the mystery of it all: why we enjoy crime fiction

October 25, 2014

I gave this talk at the Iowa Library Association annual conference a couple of days ago. Not sure people were ready for quite this much jibber-jabber at the end of a long day, but I promised to put it online and decided to put it up both as a PDF and here with some of my slides.

title

It’s great to be able to be here today to talk with you all about something I love. I won’t call it a guilty pleasure because I refuse to feel guilty about it. I just love to read crime fiction. I love it so much I’ve written a few mysteries myself. Tonight, I’m going to try to explain why this genre appeals so much to me  and to countless others and make some claims for its value as well as explore what it tells us about ourselves. Though I am an academic librarian, one of my interests is the ways that popular fiction can contribute to this thing all academic librarians want to believe we are doing: that when we help students learn, it will contributes to our students’ capacity for lifelong learning.  Our students like to read for pleasure but don’t do much of it during the academic year because they have so much assigned reading and busy social lives, but we do what we can to encourage reading for pleasure and to help them develop their own personal reading tastes.

lifelong reading

I learned a long time ago that you could learn a lot from mysteries. My mother was a walking encyclopedia. She knew everything. If we needed to know when a battle was fought or what a Latin phrase meant or what exactly happened to Charles the second, anyway, she knew the answer (though as part of her own educational mission she often told us to look it up in the encyclopedia). She had a terrific general education that was largely through reading. She was a child of the depression and had to leave school when she was sixteen to go to work. She never finished high school but was educated through books – and mysteries were her genre of choice.

This impression I formed early on, that we must absorb a great deal of knowledge through pleasure reading, was borne out by the research Catherine Sheldrick Ross and her graduate students did on the lived experience of avid readers. After interviewing over 200 readers, they found that reading popular fiction could be affirming (“there are other people in the world like me”), a way of learning about the world that’s inaccessible in real life, and that it contributed to their capacity for creativity and problem-solving. This led Ross to urge librarians to explore not just information seeking behavior, but the importance of information encountering, which I think is a profoundly important insight.

Psychologists have also had interesting things to say about the effects of reading for pleasure. Victor Nell studied the trance-like state of mind when lost in a book. His neurological studies suggest that the brain is extremely busy when we appear to be passively consuming a story. Our brains are busy constructing with the author a fictional world.  Keith Oatley and others have conducted experiments that found that those who read narrative stories score better on tests for empathy than those who don’t He hypothesizes that fiction exercises empathy by serving as a simulator for experiences, which develops our capacity for understanding. All of this is a good reminder to pay attention to diversity in our collections and make sure we have books that reflect the experiences of people of color and different gender identities and social statuses. As someone recently reminded me on Twitter, this is not just so that white readers’ horizons will be expanded, though that’s all good, but also so that non-white readers aren’t always simulating the experiences of people whose lives are not theirs – practicing empathy for those who have privilege. We need both empathy with others and the ability to find ourselves in our reading experiences.

brain

Another psychologist of reading, Richard Gerrig, found that readers’ brains don’t shelve fiction separately from non-fiction. What we encounter in fiction becomes part of our knowledgebase unless we know better. That is, a biblical scholar might enjoy The Da Vinci Code, but it won’t alter her understanding of church history. A less informed reader is more likely to take it as fact. Now, this is slightly alarming to me. This all supports the claim that fiction matters, that it forms an important part of our knowledgebase – but it also puts a burden on writers to get things right:  emotionally, factually, and socially.

That brings us to crime fiction,  a broad category that embraces mysteries from cozy to hardboiled, thrillers, crime capers, and noir – any stories involving crime. It’s an enduringly popular choice for readers. Though steamy potboilers about the lives of the rich and famous were more likely to be on the bestseller list until the 1990s, when crime fiction took over, we’ve enjoyed crime since the days when Elizabethan pamphlets about notorious crimes were sold on the street.

elizabethan pamphlets

Though steamy is definitely back on the bestseller list, mysteries and thrillers continue to be popular. Why are stories about crime still so fascinating when our violent rate has been halved since the 1990s? Why do so many mysteries focus on young white women as victims of violence when in reality the murder rate for young black women is four times that of young white women and 78 percent of homicide victims are male?

pulps

Of course the women-in-danger theme is hardly new. It was popular in the pulps of the 1930s.) But since the 1990s In fiction we’ve seen an epidemic of serial homicide  and stranger abductions, but in reality both crimes are rare. Why are we entertained by fear that is exaggerated? Why do we focus on threats that are so unlikely?

