I Was A Spy by Marthe McKenna

I picked this up after the New York Times ran a belated obituary for Marthe McKenna in September, 2018. This book reads like a non-stop adventure novel. McKenna (nee Cnockaert) was in her early twenties and studying to be a doctor when the war broke out. The Germans overran her native Belgium before their progress was halted and the front-line trenches formed just past her hometown of Westrozebeke. Her town was destroyed and she and her mother were forced to move a little further behind the lines to Roulers, where the Germans had set up a hospital.

Cnockaert volunteered as a nurse at the hospital, where she treated both German and Allied soldiers. If you’ve ever read accounts from other WWI nurses, you know what a horror that job was. Around the time she moved to Roulers, her aunt, an independent and free-spirited loner, recruited her as a spy for the British Secret Service.

Cnockaert was able to gather quite a bit of information from the German officers billeted in her house. (Every house in Roulers was forced to board German soldiers during the war.) Because Cnockaert worked at the hospital and had to be on call at all times, she was one of the only citizens in town who carried a pass that allowed to violate the German curfew. Her pass allowed her to go anywhere at any time, while her dedicated and extraordinary work at the hospital kept her above suspicion of the German authorities. (Because of her medical training, she was more skilled than the other nurses, and her personality made her a favorite of doctors, patients, and hospital administrators alike.)

Cnockaert recounts a number of fascinating missions, in many of which her life was on the line at every moment. In one of her first missions, she sweet-talks the German officer who runs the railway station, trying to extract information from him about when a munitions train will arrive. She gets the information, in a very clever manner, and as she does so, she comes to recognize the German officer who she has just swindled as a fundamentally decent man forced by his country to do job he may not necessarily like. With deeply mixed feelings, she passes her information on to the British, knowing it will lead to the violent death of the man who has just helped her. Two days later, she watches British planes bomb the munitions train, blowing up not only the train but the entire station, with the German officer inside.

Cnockaert passes on other valuable information to the British, including information about a previously unknown German submarine base, a behind-the-lines telephone from which an unfaithful Brit has been passing secrets to the Germans, and most importantly, plans for the large-scale bombing of London that, thanks to her warning, the British were able to thwart.

Her greatest regret comes from an incident whose significance neither she nor the British understood at the time. She reported that a munitions train had arrived in Roulers carrying large cylinders unlike any she’d ever seen before, and that she had gathered from the talk of local soldiers these were bound for the front lines. The Brits replied that they wanted information about troop movements, and they were not interested in cylinders.

Cnockaert continued to investigate the cylinders, and she also reported that two unusual German officers were now billeted in her house. They spent their days studying weather reports, measuring windspeed and making maps. The Brits again replied they weren’t interested in such information, but she continued to search for details, because the constant chatter of the German soldiers about an imminent turning point in the war told her something big was about to happen.

The last things she reported before that Germans carried those mysterious cylinders to the line was that the officers billeted in her house were not standard army officers. They were university professors who taught chemistry. She also mentioned overhearing a soldier who had unloaded the munitions train saying the canisters contained chlorine. Again, the Brits were not interested. No one understood at the time what was afoot.

The first chemical attack of war came just after her final report, and Cnockaert was the head nurse at the hospital that received the first hordes of choking, chemically burned soldiers. Although the townspeople were used to the sight of soldiers arriving with their arms and legs blown off, even parts of their faces missing, the sight of the gassed, burned and choking soldiers so horrified them that for the first time, they rose up in open protest against the Germans.

This is just one of number of incidents the author recounts. There are many more, and many of them are more harrowing because the author is so bold and forward in her attempts to extract information from the Germans. In many cases, she’s the only Belgian in a room full of male enemy soldiers. And in many cases, she travels great distances on foot, in the dark of night, to distant towns and country farmhouses, avoiding German patrols again and again, while knowing she has to show up at work the next morning looking fresh and clean or she’ll blow her cover.

