this month. View the full article
  7. The CrimeReads editors make their selections for the best new fiction coming out this May. * Megan Abbott, Beware the Woman (Putnam) Megan Abbott goes Rosemary’s Baby! A pregnant woman and her doting husband head to a family retreat in the woods, ready to relax with the knowledge that her father-in-law is a doctor. But a sudden health scare, and the family’s strict supervision of her activities, make the cottage start to feel more like a prison, and Abbott’s narrator starts to get a bad feeling about her mother-in-law’s early demise. Abbott has already proven that teenage girlhood is Noir AF, so I’m psyched to read her do the same thing for pregnancy. –MO Molly Odintz, Scott Montgomery, Hopeton Hay eds, Austin Noir (Akashic Books) The long-running Akashic noir series gets a standout installment this year, with a new collection focused on stories from one of America’s most fascinating cities, still clinging to its traditional ‘weirdness’ but also reckoning with a massive influx of money and an extreme clash of cultures that in many ways stands in for the broader forces at play in America today. The new collection has stories from Gabino Iglesias, Ace Atkins, and more, and with Molly Odintz, Scott Montgomery, and Hopeton Hays handling editorial duties, the volume takes on a rare sophistication worthy of its subject. This is the collection the city — and noir readers everywhere — deserve. –DM Ivy Pochoda, Sing Her Down (MCD) Ivy Pochoda is one of the great writers of today, crime or otherwise, although luckily for me, she writes pure noir. Her latest plays with tropes of the western as two former cellmates from an Arizona prison engage in a cat-and-mouse game after both achieve release. Ivy Pochoda’s swaggering prose captures the blistering enmity between the characters, and is a fitting follow-up to her sublime and shattering These Women. –MO T.J. Newman, Drowning (Avid Reader/Simon & Schuster) In the follow-up to Newman’s juggernaut debut thriller, we find ourselves trapped inside a crashed airplane which has sealed off as it drowns to the sea bottom, and while a rescue mission kicks into high gear. Newman proves that she has a knack for white-knuckle prose and adrenaline-inducing stories. –DM Tania Malik, Hope You Are Satisfied (Unnamed Press) It’s 1990. The invasion of Kuwait sets off the first Gulf War, and in between waiting for the SCUD missiles and the Americans, the employees of a small travel agency promising luxury Saudi Arabian vacations spend their time bickering, sleeping together, and partying in clubs off-limits to the local citizens. Riya is worried about her sister and in need of some extra cash, and the urge to help her best friend with an expensive issue is the final push she needs to accept a dangerous gig from a shady character. Let the international intrigue ensue! –MO C.E. McGill, Our Hideous Progeny (Harper) In this innovative debut, Victor Frankenstein’s grand-niece, Mary, is determined to make her own way in the bustling science scene in mid-19th century London, but is running into obstacles at every turn. But soon, she comes across the family mystery: what really happened to her great-uncle? The search for that answer will take her on a dangerous journey. McGill paints a vivid period landscape and unfolds a story that resonates across the generations. Vanessa Walters, The Nigerwife (Atria) In this pitch-perfect psychological thriller, set in the glitzy world of Lagos’ ultra-wealthy jet-set, a young ex-pat wife married to a wealthy Nigerian man disappears, and her aunt soon arrives from London seeking answers. The liquor pours are heavy, the sun beating down even heavier, and secrets weigh heaviest of all in this sultry, suspenseful thriller that had better be adapted for television as soon as the WGA strike is ended. –MO Jaime Lynn Hendricks, I Didn’t Do It (Scarlet) Hendricks follow-up effort is a brisk, fun murder mystery set at a…well, a murder mystery conference. A star author turns up dead and the lead suspects are four of her peers, who of course immediately enter into a complex psychological game as each of them tries to finger the real killer. –DM Daniel Weizmann, The Last Songbird (Melville House) So, let’s say Joan Baez was your regular Lyft client, and you’re a budding songwriter/former private investigator, and she asked you to look into some mysteries from her past, and then was found murdered. You’d obviously avenge Joan Baez, right? I mean, who wouldn’t. Joan Baez is perfect. Also, props to Daniel Weizmann for respecting older women as artists and for his clear dedication to writing about music in an evocative and intelligent manner. –MO Kevin Powers, A Line in the Sand (Little Brown) When a former interpreter from Iraq, living out a lonely relocation on the Virginia shore, comes across a body on the beach, he thinks the violence and cruelty from the war is catching up with him again. A detective and a local reporter get involved in the matter, which soon seems to point in the direction of a government contractor. Powers writes with deep empathy and insight, bringing out a nuanced tale of geopolitics and personal tragedy. –DM View the full article
  8. When people ask me how I came up with the idea for An American in Scotland, I’ve never wanted to share the real answer. But the truth is: I wanted to run away from home. At the time, I had no plans to write a mystery set in Scotland. I just wanted to out of my house and to be anywhere else in the world. Normally, when I create worlds for my books, it just comes to me out of the ether—or I channel it from higher power. I’ve never questioned the process it just happens. Out of the blue a character starts talking and the stories play out like a movie in my head. The town and the people come alive for me, and I just write down what happens. That’s my process. There was a slight difference with An American in Scotland. Mentally, I needed a big break in 2021. You know what was happening, and if you too thought about running away from home, I see you. I understand. I’d been locked in my house for a year. Yes, I was with people I love. Yes, I had a full docket of books I had to write. But I had this obsession. I wanted to hop on a plane and go to Scotland. I’d just found out from DNA results I was 47 percent