It’s probably in part the same impulse that puts grotesque crimes on the front page of the newspaper: if it bleeds, it leads. Stories that are unsettling are also compelling so long as the threat itself is more imaginary than real, when we can identify with the victim, yet feel the violence they experience is an aberration that won’t likely happen to us. In narrative form, crime can be contained. It poses problems that we trust will be solved, and that fictional resolution reassures us about anxiety that is otherwise uncomfortable. Readers frequently say that they like mysteries because it conveys the sense that justice is restored. According to critic Catherine Nickerson, the genre is both stimulating and soothing. It deals with explosive materials within a safe space where there are formulas to follow, where we know what to expect (including a certain measure of surprise).  It’s a genre that allows us “to draw close to the flame of our culture’s evils without actually getting burned.”

draw close without burned

One of the reasons why this genre is so popular is that it offers such a wide range of choices. There’s a spectrum  from very light to gruesomely dark; there’s also a lot to choose from in terms of focus, from the sociological (taking a Dickensian wide-angle view of violence), to the psychological (seeking explanations for deviance within people’s inner lives) to the mythological (framing the story as a Manichean battle between the forces of good and evil). I myself am wary of the latter, particularly in its willingness to attribute crime to monstrous others. This framing too often makes crime a matter of personal moral choice or some kind of genetic aberration that lets us off the hook because we then feel no responsibility for situations that in real life contribute to crime and violence. People don’t kill people, monsters do.

The suspense in the crime genre draws on things that frighten us as a society, which is interesting, because anxiety is a potent factor in the formation of social issues. Our fears are often manipulated by various groups to amplify their cause. For example, the media, which needs exciting stories to recruit and retain their audience. But we often fail to focus on what’s really important. Last year, two trials concluded in the same week. In one, a woman in Arizona was found guilty of killing a man. In the other, a man in Guatemala was found guilty of killing 200,000 people.

trials

Only one of these trials got significant news media attention in the US even though the Rios Montt trial for genocide was live-streamed, available to anyone who wanted to listen in. Why didn’t we cover it? It was messy. Our government had been involved in the coup that led to the genocide, and that would be hard to explain. It involved too many victims, mostly indigenous people, so the story would be both upsetting and hard to wrap our heads around. And it wouldn’t reach a satisfying conclusion. A higher court overturned the conviction ten days later. Though Rios Montt still faces charges, he won’t be back in a courtroom until next year. While one narrative was dramatic, the other was simply complex, upsetting, and presumably less likely to recruit and retain the attention of American audience and generate ad revenue.

The state also uses anxiety to gain support for the regulation of behavior. We can take the serial killer threat as an example. At the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s administration, the Department of Justice wanted to repair the reputation of law enforcement, frayed after Watergate and the Church Committee investigation into decades of illegal surveillance of dissidents. The FBI made a startling announcement: the rate of serial homicides had jumped alarmingly to 25 percent of all murders. Later they retracted the statement. They had accidentally classified all homicides for which the victim-perpetrator relationship was unknown as the work of serial killers. Oops! But the highly-inflated figures and the sense of growing threat helped restore trust and budgets. It also aligned with the kinds of stimulating yet soothing narratives people craved at the time, which made Hannibal Lector such a hit and enabled James Patterson to mass produce serial killers to such popular effect. (Philip Jenkins, Using Murder.) Now, of course, we have to sustain an endless war on terror, which requires being afraid. Very afraid.

All three of my mysteries have been about the way fear is manipulated to produce a common social response to threat.   In On Edge, residents of a small town, once coaxed into a frenzy of accusation over satanic abuse charges, are being whipped up again when three children are murdered. In the Wind plays off the parallels between the civil liberties abuses of the Vietnam War era and the Bush era, fear of Communism converted to fear of Muslim extremists nurtured to excuse unconstitutional practices. Though the Cracks deals with a fear that strikes closer to home, the fear every woman is raised to feel in her bones, a fear that constricts our freedom and blames us for our sexuality. Fear of sexual assault.

The idea for Through the Cracks first came to me years ago when I read an investigative series in the Chicago Tribune on the shocking number of exonerations of Illinois death row prisoners. Many of them involved confessions obtained by detectives working under a Chicago police commander who valued convictions more than truth. I was, of course, appalled that innocent men had been falsely imprisoned, but I was mostly outraged for the victims of those crimes. Grabbing some guy off the street at random to make a conviction instead of pursuing the case with integrity seemed the ultimate way of saying to the African American community of Chicago “you don’t matter.” I also wondered what it was like for victims to learn the men they thought responsible were possibly innocent, and the person who had knocked their life off-kilter wasn’t locked up after all.

As I started working on the story, I faced a challenge. Threats to women – the threats that constrict our lives on a daily basis – are frequently the subject of crime fiction, used to provide that pleasurable thrill that we all crave. But I didn’t want to sexualize violence against women. I wanted to treat it as it really is: violence in the service of oppression.

Thousands of books use scores of women as throwaway props for a clever killer who is engaged in a duel of wits with a heroic detective. We are often promised a glimpse of pure evil as we are invited to step into the mind of serial killer. This is an entertaining way to reassure ourselves that we are not monsters, that when bad things happen to good people, we know who to blame, and it’s not us.

