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  1. It was close to midnight in Manhattan and they were still waiting in the van. Ford, short and wiry, was behind the wheel, while Neuland—bulkier and a foot taller—slouched in his seat trying to keep his head from hitting the ceiling of the van. They were dressed all in black and had black balaclavas on their faces so that the only things visible were their eyes—and someone would have to look carefully to see them. They’d been parked at the edge of the alley since twilight and both men had long since grown bored. Still they waited, their rifles propped against their legs. Their employer—Mr. Garrick—hadn’t given them a description of their target, just the bare outline of what was supposed to happen and how they were supposed to stop it. It was annoying. They didn’t work that way normally, but Garrick promised to pay them double their normal fee, so they went along with his nonsense. “Do you think that’s them?” said Neuland. A few yards ahead of them in the alley, a well-dressed man and a haggard woman appeared to be negotiating some kind of deal. Ford watched through what resembled a pair of binoculars, but the tubes were carved from a yew tree and the lenses were the shaved corneas from the eyes of thirteen hanged men. “It’s not them,” said Ford. “From the look of them, the girl’s got pills or party potions and the guy’s a tourist who doesn’t know how to haggle. Besides, they’re both dodos.” Dodo was what Ford occasionally—and many others routinely—called the undead. It bothered Neuland, who was also undead. “Please don’t use that word. It’s demeaning,” Neuland said. “And it makes you sound like a hick.” “Sorry.” “We prefer Marcheur.” “You’re right. I’m tired and didn’t think.” “It’s all right.” “No. It was rude and I’m sorry.” “You can’t help how you were raised.” “But you’re my partner and I should be more considerate.” “Apology accepted,” said Neuland. “Now, are we going to shoot either of those two or not?” “No. The deal is supposed to be someone alive selling something to a Marcheur. That lets these two off the hook.” “Maybe. Let’s keep an eye on them. One of them could still be involved.” The van felt cramped after all this time, and they’d finished the coffee hours ago. Ford wanted a smoke, but didn’t dare light up where the cherry-red end of the cigarette could be spotted. So, they waited in silence. The dealer and the tourist finished their business, and the tourist went into the rear of a bodega while the woman remained in the alley. She checked her watch several times. “You’re right,” said Ford. “She’s part of the deal.” “Nervous?” “Impatient. I mean, look at her twitch. It won’t be long now.” “I hope you’re right.” They sat quietly for a few minutes before Ford said, “Really, man, I’m sorry about the dodo thing.” “I told you it’s all right.” “Thank you.” “You’re welcome, and also, you should look out the window. This might be it.” Ford sat up as a young woman approached the Marcheur. The woman was in a purple velvet dress and had straight black hair that hung down to her waist. He scanned the two women through his special binoculars. “You’re right,” he said. “The one in the velvet dress is alive. But I don’t like it.” “Me neither. Garrick didn’t say the target was a woman. Just dressed in velvet, right?” “That’s right.” Neuland shook his head. “I don’t shoot women.” Ford looked at him. “We’ve both shot women.” “Really evil ones. Like Elsbeth Bathory evil. Not some little thing in a party dress.” “Let’s keep watching. Maybe she’s the right kind for shooting.” For the first time, the nature of the assignment weighed down on Neuland. He didn’t like the situation one bit, but he knew that if this was indeed their target, he’d have to take the shot. It was his job to kill the living. Ford killed the dead. Neuland said, “Please tell me they’re plotting something nefarious.” “Shit,” said Ford. “Shit.” “What?” He didn’t like the tone of Ford’s voice. “There’s something else. The party dress?” “Yes?” “She’s pregnant.” Neuland reached out and took the binoculars. The haggard undead woman’s aura was a grayish purple while the young woman’s was a bright purple. “What the hell is this?” said Neuland. “If she’s selling her kid, I sure as hell will shoot her.” “Yeah, Sir Galahad? And kill the kid too? I’m going to keep watching. I want to know exactly what’s going on.” Neuland was mad now. He knew his distaste for shooting women was hypocritical since they were every bit as capable of evil as men. Worse, not wanting to shoot a mother was the rankest kind of sentimentality. He didn’t like having strong emotional responses to these situations. Strong emotions were for the living, like Ford. He could fly into a rage at a moment’s notice and it accomplished nothing. The undead were supposed to be above such things, but here he was. Fretting about some stranger selling what, rationally, was hers to sell. Another moment passed and Ford said, “A necklace.” “Not the kid?” “Not the kid.” “What kind of necklace?” “Expensive looking. Earrings too. Some bracelets. All gold. All nice-looking stuff.” “Let me see,” said Neuland, and Ford handed him the binoculars. He was right, the undead woman was examining a pile of jewelry in a decorated wooden box that the young woman held out. Neuland handed the binoculars back to Ford and said, “You know what this means.” “Of course.” “It might cost us our fee.” “There’s no helping that.” “I guess not.” Ford started the van and they drove to Mr. Garrick’s office, where they’d arranged to meet after the hit. They let themselves into the building with a key Garrick had given them and rode the elevator to the penthouse level of the old office building. Neuland was out of the elevator first and didn’t bother knocking on Garrick’s office door before going in. Garrick, sixtyish and in a sharply tailored suit, looked up in surprise. He smiled at the men. “That was quick,” he said. “You boys are every bit as efficient as they say.” The two men came in and Neuland stood very close to Garrick’s desk so he could loom over the man. They’d left their rifles in the van. “Efficient,” said Neuland. “That’s because we can read a scene and know what’s happening, even from a distance.” “It’s what keeps me alive and my partner in one piece,” said Ford. “We read the scene tonight, Mr. Garrick.” “And we didn’t like it.” Garrick scowled at the men. “What’s it your business to like or not like a particular killing? I hired you to do a job. Did you do it or not?” “No,” said Ford. “You see, the target was pregnant.” “What difference does that make?” said Garrick. “She was selling her personal jewelry,” said Ford. “It was in a silly little box. Something cheap and gaudy. The kind someone young like her would love.” “And?” said Garrick. “It was very expensive jewelry,” said Neuland. “Much too expensive for her, considering the quality of her dress. The jewelry might have been hers, but she didn’t buy it.” “They were a gift,” said Ford. “From you,” said Neuland. Garrick sat back in his big leather office chair. “What the hell are you talking about? I hired you as killers, not psychics.” “There’s nothing psychic about it,” said Ford. “It’s like we said, about being able to read a scene. You see, a young woman selling jewelry like that—jewelry she couldn’t possibly afford—can only mean one thing.” “And what’s that?” said Garrick snidely. “That she’s using her rich lover’s gifts to her to finance an escape,” said Ford. “From the lover,” said Neuland. “You hired us to kill her because you got her pregnant, and that’s an inconvenience. She was smart enough to know that something was up and was buying a ticket out of town.” Garrick slammed his hands on his desk and stood up. “Don’t get high and mighty with me, boys. You’re murderers. Not priests. And you don’t get a cent until the bitch is dead.” Ford and Neuland looked at each other. “I think you should explain it to him,” said Ford. “Obviously,” said Neuland as he took a Sig Sauer P220 pistol from his jacket and emptied the entire clip of .45 rounds into Garrick’s body. The man slammed to the floor, his blood splashing onto the desk and the curtains and the window behind him. The moment his partner was finished, Ford began going through the drawers in Garrick’s desk looking for money. Neuland went through Garrick’s pockets. “Anything?” said Ford. Neuland shook his head. “Two thousand in cash in his wallet, but that’s it.” “Damn. Well, let’s take it and go. We need to leave town.” “Not yet,” said Neuland. “I don’t think we’re done. Garrick is the kind of guy to have an insurance policy.” Ford stopped. “You’re probably right.” “We’ll know soon.” A minute passed before Garrick’s corpse began to twitch. His limbs convulsed and his eyes fluttered open and shut. His shoulders spasmed and his teeth chattered as if he was cold. Then he stopped, grabbed his desk chair, and dragged himself to his feet. Erect, he looked at Ford and Neuland and said, “You’re both dead men.” “No. I’m the dead one,” said Neuland. “And I kill the dead,” said Ford, pulling his own pistol. He shot Garrick between the eyes with one of his special cold iron bullets and the man fell back to the floor. The killers left, knowing he wouldn’t get up again. “So, where are we going?” said Neuland. “We can’t stay in New York.” “Europe?” “I don’t like flying and I hate ships even more.” “We could drive to Montreal. Bigsby is always offering us jobs,” said Ford. “Too cold. My joints get stiff.” Ford said, “Right. So where?” Neuland thought for a moment. “West. As far west as we can go.” “Like cowboys.” “Sure. Like cowboys.” “Goddamn Garrick,” said Ford. “Lousy dodo,” said Neuland. Ford looked at him. Neuland laughed, then so did Ford. He said, “I’ll get us train tickets.” From THE PALE HOUSE DEVIL by Richard Kadrey, forthcoming from Titan Books on October 3. Copyright ©2023 by Richard Kadrey. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Titan Books. View the full article
  2. For most of my life, I took quiet to mean a kind of shortcoming. I had heard it used too many times as a description of how others saw me. But then I realized that in the work of writers I love deeply are many kinds of quiets—those of catharsis, of subversiveness, of gaping loss or simple, sensual joy. I came to think of quiet not as an adjective or verb or noun, but as a kind of technique. The books I chose for the syllabus below expand how we think about black expression, intimacy, interiority, and agency; about black quietude. I began with the work of Kevin Quashie, whose voice, like a tuning fork, set a tone for my reading of other books. For the nonfiction books on this list, I looked for thinkers who are deeply attentive to the everyday. For fiction and poetry, I selected writers who allow us to glimpse more clearly our own selfhoods via the unknowability of others. In all cases, these are books that are richer for asking us to listen more deeply. We might return from each one dazzled, dazed even, but always with renewed, sharpened perception. Kevin Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture Elizabeth Alexander, The Black Interior Toni Morrison, Sula Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha Natasha Brown, Assembly Christina Sharpe, Ordinary Notes Margo Jefferson, Constructing a Nervous System Robin Coste Lewis, To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness Lucille Clifton, Generations Dionne Brand, The Blue Clerk Grace Nichols, Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman and Other Poems M. NourbeSe Philip, She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks Kathleen Collins, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God Victoria Adukwei Bulley is a poet, a writer, and an artist. She is an alumna of the Barbican Young Poets and recipient of an Eric Gregory Award. Quiet, her debut poetry collection, is a finalist for the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Rathbones/Folio award. It will be published by Alfred A. Knopf this month. View the full article
  3. In his introduction to the Black Lizard edition of Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues, Elmore Leonard writes that neither he or Willeford wanted to be stuck with the good guy’s point of view. “We both saw Harry Dean Stanton as our hero,” he said. When I lived in Los Angeles, I haunted the bar at Dan Tana’s because I heard Harry Dean Stanton haunted the bar at Dan Tana’s. I spent a couple foggy closing times in his company, drinking tequila, smoking American Spirits, and singing Irish songs. Later, when I started writing about the burned-out Van Nuys bail bondsman who became the hero of my first novel Zig Zag, I always pictured Harry Dean. Across a hundred or so movies, Harry was rarely the lead, but he was always a high point. Spaceship mechanic, Christmas angel, FBI agent, Paul the Apostle, Rip Van Winkle, Molly Ringwald’s dad. Plug him in anywhere and he works. On the surface, he could appear disinterested, ornery, hungover. Unwinding the cellophane on the day’s second pack, he did baby-I-don’t-care better than Robert Mitchum. But in all the drunks and lowlifes he portrayed, even in the cruel characters of The Rose or Big Love, his humanity always blazed through. It was right there on his face all the time. He looked like a fugitive saint. With his hangdog mug and laconic fatalism, Harry was born to be in westerns—from early saddle and spurs roles on Rawhide and The Rifleman to wild riffs on the genre like Ride In The Whirlwind, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, Rancho Deluxe, and Cry For Me, Billy. But when you go down the rogue’s gallery of characters in the rap sheet of his filmography, you’ll find many who could float their own crime novels. Here are some of my favorites. Low-Rent Detective Billy Rolfe, Farewell, My Lovely; Ernie Fontenot, Playback; Johnnie Farragut, Wild At Heart; Rudy Junkins, Christine Talking about noir, Farewell, My Lovely is as good a place to start as any. When Harry’s shifty department hack comes knocking, Mitchum’s Marlowe takes one look at him and says, “I have the feeling I should be slipping him a fin or something.” A small role, but Harry’s authentic performance is part of what makes this 1975 Dick Richards picture one of the best Raymond Chandler screen adaptations. Only the most morally bankrupt Harry Dean completist need seek out Playback (it’s on YouTube), but even in this softcore Playboy production starring Tawny Kitaen and an extremely oily George Hamilton, you completely believe Harry as the cheap snoop digging up divorce dirt. For Harry as P.I., you’re better off with Wild At Heart, David Lynch’s film of the great Barry Gifford novel. His Johnnie Farragut has a wide range—from down and out to completely out there—best represented in the famous scene of him barking like a dog in a motel room with a brandy snifter on the nightstand. In John Carpenter’s version of Stephen King’s Christine, Harry has a Columbo quality as Detective Rudy Junkins. Maybe that’s why Carpenter pitched him the idea of doing a TV detective series. He mentioned it in interviews a lot, how it would have brought him more fame, money, and women, but he turned it down for a purely Harry Dean reason: “Too much work.” Deadbeat Dognapper Philo Skinner, The Black Marble Based on a Joseph Wambaugh novel, this is an odd entry even for the Harry Dean canon. Philo “The Terrier King” Skinner kidnaps a high-end show dog to cover his gambling losses. Chain-smoking Camel straights, he calls in desperate ransom demands from gin mill payphones and is eventually found out by a bloodshot boozehound of a cop who chases him through a kennel in the bonkers climax. A self-described “mangy man” in white shoes, a white belt, and a rayon shirt open to the navel, Philo may be the sleaziest character in Harry’s repertoire, planted on a barstool right between Moe from One From The Heart and Billy from Rafferty And The Gold Dust Twins. Bank Robber Homer Van Meter, Dillinger; Jerry Schue, Straight Time Dillinger doesn’t occupy the same space in my heart as their other team-ups in 92 In The Shade, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Cockfighter, but it’s always a deep pleasure to see Harry Dean and his Kentucky compatriot Warren Oates share the screen. Especially when they’re knocking over banks. After Dillinger, it’s only a few years until Harry’s back in hold-up mode in Straight Time. Loafing poolside with a platter of cheeseburgers and a doting wife, Jerry Schue has traded in his ski mask and shotgun for a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops—and he’s miserable. Soon as Dustin Hoffman’s Max Dembo hints at a robbery job, Jerry jumps at the bait with Harry’s immortal delivery of the line, “I don’t give a damn what it is, let’s do it…What is it?” That’s when you know everything’s about to go very bad. Repo Man Bud, Repo Man; C.W. Douglas, Flatbed Annie and Sweetiepie: Lady Truckers Most of you have probably seen Repo Man. Some of you may be able to recite the Repo Code. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to find Harry’s first run at the repo racket in Flatbed Annie and Sweetiepie, a 1979 TV movie starring Annie Potts and Kim Darby. In the grand tradition of 70s trucker pictures, this is a shaggy, freewheeling affair. It concerns an 18-wheeler hauling cocaine with some interested parties in hot pursuit. Harry’s repo man looks like an emaciated Boss Hogg with his western suit and longhorn hood ornament—but he’s damn determined to get that rig. Also featuring Fred Willard, which is never a bad thing. Shady Faith Healer Who Moves Stolen Cars Brother Bud, UFOria (1986) This movie starts strong with Fred Ward drinking from an open container in an open convertible. When he reunites with Harry Dean’s conman preacher, things really take a turn for the weird. A lot of the charm of this underrated gem is in Harry’s boozy chemistry with Ward, which recalls the dynamic he had with Warren Oates. Brother Bud’s philosophy is, “Everybody ought to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another drink.” Sounds a lot like the guy holding court at Dan Tana’s twenty-five years later, who was fond of saying, “We’re all gonna live forever. But I’m gonna outlive all you motherfuckers.” Nowheresville Loner Travis Henderson, Paris, Texas; Old Man, Fool For Love; Carl Rodd, Twin Peaks: Firewalk With Me/The Return; Lyle Straight, The Straight Story; Floyd Cage, The Pledge; Lucky, Lucky Harry Dean created his own distinct version of the American loner archetype. A Zen cowboy. A man out of time. Starting with his defining role in Paris, Texas, written for him by Sam Shepard, you could argue many characters that followed are versions of Travis. Still on the drift, discovering again and again that all roads lead to nowhere. In Robert Altman’s adaptation of Shepard’s Fool For Love, Harry’s character, known only as the Old Man, is ensconced in a junkyard trailer behind the neon mirage of the El Royale Motel, fantasizing about Barbara Mandrell. For Firewalk With Me, the loner decamps for the Fat Trout Trailer Park and a cup of Good Morning America in a plaid bathrobe. Then David Lynch drops him on the porch of a dilapidated shack for the haymaker final scene of The Straight Story. Come 2001, he shows up in The Pledge, operating a remote gas station outside Reno. When Jack Nicholson presents a turnkey offer, Harry wastes no time packing his fishing rod and hitting the road, eventually making his way back to the Fat Trout Trailer Park for an encore performance of “Red River Valley” in Twin Peaks: The Return. The loner finally comes to the end of the trail, as Harry does, in the desert town in Lucky, his small, perfect swan song. *** View the full article
  4. Another week, another batch of books for your TBR pile. Happy reading, folks. * Jonathan Kellerman, Unnatural History (Ballantine) “This is Kellerman at his very best. Just the dialogue between Sturgis and Delaware is worth it. But also, the depiction of Los Angeles is always the star.” –Mystery & Suspense magazine Kwei Quartey, Last Seen in Lapaz (Soho) “Quartey once again finds piercing social pain beneath what looks like a routine case.” –Kirkus Reviews Deborah Crombie, A Killing of Innocents (William Morrow) “Crombie is as skilled as Louise Penny or J.D. Robb in developing characters while entwining personal lives with riveting police investigations. With four years since A Bitter Feast, the previous book in the series, the author’s fans will be eager to catch up with her characters.” –Library Journal Stephen Graham Jones, Don’t Fear the Reaper (Gallery/Saga) “Horror fans [will] be blown away by this audacious extravaganza.” –Publishers Weekly Hank Phillippi Ryan, The House Guest (Forge) “Hank Phillippi Ryan is one of my favorite authors, and The House Guest proves why. This riveting novel twists and turns through the pageturning story…events turn shocking, with revelation after revelation in a thriller that never forgets to touch the heart.” –Lisa Scottoline Mike Lawson, Alligator Alley (Atlantic Monthly Press) “Assured prose matches the two capable protagonists: the crafty DeMarco and the relentless, brilliant Emma. This is perhaps Lawson’s best in the series to date.” –Publishers Weekly Mariana Enriquez (transl. Megan McDowell, illus. Pablo Gerardo Camacho), Our Share of Night (Hogarth) “An ailing medium who can connect with the dead tries to protect his son from an insatiable darkness. . . . Monumental.” The New York Times John Higgs, Love and Let Die: James Bond, The Beatles, and The British Psyche (Pegasus) “Higgs builds his case around evocative profiles of the Beatles and their fandom and of Bond’s evolving persona and his real-life alter-egos. The result is a thoughtful romp through pop culture that’s full of fresh ideas and sharp connections.” –Publishers Weekly Katrine Engberg, The Sanctuary (Gallery/Scout) “The iden­tity of the culprit is an enormous surprise, but more surprising still is the closure Engberg brings to long-running storylines, resulting in a very poignant moment for fans of the series in addition to a satisfy­ing solution to the central mystery.” –BookPage Anastasia Hastings, Of Manners and Murder (Minotaur) “Funny at times, this series debut is also an adventurous and thoughtful look at a time when women’s lives were on the brink of change. And it’s a puzzling whodunit to boot.” –First Clue View the full article
  5. São Paulo – the most populous city in Brazil; the largest Portuguese speaking city in the world; arguably the fourth largest metropolitan area in the world and a major financial, corporate, and commercial centre for the country. And also a melting pot city – Arabs, Italians, Portuguese, Jews from all over Europe, and Japanese among others have all made São Paulo home and have added to its distinctive feel. It’s a city of skyscrapers, buzzing helicopters, traffic jams, a serious soccer addiction, and the massive energy of the Paulistanos, as the locals are known. São Paulo crime fiction is invariably tough, hard boiled and accentuates the problems within Brazilian society and its justice system. A really good place to start delving into São Paulo crime writing is Joe Thomas’s São Paulo Quartet – Paradise City (2016), Gringa (2018), Playboy (2019), and Brazilian Psycho (2021). Thomas is English but moved to São Paulo and fell in love with the place – the distinctive (shall we say!) smell of the Tietê River, the miles of anonymous urban sprawl in all directions, the heat. And, though the traffic and crime are terrible, Thomas found an energy that excited him. The first book in the series, Paradise City, is named after the Paraisópolis favela, an incredible physical symbol to the huge gulf between rich and poor in the city. According to Thomas, crime in São Paulo is run by a gang called PCC – from jail. He told The Guardian, ‘On the weekend before the World Cup in 2006, they demanded wide screen TVs to watch the game. When the authorities refused they said they’d cause chaos across the city – and they did for three days.’ The Quartet is not just a series of great crime novels but a way to learn the ins and outs of São Paulo from favela etiquette to why, if you ever visit, you need to eat a pastel – a deep-fried pastry with a cheese or meat filling which you’ll find at stalls everywhere. For a slightly earlier era in São Paulo, Leighton Gage is a good source. Gage, who died in 2013, split his time between split time between his home in Santana do Parnaiba, a village near São Paolo, and Florida. His time in Brazil inspired the Chief Inspector Mario Silva Investigations series reflecting the twenty years he lived in Brazil and his love of the local culture. There are seven books in the procedural series starting with Blood of the Wicked (2008). Chief Inspector Mario Silva of Brazil’s Federal Police is a good cop in a bad system. Silva, and his partner “Baby Face” Gonçalves, are forced to work within a justice system is rife with corruption. Book two in the series, Buried Strangers (2009), is Gage’s book most rooted in São Paulo. A skeleton is found in the woods on the outskirts of the city and Silva is summoned from his base in the capital, Brasilia, to unravel the web of politics and corruption in São Paulo. The series moves location from books to book, both urban settings and some investigations that take Silva into the Amazon jungle. All are well worth reading and cover such contemporary issues as pornography, organ theft, underage prostitution and the illegal destruction of the rain forest. Writing crime books seems to attract many from other walks of celebrity life – Gypsy Rose Lee, Anthony Bourdain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and various others… and so too the Brazilian musician and lead guitarist with Brazilian mega-rock band Titãs (who have released twenty albums and sold over six million records to date), Antonio Bellotto. Bellotto is São Paulo born and bred. He set his heart on becoming a guitarist in the mould of Hendrix or Clapton, but he also loved books. His first book, Bellini and the Sphinx (1994), features a detective who living in the São Paulo suburbs. It was a big success and later inspired a Brazilian movie. Bellini and the Sphinx finally got translated into English in 2019 and was praised by everyone including CrimeReads and the Chicago Review of Books. Several other books in the series, including the follow up to Bellini and the Sphinx, Bellini and the Devil (1997), Bellini and the Spirits (2005) and, Bellini and the Labyrinth (2014) are yet to be translated into English. Bellotto, who also is the long-running host of a popular television program focused on literature and music, Afinando a língua, has also gone on to edit São Paulo Noir (2018), for the consistently excellent Akashic Noir series which features writing by Bellotto as well as many other local Brazilian authors not much translated unfortunately – Olivia Maia, Marcelino Freire, Beatriz Bracher & Maria S. Carvalhosa, Fernando Bonassi, Marcelo Rubens Paiva, Marçal Aquino, Jô Soares, Mario Prata, Ferréz, Vanessa Barbara, Ilana Casoy, and Drauzio Varella. In his introduction to the book Bellotto notes that São Paulo includes a district known as Cracolândia (Crackland) and that among the violent and neglected communities spread along its periphery, one bears the ironic name Paraisópolis (Paradise City). Among these writers only Bellotto and Jô Soares have made it into English sadly. Soares’s Twelve Fingers: Biography of an Anarchist (2001) is a wild ride featuring Dimitri Borja Korozec, born in the late 1800s to a Brazilian contortionist mother and a fanatically nationalist Serbian linotypist father. Korozec is a Zelig-like character throughout the early twentieth century, and an assassin, who interacts with (among others!) Mata Hari, Al Capone, Carmen Miranda, Marie Curie, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, George Raft, and even the old English occultist Aleister Crowley. It’s not really crime, it’s not really fact or fiction…but it is fun. I feel it’s also worth mentioning a couple of non-fiction books that explore the underbelly of São Paulo. Gabriel Feltran is an ethnographer deeply immersed in the city. His study The Entangled City: Crime as Urban Fabric (2020) in São Paulo looks at many elements of the city’s criminal world including illegal markets, union busting, drug dealing and car theft. He studies the clash between the everyday the young black men of the favelas São Paulo’s white middle classes. Equally interesting is Teresa PR Caldeira’s City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo (2001). Caldeira examines the patterns and the dynamics of São Paulo crime by comparing the city to Los Angeles and other large global metropolises. And finally, as usual a book that does not perhaps neatly fit the crime fiction genre but is revealing of the city and contains insights into the inner, and often murky, workings of the place. In São Paulo’s case a good example is James Scudamore’s Heliopolis, long listed for the Booker Prize in 2009. It’s a rambling but insightful tale of the city – As a child Ludo is plucked out of the São Paulo shantytown where he is born and transported to a world of languid, cosseted luxury. At twenty-seven he finds himself working high above the sprawling metropolis for a vacuous ‘communications company’. But this is not his world, and this is not a simple rags-to-riches story: Ludo’s destiny moves him around like a chess piece, showing him both extremities of opulent excess and abject poverty, taking him to the brink of madness and brutality. Heliopolis, as much as Joe Thomas’s Paradise City, or pretty much all the other books on this list stress the extremes of São Paulo – rich and poor, black and white, lucky and unlucky, honest and corrupt. View the full article
