Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Laura Lippman - an interview on 8/21/12

Baltimore author Laura Lippman visited MBTB when she was in Portland recently to promote her newest book, "And When She Was Good." She began her Tess Monaghan private eye series in 1997 with the award-winning "Baltimore Blues." Since then she has won several more writing awards. She finally quit her job as a journalist at The Baltimore Sun to write full-time. She and her husband, David Simon, currently divide their time between Baltimore and New Orleans. She talked to us about topics that ranged from a virtual wardrobe consultant to "Fifty Shades of Grey."

Lippman takes her responsibilities seriously as a blogger and Facebook user. "My latest post on Facebook is that I plan to go to Voodoo Donuts before I leave Portland tomorrow," she said. She ponders how to juggle a box of doughnuts on the airplane on the way to Seattle to visit a friend. "My Facebook page is like my id," she adds. "There's a lot about kale -- because I really love crunchy kale."

She maximizes her use of what technology has to offer and has even received an emailed wardrobe intervention from her friend Libby. If you seek Libby's advice, however, "you have to be able to take very straightforward, emphatic statements." When Lippman sported a pair of capri pants that made Libby cringe, Lippman was asked, "Do you want to ever have sex again as long as you live?"

For the record, she was wearing a black outfit with black boots. "I know today I look a little like an airline stewardess, but I still like this dress." 

On the other hand, technological social media is not for everyone. "I don't think writers should do anything they don't want to do because they won't do it well." 

Baltimore is more than just where her books take place. She loves the city, and "until the fall of 2009, I would have said to you that I couldn't live any other place than Baltimore. Then my husband's [David Simon, producer of HBO's "Treme"] work made it necessary for us to live part-time in New Orleans," a city she now also loves. Now she knows that "there are a lot of places I could live."

Lippman was a reporter at The San Antonio Light briefly and then The Baltimore Sun for many years. Was it difficult to change her writing technique from an investigative style to narrative fiction? No, she said, "I wanted to be a novelist. I started writing novels while I was at the paper and I found the two disciplines complementary." And the difference between the two?  "When you are a journalist and you find a story so amazing that people can't believe it's true, that's considered really great, unless you made it up, in which case that just means you're a very bad fiction writer." The near-misses and coincidences that elevate true stories make fiction sound "hackneyed and cliched."

Lippman has temporarily set Tess Monaghan aside to write "And When She Was Good," a standalone novel. The main character, Heloise, is a single, suburban soccer mom who is also the owner of a high-priced call girl operation. "How else are you going to have flexible hours, maintain the mortgage on the big house and be able to hire all the childcare you need?" Lippman asks. Only a sympathetic cop and her babysitter know about Heloise's dual life. "I will say that as the mother of a two-year-old that my babysitter knows everything about my life." The tension in the story comes from what Heloise must do to protect her son from the unsavory, duplicitous, and murderous people who enter their lives. Lippman sums it up: "You could say to her if you want this life for your son, then ten people have to die. She'd say, so be it, then ten people have to die."

Tess Monaghan hasn't been seen since 2009. Has she been abandoned? "Tess is in this book," she declared. "She's not named, but Heloise mentions that she has a female private detective in the city who runs background checks on all of her clients. That's the easter egg."

Does she add hidden items like that or references to other mystery writers as a game for her readers? "To write a book that's devoid of pop culture seems fake to me," she answered. "Lauren Henderson -- who wrote the wonderful Sam Jones novels -- [said] what I thought was an interesting point: people in crime fiction never read crime fiction. I mean, would they exist in a vacuum? Would your private detective be aware of the fact that they work within this industry that has a really big cultural impact? I enlarged it to: Of course people read, of course people watch TV shows." Furthermore, Baltimore really is a "small town," so why wouldn't Tess "end up showing up in all these other people's stories -- that there would be this cross-pollination. I was influenced by Richard Price that way. In 'Clockers,' 'Freedomland,' and 'Samaritan,' even though his characters don't repeat, you feel that everyone's moving in that world, as though you might see a character in a previous novel passing through."

