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  1. Pictures tell stories. We learn this from our earliest days. Our parents read to us—lulling us towards sleep in that sing-song cadence we know so well—and we are enraptured not only by the words, but with the images that compliment them. Sure, we may outgrow our love of picture books, but we never forget the indelible joy of seeing a narrative unfold before us. Perhaps that’s why so many of us love comic books and graphic novels, and why nearly all of us are drawn to TV and film. But pictures don’t have to be expressly tied to a complimenting narrative in order to tell a story. For instance, think of a favorite photograph—or better yet, go find one. (Yes, right now. Look in the frames on your desk or your wall, scan the covers on your bookshelves, or even (sigh) scroll through your phone if you must.) Find a photograph that compels you to know more—about the setting, about the subject, even about the person on the other side of the camera. How many stories could that one photograph tell? In his short tour de force Camera Lucida, French writer and philosopher Roland Barthes attempts to make sense of his own interest in photography, and in doing so, suggests for the reader a framework for understanding photographs as a distinctly narrative experience. Years ago, I read Barthes’s work in tandem with W.G. Sebald’s stunning novel Austerlitz, a book which masterfully uses photographs—their materiality and notion they are imbued with memory—as a narrative device. I’ve been obsessed with reading photographs as texts ever since. My debut novel, The Act of Disappearing, is grounded by an opening image: a photograph taken in 1964 of a woman falling from a train bridge into the Ohio River, clutching to her chest what appears to be a baby. The rest of the book is a race to discover all the mysteries embedded in that image. Of course, the use of photographs as a plot device in mystery novels (in general) and crime fiction (in particular) is a staple of the genre: crime scenes, witness testimony, missing persons reports—opportunities abound for photographs to become an integral part of the discovery process for both the characters and their readers. But beyond constructs of narrative device, photographs can serve as a primary means of inspiration for the subject matter of the story itself. As Barthes suggests, the subject of any photograph is transformed into a kind of death as soon as the shutter clicks—that is, once the light of a fleeting moment is caught on film, the object observed in the picture can never again be precisely the same as it was when entombed on the developed film. When thought of this way, photographs are interesting not only for the way they invite a reading of the image as captured in the now, but also the imaginings they demand of the before and after the picture is taken. Perhaps an example will help. It’s a famous one—written about countless times—so maybe you’ll know it. In 1947, photography student Robert Wiles witnessed a young woman jumping to her death from the observation platform of the Empire State Building. Within minutes of the fatal act, Wiles captured an image of the woman, 23-year-old Evelyn McHale, in a photograph that has often been dubbed—and I’m careful to quote here—“The most beautiful suicide.” I have to admit: despite my reflexes against that description, I understand it. In the photograph, McHale is reposed atop the crumpled roof of a limousine as if she were positioned there for that precise shot: makeup perfectly applied, legs gracefully crossed at the ankle, face serene. It is a haunting image for its uncanny amalgamation of horror and beauty. Like all photographs, the image captures the now: the precise moment when the shutter clicks, a singular instance that can never be recreated. But the image also invites a reading of the before: Who was Evelyn McHale? What was her story? Did she know what the day would hold when she put on her makeup that morning? What tragic events led her to the top of the building, and what was going through her mind just before she stepped off? Likewise, and in some ways more interestingly, the photograph invites a reading of the after: what are the consequences of that moment, and for whom? Who are the people most intimately connected with this woman? What will their lives be like without her? What will they feel when they see the image of her body published and republished again and again? Who will feel guilt over her fatal act, and in what ways is that guilt justified or not? It’s very likely that these types of questions emerge in us from the moment when see such a photograph—whether we are consciously aware of them or not. But when we find those rare, special pictures that compel us to return to them again and again, we might find ourselves looking for deeper meaning and sharper angles—stories that are less self-evident, more surprising. That’s the magic of drawing narrative inspiration from photographs: the stories that splinter from a single picture are endless, especially in the case of fiction, where the seed of an idea can blossom in wild and unpredictable ways. For instance, if I were writing the story of “the most beautiful suicide,” I might be as equally compelled to write about the man behind the camera as I was to write about McHale herself. Why was Robert Wiles across the street from the Empire State Building that day? After the tragedy, why was his first impulse to take a photograph? Later in life, how did he feel about the fact that the horrific end of McHale’s life was the catalyst for his own notoriety? Of course, a photograph need not be famous, or tragic, or emotionally taxing to invite the interpretation of story. What about the photographs that we take every day—those pictures we post to our social accounts or save to our lock screens? What stories are right there, lost to the infinite scroll of our smartphone camera rolls, waiting to be told? Perhaps it is worth taking a careful look—not just at the image captured in the now, but the bleeding edges of the before and after. *** View the full article
  2. When considering the career of Elaine May, who turned ninety-two on April 21, 2024 and remains one of the brightest lights of twentieth-century popular culture, several superlatives come to mind. Pioneer of improvisational comedy. Award-winning actress. Peerless writer. Only the third woman to become a member of the Directors Guild of America. Permit me to posit another: our most unheralded maker of crime films. Her cinematic CV may be slender, with some of her finest efforts going uncredited; as Carrie Courogen writes in her forthcoming biography Miss May Does Not Exist: The Life and Work of Elaine May, Hollywood’s Hidden Genius (June 2024), her greatest claim to Hollywood fame is as “not a script doctor so much as a script surgeon.” Sam Wasson observes in Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art (2017) that “the theme of betrayal” was “a lifelong obsession” for May. The films that bear her name probe the subject with a comic’s eye and a clinician’s tenacity. It also happens that some of them—in a sense, all of them—are hilarious. It’s little wonder that May would be intrigued by the underworld giving her upbringing. “Whatever you’re born into seems like the normal world,” May said. “It was years before I realized that people didn’t have a gun in the house and they didn’t arrest you for booking every week. That seemed to me the way the world was.” In a conversation with her friend and producer Julian Schlossberg filmed for Turner Classic Movies in 2023, May explained that growing up, “all of our friends were, sort of, you know, gangsters. Not all of our friends. Some of them were just ordinary Jews.” Courogen recounts some astonishing family lore, including the legend that May’s mother, actress Ida Berlin, tended to crooner Joe E. Lewis after his throat was slashed by one of Al Capone’s henchmen. (Unable to continue his singing career, Lewis became a stand-up comic; Frank Sinatra portrayed him in the 1957 film The Joker Is Wild.) An eleven-year-old May served as a shill for “tin men” hustling aluminum siding to gullible homeowners, and as a young single mother she worked as a secretary for a private investigator, a wisecracking Effie Perrine fending off her boss’s advances. May was auditing classes at the University of Chicago, wowing students and teachers alike with her easy intellect, when she joined the improvisational theater group the Compass Players, the first such group in the United States and forerunner of the legendary The Second City. Wasson writes that within months, “May had already established herself as a master of the form—its first,” noting, “Distrust was her shovel. Jamming it into the soil between what is and what really is, she could dig up the world’s entire catalogue of comedy problems. That’s what so much of comedy is—problems.” May’s principal legacy comes from this period, in that she codified what would become the rules of improv, chiefly the ‘yes, and’ dictum of acceptance. Fellow improv legend Del Close is often viewed as its Hammurabi because he set down these edicts in his book Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation (1994, written with Charna Halpern and Kim “Howard” Johnson). “But,” as Courogen writes, “what most people don’t know is they first came from Elaine.” Also emerging from this era is May’s greatest partnership. She would later claim that upon first meeting Mike Nichols, she loathed him on sight. But the two quickly forged a bond that deepened their onstage performances together. Mark Harris, in his biography Mike Nichols: A Life (2021), describes their dynamic: “May had a genius for turning an idea into a narrative—she told Nichols that everything they did together should be a fight, a negotiation, or a seduction and added, ‘When in doubt, seduce.’ And he turned out to be a natural editor who understood that changing one word could gain them or lose them a laugh.” The duo took improv mainstream, conquering Broadway, records, and television as the 1960s dawned. But success came at a cost. Their Broadway show An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May proved such a triumph that they soon locked the dialogue in their sketches; Harris writes that this was “a choice that troubled May, who wanted every moment to be fresh, much more than Nichols, who wanted every moment to be perfect.” May followed her own advice—the only safe thing is to take a chance—and ended the show. Nichols would become a Tony, Oscar, and Emmy-winning director, a force to be reckoned with on Broadway and in Hollywood. May, meanwhile, spent the 1960s struggling as a playwright while occasionally acting in films. And then she decided to tell a crime story. “Henry, I’ll always be able to depend on you, won’t I? All the rest of my life?” A man marries a woman with the intent of murdering her. A classic noir setup. Only no one had played it for laughs until A New Leaf (1971), with Elaine May writing, directing, and playing the prospective victim. She initially intended only to write the film, based on Jack Ritchie’s 1963 short story “The Green Heart,” insisting, “I never wanted to be a director.” Paramount Pictures refused to give her directorial or casting approval—then generously offered to let her take on these tasks herself for a single, modest fee. Courogen calls out the studio’s behavior: “By pushing all three duties onto Elaine, they could hide their maintenance of the status quo—paying a woman less for more, exploiting both her gender and her inexperience—under the guise of progress.” Leaf’s Henry Graham spends as only someone who comes from wealth can. But those profligate practices have rendered him, in the words of his gentleman’s gentleman Harold (George Rose), “poor in the only real sense of the word, sir, in that you will not be rich.” Staked to six weeks’ expenses by a scheming uncle (James Coco), Graham angles to marry back into money. He zeroes in on a suitable target: Henrietta Lowell, the hapless botanist daughter of “an industrialist. Or a composer, something like that.” Before the marriage certificate is signed, he’s plotting her demise. But fate has other plans. Many other plans. A perverse romantic angle drew May to Ritchie’s story. She said, “Halfway through it, you understood that the guy who was going to murder the woman really loved her and didn’t know it, and you read the story and thought, ‘Oh, he’s not going to know it in time.’” That tension convinced May she had struck gold: “I was certain it was absolutely commercial. It had two murders in it, so it could be a mystery, and if it wasn’t a mystery, it could be funny, and if nobody laughed, it could be a love story. I didn’t see how it could fail.” She wanted Cary Grant to play Graham. But the recalcitrant actor asked May to rewrite the ending, which involved a disastrous canoe trip. “I couldn’t understand why he wanted it changed,” May told Schlossberg in their TCM conversation. “He didn’t want to go in the water. Just last week I thought, ‘Was it because he didn’t want to get his hair wet?’” It’s more likely that Grant was haunted by his experience on Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), when RKO warned that a bluebeard turn would damage his image. Walter Matthau agreed to play Graham—then also tried to get out of going underwater. May simply told him, “I gave up Cary Grant for you.” Matthau went into the drink. The actor praised May’s script and her talents, but also voiced concerns about her taking on so many responsibilities on her first film. In interviews, he called her “a full-fledged nut” and “an impossible broad,” adding “Elaine May makes Hitler look like a little librarian.” May, the first woman to direct a studio feature since Ida Lupino, had already been told that her improv-honed approach made the crew nervous; she shot some scenes as many as thirty times. Production ran six weeks over schedule. May edited the footage for ten months, finally submitting a version that clocked in at almost three hours. Paramount recut it without her input, prompting May to sue the studio in order to have her name removed from the released version, a legal battle she lost. At the core of the dispute was May’s fidelity to the source material. In Ritchie’s story, Graham discovers that his wife is the target of a blackmailer. Not because of any wrongdoing on her part; Henrietta is so decent that she has assumed the payments for a financially-strapped colleague. Worse, she’s also being extorted by her own attorney. (Jack Weston plays the lawyer; William Hickey was cast as the blackmailer but his role was excised from the film.) Graham murders both men in advance of killing his wife. Following a screening of Leaf at the 2013 Austin Film Festival, May described the sequence of Matthau watching Weston “drink poisoned scotch for just like ten minutes” as “one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen … I said, ‘What were you playing?’ And [Matthau] said, ‘I was playing that when he died, I was going to eat him.’” Graham’s decision to spare Henrietta—treating marriage as punishment for his crimes—was essential to May’s vision; in her lawsuit against Paramount, she stated, “I made a film about a man who commits two murders and gets away with it.” Now, Graham kills no one and receives a happy ending. Even in bastardized form, A New Leaf is a sharp and savage comedy, one of the best of the 1970s. May’s Henrietta is a memorable creation, sweet, guileless, and implacable. More importantly, the movie was the commercial success that May had foreseen, paving the way for her to direct another. The Heartbreak Kid (1972), with playwright Neil Simon adapting a story by Bruce Jay Friedman, may not involve a crime—unless you count the fact that the rights to this film and Sleuth (1972), made by the same company, are controlled by pharmaceutical giant Bristol Meyers Squibb, so neither movie is available on home video or streaming while their inferior remakes are—but as with any May project it brims with betrayal. Feckless Lenny Cantrow, on honeymoon with the wife he married in haste, sets his sights on a beautiful blonde (Cybill Shepherd). Simon, leery of May’s methods, had a clause in his contract that she couldn’t alter the script. May played by that rule but still left her stamp on the material, starting with the casting; Charles Grodin, her ablest onscreen collaborator, plays Lenny, milking every cringeworthy moment. The Heartbreak Kid was another box office hit. It also netted Academy Award nominations, including one for May’s daughter Jeannie Berlin as Lenny’s jilted bride. Established as a director, May swiftly set up a third film, one that excavated her own past. “I got a terrific suggestion for you, Nicky. I suggest you find someone you can trust.” Just as Elaine May didn’t set out to be a director, she never planned to make a gangster movie. But the story that became Mikey and Nicky (1976)—two longtime pals and small-time hoods, one marked for execution, the other doing the marking, on an all-night odyssey—was based on an incident involving family friends; May’s mother told the story often. May began writing it for the stage in 1954, suggesting that economics drove the decision: “I thought, ‘What can I do with two guys and no scenery?’” Wasson observes that her first duet with Nichols at the Compass Players was “a dramatic improvisation about a man deciding whether to rat on his friends.” Of her leading characters, May said, “They have a code. God knows what it is, ‘cause it’s constantly broken, but they live by it—and they break it.” She viewed the film as a corrective to the romanticization in The Godfather (1972); as Julian Schlossberg, who would become Mikey and Nicky’s primary advocate at Paramount, told the Criterion Collection in 2018, “She wanted to make an honest, gritty depiction of the Mob life that she grew up with and knew.” Courogen captures the essence of the film: “Mikey and Nicky confronts the nature of childhood friendships, the people we keep in our lives long after we’ve outgrown them simply because they know things about us that no one else can ever really understand.” Martin Scorsese covered similar gangland terrain in Mean Streets (1973), but Mikey (Peter Falk) and Nicky (John Cassavetes) aren’t young bucks eager to make names for themselves. They’re exhausted, middle-aged men whose futures only hold more of the same grind. In each other’s company, though, they revert to their younger selves; witness Mikey’s singsong cajoling of Nicky, coaxing him to take medicine for his stomach, or the two of them playing a kids’ hand-slapping game as they ride the bus. By the end of the long night, though, Mikey unleashes a catalog of grievances, many of them nursed over decades. Both men are petty, regarding bus drivers and coffee shop clerks who try to follow the rules as affronts to their very existences. And their treatment of the women in their lives is abhorrent, with the scenes involving Nicky’s occasional mistress Nelly, played by Carol Grace (wife of Walter Matthau), spiraling into unrelenting cruelty. During these interactions it’s impossible not to think of May, all too often the only woman on improv stages and studio offices, witnessing such callous behavior up close. The real-life friendship between the actors heightens the film’s impact, although one can’t help being intrigued by an alternate version. Schlossberg speaks of an early reading of the script with Charles Grodin as Nicky, with Falk saying the actor “scared the hell out of him.” The prospect of Grodin playing the role, making the character more palatable without dialing down his petulance, still tantalizes. While much of the film is two-hander, some of the best material comes courtesy of Ned Beatty as the disgruntled triggerman assigned to bump Nicky off, getting lost on unfamiliar streets and grousing about parking and pay. May recalled for TCM her delight when Beatty arrived on set and asked for his character’s suit pants to be too short, saying, “‘Oh, he knows exactly who this guy is.’” The film’s protracted ten-month shoot was partly due to Falk’s commitment to Columbo on television, but mainly because of May’s idiosyncratic technique. In her TCM appearance, she vehemently denies the legend that much of Mikey and Nicky was ad-libbed: “You can’t improvise something that’s that tight a story.” But May also gave her actors leeway in delivering their scripted lines, running three cameras simultaneously to give Falk and Cassavetes room to explore. May famously complained when a camera operator called “Cut” after the actors wandered out of the frame, citing the possibility that they might wander back. Wasson recounts how cinematographer Victor Kemper had no alternative but to allow Falk and Cassavetes to extemporize in front of cameras that had run out of film because May never wanted the actors to be interrupted—and how she continued to request this phantom footage decades later. The postproduction of Mikey and Nicky is a Hollywood saga without parallel, involving over two hundred and fifty hours of footage, finished reels being “stolen,” and May selling the film to a mystery company owned partly by Falk, with the actor giving cagey testimony that would have flummoxed Columbo. Paramount ultimately released their own cut of the film with the tagline “Don’t expect to like ‘em.” They might as well have opted for “Save your money.” A critical and commercial flop, it ended May’s winning streak. Her uncompromising version of the film was released to acclaim a decade later, winning over new generations of audiences. May shrugged off the turmoil. “No matter how you cut this,” she said, “it wasn’t going to be a comedy.” Directing was no longer a viable option but she could still write, her next effort earning her first Academy Award nomination. Warren Beatty—who had lobbied Paramount bigwigs on behalf of Mikey and Nicky—drafted May into coscripting Heaven Can Wait (1978) with him, the romantic comedy/fantasy based on the Harry Segall play previously filmed as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). Beatty’s Joe Pendleton, newly-named starting quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, is whisked to the afterlife too early in a celestial mix-up. Which is how Joe ends up in the palatial home of millionaire Leo Farnsworth, who is slowly sinking into his bathwater. “He’s been drugged by those two downstairs,” heavenly representative Mr. Jordan (James Mason) blithely explains. “This is a murder.” “Those two” are Farnsworth’s scheming wife Julia (Dyan Cannon) and his private secretary and her not-so-secret lover Tony Abbott (Grodin), and they cannot comprehend how Farnsworth, his body now temporarily inhabited by Joe’s spirit, has survived their perfect crime. Courogen rightly observes that “It’s their Macbeth cosplay—Elaine’s creation—that steals the film.” Cannon excels at playing high-strung, her deeply paranoid Julia either shrieking or reaching for a decanter. Grodin, meanwhile, never allows panic to disrupt his sangfroid, placidly advising Julia “I really think it would be better if you tried not to unravel now” as they wait for Farnsworth’s body to be discovered, and later reassuring her, “There’s nothing to be frightened of. There’s plenty to be worried about, but there’s nothing to be frightened of.” When Julia and Tony finally succeed in killing Farnsworth, the proceedings close with a scene out of Golden Age detective fiction as harried detective Vincent Gardenia convenes all the suspects as the Rams play in the Super Bowl on TV. May collaborated again with Beatty, this time without credit, on his Oscar-winning Reds (1981) before executing her greatest operation to date, doctoring the script for Tootsie (1982) starring Dustin Hoffman. Backed by both actors, she’d return to the director’s chair. And she’d never live it down. “Telling the truth can be dangerous business.” Let’s be honest: Ishtar (1987) has a lousy reputation. How lousy? Shawn Levy, who profiles May in his book In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-up Comedy (2022), vaults over the movie entirely, writing, “Better to favor the higher notes.” Its title remains Hollywood shorthand for box-office catastrophe—it’s estimated to have lost $40 million dollars—although emails leaked in the wake of the 2014 Sony Pictures hack indicate that the film somehow eked out a profit. Most damningly, May never directed again. I come not to bury Ishtar, but not to praise it, either. I merely suggest that it’s better than you might think it is while nowhere near as good as it could be. And again, it’s a crime film. Sort of. May’s unlikely inspiration was the series of Road movies made by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby primarily in the 1940s. She explained to Schlossberg in their TCM conversation that the Road films “never had any American politics in them even though we owned all those little islands that they went to. And I knew that America was going into the Middle East—a few people knew, the CIA was all over it—and they’d never get out of it.” Ishtar’s script follows the standard showbiz-meets-foreign-intrigue template of the Road movies, as aspiring singer/songwriters Lyle Rogers (Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Hoffman) arrive in Morocco for their first-ever paying gig only to become pawns in a chess match between US intelligence and local insurgents when they accidentally come into possession of a hastily-sketched MacGuffin, “the map that could cost us Ishtar and inflame the Middle East.” Amazingly, Ishtar wasn’t the first Road homage to drop Hope/Crosby surrogates into contemporary trouble spots; Spies Like Us (1985) beat May to the punch, and that Dan Aykroyd/Chevy Chase film went to the trouble of arranging a Bob Hope cameo. Spies Like Us may be a more consistent enterprise, but nothing in that movie matches the opening section of Ishtar. I would venture to say that the first twenty minutes of May’s most misbegotten effort represent her funniest big-screen work. Rogers and Clarke are the inverse of Mikey and Nicky; the latter duo are lifelong pals discovering that familiarity has bred contempt, while Lyle and Chuck are men-children who, well into adulthood, finally meet the person who completes them. The film’s introductory movement, chronicling their budding partnership based on shared delusions of talent, is a masterclass in the comedy of discomfort. The gamble to cast against type, with Hoffman as the cocky lothario and Beatty a nebbish, doesn’t entirely pay off, although May’s logic is sound; for all his reputation as one of Hollywood’s smartest operators, Beatty has always been at his best playing a man in over his head, if not an outright imbecile. During the development of the movie, Hoffman suggested that the script stick with the characters in New York. His instincts were correct, because once Ishtar shifts to Africa it squanders its momentum. Betrayal, May’s favored meat, is again on the menu as Lyle and Chuck each believe the other to be romancing a freedom fighter played by Beatty’s then real-life paramour, Isabelle Adjani. Unfortunately, her character is given even less dimension than Dorothy Lamour had in the Road movies, with May even refusing to reveal which of the two dunderheads wins her heart. (It was always Crosby in the Road films, except for two occasions when Hope carried the day because of a closing gag.) Amidst ineptly-staged action sequences, the few laughs come courtesy of Charles Grodin—back for more—as the least covert CIA officer in the service, and the film’s MVP Paul Williams, who provided most of Rogers and Clarke’s musical material. In an interview with Courogen, Williams reveals that he not only penned over fifty songs for the film but also accompanied the production to Morocco in case May required a new ditty on location. My advice: watch Ishtar’s uproarious beginning, then switch it off when the boys leave the Big Apple. As was usual with May, Ishtar underwent a lengthy postproduction process, May sifting through copious amounts of footage; Hoffman referred to the editorial suite as “her sandbox,” saying, “She would never leave if it was up to Elaine.” A new regime at Columbia headed by producer David Puttnam put little support behind the costly boondoggle. The resulting box-office thud ended Elaine May’s directorial career—although Courogen suggests that the barely released quasi-mystery In the Spirit (1990), cowritten by May’s daughter Jeannie Berlin and ostensibly directed by acting teacher Sandra Seacat, not only featured May in a leading role but also her unofficially calling the shots. May found other ways to persevere. In the 1990s, she reunited with Mike Nichols as a writer, scoring a significant hit with The Birdcage (1996) and earning her second Academy Award nod for scripting Primary Colors (1998). Together they toyed with other projects of an unlawful bent: a remake of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), with its protagonist murdering his way to a royal title, and an adaptation of Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip (2004). In 2018, at age eighty-six, she won the Tony Award for Best Actress for her performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery. And she would continue to inspire generations of comedians and filmmakers for the rigor of her work, and her willingness to fight for it. Maybe that backbone comes from growing up on the wrong side of the law. Jeremy Pikser, who worked on Reds alongside Beatty and May and later shared screenplay credit with Beatty on Bulworth (1998), told Courogen that May “liked to say that she was a criminal and that she came from a family of crime. I think she liked the idea that she was in trouble with the law.” Perhaps she wanted to think she got away with something. Perhaps she did. View the full article
  3. Dear Mom: I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all the bad things I did in high school when you thought I was studying. A scorching trope in thrillers is someone doing something in the past that catches up to them as an adult. Why is this so popular? Because most of us were easily able to get away with crimes when we were in high school, whether it was stealing a piece of candy from the corner drug store, cheating on a test, drinking underage, or, in thriller novels, it’s usually murder. In A Lovely Lie, we have best friends, meek little Scarlett and Queen Bee Pepper, who were involved in a car accident at the end of their senior year on the west coast of Florida. Two classmates ended up dead. With no one to track them, no damning text message threats, and trust from their parents, they were able to manipulate their way out of it when questioned by police. All they had to do was stick to the story and it would all look like an accident. The case was cut and dried and closed in record time. They got away with it. But did they? Pepper disappeared to New York a couple days later and left Scarlett to stick to the story for the rest of her life. Twenty-two years later, Zoey shows up—Pepper’s daughter—with a cryptic letter addressed to Scarlett from all those years ago. Pepper has recently died, and now Zoey is left with a million questions about what really happened that night, not only about how the two teenagers died, but why. It sets up a roller coaster ride for the truth, and it becomes difficult for Zoey to navigate the moving parts because back then, everyone was lying. Right now, they are too. Are there a bunch of homicidal teenagers running around, killing someone for cheating on them, or wearing the same prom outfit, or just being a bully? Gosh, I hope not. But we see it all the time in thrillers. As a hardcore Gen Xer, I always had to listen to my mother tie herself in knots over that proverbial ditch by the side of the road I’d end up in if I didn’t play by the rules. My high school years were a changing of the times—my radio dial went from Motley Crue and Poison, painting sparkles on myself and teasing my hair, right into Nirvana and Soundgarden, where flannels and flat hair were all the rage. The only thing that stayed consistent was the freedom. There were no cell phones, no facial recognition cameras, no car tracking devices … we were all trusted by our parents to be at the dinner table when the streetlights came on. It was a much more innocent time, and as I think back, it was a perfect time to get away with murder. Not that I’m like that. Right, mom? Sure, I snuck peeks at test answers and cut a class here and there, but I was no murderer. That mom knows of, anyway. There are a few books that bring the past back into adulthood flawlessly. The characters hope to keep their crimes hidden in a tiny little box and hope it stays closed until, of course, that inciting incident tears the lid off everything we thought was true. In Blood Sisters by Vanessa Lillie, we have Syd Walker, a Cherokee archaeologist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who has moved on from her Oklahoma upbringing. As a teenager, she was attacked while with her sister Emma Lou and her best friend Luna. Luna was killed, as was the attacker—him, by Syd’s hand. Now living her adult life in Rhode Island, Syd is disturbed to find out Emma Lou is now missing. Lured back home to once again face the corrupt local government and their dismissal of missing Indigenous girls, Syd sets on a path to locate her sister. Of course, each rock overturned in the chat pile opens another stream of questions since each clue to finding her is inexplicably tied to what happened all those years ago. Gen Xers had no grid to live on, but this atmospheric thriller lets you know that even as technology improves, you can run but you can’t hide, and there’s a way to stay off the grid even now—especially if you want to keep the past buried. In What Have We Done by Alex Finlay, we’re presented with three childhood friends from Savior House, a place for parentless teens. Jenna, Donnie, and Nico bonded through their trauma and bullying as children, yet somehow grew up to relatively respectable lives (if you believe them!). It’s now twenty-five years later and they haven’t been in touch, but that’s about to change. They all separately get word that another friend of theirs from Savior House, Ben, was killed. Now, (that same?) someone is after them—but why? What was really going on at Savior House that they couldn’t prove as children, and is it still going on? No cell phone, no camera, no way to record the conversations … it became the word of the unruly kids versus the responsible adults. Now, they are armed with easier ways to catch someone slipping up when everything has a record and a time stamp. This next one blurred the GenX social line: When She Disappeared by Nicole Mabry and Steph Mullin. Upon Margo’s return to her small hometown of Lake Moss for the first time in fifteen years, the news breaks that her missing childhood best friend Jessie’s body has been found at the bottom of their local swimming hole. When a television documentary crew arrives and begins unearthing secrets within Jessie’s high school clique, Margo joins their investigation and must confront old demons. This was a fun one because as we chip closer to the truth, we remember the original crime happened at the very beginning of the iPhone explosion. And wouldn’t it be that very iPhone that led to justice in this instance?—something every homicidal teen should worry about in today’s day and age, if they aren’t planning on getting caught. To wrap it up, kids will be kids—that hasn’t changed. However, now, almost every indiscretion is caught by someone, somewhere, in pictures or on video. Amateur sleuths come out of the woodwork with podcasts and vlodcasts and blast theories all over social media, whipping everyone into a frenzy with their own ideas about what could’ve happened. Murder is so much less likely to go unsolved if everyone is watching. I promise, your mother has an intuition about these things (yes, Mom, I’m still sorry for sneaking out that time! But see, you caught me). Thankfully, we were just joyriding after curfew, not hiding bodies. So, don’t lie to your mother. If thrillers are any indication, you won’t get away with your crimes nowadays anyway. And you just might need Mom on your side. *** –Featured image: Francesco Hayez, Consiglio alla vendetta, (1851) View the full article