  6. meth·od act·ing /ˈmeTHəd aktiNG/ noun a technique of acting in which an actor aspires to complete emotional identification with a part, based on the system evolved by Stanislavsky and brought into prominence in the US in the 1930s. Method acting was developed in institutions such as the Actors’ Studio in New York City, notably by Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg, and is particularly associated with actors such as Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman. I didn’t start out aspiring to be a novelist and I came to it later than many. I was in my late thirties, the creative director of a NYC ad agency when I started writing screenplays. When one was stolen and produced, I learned how powerful Hollywood studios were and how expensive it would be to sue. My literary lawyer told me that if I wanted any control I needed to move to LA and really get involved in the business. But I wanted to stay in New York. “Writers in New York,” he said, “write novels.” And so it began. I had been an avid reader and always imagined writing a novel one day but the stolen screenplay was all the impetus I needed. Except I had no idea how to write a novel. I’d been working on screenplays with a writing partner whereas a novel was a solitary effort. Screenplays are spare in exactly the way novels are complex. Screenplays are all direction and dialog. Novels can be interior. One of the biggest differences between the two is that when you write a screenplay, you leave a lot out about the character in order to give the actors room to bring their art to the party. Not true with novels. After a dozen aborted attempts and reading too many “how to write a novel” books, I decided that I needed to know my characters in a much more intimate way than I was used to. Character development had never been my strength in the screenwriting process. That was my writing partner’s forte. Mine was description and plot. But here I was on my own. I had to figure it out. So, I turned something I knew about from the film world— the idea of method acting. I figured if the process helped actors inhabit their characters in deep and meaningful ways in order to bring them to life, then that’s what I’d do. After all, I was bringing them to life too, wasn’t I? Unlike Robert DeNiro, who gained 60 pounds to emulate Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, I’ve never gained weight to help me create a character. (Well, maybe a few extra pounds eating croissants for breakfast like one of my characters.) But I have done some rather unusual things. I studied phone sex with a sex worker who arranged for me to speak to one of her clients so I would understand how my characters would feel as a phone sex operator. I spent two months with a trans-life therapist to understand what it’s like to discover your past lives like one of my characters. I got a job as a perfumer’s assistant to understand how to create perfumes. Part of this method-writing that I do for every novel involves other aspects of my characters’ lives besides just their jobs. I listen to the music they listen to, I read the books they read and eat the food they eat. I also dress like my characters while I am creating them and need a talisman—something that belonged to my character—a touchstone if you will—to connect me to my imaginary friend on a very deep level. For The Secret Language of Stones I found a WW1 trench watch and never took it off. For The Library of Light and Shadow it was a piece of sea glass that my main character had found when she was a little girl. For The Seduction of Victor H., a fountain pen that I had to dip into ink to use, the same way my character did. For my latest book, finding that talisman came with a new complication. The main character in The Jeweler of Stolen Dreams is Suzanne Belperron. She was born in a tiny town in France 1900 and died in Paris in 1983, in between she created some of the most original and iconic jewelry of all time. “Her designs are so singular—bold, playful, anti-ornamental—that they tend to strip away one’s assumptions about jewelry in the latter half of the 20th century, if not in the period before World War II. Her effect was nearly that of Coco Chanel in fashion; Belperron’s sculptural shapes anticipated modern design and, like Chanel, she showed that high style could come from unfancy elements,” writes Cathy Horne in The New York Times. Despite being such an important designer, there are no autobiographies about Mme. Belperron. Her letters have never been published. If there are still people alive who knew her well enough to speak to me about her, I couldn’t find them. And while all of her more than 90 journals exist, the strict privacy laws in France, prevented me from learning anything more than I could find from the two coffee tables about her work. During her life Mme. was intensely private. She wanted her jewelry to glitter and shine. Not her. She gave few interviews and is described as being enigmatic. But in order to write about her, I had to inhabit her. But how do you find someone who wanted to remain hidden behind her gemstones. After months of sleuthing, I stumbled on a 1940s women’s magazine article focusing not just on the designer but the woman, she was. It listed what nail polish, eyes makeup and lipstick she wore. Scouring the internet I found all those products were still made. I ordered them and used them the whole time I was writing. I learned she favored minimalist clothes, mostly black—to show off her jewelry. That one was the only easy one—I pretty much only were black. (IYKYK- it’s a native New Yorker thing.) In a photo of her that accompanied the article, I was able to zero in on the shape of her fingernails and fashioned mine to match. The reporter wrote that Mme. Belperron loved baths. (Sadly, she died from a scalding hot bathing accident). I gave up my showers and for months only took baths. Even with all those efforts, one thing was missing. I was writing about a famous jeweler who exclusively wore the jewelry she designed. I became convinced I had to have a piece of her jewelry to wear. That I wouldn’t “find” her without it. But there was a problem. Never mass-produced, Mme. Belperron’s pieces are extremely costly and hard to come by. During her life she sold only to an exclusive clientele. Of the few pieces I saw in my search, not one was less than five figures. Many were six figures. Unlike the mascara she used, I couldn’t find a Belperron piece of jewelry to buy on eBay and wear to get into character. Except I was convinced I’d never “find” Mme. Belperron well enough to write about her unless I could wear a piece of jewelry that she had created. And so I set out to borrow a piece from an art connoisseur I had met while doing my research. Easier said than done when you are dealing with pieces worth at least five figures. Ms. X.s collects jewelry, paintings and sculpture. Her apartment is an Ali Baba’s cave of treasures. I never thought she’d agree to what I was asking. But she was intrigued. There were a few complications and conditions. Her insurance company had to agree to the loan (they agreed but required she take out a rider) and I had to agree in writing that I would not wear the borrowed jewelry out of my home. For six months I wore a simple 22 carat gold “moi and toi” ring designed by Mme. Belperron, created under her auspices and sold by her to one of her best clients. I also borrowed and wore a brooch of carved rock crystal and sapphires. How do you know when you’ve gotten the character right? When do you stop trying to find them and put them into words? When do you stop questioning if readers will be able to imagine the flesh and blood person that you’ve put down on the page? I can never predict when it will happen. But usually after the first draft of a novel is done and I’m well into the second draft, there will be a time when I’ll realized that it’s time to step out of the character’s shoes and back into my own. Or in this case, there was a day when I was typing and saw Mme. Belperron’s ring on my finger and knew that I needed to take it off and put my more modest one back on. The ghost of the stunning, world class designer and enigmatic woman had helped me find her character and her story through her creations. It was finally time for me to let her go and finish mine. *** View the full article
  7. Rocking. Gentle at first. A lullaby. Rock-a-bye baby. Then harder. Rougher. Her head banged against glass. Her body rolled back the other way and she was falling. Onto the floor. Hard. “Ow. Shit.” Her heart spiked and her eyes shot open. “What the fuck?” She rubbed at her throbbing elbow and stared around. Her eyes felt like someone had rubbed grit into them. Her brain felt like wet sludge. You’ve fallen out of bed. But where? She sat up. Not a bed. A wooden bench. Running around the side of an oval-shaped room. A room that was moving from side to side. Outside, gray sky, swirling flakes of snow. Glass all around. Nausea swept over her. She fought it down. There were more people in here, sprawled on the wooden benches. Five of them. Bundled up in identical blue snowsuits. Like her, Meg realized. All of them here in this small, swaying room. Buffeted by the wind, snow caking the glass. This isn’t a room. Rooms don’t move, stupid. She pushed herself to her feet. Her legs felt shaky. Nausea bubbled again. Got to get a handle on that, she thought. There was nowhere to be sick. She walked unsteadily to one side of the room-that-was-not-a-room. She stared out of the glass, pressing her hands and nose against it like a child staring out at the first snow of Christmas. Below—way below—the snow-tipped forest. Above, a frenzy of flakes in a vast gray sky. “Fuck.” More rocking. The roar of the wind, muted by the thick glass all around, like a hungry animal contained behind bars. Fresh white splatters hit the glass, distorting her vision. But Meg had seen enough. A groan from behind her. Another of the blue-clad bodies was waking up, unfurling like an ungainly caterpillar. He or she—it was hard to tell with the hood on—sat up. The others were stirring now too. For one moment, Meg had an insane notion that when they turned their faces toward her they would be decomposed, living dead. The man—mid-thirties, heavy beard—stared at her blearily. He pushed back his hood and rubbed at his head, which was shorn to dark stubble. “What the fuck?” He looked around. “Where am I?” “You’re on a cable car.” “A what?” “Cable car. You know, a car that hangs on cables—” He stared at her aggressively. “I know what a cable car is. I want to know what the hell I’m doing on one.” Meg stared calmly back. “I don’t know. D’you remember getting here?” “No. You?” “No.” “The last thing I remember is . . .” His eyes widened. “Are you . . .are you going to the Retreat?” The Retreat. The deliberately ambiguous name made it sound like a health spa. But it didn’t imbue Meg with any feelings of well-being. On the contrary, it sent schisms of ice jittering down her spine. The Retreat. She didn’t reply. She looked back outside. “Right now, we’re not going anywhere.” They both stared into the gray void, more patches of snow obscuring the glass. A snowstorm. A bad one. “We’re stuck.” “Stuck? Did you say we’re stuck?” Meg turned. A woman stood behind her, around her own age. Red hair. Pinched features. Panic in her voice. Possibly a problem. Meg didn’t answer right away. She regarded the other people in the car. One was still curled up asleep, hood over his face. Some people could sleep through anything. The other two—a short, stout man with a mop of dark curls and an older, silver-haired man with glasses—were sitting up, stretching and looking around. They seemed dazed but calm. Good. “It looks that way,” she said to the woman. “Probably just a power outage.” “Power outage. Oh, great. Bloody marvelous.” “I’m sure the car will be moving again soon.” This from the bearded man. His previous aggression had dissipated. He offered the woman a small smile. “We’ll be fine.” A lie. Even if the car started moving, even if they reached their destination, they were not going to be fine. But lies were the grease that oiled daily life. The woman smiled back at the man. Comforted. Job done. “Did you say we’re on a cable car?” the older man asked. “I don’t remember anyone mentioning getting on a cable car.” “Does anyone remember anything?” Meg asked, looking around. They glanced at one another. “We were in our rooms.” “They brought some breakfast.” “Tasted like crap.” “Then . . . I must have fallen asleep again—” More confused looks. “No one remembers a thing after that?” Meg said. “Not till they woke up here?” They shook their heads. The bearded man exhaled slowly. “They drugged us.” “Don’t be ridiculous,” the red-haired woman said. “Why would they do that?” “Well, obviously so we wouldn’t know where we’re going, or how we got here,” the short man said. “I just I can’t believe they would do that.” Funny, Meg thought. Even now, after everything that had happened, people struggled to believe the things that “they” would do. But then, you can’t see the eye of the storm when you’re inside it. “Okay,” the bearded man said. “Seeing as we’re literally stuck here with time to kill, why don’t we introduce ourselves? I’m Sean.” “Meg,” said Meg. “Sarah,” the red-haired woman offered. “Karl.” The short man gave a small wave. “Max.” The older man smiled. “Good to meet you all.” “I guess we’re all here for the same reason, then?” Sean said. “We’re not supposed to talk about it,” Sarah said. “Well, I think it’s pretty safe to assume—” “To assume makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘you’ and ‘me.’ ” Meg stared at Sarah. “My boss used to say that.” “Really?” “Yeah. Used to annoy the fuck out of me.” Sarah’s lips pursed. Max broke in. “So, what do you…… I mean, what did you all do, before?” “I taught,” Sarah said. Quelle surprise, Meg thought. “I used to be a lawyer,” Max said. He held his hands up. “I know— sue me.” “I worked in bouncy castles,” Karl said. They looked at him. And burst into laughter. A sudden, nervous release. “Hey!” Karl looked affronted, but only mildly. “There’s good money in bouncy castles. At least, there used to be.” “What about you?” Meg asked Sean. “Me? Oh, this and that. I’ve had a few jobs.” A gust of wind caused the cable car to sway harder. “Oh God.” Sarah clutched at her neck. She wore a small silver crucifix. Meg wondered how many more reasons she could find to dislike the woman. “So we’re an eclectic bunch,” Max said. “And ‘ass’ or not, I assume we’re all heading to the Retreat?” Karl said, raising his bushy eyebrows. Slowly, one by one, they all nodded. “Volunteers?” More nods. Only two types of people went to places like the Retreat. Volunteers and those who had no choice. “So, is now the time to discuss our reasons?” Max said. “Or shall we save that for when we get there?” “If we get there,” Sarah said, looking at the steel cables above them nervously. Sean was eyeing the sleeping figure in the corner. “Do you think we should wake up Sleeping Beauty?” Meg frowned. Then she stood and walked over to the prone figure. She shook his shoulder gently. He rolled off the bench and hit the floor with a thud. Behind her, Sarah screamed. Meg suddenly realized two things. She knew this man. And he wasn’t asleep. He was dead. Excerpted from The Drift by C.J. Tudor. Copyright © 2023 by Betty & Betty Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. View the full article
  8. Gianna Theodore in Kyle Abraham’s Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song. Over the past year I have read and reread Angelica Nuzzo’s book Approaching Hegel’s Logic, Obliquely, in which Nuzzo guides the reader through Hegel’s Science of Logic. Nuzzo presents the question of how we are to think about history as it unfolds amid chaos and relentless crises. How, in other words, are we to find a means to think outside the incessant whirr of our times? The answer she provides is one I find wholly satisfactory: it is through the work of Hegel that we are best able to think about and think through the current state of the world, precisely because his work is itself an exploration of thinking—particularly Science of Logic, as Nuzzo eloquently explains: Hegel’s dialectic-speculative logic is the only one that aims at—and succeeds in—accounting for the dynamic of real processes: natural, psychological but also social, political, and historical processes. It is a logic that attempts to think of change and transformation in their dynamic flux not by fixating movement in abstract static descriptions but by performing movement itself. By tracking the movement of the mind, a movement that is incessant and fluid, we are best equipped to study the crises of our time as they occur. In particular, we are best able to examine and analyze the structure of capitalism itself, a structure which is formed by exchange value and is thus a system of infinite repetition and reproduction. A system of infinite plasticity—appropriating everything it comes in contact with. A system, in other words, akin to that of the mind. Hegel does not merely explain how the mind works but enacts its very movement. He places us in the center of its whirr. —Cynthia Cruz, author of “Charity Balls” For the past few months, I’ve been reading novels about white women settlers in colonial and post-independent Africa. Many of the protagonists I’ve encountered are coming of age; their journeys are heroes’ journeys, culminating in a coupling that enshrines, perhaps paradoxically, their so-called independence, a process that is almost always set against an independence movement, whether a successful or an ongoing one. In Nadine Gordimer’s The Late Bourgeois World, published in 1966 and set during apartheid, Liz Van Den Sandt is already divorced. Her ex-husband, a militant communist who has disavowed his Boer upbringing, has just drowned himself. She feels no sympathy for him, although she is convinced that his tactics (acting as a rogue bomber, and then as an informant once he was caught) were righteous: “he went after the right things, even if perhaps it was the wrong way,” she tells their son, who is completely undisturbed by the news of his father’s death. “If he failed, well, that’s better than making no attempt.” But Liz herself seems without conviction altogether: having left political life, she has now taken as her part-time lover a man with good taste and no political conscience. Nevertheless, she feels herself distinct from the consumer-driven white women around her, “the good citizens who never had any doubt about where their allegiance lay.” When she is asked by a former black political ally (another sometimes lover) to take a potentially risky action, she can see no reason not to. And yet she hesitates and finds excuses, seeing in her ally’s pleas only what she imagines he projects onto her. I don’t know if I liked or disliked the book. Some parts I found pleasurable, and other parts painful and intolerable. But as a data point, I found its cynical literalism intriguing. “A sympathetic white woman hasn’t got anything to offer,” she muses, “except the footing she keeps in the good old white Reserve of banks and privileges.” In exchange, all she can hope for is the possibility of sex, “this time or next time.” —Maya Binyam, contributing editor Recently, I’ve been obsessed with a video recording of a performance I saw last April at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston: three works by the choreographer Kyle Abraham, among them the haunting Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song. Abraham has become well-known for large-scale collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, and Sufjan Stevens. But Love Song is understated: it’s a curation of solos, duos, and trios set to Nina Simone, each of them a private moment or choreographic journal entry. The dance makes me want to move and groove, while also rooting me to the spot, so arresting is its beauty. In a solo set to Simone’s “Little Girl Blue,” Gianna Theodore coils her way across the space in a sequence of delicate and acrobatic floor work. In a kind of silent break dance, she lays her whole body weight into the ground only to spring back up in time with the music. “Why won’t somebody send a tender blue boy,” Simone sings, as Theodore moves effortlessly between crouching and standing, “to cheer up little girl blue.” In the video, Theodore appears against a shocking yellow-and-white tile wall wearing a simple navy dress. Though the close-up shots elide some of her larger movements, they also draw me close to her private sensations and memories. Watching Theodore’s blue dress trail on the ground, her hands checking the hem as she kneels, I encounter my own sense memories: the silhouette of my grandmother, dancer-thin behind a cloud of cigarette smoke, humming along to Nina Simone. To see Abraham’s work performed by his company, A.I.M., is a particular treat, so fluent the dancers are in his physical language. You can catch them performing Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song in New York at the Joyce Theater April 4–9. —Elinor Hitt, reader View the full article