Why won't she sign books on Army PX bases anymore? Apparently, Lippman is game to try any type of signing event at least twice (just in case the lack of success the first time was a fluke). The first event at a PX wasn't wildly successful, but she tried again. Unfortunately, she didn't have the proper ID and couldn't enter the base, "so I sat outside in front of a table of books. In order for people to buy the books, they had to encounter me twice. They'd go in and they'd come back out and then, no, you have to go back in and buy it. It just didn't work."

Worse yet was a signing at an airport -- on the travelers' side of security. Enroute to a bar mitzvah in Buffalo, New York, Lippman took time out to plop herself behind a table and try to interest wary travelers in her books. "People behind security in airports are looking for less human contact. The only way that an airport book signing with an author is going to work is if it's December 23 and the airport has been shut down in a massive blizzard and people need some emergency Christmas shopping."

Lippman spoke extensively about the future of print books and rabid readers, of which she is one.

Despite her long association with newspapers and book publishers, she said, "I didn't see the implosion of newspapers coming. I am by nature Pollyanna-ish and I feel pretty positive about the future of books. One thing I'll steal from the writer John Connolly is he said, when you start talking about the end of physical books, it might do good to remember that's a first-world problem." In fact, she has been to Zimbabwe and worked to provide books to third-world countries. "There the issue is not should I get a digital download or should I buy the hardcover," Lippman said. "It's where can I get a book, what will it take to get books here."

Citing an article by Laura Miller of "Salon," an online magazine, Lippman said that there's a lot of junk to wade through in digital bookstores. She added, "What fascinates me is how any human being on the planet could think for a second that they don't want their consumer experiences curated. The idea that anyone wants to wander into a vast digital warehouse with millions of titles with virtually no guidance except for these deeply flawed algorithms that think they know what I want -- I'll tell you as someone who shops online quite a bit, they're so wrong." There are so many different "factions" of publishing now, including "indie" publishing. "Independent of what -- editing, punctuation, what?" she asked. "The very classy Little, Brown editor, Reagan Arthur, said if you say to me you're indie-published, you better be published by Norton."

Even when she was struggling to make ends meet in her 20s, she still found a way to buy books. (By the way, the waitress job Heloise has in "And When She Was Good" was based on the job Lippman needed to supplement her first newspaper position.) "I was a reader before I was a writer. I'll be a reader after I'm a writer." Her fanaticism as a reader has given her another way of looking at her own books: "I became my focus group of one. I began watching how I bought books. Of course the covers matter, of course staff selections matter, of course the end caps matter [displays at the ends of an aisles], of course the experience of the bookstore matters, all of this stuff matters."

Lippman was dismayed at the buying choices of the public.  "Is it true that '50 Shades of Gray' has sold 20 million copies?" she asked. "You know what that means? That means that 19,800,000 people who aren't going to buy another book this year bought that book. If only everyone who bought "Shades of Gray" would buy five more books this year, do you know how healthy publishing would be?"

Laura Lippman: Opinionated, interesting, articulate, and entertaining. And funny.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson ($15)

A place NOT on my travel bucket list? North Korea. Especially after reading The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. Fiction is not stranger than fact, although Johnson certainly depicts North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in an unflattering light and wearing the quirks and eccentricities of a leader with unlimited power. Johnson, in an interview with author Richard Powers added to the end of the book, said that if he had written about some of the odd things Kim had done for real, it would have made his book into a comic parody.

Pak Jun Do (not his real name) dominates the first half of the book. Commander Ga (not his real name either) tells his story in the second half.

Pak, as the son of the head of an orphanage, becomes not much better than an orphan himself. As a boy he was responsible for naming the orphans after North Korean martyrs before sending them off to miserable fates. He, too, adopted the name of a martyr, Pak Jun Do. While he grew up with his real father in the orphanage, he was often mistaken for an orphan. Pak's denials become more rote and meaningless, as people throughout his life continue to mistake him for one. His mother, he remembers -- or is it fantasy? -- was an opera singer. Eventually, his real early life fades into the background as he's forced to end one life to create another identity. The backdrop for Pak's story is the North Korean Communist state and its "Big Brother" mentality. In his desire and search for identity, he is forever at the mercy of the state.