Scottish. Yep. I had no idea. Like many of us, what I’d been told by my relatives about my heritage was not true. I started researching those ancestors and looking at the places where they had lived. I was so drawn to Scotland––I can’t explain it. I felt like I needed to be there. But no one, at that time, was hopping on a plane and flying much of anywhere. Scotland didn’t want our stinky American germs, and who could blame them. So, I did a deep dive into the place and the culture. I probably have thousands of photos of seaside towns, architecture in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the beautiful Highlands on my computer. I studied Scottish artists, writers, and politicians. I took visual tours so many times online, I dreamt I’d been to the places I’d seen. Then one morning I woke up and there was a doctor in my head. Her name was Dr. Emilia McRoy. She said, “I’m an ER doctor in Seattle and I need a change.” And mic drop. This place, Sea Isle, Scotland, formed in my brain. A small seaside town where the residents were incredibly friendly and quirky. The setting can be an important whether it’s the Amish community in Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder series, or the village in Carlene O’Connor’s Irish Village Mystery Series, the sense of place brings the stories alive. When Castillo is describing the Amish community in Painters Mill, there is a beautiful starkness there. The community is reserved, and stand-offish in a way. It is a beautiful place, and at the same time we sense a darkness there. In direct contrast, who wouldn’t want to live in the bookstore O’Connor created for her series? Kilbane, Ireland in County Cork, sounds like a fun place to live––except, for the murders. These are two different communities that add a great deal to the overall story and the way it is told. In Mango, Mambo, and Murder, Raquel V. Reyes brings the setting of Coral Shores, Miami to life. Readers feel the warmth and the breezes. The colorful shops and homes are all a part of what makes the place real in the reader’s mind. There is a vibe that is unique to Reyes’ stories. Settings don’t just have to be towns and villages. In Kate Khavari’s A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons, she brings to life beautiful gardens, some of them extremely dangerous. While I’m not much of a gardener, she made me interested in creating one. Botany is a big part of the story, so it makes sense that Khavari would use plants and gardens to give a sense of place to her novel. In An American in Scotland, Em’s house and office is a 400-year-old church that had been converted for the town doctor. And of course, it came with all the quirks a church that old might. Including strange noises in the night, which added to the atmosphere. The first thing she does is to paint and fix it up so that it feels more welcoming for her patients. Creating a place where people felt safe, told us a lot about who Em was. I discovered different places in town as Em did. Step-by-step, we built this world where people helped one another out and solved weird murders. A community that she felt was the right place for her to be––even if it wasn’t exactly perfect all the time. But the “feeling” of the place was just as important to me. There had to be an emotional connection to the people and the town. To do that, I created a world I wanted to live in. I do that with just about every book, but especially with this story. Each piece of stone in the cobblestone paths, every pastel store, told a little bit more of the story. Em’s favorite pub, The Pig and Whistle, has a welcoming interior, and the pub-goers are an interesting mix of human beings. She made one of the best friends of her life in that pub. The kind of friendship that stands the test of time. While this idea of feeling alienated was mirroring society at the time I wrote the novel, it is a common thread with many of us. We need those connections. Whether it’s a barstool in “Cheers,” or the weathered couch at the station in “Vera,” we all need that place where we belong. Creating a world where we could experience that sense of place was completely intentional in An American in Scotland. Sure, Sea Isle, Scotland is a fictional town, but I’m hoping readers will want to visit often, I know I do. *** View the full article
  9. SEPTEMBER 27, 1988 ISOLATION CELL, MAXIMUM SECURITY U.S. PENITENTIARY, LEAVENWORTH, KANSAS Don’t wear a tie, unless it’s a clip-on,” Associate Warden Lee Connor warned me. “Silverstein might grab it through the bars to choke you.” Connor unlocked the solid steel door that led from the prison’s administration building into the bowels of the ancient penitentiary. I was being taken to interview Thomas Edward Silverstein. It would be the first and only time a journalist would be allowed to speak to him face-to-face during his lifetime. He was being held in a dungeonlike basement cell isolated from the rest of the prison population as punishment for murdering a correctional officer (CO) and committing other killings in prison. Silverstein had fatally stabbed Officer Merle Eugene Clutts forty times on the morning of October 22, 1983. Eight hours later, another prisoner, Clayton Anthony Fountain, pulled a shank on three officers and murdered Officer Robert L. Hoffman Sr. Never before in the history of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (known by the initials BOP) had two officers been murdered by convicts on the same day in the same prison inside the same cellblock. The fallout from these brutal murders would usher in a new era in corrections—the emergence of “supermax” penitentiaries, where the “worst of the worst” inmates would be locked in solitary confinement for twenty-three hours a day, only being allowed to leave their cells in shackles and under heavy guard. Silverstein’s and Fountain’s actions would condemn both to the most draconian punishment permitted under the U.S. Constitution. At the time of the two killings, neither man could be executed, because there was no federal death penalty. Both already had received multiple life prison terms for murders they’d committed earlier. They had nothing to fear by continuing to kill, authorities said. To prevent them from hurting prison staff and other convicts, the BOP placed both under “no human contact.” They