  9. Authors writing spy thrillers, or crime novels laced with espionage, often hook readers with declassified intelligence. By our nature, we want things we can’t have; we want to place our eyes on what we’re not allowed to see. To be sure, information governments once classified in the name of national security is by its nature sexy and provocative. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s role in the study of UFOs, for instance, is catnip for any generation. Declassified information is forbidden fruit that’s fallen off the tree, now ripe for eating. What once was a nation’s crown jewel lies on the ground—abandoned and discarded—beckoning like that glowing green crystal in Superman. (Of course, I’m referring to declassified information rather than the pure product. Criminal and civil penalties exist for those who unlawfully obtain, handle, or disseminate classified information.) Sources for tantalizing declassified information vary, but treasure troves exist at the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) and through investigative reporting. In the past, much of the investigative reporting stemmed from major newspapers; namely, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Today, however, online publications provide juicy nuggets of intel. Beyond the CIA’s interest in UFOs, noteworthy examples of historic declassified treasures include the Watergate scandal, the Pentagon Papers, and the Bay of Pigs. In the last few decades, NARA has released interesting material from the Cold War era, including most of Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Papers, and in the coming months and years it will unveil new records concerning the Global War on Terrorism. Earlier this month, NARA declassified an additional tranche of records concerning President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. This document dump likely piqued the interest of Stephen King, who studied the Warren Report and related NARA disclosures before writing 11/22/63, a thriller where the protagonist travels back in time to prevent Kennedy’s assassination. What’s more, Tom Clancy based most of his novels on declassified information. In fact, his material was so provocative that many accused him of exposing classified information. (The bigger the controversy, the larger the book sales.) And Brad Meltzer obviously spends considerable time researching the historical archives to find material for his novels. It is no surprise that one of Meltzer’s best fictional characters is a young archivist named Beecher White. In the early 2000s, I played a role not unlike that of Beecher White. I was on a team of U.S. Department of Justice lawyers who sifted through boxes of the Reagan Papers for declassification purposes. Each box was categorized into different topics: Just Say No, Assassination Attempt, First Woman Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, AIDS, Line-Item Veto, etc. Notwithstanding your political stripes or views of certain presidents, reviewing boxes of presidential documents transports you into the past like a time machine. Dust covered the countless bankers’ boxes, and our team scoured their contents in small offices in a building on New York Avenue in Washington, D.C. We worked into the witching hours, eating junk food and pouring over records that would forever change history, unearthing national gems. There was one topic that proved most fascinating: Ronald Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech in June 1987. This was the memorable speech where, with the Berlin Wall as a backdrop, President Reagan extolled General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Multiple boxes contained sensitive drafts that chronicled the evolution of the speech. Experts on world affairs knew Reagan’s speech would be historic, and several themes dominated the tension among numerous drafters and reviewers. The “tear down this wall” line, however, caused most alarm within the State Department and National Security Council. In fact, Reagan’s National Security Advisor—a forty-nine-year-old General Colin Powell—kept crossing out the phrase, worried that it would ratchet up Cold War tensions between the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. Near the end of the box, Powell’s side appeared to have won the debate. The line had vanished in the final draft in the final box. But had it vanished? President Reagan famously said those words, some of the most memorable in world history. So…was there another draft? After leaving government, I worked for the same law firm as Secretary James Baker, one of Reagan’s closet confidants. Baker’s Washington, D.C. office, just a few blocks from where I had reviewed the Reagan Papers years early, had no desks or computers—only a couch, a few chairs, and a phone. I sat on a chair across from the couch and retold my story . . . and he finished it. He said that Kenneth Duberstein, Reagan’s deputy chief of staff, rode with Reagan to the Berlin Wall on that historic day. They traveled in a limousine together, and Reagan told him he was putting the line back in. “The boys at State are going to kill me,” he said, “but it’s the right thing to do.” The rest is history, and you can find the final draft at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Beyond declassified intelligence, other mysterious governmental information awaits the curious and crafty. One of the greatest joys of writing thrillers is that people—even strangers—want to discuss your projects. Those discussions often lead to interesting material. My inspiration for writing my first novel, Scavenger Hunt, was learning of the hidden eighth floor at the U.S. Department’s (DOJ) Main Justice Building in Washington, D.C. Few people, even DOJ lawyers, know that it exists, and my curiosity led me to ask more about it. The Main Justice elevators only access seven floors, but eight sets of office windows paint the outside of the building. After weeks of inquiry, a building custodian took me on a tour. Scavenger Hunt walks the reader up the hidden staircase that connects the seventh and eighth floors and leads to the former Federal Bureau of Investigation’s ballistics lab, now dark and eerie, where the clandestine team of Operation Scavenger Hunt meets in secret. Weeks after submitting Scavenger Hunt’s final manuscript, I continued to dig up fascinating information. At an event in D.C. in May, I ran into a former U.S. attorney general. He asked me about my novel, only a few days from print, and we discussed the secret eighth floor of Main Justice. He then proceeded to describe a secret room above the attorney general’s office on the fifth floor. Before long, two other former U.S. attorneys general joined our conversation. They all knew about this hidden treasure, where, attorney general lore holds, Robert F. Kennedy “visited” with Marilyn Monroe. Learning of this revelation, I scurried away and emailed my publisher: Stop the press! You can read more about the “RFK Honeymoon Suite” in Chapter 2 of Scavenger Hunt. *** View the full article
  10. This city is large and diverse. There are pockets of grinding poverty, pockets of middle-class respectability, pockets of wealth. There is corruption beyond a normal person’s belief, and incredible selflessness and valor. Intrigue worthy of a spy novel, and innocence and wonder. Eight hundred thousand-plus people living out their stories. And all too often, their stories merge with mine. –City of Whispers (2011) A classic hardboiled opening. It could have come from any of the guys – Hammett, Chandler, Ross Macdonald – but it didn’t. Its author was Marcia Muller, recently fired from her magazine job because she kept embellishing the quotes (“they were more interesting,” she said). A great fan of Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and Lew Archer, Muller had became increasingly exasperated by the fact that there were no hardboiled American women equivalents. If she wanted to read one, she realized, she was going to have to create one herself. So she did. Edwin of the Iron Shoes, featuring private detective Sharon McCone, was published in 1977. In 1982, Sue Grafton introduced Kinsey Millhone in A is for Alibi and Sara Paretsky did the same for V.I. Warshawski in Indemnity Only. But Marcia Muller was first – “the founding mother,” Grafton called her – and in 35 novels over 44 years, she proved that her p.i. could stand her ground with anybody. McCone grew up a Navy brat in San Diego, her father a chief petty officer who was always gone, leaving her mother to cope with five unruly children. Her brothers were rowdy males, “ever on the brink of juvenile delinquency,” her sisters rebellious females “ever on the brink of teenage pregnancy” (A Wild and Lonely Place, 1995). Sharon was the good girl, but a loner, even in her own family. Her siblings all looked like the Scots-Irish they were; Sharon seemed to have inherited all the genes of her one-eighth Shoshone grandmother and looked nothing like them. She was a cheerleader in high school, but as soon as she graduated, she forged her own path, becoming a department store security guard. However, “after a couple of years, I couldn’t see my life stomping through racks of dresses with a walkie-talkie in my purse” (Edwin of the Iron Shoes), so she went to Berkeley and studied sociology, financing herself with more security work at night, this time for a large agency that also tried her out on detective work. She liked it – but not the jobs she had to do, mostly involving wayward husbands and wives, and when she refused to do them anymore, she got fired and moved to San Francisco. There, she ran into a college friend named Hank Zahn, who hired her as the sole investigator for the poverty law firm he ran called the All Souls Cooperative, a place where most of the lawyers lived and worked together in a big old house. And that’s where we first meet her: twenty-nine, and a bundle of contradictions. She’s idealistic but hard-headed, gregarious but wary of entanglements, a good shot but unhappy with guns, sensible but with a wild side: “I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with danger. I’d run from it, balanced on its thin edge, plunged in headlong” (A Wild and Lonely Place). She’s obsessed with research, but sometimes uses less analytical methods: When interviewing people, she tries to “tune out the words and listen to what’s hidden in the spaces between them. To the pauses, the hesitations” (Listen to the Silence, 2000). At crime scenes, no matter how old, she leaves herself open to the vibes: “Sometimes places can absorb the emotions surrounding events that have happened there” (Where Echoes Live, 1991). She’s also passionate about justice, and the books are full of commentary and social issues: illegal immigration, gentrification, political corruption, gender inequality, racism, gun control, domestic violence, mental illness, human rights. That passion also leads her to make cases a little too personal sometimes, to care about them so much that she pushes too hard: “All too often when that happened, people around me got hurt” (Pennies on a Dead Woman’s Eyes, 1992). In Burn Out (2008), she steps back, realizing that she has “to let go of the idea that I could right every wrong and instead settle for righting only a few.” But that’s easier said than done. Some cases just mean too much, and the older she gets, the more she finds justice and the law to be increasingly at odds. When a friend of her is killed in Both Ends of the Night (1997), she says to her companion, “I keep waiting for some sort of…settling, whatever. For some sense of wanting justice, not revenge.” “Isn’t happening,” he says. “No.” And in The Shape of Dread (1989), she has at last run down a particularly cold-blooded killer and has her gun on him: “I could shoot him point-blank, I thought…should shoot him. No sense in letting this evil man live. No sense in going through the motions of arrest, trial, imprisonment, even execution, because it won’t make any difference….Give me a reason to pull this trigger.” She doesn’t pull it – but the mental cost stays with her. As do the many perils she faces throughout the course of her career. She is shot, stabbed, kidnapped, hunted, and put in a sinking boat to drown. Houses and buildings blow up or burn down around her. Planes she is piloting crash. Pitched battles rage. The cases come from everywhere, often as assignments, just as often from friends, family, acquaintances. Vietnamese refugees hire her for protection. A daughter wants to find her mother, missing twenty-two years. A companion from physical therapy suddenly vanishes. Her Berkeley days come back to haunt her. A bomber targets diplomatic sites around the city. A country music singer receives threatening letters. A hostage negotiator goes off the radar in Mexico. A B&B owner suffers a string of inexplicable bad incidents. A woman impersonates her around the city, creating havoc. Often the cases begin in one place, and as the investigation continues, veer off to some other place entirely. A supposed suicide turns into a story of murder, embezzlement, and sabotage. A shop owner’s death opens up a world of international art-smuggling. A woman’s disappearance embroils McCone in international war crimes. A search for stolen religious artifacts lands her, bound and drugged, in a paramilitary camp that is training for a coup. No wonder McCone is exhausted. Fortunately, she also has those friends, family, and colleagues to draw on for support…mostly. Her brother Joey is a screw-up. Her brother John is an ex-brawler who comes to her rescue more than once. Her sister Patsy is the B&B owner mentioned above. Her other sister, Charlene, is married to Ricky Savage, the country music singer similarly mentioned above, then divorces him, gets her PhD in finance, and marries an international financier. Their six kids, the “little Savages,” grow up in a variety of alarming ways, including Mick Savage, who ultimately becomes one of Sharon’s key investigators, though his mastery of computers and fondness for such books as Advanced Lock-Picking make his methods of acquiring information considerably dodgier than Sharon likes. Her mother, meanwhile, announces in book twelve, Where Echoes Live, that “I have left your father,” causing considerable family drama, and warns Sharon that she is like her father: “There’s another side to you, something…wild that can’t be contained.” What she means is revealed to Sharon in Listen to the Silence, when her father dies, leaving instructions for Sharon to look in the garage, where she finds papers documenting that….she isn’t his child, or her mother’s. She’s adopted, and that Shoshone blood is not one-eighth but one hundred percent, sending Sharon on an odyssey of self-discovery that leads to her true parents, and the devastating incidents that culminated in her becoming a McCone. Those parents, too, along with a newly-discovered half-sister and half-brother, will also become important characters in several of the books that follow, and the cases that fill them, including the murders of indigenous women in 2021’s Ice and Stone. McCone’s colleagues, too, evolve as the books continue. Though Sharon will always stay close to Hank Zahn and others at the All Souls Cooperative, the place becomes too corporate for her, with new partners wanting to kick her upstairs to a desk job, so in book fifteen, Till the Butchers Cut Her Down (1994), she takes the leap to open her own firm, McCone Investigations, with offices on the San Francisco piers, bringing with her Mick Savage, investigators Rae Kelleher and Charlotte Keim, and office manager Ted Smalley. As McCone Investigations, too, grows over the years, these people are supplemented by others such as disaffected FBI agent Craig Morland, former SFPD detective Adah Joslyn, and a one-time prostitute named Julia Rafael, in whom Sharon sees something of herself and who turns out to be a top-notch detective. Trust me when I say that many dramas ignite among all these many characters, infusing the series with a wealth of soap opera. Ultimately, McCone outgrows even McCone Investigations, and becomes a partner in McCone & Ripinsky International. Ripinsky, you say? Who’s this? Only the most important character in the entire series, other than Sharon herself. Sharon has had a few love interests in the books. The first was a homicide detective named Greg Marcus, who annoyed her at first meeting in Edwin of the Iron Shoes by calling her “papoose,” mocking her “woman’s intuition,” and asking “Do you really have an investigator’s license?” Grrr. It got better – a lot better – “but he still managed to piss me off on the average of once a week” (The Cheshire Cat’s Eye, 1983), and by the fourth book, it was over, though they stayed friendly through the years. The second love interest was a DJ named Don who was a tad clingy and wanted a family and…he didn’t last too long. The third was an eminent psychiatrist, for whom Sharon fell hard, and he for her, but he was married to a mentally ill woman, and in all conscience he didn’t think he could leave her: “He was an honorable man…but sometimes on cold, lonely nights, I cursed him for that honor” (The Shape of Dread). Then, in book twelve, Where Echoes Live, Sharon chases an environmental case up into the high desert of northeastern California, and meets a tall, lanky, widowed environmentalist and fellow pilot named Hy (Heino) Ripinsky, and she’s a goner, despite plenty of warning signs, like that large gap of unaccounted-for years in the 1970s when he might have been with the CIA…or something. “Underneath that laid-back exterior, he’s still dangerous,” a friend warns her. “A genuine crazy man who’ll go against anybody in any way.” He’s got his own reservations about Sharon – “You are the same goddamned stubborn, annoying kind of person as my late wife, and one man doesn’t deserve this kind of grief twice” – but he’s kind of a goner himself. And then he disappears. Sharon’s search leads her to a high-powered outfit called RKI – Renshaw and Kessell International – whose founders have similarly dark gaps in their pasts and now provide hostage recovery and counterterrorism services for corporations. They’re high-tech, unscrupulous, and Ripinsky does occasional work for them in exchange for autonomy on his own projects in the human rights area. That last part is nice, Sharon thinks, but, boy, are these guys shady. She doesn’t know the half of it. Renshaw and Kessell did unspeakable things in Southeast Asia in the 70s, and the things Hy saw and did there gave him “nightmares, tightly boxed demons, enough regrets to last ten lifetimes” (A Wild and Lonely Place). It takes Sharon several books to learn the complete truth about him, and to understand him and forgive him, and by that time, she’s done a little work for RKI herself. When that past comes thundering back to wreak its vengeance on both Renshaw and Kessell, it’s Sharon and Hy who pull the pieces of RKI back together. And the pieces of themselves, too. No secrets now. No conditions. An unbreakable bond the commitment-wary McCone never thought possible. “McCone,” he said through our linked headsets/ “I can’t think of a better place to do this than a mile high in our airplane….For about what seems like the hundredth time: will you marry me?…” The word was out of my mouth before I had time to argue with myself. “Yes.” (The Dangerous Hour, 2004) McCone has finally learned: “Hardboiled” doesn’t have to mean “lone wolf.”. Nor an end to the danger that keeps her balanced on the thin edge: A bullet knocks her to the dirt in the next book. *** Marcia Muller came to an interest in violence and crime naturally. In her first two decades, “my orthodontist shot and killed his wife and child; a friend’s mother was fatally stabbed by her husband; a plane carrying another friend’s father was blown up by a bomb; my next door neighbor in my college dormitory killed herself.” Yikes. Born in 1944, Muller says she wanted to be a writer from the time she could first read and write. “My father was a great storyteller. Every evening he would tell me a story when I went to bed. He’d make up fantastic stuff. He would act out different roles.” It isn’t surprising, then, that she’d written her first novel by the age of twelve, a tale about her cocker spaniel, complete with badly drawn illustrations. “It did have mystery elements,” she said. “I guess I knew where I was going.” Her college instructors did not, however. At the University of Michigan, her creative writing instructor told her she would never be a writer, “because you have nothing to say.” Opting for journalism instead, she earned a master’s, landed a job at Sunset magazine, and…”I was a terrible journalist. Whenever I interviewed somebody boring, I’d fictionalize the situation, put words in the person’s mouth.” And so ended that career. By the end of the 1960s, however, somewhat at sea as to what to do with herself, she discovered hardboiled crime fiction. It immediately resonated with her, but she became frustrated that women were constantly only the sideshow: dolls, vamps, victims. Maybe she did have something to say after all. “Sharon McCone was conceived in 1971, when an insistent and annoying woman’s voice in my head began demanding I pay attention to her. But as insistent as she sounded, at first she gave me few clues as to her identity. In fact, she seemed more intent upon impressing upon me who and what she was not” (McCone and Friends, 2000). What she was not was an existential loner, a tough guy, an alcoholic, a hardbitten cynic. McCone would be emotional, caring, surrounded by friends, family, and co-workers. She would be independent, powerful, surrounded by people, and at “a place she could go for poker games and all-night talking sessions.” She would evolve – her character would change and grow, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, “as close to a real person as possible. Like real people, she would age…experience joy and sorrow, love and hatred – in short, the full range of human emotions. Each of her cases would constitute one more major event in an ongoing biography” (“Partners in Crime,” The Writer, May 1997). It took a while to find someone who wanted to publish that biography, however – three manuscripts and five years of rejection. “It was a rocky start, and many times along the way, I was tempted to give up.” Finally, with Edwin of the Iron Shoes, she found an editor who liked it, at the David McKay Company, sold it directly to him, and sat back in 1977 to enjoy her new career. Which promptly collapsed. That editor left McKay, and nobody else there was interested in publishing her – in fact, McKay stopped publishing fiction altogether. It took another four years before Muller could find another home: “Four years later, the world of publishing had caught up and they were recognizing that, yes, there were female private eyes, there were female cops. The whole woman’s movement had affected what we were doing. So when I went to New York, I finally met an editor [Thomas Dunne at St. Martin’s] who immediately bought Ask the Cards a Question. It was the same publishing house where another editor had previously rejected it, proving the rule that it only takes one person to really respond to your work and get you into print.” Paretsky’s Indemnity Only, Grafton’s A is for Alibi, and Muller’s second book, Ask the Cards a Question, were all published within three months of each other in 1982. None of the authors ever looked back. In the meantime, Muller had met fellow crime writer Bill Pronzini, author most notably of the “Nameless Detective” series; they married in 1992, and remain married to this day, often collaborating with each other on novels, anthologies, and the reference book 1001 Midnights: The Aficionado’s Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction (1986). She is the winner of the MWA’s Grand Master Award (as is Pronzini), the Private Eye Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award (Pronzini, too, again), and the Romantic Times Lifetime Achievement in Suspense Award (sorry, Bill). She has been a finalist for pretty much every American crime novel award that exists, including the Anthony, Shamus, Edgar, Barry, and Macavity; and won the Anthony for Wolf in the Shadows (see Essentials below) and The McCone Files, and the Shamus for Locked In (ditto). Muller has also learned to fly a plane, just like McCone and Ripinsky. And if you visit her, you just might catch a glimpse of her longtime hobby: making fully electrified, remarkably detailed miniature houses representing places where her characters have lived, including the All Souls Cooperative: “My hobby feeds my work. Helps me visualize certain settings. I’m down to doing some boxes now – no space for any more big ones. And repairs – the rooms and houses are always needing them, just like real houses. Sharon is not always with me, but she’s never far away.” ___________________________________ The Essential Muller ___________________________________ With any prolific author, readers are likely to have particular favorites which may not be the same as anyone else’s. Your list is likely to be just as good as mine – but here are the ones I recommend. Edwin of the Iron Shoes (1977) I stood next to the car, waiting for the number ninety-three trolley to pass, its antennae zinging along the overhead cable. The lighted windows of the trolley were empty except for the driver and a lone passenger. It was two-thirty in the morning…. I’d been jerked from my sleep about forty-five minutes earlier by the insistent ring of the telephone and my employer’s voice saying, “Sharon, get yourself up and meet me over at Salem Street. Joan Albritton’s shop….” “Don’t tell me someone’s set another fire over there?” “Worse. A lot worse. This time it’s murder.” So begins the first Sharon McCone novel – you should always start at the beginning. An antique store owner is dead, stabbed with a bone-handled dagger from one of her own display cases, and as Sharon is about to find out, there are several suspects: a former lover, a socialite business tycoon, a group of high-powered real estate speculators. Each of them has a reason for shutting the victim down permanently; none of them has the scruples to keep from doing it. There is only one witness, and he can’t speak: Edwin, a mannequin of a little boy, his feet fitted with a pair of ornate iron shoes. He stands, staring at an oil painting on the wall. But if you know how to ask, he will speak volumes. A perfect introduction to a ground-breaking series. Wolf in the Shadows (1993) Beware of the wolf in the shadows. He is watchful and patient, and when he catches you, he will eat you – skin and bones and heart. There’s a crisis brewing at the All Souls Cooperative, but McCone has no time for that now. Her new lover, Hy Ripinsky, has vanished, and the only one who seems to know why is his boss Gage Renshaw, who thinks Ripinsky has double-crossed him during a hostage negotiation: “When I find him, I intend to kill him.” McCone has no choice but to fly to Mexico herself in an attempt to pick up his trail. Druglords, bandits, and murderers are all around her, the most dangerous man she has ever met pursuing her. With Wolf in the Shadows, the series takes a dramatic leap from crime fiction to international thriller, and McCone herself finds a depth and determination that she never knew existed. “Not since Nero Wolfe dropped five pounds has there been a more thrilling transformation,” said the Washington Post, and the Baltimore Sun stated: “This may be Muller’s breakthrough book – the one that pushes her into the household icon realm.” You don’t want to miss it. Listen to the Silence (2000) Now I know that “always” is a lie. Now I know that in the end, death is the only certainty. Running home after her father’s fatal heart attack, Sharon gets the shock of her life going through a box labeled Legal Papers: A petition for adoption for four-day-old BABY GIRL SMITH, to be known as SHARON ELIZABETH MCCONE. Everything she though she had ever known about her past is a lie. Embarking on a search for her identity, she winds up at Montana’s Flathead Reservation, where more lies and evasion await her, secrets piled upon secrets, but also a family she never knew existed – and a desperate killer intent on silencing her for good. Sometimes the skeletons is one’s closet aren’t metaphorical – they’re all too real. A powerhouse story of discovery and obsession, with surprises up to the very last pages. Locked In (2009) and Coming Back (2010) A fantastic double-header, two books that work as one. A dark figure appeared only a few feet away and then barreled into me, knocked me against the wall. My head bounced off the sheetrock hard enough to blur my vision. In the next second I reeled backward through the door, spun around, and was down on my knees on the hard iron catwalk. As I tried to scramble away, push up and regain my