One of the more striking aspects of this book is the portrait it paints of a long-lost world. Although the Europeans were fighting a twentieth-century war with twentieth-century weapons, they were still living in a nineteenth century culture. Cnockaert, a farm girl, speaks fluent Flemish, French, German, and English. The German officers, while overrunning her country, are unfailingly polite to her, just as she is to them. German and Allied soldiers are treated side-by-side in the hospital. The savage war is playing out in a society that is far more civil than American society is today. In reading of these people who so easily shifted their conversation into another language to accommodate the person they were talking to, I felt a pang of loss for a civilization that once prized cultural knowledge and now scorns it. (America, that is.)

Another striking aspect of the book is how intimately the dramas of the war played out just behind the front lines. The Germans and the Belgian spies slept under the same roof. They ate and drank together. As the war wore on, they commiserated, all of them sick of it and wanting to return to normal life. Cnockaert herself, as a nurse, often treated and rehabilitated the very soldiers whom her information had caused to be wounded, and she always treated them as fully human, not as enemies. Everything is muddled in war.

There is much more to the book than I’ve spelled out here. It’s a fascinating read, and in the four years of the war, Cnockaert did more living than most people do in a lifetime. She may have been the only person in the war to have won the highest national honors from both the Germans and the Allies. She was awarded the German Iron Cross for her work as a nurse, and the both the Belgian and French Legions of Honor, along with special recognition from the British, for her work as a spy.

If you get a chance, read this book. It’s a hard one to put down.

I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich

I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without discovering Cornell Woolrich. I had heard of him, but I had never read his work until now. The blurb on the cover of the book compares Woolrich to Raymond Chandler. I would actually say he’s quite a bit deeper and more nuanced. While Chandler focuses on the social world, Woolrich focuses much more tightly on the interior world of his main character.

In fact, he gets the reader to identify so closely with Helen/Patrice in this book, I had to reopen it the day after I’d finished it because I couldn’t remember if it was written in first person or third. It’s third-person, but it’s so powerfully colored by the protagonist’s thoughts and perspective that it’s easy to misremember as a first-person narrative.

Woolrich is a brilliant writer. That much comes out clearly in the prologue, which is among the best openings of any book I’ve ever read. It’s telling too that there’s no action in this section. The narrator merely gives a brief overview of her current life. (The prologue and epilogue are the only sections of the book written in first-person.) She lives in a beautiful house in a peaceful town, she loves her husband and son, and yet she and her husband are haunted by something that happened in the past and can find no peace.

That’s it. No explosion, no crash, no dramatic killing. And yet it’s utterly enthralling. The character has drawn you so fully into her confidence, her perspective is so rich and her language is so strangely powerful, you have to read on.

The rich description carries through into the third-person narrative that begins with chapter one. Here’s the main character, pregnant and abandoned on the first page of chapter one:

She was about nineteen. A dreary, hopeless nineteen, not a bright, shiny one. Her features were small and well-turned, but there was something too pinched about her face, too wan about her coloring, too thin about her cheeks. Beauty was there, implicit, ready to reclaim her face if it was given a chance, but something had beaten it back, was keeping it hovering at a distance, unable to alight in its intended realization…

Her head was down a little, as though she were tired of carrying it up straight. Or as though invisible blows had lowered it one by one.

You rarely see that quality of writing in crime fiction, in part because crime fiction tends not to focus on sensitive people. The quality of writing is consistent throughout the book. Here’s a snippet from a later scene. It’s autumn, and Patrice, still hopeful and determined after taking many more blows, is returning from a funeral.

The leaves were brightly dying. The misty black of her veil dimmed their apoplectic spasms of scarlet and orange and ochre, tempered them to a more bearable hue in the fiery sunset, as the funeral limousine coursed at stately speed homeward through the countryside.

The writer uses a number of interesting devices to brilliant effect. For example, one very short chapter near the middle of the book appears three times in a row. It’s simply a description of what the main character sees when she looks out her window in the morning. In the first version of the chapter, the description is bright and full of hope. In the second, it’s bittersweet, weighted down with a sense of impending loss. In the third, it’s dark, heavy, and threatening.