were to be cut off from the outside world—as if they were characters in Edgar Allan Poe’s classic The Cask of Amontillado, where a victim was entombed behind a brick wall with no escape. Silverstein and Fountain were housed initially inside tiny isolation cells, where they received only the minimum constitutional requirements. Silverstein spent nine months wearing only a pair of prison-issued boxer shorts inside a steel-lined cell that was only six feet by seven feet, almost the size of a king mattress, with nothing but a thin mattress pad and toilet inside it. He could touch its celling. The cell’s door was solid steel. Food came through a slot that otherwise was locked shut. None of the correctional officers watching him would speak to him out of deference to their fallen coworkers. No newspapers, magazines, radio, television, or visits with those outside of prison were permitted. No writing materials—neither pencils nor pens. No mail, either incoming or outgoing. The lights in his cell were kept on twenty-four hours per day and never dimmed. Clayton Fountain lived under equally harsh conditions at a different federal penitentiary. They had no meaningful human contact and nothing but their own minds to occupy their time. In private conservations, prison officials expected and quietly hoped both would break mentally and choose to end their own lives rather than spend the coming years alone in such isolation. Neither did. Silverstein had endured five years under no human contact when I began my descent into Leavenworth’s underbelly to meet with him. By then, the BOP had begrudgingly provided Silverstein with a few niceties. This was not done out of kindness, but for control. It had proven difficult to manage him if there was nothing that he valued that could be taken away. Good behavior, for such simple acts as returning empty food trays, was being rewarded with clothing, letters from the outside world, a once-a month telephone call, and drawing materials. I was being allowed to meet him because I was writing a book, The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison, about everyday events that happened inside the maximum-security prison. Never before had the BOP agreed to allow a writer unlimited access at one of its penitentiaries. I was allowed to roam free inside the penitentiary without an escort and speak to any convict or staff member who agreed to speak to me. Initially I intended to spend a year watching events and conducting interviews, but my research took twice as long. This was because I began alternating my prison visits. I would spend a month behind the walls and then return home for a month to review my notes, do other research, and write. At least that is what I told everyone. What I didn’t disclose was that I needed a mental break after spending a month in the predatory world that I was documenting. Associate Warden Connor and other staff at the prison told me they were surprised that I was being permitted to interview Silverstein. I suspected J. Michael Quinlan, the BOP’s then-director, agreed to allow me access because he was convinced my sessions with Silverstein would confirm the bureau’s view that he was evil and unable to live safely outside his isolation cell. On the morning when I first met Silverstein, neither Quinlan nor I had anticipated that our encounter would lead to a thirty-two-year-long relationship carried out through letters and phone calls, which only ended when Silverstein died unexpectedly on May 11, 2019. “Silverstein is a worthless piece of shit,” Associate Warden Connor warned as we descended a stairway into the prison’s catacombs for my first encounter with the BOP’s most hated inmate. A second solid steel door was locked at the bottom of the stairwell. It opened into a labyrinth—a sprawling dark chamber that housed the prison’s massive boilers and served as storage for stacks of dust-covered cartons filled with yellowing prison records dating to the early 1900s. Making our way through the dimness, along a narrow basement path between boxes and mothballed equipment, we reached yet another steel door. Connor unlocked it and we stepped into a small foyer containing a metal table, single folding chair, and black-and-white monitor. Its screen showed what was happening on the other side of yet another steel door. Using a separate key, Connor opened that doorway so I could enter a rectangular room that had two sets of cell bars with a five-foot gap between them. Silverstein was locked at the far end of this shoebox-shaped chamber. “You did sign a release, right?” Connor asked me. He already knew that I had signed a liability release on my first day inside the prison that said the BOP could not be held responsible if I was attacked, taken hostage, or worse during my visits. I suspected his question was a not-too-subtle reminder that Silverstein had killed multiple times. Connor unlocked the first set of steel cell bars and stepped aside so I could enter the five-foot gap that separated this barrier from Silverstein’s caged cell front. Connor shut the gate behind me, twisted the key, and with a loud thunk, I was locked inside. Silverstein’s cell reminded me of an old-fashioned sideshow circus cage, like the ones that housed exotic animals, which I’d seen in movies. Its walls and ceiling were solid steel. Heavy wire mesh was welded across the cell bars facing me. It would have been impossible for Silverstein to reach through those thumb-size holds and grab my tie to choke me. Silverstein came from the rear of his cell much like a fish emerging from the depths of a lake. His ratted hair touched his shoulders. His beard was unkempt. He was not allowed to own a comb, brush, razor, or mirror. “Sometimes my words can’t keep up with my thoughts,” he said in a ghostly voice. “I have trouble talking because I’m out of practice.” The fluorescent ceiling lights above us cast a greenish tint. They were never turned off because the video cameras monitoring him—including one positioned directly over his toilet—needed lighting. “Hear that?” he asked. Neither of us spoke for a moment. A steady buzzing sound, like bees circling a hive. He glanced upward at the lights. “Welcome to my tomb.” _____________________ From No Human Contact: Solitary Confinement, Maximum Security, and Two Inmates by Pete Earley. Reprinted with permission from Kensington Books. Copyright 2023. View the full article