  4. Be warned that if you ever invite me for a dinner party, I’ll be taking notes about your family gossip. Not for any malicious reasons, and I won’t drop any names, but because I’ve always been enthralled with the stories behind the stories—the snippets of behavior so out of the ordinary that it’s worth repeating. For decades. My relatives always rehashed bits of family lore when we were together for celebrations and holidays. I’m not sure if it’s because they couldn’t fathom why some of our antecedents made the choices they did, or if some of the stories were just too juicy not to share with the next generation. That interest is shared by so many—pop culture is full of books and tv shows that zero in on how one decision can alter the future of everyone after. And when those stories are about your family, it provides a lot of fodder for a would-be novelist. When I was twelve and visiting England with my working class, Yorkshire-born grandmother for the first time, we walked all over town as she told me stories she’d heard from aunts and uncles as a child. That bridge between me and people dead long before I was born, in a country I couldn’t claim, hypnotized me. Connected me. Every family has a child who was born to remember the family stories, and I was that child. And the piece of lore that intrigued me the most was the one my grandmother was loath to discuss. I heard about it from my Auntie Pauline who pulled out brochures from the closest “big house” to their town. The sort of estate that thrilled the kid who was then consuming every English gothic novel she could get her hands on. Auntie Pauline told me that some number-lost-to-time great-grandfather of mine was raised in that big house. His mother had been the housekeeper, and his father? Auntie Pauline sniffed, pursed her lips and held back some mystery that I was apparently not old enough to hear yet. My grandma refused to feed my curiosity, which made me more intrigued. On my next visit three years later, I insisted that I was sophisticated enough to guess, but begged for confirmation. Ah yes. The son of the house was the father. I was given no names, no dates. Just enough of a hint that I could imagine myself as the heroine in a Victoria Holt novel, everyone knowing but no one admitting because it would cast aspersions on the reputations of The Betters. Twenty years later, while cleaning out my grandmother’s house, I came across Auntie Pauline’s pamphlets in a box and, armed with the internet, started to dig. My father has been a keen hobby genealogist for most of my life, and I’m a research fiend on my own, so it didn’t take long to come up with the most likely man from the family story. A Victorian priest who’d been in seminary in Paris in the 1860’s. No wonder he couldn’t marry! My brain went to work on putting pieces of the puzzle together. If I could somehow prove this link, I could claim I was related to all sorts of famous people I taught about as a high school history teacher. Little tidbits like this which mean nothing to anyone else always seem to spur on my novels. When I was drafting The Paris Affair, which was originally going to be in the point of view of a ballet dancer, I fell back into the rabbit hole of this potential great-grandfather. What would have happened to the child when they grew up? In the “real” story, the child received some money to set up their life. Nothing glamorous, and I’m sure they were told to be grateful for it. But what if there was a way for the son to have gotten it all? The house, the money. The prestige. Would he have wanted it? What would have kept him from taking it? These were the questions that prompted me writing Fin Tighe’s story. The son of an earl and ladies’ maid who’d been told his entire life that he wasn’t deserving of being part of the family. But the notion that it rankled gives the antagonist all the tools I needed to lead Fin through a labyrinth of facing his past and coming to terms with revenge and jealousy. Knowing who he is by birth—and not being given the opportunities he needed by leaning on those connections—drive him to get sucked into precarious situations. Made even more dangerous because Fin is a gay man. It was legal in Paris, by most measures, but career-ruining if it was determined. And Fin’s entire life has been bound by him not coloring outside the lines. But when his father needs an heir, and he’s told that there had been a secret marriage between his parents, he’s willing to take bigger risks with his own safety, and that of his vulnerable loved ones. Because we all want to belong, and most of us would be willing to suspend belief if we’re offered proof that all of our dreams are within reach. That poo-pooing of inherent danger by the protagonist is what makes readers turn the pages. And it’s what’s so difficult when writing a twisty plot; finding that balance between amping up believable risks and making sure your character doesn’t act so foolhardy your reader throws the book at the wall in disgust. But when you strike that tension just hard enough; it’s very satisfying. Now that we’re in the days of DNA testing, I’d be thrilled to have proof that my long-gone however-many-greats grandfather was connected to that estate. Not that I’d ever be in line to inherit it, nor would I want to pay the taxes on a place that size. But I do hope to visit it this summer, it’s a bed and breakfast now. I’ll soak up the grandeur, and read my own gothic suspense novel. *** View the full article
  5. Another week, another batch of books for your TBR pile. Happy reading, folks. * Greg Iles, Southern Man (William Morrow) “This is a genuinely terrifying book because of its plausibility—Iles perfectly captures the tinderbox that America is in the post-Trump era. . . .This is a perfectly done political thriller with genuine resonance. Astonishing.” –Kirkus Reviews Maureen Marshall, The Paris Affair (Grand Central) “Filled with mystery and danger, The Paris Affair is a seductive journey through the glamour and shadows of nineteenth-century Paris.” –Kelly Bowen Alex Finlay, If Something Happens to Me (Minotaur) “A tightly coiled spine tingle . . . As in Finlay’s previous novels, relentless pacing, impressive characterizations, and the author’s knack for surprise combine to produce top-shelf entertainment. This is a smart, unpredictable winner. –Publishers Weekly Lily Samson, The Switch (Pamela Dorman) “Shocking, seductive, sexy and scandalous. The Switch is a page-turning thriller, a clever mystery, and a wicked look at love and loyalty.” –Chris Whitaker Jaime Lynn Hendricks, A Lovely Lie (Scarlet) “Deliciously wicked and briskly paced, A Lovely Lie simmers with deadly secrets, whiplash twists, and a whole lot of attitude. An irresistible page-turner.” ―Heather Chavez Daniel Kalla, High Society (Simon & Schuster) “What a rollercoaster read! A psychiatrist experimenting with psychedelic drugs on her addicted patients was probably not going to end well, but as the story developed and skeletons queued up to fall out of the cupboard, I was totally riveted. Beautifully written and ingeniously plotted, readers will be taken on a trip beyond their imagining.” –Liz Nugent John Grisham, Camino Ghosts (Doubleday) “The type of wild but smart caper that Grisham’s readers love.” –Delia Owens Daniel Weizmann, Cinnamon Girl (Melville House) “A Macdonaldesque web of failed Hollywood dreams, lurid parental betrayals and lingering adolescent disappointments.With all of its nods at noir PI models, who were often more tender toward their characters than their reputations would sometimes suggest, this is from start to finish a surprisingly gentle, almost innocent novel, and all the better for it.” –The Irish Times Nathan Gower, The Act of Disappearing (MIRA) “An exquisite exploration of motherhood and madness and the cost of withholding the truth from generation to generation. Hauntingly beautiful.” –Fiona Davis Frank Figliuzzi, Long Haul: Hunting the Highway Serial Killers (Mariner) “This is a true crime masterpiece. Figliuzzi combines his career FBI agent’s pursuit of investigative detail, with a journalism-like level of research and story-telling.” –Don Winslow View the full article
  6. Yes!!!!!! The sequel to Knives Out’s sequel Glass Onion has a title and a rough release window. The film will be called Wake Up Dead Man and it will make its premiere sometime in 2025. While the plot of the film is currently unknown, we do know that it finds Daniel Craig’s gentleman sleuth Benoit Blanc on his most dangerous case yet. Are there any other clues? Not many. The font of the title is a Medieval-y Blackadder-style font, so perhaps this mystery will have a historical component, like it’s set in a drafty old castle or there’s a centuries-old ghost story on top of the murder mystery at hand. The title is also keeping with the previous installment’s borrowing of a title from a classic rock song. “Wake Up Dead Man” is a 1997 U2 song. I don’t know what that means! I hope, personally, that this movie will pit Benoit Blanc up against a foe, a Moriarty-style villain. He needs a nemesis, I think. But whatever Rian Johnson cooks up will doubtlessly be wonderful. I also hope Rian Johnson is allowed to keep making these movies forever. Stay tuned for more of our Knives Out series coverage! View the full article
  7. The Planet of the Apes series, which has just released its tenth installment with Wes Ball’s new film Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, is for my money one of the most consistent franchises in cinema history. Every entry has at minimum something worthwhile about it (even the maligned 2001 Tim Burton-directed reboot features stunning makeup and Paul Giamatti as an unscrupulous orangutan merchant). But at their best, the Planet of the Apes films pose profound questions about the nature of civilization, sentience, and man- (or ape-) kind’s capacity for war. As of this year, the series is fifty-six years old. The first five films, beginning with the original in 1968 (and continuing with 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes, 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes), form their own distinct continuity, beginning with Charlton Heston’s Taylor, an astronaut, crash-landing on the titular planet. This original run of films tells the story of the birth and death of the planet of the apes in a complex causal loop involving both space and time travel. Then of course there is the aforementioned reboot, the first attempt to reset the series’ knotty continuity. But Planet of the Apes hit new heights with the second attempt to reset continuity, the new reboot trilogy (confusing, I know) that began with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt, and continued with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes, both directed by Matt Reeves. The trilogy, which ignored the other movies for the most part (save for a few Easter Eggs), focused on Caesar, a hyper-intelligent chimpanzee, played by Andy Serkis in one of the most breathtaking motion-capture performances ever committed to film. Caesar learns about the brutal and inhumane conditions his fellow apes are forced to endure (including medical testing and imprisonment in zoos), and becomes radicalized and leads apekind in a revolution, which dovetails with a global pandemic that wipes out most of the human population and leaves the few remaining cognitively diminished and mute (much like they are in the original film). Over the course of three films, Caesar tries to live up to his moral code and achieve peace in the face of hostile humans and apes who understandably cannot forgive their oppressors. All this is to say, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth film in this new sub-series within the larger franchise, has a rich, complex, and powerful legacy to live up to, but I am thrilled to report that it does so with gusto, reckoning with said legacy while at the same time staking out new exciting territory for the franchise. Set “many generations” after War (but in the same continuity), Kingdom centers on Noa, played by Owen Teague, a young chimp who lives with the secluded Eagle Clan (so named for their tradition of raising eagles from hatchlings). The Eagle Clan knows nothing of Caesar or the larger world—young Noa and the rest of his friends are forbidden from venturing beyond the valley at the edge of their village for fear of encountering “Echoes” (their term for the human remnants). Noa’s concerns are parochial and all-too-human—his father, the Master of Birds and leader of their clan, cuts an imposing figure, and Noa clearly lives in his shadow, wrestling with the weight of making his father proud and the responsibility of being heir to the village elder. But Noa’s world is upended with the sudden intrusion of a human woman (Freya Allan), who brings in her wake a raiding party of apes in service of Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand). The invaders ruthlessly destroy Noa’s village and capture most of his clan, leaving him for dead. A harrowing sequence even for new viewers, it is especially troubling for long-time fans to hear a group of murderous apes shout “For Caesar!” as they lay waste to a peaceful village. Proximus, as we will come to learn, has corrupted Caesar’s memory, using it to bolster his own reign. But when Noa sets out on his own to try to find his family and friends, he meets Raka (Peter Macon), a wise orangutan who has also suffered due to Proximus’ raiders, and who has dedicated himself to collecting books and preaching the good word of Caesar and his philosophy of ape solidarity. Raka also tells Noa that Caesar tried to make peace with humans, and so, despite Noa’s mistrust, they allow Freya Allan’s human character, whom they call Nova in a nod to previous movies, to join them as they traverse this strange planet in search of Noa’s lost villagers. Ball’s film is tremendously exciting, with several extremely tense sequences, but I found myself most struck by the patience and stillness in this early stretch of the film (which also must be credited to the script by Josh Friedman). There is a serenity and decency to Noa’s life in the Eagle Clan (we learn that while it is tradition for the young apes to take eggs from eagles’ nests, it is equally important for them to always leave one behind in each nest for the mother bird), and these scenes have real warmth, taking the time to establish just what Noa is fighting for. And once Noa, Raka, and their human companion begin their journey, the film gives itself the space to luxuriate in simple acts of bonding and character development amidst the gorgeous location photography. I was frequently reminded of James Cameron’s 2022 film Avatar: The Way of Water (which Josh Friedman also has a story credit on)), and how that film allowed its characters (and by extension the audience) to vibe out for long stretches of the narrative; while Kingdom is the longest film in the Apes series at 145 minutes, I could have easily watched another hour of our three heroes simply getting to know each other over the course of their travels. Much has been said already of legendary visual effects house Wētā FX and its work in bringing the ape characters in these recent reboot films to life, but Kingdom features possibly their best work yet. Again I was reminded of The Way of Water, the last blockbuster feature that felt like a real breakthrough moment in visual effects. At this point, the line between reality and CGI in these films has become paper-thin—I fully think of the ape characters as living, breathing