In three pages, that simple device portrays the decline in Patrice’s mental and emotional state more powerfully than thirty pages of nuanced description could ever do. For all the richness of his writing, Woolrich doesn’t waste any time conveying what he needs to convey.

Woolrich explores some of the same psychological territory as Jim Thomson, though he comes at it from the opposite direction. Thompson often begins with some petty criminal committing a petty act and then delves into the mind of his disturbed main character as he moves toward some violent and catastrophic explosion. Thompson’s main character is always male and is usually the perpetrator. Woolrich begins in his character’s mind, his character is a woman, and she’s the victim. Thompson’s writing is dark and powerful because of its spare, raw directness. Woolrich’s power comes from the richness and elegance of the language, of the perspective, and of the world he paints. While he does focus mostly on his characters’ interior, he paints just as rich a portrait of the social world as Chandler.

This book is primarily a psychological suspense: a slow, weighty, and relentless act of brutality against the psyche of a good and honest and vulnerable person. It portrays the effects of evil much more powerfully than so much of today’s crime fiction, which simply focuses on acts of physical violence.

If you read the prolog, you’ll know at once if the book is for you. And if you like this one, check out Dorothy Hughes’ In a Lonely Place.

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

This book contains some brilliant writing and colorful characters. It’s a freewheeling 1970s update on the classic noir detective novel.

The book begins just as private eye C.W. Sughrue is catching up to famed author Abraham Trahearne. Trahearne has been touring the seedy dive bars of the western states on an epic bender since his second wife disappeared. Sughrue was hired by the author’s first wife to bring him back home. The detective and fugitive are well matched for adventure. Both are war veterans and literate, intelligent, reckless alcoholics.

The Last Good Kiss

When Sughrue finally catches up to Trahearne, the two become fast friends, and the best parts of the book are the descriptions of their carousing. The first interaction between the two characters gives the general flavor of the first two-thirds of the book. Sughrue is examining the gunshot wound in Trahearne’s ass after a barroom brawl, while Trahearne drinks whiskey to ease the pain.

“What’s it look like?” he [Trahearne] asked between sips.

“Looks like your ass, old man.”

“I always knew I’d die a comic death,” he said gravely.

“Not today, old man. Just a minor flesh wound.”

“That’s easy for you to say, son, it’s not your flesh.”

“In a few days you won’t have nothing but a bad memory and a sore ass,” I said.

“Thank you,” he said. “But I seem to have both those already.”

A number of other reviewers have remarked that this book reads like a cross between Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson. That’s a pretty good description. Sughrue’s actions, his narrative and his worldview are similar to those of Philip Marlowe, though often with a hilarious comic twist.

For example, when he finds himself in the fancy office of a pompous attorney who looks down on him, Sughrue decides his best move is to undermine the lawyer’s arrogance by acting even more presumptuous and entitled himself.

I stood up and walked around behind his desk, took a cigar out of a burled walnut box, lit it, sat down in his leather swivel chair, and propped my boots on his desk.

“What the hell are you doing?” he asked.

“Making myself comfortable, partner,” I said, then blew smoke in his face.

“Get up from there,” he sputtered. He couldn’t have been any angrier if I had sat down on his wife’s face.

That last line is a perfect example of Sughrue’s comic twist on the traditional tough-guy noir detective, and that thread of irreverent, subversive humor runs throughout the first two-thirds of the book, in both Sughrue and Trahearne.

But this is a detective story, after all, so there has to be a mystery to solve, and that’s the focus of the final third of the book, which is darker and more violent. This is where we see Sughrue’s combat training and Trahearne’s more pathetic, childish side. Both of these guys are alcoholics for a reason, and I give the author credit for showing the darker side of chronic heavy drinking.