The first half of the book concerns the ups and downs of Pak's life. Pak’s role as a kidnapper, language school student, spy agent on a fishing ship, and prisoner in a North Korean gulag highlights Johnson’s thesis about the arbitrary fate of a North Korean citizen. Most of it is spent avoiding notice. Once having attracted notice, however, the capricious nature of the state can elevate, honor, and award a citizen or throw him into a hellhole without mercy or reason. Pak finds himself on such an up-and-down journey.

In an interlude worthy of the best comically improbable situations of Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard, Pak and some newly minted acquaintances journey as representatives of North Korea to Texas. From barbeque to dogs-as-pets, it's America through the eyes of a travel virgin, and it's touching and bizarre, bizarre because of both the Koreans and the Texans. To honor Johnson's intentions, it's obvious that this is just a small part of the tender and terrifying story that is Pak's journey.

The second part of the book tells the tale of Commander Ga, war hero, taekwondo champion, and Director of the Prison Mines. Is it really Commander Ga or Pak in another incarnation? Ga's wife, Sun Moon, is a famous actress and the pet of "The Great Leader," Kim Jong Il. In the first part of the book, the genesis of Pak's fascination with Sun Moon is described when the captain of the fishing ship crudely tattoos her portrait on Pak's chest. Eventually, Pak laments that the only image he can see is a reverse image in the mirror; he can never see the true Sun Moon. The thought of her soothes him through onerous times. But if Pak has mysteriously become Commander Ga, is he now a tool of the state or has something extraordinary happened to him? In slowly uncovered stages, Johnson reveals the metamorphosis. The answer is not supernatural or outrageous, but Johnson's narrative has a fantastical touch to it.

Although the story bounces around among the first-person narratives of Pak, Ga, and an anonymous police interrogator, and state-scripted declamations blasted from speakers to the North Korean population, the story is cohesive. This is a thoughtful, illuminating, imaginative work.

The orphan master's son may not have his own name, but in the end he has an identity.

I've awarded it an MBTB star!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

An interview of ... Karin Slaughter

We are pleased to welcome Karin Slaughter to Murder by the Book's blog. She has agreed to answer a few of our questions.

MBTB: When Blindsighted came out in 2001, did you have plans to create a series?

Karin Slaughter:  I absolutely knew as soon as I was halfway through Blindsighted that I could turn it into a series.  I grew up reading books with series characters, from Encyclopedia Brown to V.I. Warshawski, so I'm the type of reader who always wants more--it was natural to be that kind of writer.

MBTB: "Mystery," "Thriller," "Crime Fiction," which do you prefer when describing your books? ("None of the above" is also a choice.)

Karin Slaughter: I'm of the "just don't call me late for dinner" variety.  I prefer crime fiction because it sounds snootier.  Also, in Europe, when you say "mystery" that automatically means something with a cat or an old lady, or an old lady cat.  I think in the US they say "thriller" and in most cases that works for my stories because there's a momentum to them.  I'm sure there are scholars out there who can debate this till the cows come home, but for me, I'm just content to be in a category that has lots and lots of voracious readers!

MBTB: Your books are international best sellers. What is it about them that appeals to a worldwide audience?

Karin Slaughter: Several American crime writers do well overseas--Michael Connelly, Lee Child, etc.  I think that American stories appeal on several levels, primarily because we don't get caught up in the angst of it all.  Even Lee, who was born in England, embraces a forward thinking attitude.  (Reacher never sits down on the floor and cries about his feelings, for instance).  So, I think that's one part of the appeal.  I also think that international audiences automatically think the level of violence in thrillers is absolutely believable because they think of America as a very, very violent place.

MBTB: All of your books are set in the South and we couldn't imagine them taking place anywhere else. Do you consider the Southern setting to be one of your supporting characters?