footing, one of my groping hands brushed over some kind of metal – Sudden flash, loud pop. Rush of pain. Oh my God, I’ve been shot – Nothing. One late foggy night in July, Sharon surprises an intruder in her office, and is shot in the head. When she awakens, she’s in a hospital bed, a fragmented bullet near her brain stem. She can’t move, she can’t speak. Her mind is working, but no one knows it. She has locked-in syndrome, and no way to tell anyone she’s still in there. “Patients typically die within months,” a doctor tells Hy, “although some live for a few years.” But Sharon is having none of it. She blinks twice at Hy: No. “Are you here with me?” One blink: Yes. In the weeks that follow, all her colleagues work extra hard on their cases: that of a man knifed and disfigured, of a couple whose son has disappeared, of an identity theft expert whose own identity has been stolen, of a prostitute whose slasher death nobody seems to care about, of a burgeoning corruption scandal at City Hall. We see her people crisscrossing the city, digging for clues – and visiting Sharon at her bedside, pouring their day out for her, her attentiveness sometimes prodding them in directions they hadn’t thought of. It’s crisp and compelling, and a marvelous portrait of a group of dedicated professionals working toward a common goal, made all the more urgent by the medical setbacks that strike with no warning. Coming Back opens months later. Sharon is home, but relearning to walk, to speak, to show that she can still lead. “There are times I just…stall,” she tells Hy. “I lose myself in memories of all that lost time. People around here are starting to think I’m losing it.” She’s not wrong. “Sometimes she’s not as quick as she used to be. And she forgets details,” notes one of her detectives, wondering if there’s something easier she can be given, to another’s furious retort, “You act as if she’s some…cripple we keep on staff because she needs a job.” She begins to wonder if all of them are right – and then a fellow patient at her rehab center stops showing up, and when Sharon goes to her house to check on her, she finds a woman claiming to be her niece, and then, seventy-two hours later, the house is cleaned out and empty. Energized, Sharon pursues the case, landing in the middle of a story of international intrigue, rogue government agents, and covert assassination that is breathtaking to the end. Read ‘em both. You’ll be glad you did. ___________________________________ Book Bonus ___________________________________ Interspersed with the McCones are four other series by Muller. The first two, featuring museum curator Elena Oliverez (1983-1986) and art security expert Joanna Stark (1986-1989) are three books each and “were largely written out of financial necessity, because publishers were not paying that much for mystery novels at the time. It was not really enough to live on, but since I had few other recognizable skills, I needed to do more than one book a year to survive. “The Stark series was intended to only last the three books, with the personal story wrapped up in the last one. With the Oliverez books, I really burned out on the character. She was very young, and I couldn’t find anything more to say about her.” That latter series, however, did include a collaboration with Bill Pronzini, who in 1985 had created a nineteenth-century mystery featuring Secret Service agent John Quincannon and Pinkerton operative Sabina Carpenter. In 1986, he and Muller wrote Beyond the Grave, which had Quincannon partially solve a case in 1895 and Elena Oliverez complete it in 1986. Says Muller, “Although another Elena was under contract, I simply couldn’t come up with anything that could top or even equal Beyond the Grave, and I eventually persuaded the publisher to release me from the obligation.” Decades later, however, Muller and Pronzini were fooling around with some short stories featuring Quincannon and Carpenter, he writing the male character and she the female, and enjoyed it so much that they wrote five books about them from 2013 to 2017. They’re charming and well worth your while if you like historicals. Also in the mix are three books set in the fictional Soledad County on the California coast four hours north of San Francisco. Published from 2001 to 2005, they’re dark and brooding, and came about when Muller’s car broke down on the coastal highway one day, in a place where cell phones didn’t work. A few days later, she was talking to her editor “and I had a persistent vision of this woman standing beside the car at the side of the road. The book proceeded from there.” Muller has written a couple of other novels with Pronzini, as well, including a book that united McCone with Pronzini’s “Nameless Detective,” called Double (1998), and together they’ve produce a slew of anthologies, plus the reference book mentioned earlier. Muller’s short stories have also been gathered in such collections as Deceptions (1991), The McCone Files (1995), McCone and Friends (2000), and Somewhere in the City (2007). That last one also includes some Western stories by Muller, as do the collections Time of the Wolves (2003) and Crucifixion River (2007). “I really enjoy writing the Western stories,” she’s said. “I am fascinated by history and I love researching the historical aspects.” How good are they? One of the Crucifixion River stories, “Time of the Wolves,” actually won a Spur Award nomination from the Western Writers of America! ___________________________________ Movie/TV Bonus ___________________________________ The McCone series has been optioned at least twice by film companies, but, as is the case with so many film/TV options, they never reached the script stage. However, if you can, track down a 1991 made-for-TV movie called Into the Badlands. It consisted of three different stories about a bounty hunter, played by Bruce Dern, searching the West for a wanted outlaw. One of those stories was adapted from “Time of the Wolves,” the Spur Award nominee mentioned just above. Others in the movie include Mariel Hemingway, Helen Hunt, and Dylan McDermott – and it even got an Emmy nomination. ___________________________________ Meta Bonus ___________________________________ Greg Marcus: “What is it with you private operatives? You all sound like you’ve read too many paperback detective novels.” McCone: “Well, of course.” “Really? You read stuff like that?” “When I was at Berkeley, I worked nights as a security guard to make my tuition. When you sit hour after hour, watching over an empty building that no one in his right mind would want to break into, you’ll read anything.” He shook his head in disbelief. (The Cheshire Cat’s Eye) Don was reading a novel by Ross Macdonald, whose work I enjoyed even more than Hammett’s. “I got you hooked, didn’t I?” Mysteries were practically all I read these days. “It surprises me that a private eye would want to read about fictional ones,” Don said. “I mean, don’t mystery novels seem pretty unrealistic to you?” “That’s what I like about them. They’re so much more interesting than my life. When you spend a lot of your time interviewing witnesses and filing documents at City Hall, you appreciate a little excitement on paper.” (Leave a Message for Willie, 1984) Jane Stein was a pleasant surprise. With the typical snobbery of northern Californians for Tinseltown, I’d been anticipating someone flashy, a trifle tacky, perhaps loud. “It’s a pleasure to meet a real private investigator, rather than those cinematic horrors we’re always creating down south,” she said. “I’m glad you feel the way I do. I can’t watch those shows or films. I like mystery novels, but the way we’ve been portrayed on the screen….” (The Shape of Dread, 1989) –Featured image, author photo by Tom Graves View the full article
  11. 1. The 1934 Extinguishing of the Frank Clements and Elsie Hildreth Smith Family The coroner declared that there was no evidence that the house had been forcibly entered, but added that the investigation showed that the Smiths frequently did not lock doors and windows at night.—“Alabama Banker and Family Slain—Couple Were of Leading Families,” New York Times, November 26, 1934 As day began to dawn on Sunday morning, November 25, 1934 in Demopolis, a quiet little Alabama town of just over four thousand souls situated in rural Marengo County at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers in the heart of the state’s old plantation belt, Gertrude Robertson, cook to Frank Clements Smith, cashier at Demopolis’ Commercial National Bank, his wife, Elsie Hildreth Smith, and their two young children Frank and Sabra, entered the Smith house—as she had for over a year now, ever since Clements and Elsie had wed on another Sunday morning a year and seven weeks ago on October 8, 1933—to make the family’s breakfast. Having prepared the meal and set the table, Gertrude called for the family to come and eat. Receiving no answer in the strangely silent house, the cook knocked and entered the Smiths’ master bedroom. There she confronted unimaginable horror, what the Demopolis Times four days later pronounced “[u]ndoubtedly the most shocking tragedy that has happened in the city of Demopolis.” Gertrude Robertson, a twenty-eight-year-old black woman who a decade earlier had born a son, Nathan, knew very personally the tragedy of the death of a child, for her boy had passed away earlier that year in July. Yet the Smiths’ cook could not have been prepared for the nightmarish tableaux which faced her now, in that grim bedroom. So appalling was her brief seconds’ sight of the occupants that she fled panic-stricken from the scene to the home, directly across the street, of the widowed Hannah Koch and her bookkeeper son Isidore, members of Demopolis’ once significant Jewish community, which numbered around 150 people at the time. Desperately beseeched by Gertrude, Isidore Koch entered the Smiths’ master bedroom and there found the entire family—husband, wife, toddler son and infant daughter—gruesomely slain, each and every one of them brutally shot to death. Clad in his pajamas, thirty-six-year-old Clements Smith lay on the floor by his and his wife’s bed, his forehead grazed by a bullet and a powder-scorched hole by his right ear. Thirty-three-year-old Elsie, fully clothed, rested across the foot of the bed with two bullet wounds to her chest. Her hands were crossed reposefully over her disfigured breasts, as if she were a stone sarcophagus effigy slumbering timelessly in a mediaeval church. Elsie’s three-year-old son by a prior marriage, Frank Alkire, who normally slept in his own room, lay on the bed beside his mother, dead like his stepfather from a shot to the head, while the couple’s infant daughter, Sabra, just six weeks old, lay tucked snugly in her netted crib, shot through her mouth. Police found two pistols in the bedroom. Under the bed was an old style “lemon squeezer” .32 short revolver, so named for the grip safety in its back strap, which made it necessary to firmly grasp the gun while depressing the safety lever to fire it. From the lemon squeezer three lead bullets had been fired. On a shelf in the closet there was also a blood-spattered, pearl-handled automatic pistol, which Clements had only recently purchased. From this weapon four steel-jacketed cartridges had been fired. Elsie, her son and Sabra had been killed by steel jacketed cartridges, Clements by a lead bullet. Scattered around the room were four steel-jacketed cartridges and a single lead bullet. Clements Smith Coroner Cedric C. F. Hickman, professionally affiliated with the B. J. Rosenbush Undertaking Company and Furniture Store in Demopolis, soon arrived to take charge of the house and bodies. By this time word of the murders had spread like fire through the small town and hundreds of people, foregoing church services, had gathered round the Smiths’ small but fashionable Spanish Revival home to witness the comings and goings of law enforcement and exchange thrillingly bloodcurdling speculations about just what horrors had taken place there. Sheriff Sam Drinkard, who appears to have rotated in and out of the county sheriff’s office with his elder brother Dwight Moody Drinkard, arrived next from the county seat of Linden, a little town of under one thousand inhabitants located seventeen miles to the south of Demopolis, to take charge of the murder investigation. The previous year both of the Drinkard brothers had been ignominiously hauled into federal court on a charge of conspiracy to violate the soon-to-be repealed National Prohibition Act by accepting bribes from Vester Ward, a farmer and moonshiner in the small town of Thomaston, eleven miles east of Linden; but they had been found not guilty and their reputations as lawmen evidently remained good, at least within the confines of Marengo County. Upon his arrival in Demopolis, Sam Drinkard summoned Officer George Burton Porter, an ambitious and keen-eyed young fingerprint identification expert from the city of Selma, a comparative metropolis of over 18,000 inhabitants located sixty miles to the east of Demopolis in neighboring Dallas County, to take the pistols back to Selma for testing. Officer Porter, who on his own initiative six years earlier had started Selma’s identification bureau literally from his desk drawer, was familiar with the Drinkard brothers, having worked with then Sheriff Moody Drinkard in 1929 on another brutal Marengo County murder case, when he had been called in to take fingerprints from the bloody axe used to bludgeon to death seventy-six-year-old James Richmond Moss, storekeeper and postmaster at the village of Hugo, located between Linden and Thomaston. Moody Drinkard had vowed then that to find the slayer of old Jim Moss he would get Officer Porter to “fingerprint every person in the county if necessary.” In reality, however, he locked up a dozen or more black people, ultimately securing a confession from a pair of Birmingham men who had come down to Marengo to visit some of their kinfolk. As they had five years earlier in the Moss murder case, Marengo cops initially looked for the culprit of the mass shooting at the Smith home among the county’s large black population. They quickly arrested and questioned John Robertson, the seventy-four-year-old yardman at the Smith house (it is unclear whether he was related to Gertrude), but soon set him free. The initial theory that the Smiths had been robbed and murdered by a home intruder dissolved after a wristwatch and rings on Clements and Elsie’s bodies, along with other assorted valuables, were found untouched in the house. Also quickly exonerated was Gertrude, who resided quietly and blamelessly with her elderly grandparents, James and Ella Robertson, at their humble place on Arcola Street, a couple of miles away from the Smiths’ fancy residence on South Cedar Avenue. Thus after several days the case remained officially unsolved, as newspapers around the country blazed horrific headlines about the affair (Demopolis Shooting Wipes Out Family). The slain Frank Clements Smith was the son of the late Andrew Reid Smith, in life an electric company executive and president of the Demopolis Commercial National Bank, and his wife Clara Estelle Clements Smith. When they married in 1893, Andrew and Clara were socially prominent natives of the city of Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama, located sixty miles north of Demopolis. Clara, “one of the most brilliant ornaments of Tuscaloosa society,” was a daughter of attorney Rufus Hargrove Clements and granddaughter of Hardy Clements, said to have been the wealthiest planter in Tuscaloosa County before the Civil War, owner of a thousand slaves, twenty thousand acres of land and declared personal wealth in 1860 of around nine million dollars (in modern worth). Seven years after Andrew and Clara moved to Demopolis at the turn of the century, the couple purchased Bluff Hall, an imposing, white-columned antebellum mansion overlooking the Tombigbee River that originally had been owned by planter-politician Francis Strother Lyon and his wife Sarah Serena Glover Lyon, a sister of Williamson Allen Glover of Rosemount plantation in neighboring Greene County, one of the great architectural showpieces of the South. Bluff Hall At Bluff Hall the socially ambitious Clara established herself as Demopolis’ reigning hostess, organizing such festive occasions as the 1915 fall harvest celebration of that “unique and exclusive dinner club,” peculiarly indigenous to the town on the Tombigbee, known as Ye Kanterberry Klan—not to be confused, of course, with the Ku Klux Klan, which had been revived, coincidentally (or not), that same year. The society page editor at the Demopolis Times painted this pretty, if precious, picture of the lavish event (to which I can but say, Ye Gods!): One of the most brilliant social functions which has taken place this season was the meeting and banquet of Ye Kanterberry Klan which occurred on ye night of the eighteenth of November at Bluff Hall, the magnificent home of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Reid Smith….From seven to eight Ye Klan held a reception of good fellowship…after which hour ye banquet was announced and the guests were ushered into ye banquet hall….Immediately following the dinner….Andrew Reid Smith was unanimously selected [Konsort] and escorted in pomp to ye throne by Ye Klan and crowned in stately grace by Ye Kommander. Aside from its gracious parties, Bluff Hall was noted for its lovely collection of Japanese curios, which had been sent to Clara by her wealthy brother Julius Morgan Clements, a mining geologist and engineer of international repute and a noted Asiatic traveler who was fluent in a dozen languages. It was at beautiful Bluff Hall that Andrew and Clara’s boys—Frank Clements Smith and his two brothers, Fenton Reid Smith and Charles Singleton Smith, all three of them short, slim, blonde and blue-eyed—grew to manhood with gilded prospects seemingly glittering enticingly before them. Although Andrew died from heart disease at the age of sixty-three in 1932, Clara still resided at Bluff Hall two years after her husband’s demise, when her middle son and his family died so horrifically within a five minutes’ drive from the mansion. On that other Sunday morning on October 8, 1933 when Clements had wed Elsie—“very quietly, with only relatives present,” the Demopolis Times reported—the ceremony had taken place at Bluff Hall with far less ostentation than had that Qwyte Kolorful celebration of Ye Kanterberry Klan. On the occasion of her second son’s quiet wedding Clara decorated the stately old southern home with “vases of dahlias, roses and other cut flowers” and the bride had “carried pink rose buds and lilies of the valley.” What flowers Clara placed on Elsie’s grave, and the graves of her son and grandchildren, after their gruesome violent deaths a year and seven weeks later went unreported. It was also at Bluff Hall on the Monday morning after the murders that a short funeral service was conducted on behalf of the fallen family. Two caskets were provided for the four family members, one for Elsie and her son Frank, and one for Clements and little Sabra, who had barely had a chance to live before she died. From Bluff Hall a funeral cortege made its somber way sixty miles northward to the city of Tuscaloosa, where, after another service at Trinity Episcopal Church, the dead were interred in the old family plot at Evergreen Cemetery. Bluff Hall Newspapers divulged that the late Frank and Elsie Smith had been “considered a very devoted couple by all who knew them” and that both of them had “seemed to idolize their children.” Man and wife alike were “great favorites in the circle of the younger married set” in Demopolis and Clements in particular was deemed to have a “gentle and pleasant disposition that makes friends.” These bouquets of praise thrown upon the dead couple only seemed to make their murders, and those of their children, yet more mystifying. At the coroner’s hearing held a couple of days after the discovery of the dead family, it was revealed that Clements and Elsie had spent Saturday evening at the home of the singularly named Mem Creagh Webb, Jr. and his wife Frances, another locally esteemed young couple with two small children of their own, leaving Frank and Sabra in the care of the redoubtable Gertrude Robertson. According to Chief William Bedford Davis of the Demopolis police, “the couple had quarreled at a party earlier in the night,” by which, presumably, he meant the get-together at the Webbs’ place. Around 9:30 p.m., the Smiths left the Webbs’ house, located on West Capitol Street just down from the old John C. Webb mansion, to drop off at the Demopolis Inn (Modern in Every Way), just two minutes away on West Washington Street, forty-three-year-old Austin Thomas Ars, a tall, brown-haired, gray-eyed accountant and Great War veteran who had been married for fifteen years but had no children. Clements and Elsie then returned to the Webbs’ house, where they remained until shortly after ten, when they left for home. Around 10:30, Clements entered his house and immediately dismissed Gertrude, informing her that “his wife would be in in a few minutes” and that he would give the infant Sabra her bottle of formula. Some in town had deemed this an odd circumstance, but Police Chief Davis, choosing his words with evident care, speculated that “Mrs. Smith and her husband might have preferred that the cook not see her on her return home and that she might have remained in one of the front rooms of the house as the cook took her departure for the night.” On a table police found a liquor bottle and two glasses containing remnants of whiskey. “What followed is problematical,” reported the Demopolis Times, but perhaps things were not so challenging at the Demopolis newspaper wanted its readers to believe. Admittedly, Coroner Cedric Hickman had clouded the matter by maintaining there was a “slight chance” that “an outsider might have been responsible for all the deaths.” Coroner Hickman—who belying his sober profession as a mortician, conducted a Demopolis dance orchestra, served as music director of the First Baptist Church and was celebrated, among the town’s white population anyway, for his performance in blackface minstrel shows (“His monologue with a broom will be remembered by all who saw it,” his 1961 obituary avowed.)—doubtlessly did not want to alienate potential future customers in Demopolis society and thereby made sure to handle the hearing with extreme discretion. However, according to the Selma Times-Journal, which was rather more forthcoming than the Demopolis Times, the Selma fingerprint man George Porter, the lead expert at the hearing, chattily confided to reporters that Clements had shot both himself and his family. Both of the discharged pistols in the bedroom, he explained, bore Clements’ fingerprints. Newsmen naturally pricked up their ears at this. “Frank C. Smith, Demopolis banker, snuffed out the lives of his wife and babies with a fusillade of shots and then turned a gun on himself—that is the theory Fingerprint Expert Porter, of Selma, will substantiate with scientific evidence before a coroner’s jury Tuesday,” was the blunt first paragraph revelation in another nearby newspaper, the Clarke County Democrat, located in the town of Grove Hill, sixty miles south of Demopolis. Voluble Officer Porter begged to differ with Coroner Hickman about the prospect of a home invader having been the culprit of the crimes, discounting the possibility entirely. He theorized, both on the stand and to the press, that after shooting his wife and children with the automatic, which he had carefully replaced on a shelf in the closet, Clements had shot himself with the old revolver, but had succeeded only in grazing his forehead with the bullet and stunning himself for a time. “The weapon used, a small caliber revolver with a ‘lemon squeeze’ handle that had to be pressed hard to fire the pistol, caused him to miss a vital spot,” Porter speculated. He believed that Clements, after lying in a stupor on the floor for an hour and a half, revived and finished the grim job which he had started, fatally discharging a bullet into his brain from the revolver, which fell under the bed. With ghoulish implication Porter added that at some point Elsie’s body had been “tampered with” after she had been shot, presumably by Clements. “There were two bullet wounds, one in each breast,” the cop elaborated, “and [Mrs. Smith’s] hands had been placed over each wound and her elbows pushed neatly down beside her.” Notwithstanding Officer Porter’s opinions—which were substantiated at the hearing by Dr. Claude Nicholson Lacey, the Demopolis physician who had examined the bodies—the six-man coroner’s jury, likely influenced by or simply sharing Coroner Hickman’s hope of pinning the crime on a home invader, balked at placing responsibility for the murders explicitly on Clements Smith’s shoulders. As Police Chief Davis dogmatically insisted, the Smiths “just weren’t the kind of people for that.” Instead the jury, after listening to over four hours of testimony from Officer Porter, Dr. Lacey, Sheriff Drinkard, Chief Davis, Gertrude Robertson, the Creaghs and others, merely allowed what seemed the bare, bald facts at this point: that Elsie, her son Frank and her daughter Sabra had been murdered around three a.m. and that Clements had committed suicide an hour and a half later around four-thirty. Since the jury in deference to the denizens of Bluff Hall had refused to assign responsibility for the murders of Elsie and her children, they naturally could not answer, or even broach, the question of why they had been murdered. If we assume the obvious, that Clements was the murderer, we are left to answer for ourselves the question of why a devoted husband and father who loved his wife and adored his children would so heinously have slaughtered them and then himself. Embezzlement is ruled out, for Demopolis police examined Clements’ books at the bank and found them to be, in the words of Police Chief Davis, “in good shape.” Since the jury in deference to the denizens of Bluff Hall had refused to assign responsibility for the murders of Elsie and her children, they naturally could not answer, or even broach, the question of why they had been murdered. A year after the tragedy Clement Eaton, a distinguished historian of the American South who was then chairman of the History Department at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania (apparently he was no relation to the Smith family), visited Demopolis, where he toured the town’s fabled old antebellum mansions, Gaineswood