The writing in this book is far superior to almost everything else in the genre. I give it four stars instead of five only because the mystery was somewhat convoluted and hastily resolved. And it left a bitter taste. But I can see why this book inspired a generation of crime writers. Most novels that intentionally aim at being literary don’t reach as high or as deep as this one, and they certainly aren’t as entertaining.

The Great Divorce – C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis’ allegory opens with the narrator, presumably a middle-aged Englishman, walking through the rainy streets of a city at dusk. He happens upon a line of bickering people waiting for a bus and, almost by accident, he’s in the queue, and then aboard the bus, not knowing where it’s bound.

As the bus ascends, he gets a broad view of his vast, gloomy country, with its houses spread miles apart as its inhabitants try to distance themselves ever further from their neighbors.

The bus eventually rises to a lush, sunlit country in which the substance of all things, from the grass to the water to the animals, is so hard and weighty that the passengers on the bus are mere ghosts by comparison.

Bright spirits approach the passengers one by one, each assigned to a specific individual, and try to convince the ghosts to accompany them on the difficult journey over the mountains to a land of joy and love. The one condition is that they can’t take anything with them.

One by one, the ghosts refuse. The proud ones cannot give up their important roles in the world below. The wounded and the wronged cling to their wounds as an identity that defines their entire being. The ones who exercised power refuse to go forward without the guarantee that their power will be preserved or restored.

The bright spirits cannot give the ghosts a sense of the joy that awaits them because the ghosts are so attached to their own misery that they can’t conceive of joy. Unaware of the limits of their understanding, the ghosts cling to their identities as a last possession, and fear that once they’re stripped of that, they’ll become nothing.

The spirits argue, to no avail, that once the ghosts relinquish those last vestiges of self, they actually become more substantial, and the journey over the mountains becomes easier, though they acknowledge that the beginning of the journey is always painful, in different ways for different people. One ghost, a woman who was admired and beautiful in the world below, cannot bear the shame of being transparent, of being “seen through” in this new world. The spirit explains that surrendering to her shame is the first step toward becoming a more substantial being.

“Don’t you remember on earth–there were things too hot to touch with your finger but you could drink them all right? Shame is like that. If you will accept it–if you will drink the cup to the bottom–you will find it very nourishing: but try to do anything else with it and it scalds.”

The ghosts are more interested in complaining about their place in the world below than in listening to what awaits in the world above. One of Spirits, offering joy and freedom to an unreceptive ghost, expresses his frustration: “Friend,” said the Spirit, “Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?”

The story is in some ways like an abridged and inverted version of Dante’s Inferno. The setting is heaven instead of hell, and instead of seeing the punishment inflicted on the damned, we see the mindsets and attitudes that lead to their misery. None of these ghosts did anything particularly horrible. They look like our neighbors, our families, and ourselves. They’re manipulative or sulking or spiteful or proud. They’re selfish and inflexible. They lack empathy. They’re full of petty grievances, and their smothering “love” for others is merely a desire to possess and control.

Many of them sunk unwittingly into misery, like the grumbling old woman, whose downward trajectory through life is described thus:

“…it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever.”

Others have followed a similar descent, so slow and subtle they can’t recognize their own misery. One of the Spirits describes an example:

“The sensualist, I’ll allow ye, begins by pursuing a real pleasure, though a small one… But the time comes on when, though the pleasure becomes less and less and the craving fiercer and fiercer, and though he knows that joy can never come that way, yet he prefers to joy the mere fondling of unappeasable lust and would not have it taken from him.”

The narrator watches as, one by one, the ghosts refuse the offer of joy and board the bus back to hell. And here again Lewis inverts Dante. In The Inferno, the souls know they’re suffering, their suffering is inflicted from without by a being substantially greater than them (the devil) against whom they are powerless. Hell has no exit, and their suffering is eternal.

In The Great Divorce, the inhabitants of the underworld are free to go anytime. They can and do board that bus to heaven, but they choose again and again to return to gloomy world below, to the role and the self and the life they’ve so identified with that they cannot let it go. Their hardships and troubles are self-inflicted, and they don’t know they’re suffering.