I don’t mind reading or writing about violence, but I want it to be honest. To me, the reality-free serial killer story is less honest that the fluffiest of cozies. Real crime involves real causes: inequality, poverty, racism, hopelessness, greed, jealousy, the indifference of a culture that devours news stories of stranger abductions but is bored by the fact that one in five of our children live in poverty, that enjoys stories about the serial slaughter of young women but is reluctant to acknowledge the existence of rape culture. Admittedly, real life is relatively dull and big problems are harder than dramatic ones. Like others, I read crime fiction for fun, not to be educated or to hear earnest lectures. But I’m bothered by the way women are trivialized by fantasy crimes, and for that reason I’m thrilled that so many people have taken Lisbeth Salander to heart. Who would have thought that a book that, in the original, had the title Men Who Hate Women and starts chapters with social statistics about misogyny could possibly be a bestseller in this country?  Not to mention generate perhaps my favorite title in our lit crit section.

salander

Stieg Larsson won readers over by giving them the sense that justice is possible through the actions of heroic characters who refuse to put up with injustice. Rather than be a traumatized victim who lives in fear, Salander stands up for herself when society won’t, and it’s that stance, not the threats against her, that is exhilarating. The Millennium Trilogy distinguishes itself, too, in situating violence in social systems that tolerate inequality and are easily manipulated by powerful men. Larsson remixes a variety of genre conventions to expose social structures in which evil isn’t a monstrous Other, but the actions of powerful individuals who routinely make self-serving choices, capturing our sympathy with a compelling heroine whose task is to expose and confront our assumptions.

Larsson chose to make a political argument fun by remixing every kind of crime fiction narrative: the nutty serial killer with a Nazi past, the locked room mystery, the dysfunctional family saga, the spy thriller, the financial thriller, the police procedural, the political thriller, and the courtroom drama, creating a remix of popular culture motifs that becomes an imaginative landscape within which he can work through the issues of inequality and racism that he dealt with in his journalism.

But that boundary between engaging serious issues and entertainment can be a fraught place. South African journalist and novelist Margie Orford has written about why she turned to writing crime fiction. She writes:

The nature of crime and its effects seemed to elude me in many articles I wrote on the subject. I could list the shocking facts, but in the limited space of a one- or two-thousand word piece, I felt that I could never get to the truth about crime, about social dislocation, modernity and violence, and what this says about South Africa and those of us who live here. It is only in fiction that I could begin to find the voices of the brutalised and the dead . . . The crime novel, if done well, is a way of interpreting the society upon which it focuses its lens.

That said, Orford is troubled by the fact that there is a lot of misogyny in the genre and it’s difficult to avoid the erotic charge of the damaged female body given how woven into the genre it is. She also found herself troubled by the risk of oversimplifying the silencing power of violence:

I am at a loss as to how to engage fictionally, in an ethical manner, with the incomprehensible complexity of violence of South Africa. I may have erred profoundly in imagining that fiction might be a means of finding a way back, after the obliterating effects of violence, to some semblance of a language: a different language, an empathic language, a language that speaks of resilience and survival.

I actually think she’s done rather a good job of helping readers like me think about violence in her country and all of the complexity that has gone into it, but I sympathize with the challenge this kind of fictional honesty poses. The restoration of justice that we crave in our fiction is sometimes too easy an out. I think she’s put her finger on a defining ethical issue for both writers and readers of the genre.

Finally, what I’d like to talk about briefly is the subject of my current research: how reading is both deeply solitary and at the same time social.  Francis Spufford, author of The Child that Books Built, described reading as a child as a form of separation from the world. “As my concentration on the story in my hands took hold, all sounds faded away . . . there was an airlock in there. It sealed to the outside so that it could open to the inside.” For him, reading books was a very personal journey and an escape. Students who have taken a course I have taught on books and culture have said similar things about the way their personal identities are entwined with the books they read.  As one put it, “My bookshelf is not just a bookshelf. It’s a time warp.“ Each book returned her to a particular time in her past. Yet as Elizabeth Long pointed out in her 2003 study of book groups, reading is also a social practice. That social connection often begins with childhood reading experiences.  As another student put it, “It was an ordinary place in our house growing up, but it became magical every night when my mom would sink into the soft cushions with a book in her hands. My younger sister and I would sit on either side of her resting our heads against her arms, peering at the illustrations that transformed our living room. My mom’s voice would decode the squiggles on the page into words, into a story. My first memory of books comes from this spot in our living room.”

social

Today, that social life of books and readers is inscribing social media with an almost limitless conversation about books.  Millions of readers around the world participate in online communities focused on sharing their reading experiences. They formed early in the history of the Internet – Dorothy-L was founded in 1990. Rec.alt.mysteries (also known as RAM) was a Usenet group that was founded in the early 90s. Compuserve had active mystery discussion groups. Yahoo Groups has hosted thousands of book-related groups over the years. I studied one of those reading communities back in 2005 and found that the combination of sharing a love of the mystery genre and having a sense of community with like-minded readers scattered across the globe was highly valued by its members. Since then, sites like Goodreads (with 30 million members), LibraryThing (1.8 million members) as well as book discussions held on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblrs and blogs have all flourished.