and Bluff Hall, and had his ear filled with lurid details about the recent ghastly killings. “I was told that the inheritor of Bluff Hall married a divorcee—one night he and she returned from a wild party, and later he found her untrue to him & shot her, her two children & himself,” Eaton confided that night in his diary, concluding sententiously: “In this beautiful home an unlovely home life must have existed.” Despite the fact that Eaton got some of the detail wrong—presumably none of the murders had been committed at Bluff Hall, where Clara still lived with her youngest son, Singleton Smith, and his wife and son—the whispers which the professor heard of a “wild party” and amatory unfaithfulness provide us with motive for Clements’ seemingly inexplicable act, in this lurid light one of the most extreme fury and despair. As the Linden Democrat-Reporter bluntly put it: “[I]t is believed that jealousy drove Mr. Smith to the breaking point.” What had happened between Clements and Elsie to prompt them to quarrel on that fateful Saturday night in 1934? Had the Webbs held a “bottle party” with some of their friends? What had occurred on the Smiths’ short drive with Austin Ars to the Demopolis Inn (and back)? Why had it taken the Smiths nearly half an hour to reach their home from the Webbs’ place on Capitol Street? (This should have been a four or five minutes’ drive at most.) And where was Elsie when Clements confronted Gertrude at their home? Was she inebriated, as Chief Davis seemingly implied, and unfit to be seen by the help? Was she even present at the house at all? In the findings of the coroner’s jury we have no solid evidence as to Elsie’s whereabouts between her departure with Clements from the Webbs’ house around 10:00 in the evening and her death, presumably in the bedroom of her own home, around 1:30 in the morning. In the astounding dénouement to a Golden Age detective novel—the sort of book so popular with Thirties fiction readers—it might have been revealed that Elsie actually had been done in by her mother-in-law Clara at Bluff Hall, which lay just a minutes’ drive around the corner from the Webbs’ place, with Clements serving as Clara’s fall guy. The home in which the murders were committed. Elsie Smith was, as Clement Eaton had noted, a divorcee—indeed she had been twice divorced. This is a point of interest, I think, whether or not one agrees with Clement Eaton and his Demopolis gossips that the dread word divorcee deserves a connotation of moral dubiety. Certainly newspapers at the time thought this was relevant, for in banner headlines many of them—the Demopolis Times excepted—damningly included, in reference to Elsie, the dread words SHE HAD BEEN DIVORCED. Yet as even those newspapers admitted, Elsie came from a respectable social background. “Her large family connections are of the very best, and she was quite a favorite among them” the Demopolis Times avowed of Clements’ bride. Although Elsie, the youngest of four children with three elder brothers, had been born in St. Augustine, Florida, where her father was a railroad conductor, she was descended from the Hildreth family of Jefferson, a planter village located a dozen miles southwest of Demopolis. However her mother, Willie Jefferies Alston, had died in 1910, when Elsie was just nine years old, leaving her father, Levin Hildreth, to raise the children. After World War One, Levin along with his youngest son and Elsie relocated to the mining town of Prescott in central Arizona, where he worked as a railroad brakeman. From then on it appears that his fair and fleet daughter ran footloose and fancy free. In 1920 Elsie Hildreth was lodging separately from her father in Prescott with a druggist and his family. On December 15 of that same year, Elsie, now nineteen, at her brother’s house in Prescott married twenty-four-year-old Riverside, California native George Battles Finch, 6’2”, 170 pounds, blond-haired and blue-eyed. Elsie, whom the Prescott Weekly Journal-Miner in a notice about the wedding described as “a well-known and popular member of Prescott’s younger set,” was dressed in “a becoming brown satin gown, with hat and shoes to match.” Despite Elsie’s purported popularity, however, “only a few intimate friends were present” at the ceremony. Recalling her and Clements’ later wedding, which was conducted “very quietly, with only relatives present to witness the ceremony,” can one sense a pattern of avoidance here? In Prescott, George Finch had superintended the Arizona Bus Company, but the new couple moved to his native Riverside in southern California, where George had accepted a position with the firm of J. W. Kemp, Cadillac dealers. Apparently Elsie left both Riverside and her husband just a few weeks later, however. Ten months after the wedding, the Prescott Weekly Journal-Miner reported tersely that “Mrs. Elsie Hildreth Finch…left [Prescott] to return to her former home in Alabama, where she will remain with relatives.” The romantic career of Elsie, who was now divorced and going by her maiden name, fades from view for most of the rest of the Roaring Twenties, although in Arizona she popped up occasionally in Prescott and Phoenix and in 1925 she wintered at the home of her brother Kent Hildreth in Palm Beach, Florida. Franklin Tomlin Alkire Four years after her winter sojourn in Florida, Elsie, now twenty-eight, was back again in Arizona, where on December 2, 1929 she wed strapping 6’1”, 190 pound, black-haired Josiah Franklin Alkire, a thirty-eight-year-old trader on the Navajo Nation reservation and son of the respected pioneer Phoenix rancher and merchant Franklin Tomlin Alkire. Like Elsie, Jay, as he was familiarly known, had been previously married and divorced. In 1931 Elsie gave birth to the couple’s son, named Frank in honor of his paternal grandfather, but the marriage had foundered by 1932, the same year in which Elsie’s father passed away. Elsie returned yet again to her relations in Marengo County, where she met and enchanted with her peculiar charms Clements Smith, a diminutive but dashing University of Alabama graduate and cashier in his late father’s bank who though in his thirties still lived with his parents at elegant Bluff Hall. Elsie briefly returned to Phoenix to obtain a divorce from Jay and then fatefully married Clements. At UA back in 1920 the school yearbook had portrayed the handsome young Clements, a member of Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, as a dirty-blond and blue-eyed heart breaker: “How so much good-heartedness and pep can be combined in five feet four inches, has long been a wonder to us. A ‘top’ sergeant in SATC days [Student Army Training Corps] and the cause of many broken hearts and wistful glances.” Yet it appears to have been UA’s heartbreaker Clements Smith who in 1934 was mastered by his passion for his wayward wife and destroyed both himself and her, along with their innocent children. Bert Julius Rosenbush, Sr. In 2011 the Southern Jewish Historical Society sponsored a fascinating interview with Bert Julius Rosenbush, Jr., the so-called “last Jew in Marengo County” whose father, Bert Julius Rosenbush, Sr., at the time of the extinguishing of the Clements Smith family owned a Demopolis furniture store and funeral home which employed none other than Coroner Cedric Hickman. Although he was only five years old at the time of the slayings (his sister was just two), Bert, Jr. recalled with palpable and poignant sadness that the terrible violent deaths of this attractive young family had prompted his sensitive father, who was given the mortifying task of preparing the victims for burial, to abandon the funeral business for good and all. Just five years earlier Bert., Sr. himself had been wed, to Miriam Stein, in a widely attended ceremony performed thirty-five miles to the west at the Baptist Church at the little town of Cuba in neighboring Sumter County (no synagogue was available there); and their marriage had produced much happiness in both of their lives, along with their little boy and girl. Two years prior to the Smith murders, Bert, Sr., on his way back to Demopolis from the city of Birmingham, in his own ambulance had removed, with the assistance of his two trained nurses, the lifeless body of eighteen-year-old farmer Lawrence Daniel Garris, who had been killed when his truck overturned east of Demopolis, and prepared him for burial at his mortuary. “To forget is vain endeavor,” Lawrence’s grief-stricken parents inscribed on their dead boy’s gravestone; and, true to those words, Bert, Sr. found that he simply could not get the ghastly images of the bullet-felled Smiths—Clements, Elsie, Frank and Sabra—out of his mind: Rosenbush: [W]hen my daddy went in the business he went to Cincinnati and became a licensed embalmer. He practiced embalming along with running the furniture store with my grandmother until a tragic accident happened here in Demopolis. After that accident…it was just such a sad affair that my daddy decided to give it up. Interviewer: What was the accident? Rosenbush: It was…a man killed his family and they were about the same age as [my daddy’s] family. So, he just decided…just to stick to the furniture business and give up the undertaking part. Death seemed greedily to stalk and devour the Smith family during the Thirties and Forties. Both Clements’ elder brother, Fenton Reid Smith, and his sister-in-law likewise were taken in unexpected ways. In 1923 Fenton married Alice Portman Bright and later the couple moved to the Panama Canal Zone, where Fenton was employed as a plant manager with the General Electric Company. About eight months before Andrew Reid Smith’s own passing in 1932, his daughter-in-law Alice died from Spanish Influenza in the Canal Zone at the Gorgas Hospital (named for the famed native Alabamian disease battler William Crawford Gorgas). Nine years after his wife’s untimely death, Fenton himself perished in the Canal Zone at the age of forty-eight, when in 1943 he drowned while fishing for tarpon in the roiling waters of Gatun Spillway. The Smith family matriarch would have been forgiven for having found it all too much to bear, but she must have had more than an inkling of danger when Clements married Elsie back in 1933, for she knew well from her own family history the menace which lurked in mésalliances. Fifteen years earlier her previously divorced brother J. Morgan Clements, the bestower of her celebrated Japanese curio collection, had made an ill-advised marriage in 1908 to a beautiful brunette double divorcee, a certain Mrs. Josephine Burley, a stenographer of ambiguous antecedents from Butte, Montana. The couple had first met four years earlier, when Josephine had immediately won the mining expert’s sympathy by tearfully confiding to him that she was contemplating suicide over some bad mining investments which she had made. “The bride was well known among a select circle of friends who felt for her the warmest friendship, as her splendid womanly nature appealed to all her knew her,” the Butte Miner put it in words that, in my eyes at least, raise several red flags, adding reassuringly, if vaguely: “She is a woman of superior mental attainment and belongs to an old southern family of revolutionary fame.” Unfortunately, Morgan—who from his copper mines and other holdings annually earned, in modern value, an income of around half a million dollars a year, making him a tempting matrimonial mark for a sharp-eyed adventuress—found life with this most womanly of women utterly unbearable. Within a year of the wedding he left Josephine and returned to New York, providing her with monthly support of $125 ($3500 today), the equivalent of what she had earned as a stenographer before her marriage. Over the next year Josephine racked up $6000 ($170,000 today) in personal expenditures and sent a flurry of importunate and recriminatory letters to Morgan’s friends and family, including his sister Clara, in which she lengthily accused her estranged husband of myriad acts of insanity and immorality. She also claimed that Morgan had sent her to Alabama to visit Bluff Hall in order to have Clara procure her an abortion. “When a bug seeks shelter under a rotten log,” Josephine warned Morgan after he refused to return to her, “someone is going to kick that log and expose it.” In 1910 Josephine brought a separation suit against Morgan in New York, where he then resided, requesting monthly alimony of $400 ($11,000 today)—an action which prompted her exasperated husband to counter through his lawyers that the extravagant “termagant” whom he had so foolishly married deserved not a dime more from him. While not rising to the notoriety of the recent Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation suit, the case of Clements v. Clements made newspaper headlines across the country over the next couple of years and was heard by famed judge John W. Goff, once characterized as “the cruelest, most sadistic judge we have had in New York this century.” Morgan’s lawyers introduced evidence of Josephine’s lies about her social background, instability and “vain, conceited, coarse, vulgar” behavior in general and they even plausibly urged that at a Phoenix, Arizona ranch, where male guests familiarly nicknamed her “The Rose of the Rancho,” Josephine had covertly carried on an affair with her attorney at the time, Julius McLain Jamison. This latter point was advanced through what newspapers mirthfully dubbed the “honeybun love notes” exchanged between Josephine and Julius (who occupied adjoining rooms at the ranch), which were intercepted by a “negro maid,” Zoe Burney, who forwarded them to Morgan. “Can’t I love my baby,” Julius, then fifty-five years old, cooed pleadingly in one of the notes, much to the amusement of the press. “I just can’t keep away from my pet baby.” Julius urged Josephine to rap on the wall, according to their prearranged signal, to let him know when he could pay her a call. Despite this evidence, however, Judge Goff, a native Irish Catholic who took a stern view of a husband’s legal responsibilities to his wife, awarded Josephine alimony, albeit a reduced monthly amount of $72 ($2000 today). Morgan may not have met his Waterloo with this particular Josephine, but the affair had certainly constituted a costly lesson for him, both financially and emotionally, about wedding wisely or not at all. Unfortunately, his nephew Clements Smith did not learn from his uncle’s mishap, a failure with fatal consequences for four people. At trial Josephine Clements had claimed that her enraged husband at one point had called her a “goddamn bitch” and threatened to throw her out of a seven-story hotel window. Morgan denied the charge and countered with his own claims of intemperate behavior on his wife’s part, but, whatever the exact truth of the matter, the disputes between the two never came to actual physical violence, let alone multiple murder and suicide. During the 1940s Clara, whom Clements had made the beneficiary of his will back in 1923, continued to reside at Bluff Hall with her sole surviving son, Clements’ younger brother Singleton Smith, a bookkeeper at the Commercial National Bank, and Charles’s wife Eleanor and their son, Andrew Reid Smith II, although to make ends meet she converted the upper floor of the spacious twenty-room mansion into rental apartments. Occasionally she hosted meetings of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in her elegant double parlors and dining room, but things were never the same again. After Andrew Reid II in 1946 married Jule Barnes of Prattville, Alabama at Demopolis’ First United Methodist Church, the remaining Smiths resided at Bluff Hall for only another couple of years, when they sold the home and moved to the town of Long Beach, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where at the age of eighty-two Clara passed away in 1955. (This was five years after her brother Morgan, who lost a great deal of his copper mining fortune in border raids conducted during the 1910s Mexican Border War, expired on his coconut plantation on the island of Mo’orea in French Polynesia, where he had moved in 1925—finally putting, one presumes, literally thousands of miles of separation between himself and Josephine.) A dozen years after Clara’s demise, Bluff Hall became a house museum maintained by the city of Demopolis, and so it remains today: a beautiful white-pillared southern mansion and popular tourist attraction with an appalling family tragedy buried discretely in its past. Contrarily, the newer house that was raised on South Cedar Avenue, where the Clements Smith family so violently perished, no longer stands. In its place, I believe, stands Demopolis Hardwood Floors. I toured Bluff Hall some three decades ago, around 1990, without once hearing from anyone the barest whisper of the terrible Smith family murders. By this time perspicacious Police Officer Porter had been deceased for a decade, having retired from the Selma force back in 1963 with an accumulation of more than 35,000 cards in his fingerprint file. His career highlight had come in 1957, when he received a reward of $3800 ($35,000 today) and a personal letter of commendation from FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover for identifying “Reco Glover” as Mississippi native Lemuel Taylor, accused slayer a couple of years earlier of Walter Hart, an off-duty police detective shot in Cincinnati, Ohio while heroically attempting to prevent a holdup at the Grey Eagle Café (Where Good People Meet). Taylor was convicted of Hart’s murder and executed the next year. Likewise in 1990 the first of Elsie Hildreth Smith’s transitory husbands, George Battles Finch, who had been but a few years older than Elsie, had been dead for several years. Yet some of the key witnesses in that long-ago dreadful affair of November 24-25, 1934, lingered a little longer, including Mems Creagh Webb and his wife, whose daughter Frances “Sister” Webb, just three years old at the time of the murders, in 1983 became one of the first women elected to the Alabama State Senate. Then there was Gertrude Robertson, who, having married later in life, finally passed away in Mobile, Alabama in 1993. Just what had the cook seen and what had she judiciously refrained from telling? At this late date it is unlikely we shall ever know. Even Bert Rosenbush, Jr., who was just a young child at the time of the murders, is no longer with us, having expired three years ago at the age of eighty-nine. Clements’ nephew, Andrew Reid Smith II, who was eight years old at the time of the murders, predeceased Bert Rosenbush by a decade. While a graduate student during the 1990s (to add a personal note), I wrote my history PhD dissertation on the remarkable northern-born antebellum and Reconstruction-era industrialist Daniel Pratt, founder of the manufacturing town of Prattville, Alabama, located ninety miles to the east. In the course of researching this Crimereads article I discovered, oddly enough, that the woman who introduced me when I last spoke in Prattville two decades ago, was—in addition to being a great-great-granddaughter of Daniel Pratt’s nephew Merrill Pratt—a great-niece, through her Demopolis grandfather Singleton Smith, of none other than Frank Clements Smith, the man who undoubtedly perpetrated, the deferential prevarications of Coroner Hickman and his jury notwithstanding, what likely remains today “the most shocking tragedy that has happened in the city of Demopolis.” 2. Sara Elizabeth Mason’s The House That Hate Built (1944) Aunt Elizabeth went with her to the back door, and as Linda started toward the garage she heard the key turn in the lock. It was strange, the care and precision with which they all locked their doors now. It was as though they hoped to shut out the evil which came seeping into their house, evil that was tenacious and real, but which, like the fog, could not be shut out. They were only locking themselves inside with their nameless fears.—The House that Hate Built (1944), Sara Elizabeth Mason Comment: I just read this book from the library. It’s called “The house that hate built.” I heard it was something that happened in Demopolis but she used another town name. It’s a murder mystery and was supposed to have really happened in the 1940s or so. Does anyone know about it? Reply: Isn’t that a book by Sara Elizabeth Mason? She wrote “Murder Rents a Room,, I think in the 40’s too. If it’s her, I doubt that the story was based on a real event, but the town would almost certainly be based on Demopolis. I haven’t thought about that book in years!—Message board discussion at http://www.demopolislive.com/board/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=5112&start=30, 10 February 2007 Bluff Hall having been an ancestral home of Alabama author Sara Elizabeth Mason’s Glover ancestors (original mansion owner Sara Serena Glover Lyon was a great aunt), it seems likely that Sara, who had been born in Demopolis, though she grew to adulthood in the New South factory town of Gadsden, Alabama, heard an earful about the shocking murders committed in 1934, when she was twenty-three years old and a recent graduate from the University of Alabama, by Frank Clements Smith, the middle son of the couple who had bought Bluff Hall back in 1907 and owned it ever since. Sara drew on her own life experience and family history in her other mysteries (Murder Rents a Room, set in Greene County, ancestral Alabama home of the Glovers; The Crimson Feather, set in Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama; and The Whip, set in Chicago, where Sara attended graduate school); and she evidently did so as well in The House That Hate Built (1944), which is believed to have been set by the author in Demopolis (under another name) and in my view draws loosely on elements of the Smith slayings, particularly in its depiction of bad blood stirred by what are deemed unsuitable matrimonial alliances with previously wedded women. Nine years ago, when a performance of The House That Hate Built was staged at Demopolis’s annual Tombigbee Haints and Haunts Halloween celebration, the Demopolis Times asserted that “Mason’s book has a kernel of truth to it and is based on a local family feud.” To be sure, any crime novel based to the letter on the Frank Clements Smith murders would have much more resemblance to Alabama-affiliated author Truman Capote’s chilling true crime study In Cold Blood than to any of bestselling Thirties author Mary Roberts Rinehart’s lighter mystery-romances, which Sara Mason’s books, with the exception of her last (The Whip), decidedly favor. One wonders what crime writer Dashiell Hammett’s paramour Lillian Hellman, the author of the biting plays The Children’s Hour (1934) and The Little Foxes (1939) who had maternal Jewish family relations in Demopolis and spent some of her youthful days in the town, might have made of it. Sarah Mason’s The House That Hate Built takes place during a hot and sultry June in the fictional community of Monroe, Alabama, like Demopolis “an in-between place: too large to be a small town and not large enough to be a city.” Despite occasional bursts of boosterism by the local Chamber of Commerce, Monroe’s sole industry is a single cotton mill, most people in Monroe remaining “content for the town to stay as it was” and being “apt to resent any changes.” In real-life Demopolis a cement factory, taking advantage of the limestone deposits in the area, began operation about two miles east of town shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, and it remains in business today, over a century later. There was even a small textiles factory, Demopolis Cotton Mills, though it proved less durable than the cement factory. Notwithstanding the presence of these industries, however, Demopolis remained “distinctly rural,” notes a 2006 article in the Tuscaloosa News. “Cotton was king,” a townsman recalled. “The whole town would be full of wagons with people bringing cotton to the gin.” The town’s biggest employer was John C. Webb & Sons, a family firm of cotton merchants that owned the cotton gin. Mems Creagh Webb, a key witness in the Smith murder case, was one of John C. Webb’s grandsons. In Demopolis the sprawling, double-porched, Victorian-style John C. Webb house, which comes complete with an ornamental fishpond (and which Clements and Elsie Smith would have driven past several times on the fatal night of November 24, 1934), seems reminiscent of the old Clark mansion in Monroe, as described by Sara Mason. “It had been built in the 1890s by [Linda’s] grandfather in the rococo style of that period,” observes the author with a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the ornate domestic architecture of her parents’ generation. “It was big and inconvenient, with only one bath and no closets. Its bleak lines were angular, and the wide front porch was draped with wooden lace. At odd places were small and completely useless balconies, and a cupola appeared unexpectedly at a second-story corner.” In The House That Hate Built the old Clark mansion—at present occupied by the spinster Clark sisters, “precise and decisive” Elizabeth and vague and woolly-minded Mary, and their young and attractive niece Linda Clark—is one of three houses on its side of the block on Charles Street, a neighborhood that might most politely be described as genteelly decayed. “Charles Street was old-fashioned and a little shabby, but it was dignified and highly respectable,” explains the author, adding with a faintly ominous note: “Monroe had a saying that the only people who left it were the dead.” Very soon more dead—unnaturally dead this time—will be departing from highly respectable Charles Street. In between the old Clark mansion and the home of a couple of childless married Clark relations, Will and Suzy Hunter (husband Will, who once had worked for the bank but allowed “good prospects and a fair inheritance” to slip through his fingers, now fecklessly sells real estate and the couple is in straitened circumstances), stands the titular “house that hate built”: the domicile of James Clark, retired bank president and father of Linda by his first marriage, and his second wife, Margaret, formerly Margaret Branch from a prior marriage. Fifteen years ago James’s prim and proper sisters were appalled when their beloved brother wed Margaret Branch after his first wife’s death, a fact of which the new Mrs. Clark was only too well aware. Simmering with resentment against these blue blooded women who dared to look down their noses at her, Margaret persuaded her husband, then “in the first bloom of love,” to build a house for them right next to the Clark mansion, so that the fact of their marriage would be thrown back in the faces of the Clark sisters every single day for the rest of their lives. The tall privet hedge which Elizabeth and Mary planted between the two houses in retaliation has become another source of contention between Mrs. Clark and her sisters-in-law. “So far as I can find out,” reflects one character to Linda, “nobody loved Mrs. Clark, unless it was your father.” It is not long after the return of another person who seemingly does not love Mrs. Clark, Margo Branch, her recently divorced and drop-dead gorgeous daughter from her prior marriage, that Mrs. Clark is discovered in the music room of the house that hate built, lifelessly seated by the piano. Handsome local doctor Dan Kennedy, called to the scene of the crime, pronounces that Margaret has been fatally and viciously stabbed. In her cold hands the dead woman holds sheet music to “Ase’s Tod” (Ase’s Death), from composer Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite. Symbolic, to be sure, yet never in her life, to local knowledge anyway, did Mrs. Clark actually play the piano. What does the presence of this sheet music signify? Further, just what does the dashing Todd Innis, who four years ago sold an insurance police to the late Mrs. Clark, know about the murder? Or the old yardman Tom, whom Mrs. Clark cruelly evicted from a rental home she owned, leading to the death of Tom’s wife from double pneumonia? And—another moat pressing question in servant-avid Monroe—will Mattie, cook to the Misses Clark, give notice, exasperated beyond endurance with investigators annoyingly buzzing like flies around her kitchen? Sara Mason’s specificity in describing Mattie suggests a character modeled after real-life “help” like Gertrude Robertson: Mattie was an individual. When she first came to them Mary had provided uniforms, white aprons, and caps for company, but there had always been some reason why Mattie wasn’t wearing them. Now Mary apologized for her appearance and let it go at that. Mattie didn’t seem to mind the many steps necessary in the old house, and she was always agreeable whether or not she did what she was told to do. She wore a pair of men’s shoes, cut to allow her spreading feet more room, and on her head was an old and greasy felt hat. Otherwise she wore whatever the family gave her. Before Sheriff Frank Garner finally catches Mrs. Clark’s killer in a startling dénouement, the thread of life of yet another resident of Charles Street is most unpleasantly snipped and Linda Clark’s own continued existence on this erring earth is decidedly put in question. Of the fact that marriage indeed can be murder readers most assuredly will be convinced after a reading of The House That Hate Built. While the novel may not make as grim a read as the real life tragedy of Clements and Elsie Smith, it certainly provides a memorable glimpse of long faded life in a small southern town unpleasantly obliged to confront the murderous paradox of genteel carnage. Note: All four of Sara Elizabeth Mason’s crime novels have been reprinted by Coachwip as The Sara Elizabeth Mason Mysteries, Volumes I and II. View the full article