beings (one shot in particular, a close-up in which Noa looks into the eyepiece of an abandoned high-powered telescope, had me gasping in the theater). But of course, it must be said that this is not just the work of incredibly talented visual effects artists, but also incredibly talented actors. This franchise has always showcased actors performing through some sort of intermediate medium, whether that was Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter emoting through heavy prosthetics or Andy Serkis through motion-capture, and in all cases the heart and humanity (for lack of a better term) has always shined through. Kingdom adds to the impressive roster of actors who have convinced me that they are indeed apes. Teague is an engaging and heartfelt lead, who really makes you feel and relate to Noa’s inner conflict, and Durand finds the depth and vulnerability underneath Proximus’ villainy. But a particular standout is Peter Macon as the lovable Raka. Viewers of the reboot trilogy know that secretly the best characters are usually the orangutans, with Karin Konoval’s Maurice, the right-hand to Caesar, being a fan-favorite, and Raka is no exception (seriously, I never thought of orangutans as one of my favorite animals, but these movies have convinced me that that is indeed the case). If you ever have the opportunity, you should watch footage of Planet of the Apes actors without the effects laid over them to see just how transportive their performances are (Wes Ball has stated that he wants to include a entire cut of the film featuring the actors in their mo-cap suits in the special features of the eventual physical release, to which I say: I will pre-ordering the 4K steelbook as soon as possible, thank you very much). However, this focus on the apes is not to say that the film’s human characters are lacking—Freya Allan’s Nova is compellingly mysterious, with shifting motivations that Allan navigates through wonderfully. Where Ball’s new film differentiates itself most from the rest of the series is its thematic concerns. In the waves of discourse and analysis surrounding the franchise, much attention is paid to the twist ending of the original film, in which (spoiler alert) it is revealed that the titular planet of the apes is Earth after a presumably human-caused cataclysm (implied to be nuclear warfare, due to the anxieties of the time)—thus proving that mankind’s inevitable fate is self-destruction. But to me, the real tragedy of the planet of the apes is that the apes have failed to create a better, more humane (again, for lack of a better term) society, instead replicating our violence, our prejudices, and our rigid and oppressive class system. The apes are frequently the heroes in the movies set before the time of the first movie, but we know from the beginning of the series that they are doomed to repeat our mistakes and become villains themselves. Kingdom is dramatizing that shift in the apes’ civilization in a profound way. Proximus Caesar is fascinated with Roman history and has modeled his leadership style based on what he has learned about humans. The aspects of humanity he admires the most are particularly telling—he explains to Noa that, among other things, they were capable of “leveling mountains.” He specifically wants to emulate their destructive nature. We have seen apes be villainous before, but in Proximus, we start to understand how they will become more human. Kingdom is additionally fascinating in its exploration of the intersection between mythology and history. By situating the events of the series we know so well in the distant past of this new film, we have the clearest perspective on how this world has been shaped by those events, in ways that the characters themselves don’t even fully understand. Recent trends in franchise filmmaking involve validating the audience’s fandom by imbuing the original entries with an overwhelming mythological weight, but Kingdom is in conversation with Rise/Dawn/War in a productive and interesting way, allowing Proximus and Raka to represent two contradictory interpretations of that history, with Raka in particular demonstrating how a little bit of history can be corrupted and weaponized for nefarious purposes. And for a long-time fan, it makes those previous movies feel important in a way that does not feel overblown. While it stands on its own as a thrilling, emotional narrative, Kingdom is clearly setting up a new ongoing story within the larger series, ending on several tantalizing questions (Ball has stated that they have plans for at least two more chapters). I can say that based on this installment, I am excited to see where the filmmakers take things going forward. I claimed at the beginning of this review that Planet of the Apes is one of the most consistent franchises in cinema history, and that title has not been lost. This venerable saga is in good hands. View the full article
  8. You could call it Chekhov’s swimming pool: catch sight of a pristine , turquoise pool in the first act of a noir or crime film, and you’re likely to find a corpse floating in it by the third. Noir has long had a special relationship to water. As Chinatown makes abundantly clear, whoever controls the water supply controls a city. But unlike the free-flowing ocean or even the trickle of the Los Angeles river, pools are stagnant, claustrophobic. They’re a status symbol. They summon images of luxury, and class, and wealth, and Alain Delon in tight-fitting swim trunks. But pools are also a trap. There’s nowhere for all that water, or those swimmers, to go. There is no escape. As the summer heats up and we head into pool season, I thought it might be a worthwhile dive into noir film to explore some of the most memorable and deadly pools the genre has to offer—not unlike an online article version of Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer darting from pool to pool to pool, only with slightly fewer Speedos and definitely more dead bodies. Let’s start with an American classic. While The Great Gatsby is not technically a noir novel according to most high school English teachers, it certainly flirts with the genre, particularly in its last third. Gatsby’s wealth and status do not protect him from closing the novel murdered in a pool. All that wealth, all his striving, and still: he’s facedown in the American Dream. The only thing Fitzgerald could’ve done to hit the nail a little harder on the head would’ve been to throw some of those cool, crisp, money shirts into the pool with him. Jay Gatsby dead in his little-used swimming pool may have been the original man dead in a puddle of the American Dream, but he was far from the last. Arguably the most famous pool in noir cinematic history—maybe all of cinematic history—is Joe Gillis narrating the start of the story of his own demise in the opening shots of Sunset Boulevard (1951). “The poor dope…always wanted a pool,” Gillis says of himself in a voiceover monologue opening the film. “Well, in the end, he got himself a pool—only the price turned out to be a little high.” The pool is both the end and the beginning of the story here. By the 1960’s and 1970’s, swimming pool as dark metaphor were popping up all over the movie theater. There’s Dustin Hoffman, slowly sinking his future in chlorine in The Graduate (definitely not a noir, although the dramatic irony of its famous end shot makes you think…maybe?), Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer, and of course, The Drowning Pool, where Paul Newman, as Harper the private investigator, tries to keep his head above literal water in the adaptation of the Ross MacDonald novel. But perhaps the most influential cinematic swimming pool of this era comes from France: La Piscine, the 1968 psychological thriller directed by Jacques Deray, and starring Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet, and Jane Birkin. In La Piscine, the swimming pool represents the erotic lull of summer, so steamy you may feel compelled to wipe your screen off a few times while watching. It’s also the site of a murder—initially passed off as an accident. The Guardian’s 2011 review of the film noted: “Something in the very lineaments of the pool itself creates their own awful destiny: it is a primordial swamp of desire, a space in which there is nothing to do but laze around, furtively looking at semi-naked bodies.” (In a twist of the “life is stranger than art” variety, Delon’s friend and bodyguard, Stevan Markovic, was found murdered during the course of filming. If you’re unfamiliar, the Markovic Affair, as it became known, makes for fascinating reading: there’s gangsters, alleged kompromat of the First Lady of France, and a still-unsolved murder.) La Piscine’s sultry mix of psychosexual drama and murder set a template that inspired at least two other films that center around a swimming pool: Swimming Pool, the trippy 2003 film from Francois Ozon and starring Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier. Rampling plays Sarah, a crime writer, whose creative retreat to the South of France villa owned by her publisher (and sometime-lover) is interrupted by Sagnier, the publisher’s daughter (or is she?), a sexually voracious young woman whose character was definitely written by a man (or was she?). Once again, the eponymous pool—where Sagnier frequently swims in the nude, which Sarah first encounters as cluttered with debris, perhaps a metaphor for her own writer-blocked state—is also the site of violent death. Also inspired by La Piscine, perhaps even more directly, was the 2015 film, A Bigger Splash, directed by Luca Guadagnino and starring Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Dakota Johnson. The setting is shifted to Italy, but much of the film’s plot mirrors La Piscine. And to double down on the noir swimming pool motif, the film draws its title from one of David Hockney’s (arguably one of the most noir-coopted artists of the midcentury) famous pools. By the release of Wild Things in 1998, the swimming pool, where Neve Campbell and Denise Richards tussle and make out (undoubtedly the most famous scene in the film), had become erotic camp. Roger Ebert accurately described the film as “like a three-way collision between a softcore sex film, a soap opera, and a B-grade noir” but I think there’s more to it than that. By this point, the pool in a crime thriller had become shorthand for sexy sleazy summer fare. Like all the best soapy thrillers, Wild Things knows this, and isn’t afraid to take the point to the extreme. This pool isn’t high art; it is almost literally a cesspool. Sexy Beast, Jonathan Glazer’s 2000 directorial debut starring Ray Winstone and Sir Ben Kingsley, opens with a retired gangster absolutely roasting poolside. The pool is very clearly gangster “Gal” Dove’s retirement treat, a supposed symbol of the luxury he’s now attained, having gotten out of the game. Except if you know anything about noir pools—well, and movies—you know that retirement is about to come to an end. The pool is never, ever a symbol of happily ever after; it’s a destination only for corpses. This turn is perfectly signaled by the film by the introduction of an enormous, immovable boulder crashing into the pool. Gal’s days of danger are, in fact, not over. Finally, let’s not overlook the great noir pools of television. By the 2000s, several memorable swimming pools would connect premium crime television to the best of the genre. It’s with the ducks in his pool that we open the story of Tony Soprano and his therapy sessions. Despite all of his wealth and power and status, for which the swimming pool is a stand-in, Tony still can’t keep the family of ducks from flying away. Breaking Bad, too, is full of contaminated pools, standing in for the guilt Walter White is suppressing over his drug kingpin life. In particular, the singed pink teddy bear that falls into Walt’s pool and recurs as a motif throughout season two elegantly showcases Walt’s submerged guilt over the human cost of his actions. Walt’s inability to reckon with how much damage he’s caused eventually begins to drown his family, with his wife Skylar, now Walt’s accomplice, fully walking into the pool in season five. Splashing around in a pool is one of the high points of summer, if you can swing it. But never forget: murder may smell like honeysuckle, but it tastes like chlorine. View the full article
  9. I now own two editions of Frankenstein whose cover illustrations prominently feature icebergs. The first one I acquired, a Broadview Edition, I bought for an undergraduate class. Its cover design is a full-page, blue-tinted, grainy photograph of a gigantic, pyramidal spike of ice, with the title of the book and other relevant information in a neat, white text box in the center. The second is a Norton Critical Edition I purchased for a grad school course. Its iceberg is different—the focal point of an eerie 1824 painting then called “The Polar Sea” by Caspar David Friedrich (now it is called “Sea of Ice”). Glacial images, though, do not seem to be the most popular choice for Frankenstein covers (based on a cursory internet search, at least), with many of the book’s manifold editions visually acknowledging its most famous character—the Monster—and with many of these, in turn, associating the book and its Monster with an image from the relevant pop culture horror pantheon, often the famous Boris Karloff visage, complete with neck bolts and an enhanced supraorbital ridge. With their covers, the Broadview and Norton editions are emphasizing an aspect of the Frankenstein story that gets left out of movies—the epistolary framing narrative written by the lonely, Arctic-immured Captain Walton, who hears the story of the mad scientist and his monster-creation straight from the Modern Prometheus, himself, after finding Frankenstein dying on one of the floes in a failed, final pursuit of his creature. The Norton Edition’s iceberg, though, does more than establish the story’s actual setting, and emphasize that many of the novel’s main themes run through the multi-layered framing device that is Captain Walton’s frozen ship (such as ambition to know and control the natural world, or the desire for friendship/companionship); Freiderich’s painting, with its towering, jagged spires, depicts, off to the side, the wreckage of a wooden ship, dwarfed when juxtaposed with and easily splintered by the giant crystals of ice—and is notable for its stressing the breathtaking prettiness and dangerous mortality of the scene, elements which correspond to the concepts of the Sublime and the Beautiful as developed by Edmund Burke, among others. Indeed, Frankenstein teems with sublime imagery, and it is used, along with references to weather and climate patterns, race-creating metaphors and allusions to parental Biblical activity, and a theme of powerlessness against stronger forces, to build a criticism against human beings believing that they can know and master all. The word “sublime” is used seven times in the text, and, in many scenes, humans marvel at the magnificence, scale, and powerfulness of nature. Young Frankenstein is even impelled to learn more about science and electricity (which many movies represent as the jolt that animates the Monster’s corpse, though in the book, Frankenstein’s life-giving scientific process is kept obscure) after watching a tree get smote by lightening. He is excited by the power he sees in nature, and desires to master it by creating human life from dead matter. He ends up enlivening his gigantic, superhuman monster “on a dreary night in November” while it is raining. Here, the reference to the darkness and the weather on the night the Monster was born mirrors the fabled circumstances from which the book Frankenstein was created; according to the preface Percy Shelley wrote for his wife, her story Frankenstein was incepted at night, during a rainy season. Frankenstein’s ability to destroy, though, is more powerful than his ability to create The Monster was born during harsh weather conditions, and, in the novel, his coming is usually preceded by harsh weather, and natural conditions which constitute the Sublime. When Robert Walton sees him on the dogsled, out on the ice, the Monster is barely visible through curtains of fog and sheets of ice. During a violent storm after he has returned home (after William’s murder), Frankenstein sees the Monster by the light of a lightening flash, for the first time since abandoning the laboratory. When the Monster confronts Frankenstein, it is raining and they are atop a mountain peak (where Frankenstein has craved to go, because “the sight of the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always the effect of solemnizing my mind and causing me to forget the cares of life.” It is raining powerfully when the Monster strangles Elizabeth on her wedding night. The power, scale, and august danger of the Monster matches that of nature, so much so that nature foreshadows, and becomes a proscenium for, the Monster. The Monster is both a person, and a force of nature (which is what Frankenstein has rather longed to be). Though Frankenstein has been fascinated by science since childhood, his desire to become a scientist is confirmed when he meets Waldman, his future university teacher and mentor. Waldman expounds, during a lecture, “…but