I always find it puzzling when pundits say “nobody reads these days” or “reading is on the decline” given the evidence that millions of readers thrive on sharing their experiences with reading for pleasure. It’s also clear from observing these social interactions that they feel their reading experiences benefit from social interactions, that readers form interpretive communities that transcend national boundaries and other differences, and that these informal critical communities play a critical role in the the formation of popular literary tastes which, in turn, are shaped by and shape our understanding of the world we live in. Wattpad is an interesting place where storytelling and sharing come together. On this site, people serially share stories for free, collecting reading communities that comment on the stories as they evolve. If you’ve read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, you probably have a sense of why 35 million people participate. Last week a 25-year-old member sold film rights to a series of romances she posted there which, over the course of time, have collected a billion views. This is an perhaps an extreme version of reading and writing as a social act, but is an illustration that storytelling and reading are popular when shared.

sociallibrary

Libraries, of course, may be the original place where reading was seen as a social act. Libraries contribute enormously to this communal sense that reading is not simply a solitary pleasure (one characterized as a guilty one indulged in by indolent women in the early 20th century when it was called “the fiction problem”). Nor is it an act of individual consumerism indulged in for free. It’s a communal experience, one that libraries encourage and support, an ongoing conversation with readers that enables what Wayne Wiegand has described as democracies of culture (“The Politics of Cultural Authority.” American Libraries (1998): 80-82). These are spaces where we let our communities decide what matters and experience the identification and the expanded world view that reading imaginative literature enables. The only gates we keep are open ones. We defend the commons, and in supporting the common reader whose tastes likely run to crime fiction, we are helping our communities experience the mystery of it all.

image credits

Background texture – Glassholic
Reader with a train – Mo Reza
Burning books – Patrick Correla
Brain –  Saad Faruque
Elizabethan pamphlets – Early English Books  Online (subscription required)
Spicy detective – Will Hart
Private detective – Will Hart
Speed detective – Will Hart
Dime mystery  – Rene Walter
Biblioburro by Diana Arias


results from the Book Blogger’s Survey

September 22, 2014

Last month, I concocted a survey for crime fiction book bloggers (which is still open – if you blog about crime fiction and want to contribute your thoughts, feel free). Thanks to the twenty bloggers who took the time to reflect on their experiences. Note, this survey relied on a convenience sample drawn from my Twitter connections, the Crime and Mystery Fiction room at Friendfeed, and bloggers who I follow and contacted personally, inviting them to participate, so it is not a comprehensive analysis by any means.

By the numbers

First, the demographics: twelve of the respondents were women, eight were men. The largest number (11) were from Europe, followed by North America and Australia/New Zealand. As for their ages, none were younger than 25. Six were between 25 and 45, 11 were between 46 and 65, and three were over 65.

Nearly all had blogs focused primarily on crime fiction, with half mixing book reviews with other mystery-related materials and seven who focused on book reviews. All of the bloggers enabled comments, and just slightly over half moderated them. (Of those who didn’t, at least one mentioned removing comments that were obviously spam.) They all found blogging a positive experience, with half selecting “mostly positive” and half choosing “extremely positive.” (I suppose that’s hardly surprising, since if they didn’t enjoy it, they’d stop!)

I asked bloggers to choose the top three ways they obtained books. Getting review copies from publishers and purchasing books were the most commonly chosen options. The third most common source of books was the library, with review copies from authors following close behind. Though these were the bloggers’ most common sources, they weren’t necessarily equally distributed. One blogger added in a comment “I buy nearly all of my books (95%+).” While two in comments mentioned that getting free books from publishers was a plus, another pointed out that it could be a mixed blessing: “once your address is sent to one company, lots of other people seem to have access to it,” resulting in lots of unsolicited books.

I asked about venues in which bloggers frequently discuss crime fiction with other readers. Other blogs topped the list with 18 respondents checking that option, followed by friends, family, or coworkers (14) then (in descending order) online discussion forums or email lists focused on crime fiction (14), Twitter (12), Facebook (11), crime-fiction-focused face-to-face events (10), Friendfeed (9), a face-to-face book group (8), and Goodreads (7). All of the respondents reported participating in at least three of these venues.

Exploring their motivation

I asked bloggers why they maintain a book blog. Several themes emerged from their answers. The two most-often cited reasons were that they found it helpful to track what they read and it provided a sense of community. As one blogger put it, “It 4889471879_ce34dcbd0a_zstarted out as a place to keep track of what I was reading myself in a way that was a little more accountable than personal notes. But it’s turned into a way of being connected to other people with a similar interest. I only know a couple of people in my real world who share my reading interests and none of them want to talk about the books in any in-depth way.” Related to community was a sense of reciprocity. Bloggers were able to promote books and authors who they thought deserved greater notice; in turn, they discovered books that other bloggers recommended. Bloggers also mentioned that it coincided with a professional interest in books (as writers, booksellers, or librarians) and that writing about the books they’d read helped them gain a deeper understanding of them. Finally, many respondents said it was fun: “it brings me joy to discuss books and introduce readers to books and authors they might not have discovered.”