“There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery,” one of the Spirits remarks. “There is always something they prefer to joy.”

Unlike the exotic world of extreme torture that Dante paints, Lewis’ hell looks a lot like the world we live in now.

What’s Wrong with Genre Fiction?

I read a lot of classic crime fiction, and when I go back to the best writers in the genre, I consistently find that they pack more substance, insight, and emotional weight into 200 pages than today’s bestselling authors can get into 500 pages. And yet, a handful of authors manage to consistently sell millions of copies of books about uninteresting characters doing far-fetched things described in prose that is not compelling and sometimes not even convincing. Why is this?

The computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra once wrote a parable about two programmers who were both assigned to write a new software program. One programmer set to work immediately writing code. The other spent weeks thinking about the design of the program and the fundamental problems it had to solve before he typed a single line of code.

Both completed their work in nine months, and both programs did what they were supposed to do. When it came time for the programmers’ annual job reviews, their managers looked at the code they had written. The manager of the programmer who had started writing code immediately found a huge, sprawling code base with tens of thousands of lines of code. It was so complex, he could barely make sense of it. But he knew it worked, because people were using it.

When the manager of the other programmer looked at his employee’s code, he found just a few thousand lines of concise easy-to-read code that laid out with crystal clarity the problems the program needed to address, and then very neatly solved them.

The first programmer’s manager said to his employee, “I can tell by what I’ve read that you’ve solved a very difficult and complicated problem. That fact that the software works as well as it does is amazing. I can’t believe you cranked out eighty thousand lines of code in just nine months. You’re getting a raise.”

The second programmer’s manager said, “Your code is so surprisingly simple and clear, it shows that the underlying problem couldn’t have been very complex. The fact that the software works as well as it does just proves you were working on a simple problem all along. I can’t believe it took you nine months to write five thousand lines of code. You’re fired.”

This is how the software world sometimes works, and this is how the publishing world seems to work, especially in bestselling mystery and thriller fiction.

To write a good 200 page book, you first have to write a middling 50o page book. Then you have to distill that and pare it down. It’s not just a process of cutting unnecessary sentences. It’s often a process of conveying three chapters worth of information in a single scene, which has to come across as natural and fluid while advancing the story, developing themes, and conveying facts, emotions, and insights to reader.

Unfortunately, many established authors, knowing they have a dedicated readership, crank out the 500 page version and stop there. A good editor should push them either to have 500 pages of substance, or to cut the book down to where it’s nothing but substance (say, 200 pages?), so it will have more impact. But the writers and editors don’t have to, so they don’t put in the extra work. Readers happily accept the pale and flabby works of [I won’t say who] and have no idea how much deeper and more powerful are the works of the masters like Dorothy Hughes, Elliott Chaze, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Williams, and Jim Thompson.

To put it another way, readers would rather sink into a 500 page mess then contemplate a 200 page gem.

Edsger Dijkstra summed up the problem when he said, “Simplicity is a great virtue, but it requires hard work to achieve it and education to appreciate it. And to make matters worse, complexity sells better.”

In the world of genre fiction, readers tastes have become accustomed to lazy writing and pointless scenes the way children’s tastes become accustomed to processed food. When you give them something fresh, they reject it.

I call this “The Seinfeld Problem.” If you pick up a popular mystery, thriller, or suspense novel that is part of a series, you’ll find lots of scenes where the main character has lunch with a partner or dinner with a date, or has a long argument with a friend over who makes the best meatball subs in town. These scenes don’t advance the plot or enrich the story. They’re supposed to give the reader some insight into the main character, or to make the reader feel more connected.

In series fiction, however, the reader already knows the main character from previous books. The writer doesn’t have to do the difficult and rewarding work of revealing the character through his actions and words. Because that work has already been done, the reader often finds himself just hanging out with the main character, talking about nothing over a long lunch, in just the way Seinfeld and Kramer and Elaine and George hung out and talked about nothing in the show that Seinfeld himself called “a show about nothing.”