these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.” Frankenstein is moved, and then has this same ambition: to “unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” Indeed, his ambitions surpass science and skirt metaphysics—he plays with creation, desires to form his own race of people, longs to master nature; he builds his creature, which he refers to as a new Adam, even more powerful than himself. He longs to be like God as a creator, but fails at being God as a father/parent, abandoning his progeny in fear. He has, in attempting to play God, created something he cannot, or will not be able to, control. He doesn’t even own up to this until the Monster has killed nearly everyone about which he cares—after Elizabeth is murdered, Frankenstein devotes his life to destroying the Monster he once produced, with an ambition that almost mimics his prior ambition—to harness that which cannot be harnessed. Frankenstein believes he has failed, when he creates the Monster, and so abandons him—he does not realize that he still has it within his power to make his experiment succeed, by giving the Monster the father, friend, or creator he will come to crave. While finally hunting for the Monster, he is weakened by the Arctic weather conditions and would almost die on the ice if Walton didn’t find him. The natural world which he has built his monster to weather has ultimately weathered him—in a sad cycle, Frankenstein calls himself the “blasted tree” that had inspired him to harness nature, to begin with. Frankenstein becomes the ruins of nature, while the Monster IS nature, in all its might—while hunting him, Frankenstein hears the Monster laugh at him, and this great laugh is echoed by the nearby mountains. Nature and the Monster ultimately become one, here—both untamable and undaunted at the prospect of someone even attempting to do just that. Just as the Monster, in his power, is impervious to the Arctic conditions, Frankenstein is not, and he is destroyed by the very scale, and powerfulness he was once able to create. Frankenstein’s ability to destroy, though, is more powerful than his ability to create… and ultimately prevents larger destruction. The two times in the novel when Monster appears to a narrator when it is not raining, take place at night, and both feature the destruction of something by Frankenstein—the first is when he watches Frankenstein create the female Monster (and then destroy her, and the second is when the Monster appears to Frankenstein’s corpse on Walton’s ship. The first is an active decision, and the second is passive—but they are both accompanied by a giant moon and clear skies. Nothing is sublime, in these two scenes—Frankenstein is grounded and longs to protect instead of produce. His abilities to curb his actions, or ultimate inabilities to carry on with something dangerous or powerful (by refusing not to build a monster, or by not being able to carry on their fight), end problems before they begin. While these actions cannot stop nature, or undo more powerful forces, they can prevent problems from escalating. Frankenstein tells Walton as much, before he dies—that pursuing the Arctic campaign is not worth the sacrifice, and will only add to unfortunate events. Walton can be seen as a combination of the Monster and Frankenstein—he is self-taught, friendless, and longs to beat the harsh weather and climate conditions that he faces. Frankenstein’s death not only ends the feud with the Monster, but saves the ship and all of its crewmen from a terrible fate. He saves their families from suffering. Frankensetin’s own destruction, then, is possibly the most powerful thing that he has ever done. View the full article
  10. I am a writer driven by rape. My first foray into fiction featured a girl charged with murder for killing her rapist in self-defense. It was about silence and the many ways society revictimizes people. It was about surviving. My debut mystery series stars a vigilante baker who kills bad men with good pies. It’s about reclaiming power and righting the wrongs that the system won’t. It’s about thriving. But it’s also about rape. It has to be. # It’s difficult to discuss Suzie Miller’s ‘Prima Facie’ without sounding hyperbolic. The ample praise the play and subsequent novelization have received is both well-earned and somehow not nearly enough. Because it’s not a stretch, even a year later, to call it life-changing. Prior to arriving at the Golden for one of the early preview performances, I had never set foot inside a theater – I have no business commenting on Broadway. I know that. But perhaps the most powerful thing this story does is steal your ability to stay silent and unseen. I went in expecting to be riveted, challenged, and yes, entertained. It was, after all, Jodie Comer. What I did not expect was the physical reality of the experience. Reviewers love to use ‘edge-of-your-seat’ to describe particularly gripping thrillers, but ‘Prima Facie’ did the opposite. From the first insistent heartbeat of the soundtrack as the curtain rises, I was slammed back in my seat, body braced for an impact I couldn’t predict. I couldn’t move. I could barely breathe. Even when the breakneck pulse of that opening scene gave way, I couldn’t relax. I knew what was coming, I just didn’t know the details, the when, or the how. The animal part of me knew to stay ready though. It kept me rigid, alert. It wouldn’t be caught off guard. Not again. # For years I have tried to find myself in stories, reading everything on offer for sexual assault and then writing it. But it took sitting in the audience of that packed Wednesday matinee to finally see myself. Like me, Tessa is assaulted by someone she trusted. Like me, she snuck out while he slept. Like me, she went barefoot. (Why do we do that, the leaving of shoes?) Like me, her hands became claws to gouge her own flesh. Unlike me, she called it what it was. # The power of ‘Prima Facie’ is that it is a mirror as much as a manifesto. One in three women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime and in an age where women and marginalized people are being increasingly oppressed, this story allows victims to both see and be seen, sometimes for the first time ever. For many, this will be the single most validating piece of media we ever consume and that is no small thing. But it’s more than that. By keeping the focus solely on the Tessa, ‘Prima Facie’ opens a window to a part of the story that is so often skipped. Entertainment is rife with rape plots, but all too many leave the victim behind. This is especially true of procedurals, where detectives abandon the victim at the point of attack, following instead the path of the perpetrator. He becomes the focus, the one that matters. We delve into his psychology, his motive, his methods. The victim exists only as a conduit to his story. Not here. The one-woman nature of the performance has a very literal effect of shifting the lens away from the attacker. He’s there, of course. As an audience, we both feel and fear his presence, but the spotlight remains unwaveringly where it belongs – on Tessa. Further, by specifically choosing to center date rape, the narrative forces a reckoning with modern rape culture. In 2005, my single attempt to discuss my assault was met with enough vitriol that I never tried again. I was told I “was spitting in the face of real victims”, the ones who “have strangers come through their windows with knives” and it was my own fault for even being there. In a post-#MeToo world, such a response almost sounds exaggerated, but it seared into my brain with such force that I have been unable to personally classify anything short of literal knife-point violence as trauma. Until ‘Prima Facie’. The unfortunate truth is that kind of victim-blaming remains appallingly common. People still ask what victims were wearing, how much they drank, if maybe they just changed their minds. The responsibility for a rapist’s actions constantly falls to the victim – especially when he’s someone they know. The impact of ‘Prima Facie’ in the portrayal of this all-too-common kind of rape. There are people who understand that sexual assault comes in many guises, that the nightmare often wears familiar faces, and for us, the play is cathartic, a chance to nod along and say yes, that. Exactly that. But for the others – those without firsthand knowledge and all the men who might convince themselves that it isn’t really rape if she’s drunk/there/‘asking for it’ – the play exposes the visceral reality of sexual assault. It puts a human face on the aftermath of suffering and in a society where so many men admit to only caring about women they’re related to, that’s vital. We live in a country that elects presidents and appoints Supreme Court justices regardless of their histories of sexual assault simply because sexual violence isn’t a deal breaker here. Men watch their friends commit heinous acts of aggression and call it banter because it’s easier than calling them out. Even when the victims are the media’s favorite type – conventionally attractive cis het white women – men will worry more about the implication of charging her attacker than the effect his actions had on her life. This is all so normalized that many people don’t even think to question it. Those are the people for whom this story can truly change the conversation, because they need to see exactly why we’re having it. ‘Prima Facie’ doesn’t sanitize things. There’s nowhere to hide. It drags the audience through the hellish aftermath of assault, humanizing a part of the process that is so often hidden away. And it ends exactly the way every victim knows it will. # I’m not religious, but there’s a moment at the end of the play when the house lights come up and Tessa addresses the audience directly that felt like being called. In an echo of an earlier moment she says: Look to your left. Look to your right. It’s one of us and the urge to speak, to stand, to self-identify was so overwhelming I had to sit on my hands to keep from drawing attention. But it didn’t matter. I was seen. Finally. In that moment, in that theater, I felt more understood than I ever thought possible. And that matters. That is the power of stories. Publishing likes to talk about the importance of representation and this is why. The bigots and book banners want to bury stories because they know that seeing yourself reflected on a page or a screen or a stage can be life-changing. It can be powerful. And it cannot be silenced. *** View the full article
  11. Summer is here! Or, at least, pool season is officially starting (it’s been summer already for many of us working remotely). There are, of course, a gazillion good books coming out over the summer, and to attempt to highlight them all is a quixotic and never-ending quest. Thanks to all the readers who make the quest always feel worth it! And may we all be blessed with a goal that can never end, for that way, we will never be bored. ___________________________________ JUNE ___________________________________ Flynn Berry, Trust Her (Viking) Sisters Tessa and Marian Daly continue to reckon with their pasts in Trust Her, from Northern Spy author Flynn Berry. Having relocated to Dublin, the women try to start their lives over, but the IRA soon catches up and presses them into a risky job with a former handler from MI5. It’s another heady tale of family and espionage. –DM Monika Kim, The Eyes are the Best Part (Erewhon Books) In this darkly funny psychological horror, a college student must protect her mother and her sister from her mother’s creepy new boyfriend. Like all the other men in their lives, he’s trying to reduce their humanness into stereotypes about doll-like, submissive Asian women, and Kim’s protagonist is certainly not going to let him get away with it. She’s also spending a lot of time having intense dreams about eating bright blue eyes, standing over her sleeping enemies and fantasizing their demise, and generally losing touch with reality in a way that pays plenty of dividends by the novel’s end. –MO Rex Stout, How Like a God (Hard Case Crime) I never thought I’d say this in the year of our lord 2024 but there’s a Rex Stout novel coming out! Unpublished for fifty years, this is a psychological thriller from Stout’s early career. But it has the traces of Stout’s beloved Nero Wolfe series: it begins in a NYC brownstone, with a man climbing the staircase, holding a gun. –OR Tasha Coryell, Love Letters to a Serial Killer (Berkley) Would you strike up a romance with a potential murderer if he took your book recommendations? In this knowing critique of true crime culture and modern love, a woman begins a romance with a suspected serial killer and becomes obsessed with finding out the truth about her new paramour. I sped through this novel and related to many of its uncomfortable truths about the misogyny within ordinary relationships that makes dating a man accused of horrible crimes who treats you well seem…justifiable? Or at least, rather understandable…–MO Joseph Kanon, Shanghai (Scribner) Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe settle in Shanghai in Kanon’s latest novel, a deeply engrossing tale of corruption, violence, and doomed love. The story begins on the first class decks of an ocean liner but soon runs headlong into the city’s warring gambling operations. Kanon always situates his political clashes and spy games in a fully realized human drama. Shanghai proves one of his most powerful stories to date. –DM Freddie Kölsch, Now, Conjurers (Union Square) New voice Freddie Kolsch has written a queer horror novel for the ages, in which a charismatic quarterback’s failed quest for absolution is the catalyst for an epic confrontation between his coven and his killer. Not to be a pest, but you must read this book. No excuses. Now you must be wondering, why does every sentence in this blurb begin with an “n”? No cheating—you’ll have to pick up the book to find out yourself. –MO Paul Tremblay, Horror Movie (William Morrow) The “books about cursed productions” trend continues, as horror maestro Paul Tremblay takes us onto the set of the shot-for-remake of a legendary cult classic that never made it to the screen. Horror Movie is narrated by the actor who played the monstrous object of derision known as “The Thin Kid” in the first production, and has agreed to reprise the role in the remake. We’re not sure if we can trust his recollections, but his disturbing account provides plenty of fodder to condemn both the original film and the remake. –MO Peter Swanson, A Talent for Murder (William Morrow) Swanson always delivers perfectly calibrated suspense alongside the thrills of a truly clever mystery. In his newest, A Talent for Murder, an archival librarian begins to suspect the man she married may be carrying out a series of murders around the country. Her unique skills, along with some help from an old grad school friend, soon throw her deep into an investigation. Swanson drives the story to a smart conclusion that will keep readers guessing to the end. –DM Riley Sager, Middle of the Night (Dutton) I love Riley Sager, but everybody loves Riley Sager. And why not!? The man knows how to write a thriller! And this one is the electric, terrifying story about a man who decides to investigate what happened the night his best friend Billy vanished during a sleepover in his backyard, thirty years before. Goosebumps! I have goosebumps! –OR Susie Orman Schnall, Anna Bright Is Hiding Something (Sparkpress) In this Silicon Valley-set thriller, Anna Bright is about to achieve her wildest dreams of success—as long as no one finds out that the biotech she’s shilling doesn’t exactly work as advertised. She just needs to outwit the board, tamp down internal dissension, and keep the journalists printing whatever she tells them. The story is obviously based on Elizabeth Holmes’ Theranos, but there’s a wider aim to Schnall’s vision, as she spins her inspiration into a visceral takedown of misogyny and double standards in the tech industry. –MO Alejandro Nodarse, Blood in the Cut (Flatiron) In Nodarse’s assured debut, a young man at a crossroads tries to save his family’s butcher shop against pressures from all sides. Nodarse conjures up a captivating vision of life in Miami, with shady operators around every corner and family legacies in peril. Nodarse is a writer of great promise, and readers will be clamoring for a follow-up.