I asked bloggers whether they encouraged interaction with their blogs. One out of four respondents were not particularly interested one way or another in whether their posts were getting responses. Others invited involvement through issuing challenges or posing questions to readers, and many posted links to new blog posts on other social media. One respondent suggested that comment strings were preferable to Twitter interactions, with its 140 character limit leading to less in-depth discussion; another found that readers preferred to take conversation to email or to the blog’s Facebook page. Bloggers often were pleased with interactions they had. One reported that after a conversation online, a reader wrote, “Thank you! This is very, very helpful. I always feel like I can ask you questions. I normally feel like I should know the answer and don’t ask, but you are so understanding and interested in sharing what you know I don’t hesitate.”

“Sharing a Passion”

Many respondents reported that making connections with other passionate readers, being able to influence other readers and being able to discover new authors to try were positive aspects of being a book blogger. There is a curatorial pleasure in finding and writing about what one blogger characterized as “hidden gems.” “Bloggers often discovered affinities with other readers who could help them discover worthwhile books. As one wrote, “I’ve found a group of other bloggers and crime fiction fans who comment whose recommendations I can rely on. That’s invaluable.” An Australian blogger was happy to “promote8314929977_28fd740070_z Australian crime fiction to the wider world – I’m proud of our local authors and it’s great to see them being reviewed/discussed elsewhere.” For another, “supreme satisfaction lies in receiving emails from readers who ecstatically tell me that they liked one of my reviews, got the book, read the book, fell in love, and immediately went out to purchase all that author’s books.” As another put it, satisfaction comes from the “chance to turn on a reader to a great book they might have missed and to introduce them to an author they haven’t read.” One mentioned “the contact it gives me with contemporary writers” was particularly satisfying, and another wrote “because of the blog, I’ve been able to set up several face-to-face interviews with authors who I would otherwise never have met. I use things like Bouchercon to set some of these up to meet several in person at one event. I also will interview via email questions, also interesting.” That said, fellow crime fiction readers seemed the dominant audience bloggers had in mind and community-building was primarily around sharing reading interests..

Occasional Aggravations

I asked if anything was aggravating, if anything, about blogging. Some bloggers reported no particular aggravations. Others mentioned that it was a significant time commitment, including meeting self-imposed expectations of frequency. One regretted that all available time went into writing posts, leaving too little to interact with other bloggers “which makes me feel a bit of an ingrate.” Commenting created some stresses. Getting few comments or posting comments on others’ blogs that met with no response was a disappointment to some respondents. Interestingly, one blogger who also reviews books professionally, found that there was much less negative commenting on her personal blog than on other media websites.

This points to an interesting tension between developing community through blogging and maintaining a certain amount of critical distance. Several respondents noted that some book blogs provide overenthusiastic promotion of new books rather than thoughtful, honest, informed criticism, noting a proliferation of blogs whose authors substituted enthusiasm for knowledge about the genre or even strong writing and analytical skills. That said, only one respondent mentioned facing a quandary about whether to review a book that wasn’t enjoyable or was simply not very good. There seemed to be an ethos of being scrupulously civil yet honest among the bloggers. A couple of respondents mentioned that authors who take issue with a review, expecting nothing but a five-star rave, and self-published authors pleading for reviews could be tiresome.

I thought I’d close this round-up of responses with a few quotes volunteered by participants:

  • I never went into blogging to make money or build an audience to enormous numbers. I continue to enjoy it because it gives me an opportunity to talk about books.
  • I just do it for fun and hope anyone who reads it enjoys and finds it interesting.
  • I do occasionally feel overwhelmed by the amount that here available to read.
  • Maxine Clarke’s early comments on my blog an invitation to FriendFeed played a crucial role in my blogging: she introduced me to lots of bloggers and lots of books I hadn’t read.

This last comment and a related one (“book blogging can be a sad experience”) resonated with me. As many people in the crime fiction community know, Maxine Clarke was both an expert at emerging social media platforms (something that benefitted the innovative online presence of the premier science journal, Nature, where she was a renowned editor) and a fine and prolific reviewer of crime fiction for Euro Crime and at her own blog, Petrona. She did a great deal to promote high quality book conversations online and almost single-handedly knitted together a vast network of crime fiction readers, so we felt her loss terribly. She is still missed, but a Scandinavian crime fiction prize is awarded in her name annually and many bloggers have contributed to Petrona Remembered to carry on her work discovering and sharing good mysteries.

I want to thank the participants in this survey and mention those who gave me permission to acknowledge them here.

photos courtesy of  Abhi Sharma  and Jain Basil Allyas


September Pick: Tana French’s The Secret Place

September 14, 2014

I’ve been writing reviews for Reviewing the Evidence for a few years; I’ve been a fan of the website for much longer and am happy to have the chance to contribute to it. In the latest issue, I wrote about a couple of good books, including Tana French’s latest, and am reposting that review here with RTE’s permission. It’s an interesting exploration of how much pressure girls feel to perform a certain kind of sexuality and has a really interesting narrative structure that manages to unfold the mystery twice over. I have found novels about the fraught relationships among adolescent girls really irritating (largely because I found it irritating in real life) but French’s focus on the pressure girls feel turned out to be quite interesting.