  10. Ahead of the launch of Out of the Ashes, my first book for adults, the question I keep getting asked, more than any other, is: What difficulties did you encounter writing this novel, as a YA writer? Before my adult debut, I published seven mystery novels for teenagers. It seems natural that readers would be curious about the difference between writing for adults and writing for teenagers. But in certain cases, the phrasing of that particular question has an undeniable subtext. What some people really seem to be asking, is, was it hard, writing your first real book? The bias against young adult literature has been discussed at length in the book community and within publishing circles. Adult readers who gravitate toward young adult fiction, in particular, have been the subject of Twitter arguments and clickbait headlines, making it necessary for young adult authors to have a response in their back pocket to preempt criticism of the YA category itself. Yes, I write for teenagers. No, that doesn’t mean my books are dumbed down, or less sophisticated than those written for adults. All of the above might be why I’ve found myself approaching the question about the difference between writing young adult fiction and adult fiction a bit defensively. Truthfully, though, my experience has been this: It is far more challenging to write a compelling and believable mystery novel featuring teenaged characters than adult characters. Maybe it’s the obvious, logistical issues that crop up while writing about teenagers—they have school, they have curfews. Most of them don’t drive, nor do they have unfettered access to a car. Many have extracurriculars, and homework, and part-time jobs. In other words, it’s a hard sell that a high school junior has the bandwidth to be solving murders on the weekends. As with any work of fiction, thrillers centered on teenaged characters involve some suspension of belief on the reader’s part. There are workarounds to give younger characters more independence—novels set over the summer, disengaged parents, a driver’s license. While drafting Out of the Ashes, however, I enjoyed the freedom of being able to write a fully autonomous character for the first time. That’s not to say that there aren’t topical differences in books for teens and books for adults. While many teen mysteries push boundaries and discomfit older readers, who data shows are the ones buying the bulk of YA novels, the reality is that gatekeepers exist. My YA novels have tackled issues such as abortion, incest, and statutory rape—I knew when I was writing the books that I was limiting how many school libraries or statewide reading lists I would be eligible for, and there were certain lines I could not cross on the page (namely: no graphic sex scenes). While writing Out of the Ashes, I didn’t have to be as mindful of “content.” (And yes, there is a somewhat graphic sex scene in the book.) Thematically, there is a lot of overlap between young adult and adult mysteries. Missing persons, murder, betrayal. The fundamental difference for me, however, was the perspective of the main character. I could not approach writing a thirty-three-year-old ICU nurse the same way I approached writing a high school cheerleader—Sam’s character was shaped not only by her past trauma, but the decades that transpired between the murder of her family and the beginning of the book. While digging into her character, I had to fill in those blanks—what happened in her adult life that made her the person she is? Teenaged characters are so enjoyable to write because they are blank slates in a way—they are discovering who they are, and how they want to define themselves. With Samantha, I was able to explore new thematic territory: What does life look like for a character whose entire adult life has been defined for them, by way of their past trauma? As for the answer, I hope you’ll read the book and find out. *** View the full article
  11. Photograph by Jago Rackham. On the top of our fiction bookshelf is an alabaster vase. Its rim is broken. Inside it is a single dried flower, and beside it a faux peach, under a large bell jar. The vase is Egyptian and three thousand years old. I broke its rim a few years ago. Each time I reach for a novel I am reminded of the power of carelessness to undo eons of completeness. At thirteen I was sent to Lo’s school. Lo’ is my fiancée. We have been engaged since we were twenty-one and we are now both approaching our thirties. We “got together” soon after I joined the school and have been near constantly in one another’s presence since then. Like a medieval romance—somewhat creepy, somewhat sweet. The school was in a Georgian townhouse at the top of the high street in Ashburton. Ashburton sits on the side of Dartmoor, the region where The Hound of the Baskervilles is set, and its round-shouldered moorlands hedge the town’s northern views. It feels held and contained. In my memory it is always cloudy, near raining, about to break. On the other side of the town is the Exeter Inn, where in 1603 Sir Walter Raleigh was arrested by new King James’s men in 1603, and from there taken to the Tower of London. I remember long lessons, febrile minds, and a semiorganized chaos, true anarchism. But mostly I remember skipping school with Lo’ to walk around Ashburton and visit antique dealers. Antique dealers use their hands a lot, picking things up and looking at their undersides. The underside of a thing—a vase, say—holds ciphers in the form of marks, of the maker, of the metal, of the date. Secrets in the tops of nails and tacks, the way wood is joined, seams, things that reveal a great deal: fakery, trickery, or surprising authenticity. I began to mimic this looking and holding, the firm grasp on stone or fired clay, and the mimicry turned eventually to something approaching knowledge of the informal kind. The shops had cutesy names like the Shambles (which is still there) and the Fish Belly (which isn’t), or geographic ones like East Street Antiques (still there) and North Street Antiques (gone). Most were quite large, whole houses or old shops divided into poky rooms. I would find things and find them beautiful and then check with Lo’. If she liked them too, and they were