Seinfeld got away with it because the characters were interesting and funny, and the viewer understood there would be no plot and none of the characters would change by the end of the story. But mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels are supposed to have plots, and those plots should keep moving. Stories where the main character changes and grows are always more interesting than stories where he/she doesn’t. But part of the nature of series is that the main character has to be the same from book to book. The main character is the product, and readers expect him to be same in the next book as he was in the last, just like they expect the can of ravioli they’re about to open to taste just like the one they ate yesterday.

As a software engineer, I became accustomed to managers asking, “Why are you still working on that program if it’s not crashing and there are no glaring bugs?” I keep working on it because I see it can be simplified, that a thousand lines can be boiled down to two hundred. Managers don’t always appreciate that, and neither do readers. But if you spend a few months reading the powerful, well-written works of the masters in any genre, and then you return to what passes for “a great read” on the current bestseller lists, you start shaking your head and wondering what’s going on.

What is going on?

 

The Big Bite by Charles Williams

Charles Williams’ The Big Bite is very good crime/noir thriller, though it’s not quite up there with his brilliant 1953 noir The Hot Spot.

The Big Bite - by Charles Williams - 1973 Pocket Books edition

The cover of Pocket Books’ 1973 reprint of The Big Bite. The story is better than the cover, and it takes place in the 1950s, not the 1970s.

John Harlan’s pro football career has ended after another driver hit him in what appeared to be a drunk-driving accident. After his recovery, Harlan is in very good shape by normal standards. He’s in his late twenties, strong, and fit. He just lost that extra bit of quickness that it takes to compete at the highest level of sport, and now that he can’t play football anymore, he’s on the skids with no idea what to do next.

As he drifts about, the insurance investigator who originally looked into the drunk-driving accident tells Harlan he suspects there may be more to the story. Part of the accident may have been deliberate, and while Harlan wasn’t the intended target of that mischief, he certainly was a victim.

John Harlan is a man of low morals and few scruples. He’s bitter, and he thinks he’s entitled to get back some of the money he lost due to the premature end of his career. He decides to blackmail the two people who he thinks were responsible for the “intentional” part of the “accident.”

When it comes to crime, Harlan is a good planner, even though he’s a novice. He takes huge calculated risks, because he’s greedy as hell. His risks pay off, up to a certain point, because of his obsessive planning, which is the focus of much of the narrative. He neglects some little things along the way, like failing to examine parts of his plan from every conceivable angle. He also neglects some big things, like failing to fully understand the nature of the people he’s blackmailing.

What begins as a brutish game of intimidation and force evolves into a subtle and intense battle of strategy and clever tactics by both the blackmailer and his victims. In fact, for much of the book, it’s unclear who the victims will be. Because we see the world through Harlan’s eyes, we become as convinced of his plans as he does, and we don’t see their flaws until they smack him in the face. Then the reader gets smacked in the face too because Harlan can really suck you in. He’s up against some very clever foes, particularly Julia Cannon, who plays a number of roles in turn, and all of them convincingly. She the cheating wife, the femme fatale, the victim, the master, the psychologist, the moralist, and the oracle.

Though the poor writing in the first few pages of the book may turn you off, stick with it. You’ll start to see the value by the end of the first chapter. This one really comes alive at the end, when a story that has looked like a series of adventures and misadventures starts to take on new layers of depth, darkness, and moral heft. It’s a Jim Thompson-style ending in which a character slowly comes to realize he is imprisoned by the very desires and actions he thought would set him free. Julia Cannon becomes the prophetess and the bearer of wisdom and fate, bequeathing to Harlan a legacy and a future he tries vainly to reject, and exposing in him every flaw she so eloquently enumerated when she chained him to the bed and forced him to listen to what he had so rudely dismissed as “her incessant yakking.”