The Secret PlaceTHE SECRET PLACE
by Tana French
Viking, September 2014
464 pages
$27.95
ISBN: 0670026328

Tana French has won praise for her loosely-linked Dublin Murder Squad series, starting with IN THE WOODS, which swept awards, including the Edgar. Each volume in the series has a different narrator and a different tone, though all of them feature passages that are gorgeously descriptive and protagonists who make acute observations of other characters (while sometimes failing to understand themselves).

The story begins when Holly Mackey, the teenaged daughter of a homicide squad detective, brings a message to Stephen Moran, an officer she met six years earlier when she was a child witness in a murder case. She’s found a card pinned to a bulletin board in the posh girls’ boarding school she attends with three close friends. The board is “the secret place,” a localized imitation of the Post Secret website, where the girls can say whatever is on their minds anonymously. The head of the school believes it gives the students an outlet for secrets they can’t otherwise share, though it also becomes a site where rumors and accusations are shared anonymously. Holly’s card bears the photo of a handsome young man who Moran recognizes. Chris Harper attended the adjoining boys’ school and had been found bludgeoned to death on the grounds of Holly’s school the previous year. Though the crime went unsolved, whoever pinned the note to the board glued cut-out letters to the card that read I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.

Though Moran has hopes that this lead will help him get a foot in the murder squad door and out of the professional backwater he’s in, he knows he runs a risk. The detective who handled the case, Antoinette Conway, has no patience with her male colleagues’ sexist banter and has consequently been ostracized and sabotaged. The fact that she didn’t chalk up a solve for this high-class, high-profile murder has left her in a precarious situation. If Moran aligns his fortunes with hers, he could take a tumble. As she reluctantly agrees to let him go with her to find out what they can, he begins to think she’s all too likely to kick him down the stairs herself.

The novel is told in two timeframes, skillfully intertwined. One is the 24-hour period within which Moran and Conway try to crack the case before it can be taken away from them, a ticking clock that lends to their narrative a claustrophobic sense of increasing pressure. The other is a series of scenes in the school, counting down the months and days until the murder. Though we learn a great deal about Holly and her three close friends, about Joanne, the imperious leader of a terrorized yet devoted pack, and about the hothouse culture of an elite boarding school where the students speak in a weirdly American patios, we’re solving the case along with the detectives. We also learn a lot about the pressure the girls feel to perform a certain kind of sexuality. The bond between Holly and her three friends, forged out of the realization that they don’t have to conform, gives them a heady sense of power that spills over into other unusual skills that seem to have be conjured up out other girls’ accusation that they are witches. Though some readers may object to these small touches of the supernatural, they signify both the four girls’ shared power in choosing their own identities and the fragile magic of adolescent friendship among girls.

As usual, there’s some brilliant writing. As the girls leave the local shopping mall, where the teens negotiate their public roles, consuming and offering themselves for consumption, one of them observes “their faces on the way home afterwards look older and strained, smeared with the scraps of leftover expressions that were pressed on too hard and won’t lift away.” French conveys the feeling of being that age very well. One of the friends remembers being told as a child “don’t be scared,” a very different message than the commanding voice she hears now. “Be scared you’re fat, be scared your books are too big and be scared they’re too small. Be scared to walk on your own, especially anywhere quiet enough that you can hear yourself think. . . . Be scared terrified petrified that everything you are is every kind of wrong. Good girl.” French is very good at conjuring up the emotional maelstroms of adolescence and sharp in her observations of the roles we impose on the young.

The only drawback to this feverishly evocative writing is that, as the murder approaches in the one narrative strand and the two detectives grow desperate to solve the crime in the other, the sheer length of the book weighs it down. Trimming it by 150 pages would have let the pace twist tighter and the writing burn brighter.

Apart from that quibble, it’s a virtuoso exploration of the pressure girls feel in adolescence, the intensity of friendship, and the ways that closeness between girls is threatened by the gender roles they are required to play.


activism ahead

August 29, 2014

On September 10th at midnight some of us who support network neutrality will have sporty widgets on our website that show what it would be like if big corporations could buy Internet access while the rest of us are stuck in the slow lane. Meanwhile, Fight for the Future has some comix-style images to dramatize the issue. 

You can read about why network neutrality matters from the ACLU or the American Library Association. Or listen to John Oliver, who pretty much nails it.