–DM Leslie Stephens, You’re Safe Here (Gallery/Scout Press) In this futuristic wellness thriller, a secretive Silicon Valley company has just launched the first wave of wellness “pods”—self-sustaining bubbles in which the wealthy and privileged can find inner peace while drifting along an ocean belt known for its stable weather and lack of storms. The pods are rumored to have major design flaws, and the two powerful figures at the center of the company are in a contest of will to determine who bears the blame for any disasters. One of the company’s best workers is drawn into the intrigue brewing between founders as she desperately races to save her fiancee, encased in one of the pods, from a looming storm threatening the pod’s integrity. Chockfull of warnings about tech gone awry (and also lots of tech that I would frankly love to have in my life). –MO John Copenhaver, Hall of Mirrors (Pegasus) In the midst of the Lavender Scare, a mystery novelist is murdered, killed in an arson attack on the apartment he shared with his lover and writing partner. The grieving writer is hell-bent on finding the cause of his partner’s death, but Copenhaver’s teenage sleuths-turned-lovers from The Savage Kind are alternately helping and hindering in the investigation, as they continue to pursue their old nemesis, now wreaking havoc in the State Department. An excellent continuation of Copenhaver’s series, richly detailed and with convincingly realized characterizations. –MO Maxim Loskutoff, Old King (W.W. Norton) Maxim Loskutoff’s Old King is as majestic and foreboding as the old growth forest featured so heavily in its pages. The setting is Lincoln, Montana, where, in the wake of America’s bicentennial, an angry recluse named Ted Kazinski (the Unabomber) is preparing to spread chaos through the US mail system, convinced that his acts of random violence will spark an uprising against the era of the machines. Loskutoff spends only small sections of the book immersed in Kazinski’s disturbing perspective, peopling the rest of his pages with a well-sketched cast of characters strongly divided on a host of questions: do they protect the forest or exploit it? Is modernity an evil? Is it inevitable? And can it be stopped? –MO L.S. Stratton, Do What Godmother Says (Union Square) L.S. Stratton’s new gothic thriller is divided between the Harlem Renaissance past and a writer in D.C.’s present. In the past, a young painter is taken under the wing of a mysterious socialite; her new hopes for the security to pursue artistic freedom are quickly dashed as she learns how controlling her new patron can be. In the present, a journalist comes into possession of a valuable painting, only to find herself beset by collectors who seem ready to engage in unscrupulous methods in order to get their hands on the piece of art. Do What Godmother Says is both a prescient critique of artistic appropriation and a darn good mystery—in short, an immensely satisfying read. –MO Lori Brand, Bodies to Die For (Blackstone) I devoured this novel faster than the winner of a body-building contest drinks water after their win (a joke you’ll totally get if you dive into this searing critique of diet culture and the pressures of professional body-building). Lori Brand has had a long career in fitness that has led to her embracing strength, not weight-loss, and I’m pretty sure this book is the most physically—and emotionally—healthy thriller I’ve read in some time. I may even sign up for a boxing class now… –MO Ellery Lloyd, The Final Act of Juliette Willoughby (Harper) Ellery Lloyd is the pen name of a married duo who’ve been cowriting some of the most vicious and insightful critiques of modern living I’ve ever read. Now, they’ve turned to historical fiction to explore class, colonialism, and misogyny in the pre-war art world. Two art students come across a lost masterpiece of surrealism, but twists and turns abound when the painting disappears, only to resurface decades later in connection with a violent killing. –MO Briony Cameron, The Ballad of Jacquotte Delahaye (Atria) This is a fascinating take on a rumored real-life figure, the swashbuckling Jacquotte Delahaye, but one which takes plenty of narrative license to fill out the gaps in her amazing tale. Jacquotte begins the novel as a shipbuilder, but through no fault of her own, soon becomes an outlaw, and must take to the high seas to preserve her own life and those of her companions. She quickly grows her crew through enlisting some nontraditional sailors, and finds herself on a path towards safety and autonomy—if she can keep herself from a showdown with her nemesis, of course. –MO Gretchen Felker-Martin, Cuckoo (Tor Nightfire) Gretchen Felker-Martin forever won my heart with her splattterpunk horror novel Manhunt, and now she’s done it again with a queer conversion camp thriller that is truly terrifying to read. Felker-Martin writes with sensitivity and righteous fury about the many torments the teenage characters are forced to endure in the name of heteronormativity, and the stakes are ever higher as the kids begin to realize that even those who leave the camp are no longer themselves—and many will not leave at all. Felker-Martin excels at creeping out readers with her off-kilter descriptions and gory details, and I wouldn’t open this one up while eating. Also quick shoutout to one of the only authors out there with consistently sympathetic fat characters who also get to have sex. Thank you, Gretchen! –MO E. K. Sathue, Youthjuice (Hell’s Hundred) In the first release from Hell’s Hundred, the new horror imprint from Soho Press, E. K. Sathue’s main character earns all the press release’s comparisons to Patrick Bateman. Just a run-of-the-mill sociopath at first, the narrator soon gets sucked into the murderous enterprise of a wellness company with an incredibly suspicious number of missing former interns and a CEO who appears to bathe in blood. This book makes me glad that I interned at an archive…Although I did go on a serum buying spree about half-way through reading it. –MO Wanda Morris, What You Leave Behind (William Morrow) Wanda Morris is back with an intricate real-estate thriller informed by real life events. What You Leave Behind follows a lawyer who’s recently returned to her childhood home in Georgia to heal after heartbreak. Instead, she finds herself trying to discover the truth behind a Black landlord’s disappearance and the menacing new buyers of the property he’d long refused to sell. I’m a huge fan of Morris and the novel’s subject—land grabs—is one that’s perfect for her to demystify. –MO ___________________________________ JULY ___________________________________ Chuck Tingle, Bury Your Gays (Tor Nightfire) Chuck Tingle may have made his name in steamy-yet-absurdist erotica, but Bury Your Gays, along with last year’s Camp Damascus, cements Tingle’s place as one of the best new novelists around, horror or otherwise. Showrunner Misha is giving a harsh directive from his studio overlords: either kill off his queer characters, or make them straight. When he refuses to do either, monstrous beings from Misha’s previous cinematic endeavors start confronting him in the flesh, and even worse: they’re threatening his loved ones. This is quite possibly the best spoof of Hollywood since Get Smart. And three cheers for a book with ace representation! –MO Tom Mead, Cabaret Macabre (Mysterious Press) If you’re not reading Tom Mead, what are you doing with your life? His delightful puzzle-mysteries and riddling locked-room plots are some of the best today. This delightful novel brings back his ingenious sleuth, the retired stage magician Joseph Spector. Someone is trying to kill Victor Silvius, a man from a wealthy family—now inmate at a private santorum in the English countryside. But that’s not all. While Spector is looking into Silvius’s case, he finds two mysterious cases: a body is found in the middle of a frozen lake, and a rifle has been fired from behind a closed window, killing the man on the other side without breaking the glass. Lock me up, because I’m going insane with anticipation.–OR Donyae Coles, Midnight Rooms (Amistad) Never. Eat. What. The. Fairies. Give. You. Especially if it’s as disgusting as what’s consumed at the wedding feast in this atmospheric gothic (complete with strong folk horror elements). Donyae Coles’ plucky heroine is surprised to receive a later-in-life proposal from a mysterious gentleman. Their connection is genuine, but his family is off-putting, his manor house is crumbling, and for some reason, he keeps getting her drunk on honey wine while feeding her bloody meat and little cakes. What does he want, and what will she have to sacrifice to give it to him? –MO Delia Pitts, Trouble in Queenstown (Minotaur) Delia Pitts has a new series!!! And it’s awesome. Evander “Vandy” Myrick is an ex-cop-turned-PI who is trying to rebuild her life in her Jersey hometown after a series of personal and professional disasters. Her new case threatens her search for peace, after what seemed like a simple assignment to find out if a spouse is cheating becomes a murder investigation. –MO Clare Pollard, The Modern Fairies (Avid Reader Press) While debatably gothic, this novel set in 17th century ancien regime France is most certainly suited to the damp—after all, it was an era long before dehumidifiers (of which I now possess four). The Modern Fairies features the great historical salons of Paris, in which literary luminaries mingled with the demimonde and mixed witty repartee with inventive storytelling. Pollard’s characters are reinventing their nation’s traditional stories and creating the modern fairy tale, even as the details of their lives show the the rot of French society before the Revolution. –MO Liz Moore, The God of the Woods (Riverhead) Liz Moore’s The God of the Woods reminds me a bit of Picnic at Hanging Rock in the best way; it’s the story of a teenager who vanishes from her Adirondack summer camp in August 1975, and the frantic and foreboding search that follows. See, he girl who disappears, Barbara Ban Laar, isn’t simply a camper; she’s the daughter of the owners of the camp. And she’s the second person in her family to disappear in this fashion. –OR Jenna Satterthwaite, Made For You (Mira) Jenna Satterthwaite’s novel is a cutting and creative take on reality television and artificial personhood. Her heroine is the first “synth” to compete on a reality dating show, and only the third to exist publicly in the world. Her romance is fairy-tale perfection, but her marriage is decidedly less so, and when the husband she worked so hard to win goes missing, suspicion falls immediately on his robotic partner. Will she be able to prove her own innocence, and will the world finally accept her autonomy and sense of self? –MO Sarah Brooks, The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands (Flatiron) This book is steampunk perfection! The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands takes place on an enormous train barreling through a landscape known as the “Wastelands” on its way from Beijing to Moscow at the turn of the 20th century. Outside the train, strange creatures with knowing eyes and too many mouths regard the iron beast and its fearful passengers. Inside the train, a powerful company tries to preserve order and cover up past mistakes as various travelers try to discover the truth behind what happened on the disastrous previous journey. Brooks brings a Mieville-esque mentality to her novel, with some terrifying creepy-crawlies and an even more terrifying capitalist conglomerate. –MO Kate Quinn, The Briar Club (William Morrow) Kate Quinn is the reigning queen of historical fiction, and her latest continues to uphold her reputation for grasping the complexities, nuances, and dynamism of the past. In The Briar Club, set in 1950s-era DC, an unorthodox community develops in a women’s boardinghouse when a glamorous and mysterious new resident brings everyone together. This book is what I wish Amelie had been. Also there are recipes. Really, this book is perfect.–MO John Fram, No Road Home (Atria) A wealthy preacher’s compound is the setting for this gothic parable from the author of The Bright Lands. The narrator of No Road Home, newly wedded to the beautiful scion of a megachurch pastor, is visiting his wife’s family for the first time when a storm closes them off from the rest of the world just as their patriarch is found dead. Even before the disturbing demise, Fram’s hero is already having second thoughts about the marriage: her relatives keep making snide remarks about his gender nonconforming son, it turns out his wife only married him to unlock her own inheritance, every family member appears to be keeping secrets, and someone’s been painting threatening messages warning of vengeance to come. Oh, and there’s also a ghost and some very disturbing paintings… –MO Joelle Wellington, The Blonde Dies First (S&S) I loved Joelle Wellington’s debut thriller with its epic party gone terribly wrong, and she continues to wreak gleeful havoc with traditional tropes in her new thriller. This one features an epic summer party interrupted by a demon hell-bent on picking off guests. –MO Eli Cranor, Broiler (Soho) Cranor’s latest thriller examines intersecting lives at an Arkansas chicken plant, where an unwarranted firing sends violent ripples out into the world, bringing families to their knees. Cranor paints a vivid, devastating portrait of the cruelty surrounding an imbalanced system, all while maintaining a wicked level of tension that drives this powerful story forward. He is a writer at the top of his game. –DM Mateo Askaripour, This Great Hemisphere (Dutton) In a world divided between the visible dominant population and the invisibles who serve them, a young invisible woman is shocked to discover her brother is not only alive, but now accused of murder. She has the skills to save him and the impulse to track down the real killer, but will the world around her listen to the truth or subvert reality to their own hierarchically based needs? I cannot wait to dive into this one and emerge blinking, hours later, questioning the notion of existence itself…–MO Bret Anthony Johnston, We Burn Daylight (Random House) That setting tells you straightaway what this one’s going to be about: the Branch Davidians, the Waco siege, and the ordinary lives caught up in a flash-point moment that will reverberate for a generation to come. We Burn Daylight uses the perspectives of two star-crossed lovers—the sheriff’s son and the unbelieving daughter of a cult member—to navigate the complexities of the showdown, for a moving and epic tale. I would expect no less from Johnston.–MO Eliza Jane Brazier, It Had To Be You (Berkley) Eliza Jane Brazier is quickly becoming a favorite, and the newest title from her has a perfect premise: two contract killers, one hired to kill the other, instead fall deeply in love. Who could resist? –MO Emily Dunlay, Teddy (Harper) In this madcap tale of espionage and adventure, a Dallas debutante marries a foreign service worker and heads to mid-1960s Italy, determined to put her wild days behind her and finally Behave. Events conspire to foil her goals of proper deportment, and soon enough, she’s involved in a blackmail scheme, embassy hijinks, and the most daunting task of all: finding a couture dress that can fit her without needing to be tailored. Teddy is not just a fabulous historical novel—it’s a manifesto against the patriarchy, and a liberating experience of watching a woman free herself. –MO Carinn Jade, The Astrology House Carinn Jade takes on the locked-room mystery and makes it her own in this psychological-thriller-cum-comedy-of-manners. A wealthy group of friends decamps to a remote house for an astrology-oriented getaway only to find their host has her own agenda for the weekend. This book will have you wondering about your own charts—and whether that house in Mercury Retrograde just might make you a murderer. –MO ___________________________________ AUGUST ___________________________________ Jessa Maxwell, I Need You To Read This (Atria) The new advice columnist for a major paper is psyched to have the job of her dreams, even if her predecessor was murdered, but she soon finds out she’s got more on her plate than solving the humdrum problems of the populace. She also needs to find out who’s been sending threatening letters to her office, and if they have anything to do with the previous columnist’s death—or her own dark past. Maxwell embodies the empathy of the advice giver well, while also crafting a propulsive narrative with plenty of twists and turns. –MO Nicholas Meyer, Sherlock Holmes and the Telegram From Hell (Mysterious Press) As an ardent fan of Meyer’s groundbreaking original Sherlock Holmes novel The Seven-per-Cent Solution, I am so excited for this new one. It takes place during World War I, with Watson back to working as a doctor, tending wounded soldiers when his old friend Sherlock Holmes arrives and asks for his help carrying out a mission straight from the British secret service, sending them to American, tracking a mysterious coded telegram sent from Berlin to Mexico. Jolly good fun! –OR Rachel Koller Craft, We Love the Nightlife (Berkley) What’s better than a psychological thriller about vampires? A psychological thriller about disco vampires! In Rachel Koller Craft’s sophomore novel, Nicola and Amber have been vampirical companions since Nicola first spotted Amber on the dance floor. Decades later, Amber wants to move on, and Nicola tries to keep her interested by proposing that the two open a new club together. Koller Craft is at her sly, sardonic best in this suspenseful tale of friendships gone sour. –MO Calla Henkel, Scrap (Overlook) Scrap here refers to scrapbooking—Henkel’s narrator is a failed artist who’s just been dumped and needs a new job fast, so she feels lucky when a wealthy art patron hires her to take decades worth of mementos and turn them into high-brow scrapbooks. When her employer dies suddenly before the books can be completed, she’s thrust into a web of intrigue and vengeance that will either reward her enormously or crush her completely. –MO Scott Phillips, The Devil Raises His Own (Soho Crime) This novel is so damn charming, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its