Karin Slaughter: I absolutely feel like the south is a character.  I love being a southerner--warts and all.  I want to show my south when I am writing the books.  In Unseen, the novel I'm writing for next year, we get out of Atlanta for a bit and get to see Sara back in south Georgia (though not Grant County) and through Faith and Will, we get some of the "big city" prejudices Atlantans have toward folks who live down "where Jesus lost his sandals" (as Amanda would say)

MBTB: Special Agent Will Trent, who works for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, is a fan favorite. What is it about this detective--who happens to be dyslexic--that makes him so fascinating?

Karin Slaughter: Well, I think women love him because he does the dishes without having to be asked!  Seriously, I think he's a very complicated man with some dark secrets.  The reader finds out a lot about him in Criminal that even Will doesn't know.  I love that he doesn't let his past ruin the present.  He doesn't mope around.  He doesn't try to get pity.  He actually runs from those things.  It's one reason why he was stuck with his horrible wife for such a long time.  She doesn't think he's a pitiable person even though she knows (first hand) many of the awful things that happened.  He is a fighter. And he's age appropriate, meaning he's responsible, has a good job and doesn't sit around all day playing video games.

MBTB: Speaking of dyslexia, what kind of feedback do you get from readers about the way in which you describe his condition and his coping mechanisms?

Karin Slaughter: I gather from letters that a lot of people assume that being dyslexic means that you can't read at all.  I always try to explain it in the books: Will can read--it just takes him longer.  People seem to bring their own misconceptions no matter what I do.  A lot of incredibly successful people have (or had) dyslexia: Richard Branson, Tom Cruise, John Lennon, Einstein.  So, obviously these fellas are/were able to read.  That being said, I've had many letters where people with dyslexia in their family talk about how great it is to see Will developing skills that help him with the disorder.  There's so much help out there now.  I hope that eventually Sara is able to persuade Will to get it.

MBTB: In your latest book, Criminal, the story takes place in the 1970s and in the present day. What kind of research did you do in order to make 1970s Atlanta come alive for the reader? Were you able to interview any women who were police officers during that time?

Karin Slaughter: I did a ton of research--read articles from magazines (Cosmo, mostly!) and pieces from the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.  There were forensic textbooks and scholarly articles and trashy popular (in the 70s) books and movies that I had to watch.  And I'd say maybe ten percent of all of that got into the book!  The thing that resonated the most was talking to police women about coming up during that time.  Some of the stories they told me were absolutely unbelievable--so much so that I left a bit out because I just thought people would be too incredulous.  Of course, I've got a lot of those stories sitting around, as well as huge chunks of research, so I might end up using them in another book...

There are scenes from Criminal plus bonus content on my website http://www.karinslaughter.com/criminal/

MBTB: We've read that the public library played an important role in your young life. Can you tell us something about that and about the Save the Libraries Project?

Karin Slaughter: It's not just me--I can't think of a successful writer working today who doesn't owe a debt of gratitude to their childhood public library.  We all feel it's important to give back.  Save the Libraries was started to do just that.  We sometimes give block grants, but other times we'll send four or five New York Times bestsellers to an event to help raise money and awareness.  The writers all pay for their transportation and hotel, so 100% of the money raised goes directly to the library.  I'd like to give a shout-out to some friends who've helped this cause and encourage your readers to read them (or at least buy their books!):  Kathryn Stockett, Mary Kay Andrews (also Kathy Hogan Trochek), Lee Child, Charlaine Harris, Tess Gerritsen, and Lisa Gardner.  Readers won't just be getting great stories, they'll be supporting library heroes.


Karin is celebrating the recent release of Criminal, her latest novel starring Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Will Trent.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Double Game, by Dan Fesperman (hardcover, $ 26.95)

Dan Fesperman has written several serious novels of international intrigue. His former life as a journalist gave him the credentials to open secret worlds to his readers. I emphasize the word "serious." His new work, The Double Game, is befuddling in its almost light-hearted homage to old-time spycraft and spy novels combined with a darker cat-and-mouse reunion of old antithetical forces. There are dead bodies and quotes from all the great spy novels rolling around in the same literary barrel.

Which trail should a reader follow? Homage or spy story?

The spy story is set in contemporary times but visits old Cold War haunts: Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Belfast. The purported game is for hapless amateur Bill Cage, who as a child visited or lived in all these cities with his diplomat father, to acquire mysterious documents on behalf of a (mysterious, of course) handler.