Sisters in Crime September Sinc-Up

August 29, 2014

Sisters in Crime has a blog challenge for the month of September. The idea is to respond to any (or all) of the following questions in a blog post:

  • Which authors have inspired you?
  • Which male authors write great women characters? Which female authors write great male characters?
  • If someone said “Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men,” how would you respond?
  • What’s the best part of the writing process for you? What’s the most challenging?
  • Do you listen to music while writing? What’s on your playlist?
  • What books are on your nightstand right now?
  • If you were to mentor a new writer, what would you tell her about the writing business?

Then, tag another author whose work you think readers might enjoy and tweet your post, using the hashtag #SinC-up and including @SINCnational (or if you’re not on Twitter, you can email a link to webmaven@sistersincrime.org, who will publicize it for you). You don’t have to be a member of Sisters in Crime to participate.

I’m going to give this thing a whirl a little early to help kick things off with three of the questions and one tagged author.

If someone said “Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men,” how would you respond?

So, librarians do this thing they call “readers’ advisory.” I’m not very good at it, because I work at an academic library where the students don’t want my advice about anything they might do for fun. Still, it’s an area of the profession that has really blossomed in the past decade, and it would come in handy when formulating a response other than muttered profanities and insults. That would be not only diplomatic but only fair, considering how overwhelmingly male my own list of favorite authors was when began to read mysteries. There are all kinds of complex reasons for this. Let me just say I’m more aware of the imbalance now than I was then and am trying to make a point of discovering and reading women’s crime fiction, because there are a lot of terrific women writers out there.

The first task is to find out more about the reader’s tastes. For example, if I met myself from fifteen years ago, my old self would say “I like Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Tony Hillerman, and James Lee Burke.” I’d say “Me too! Hey, have you tried Denise Mina? She has a great, gritty sense of time and place like Lehane. Or how about Margie Orford, who tackles the ‘grammar of violence’ in post-apartheid Cape Town, South Africa, kind of like what Pelecanos has been doing in his portrayal of our capital city M. J. McGrath has the same fine eye for landscape and an inside view of native cultures as Hillerman, and if you love JLB’s lush prose, you don’t want to miss Tana French, though I’d start first with Faithful Place; I think you’ll like the protagonist.”

Which male authors write great women characters? Which female authors write great male characters?

I’ll mention one of each. Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series has wonderful characters all around, but he’s particularly great at getting inside the head of the women in Poke’s family. The Queen of Patpong is an amazing act of imagination, tracing the life of a woman from northern Thailand who (like so many women) goes to Bangkok to become part of the sex trade. The dignity and empathy with which he treats the subject is amazing. Every scene that Poke’s adopted daughter, Miaow, is in is stolen by her. Again, it’s not just that he can imagine the world from a girl’s perspective, but also from the viewpoint of a girl whose early years were spent on the streets of Bangkok.

Kate Atkinson is another stunningly good writer and I find her Jackson Brodie completely real and convincing (and, yes, male). As with Hallinan, every character she writes about is drawn in complex, human, genuine terms. Brodie is not a collection of male traits; he’s himself, one of a cast of three-dimensional characters defined by a lot of things, not just gender roles, though of course the way they respond to gender roles further reveals who they are. I suspect that is the reason these authors can imagine their way into the life of someone very different from them. They don’t resort to cliches or types.

Okay, one more comment: a writer who delibrately used gender cliches and types to good effect is Steig Larsson. He reversed gender cliches and fooled around with popular culture motifs in a way that made them fresh enough to startle readers and playful enough to be engaging. Otherwise, it might have been a little tricky to get the masses to pick up a book that opens chapters with crime statistics and is titled (in the original Swedish) Men Who Hate Women. But everyone loves the Girl.

If you were to mentor a new writer, what would you tell her about the writing business?

The first thing I would say is I would be a terrible mentor; find yourself a good one and join Sisters in Crime because it offers a lot to writers who want to learn about the business and the dues are affordable (only $40!) Second, being an anarchist pinko, I would ask her what she wants from writing. So much advice out there has to do with self-promotion and validation through the soul-crushing metrics of money and attention. They’re soul-crushing because they induce a yearning that is inevitably disappointing. That’s how capitalism works! (Hey, I warned you about my leanings.)

I would encourage her to figure out what she loves about writing and hold onto that intrinsic motivation because the extrinsic kind is pretty brutal. Learn the basics of the business without paying too much attention to evangelists, either those who think anything that doesn’t come from one of the big five publishing corporations can’t be worthwhile or those who think self-publishing is the only road to liberty and wealth and anyone who chooses another path is a deluded serf. (So. Much. Macho. Posturing. Don’t get me started.) You have options, I would tell her; you don’t have to take sides. Learn the basics, find a few good sources of information to keep up with what’s going on in this strange business, and then focus on writing as well as you can. There is no platonic ideal of “writer” that you need to become. You just need to figure out who you are as a writer – and write your heart out.

lisa brackmannPart of this project is to tag a writer worth reading. I’m choosing Lisa Brackmann, author of two bang-up books set in China – Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat (which she describes as “a lighthearted romp through environmental apocalypse”) – and a tense woman-out-of-her-element thriller set in Mexico, Getaway. They’re good, compulsive reading and you’ll never see the world quite the same way again. In fact, every time I think about replacing some worn-out piece of computer hardware I picture a scene in Hour of the Rat. She blogs in various places including her own blog, The Paper Tiger.


