In Before the Fall, Scott Burroughs survives the crash of a small airplane in the waters off Martha's Vineyard and saves another passenger. Noah Hawley creates a thrilling account of his survival and all he faces afterward: investigations by government agencies, pursuit by reporters, and interference from friends and family members. Scott turns out to be that rare person who can beat bureaucrats, bullies, and demagogues at their own games. I was in suspense right through the last page.
Hawley tells this story in 223 pages, but there are 390 pages in the book. The other 167 pages are devoted to chapters on the seven people who died in the plane crash. I skipped them all the first time through and thoroughly enjoyed the story.
When I was done, I went back and read the other chapters. They tell a bit about each of the people who died, who they were, what they did, how they came to be on that flight. They are character sketches. Each chapter confirmed the impression I had of a person in the first chapter when they all board the plane together. None of this changed my view of the main plot, Scott's triumph over those in power.
By itself's Scott's story is about the same length of those wonderful suspense novels from the era of paperback originals. The addition of the character sketches is one more example of how to make a book as long as publishers want them to be these days.
False Tongues by Kate Charles is not the kind of novel I usually read, but I enjoyed it. And it's helping me understand the kind of book I want to write.
Callie, the principal character, is a curate in the Church of England. Her boyfriend, Marco, is a police officer who supports families who are victims of crimes. Marco is assigned to a family whose teenage son has been murdered. DI Neville Stewart is assigned to find the murderer.
So Callie is not directly involved in solving the crime. Neither are her vicar and his wife, her friends from theological college who gather for a reunion, nor the principal of the college, who falls in love with a visiting priest during the reunion, but we spend a lot of time with all of them.
It's fair to say the structure of this novel is similar to that of the film, Love Actually (2003): lots of people, lots of stories, surprising connections among them. I enjoyed both that film and this book
If someone removed all the scenes and characters who do not contribute to solving the mystery, the book would probably be less than 200 pages instead of 339. I suspect the author spun out the loosely connected subplots in order to make the book as long as publishers want books to be these days.
Almost three years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled Why did books get longer?". I had just read Michael Connelly's Two Kinds of Truth, a big book divided into Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. Since each part tells a separate story, the book is really two novellas and a short story, put into one book and called "a novel."
I have read that books of 80,000 words (240 pages) sell best on Amazon, and that a book must be 100,000 words (330 pages) in order to be commercial. Some authors make a mystery longer by making the plot more complicated to solve; some do it by including more description of scenery; some bundle more stories together.
As Barnard says in A Talent to Deceive, Agatha Christie's characters are one-dimensional, her settings are undistinguished, and her prose and dialogue are nothing special. By comparison, her fellow mystery writers of the 1920s and 1930s, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey are much better novelists,
And yet, Christie has far more readers than any of them. In fact, by all accounts, Agatha Christie is the best-selling author of fiction of all time. Only The Bible and Shakespeare have sold more copies than she has.
Barnard gives two ideas about why Christie continues to be so popular. First, she does one thing better than anyone: manipulate the reader into guessing wrong about who committed the murder. Barnard's analysis of how she does so is worth studying.
Second, he suggests, her mysteries should not be read as modern fiction but rather as an older kind of story, the tale. He mentions "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight."
One might also think of fairy tales in which character types---an old man, a wicked woman, a young lover, a trickster---play out the action in a simple setting---a forest, a castle, a village. The tale is told in simple, conversational language.
In the tale, there is no attempt at realism or literary sophistication. The plot is everything.
I don't know if anyone has come up with a better explanation for Christie's phenomenal success since Barnard published this book in 1980, but his ideas have me reading Christie again.
The Difference is a Charles Willeford crime novel wearing a cowboy hat instead of a fedora, riding on a horse instead of in a Plymouth, and set in the Sonoran desert rather than San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Johnny Shaw, the first-person narrator, is as unscrupulous as the hero of Willeford's The Woman Chaser or, for that matter Thompson's The Killer Inside Me or Williams's The Hot Spot. Shaw has a noble quest---to regain control of the land left to him by his father---but, as he pursues it, he takes whatever he needs and kills whoever is in his way.
It was normal for "paperback writers" of the 1950s and 1960s to write more than one genre: crime, western, sci-fi, or romance. In this book, Willeford seems to know horsemanship and the Sonoran desert as well as he knows the used-car business and Los Angeles in The Woman Chaser. I'm not sure this will make me a fan of westerns, but I enjoyed this one.
This book shows how the thriller (using that term loosely) became more popular than "mainstream fiction" and "literary fiction" and, in the hands of some writers became as sophisticated.
