On its Amazon page, the logline for Miranda Rijks's suspense novel says, "The one obituary you never want to read is your own." Sure enough, the novel begins with Laura Swallow reading her own obituary in a local newspaper.
Thus the story begins with the hero's problem. And the problem gets worse. As Rijks says in her description of the book, "multiple announcements of her death are followed by increasingly sinister real-life events."
Story guru Matt Bird says your story is not about your hero's life; it's about your hero's problem. But when the story begins by introducing the problem, the hero's life becomes much more interesting. Her relationships, her tragedies, her triumphs---everything about her will affect the way she solves her problem.
So Rijks had me hooked from the beginning. And I stayed hooked because the book is written in clear, simple prose. I never had to mentally diagram a sentence. I was never tempted to pause and admire her "use of language." She told the story.
And, it is an interesting problem. I really wanted to find out who wrote that fake obituary and staged those "increasingly sinister real-life events," and why.
In Down the River Unto the Sea, Walter Mosley takes a break from his series built around Easy Rawlins, the character Denzel Washington played in Devil in a Blue Dress. This is the story of Joe King Oliver, who gets framed, fired from the NYPD, and becomes a private detective.
As in so many P. I. novels investigating a small crime leads to discovering profound corruption. There are plenty of reversals and double-crosses here to satisfy fans of the genre.
In some ways, Down the River is not so far from the Easy Rawlins books. Rawlins and Oliver are both reluctant private eyes, forced into the trade by circumstances. And both have sociopathic sidekicks. Rawlins's associate, Mouse, has a habit of accidentally shooting people. Oliver teams up with Mel, a retired career criminal as dangerous as he is devious.
The chief pleasure of this book is the story-telling voice. Though the narrator is our hero, Joe King Oliver, the voice is that of the author of nearly fifty novels. It compels belief. Mystery Writers of America named him a Grand Master in 2016.
The Concrete Blonde is a "perfect crime" story. As such it is comparable to Williams's A Touch of Evil and The Hot Spot, and to James M. Cain's Double Indemnity and many others. In this kind of story, it goes without saying the perfect crime will not go as planned, and it is excruciating to watch it unravel.
Predictable though the direction of the story may be, endless variations are possible with the motive behind the crime. A thief may want to make one, last, big score and retire. Lovers may want to run away together and be happy. A drifter on the run may want to escape for good. People who have been wronged may want revenge.
Likewise the relationships of the characters are variable. They may be in love or they may may be forced to work together though they hate each other.
In The Concrete Flamingo, Charles Williams comes up with a combination of motive and relationship I haven't seen anywhere else, and this gives the ending its own peculiar flavor. This is my sixth novel by Williams, and so far what Bill Crider said about him proves true: "Anything by Williams is good."
When their regular babysitter is not available, a couple hires a friend of a friend to watch their three kids so they can have their anniversary dinner out. They should have checked references.
When the dad brings the new sitter to the house, he swaggers a bit too much. The mom is a bit too needy about her concern for the children. The eleven-year-old brother is a bully. They will suffer for their flaws.
The new sitter arrives with an eerie detachment. When the parents leave, and we find out what she's up to, the fates of the little brother and sister hang in the balance.
This is a psychological thriller, not a horror movie. Violence and gore are minimal. The sound editors do not resort to startling us with loud noises. The chills come from revealing the characters' intentions.
The movie has its flaws. Some minor characters are forgotten in the second half. There are some continuity errors in the run up to the climax. But the writing is better than average, and the performances, even from the little ones, are compelling.
Veteran crime-fiction writer, Lawrence Block, had the idea for this book of short stories: invite great writers to write a story inspired by a painting by Edward Hopper, and publish the results as a collection, entitled In Sunlight or in Shadow. Each story has a fine color plate of the painting facing its first page. In each instance the title of the story is the title of the painting.
The writers draw inspiration from the paintings in different ways. Warren Moore in "Office at Night" unfolds an anecdote that accounts for each detail in the painting. Michael Connelly in "Nighthawks," writes about two people sharing their thoughts on the painting.
There are some big-name crime-fiction writers here, including Jeffrey Deaver, Lee Child, and Block himself. There are also some all-around big-name writers, including Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates.
I'm grateful to the collection for introducing me to writers I didn't know. One of them, Joe R. Lansdale, wrote my favorite story in the book, "The Projectionist." He's the author of 63 novels in several genres: horror, western, science fiction, mystery and suspense, plus short stories, comics and screenplays.
Story guru Matt Bird says your story is not about your hero's life; it's about your hero's problem. The first half of Three Peaks comes close to breaking this rule.
A mother, her son, and her new boyfriend vacation at a cabin in the mountains. We watch them live their lives for several days---cooking, sleeping, playing music---all made awkward by the son's unresolved resentment over his father's absence. The film seems to be showing us what life is like in a new family.
The boyfriend does his best to include the son in manly activities such as cutting firewood and hiking to the peaks. The son starts to threaten the boyfriend. This is where the film starts being a story. The boyfriend (hero) now has a problem. Still, what can a boy do against a grown man?
Quite a bit, it turns out, when that man feels protective toward the boy for the sake of his girlfriend, the mother, and when they hike to the top of a mountain and the fog rolls in. Trapped in a dangerous situation, the boy now has all the advantages.
The final third of the movie plays like a Jack London story directed by Alfred Hitchcock.