salacious historical setting—early Hollywood’s burgeoning scene of blue movies. In The Devil Raises His Own, the denizens of Los Angeles just before WWI intersect and part ways in a thousand different combinations for a kaleidoscopic portrait of an entire city at the precipice of extraordinary cultural significance. Phillips has crafted a picaresque tale of winners and losers, lovers and cheaters, suckers and con artists, rising starlets and drunken has-beens, dirty old men and even dirtier married women: in short, a truly American novel of epic proportions. –MO Jesse Q. Sutanto, You Will Never Be Me (Berkley) Everything that Jesse Q. Sutanto turns her hand to is gold, and You Will Never Be Me is no exception. In this vicious psychological thriller, two influencers face off against one another in a battle for the ages. Meredith and Aspen are friends-turned-bitter rivals, their laundry list of resentments eclipsing their once-powerful bond. When one goes missing, the other falls under suspicion, but there’s plenty of twists and turns before we find out what’s really going on. –MO William Kent Krueger, Spirit Crossing (Atria Books) In the newest Cork O’Connor mystery, the investigation into a politician’s missing daughter and the death of a young Ojibwe woman intersect, throwing Cork together with the Lake Ojibwe Tribal Police in a story that exposes some of the region’s starkest divides and injustices. Krueger deals in powerful narratives with great skill. –DM ___________________________________ SEPTEMBER AND BEYOND ___________________________________ Kate Atkinson, Death at the Sign of the Rook (Doubleday) Yorkshire’s best ex-detective is finally back in this hotly-anticipated continuation of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series. This time, he’s bored, with nothing but an art theft to work on… but it leads him down a dark and twisty path to Burton Makepeace, a dilapidated former estate that now hosts murder mystery weekends. Delightful! –OR Attica Locke, Guide Me Home (Mulholland) In the final chapter of the Darren Matthews saga, the Texas Ranger is drawn into the investigation of a Black woman’s disappearance, with her white sorority sisters claiming she isn’t missing at all. As with all the installments of this powerful series, history and family legacies and class divisions get all tangled up to produce something distinctly and disturbingly American. Locke has produced a fitting conclusion for one of the era’s defining mystery characters. –DM Richard Osman, We Solve Murders (Pamela Dorman) Am I said that Richard Osman is not publishing a fifth Thursday Murder Club this fall? Yes. Am so incredibly over the moon that he’s bringing us another indelible, incomparable sleuthing team? Yes. And they are former-investigator-cum-retiree Steve Wheeler and his private-security-working daughter-in-law Amy. I can’t wait to meet them. –OR Del Sandeen, This Cursed House (Berkley) Jemma Barker is broke and newly single when a strange offer comes in: a lucrative position has opened up with a wealthy family on their Louisiana plantation, and Jemma needs to get out of Chicago, fast. It’s 1962 and the world is changing, but for the family on the plantation, things appear to be frozen in time, as the family is still stuck in the colorism that allows them to feel superior to the darker-skinned Jemma. Sandeen’s heroine soon learns that the family has summoned her for a very particular purpose: they are cursed, and they believe her to be the only one who can save them from future calamity.–MO M.L. Rio, Graveyard Shift (Flatiron) M.L. Rio’s Graveyard Shift is a wonderfully eerie novella, reminiscent of the spooky, gothic tales of M.R. James. The premise is so good you’ll shiver: every night, the same five people walk by one another as they head home from their late shifts at their jobs, walking through the old cemetery in their old college town. But one night, they are shocked to stumble upon a freshly dug grave. And before they can continue on home, the gravedigger reappears. You shivering? I TOLD YOU! Jordan Harper, The Last King of California (Mulholland) Readers in the US will finally get a chance to read Harper’s sunburnt tragedy, which arrived first in Britain. In The Last King of California, Harper channels the best of Kem Nunn and delivers a story of family rivalries and warring bikers, all set deep in the California desert. Harper’s pacing is pitch perfect, and his noir sensibilities infuse the novel with dark poetry. –DM Gigi Griffis, We Are the Beasts (Delacorte) Gigi Griffis breathes new life and intrigue into the historical tale of the Beast of Gévaudan, the mythical monster blamed for a rural murder spree in Ancien Regime France, as two teen girls take advantage of the chaos to fake the deaths of their nearest and dearest and thus save them from more human terrors. Griffis has an eye for historical detail and a deft hand when it comes to plotting.–MO View the full article
  12. Hit Man, the new film from director Richard Linklater, isn’t really about a hit man. It’s about the myth of the hit man, or at least “the hitman-for-hire.” Yes, occasionally, mafias and shady corporations and dictatorships do seem to have assassins to sic on their enemies. But the idea that any random person can track down and hire a local hit man to do their dirty work? Fiction. Hit Man is about that fiction, that myth, that understanding. Glen Powell plays Gary Johnson, an uncool philosophy professor at a New Orleans university who moonlights, for extra cash, helping the local police department with tech for their sting operations. If it weren’t for this side gig, he’d be back home petting his cats, grading papers, and bird-watching. (He doesn’t really have a lot going on.) But one day, Gary finds himself out of the surveillance van and inside a sting; he’s a plant, pretending to be a hit man for a man who has tried to hire one. His job is simply to seem legit enough that the suspect ends up incriminating himself. But, it turns out, he’s really, really good at pretending to be a killer. “Pretending” is the operative word here. It’s not the “killer” part that Gary latches onto, it’s the performative aspect. Soon, he develops different hitmen characters, each tailored to the specific personalities of the suspects looking for a killer. “Who’s your hitman?” he asks himself, of suspects he researches in advance. He busts out costumes, wigs, makeup, and all manner of accessories, and experiments with accents and attitudes. At its essence, Hit Man is about a man who is given a stage and an audience and falls in love with the act of performance. Not that anyone should care, but I wrote a doctoral dissertation on the theatricality and performativity of “detection and surveillance” (in 19th century literature entertainment, but still), so I was personally delighted by the questions and ideas that Hit Man plays around with. The plot takes off when Gary finds himself both unable to fully commit to his character’s mission but also finds himself wishing to turn into that character for real; playing a sexy, badass, Aviators-and-cowboy-boots-wearing killer named Ron, Gary meets and falls for a young woman named Madison (Adria Arjona), who would like to put a hit out on her abusive husband. As Gary attempts to wrangle what he has created, his character compartmentalization begins to unspool, dangerously blending Gary and Ron’s personalities, asking, ultimately, who our hero really is, inside. The script amusingly braids in Gary’s lectures on Freud and Nietzsche with shots of his transformations. Co-written by Powell and Linklater, Hit Man is loosely based on a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth about the life of real fake hitman Gary Johnson. The film has many merits, with the first one undeniably being its function as a gallery for Powell’s acting talents. Powell has been working steadily in the movies for a decade, and although he’s memorable in all his projects, it’s taken him a long time to attain the leading man status he deserves. In hit Man, he shows off not only his comic chops (with which many of us are long familiar), but also his ability to act as a film’s emotional center. It also allows him to showcase all of the weird little things he can do; there’s a part of the film where Gary shuffles through lots of hit man characters that I called, in my notes, The Glen Powell Show. There aren’t many amazing movies where the conceit is “one actor has to play a lot of different versions of the same vague figure without turning the whole affair goofy”; think Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) or even Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove (1964). I think Powell is right up there with his performance(s) as the posse of strange hired guns. The cast of Hit Man is small, but other major characters include Austin Amelio as a slimy cop who is determined to make trouble for Gary, and Evan Holtzman as Madison’s toxic husband Ray—both played with believable odiousness. The delightful comedienne Retta also has a small role, as Gary’s supervisor at the police station, and she provides Gary’s behavior with some necessary, and hilarious commentary. And Arjona is charming and compelling as the sweet Madison; while her character does reveal emotional nuance, I did find myself wishing that her character had a little more shading. Normally Linklater’s female characters are complex and interesting, but here, we learn little about her besides her fear of her husband and her attraction to “Ron.” We do, I suppose, briefly observe that she has one hobby, but I do wish we got more about that, about anything, especially since the guy opposite her has personality (cough… personalities) to spare. Still, Hit Man is a successful, endearing, creative comedy with a fun and entertaining premise, bolstered by excellent performances and clever direction. One sequence that is particularly charming, and bears the stamp of Linklater’s own pop-culture-scholarship, is a montage of classic hitman movies that plays while Gary explains that hit men aren’t real. But Hit Man is real, and I’m very, very glad it is. The film has a very limited theatrical release, and this is an enormous flub on the part of its distributors (if we can even call them that). Bought by Netflix for a $20 million deal after a run in a few film festival last year, Hit Man is only playing in select theaters for about a week before it debuts on Netflix (in the U.S., the U.K. and a few other countries) on June 7th. You should see this movie, but you should see it in theaters if you can. The mid-budget, action-y, rom-com is dying and it’s welcome and delightful entrants like this which are pumping it back to life! So, you know, go see Hit Man and prevent streaming from killing the movies. View the full article
  13. Sometimes authors mine their own hallowed grounds, looking to the past in search of today’s treasures. In that spirit, #1 New York Times bestselling wordsmith Harlan Coben presents the long-awaited return of one of his most beloved characters in Think Twice (May 14, 2024; Grand Central). Former sports agent turned lawyer Myron Bolitar—who investigates crimes with his billionaire best friend, Windsor Horne Lockwood III (better known as “Win”)—hasn’t graced the pages of a book since 2016. With the series currently in development for television, it would seem an opportune moment for his revival. But the truth isn’t nearly as calculated as the timing might suggest. “I just kind of missed Myron,” Coben—who usually abides by the notion that premise precedes player—says. “I usually start with an idea … and then I ask myself: ‘Who tells the story?’” While such musings once resulted in the character’s creation in the first place (in 1995’s Deal Breaker), they also led to his being sidelined when a diversionary hook took hold of the author: What if a grieving husband received an email containing a hyperlink to a video feed that shows his wife walking by a webcam eight years after her supposed murder? “I loved the idea!” Coben remembers. “But of course Myron didn’t have a wife who died … so Myron couldn’t tell that story.” Instead, Dr. David Beck headlined 2001’s Tell No One, which was nominated for the Anthony, Macavity, Edgar, and Barry Awards and turned into an award-winning French film, Ne le Dis à Personne—America’s top box office foreign-language draw the year of its domestic release. “And from there I was free of Myron for the next six or seven books,” Coben says. Instead, he penned a series of standalone novels—including Gone for Good, No Second Chance, Just One Look, and The Innocent—that have found new life on the small screen. Bolitar, Win & Co. would eventually return in 2006’s Promise Me. Coben has since made a habit of alternating series and singular titles, even introducing Myron’s nephew, Mickey Bolitar, as the protagonist of a YA franchise (which currently includes three books and the Amazon Prime series Shelter). Still, it’s been eight long years since Myron appeared in Home, seemingly finding closure through marriage at book’s end. And while the author has gotten increasingly busy with the creation and development of multiple streaming projects for Netflix (in addition to maintaining a book a year publishing schedule), the comfort of familiarity proved irresistible. “The world is not in a great place right now and I thought, wouldn’t it be kind of fun to go back and try to write those books that combine a character you love with a gripping mystery?” Coben recalls. “And so I just thought the marriage of both during this time would be something fun to try.” While Myron’s resurrection doesn’t test the laws of mortality, the same can’t necessarily be said for his former basketball and romantic rival turned frenemy, Greg Downing. Long thought dead—Myron eulogized him, after all—Downing’s DNA turns up at a recent crime scene, leading the FBI to suspect he’s very much alive and somehow connected to a string of “solved” murders that now appear to be linked. “That was part of the challenge. How could someone get away with it?” Coben says, acknowledging that technology and surveillance have made it increasingly difficult to avoid detection. “One of the things that got this novel off the ground was that I had read an article [stating] that there are actually fewer serial killers now than ever before because it’s so hard not to get caught.” Enter the “Setup Serial Killer”—a person, or persons, unknown, whose work has gone largely unnoticed by virtue of their ability to frame others for their crimes so convincingly that subsequent arrests and convictions are pretty much a given. It’s a premise as chilling as it is contemporary, and one that took the author out of his comfort zone. “I often pride myself on writing what I swear I’d never write,” Coben admits. “One of the things I’ve always said … is that I don’t write serial killer books. I’m not a serial killer guy. I don’t like serial killer books particularly.” So when the idea of just such a killer took hold, Coben found himself pondering some oft repeated advice: Write the book you’d want to read. “How could I write one that I would like?” he asked himself, knowing the task would be made more difficult by modernity. “It’s always a question of how do I use this new technology … to make an interesting story? How can I use that as a challenge rather than a detriment?” Then, the answer came: a comingling of elements—the new with the old, technology with tradition, fresh circumstances for familiar characters. It was a solution fitting of the series’ continued evolution, in which the books are as much about the players’ lives as the cases they investigate. “For Myron, the stakes are almost always personal,” Coben says. “It’s never mired in solving a crime for somebody else the way a cop or even a private detective would. It always affects his personal life. And this one in particular takes on a whole new direction.” Indeed, in Think Twice, the knowledge that Greg Downing—who was once married to Myron’s first love, and raised the illegitimate son that Myron fathered as his own—may not only be alive but somehow implicated in a double homicide leads Myron on a cross country search for truth, the consequences of which hit uncomfortably close to home. “At the end of the day, the one overriding thing I try to do with these novels … is relationships,” Coben offers, in reminder that home is often where the heart—and hurt—is. “If somebody asked me what the Myron and Win series is really about …it’s about friendship,” While Myron and Win’s bromance gives the saga its beating heart, they’re bolstered by a colorful cast of co-workers, lovers, friends, and family; loving depictions of the latter stem from Coben’s adoration and reverence for his parents, who both died young. “I never got to see my parents age … so this is actually a sort of imagined alternate universe,” he confesses, noting that the dynamic has resonated with readers. “What Myron goes through with his parents is often what I imagined I would be going through had my parents survived.” Now retired to Florida (where else?), the Bolitars enjoy regaling Myron with stories of their sexual escapades, which have been enhanced by the use of edibles. These long-distance phone calls add some comic relief —though the physical distance also exposes unexpected vulnerabilities. “I think the most harrowing scene in this book, without giving anything away, involves Myron and his parents,” Coben says. “And that’s because hopefully you care about these people, and you care about their relationships.” The author—heralded as “the modern master of the hook and twist” by Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code)—draws on this sense of connectedness to maximize tensions and devise closings that often manage to shock readers while also delivering a more sustaining satisfaction. “More important for me—as I get older, especially—is that I want the ending to not only surprise you in terms of whodunit, but I need the emotional impact,” he says. “It’s one thing to stir your mind and your pulse, but if [the twist] doesn’t stir your heart … then you’re not going to feel it.” It’s telling, then, that thirty-five years (and as many books) into a blockbuster career, Harlan Coben considers Think Twice’s “nobody’s gonna see it coming” ending one of his very best. “If you think of all the great movies you’ve seen, or all the great books you’ve read … there was always an emotional component to them,” he says. “I think that’s where the gold lies.” Which is why readers continue to sift through his stories in eager anticipation of the riches they’ll find there. View the full article