Calling Crime Fiction Book Bloggers

August 10, 2014

Some time ago, I posted about a sabbatical proposal I submitted – and now I’m actually enjoying that sabbatical! I am studying online reading communities and am hoping readers who blog about books might be willing to take this survey. I estimated that it might take 10-20 minutes, though honestly if you want to complete it in five or less, I am pretty sure you could – it all depends on whether you want to give short answers or write more in response to open questions. Though I’m primarily looking at online reading communities that focus on crime fiction, any book bloggers are welcome to participate, whether or not crime fiction is your preferred genre.

One thing that made this survey different from others I’ve created in the past is that bloggers are writers (even if their main identity while blogging is as a reader), so I have tried to be explicit about rights issues and let you choose whether or not to have your words attributed to you. The default position is anonymity, but if you’d like credit for your commentary, you may attach your name to any response. Here’s the fine print you’ll encounter on the survey:

You retain the copyright to your answers and you may do whatever you like with them, but by participating in this survey you grant me the nonexclusive right to draw on your responses for the purposes of this research project only. I will make every effort to handle survey results confidentially and represent your thoughts accurately and ethically. If you write something in a response to a particular question for which you would like to be credited by name, please inlcude the name you wish to use in your response and an email address for verification.  (It will not be used for any other purpose). Otherwise, responses will be treated anonymously.

I will be creating a couple more surveys – one for authors and another more general survey for readers of crime fiction – but I thought I’d start with bloggers who write about books primarily from the perspective of being a reader.

surveypoint

photo (CC-NC) by Farrukh


review of The Bone Seeker by M. J. McGrath

August 3, 2014

The most recent issue of Reviewing the Evidence has a review in it I thought I’d share here (thanks to the editor’s generous policy – do visit the site, as it has a search feature for its over 10,000 mystery reviews, all provided through that mysterious process that Yochai Benkler calls commons-based peer production. You know, that part of the Internet that works as it should rather than being a vacuum for monetizable personal information and platform for showing off. It also has a “sixty seconds with” feature with this author, who manages to find some funny and informative things to say in under a minute.

THE BONE SEEKER
by M.J. McGrath
Viking, July 2014
328 pages
$27.95 in it
ISBN: 0670785806

One of the pleasures of a hot summer day is cooling down with a book about Edie Kiglatuk, a smart and principled guide to the culture and climate of the far north. But it’s much more than a refreshing beach read.

Edie’s people are the Canadian Inuit who over generations developed ingenious ways to survive the rigors of life beside Hudson Bay. Unfortunately for them, the government decided during the cold war to forcibly relocate many of them to a more northern and remote terrain, Ellesmere Island, to discourage world powers from considering it an uninhabited and available. (This historical injustice is described in McGrath’s 2006 nonfiction work, THE LONG EXILE.) While McGrath, in her fiction, introduces readers to the ingenuity of people who have adapted to life in the high arctic, she’s unsparing in counting the costs to individuals and their society.

That’s not to say the book rubs readers’ noses in misery and hopelessness. Edie Kiglatuk has fought her way out of alcoholism and despair by caring fiercely for her neighbors. As this third volume in the series opens, she has taken a position teaching summer school. When one of her students disappears, she’s not willing to chalk it up to teenaged flightiness. She badgers the local law enforcement official, Derek Palliser (known to locals as the Lemming Police, thanks to his off-duty fascination with lemming colonies) into launching a search, and the girl’s body is found in the shallow waters of a lake. It’s a significant location. The locals avoid it, considering it an evil place.

When Palliser can’t get adequate help for the investigation, he buys out Edie’s school contract to put her on the case with him. She can help, both as a scout who understands the landscape but also as a liaison to the community. But as soon as they start to look into the possibility that the girl’s killer is one of the soldiers at a nearby military installation, they run into interference from the Department of Defence, which is already well acquainted with the girl’s family. Her father has spent years fighting the federal government over land claims and has pushed to have the area where his daughter’s body was discovered, the site of an old radar station, decontaminated. It seems likely that the murder will be more than a family tragedy; uncovering a killer might just reveal uncomfortable state secrets.

This is a thoroughly fascinating book that gives readers a glimpse into a part of the world that very few people know about, a place that has the austere beauty of nature when it’s bigger than its human inhabitants. Edie Kiglatuk is a tough, resourceful, and tender-hearted sleuth with a foot in two cultures. Apart from a disappointing moment when she puts herself in unnecessary jeopardy to advance the plot, the story unfolds in a well-paced puzzle that does a beautiful job of balancing setting, character, and story. Though the investigation uncovers something bigger than Edie and Palliser anticipated, the loss of a girl’s life is never overshadowed. All in all, M. J. McGrath proves that it’s possible to honor the conventions of the genre and provide good entertainment in a story that provides even more.


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