  12. When I go to crime scenes, I’m ready to focus on terrible things. I end up at crime scenes because my best friend, a homicide lieutenant, thinks I have something to offer on the cases he calls “different.” He rarely gives me details, wanting me to form my own impressions. As I pulled up to the yellow tape on a Monday morning just after ten, I knew nothing. No evidence markers outside. Whatever had happened was limited to the interior of a navy-blue, two-story stucco building. I gave my name to a uniform guarding the tape and was allowed to park in a red zone. The blue building sat on the north side of Venice Boulevard, perched on a grubby corner, the entrance on a side street. At the back was a parking area, also taped, with the rear end of a black Prius just visible. Beyond the alley was a residential block; seventy-year-old apartments and a few straggling bungalows. A little pocket of L.A. that had managed to elude Culver City when borders were drawn. The automotive mix out front was the usual. Black-and-whites plus vehicles dispatched from the crypt on North Mission Road. Two vans for transporting techs and their gear, meaning lots of scraping and sampling; one for transporting bodies; a Chevy Volt sedan used by coroners’ assistants as they traveled around the county ministering to dead people. No signage on the blue building. Rust-crusted security bars grilled two narrow windows on each floor. So narrow they evoked castle bow-slits. I slipped under the tape and headed for the front door, a gray metal slab left slightly ajar. No one had told me to glove up but I covered my hand with a corner of my blazer and prepared to nudge. Before I made contact, the door swung open and Milo Sturgis came out. He wore a pessimistic black suit, a beige shirt stretched tight over his gut, and a skinny brown tie whose origins could be traced to a chemistry lab. Paper booties covered his desert boots. He had gloved up and latex glistened as it strained over hands the size of strip steaks. His black hair alternated between gelled obedience and random flight. His face was chalky in the sunlight, UV rays advertising pits and lumps that harked back to teenage acne. Nothing to interpret; his default pallor. Startling green eyes remained calm but his mouth was set in a sour frown. Annoyed. “Thanks for coming,” he said. “Ready to put on your therapist hat?” “For who? “C’mon, I’ll show you.” The door opened to a blank white wall. To the right was an alarm keypad. Less wall than knock-up partition; pebbled, whitewashed fiberboard, no ability to mute sound. Lots of sound from behind the wall. Moans and gasps and sobs then a moment of breath-catching quiet during which a woman said, “Try to relax,” with no great sincerity. More sobbing. I said, “Someone’s having a bad day.” Milo said, “Not compared with the decedent. Hopefully you can calm things down so I can concentrate on the decedent.” CHAPTER 2 By the time I reached the crying woman, I knew the decedent’s name and hers after Milo showed me her California driver’s license. Melissa Lee-Ann Gornick. “But,” said Milo, “she goes by Melissande.” The license pegged her as twenty years old, five-four, ninety-eight pounds, BRN eyes and hair. Why DMV bothers to record hair color has always mystified me and Melissande Gornick proved my point with a hot-pink, teased-up do. Since being photographed three years ago, she’d also added steel piercings to her left eyebrow, her left cheek, her right nostril, and the soft spot between lower lip and chin. For all that, both ears remained untouched by metal. Maybe that was now a thing. My patients are generally well below the piercing age so I sometimes miss out on current events. Melissande Gornick rocked back and forth in a chair and gripped the sides of her face with black-nailed hands. Her spare frame barely impacted the seating, an oversized love seat of brick-colored tweed. One of half a dozen pieces of furniture strewn randomly in cold, white space. Two techs worked in corners, scraping, bottling, bagging, labeling. As we approached, she let out three gulping sobs then switched to high-pitched keening whistles. Then back to crying. Like a teapot undecided if brewing was complete. Milo’s look said, See what I mean. The female officer stationed behind Gornick said, “Try to relax,” with even less enthusiasm than a moment ago. When you’re all strung up, there’s nothing less helpful than being told to calm down. But cops aren’t therapists and confronting anxiety kicks in their own fears of madness and impulse. So they keep saying it and getting nowhere and the beat goes on. Melissande Gornick wailed louder. The uniform rolled her eyes. Milo said, “We’re okay, Officer Bourget.” Bourget’s look said he was Santa and she’d been a good girl. “Yessir.” She trotted away. Melissande Gornick seemed unaware of her surroundings. Rosy, welt-like marks striped her cheeks where her nails had taken hold. I wondered if she was prone to self-injury. A long-sleeved black jersey and gray skinny jeans blocked diagnosis. Milo bent close to her. “So sorry you had to go through this.” Using the ideal tone, soft and nonthreatening, but nothing indicated she’d heard. He shook his head, stepped away, and waved me forward. I’d been checking out the white space. The entire ground floor of the building was a single open area with an iron spiral staircase tucked in the rear right corner. Walls were blank, cement floors painted glossy black. The mismatched furniture—chairs, table, an old desk—ranged from gently used to stuff that looked as if it had been rescued from the curb. The only clue to the building’s function was a section, rear and central, lit by overhead tracks and containing a single, straight-backed chair, three high wooden Victorian armoires, a trio of silver light baffles, and two cameras on tripods, one of which looked antique. Robin has a camera like that, a Hasselblad she inherited from her father and has never used. Neither of us photographs much. Robin because she prefers to draw and paint, I because there are enough images in my head. Black drapes hung from a ring of metal pipe running high near the ceiling of the posing area. A curtain capable of blocking the front was furled, leaving the space open to view. I approached Melissande Gornick. Her soundtrack changed and she began hyperventilating. In movies, heroes use paper bags to treat hyperventilation, but it’s an iffy technique at best and can sometimes be dangerous. Gearing up my hypnosis voice—soft, rhythmic, and, most important, monotonous—I said, “You’re doing fine . . . ​if you feel like it, slow your breathing . . . ​not a lot, just a bit.” She continued to gulp. Caught her breath. Arched her back. Trying. No success but I said, “Excellent . . . ​keep doing that . . . ​just breathe . . . ​you’re in charge . . . ​that’s it . . . ​great . . . ​perfect . . . ​breathe nice and easy . . . ​great . . . ​think you can slow down a tiny bit more?” She tensed. I said, “Or not. Up to you.” She loosened. “Excellent. Now see if you can breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.” I timed her respiration with my watch. Good old analog Omega with a second hand. Another couple dozen respirations before her rate had slowed to just above normal. I said, “Fantastic, so whatever you need to do.” She exhaled. Sat still. Stared straight ahead. “Good job, Melissande.” “I felt like I was . . . ​gonna . . .” Her chest rose and fell. “Sure,” I said. “You’ve been through something tough.” BRN eyes widened. “What . . . ​now?” Someone else might’ve said, Try to stay relaxed. I said, “Do whatever you need to.” That confused her, which was the point. The power of constructive distraction. She stared at me. Her hands dropped from her face, wrists and forearms vibrating. If she’d had a fleshier face, it would’ve jiggled. This face was narrow, delicately boned, the sweaty skin stretched drum-tight, and it remained still. Milo fidgeted. Melissande Gornick said, “I don’t . . . ​f**k, I don’t . . . ​know.” I said, “Know . . . ?” “What to do.” “You don’t have to do anything, Melissande.” Unsatisfactory answer. She grimaced and tightened up. I said, “Do whatever it takes.” “I’ll never get through this!” “It’s a terrible thing.” “It’s—f**ked up.” “Totally.” __________________________________ Excerpted from Unnatural History by Jonathan Kellerman. Copyright © 2023 by Jonathan Kellerman. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. View the full article
  13. Photograph of A. M. Homes by Marion Ettlinger. Photograph of Yiyun Li by Basso Cannarsa/Agence Opale. A few times a year, the writers Yiyun Li and A. M. Homes sit down to lunch. As friends, they often find themselves talking about almost anything but writing. Often, though, as they ask each other questions, something interesting and unexpected happens: “The thin thread of a story might be unearthed,” Homes recently told us, “or the detail of a recent experience, or a gnawing question one finds unanswerable. Somewhere between the menu, the meal and the coffee, maybe the story begins to form.” Last year, Li and Homes both published new novels. In Li’s The Book Of Goose, she tells the story of a complex friendship between Agnes and Fabienne, farm girls, who each have been in some way neglected by their families. Homes’s latest book, The Unfolding, is a political satire that explores the fault lines of American politics within a family. At the end of the year, the two friends sat down for one of their lunches—and what follows is a bit of what they talked about. HOMES Funnily enough, as colleagues and friends, one of the things that we never talk about is writing. LI Once in a while I will tell you a story or say something has happened, and you’ll say, “Write that into a story.” That has happened three times. Particularly with the story “All Will Be Well,” as I explained in an interview with The New Yorker: “Sometimes it needs a nudge from another person. I was talking with my friend A. M. Homes one day, and I told her about this practice in California, where we were asked to send care packages to our children’s preschool with a letter, in case of a catastrophic earthquake. She said, ‘You have to write a story about that.’ It had not occurred to me until then, and it turned out that there was a place for the care package in a story.” I think you have a specific talent for saying, “Well, that’s an idea.” There’s an expansiveness to the way you look at the world. Do you look through a telescope or a microscope? Where does it come from? HOMES I would say my way of looking comes from growing up as an outsider in my own family—a person adopted into a family. I felt other and different and experienced the world as an observer. There’s a space between me and other people that would otherwise perhaps not exist. LI Do you still feel that way? HOMES I do. It’s a strange position that has also given me enormous freedom to inhabit others and create characters. I don’t feel wedded to any particular identity because I don’t feel I have an identity. LI I come from a different kind of family, where I often wished that I were adopted. When someone’s scrutinizing you all the time, your instinct can be not to look at them, not to think about them. Because I’m sheltering myself from all these things in my own life, I can create an alternative universe where my perspective is. HOMES It’s like you’re on the outside, and a shade has gone down that says “Closed for the afternoon” and no one can see that you’re inside, looking off in a different direction. LI Yes, and for you, it’s like you’re outside the house and the shade comes down, and you’re thinking, “What’s going on inside the house?” HOMES Exactly. And wondering: do I even have a key to the house? LI So, where are you looking at this moment? HOMES For better or worse, I’m a very American writer, so I’m looking at the way we consume things. I’m increasingly interested in economics and how a person’s economic life affects their narrative and trajectory. Where and how a person lives, whether they have money or have access to health care, all these things change the course of their life profoundly. I always feel that, in fiction, and certainly when we discuss fiction, we don’t talk about those things enough, but I’m fascinated by their implications. LI I always say that every character has to have a job. Many students create characters who don’t have jobs. They don’t work. Certainly the reason I’m so curious about the concept of the quintessential American writer is because I am not one, although my coming of age as a writer happened in America. So I’m curious about how you define an American writer. HOMES That’s a good question—how does one define an American writer? To be honest, I think that raises another question that until recently I’ve been loath to discuss. That questions is, How does one define an American female writer versus an American male writer? The gender gap with regard to material and expectation and even who reads the books feels larger to me in America than in other countries. In the U.S., men write the Great American Novels—the books about the scale and scope of the American social, political, economic experience—and women are supposed to write the smaller-scale, intimate, domestic stories. In other countries things are not so divided. There is not Women’s Literature, or Chick Lit, and then Men’s Literature. This bothers me a lot, and I would say that my most recent book, The Unfolding, is an attempt to do both—to write both the large-scale, state-of-the-nation novel and also unpack the small-scale, intimate life of a family. But almost as soon as the book came out, a bookseller asked me, “Who is this book for?” and I was caught off guard. I didn’t know what she meant. Was she asking is it for men or women? Was she asking is it for people who agree with my point of view? I don’t know—when I am writing I never think about who this book is for—beyond the hope that my fiction is both entertaining, funny, and provokes thought, robust conversation, and debate about the issues of our time. Does that make any sense or say anything about the American novel? LI One thing I can relate to as an American writer is clarity. I was in a cab in Beijing recently, and the cab driver asked me what I did for a living. I said, “I’m a writer.” This cab driver, who had apparently read many books translated from English, and especially American writers, said, “American writers are very straightforward. In China, we consider writing as making circles. You do all these hide-and-seek games. You never say what you want to say.” He said, “American writers, they say what they want to say.” HOMES That’s a super-interesting idea—depending on what country someone is from, one has more or less freedom to say directly what they want to say or to code their writing in some way so that someone can extrapolate another meaning from it. I think there is accuracy to the idea that there is a bluntness to American writing. It aims for an immediate connection with the reader. And it’s almost as though sometimes there’s not a lot of room to build the relationship, because the attention span is so short that either you connect immediately or it’s over. It’s almost like, Swipe right. You escaped that in The Book of Goose, which I think of as originating from a more European model. LI The world of my novel is entirely rural. It’s set in the French countryside. My characters are French girls. But they will never place their own lives in a historical setting. They will never say, We are two French girls living in the countryside in poverty post–World War II under American occupation. All these historical terms describing their existence do not matter to them. I felt liberated writing about them because I did not have to worry about all these things that critics would say about rural France, post–World War II, the American occupation. No, this is a world made up by two girls, entirely made up by two girls. I feel that I got a little, like, a shortcut because my characters live in their own world in a way. Would you say that you are the opposite? HOMES Yes and no. It’s beautiful the way you described the characters in The Book of Goose as living in the world of their imagination and their physical existence and their environment. It’s a world from inside out—and actually I always start from that point, too, the interior of the character—although in The Unfolding in particular there is a lot of social, cultural, and political framing and large amounts of history and fact. So it is absolutely both in the mind’s eye of the characters, but as they are participating in the known world in a very obvious sense. Another thing we share: We both live in our imaginations and we pull in threads from our worlds and our experiences, but they are not the dominant theme. We are not writing about ourselves. LI I don’t find myself that interesting. HOMES I don’t find myself that interesting either. Like you, I have written about myself at times and about experiences that I’ve had, but fundamentally, it’s not the thing I enjoy most. LI Do you think readers like to go beyond themselves? HOMES I’m not sure anymore. When I was growing up, all I was looking for was a way out—a way into another world. So I read biographies. I thought, “Just show me how to be a person. Show me how to live a life.” I think that, as things have become more fractured, people seem to read to confirm their ideas about themselves and their identities. They’re looking for a mirror. We also are in a moment when misunderstanding is not tolerated. But misunderstanding is fundamental to growth because you cannot assume everyone will understand everything, nor can you assume that they will agree. So you have to have a zone where you can navigate that. I’ve always found that reading and writing books helped me to do that. LI Where is the zone now? Where is that space? How do we make that space? I did an event with Garth Greenwell, and he mentioned—and it’s true—that people always say my work is too bleak. I said, “The bleakest thing is when life is bleak and you pretend it’s very rosy.” I’m in the William Trevor camp of writers. John Banville described Trevor and said, “William Trevor arrives in a beautiful town, and he looks around and says, ‘How beautiful is this town? Let me write and find out what’s wrong with it.’” My belief is that there’s something innately unsettling and troubling underneath. I want to write to find that layer rather than cover that layer up. HOMES I’m curious about your relationship to secrets. Are secrets helpful? Do you think of yourself as secretive? LI I want to make a distinction between secretive and private. John McGahern famously said that Irish people don’t have privacy, only secrets. It’s a lie that you live your entire life inside the church, inside society. Even with no secrets, you can always hold something in your heart. So I feel that at this moment I’m not secretive but I have my privacy. How about you? I think you are more outgoing, more out there. HOMES I don’t have secrets anymore. I think it comes from the fact that I’m actually painfully shy. When I was younger, people sometimes misread that as my being formal or off-putting, and so I worked to show that I’m not scary. But now it’s like I’m naked, I have no covering, no shell, which is another problem. I definitely don’t have any secrets. I also don’t feel like I have a lot of privacy. LI What about your characters? All characters have secrets, but they don’t seem to have privacy because of the way we look at them. How do you think about that? HOMES I would say my characters in my most recent book have so many secrets that I don’t even begin to know how deep they go, and they are also pretty private. In the book before this one, I was writing this character, Harold Silver, who’s a Nixon scholar, and I found him very difficult. I kept asking myself, “Why is it so hard to write this?” Slowly, I came to understand that I didn’t know Harold Silver because Harold does not know himself. And only as Harold came to know himself did the book become easier to write. I have a craft question for you. When I read your work, it feels to me so well-crafted and so fine-tuned, and each line is really perfect and beautiful. I wonder, do they come out that way? Or what is your revision process like? LI No, of course nothing comes out perfect, right? With this new book, The Book of Goose, the first draft was one hundred fifty pages longer than the final. Secondly, there was an unnecessary frame, a bit like the one in Lolita. I was very attached to that frame, but everybody, all my early readers, indicated that it was not going to work. HOMES But you needed it to write it. LI I think that frame was for my psychological comfort. I argued, I defended the frame, and eventually my editor said, “I think you want the book to be a different one than the book is meant to be.” And when she said that, I thought, “Oh, that makes sense.” So I cut away the frame. I rewrote the second half. How many drafts did you do of your recent book? HOMES What’s interesting is that each book defines its own terms. With The Unfolding, the complexity was in figuring out the weave of the stories. I didn’t want each person’s story to repeat itself or each character to have to expound upon the same experience. So it was a question of how to keep it moving forward without accounting for each character in every moment. Grace Paley used to say to me that the bummer about being a writer is that you’re never promoted to senior vice president of writing. Every time you are thrown back to the beginning. You might acquire some skills for the management of problems, but each book is so different, and you have a different agenda because you’re not trying to just repeat yourself. So you have to discover what the terms are of that book and how it will operate and the ways in which it has weaknesses. LI Totally. That’s an argument I constantly have with how books are read—they’re read as products. Books are not products. A book cannot be perfect. Nothing is proportional. Nothing is perfect. Some of Mavis Gallant’s books, for instance, are just so good and terrible at the same time, and all I can say is that she gave birth to a baby that looks different from all the babies in the world. A. M. Homes is the author of thirteen books of fiction and nonfiction, including The Unfolding; May We Be Forgiven, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction; and the bestselling memoir The Mistress’s Daughter. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and The Guggenheim Foundation, and is active on the boards of numerous arts organizations. She teaches in the creative writing program at Princeton University. Yiyun Li is the author of eleven books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novels The Book of Goose and Where Reasons End. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Windham-Campbell Prize, a PEN/Jean Stein Award, and a PEN/Malamud Award, among other honors. She teaches at Princeton University. 