Anderson's short list of "modern masters" includes Thomas Harris, George Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and a few others, but he discusses many writers in several categories. I've added some new names to my to-be-read list. I also enjoyed his discussions of writers I've read such as Lawrence Sanders. It's nice to be reminded what is good about those books.
Throughout the book I found answers to questions I have long pondered. For instance, he says Sue Grafton's first book is about 200 pages, but a book from later in her Kinsey Milhone series runs to 337 pages. Anderson says this is not because the plot has more twists and turns, but rather because Grafton includes more description.
For me this was similar to another book about books I like, Books to Die For. The Triumph of the Thriller was published in 2007, so it ends before the rise of ebooks and print-on-demand, which uprooted many of the assumptions of book publishing.
Charles Willeford is mentioned along with Jim Thompson and Charles Williams as among the best writers of paperback originals, a publishing phenomenon that started in 1950.
The Woman Chaser was published in 1960, the sixth of his eighteen novels. Its hero is devoid of empathy. He interacts with others only to entertain or enrich himself. This recalls the heroes of Williams' The Hot Spot and Thompson's The Killer inside Me.
The Woman Chaser is the story of a used-car salesman who moves from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and takes a break from making money to write and direct a film. On this level, he is a spoof of every guy who has "a great idea for a movie" and thinks that's all he needs.
Along the way the salesman has an Oedipal relationship with his mother and uncaring sexual encounters with two other women. These characters are barely tethered to the plot. They are included so the author can check off requirements of the genre.
Willeford has a lot of fun experimenting with form. Instead of chapter breaks, he uses movie scene headings such as "Dissolve To:" The flow of action seems at times as arbitrary as the hero's brainstorming.
The Woman Chaser may not be a lesson in how to construct a narrative, but it successfully brings a sociopathic narrator to life.
For anyone who has ever wondered what the neighbors are up to, this is a fun read, assuming your idea of fun is watching things go very badly for a young mother trying to be a good neighbor.
We follow Emily and Ben in their new home as she attempts to befriend the woman next door while being a full-time mom to a toddler. This neighbor seems anxious and unwilling to communicate. Her husband, the doctor, is stand-offish to the point of rudeness.
The story is told from multiple points of view, so we also get to follow the doctor as he goes out to the shed behind the house every evening, and we find out what he does there. Thus we know what Emily is walking into before she does.
I enjoyed the way the author lays out the facts so we can see a pattern, and figure things out before the characters can. But things don't always go the way we expect, and that is fun too.
The prose is conversational and the various elements of the story---dialogue, description, thought, action, backstory, etc.---are in good proportions. It's and easy, enjoyable read.
Lisa Stone has four recent thrillers and twenty-seven novels written as Cathy Glass.
Anyone familiar with Patricia Highsmith's two most famous novels, Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, will recognize the premise of The Cry of the Owl: two men engage in mortal combat and the woman (or women) in the their lives don't seem to know what's happening.
The Cry of the Owl begins with Robert, recently divorced and moved from Manhattan to a small town in Pennsylvania, stopping along a road near a house to look through the kitchen window and watch Jenny washing dishes and doing other chores.
I won't give away the plot developments that lead to Robert's conflict with Greg, who has been dating Jenny. I will say that what could play out as a conventional romantic triangle turns into something more ambiguous. Each of the relationships---Robert-Jenny, Jenny-Greg, and Robert-Greg---is strange yet plausible, just as they are in Highsmith's more famous novels.
The ambiguity of the relationships no doubt stems from Highsmith's situation. She was gay, and she published most of her work in the 1950s and 1960s. Although she wrote one novel about a lesbian relationship (The Price of Salt, 1952), for most of her career she wrote about relationships between men and women. But she let her truth shine through them.
The Suspects by Katherine Johnson is one of the more inventive thrillers I've read for a while. She starts with an unusual situation: Five twenty-somethings, just out of college (since this is in England, they say, "uni"), meet in a training program for business journalists. Daunted by the market for rentals, they band together to purchase a house.
As twenty-somethings do, they throw a party for friends and friends of friends. Several days after the party, one of them finds a body in the basement. They do not call the police or set about trying to figure out whodunnit. They don't even know who it is. Instead, for entirely understandable reasons, they set about getting rid of the body.
The author is at her best getting her characters into tight spots that get tighter by the moment. Her complications are as inventive as the overall situation, and Johnson keeps us in touch with the thoughts and feelings of her characters. They seem real.
In addition to the five housemates, there are boyfriends and girlfriends to keep track of. A few characters get fairly long biographical speeches. The final chapters play out over years. But the core of the story is a gripping read.
Martin Krieger discovers someone is stealing from the company he bought for his investors. He vows to find out who is involved and make them pay.