  14. “The author should die once he has finished writing,” wrote Umberto Eco. “So as not to trouble the path of the text.” I’m a fan of this open approach to art and write in a way that seeks to expand rather than narrow what a book can mean to the reader. Once it’s finished, it’s your book not mine. That said, certain ignition energies inevitably come from the author’s own life. In The Man Who Saw Seconds, my new thriller about a man who can see five seconds into the future, both the emotional energy and some of the thematic questions are shaped by my own past. Not the answers, I hope. Just the questions. The emotional fuel behind Preble Jefferson’s relentless fight to save his family was my son’s week-long abduction when he was very young. It all turned out well, and that’s one of the best things about being a writer. Ten years later you can be grateful for events that melt your teeth with stress when they’re happening, because they give you a story and a fire. Give me ten more and I’ll write a novel where the monster is cancer. My beautiful wife, Tania Xenis, died of colon cancer while I was finalizing this one. A number of reviewers picked up on this core drive for a man to protect, or try to protect, his family. Andrew Case, author of The Big Fear, wrote, “And for all its adventure, at its heart [The Man Who Saw Seconds] is a story of a father’s love for his wife and child, for whom he will do anything.” And Martin Ott, author of Dream State, said, “No novel in recent memory answers the question as convincingly: ‘Will I risk destroying the world to save the people I love?’” We all understand the urge to protect those we love. When it comes to ideas, however—especially ideas that approach politics—writing is trickier. When I read a novel, I don’t want to be told what to think, not even if I agree. But individual characters can have complex political backstories. In Seconds, the most fun is probably Preble’s best friend, Fish. A Hungarian defector during the Cold War turned anarchist law professor, Fish’s full name is the unpronounceable Robert Legmegbetegedettebbeknek (yes, that’s a real word, meaning “the sickest.”) While Fish isn’t me, he does grow out of a slice of my past. If Preble is my emotional self during my son’s abduction, Fish is my intellectual youth. I was seven when we defected from communist Czechoslovakia—an old-school, sneak-across-the-Iron-Curtain type of defection, complete with my parents throwing me and my one-year-old brother from one heaving boat to another off the coast of Yugoslavia when our boat’s engine died during a storm in the Adriatic Sea. I had my eighth birthday in the Traiskirchen refugee camp in Austria, where we spent six months hoping for a country. Canada took us in and gave us a home, something I remained permanently grateful for even as I moved and lived all over the world, including various cities in the U.S. My dad had been in the Czechoslovak special forces, and he was determined to put an ocean between us and Russia, certain Russia would never stop invading neighbors—decades later he revealed to me that he still remembered every street in Brussels and Amsterdam, as every man in his unit had had to memorize two West European cities. Those two were his. People today forget how oppressive, gray and all-consuming Soviet Block communism was. The expression in Slovak for the system was “the totality.” People referred to living “under the totality,” which conveys what life was like more accurately than the abstract adjective “totalitarian.” It was a system that wanted total control over everything, every detail of life down to the most personal—an impulse that seems to repeat wherever there is a concentration of power, in direction if not in degree. That may be why the main antagonist in Seconds, Thaddeus Bigman, works for the NSA’s Total Information Bureau and why Fish, like a lot of East European émigrés, has a fear of the security organs that’s so bone deep it’s almost genetic. Fish isn’t a libertarian. He’s skeptical of all institutions, corporations and collective entities above a certain size. I read a lot of anarchist philosophy in my twenties as a reaction to the “stories from the totality” that I’d grown up with. It’s probably why I went to law school: know thy enemy. But Fish is an old man, not a twenty-year-old, and his anarchism has been distilled to a narrower, more-mature insight—a core belief in the concept of counterproductivity as described by the philosopher Ivan Illich. Illich’s formulation was dry: “Once it reaches a certain threshold, the process of institutionalization becomes counterproductive.” In Seconds, Fish rephrases that as “Every institution ends up working against the purpose for which it was created.” While ministries of defense that start wars are an obvious example, Illich applies this to a wide range of modern life, from schools that make people stupid to hospitals that make them sick to “motorized vehicles that create the remoteness which they alone can shrink.” It works for any new technology that first brings social benefits but ends by forcing society to adapt to the technology. It certainly applied to the utopia of Soviet communism. And it can even apply to a man whose single-minded fight against monsters inevitably turns him into one. There’s an inherent absurdity to this sort of counterproductivity, which may be why a sense of the absurd is threaded through so much of Eastern European literature. It’s not South American style magical realism. People don’t start levitating. Instead, it’s just a touch, a light balancing act between real and surreal, between conviction and satire. The decision-cycles in The Man Who Saw Seconds become absurd only gradually, and different readers disagree on when that threshold is crossed. But the spiral also reflects how these soulless, all-consuming system-machines really do work—humanity that’s been institutionalized, mechanized, almost mineralized, to paraphrase Ortega y Gasset. The book is first and foremost a fast-paced thriller, not dependent on this subtext. I wanted to ensure a reader could enjoy it as a Jason Bourne-style Hollywood movie without any of these thematic or satirical elements. But they’re there for those who want to read them, within character motivations and the general madness of the constant escalation—which becomes counterproductive for everyone. Fish’s anarchic distrust of institutions is rooted in my own distrust of the sort of control that suffocated the human spirit under the totality. But I do understand the other side. I appreciate how dangerous the mass loss of trust in institutions is to our democracies—even if some of that loss is justified. I’m a recovering attorney, but still a member of the California bar. I spent time as a speechwriter for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigated bad members of the NYPD. I’m an instructor in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and over the decades my sparring partners have included dozens of cops, SWAT team operators, and even friends who formerly served as bodyguards for prime ministers in Canada and Israel. I write first for the love of a good story, and all these past lives help add texture to how well I can tell it. But second, I write to clash ideas against each other. (How cool that my publisher is CLASH Books!) With Seconds, I feel like I finally learned how to integrate those two drives seamlessly, something I was less successful with in my previous novel, The Ugly. It’s this clash that causes the story to keep escalating and it’s why I insist on making my antagonists as formidable as possible—steelmen rather than strawmen. I never want my hero to win because someone makes a mistake, like a James Bond villain who talks too long, and I never want to offer easy answers. Preble’s slim superpower is just barely enough to give him a fighting chance, maybe. Mark Powell, author of The Late Rebellion, described Seconds as, “part thriller, part gunfight (hell of a gunfight), part intellectual examination of what we mean when we say ‘freedom’ and all heart. Absurd, hilarious, and deadly serious, this is the rare novel that is both compulsively readable and philosophically deft.” I don’t have an answer for what we mean when we say “freedom,” but I do know that my own conception of it was deeply shaped by being born in a country with none. For me, freedom is tied to openness—and that includes the interpretations of anything I’ve written. I like to think of the emotional and intellectual themes in my writing as the two wings of a story. They provide the lift, but they shouldn’t be tied down to my own past. If my personal background adds possibilities to how you read the book, then that makes me happy. If not, kill me and enjoy The Man Who Saw Seconds. *** View the full article
  15. Here at CrimeReads, we love a heist, genre of crime that’s definitely a lot cooler and easier to pull off in movies. But there are heists in real life. They’re way less glamorous, but hey, so is everything. For this list, we thought we’d spotlight some of the more random and strange robberies that have been executed in recent memory. Kinder Surprise Eggs and Nutella I’ve witnessed firsthand the popularity of both Kinder Surprise Eggs and Nutella in Germany, but even I was shocked to learn that, in August 2017, in Neustadt Germany, a group of thieves made off with about 20 tons of Nutella and Kinder eggs. The goods were held in a refrigerated truck, and were worth, together, upwards of $80,000. German law enforcement put out the following announcement: “Anyone offered large quantities [of chocolate] via unconventional channels should report it to the police immediately.” Also, Kinder Surprise Eggs are illegal in the United States, apparently? They contain tiny toys in their shell, and since 1938, the U.S. has prohibited the sale of food items with inedible components. (I am guessing because of this ban, Kinder sells a product called the “Kinder Joy Egg” in America, which complies with US law.) Parmesan Cheese Apparently, in Italy, more than $3 million of Parmesan cheese is stolen every year. I find this both outrageous and very believable. Britain’s Center for Retail Research has noted that cheese, in general, is the most stolen food in the world. But Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of the most coveted. According to the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano (the Consortium of Parmesan Cheese), the organization which oversees authentic Parmesan production and culture, Parmesan is a highly particular and historic cheese made authentically in only five Italian provinces (“Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna to the left of the river Reno and Mantua to the right of the river Po”) and has received Protected Designations of Origin (or PDO) status from Italy, a stamp to certify authenticity, since there are many counterfeit Italian cheeses on the market. Evidently. Cut to Emilia-Romagna, Modena, in 2015, when a group of eleven gang members were arrested for a series of armed robberies spanning eleven years in which they stole total of 2,039 wheels of parmesan, totaling €785,000 at the time of the theft (equivalent to $875,000). Says one Italian police officer, “‘Cheese is a bit like gold here, the price is so high.'” Normally I don’t fantasize about committing robberies, but I’ve also never known about cheese heists, before. Interesting. Desert Hairy Scorpion, Domino Cockroach, Six-Eyed Sand Spider, etc. Yes, this next heist story is not about food!! Not!!! Food!!!! In August of 2018, the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion was robbed, with thieves taking about 7,000 live animals (making up about 80 to 90 percent of the collection). There were some lizards in the haul, but it was largely composed of insects. Police suspected an inside job and were able to locate a few of the animals. According to The New York Times, “Security cameras around the pavilion recorded several people creeping out of the museum… with plastic containers holding giant African mantises, bumblebee millipedes, warty glowspot roaches, tarantulas, dwarf and tiger hissers, and leopard geckos.” Removing animals from controlled environments and exhibits is extremely dangerous for humans and the animals themselves, who have special food and climate requirements. The animals were likely headed for the exotic animal black market, which again, is a very bad thing. The thieves also stole the logs from the exhibits, making it more difficult for the scientists and curators to track which species had in fact been stolen. The total estimated value of the stolen animals is $40,000. And, not to be glib here (because again, this theft risks animal cruelty), but I’d need to be earning a LOT more than $40,000k to even go near one “warty glowspot roach” or “Mexican fireleg tarantula.” Black Truffle Well, we’re back to talking about food now. Cool, cool, cool. I’m definitely not still thinking about bugs. Definitely not. This entrant in our list is “truffle,” a fancy food so maybe that will… no, wait, truffles are found in the dirt and so are bugs. Please give me a moment to clear my mind. Well, I’m back. Maybe you assumed “truffle” would make this list. We’ve covered the extremely intense world of the truffle economy before, but it never ceases to amaze me how far people will go into the criminal depths for those little bulbs. In Provence, France, in 2005, a group of thieves raided a warehouse holding black truffle bulbs–they broke in at night and accessed the facility using the roof. It’s estimated that they made off with $100,000 worth of truffles. The thieves were never caught. Spanish Garlic In June 2012, Austrian police stopped three “overloaded and sagging vans” at the border between Austria and Hungary, before they were about to leave the country. The Austria Press Association notes that one officer said he knew “what the vans were carrying even before their doors were opened.” He remarked, “‘All three vehicles really stunk like garlic.'” And he was right. It was garlic… 9.5 tons of garlic, valuing approximately €30,000 ($37,500). The garlic came from Spain, originally, and the five men operating the vans, who were all Romanian, were held on suspicion of receiving stolen goods. Is it possible, though, that since they were bound for Hungary and Romania, that they were just really determined to protect themselves against vampires? It’s like diethyltoluamide for the undead! Bordeaux Grapes It’s wine o’clock! In September of 2017, a group of thieves stolen seven metric tons of Bordeaux grapes! Apparently, that summer, the grape harvest had been terrible, with weather conditions killing the majority of the crops in the region. It was predicted that the few grapes that did survive would yield an especially delicious vintage, and thieves broke into a vineyard at vineyard in Génissac, near St-Émilion, and picked all the grapes from their vines (6.5 tons). They also broke into a vineyard near Montagne, and dug up 500 grapevines and took them along, too. It is suspected that these thieves were professionals (vintners, not thieves, but they were good at that too), because who else honestly would know how to churn out impeccable wine from all of that? Beanie Babies Would a list like this be complete without something truly deranged? Bring out the Beanie Babies! In 1997, the toy manufacturer Ty reported that 60,000 Beanie Babies had been stolen from their warehouse in Westmont, Illinois. The total amount of the haul? $300,000. Police Officers from the Carol Stream Police Department found 1,000 of the stolen (what do you call them? Stuffed animals? The original Associated Press copy calls them “dolls,” which feels absurd) toys in a storage unit belonging to a senior citizen. He explained that he had purchased a lot of 1200 at a flea market, and had been excited to resell them. He was arrested, but subsequently acquitted. View the full article
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