What will the documents accomplish? They probably have something to do with spy novelist and former spy, Edwin Lemaster. Cage is a former journalist whose career floundered shortly after indiscreetly quoting Lemaster about wondering what it would have been like to have been a double agent back in the day. Twenty years after the life-changing interview, Cage is bitter and at a crossroads with his own life. With the flimsiest of excuses, he plunges into his task of walking in Lemaster's spy shoes. With help from his still-healthy father and Litzi, his girlfriend when he was a teenager in Austria, Cage sallies forth.

There are elaborate messages sent on special paper stolen from Cage's home. Pages are ripped from collectible first editions of famous spy novels in order to provide incentive to Cage. Superfluous, silly, and diversionary.

So I pick homage.

What a joy to read references to all the great, or at least influential, spy novelists, especially those who wrote about the Cold War era. Fesperman is obviously a serious fan. He provides a bibliography at the end, and a reader could do way worse than to use this as a reading challenge. His spy story is interspersed with gossipy nuggets of information about real authors. Begin with The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903). In fact, The Double Game is a narrative bibliography of an extraordinary genre.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Vengeance, by Benjamin Black (hardcover, $26)

Undoubtedly, the man can write. Award-winner John Banville, in his mystery-writing guise of Benjamin Black, writes less about the mystery of death than the mystery of life.

On the first page, we have a character's anxiety laid bare in a sentence: "He did not belong here, among these sailing folk with their lazy expertise; he knew it, and they knew it, too, which meant they had to behave twice as heartily towards him, though he could see that look in their eyes, that gleam of merry contempt."

Black -- is it conceit or challenge -- neglects to straight-out state when his book takes place. If this is the first of his books you are reading, you must follow the subtle clues that set the stage in the 1950s.

Although the book begins with a suicide, it's less about what drove Victor Delahaye to this desperate action than what drives his little circle of family and business associates. He had a trophy wife, malcontented twin sons, invalid father, repressed sister, and a business partner who despised him. Victor, his family, his partner, and his partner's family were all on their annual self-flagellating vacation in an Irish village by the sea when Victor bid adieu.

Enter Dr. Quirk, a Dublin pathologist, on the heels of his more-than-acquaintance-less-than-friend, Inspector Hackett. He is drawn into the tableaus the two families create. Vengeance is a string of scenes suspended in amber, most having to do with the two families but some having to do with Quirk's personal life. The two begin to intertwine in a lazy way, pointing out, of course, Quirk's constricting flaws. They've already been explicated in Christine Falls, The Silver Swan, Elegy for April, and A Death in Summer

Victor Delahaye shot himself in a boat. With him was the shocked 20-something son of his business partner, who throws the offending pistol overboard in a state of panic. Will he be accused of the crime? Is this the book's story? No, the son's tale is believed, and he is not held to account. Well, what then? Among Victor's last words are: "[Y]ou must know about loyalty--eh? Or the lack of it, at least." And that is the slim trail the reader must follow to find out what the real crime is. A bona fide murder eventually follows, but it is simply a piece of the unraveling of the two families.

I delight in Black's language. Hackett, asea in a soup of his betters, "felt like a monkey with a coconut and no stone to crack it on." An aged relation and progenitor of one of the current partners is described:
As a young man Philip Clancy had been tall and thin and now he was stooped and gaunt. He had a small head with a domed forehead and a curiously pitted skull on which a few last stray hairs sprouted like strands of cobweb. His nose was huge and hooked, a primitive axe head, and his mouth, since he had given up wearing his dentures, was thin-lipped and sunken.
It is not until page 213, that we get a concise and vivid round-up of all the characters. From this point until the end, there's a bit more mystery-solving and tidying up. You might be able to skip to this point and just read the last 100 pages. However, you'd miss a master at his craft.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Alafair Burke Speaks - 8/2/12

Back in the day, Alafair Burke lived down the street from MBTB. Although she grew up in Wichita, Kansas, she went to undergraduate school in Portland and worked for the Portland D.A.'s office. She still has many friends here and, as she said, the stories they tell are still about the same people she once knew. She's in town for a little longer this time around; she's trying to finish her latest book, a standalone, that's due at her publisher alarmingly soon. Away from the distractions of NYC in her home-away-from-home, she's making progress. During her brief visit with us, she was relaxed, articulate, and well-fed, after a dinner with MBTB friend and Portland resident, writer Jordan Foster.