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  14. The universe has been trying to get me off this planet for years. February 2015: It’s a cold Wednesday night and my Advanced Screenwriting Class (where undergraduate students complete a feature film script in one semester) has just wrapped up a scene-by-scene deconstruction of the iconic film Die Hard, which every aspiring screenwriter needs to study line-by-line. These are good kids—dedicated, disciplined, talented. You don’t sign up for a class like this unless you’re committed. I’m in my twentieth year of teaching screenwriting at Tennessee’s first film school: The Watkins Film School, a division of the Watkins College of Art. I love teaching, but the college is dying. Our enrollment has been dropping steadily, semester after semester. Despite hefty annual increases in tuition, faculty and staff haven’t seen raises in years. Before it’s over, I’ll be assigned classes I’ve never taught before on subjects I know nothing about because we can’t afford to hire adjuncts who know what they’re doing. It’s 8:30 or so on a frigid night and I head back to my office. I’m in no hurry to get home; my marriage has been deteriorating for a long time. My home life is not good. My faculty office is where I can get a little peace and quiet, especially late at night. I turn to a stack of Intro Screenwriting student scripts and start marking them up. But suddenly, I feel really awful. Truth is, I’ve been feeling lousy for months. I drive to work and the three-minute walk from the parking lot to my office leaves me panting. I have to sit down and get my breath before I start my classes. My energy levels are the lowest they’ve ever been. Earlier, I’d served a five-year term as Chair of the Watkins Film School, where I routinely put in fifty and sixty-hour weeks. Now I was lucky to make my classes. I put it off to stress and age. My personal life had been a raging dumpster fire for a decade-and-a-half. I became a parent for the first time at 48 (in a second marriage that failed after a decade), which is why I took the full-time teaching position. We needed the benefits and the regular paycheck. I mistakenly thought I could continue my writing career, that teaching wouldn’t be that demanding. I was wrong. In the decade before becoming a full-time college professor, I published nine novels. In the fifteen years after, I only published two. I was tired, stressed and depressed. I worked too hard, drank too much, and now I felt like hell. On this February night, it got even worse. I was sick at my stomach and felt like somebody was sitting on my chest. I grabbed my coat and backpack, shut down my office and started the twenty mile drive to my house in West Nashville. Once home, I kicked off my hikers, dropped my coat and backpack, then went straight to my bedroom. A few minutes later, my wife flicked on the bedroom light. “What are you doing?” she asked. “I’m tired,” I said. “Just thought I’d lay down for a minute.” She came over to the bed and looked down at me. “No, you’re not.” “What do you mean?” I said, cranky now. “Leave me alone.” “Get your ass out of that bed,” she said. “We’re going to the hospital. I’m calling Bruce.” My wife and Bruce, her primary care physician, had been close friends for decades, close enough that she had his private cell phone number. A couple of minutes go by and she walks back into the bedroom with a handful of aspirin. “Bruce says put these under your tongue and call an ambulance.” We both broke out laughing. My employer-provided health insurance was a joke—a high-deductible plan that covered almost nothing and cost nearly a grand a month. There was no way we could afford an ambulance. “C’mon,” she said. “I can get you to the emergency room faster than an ambulance can get here anyway.” A few hours later, I checked into a room at St. Thomas West in Nashville and was sucked into the black hole of the American health care medical/industrial complex. The blood draws, tests, scans quickly become a blur. A day later, a cardiac team is standing at the foot of my bed giving me the results: five blocked arteries, including the infamous “widowmaker,” which was something like 80 percent closed. A doctor I’ve never met is telling me I need a quintuple cardiac bypass. Quintuple bypass? I’d never even heard of that. Hey, go big or go home. I begged for an alternative. I had too much to do; it was the middle of the semester. “Can’t you give me meds and send me home?” “Sure,” the cardiologist said. “We can give you meds and send you home to die.” The surgery was delayed because an ice storm had hit the whole area. Staff and doctors couldn’t get to work. Four days later, I go under, not knowing if I’d wake up. The worst part was because of the ice storm, my ex-wife had been unable to get our two daughters to the hospital before the surgery. I didn’t know if I’d ever see them again.  Fall 2018: I survived the quintuple bypass, entered a cardiac rehab program, passed with flying colors. I lost 25 pounds, even though I only topped out at 170 on my heaviest days, and was trying to get more exercise. I quit drinking completely for a year-and-a-half after the surgery, but the night Donald Trump beat Hilary Clinton, I turned to my wife and stepdaughter: “I’m going to the wine store. I’ll be back.” The stress levels are still high at work. It’s clear the college is going under. During my years as Chair of the Film School, our peak student body count was 167—by far the largest department in the college. Now we were down to maybe thirty students or so. A few years earlier, I’d applied for other teaching jobs, but faculty jobs in higher ed are harder than ever to get, especially in esoteric niches like film. I applied for about 25 openings and never got an interview. I was in my sixties now; it just wasn’t going to happen. I began to contemplate a return to full-time writing. My most successful books, by far, had been a series of six private detective novels set in Nashville. I’d been nominated for an Edgar twice, won it once. Multiply nominated for the Shamus Award, I had one of those on my office bookshelf as well. The books had been under continuous option for film and TV rights since they were published up until the last few years, but nothing ever came of it. Maybe, I thought, I should resurrect that series. I got to work. Sometime in September of 2018, I began making notes. My years of teaching screenwriting had turned me into a writer who thought in film terms, even for a novel. I wasn’t brainstorming, I was in pre-production. I wasn’t creating an outline, I was writing a treatment. When final exams were over and the college closed for the holiday, I went to work. In what seemed like no time at all, I had 125 manuscript pages and it was feeling pretty good. In fact, I was encouraged and hopeful—two emotions I hadn’t experienced in a long time. In early January, I was scheduled with my primary care provider for an annual physical. My PCP is a prince, a brilliant and caring physician whom I am personally fond of and trust absolutely. The physical went well. My blood pressure was under control; my off-the-chart cholesterol was finally within a normal range. Things were looking good. There was a smile on his face as we wrapped it all up. “Wait,” I said, as I was about to hop down off the examining table. “I got something I want to ask you about. Give me your hand.” He gave me the classic quizzical look, then held out his hand. I took it, flattened it out, then grabbed his index finger and put it against a spot on the left side of my neck, a few inches below my ear. I moved his finger around for a few seconds. “What the hell is that?” I asked. His brow furrowed. “I don’t know, but we’re going to find out.” For months, I’d had this little knot on my neck, about the size of an English pea. It didn’t hurt. No discomfort at all. It was just there. Within a matter of days, I was sucked once again into the maw of the American health care medical/industrial complex. Ultrasound, CT scan, biopsy. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma: blood cancer. It starts out in the lymphatic system and often manifests itself in swollen lymph nodes. My primary care provider set me up with an oncologist he’d worked with many times before. He was good, my doctor said, one of the best. To top it off he was, like me, a pilot (although I hadn’t had the money to fly in nearly fifteen years). This assured him we’d have lots to talk about. My third wife became an integral part of this process. Despite our difficulties, she’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. She starts researching lymphoma, especially my subset, which deploys frightening terms like “mantle cell” and “blastoid variant.” Apparently, my cancer is a very rare type, seen almost entirely in old white guys. Years later, I would learn that it’s also tied to DNA. I don’t understand it, but apparently I have a few screwed up chromosomes. The new novel gets set aside as it’s all I can do to teach my classes and attend to my treatments. I undergo a PET scan, which is an X-ray study where they inject you with radioactive sugar. Cancer cells love sugar; they’re voracious. When they slide you into the scanner, cancer cells light up. My oncologist assured me that if I did what he told me to do and got with the program, he could cure me. The results of the PET scan, though, are not encouraging. I light up like Christmas at Rockefeller Center. My oncologist said they counted 36 tumors in my lungs. I never got a count on the rest of my body, but they were scattered everywhere, little bursts of light on an otherwise dark landscape. Like fireworks, only on the inside. I started an eight-week regimen of immunotherapy to shrink the tumors and get them under control. For me, immunotherapy was a cakewalk. I was able to drive myself to the treatment lab, get the infusion, then head to Watkins to teach my classes. About as close to a normal life as a cancer patient ever gets… Hey, I thought, I got this. Then it’s time to start the actual chemotherapy, which is a regimen called RCHOP—one letter for each of the five chemicals that make it up. RCHOP’s a witches brew of chemicals, steroids, a bunch of other stuff that sounds scary as hell. This was when I learned that as sophisticated as cancer treatment has become in the past decades, it’s still based on the same principle: Poison the cancer, poison the patient. See which one taps out first. This stuff is so toxic and powerful that they send you home with a regimen of corticosteroids to take for five days to keep you from melting down. You take five pills the first day, four the next, then wind it down until you take one last pill five days out. I took that one last pill on a Sunday, a day when I was having lunch with my daughters. My older one’s driving now, so we meet at a restaurant. The food’s not very good; we decide not to go back. But it was still fun, with laughs and hugs and kisses all around and a generally fine day—the last one I’d have for a long time. The next morning, I’m wiped out. I ache all over, have a disabling fever, so weak I can’t raise my head in bed. I feel like I’ve been pulled through a keyhole. My wife comes in to remind me I have a doctor’s appointment for my follow-up. I barely have the strength to tell her I’m too sick to go. I’ve never felt like this. I’ve had flu before, bad flu. I was in bed for two weeks with it once and felt crappy for months afterward. This is a whole new level. On top of that, the surgeon had done a biopsy and removed a tumor out of my right armpit (the same surgeon has operated on me six times in the last few years; I told him if he spent any more time inside of me, I was going to ask for a commitment). Now the incision site’s hot, angry, swollen and bloated. There’s a rainbow of colors that aren’t supposed to be there: red, green, purple, black. Everything but healthy pink. Streaks were starting to radiate out from my arm and shoulder. My wife phoned the oncologist and told them I was too sick to make the appointment. The next day, I was even sicker and the colors were growing more pronounced. My wife took a cell phone picture and texted it to the nurse. Now they’re concerned. The third morning, she took more pictures and texted them to the oncologist’s office. “Get him in here,” they instructed. “Now.” She helped me dress and gave me a shoulder to lean on as I limped to her car. At the oncologist’s office, a tech draws blood out of the chemotherapy port in my chest. My white blood count has crashed. A normal white blood cell count is between 4,000 and 11,000 cells per microliter of blood. The lab tests revealed mine had dropped below 750. My immune system was shot and I was going septic. My oncologist walks into the examining room after reviewing the lab results. “You’re going to the hospital,” he said. “We’ve already made the calls.” “Can I go home, get my laptop and bathroom stuff and a change of clothes?” My oncologist looked me straight in the eye. “You don’t have time.”  I’m not going to name the hospital the oncologist sent me to, primarily because I don’t relish fighting a libel suit. But from the get-go, I had a bad feeling. As sick as I was, they kept me sitting in a chair for a couple of hours. There weren’t many nurses around. A single nurse escorted me to my room, then left. My wife helped me change into the dreaded hospital gown and I climbed onto the bed, by now barely conscious. Hours went by. I vaguely remember someone bringing me a form to fill out for dinner and breakfast the following day. Eventually, there was an I.V. bag hung on the stand next to me and I guess they started some kind of antibiotic. That evening, I encouraged my wife to go home. I was stable, kind of, and still hoped I was in good hands. By now, she was exhausted and stressed. Taking care of a cancer patient is among the most demanding forms of caregiving possible. That night, I asked for something to help me sleep. They gave me an Ambien, which I’d been taking for years after my bypass. I drifted in and out. Life became a blur. There were tests and sticks, blood draws and palpitations. On the third day, they rolled me down to the basement, where an in-house doctor I’d never met shot my armpit full of lidocaine and lanced the infected surgery site, which now resembled a huge boil. This guy looked like an extra out of Paddy Chayefsky’s The Hospital. He struck me as a late middle-aged burnout case, maybe in recovery from booze or drugs. Like he’d lost his own practice or been kicked out of another, but had gone through rehab so he got his license back and a job as an on-call surgeon for a few years until he retired. All I remember was that the lidocaine didn’t help much, and when this medieval barber lanced the wound, I was suddenly soaking wet. My hospital gown was drenched in blood and pus, as was the sheet on the gurney. It was over quickly and his assisting nurse, a young overweight woman with tattoos, sent for a tech to roll me back to my room. Once there, they shifted me over to the bed and then left me lying there in the blood-and-pus soaked hospital gown (the wound continued to fester; weeks later my surgeon’s partner would do a proper repair and get it resolved). Hours later, maybe even the next day (it’s all kind of a blur), the hospital gown was now dry and crunchy and stuck to my skin. It was starting to smell kind of gamy as well, or maybe it was me since no one ever came by to help me shower or clean up. I finally rang for a nurse, who seemed irritated at my call, and asked her to please bring me a clean gown. She disappeared for five minutes, came back, tossed a fresh gown on the bed, turned and left. I stared at it, wondering how the hell I was going to make this work. Finally, using my I.V. pole like a crutch, I managed to roll into the bathroom, peel off the old gown, which by now had cemented itself to my side and back, and ease myself into the new one. My wife came by later and saw my bed, which resembled a crime scene, and raised hell with the nurses, who finally brought some clean sheets. At some point, my primary care provider came by to check on me. I was so glad to see him I pulled myself out of bed and went over to shake his hand. Only I wound up collapsing into his arms and sobbing uncontrollably, my whole body quaking, shivering. I was a helpless, blubbering, sick shell of myself. I kept apologizing between sobs: I’m sorry… I’m so sorry… He put his arms around me and held me up, told me how sorry he was, that no one should have to go through this. He patted my back and when I finally pulled away, there were tears in his eyes. I had hit bottom.  I was in the hospital for either five or six days (like I said, it’s a blur) and on one of those days my oncologist came by. He explained that no one can ever predict how a patient will react to chemotherapy. Some tolerate it pretty well; others don’t. So on the first treatment, just to set a baseline, they hit you with the Full Monty. Obviously, I fell into the demographic that didn’t handle it that well. He was going to adjust the dose and also extend the time between treatments. They released me from the hospital and within a couple of days, I was back teaching my classes. Maybe a month later, I went in for my second RCHOP treatment. This time it wasn’t fun, but it didn’t send me into a state of collapse. The steroids were the hardest part; the huge initial doses send you into a brain frenzy. No sleep and you can’t turn your brain off. Years later, my cousin described her experience with steroids during cancer treatments: The neighbors called the house at 2 o’clock in the morning and asked my husband why I was out in the front lawn weeding the flower beds… A year later, she died at sixty-three. Weeks later, I went in for my third RCHOP treatment. My oncologist told me he wanted me to take six treatments, eight if I could tolerate them. This one wasn’t too bad either. In late May, 2019, I took the fourth treatment and it decimated me. I have no idea why. Maybe it was the cumulative effect. My bloodwork had been terrible for months. I was anemic, had no immune system left, had shaved my head after losing most of my hair (my nephew bought me the Heisenberg hat from Breaking Bad, so at least there was a cool component to it all), and was struggling to hold 130 pounds. I think I just gave out. After the post-treatment steroids were taken, I was unable to drive. My wife had been taking me to appointments for awhile anyway. This time, however, I limped through the lobby of the medical plaza, got on the elevator up to the 7th floor, staggered down a hallway about twenty feet from my oncologist’s office, then leaned against a wall and slid to the floor. My wife ran and got a nurse; they rolled a wheelchair down the hall and helped me into it. They drew blood out of the chemo port in my chest, ran it through the lab, and then my oncologist came into the examining room. By now, I’m too weak to sit up and am lying flat on the table. “You’re done,” he said. “You can’t take any more. We’ll schedule a PET scan. If we get a good result, then we’ll move forward.” “If not,” he added a moment later, “we have some very difficult decisions to make.”  A couple of weeks later, a Friday afternoon in June, the phone rang. It’s the nurse in charge of patient education, who also happens to be my oncologist’s wife. She puts me and my wife on the phone together. “I know you have an appointment to come in and get the results of your PET scan,” she said. “But when we got the results, we couldn’t wait. You’re clean. Not a spot anywhere.” I sat on the living room sofa, unsuccessfully struggling to keep my composure. Finally I broke down, sobbing. It looked like I was going to live… At the appointment, we reviewed the results in more detail. My doctor wanted me to take as many as eight treatments; four had nearly killed me. And yet, they worked. My doctor told me if I’d do six more months of immunotherapy, he could pretty much guarantee my chances of recurrence would drop to less than one in ten. I agreed. I was skeletal at this point, exhausted, felt like I’d aged a couple of decades. RCHOP does a mean tap dance on your kidneys. I was diagnosed with Stage III kidney disease. At Stage IV, you go on dialysis. I had a lot of healing to do. But I had the summer to get a good start on it. Six months of immunotherapy would take me to the end of 2019. Then I’d be done with it.  December, 2019: Christmas is always difficult in failed blended families. Holidays are awkward, strained, with the conflicts escalating to an even higher level. But I had the spring semester to look forward to. It looked to be a lucrative one, as I was now—in addition to teaching my full load at Watkins—teaching two adjunct classes in the Belmont University Motion Pictures program. It even looked like a mild winter, thanks to global warming. At the end of January, 2020, it all imploded. The Watkins College of Art, which had been in continuous operation since 1885, announced it was closing its doors. Its academic programs would be absorbed by and would migrate to Belmont University. Watkins as a distinct, unique institution, however, would cease to exist at the end of the spring semester. A 135-year-long ride (twenty-five of which I’d been on) was over. A little over a month later, a series of tornados tore through East and Downtown Nashville, levelling homes and businesses, knocking power out all over town. The Watkins campus is spared, but there’s no power. We’re out for another ten days, then it was time for spring break. In the middle of spring break, the Covid-19 lockdown Pearl Harbored everyone. I transitioned six classes at two colleges to Zoom calls in 48 hours, which included upgrading the WiFi in our house to handle the load. The toughest years of our lives had just begun.  February, 2022: For some reason or other, I’m still on the right side of the dirt. For the first year after Watkins closed, we were in pretty good financial shape. Watkins and Belmont made a deal: any faculty or staff member who stayed in their job until the college closure was complete received six more month’s salary. Under Tennessee law, when conditions are imposed on severance pay, it’s no longer severance pay. Which meant I could apply for unemployment as well, something I’ve done only one other time in my entire life. I live in the American South, where pay scales are low and government support almost nonexistent. The Federal government, though, kicked in massive Covid subsidies. My weekly checks are a windfall. I pay down credit cards, take care of some deferred maintenance on the house. I even hooked up with a local flight school and flew enough hours to get current again for the first time in two decades. When the College closed and held its last commencement via Zoom in May, 2020, Belmont kept me on salary to do what’s called a teachout with two students who needed one class apiece to graduate. We did two independent studies via Zoom. I only later figured out what this meant. When the College opened a Film School in August, 1995, I was actually the first faculty member hired. I was recruited to teach screenwriting as an adjunct, a part-timer. When they kept me past the College closing until August, 2020, it meant that I was the last one out the door. I don’t know why that still feels so weird even to this day. It’s a loss I can’t quit grieving. By the middle of 2021, though, the money was drying up. After I finished my summer semester, I went back to work on the new novel, the seventh in my Nashville P.I. series. I finished it in a couple months and sent the manuscript around to a few trusted writers and friends. I broke it into two groups: published writers with a track record and readers who were familiar with the first six books. I was staggered by the response. My trusted, highly perceptive writer friends felt very positive about the manuscript. Writers compulsively suggest revisions, though, and most of them were good. The guidelines I gave my beta readers were simple. I didn’t ask them to proofread or copyedit, no deep-dive developmental editing. Just a few simple questions: 1) Did you enjoy the book? 2) Were you actually able to finish it? 3) Whatever I was asking you to buy into, were you able to do it? 4) Was there anything that jumped off the page that didn’t work, that pulled you out of the story? Simple stuff, but highly revealing… One beta reader who had read all the books in the series said this new one was the best of the lot. I was so encouraged by the reactions and feedback that I began to hold out hope I could get a traditional deal. The first six books were published by an imprint of Random House, Ballantine Books. My editor had long-since retired so I knew no one there. I began searching for an agent. I follow the trades and the daily ezines that flood my inbox. I knew the right websites, where to do the real digging. I contacted other writers I knew and asked them for insight and, if they were willing, references. Plus I had a couple of awards and a list of nominations. I’d made a few regional best-seller lists. My first published novel was a New York Times Notable Book. I had what I thought was some street cred. I queried sixteen agents in the first round. The results were shocking, even to a tough, grizzled old veteran like me. I was used to being disappointed by publishing, had decades behind me of struggling to publish and survive as a writer. For every pat on the back publishing gave me over the decades, it punched me in the nose and kicked me in the nuts a dozen times. My expectations were low, but even they were not met. Ten agents never bothered to respond. I got a few boilerplate rejections. One agent told me that since the pandemic lockdown, she’d been inundated with queries. When she started getting 65-70 emails a day, she stopped taking them. It would take her months to get through the submissions that were already sitting on her desk. Apparently, every sumbitch on the planet wrote a book during the lockdown. Finally, I got a ping. I queried an agent whose name I recognized but couldn’t quite place. Turns out, we’d worked together before on a novel I published with Avon years earlier. The acquiring editor for the book quit her job and this agent—who was still an editor at this stage of her career—took over the final stages. Publishers have a term—orphaned—which is what happens when the acquiring editor of a book leaves the house or changes jobs before your book is published. Someone is always assigned to take it over, but it’s usually the kiss of death for a book. It was in my case. The book I thought would be my breakout suspense thriller went nowhere. I’ve got a couple hundred remaindered copies in the garage if anybody’s interested. The editor-now-agent remembered me fondly and was eager to see the new book, along with anything else I had. I was excited, hopeful. I sent her the whole manuscript of the seventh Harry James Denton book, which I’d titled Fade Up From Black, along with a proposal for another suspense thriller and a pitch for a third project. Radio silence for six months… Finally, she called me one day. Calls from agents are generally good news; rejections are emailed. The agent explained, though, that while she liked the book, the challenges to selling it were too great. The market was terrible; this was the seventh book in a series where the publisher didn’t own the first six; the suspense-thriller partial was strong but needed work. Then she hit me with the blockbuster: I don’t know how old you are, she said, but I’m in my late fifties. And increasingly, I’m finding myself pitching to editors who are in their mid-twenties. They want a different kind of book than we’re used to—a dystopian, pessimistic, cynical voice full of doom and gloom. “I just don’t know how to sell it,” she said. It was the first time in my career anyone had ever intimated that I was too old. So I went with the original plan to publish it under my own imprint, Spearhead Press, where I’d published my backlist and a few other titles. I began getting Fade Up From Black: The Return of Harry James Denton ready for publication. The eBook is released in February 2022, with the print editions—hardcover and trade paperback—set to launch in March. Early reviews are great. Ann Patchett’s Nashville bookstore, Parnassus Books, graciously offered me a signing. I’m selling almost as many books now as I was when Ballantine published the originals back in the Nineties. One late February morning, my wife walks into the kitchen as I’m pulling together a mug of coffee. “You know,” I said. “I’ve been having this weird thing lately. Doesn’t hurt or anything, but I can’t help noticing it. I’ve been having trouble swallowing.” She looks up. “Better tell your doctor,” she said. I nodded. I had a routine blood draw coming up the following week. At my doctor’s office, my prince of a primary care provider is wrapping up the paperwork when I tell him about the swallowing thing.  