inexpensive, we would buy them with our week’s lunch money. I still can’t quite tell if I like an object before I’ve shown it to Lo’. The best of these Ashburton shops, perhaps the best shop in the world, is Tom Wood Antiques & Curios. Tom is a portly man, short, teddy-bear shaped, and smiling. He has very little hair and a predilection for jazzy shirts. He wears large glasses and a Rolex—the watch a sign of seriousness to other dealers. His shop is very small and very packed. The uninitiated believe it to be junk and leave quickly. This is a filter. “Would you like to see something old?” In his hand is a tiny bead, greenish. “It is four thousand years old, jewelry.” Lo’ and I look, mouths agape. Years pass. We move to London and rent a flat. We have no table, no chairs, two cups, one pot, one knife. I sit up late, reading against the wall. Years pass. We have so much more. Each trip we make to Devon, to see our parents, the verdure, the Dart, we visit Tom’s shop. “You move like a dancer in the shop, Tom!” Lo’ says. He does. Reaching for a cup atop a tottering tower of stoneware he disturbs nothing. “These you might like.” Two alabaster vases. “They are from the Third Kingdom, Egyptian. Very old, three thousand years old.” I handle them with the firm grasp, looking them up and down, inside and out. Held up to the light they are luminescent, milky, not quite white; they have the effect of sunlight caught behind cotton sheets that have been left out overnight through a frost. They are not so expensive, fifty or so pounds, so we buy one. The feeling of taking cash out as illicit as when it was lunch money. On the train to London, Lo’ holds it, wrapped in bubble wrap, on her lap. Or no, it was in a bag. We put a lot of trust in old objects. If they have lasted this long and traveled so far, why would they break on a train to London? At home, we put flowers in it, but it is not watertight and weeps, not from one crack but all over, porous ancient sadness. So it lives beneath a sculpture, mounted on two wooden pillars. The pillars frame it, almost grandly, near classically. Soon it does what all objects do—loses its luster. Soon I no longer excitedly point it out to guests and ask how old they think it is. I move on. I do not cease to love it. The sculpture it sat below is a wax gravestone by my best friend; it is porous and heavy, on its front are holes as porous and soft as those on honeycomb. One day I’m moving it—it is heavy—and it slips and slowly comes to rest upon the vase. The vase does not shatter but crumbles, the damage isolated. I pull the sculpture up and look at the vase, move it quickly to me. Half its rim has come off, has fallen inside itself, but most oddly there is also a hole, big enough for three fingers, on one side, in its belly. I swear loudly and Lo’ comes in. I point to the vase and walk out of the room. I sit beneath our kitchen table. I fix my face in an anguished grimace, that of a child who has done something wrong but is angry at being told off. Three thousand years and I did not think to move it, just a bit, out of the way. I am as bad as any other Englishman—a destroyer of history, selfish, priggish. Lo’ comes in. “It’s okay,” she pauses. “You know, it always annoyed me that it was so neat. It didn’t look very old. It could have been from Anthropologie.” Jago Rackham is a writer and cook. His book about hosting, To Entertain, will be out in 2024. You can see his food @ecstasy_cookbook on Instagran. View the full article
  12. Readers become writers the moment they glance away from the page, distracted by their own inner voice announcing, Hey, I can do that. In my case, it took a few nanoseconds more to sense that my first protagonist, would be, like me, a suburban Long Island mom. She’d have left behind a stimulating job (in my case, as a magazine editor and freelance political speechwriter) for the stay-at-home life. She’d be bright. Curious. Sardonic? Sure, why not? She adored her kids yet sometimes she yearned for discourse more elevated than pre-school repartee. Without a doubt, she was someone with whom I could identify. The year was 1978 and Judith Singer became the protagonist of Compromising Positions. Even then I knew that anyone contemplating writing a mystery would be wise to make it Book 1 of a series. Unlike stand-alone crime fiction novels in which a single case is solved and the detective is no more, a well-written first mystery has an expectant fan base eager to snap up the next adventure. Readers plead to know And what happened after that? Lovers of clues and plot twists and intriguing characters don’t want to know from That’s all there is. It was natural to wonder about creating another adventure for Judith and company, followed by yet another, after Compromising Positions’s surprise success. My publisher assured me that the gimlet-eyed, wise-cracking, less-than-happily-married sleuth would sparkle as a series protagonist. My vision was more sparkle, sparkle…tarnish. I imagined churning out increasingly implausible plots while Judith’s suburban town piled ever higher with bodies and the characters’ lovable quirks declined into tired schtick. I knew that fate wasn’t inevitable. Some of the greatest mystery novelists did their best work in series: Ngaio Marsh, Georges Simenon, Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly. So of course some part of me always wanted to see what writing a series was all about. But Compromising Positions was my first attempt at fiction. At that point, newly successful but uncertain about my future, I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep writing mysteries at all—and in the ensuing years, I often didn’t. I wrote many kinds of novels, including espionage, adventures, coming-of-age (and middle-age) tales, family sagas, and historical fiction. Often I found myself returning to mysteries, but they too were stand-alones. After more than twenty years, I did decide to continue Judith’s story and wrote Long Time No See. I, too, wanted to know what had happened to her. How had she spent the last two decades? I also was in the mood to revisit our shared setting: suburban Long Island. However, Judith’s voice did not return to me immediately. As with any reunion with an old friend after so much time apart, there were moments where we clicked and moments