But the thieves have set a trap, and Krieger must do things he’s never done before to protect his career, his reputation, and his family.
How far will he go?
In The Con Man’s Son, a chilling game of hide and seek plays out on the foggy streets of San Francisco.
The Con Man’s Son will be published September 31, 2020 and is now available for pre-order on Amazon.
Like The Thicket, this tale is set in East Texas during the Great Depression. In a small town that has grown up around a saw mill, the mill hands work long hours for low pay. But they are lucky. The migrants who work the farms sometimes get cheated out of their pay.
Not only is there poverty, there is also racism and sexism. Lansdale depicts the lynchings, the beatings, the physical and psychological abuse, and does so in the language of that time. He does not filter words and phrases we no longer use.
Also like The Thicket, this is a tale of a team---a band of brothers and sisters---who come together out of necessity and oppose the overwhelming cruelty of their world.
Sunset, a woman so named for her flaming red hair, becomes constable of the mill town through a series of unlikely events and pulls together an unlikely crew of deputies and enforcers.
The horrors of this violent world become bearable because these people do what they can to oppose it. They do so, not because they are idealists, but because they want to survive.
Peter Abrahams excels at exploring altered states of mind. Most famously, in The Fan (1996), a baseball fanatic pursues his hero to the point of madness. Robert DeNiro and Wesley Snipes starred in the film version directed by Tony Scott.
In Oblivion (2005), Abrahams explores the altered state of mind that follows removal of a brain tumor. The chief symptom is loss of memory for the three days leading up to the surgery.
The loss is critical because the hero is a private investigator tracking a missing-person, and he spent those three days getting close to cracking the case. Following his surgery, he must re-investigate the case, but all the people he talks to now know more about what he's up to than he does. This puts him in increasingly dangerous situations.
To complicate matters, years earlier, one of his cases was the subject of a based-on-a-true-story Hollywood film, and it's not always clear whether people are remembering him or the character based on him in the movie.
Alteration of the hero's state of mind makes this one of the more ambitious P. I. novels I've read.
It begins, as some of my favorite books do, with an obviously dumb proposal. Matt is talking to a friend in a bar. The friend has a foolproof plan for a kidnapping. He just needs Matt to be the driver. Matt knows this friend is an addict and even when sober is incapable of making rational decisions. So of course Matt turns him down.
But Matt has money problems and other problems that come with being a single parent. The parents of his late wife think his daughter would be better off with them. The pressure on Matt builds. He runs out of options and decides he may as well take a chance on his friend's plan.
From there on, it's not a question of if something will go wrong but of when, and what the consequences will be, and how far Matt is willing to go to survive them.
Much of the pleasure in reading this book comes from its perfect construction. Each complication plays out just long enough, the next one comes along just in time to boost the tension, and it's usually something we didn't see coming but makes sense once we've seen it.
Given the hero's compromises, we know the ending won't be sunshine and puppies. It's a question of how dark the shad of gray will be. This is a very satisfying crime novel.
Twisted City compares well with the noir masterpieces of the early and mid-twentieth century. The prose is crystal clear. It is admirably brief. And it is a voyage into the heart of darkness, to borrow Joseph Conrad's title.
In the first scene, David Miller, the narrator, fumbles his attempt to chat up a woman in a bar. And his wallet is stolen. We sympathize.
As we follow his efforts to get his wallet back, we learn he has recently lost his job as a financial journalist with the Wall Street Journal, and has signed up with a less ethical publication. And his sister has recently died. We sympathize more.
He gets a chance to retrieve his wallet. He gets chances to improve his love life. He gets chances to advance in his career. But things keep going wrong. He seems to be wallowing in quicksand.
The plot compares to those of Cornell Woolrich. The theme reminds me of James M. Cain. The first-person narrator is worthy of Jim Thompson. And the banality of this evil recalls Patricia Highsmith.
This novel from 2014 belongs with the classics of noir.
Scott Phillips builds suspense quietly, bit by bit. His hero, Charlie Argliss, visits the strip clubs he helps to manage and notices this is the last time he will see these places, speak with these people and do these things. The reader wonders why. Is he ill? Are the clubs shutting down? Is he going somewhere?
The possibilities are whittled down as his plan is revealed. When we see what he's up to, we wonder, can he pull it off? Eventually things start to go wrong, and we wonder how far Charlie is willing to go to see his plan through.
Along the way, we learn a lot about the people who work in strip clubs and those who patronize them. Phillips plays up the irony of their casual acceptance of the bizarre nature of their business. And it doesn't hurt that this is all happening on Christmas Eve.
Ultimately, this novel from 2000 is a dark story, as dark as those by writers like Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, and others, half a century earlier. That's quite an accomplishment.