Everything in medicine is so specialized these days. I liken it to taking your car to the mechanic with a shaky back tire and the mechanic says “Oh, I only do front tires. If you got a back tire problem, ya’ gotta go see that guy over there.” So when my primary care provider sent me to an ENT guy, that doctor spent about a half-hour interviewing me, then looked down my throat and saw nothing. He snaked a fiber optic cable down my nose and spotted nothing as well. He only goes as far down as your Adam’s apple. After that, another guy takes over. A week later, I’m at the gastroenterologist. He’s a nice enough fellow, concerned and careful. He tells me I need an upper endoscopy, which is where they knock you out, snake a camera down your throat, and see what’s going on. I’ve been anesthetized so many times over the last few years that I see another procedure as a chance for a nice, long nap. Propofol’s great. Not to be indelicate, but I can see why Michael Jackson kept a gallon jug of it around the house. So my wife drives me in to the surgical center and in short order, I’m down for my morning nap. Only when I wake up, the doctor’s not there. The nurse is there with my wife in the recovery booth and they both look stricken. The nurse turns away and starts folding stuff. My wife—who God knows has been through enough at this point—said the news was not good. The doctor’s not a pathologist, so he can’t diagnose it. But he’s seen this many times in his career. Esophageal cancer… A few days later, the biopsies come back and my wife and I are, once again, in my oncologist’s office. It’s official now: squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus. I confess to my doctor I know nothing medically about esophageal cancer, but as a guy who’s taught film for nearly thirty years, I do know it’s what killed Humphrey Bogart. I’ve read enough biographies of Bogie to know it’s a pretty gruesome death. We’ve got to get another PET scan scheduled, he explained, and fast. This cancer is aggressive, stubborn. We’ve got to find out if it’s metastasized anywhere else. If it’s localized, that’s one situation. If it’s gone beyond the esophageal wall, that’s an entirely different circumstance. They fast track a PET scan—thank God Medicare doesn’t require pre-approval—and the results are back quickly. A short few days later, we’re back in the oncologist’s office reviewing the results, which are encouraging. The cancer appears to have invaded one lymph node, but doesn’t seem to have gotten very far. They stage it out as a toss-up between 2-A and 2-B. It could be a lot worse. Then my oncologist looks up, as if he’d almost forgotten to mention something. There’s another hot spot, he says, that we found in the scan, down in your left inguinal area. We’ll have to biopsy it, but I’m pretty sure your lymphoma’s back as well. Two different cancers in two different places at the same time… Is that even allowed? I ask.  The oncologist starts me on Rituxan—the same immunotherapy I was on my first time at the rodeo—to get the Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma under control. No one seems too worried about that. The throat cancer is the first priority. In one of our early meetings, as the oncologist describes the nasty side effects of the radiation and chemotherapy I’ll have to endure, I stop him mid-sentence. “Wait,” I interrupted. “I’m not saying I’m going to do this, but I’ve got to ask. What happens if I do nothing?” The oncologist studies me for a few moments. “In two to three months,” he begins, “your esophagus will be completely closed off and you will begin the process of starving to death. “At that point, we can insert a feeding tube, but by then it will be too late. The cancer will have metastasized. It will attack your liver first, then it will head for your lungs. Within four months, perhaps a little longer, you’ll be dead.” I suddenly flash on Owen Wilson in Armageddon: “Okay, worst case scenario, I’ll be dead in four months… Let’s not go that route.” The oncologist goes on to explain that the standard treatment for esophageal cancer—a chemotherapy identified by the acronym FLOT—is apparently more brutal than RCHOP. He admits that he’s seen many patients simply meltdown from the treatment. “Well, we already know I don’t have a high tolerance,” I said. “Maybe start out baby steps?” The oncologist nods. “Baby steps.” Then we begin the discussion of radiation. I’ll be getting radiation and chemotherapy at the same time, which sounds disabling. Weeks earlier, I’d already started the eighth Harry James Denton novel. I’m not teaching anymore, so I’m determined to write this book while getting treatment. I refuse to let this goddamn disease define me.  We’ve already consulted with the best esophageal surgeon in town, who declared my tumor inoperable. It’s too high up, too close to my windpipe. He can’t get good margins. I’ve done just enough research to know that an esophageal resection is a brutal surgery, with months of difficult recovery and lasting side effects, like possibly losing your voice and never being able to eat a normal meal again. I don’t know whether to be scared or relieved that I can’t have the surgery. Then the radiation issue comes up again. I tell one doctor I’ve heard horror stories about radiation. “The reason you hear those horror stories,” he explains, “is that they’re all true.” I ask about something I keep seeing on late night commercials on local TV. Something called proton therapy, which claims to be much easier on the patient and much less destructive to surrounding tissue. My oncologist is familiar with proton therapy, which is traditional X-ray radiation with everything stripped out but the protons. “But I don’t know if it’s appropriate for your kind of cancer,” he said. “Why don’t we find out?” So he whips out his mobile and dials the facility, which is in Franklin, Tennessee, an upscale community just south of Nashville. A phone consult later, he hangs up. “You’re a perfect candidate,” he said. “They do a lot of esophageal cancers down there.” So I have a consult with them, which is at a facility not unlike a Ritz-Carlton-type 5-star hotel. There’s a fireplace in the lobby and a snack bar, leather sofas and chairs, flat screen TV on the wall. The staff and doctors are all young, overwhelmingly white and well-groomed, handsome or pretty depending on gender. Their presentations are effective, their data and numbers impressive. My wife’s not impressed. She grew up poor, hardscrabble poor, with a disabled single mother who was confined to a wheelchair. She doesn’t have a lot of patience with the rich, pampered, and privileged. So to be fair, I have a consult with the traditional radiation folks as well. Their facility’s in the basement of a hospital, which you get to by navigating an underground parking lot that’s like a set from a cheap, indie horror movie. The waiting room’s cramped, painted cinderblock walls, plastic chairs. The air’s stale, musty. There’s a homeless, one-legged guy in a wheelchair over in the corner. I’m sitting next to the waste can. He rolls over to throw something away then, maskless, starts coughing all over me. Okay, call me a privileged, white guy asshole, but I can’t imagine coming to this place every day to get my gullet roasted. There’s only one problem, I later discover. The proton therapy is massively more expensive than the traditional therapy. Guess somebody’s got to pay for all that leather furniture. “I can’t afford the co-pays,” I say to my oncologist. “I’ll have to dig into retirement.” “Good,” he says. “Because if you don’t, you won’t have any retirement.” In the meantime, I’m still working on the eighth Harry James Denton novel, which carries a working title of Not Fade Away. For years I’ve been intrigued by lines from pop songs that were considered harmless and cute in their day, but are now so patently offensive that it’s frightening. In this case, Buddy Holly’s song—with the lyrics I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be, you’re gonna give your love to me—is a stalker’s anthem. I go with the proton therapy, despite their decision to not give me any financial aid and their insistence I sign a long promissory note and put up a wheelbarrow full of cash as a down payment. I now have a second car note, but only one car. The radiation is administered every day and the chemotherapy has to accompany it, so now I have an infusion pump plugged into the port on my chest and hauled around on a shoulder strap 24/7. I go to my oncologist’s office early Monday morning to have it put in, then head back to downtown Nashville on Friday afternoon to have it removed. It’s such a pain getting downtown on a Friday afternoon that I quickly talk the techs into teaching me how to remove it myself. The first time I took it out, I texted pictures to my family and my buddies with a note: Just performed my first medical procedure on myself. Next week I’m removing my gall bladder. So the routine began. My days revolve around appointments at the radiation center. The techs who administer my treatments are all young, smart, friendly and reassuring. Very quickly, it begins to feel almost comfortable. The doctors are all amazed at how well I’m tolerating the treatments. I’m losing a little weight; it’s tough to eat when it hurts to swallow and chemotherapy kills your appetite. But as the radiation doctor in Franklin says, I’m skating through this. Until the last seven or eight of the twenty-eight treatments… There’s a visible radiation burn on my chest now. The chemotherapy is starting to zap me. Fatigue’s becoming a factor. Then as I approach the end of the treatment cycle, they give me the bad news—you actually feel worse when the treatments are over. The radiation and chemotherapy continue to work for weeks after the treatments are done. You’ll feel terrible afterward. They were right. The radiation facility has a ceremony for patients who successfully complete their treatments. They award you a certificate, make a speech, then you get to ring a big brass bell. My wife and stepdaughter go with me that day. Everyone says I look tired in the pictures… A couple of weeks earlier, I felt like it was time to document some of this so I began the memoir you’re reading right now. I’m making good progress until I finish the treatments, then I crash hard. I wake up in the morning and the effort of brushing my teeth, cleaning myself up, getting dressed and making up my bed is exhausting. I drink coffee, do a little work, then eat lunch. A three-hour nap follows. Then another nap after dinner. Then bedtime, with a hard nine-hour sleep. It’s frustrating, but the oncologist tells me it’s perfectly normal; in fact, he said, I got off light. I was supposed to feel this bad from the beginning. I continue limping along for a couple weeks, then it lightens up a bit. And now, here I am, back to work on this piece and the novel. After the treatments were done, we’ll wait two months for a PET scan and then see if any of this has worked. The wait is driving everyone but me nuts; I’m too tired to worry about it. I’ve been living with it too long.  Two long months later, I go in for yet another PET scan. We’re gobsmacked by the results: the esophageal cancer is gone. My oncologist apparently is having trouble believing this, so he schedules me for an esophageal ultrasound, which means I’ll get a nice long nap again while they run a camera down my throat and get eyes directly on it. I came out of my propofol nap to a smiling doctor. He’s taken a few biopsies to make sure, but he can’t see anything down there. Later, I’ll see the pictures myself. The pictures that were taken first showed an ugly, bulbous inflamed mass in my throat that looked huge and really angry. Now, it’s just… gone. My oncologist will later call me an outlier; he’s seen this before, but it’s rare. When the results of the biopsied tissue come back, the news is even better. They deploy the term complete remission. Then comes the bad news. On the roller coaster adventure that every cancer patient undergoes, there’s almost always a gotcha’ for every gimme. The esophageal cancer’s in complete remission. But the lymphoma’s back with a vengeance. I’ve become “Rituxan resistant,” a term I never dreamed I’d hear. But apparently the immunotherapy isn’t working anymore, so my oncologist is going to ramp it up with two other drugs. Then yet another PET scan… Depending on those results, I may go into another regimen of chemotherapy, which he warns me in advance will be rough. Oh, he adds, you’ll need to be on Keytruda for two full years, not the one year we originally thought. My wife has been taking notes the whole time, with just an occasional question. It’s not like her to sit so quietly. She’s usually right there in the thick of it. Finally, when we’re about finished, she goes straight for the elephant in the middle of the room. “If he goes through this, all the discomfort and the debilitation and the expense, what’s the prognosis?” My oncologist sits quietly for a few moments. “If everything goes well, then statistically speaking, he has about a 1-in-4 chance of surviving three years.” So there it is. I’m still on this side of the dirt, but the struggle to stay there will be a marathon, not a sprint.  If disease is a metaphor, mine seems to fit the pattern precisely. If we’ve seen anything in the past few years, it’s that everything feels broken. My marriage and family is broken; our societal family has come apart at the seams and we’re at each others throats. My wife and I are both physically broken, our house a laundry list of deferred maintenance items. Our national infrastructure is in a shambles. We can’t keep our bridges and roads in repair, can’t keep the grocery shelves filled, our streets safe. It’s so hot out west, the power grid’s failing. The wood on my deck is so old it’s curled up and rotten and I can’t afford to replace it. The hot water valve on the washing machine failed and the machine is too old to be worth the repair cost. With the medical bills, we can’t afford a new one so my wife’s figured out how to get clothes clean in cold water. So that’s what it’s come down to. I have two college degrees, nearly thirty years in academia, have published thirteen books in five languages, co-written two television movies, and can’t afford to replace a washing machine. Welcome to the new American middle class. We have the finest doctors, nurses, techs in the world. The American health care system can save your life, as it has mine, repeatedly. And in doing so, it sucks up everything around you. It saves your life, but can leave you with little left to live it. When my oncologist wanted to start me on Keytruda, I told him I was hesitant because it costs almost $13,000 a treatment, with my 20 percent copay being cash I didn’t have. “Steve,” he said, “I don’t want that to be the reason you don’t take Keytruda. Remember, 64% of all cancer patients declare bankruptcy.” Great, I feel better… Disease, as it turns out, is a wonderful metaphor for contemporary life in America. As Paddy Chayefsky wrote in one of my favorite movies, The Hospital, “There’s a certain splendor to it…”  September 2022: I have no idea why or how I’m still taking up space on this planet. The men in my family are known to have stubborn streaks; we’ve been driving wives crazy for generations. My wife says the devil’s not ready for me. It’s as good an explanation as I can come up with. I do know this much: if I survive this, the financial effect is going to be devastating. By the end of the year, if I’m still around, I’ll be trying to figure out how to pay as much as $40,000 in medical bills. That’s for Year One. So that’s where I’ll leave this. I start the new immunotherapy when I get back from a conference in Florida in September. After my next PET scan, I’ll know where I stand. I’ll either be on my way to managing this long term and continuing to have some kind of life or, to quote my oncologist, we have some very difficult decisions to make. Meanwhile, il faut cultiver notre jardin. I’m getting off my ass and back to work. Those pages aren’t going to write themselves. View the full article
  15. I am not known as a young adult author, but I have published two novels about an adolescent character. Travis Hollister is, in the first book, 12 years old, and in the second, nineteen. The novels, Sweet Dream Baby and Night Letter, are really one story, or the stories of two years in Travis’s life, with a gap of six years separating them. My subject here is voice, which is distinct, I believe from style. Style is a grammarian’s notion. Voice is a writer’s concern. Voice is the sound of a human being speaking, and it’s a performance that can include, I believe, the sound of a character’s thoughts. In my teaching, I have used the term, “voicey,” to describe novels, usually but not always first person narratives, that exhibit extremes of dialect. The two American novels that I considered the most voicey are Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye. You can select at random any pages from these two stories, read them aloud, and get instant recognition from most readers. In the opening pages of Catcher, Holden Caulfield speaks to us from a hospital bed It’s not long before we infer that this hospital is not for the body but for the mind. Holden’s voice, radical, even shocking, for the time of its publication, is elaborately casual, mildly obscene (with lots of “for Christ’s sakes”), and it’s the trying-too-hard voice of the adolescent who tells us everything is fine but communicates by other means that just about everything is wrong. It’s a hard-hearted reader who doesn’t immediately take the young Holden to her bosom. Even the strictest of Presbyterian deacons, once he has recovered from Holden’s casual takings of Christ’s name in vain, pulls the boy into a protective hug. Huck Finn’s voice is strongly regional, and possibly to our modern tastes, a little too heavily phonetically spelled, but Mark Twain’s authenticity in the creation of a Missouri boy of the mid-nineteenth century is not in question. And Huck is not just a boy, he is an outcast whose father is a drunkard and a petty criminal, an abuser of Huck and others. In Huck’s private thoughts to Twain’s readers, Huck is most shocking when he satirizes religion and other pieties of his time. Huck’s town considers him a bad boy, and Huck does not dispute this. And this is the key to Twain’s magical use of voice. By making Huck a self-described ne’er-do-well and miscreant, and by demonstrating through Huck’s behavior that the boy is actually the opposite of these things, is in fact, quite possibly the best person in the world of the novel, Twain satirizes a corrupt society and condemns the “peculiar institution” of slavery. Twain speaks to us through Huck about things Huck himself can only dimly perceive. Imagine the novel if the town says Huck is bad, and Huck says Huck is bad, and Huck is, in fact, bad. By accepting the town’s assessment of him, a judgment that comes from the town’s self-righteousness and hypocrisy, Huck demonstrates how completely he has been psychologically damaged. He does not speak out against his exile, but his actions make us reject it, and reject the values of those who have cast him out. Huck’s voice is the straightforward, honest sound of self-condemnation, and of acceptance of the morality that surrounds him. Underneath that sound lives the sound of Huck’s indomitable spirit, the boy within the boy whose core nature has not been destroyed or even damaged. The boy whose moral compass sends him off on a raft with the escaped slave, Jim. Huck Finn’s second nature is the boy who accepts his own criminality and helps another criminal, the escapee Jim, to “light out for the territory.”olden’s H In the territory, possibly, an escaped slave and a runaway bad boy can live a life that is, if not conventionally good, then at least as good as what surrounds them. In the territory, we readers infer, there is refuge for the many who have been cast out or have run away. Both Holden and Huck exhibit two natures, the public nature and the private one. It’s a measure of the cruelty of the world, that the private nature must remain hidden. It’s the work of the good reader to discover this nature which is available only through inference, or only after the public self has broken down. Holden’s public self has failed so badly that he has been hospitalized. Holden’s private nature is that of the scared child who despairs not just for himself, but for the world, a world that damages children. That private boy’s dream, both literal and metaphorical, is to be The Catcher in the Rye, the imaginary, mythical figure who keeps children from harm. The dual natures of Holden and Huck are relatively easy to describe, but not so easy to portray in pages of fiction. They must be shown, not told. Holden shows his buried nature by talking too loudly and too often about how much he doesn’t care and about how everything with him is fine. Huck shows his by his naive acceptance of what the reader learns through inference to reject. Inference is the key. It’s showing, not telling. In my two novels, Sweet Dream Baby and Night letter, the story of Travis Hollister, I struggled to discover how to embody Travis’s two natures in the tone and cadences of his voice. Travis begins the first novel as a twelve-year-old boy whose mother, a Japanese war bride, has just been sent to an asylum for the insane. Travis’s father, a Marine who fought in some of the worst battles of the Pacific war, is a loving man who can’t provide Travis the kind of care he needs. He sends Travis to live with his grandparents in rural north Florida. The trip from Omaha, Nebraska, to the deep South is a shock for Travis. In the small town where his grandfather is the sheriff, Travis is both the fish out of water and the stranger who comes to town. Soon Travis falls in love with his aunt Delia, who is sixteen, beautiful, popular, and troubled for reasons Travis must discover. Travis is a stranger in a strange land, a boy deprived of his mother’s love, and of everything and every person familiar to him. My discovery was that what Travis wants and needs most is to possess. As I wrote the novel, I saw that the word “my” kept appearing in Travis’s first person speech and thoughts, and eventually his most often repeated phrase, his mantra, almost a prayer, was “my aunt Delia.” Travis can’t name his loss or what he wishes to gain, but the reader infers that possession is Travis’s obsession. Eventually, as the novel’s plot plays out, Travis makes the journey from simply wanting to belong, to be accepted by his grandparents, his aunt Delia, and her teenaged friends, and in one way or another by the town, to wanting, needing to possess Delia in every way that a boy becoming a man can possess her. The world of a child’s thoughts is, syntactically a world of simple and compound, not complex sentences. It is not a world of subordination. The world comes at children as discreet units of action or sensory information. Hemingway was perhaps the first to discover this, and he applied this insight to war-damaged men as well as children. “In the fall, the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore. It was cold in the fall in Milan, and the dark came very early. And then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes, and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.” — In Another Country. Subordination, a feature of complex sentences, is not the sound of a damaged child’s voice. For me, it was not the sound of Travis Hollister. As a nineteen-year-old in the second novel, Travis emerges into manhood. He leaves his childhood and a reform school behind him. As an incarcerated youth, Travis owned nothing. His prizes in prison have been secrets, a contraband radio and the journal in which he has recorded his obsession with Delia. When he is given his freedom at last, his quest is to find Delia . . . and then what? He isn’t sure, but he is sure he will know what to do when the time comes. The word “my,” the idea of possession, is still important to the nineteen-year-old Travis of Night Letter, and when he find Delia, he regresses, becoming for a while the boy to whom she was “my aunt Delia.” But of course Delia has much to say about who owns what and whom. In one way, Travis’s growth through Night Letter is toward releasing Delia to her own identity and fate, the world of her own choosing, rather than of his fantasy and of their past. And as the story develops, Travis learns also that caring for another person can be as powerful and fulfilling for a man as was possessing for a child. *** View the full article
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