where we didn’t quite get one another. But by the end of the first draft, she was back. Once again, she was so real to me I felt I was just her assistant, typing madly, trying to keep up with her dictation. Still, after Long Time No See, I decided against any further Judith Singer sequels. I had described the totality of what happened to her in the intervening years, about her experience of growing older, about her now adult kids, her career, her love life. Her story felt final. What I couldn’t quite let go of was Long Island. I live here, of course, but it has other attractions for a mystery writer. It’s diverse, with people of every race and ethnicity and in every economic bracket. Yet unlike cities, which display their grittiness on the surface, suburban grittiness is obscured by a patina of geniality. A murder turns the suburbs upside down. So when I wrote It Takes One to Know One, I set it on Long Island. The protagonist Corie Geller is, as I once was, a recent transplant to Long Island from nearby Queens. Corie views her suburban setting skeptically, unlike her erudite, elegant, but less street-smart husband. She’s a former FBI agent, a linguistic maven who is fluent in Arabic, and a practitioner of martial arts. I wanted to make her background and training substantive enough so that she wasn’t Plucky Amateur Sleuth, but a shrewd investigator. I created Corie for the long haul. I wanted this to be the first book of my first series. Continuing Corie’s story in Bad, Bad Seymour Brown felt like the natural next step: the second book. Corie’s voice remained not only loud and clear to me, but invigorating. She and I simply picked back up where we left off. Only a series could highlight Corie’s inner and outer selves and follow her evolution. She’s too gifted and maybe too flawed to have to cram all she is capable of and to a single book. Corie Geller hangs with me now, my boon companion. She continues to surprise me with new aptitudes: her regard for Arab art and culture; her balance of Bureau-honed vigilance behind outer-borough affability, her grasp of family dynamics; her ability to hear the real message behind the most innocuous remark. She confides in me too, like about her longing for the man she knows she can never have. These days, as I work on my third Corie Geller book, I already have a glimmer of the fourth. But the reason I am so glad — finally — to be writing a series? I’ve come to love Corie and there’s so much about her left to explore. There is no reason why we have to say goodbye. View the full article
  13. Every town or county has its version. In all the corners of North America, for a short time each year, in mall parking lots or yellowing fields on municipal outer limits, an otherwise unremarkable space is transformed. The endless strings of incandescent lights with their sequenced colors. The tinny royalty free music and the roar of the rollercoaster. The smell of hot friar oil and the exhaust of diesel generators. Most of us have, in some corner of our mind, memories of our local carnival or fair. In my hometown of St. Albert, Alberta, straddling the 53rd parallel north on the cusp of the Canadian prairies, we had the Rainmaker Rodeo. For one (true to the name and often rainy) weekend each May, between the commercial buildings of Riel Business Park and the pristine green fields of the rugby club, the city converged to take in the bull riding, mud bogging and the iconic Rainmaker midway. I started young, much like the protagonists of my debut novel, Sunsetter, watching the chuckwagon races with my dad, taking in the parade with extended family in the shadow of the little white chapel at the foot of Seven Hills. Later, under the guise of middle school independence, my best friend and I would spend half a month’s paper route earnings and ride ourselves sick on the Gravitron and the Zipper. Later still, in my late teens and early twenties, that same best friend and I would stumble down the thoroughfare, drunk and uninhibited, blowing our money on mini donuts and rigged carnival games. For several years, even before I began on my first draft of Sunsetter, I wanted to set a book in the transitory bubble of this small-time local rodeo, which seized upon our city for three days each year and then vanished, leaving only piles of garbage, the muddy tracks of semis and the churned earth of the field below the grandstand. My debut novel doesn’t necessarily break ground with this sense of place in art or literature. An argument could probably be made for the creation of a genre of its own—the midway narrative—with memorable inclusions from across mediums, like Derek Cianfrance’s 2012 film The Place Beyond the Pines, HBO’s Euphoria SE01EP04: “Shook Ones Pt. II” or Joyland by Stephen King. But what makes these settings so appealing to authors and audiences alike? Aside from the obvious points of artistic appeal, the storm of light and sound, there is a menace inherent in the concept of a midway that is a source of palpable tension in the narratives that choose to showcase it. After all, it’s a form of entertainment that finds its origins in the bloody circuses of Ancient Rome and the ‘freak shows’ of Barnum & Bailey. In it, we find a pressure cooker of potential conflict in the uneasy balance of a world taking form within another, one mundane and the other fantastic and unfamiliar. Under the midway’s swirling lights, we find an important contrast in the shadows they create. The halogen floodlights might turn the muddy thoroughfare as bright as day, but an undeniable darkness forms between the tents and booths and beneath the creaking metal amusement rides. The same is true of the space beyond the midway, as a reverse event horizon takes shape around the bright iris of the carnival. There’s also an important attitude to consider, one that dies hard in all small towns and cities, and that’s the fear of the other. It’s what makes middle class folks on cookie cutter suburban cul-de-sacs look unkindly upon strangers. It’s the pervasive othering that rightwing politicians capitalize on to push xenophobic policies and refuse action on gun legislation. And the traveling carnival, with its peripatetic staff and ephemeral structures, is an enterprise that historically and consistently embodies ‘the other’. When these fairs take place