Alafair sat down with us and talked about the craft of writing in general and about her new book, Never Tell, in particular. Never Tell is the fourth book in the Ellie Hatcher series. Ellie, unlike Alafair's previous series character, Portland lawyer Samantha Kincaid, is an NYPD detective. She's a little rougher around the edges and has a tougher attitude. Although it may have been easier to draw Samantha's character, which wasn't so far afield from Alafair's own personality and life, Alafair said, "I feel I know Ellie Hatcher at least as well as Samantha Kincaid, but I have no ego involved in this."

Two factors influenced the plot for Never Tell. As a professor at Hofstra Law School in New York, she was surprised when a student told her that fellow students used Adderall and Ritalin to enhance their studying, despite not having legitimate prescriptions for the medications. Secondly, a big part of Ellie's prior story arc was the purported suicide of her police officer father when Ellie was quite young.

In Never Tell, Ellie and her partner, J.J. Rogan, investigate the death of 17-year-old Julia Whitmire, the daughter of a wealthy music promoter and his wife. Distraught at her death, Julia's parents insist that their daughter had not committed suicide, although all signs point to that conclusion. They have enough strings they can pull that they force Ellie and J.J. to re-investigate the incident.

During the course of the re-investigation, the partners meet kids from the other side of the tracks, ones who are either on the street or a half-step away from that life. They also meet the daughter's schoolmates, kids who are also from affluent and demanding families. Part of what Ellie uncovers is the use of Adderall and other substances by those kids.

Of the upper-class kids, Alafair said, "Something is going on with this generation. The kids aren't criticized; everybody's talented, everybody's above-average," a perverted Lake Wobegon with stress, high expectations, money, and sometimes unfulfilled career expectations. She combined this thought with how she wanted Ellie to be personally involved with the case, emotionally connecting the girl's suicide with her father's.

Because Alafair had been thinking about this story for so long, she wrote the book quickly. No, she emphatically said, she's not organized. Writing is "more organic." She said she never outlines and sometimes gets "three-fourths of the way into the book and I'm still making plot choices." She laughed with mock exasperation at herself. So when she began to review her book, she said, "You feel that it's all there, but it's not all there." She said, "I literally opened a blank page on my computer and started over." (In the process two whole characters were deleted.)

It was Alafair's experience working with neighborhoods in Portland as a community liaison for the D.A.'s office that brought her into contact with troubled kids. The fictional "Promises" homeless shelter for kids in her book is based on Portland's legendary "Harry's Mother," an emergency shelter for runaways (now part of the Janus youth programs).

How much more turmoil can Ellie Hatcher's life take? The over-arching storyline of Ellie's life has taken dramatic turns. Well, Alafair mused, "You want a character to get a break," but each of her books isn't "two books co-existing within the same jacket." Ellie's personal story must be connected in some way to the crime story; they must feed off each other somehow. We figure that means Ellie needs to bucklet up, because she's still in for a bumpy ride.

As a funny aside, Alafair related how she often drops references in her books to authors she likes. For instance, in Never Tell, as Ellie is rummaging around in a suspect's home, she recognizes a book by an author J.J. likes. There's a picture of a Lincoln Continental on the cover, a tiny shout-out to "The Lincoln Lawyer" series by Michael Connelly. Connelly took Alafair's book on vacation and Alafair later received a terse email from him. "Thanks," he said.

In a case of turnabout, Lee Child stuck a reference in one of his books to a "Samantha" in Portland with whom his character, Jack Reacher, spent two nights. Hey, Samantha Kincaid wouldn't be that easy, Alafair thought. Hey, Lee Child responded, it was two nights, after all, tantamount to a long-term relationship for his peripatetic hero.

The humor for crime writers, after all, has to come from somewhere.