in our cities each year, we accept them for their novel offerings and entertainment value, but with the caveat that their strange world will not overstay its brief welcome or bleed beyond the borders of whatever parking lot or empty field we’ve allowed it. Consider it an extension of the mysterious visitor, the unwanted guest. The midway’s offerings, too, are accepted only because they must come and go. The cheap thrills of amusement rides and deep fried foods are exactly that—cheap and thrilling—but they can’t last either. Carnival games are infantilized gambling with largely disposable prizes, and yet, for a short period, we say to hell with it and throw the dart at the wall of balloons. It’s indulgence with a well-defined beginning and end. This temporary mental state can make us act in strange ways. We spend our hard earned money on small luxuries that exist outside our habitual realms of desire. We take a ride on the sketchy roller coaster, assembled only yesterday from the back of an eighteen wheeler. We allow ourselves to scream our lungs out from the top of the Ferris wheel. We have one more drink. Maybe another. It’s in this mental space that exists the narrative potential for unexpected actions from fairgoers who we might otherwise view as innocuous. As an author, this is the phenomenon that drove the conflict in writing Sunsetter. Whether it’s a character whose nefarious tendencies are augmented in this suspension of norms, or your typical straight arrow who finds themselves transformed under the carnival lights, the midway as a setting offers us an atmosphere in which people can astound and shock us. Symbolically and sensorially, the midway is the perfect setting to fuel the tension that permeates great thrillers and crime fiction. And it did not fail to surprise me throughout the writing process: with the dark corners it pushed my characters into, the decisions it forced them to make, the unfortunate anguish it put them through. I hope it will surprise you, too. *** View the full article
  14. When people speak of women’s power, they tend to think of three things. Political influence. Financial clout. And of course, sexual power. Three things that have one thing in common: these things generally serve a capitalist patriarchy, in which – with a few exceptions – a woman’s value is closely tied to her desirability. In fiction, women characters tend to follow a similar trend. Young women still dominate in almost every genre; and although we expect more independence and drive from our fictional heroines than we once did, most protagonists are young, while older women occupy secondary, often domestic roles. Older women are mothers, grandmothers, their power passed onto their children. Older women are confidantes, or villains, or bosses, or sidekicks. Even the main protagonists of Naomi Alderman’s feminist fable The Power, in which women of all ages discover an untapped potential within themselves, are predominantly in their twenties. Only in the world of romance do older protagonists feature on a fairly regular basis, and there, all too often their journey is defined by the prospect of finding love. The message is clear: youth is power. The energy that comes with youth; the power of untapped potential. The loss of this power comes – inevitably – with age. Middle-aged women in fiction are most often likely to be depicted – if indeed they feature at all – as envious, bitter or sad, or overcompensating for their failings, or defying convention with HRT, or living on through their children. George R. R. Martin’s Cersei Lannister is a case in point; although she occupies a strange and unlikely hinterland, in which she combines the power of a femme fatale with that of a ruthless political mind, whilst also remaining apparently unaffected by the ravages of time. Nonetheless, older women protagonists are difficult to find in fiction, and when we do find them, they often appear either as convention-busting characters in their eighties or nineties (as in Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie), or as tragically postmenopausal figures like the protagonist of Bernice Rubens’ A Five Year Sentence, whose story is entirely driven by her lack of personal agency, and whose journey into madness is triggered by loneliness and despair. So where does a woman’s power come from, once her sexual power has been exhausted? And is the endless pursuit of youth (via HRT, or late-life romance) the only journey worth taking? When I began to write Broken Light, I had just gone through the double shock of breast cancer and menopause. It made me think about the helplessness of women in the face of their own physical limitations, but also the power of letting go – of our own expectations, as well as those of society – and finding unexpected power in our limitations. Many menopausal women speak of the “relief” of having gone through menopause: freedom from menstruation; freedom from the male gaze. Being invisible has its advantages: in any other context, it would be a superpower. Which is why, when I began to tell the story of Bernie Moon – on the surface, an ordinary, middle-aged woman with an unremarkable life – I found myself writing something new: a thriller with some paranormal elements, centred round the theme of coming into power with age. I haven’t read Kirsten Miller’s The Change, but I can already tell that we share a common belief that change is not always a loss, and that women have more to offer than their sexual viability. For Bernie Moon, it is a return to a state of pre-pubescent awareness and acuity: as if the hormones of puberty have eclipsed her sense of self. There’s more than a nod to Stephen King’s Carrie here; but whereas Carrie’s powers are directly triggered by the arrival of puberty, Bernie’s come with menopause, and her liberation from the impossible demands made of a woman by society. She learns to challenge her sense of self; her buried guilt; her relationships. She realizes that her whole life has been spent internalizing blame for the crimes of the men who have abused her. Her menopausal hot flushes (which is the most common UK term) become hot flashes of intuition and power, upon which she is able to act in defence of other women, and in order to improve her world. Unlike poor Carrie, Bernie learns to direct her superpower, to overcome her fears, to face her past and her childhood guilt, and finally to understand that she is not the monster. But claiming power back from the world is not an easy thing to do. Like so many women, Bernie has been gaslit into believing herself powerless since she was a teen. And her power – a power she barely understands – comes at the cost of security. The change – and its revelations – affect every part of her life; every relationship. I can relate: change, and the freedom that comes with it, can be frightening; destabilizing. Its power can feel a lot like weakness. But acknowledging that; sharing it; owning it is a potent act. What has been broken can turn out to be more powerful that what is whole. After all, only by breaking light into its component parts do we get the rainbow. *** View the full article
  15. In the morning, I write dark, twisting murder mysteries, and during the day, I work at a church. I have no theological background. I’m in charge of facilities. I’m the one who calls the handyman when something goes wrong. Sometimes I try to fix the problem on my own, watching YouTube videos about how to change out a faucet. I muck around with a wrench, fail, call a plumber. Sometimes I write in the chapel before punching in. One day, the pastor asked if I wouldn’t mind joining her. A member was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, and the pastor wanted me to sit in on their conversation. I get this question at least twice a year. Not from the pastor, but from friends. One of their friends has been diagnosed, young, often with young children, and the mutual friend is grasping for a way to help. They turn to me. At the age of 31, with two small children under the age of 3, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. The same disease my husband’s mother was diagnosed with when he was twelve. I survived. My husband’s mother did not. It’s a good thing I don’t have that many friends. What I don’t say when I’m confirming, yes, please share my number is these friends of friends never call. Having to talk about what is happening to you, especially in the beginning, is too difficult. I hated having to tell people I had breast cancer. I hated having to navigate their reactions as I was figuring out my own. My father told me this was going to be one chapter in my life. My mother started to cry, and I had to console her. One friend told me her friend had it and she was fine. Another said they’d pray for me. I didn’t believe people died or didn’t die because of prayers. I still don’t. I have never mentioned this to the pastor. Most people told me I would be strong. I was strong in other areas of my life. I would be strong now. These folks embody the common narrative we ascribe to cancer patients: The Cancer Warrior. I didn’t feel strong. I’ve always distrusted the word warrior. Are the people who don’t survive not warriors? Have they died because they haven’t fought hard enough? No. They died because they died. Which meant I could die. I mean, not someone with a small Stage 0 diagnosis. They had surgery, skipped chemo, and were done with it. I wasn’t the 27-year-old with Triple Negative who would be on chemotherapy for the rest of her life, but I wasn’t State 0 either. I didn’t know if I was supposed to think like this. I’m nearly certain everyone thinks like this. I worried I didn’t have the right mindset, even when I was trying my hardest to project a stiff-upper-lip approach to those around me. I wanted to tell people the truth but didn’t think it would go over well. From the beginning—(maybe because of my mother-in-law I never got to meet, my kids never got to meet)—I thought I could die. I knew it was possible. There was no reason, not prayers, not mindset, I thought, that explained why one person died while another didn’t. I tried to talk to my husband about it. At first, he replied the way most partners would. He told me I would be okay. I didn’t feel okay. The pastor and I sat with the woman in the church sanctuary. We listened. The woman had had cancer before. She wasn’t new to life going sideways. The pastor asked me to tell a little about my story. I explained, in broad strokes, what happened. I had a massive stage 2 tumor. Twelve rounds of weekly chemo, four rounds of really, really terrible chemo. Somehow, my book came up. I’ll talk about my novel in relation to cancer in terms of theme but not causality. I don’t want people to think—I don’t think—there was some “larger purpose” in surviving cancer. My sister told me once, See, that’s your story. You had cancer, you triumphed, now you have your book to show for it. I don’t see it that way. Yes, I grapple with cancer in my book, The Night Flowers, but in order to challenge this type of narrative, not as a victory dance. In The Night Flowers, a woman nearing the end of breast cancer treatment begins researching a cold case. Part of what draws her to investigate the murder of a woman and her two children, nearly thirty years ago, isn’t because she has triumphed over cancer. It’s because she’s not sure she will triumph. The Night Flowers tells a more complicated version of cancer than we’re used to seeing in the media. It was one of my goals in pairing a murder mystery with a cancer-patient-protagonist. To draw the parallels between crime and cancer. To complicate the Cancer Warrior narrative. To say, if that label works for you, great. But it’s okay if it doesn’t. The pastor asked what was most difficult about having cancer. I told her and the other woman, the hardest part was finding the right narrative for yourself. To mourn for yourself while you are doing everything in your power to make it through the day. The Cancer Warrior language never worked for me. “What language did work for you?” the pastor asked. I smiled to myself. The answer was in a scene toward the end of The Night Flowers. When the detective who’s also working on the cold case asks the cancer-patient-protagonist what happened to her. They aren’t sitting in a church sanctuary, but they are sharing a meal. The cancer-patient-protagonist tells the detective the good, the bad, the ugly. The detective doesn’t preach; she listens. What language worked for me? The truth. It’s okay to not be okay. *** View the full article
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