What she tries repeatedly to drive home to him, and what she does get across loud and clear to the reader, is the hidden cost of crime: that is, the cost to the perpetrators. We get it, and we get her frustration when she says to Harlan, “I was unfaithful to my husband. I realize you have already grasped this, at least as far as its surface aspects are concerned, and there would be no point in attempting to explore it to any depth because eventually we’d run into language connected to emotion, which obviously would have no meaning to you. How would you describe a sunset to a blind mole living on the dark side of the moon?”

The Big Bite was originally published by Dell in 1956. This review is of the 1973 Pocket Books reprint, which sold for 95 cents and includes a full-color two-page ad for True cigarettes between pages 128 and 129. Your best chance to find this title is the Mysterious Press eBook edition of 2012.

The Hot Spot by Charles Williams

Harry Madox has drifted in and out of a number of jobs, and has one failed marriage and some unspecified debts under his belt. When the story opens, he’s just landing a job as a car salesman in 1950’s small-town Texas. He’s not in town long before he meets two women. The young, sweet Gloria Harper brings out the best in him, against his nature and sometimes against his will. And then there’s the boss’ wife, Dolores Harshaw, who has a knack for getting him into and out of trouble.

Madox is one of those guys for whom the straight and narrow just hasn’t worked out. “In this world, you took what you wanted; you didn’t stand around and wait for someone to hand it to you.” He comes up with a pretty good plan to rob to local bank, but his entanglements with Gloria and Dolores complicate everything. I won’t spoil the story; it’s particularly interesting to see how two kindred spirits recognize each other instantly, bring out the worst in each other, and make a mess of things. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

The jaded and unsentimental Madox gives some priceless descriptions of his even more jaded and unsentimental lover, Dolores Harshaw. Here’s his description of her after the first time they’ve slept together. They’re in her house (Madox’ boss’ house), and she’s been plowing through a bottle of whiskey.

“Moonlight from the window had moved up the bed and now it fell diagonally across her from the waist to the big spread-out breast which rocked a little as she shook the ice in her glass. I thought of a full and slightly bruised peach beginning to spoil a little. She was somewhere between luscious and full-bloom and in another year or so of getting all her exercise lying down and lifting the bottle, she’d probably be blowzy…

“She had a bos’n’s vocabulary. My head felt worse and I wondered why I didn’t get out of there. She was already on the edge of being sloppy drunk, kittenish one minute and belligerent the next. God knows I’ve always had some sort of affinity for gamey babes, but she was beginning to be a little rough even for me. She had a lot of talent, but it was highly specialized and when you began to get up to date in that field you were wasting your time just hanging around for the conversation.”

Dolores Harshaw has some plans for Harry Madox, and she’s a smart one. He knows it too. “The smart thing was to get out of here and let her happen to somebody else.” But he just can’t quite untangle himself.

Overall, this is one of the best noirs I’ve ever read, with steadily-building tension and suspense. Williams writes straightforward prose when the situation calls for it, and can also be witty and insightful. His characters ring true, and he provides good insight into their motivations and weaknesses. Dolores Harshaw may be the best femme fatale in all of crime fiction: seductive, conniving, compelling, manipulative, jealous, ruthless, intelligent, and unhinged.

It’s a shame this book is out of print, but you can find used copies online. “The Hot Spot” is the book’s title under the Black Lizard imprint. It had been published earlier by Gold Medal under the title “Hell Hath No Fury.”

The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Code, by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers, describes the results of a five year computer analysis of over 20,000 novels. The authors wanted to figure out what differentiates the 500 or so New York Times bestsellers in their corpus from the rest of the titles that didn’t make the bestseller list.

The subtitle, Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel, describes the book’s goal, which is to describe the common traits of bestsellers, revealing some hidden and unexpected characteristics along the way.  The book does not pretend to offer a formula for writing bestsellers. A similar book in the world of sports might reveal insights into what made Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James such great basketball players, but that doesn’t mean you or I could follow the formula and become the next NBA superstar. This book is a descriptive anatomy, not prescriptive how-to.

The authors use highly-customized Natural Language Processing (NLP) software to analyze thousands of data points within each book, including the frequency of different words and word types, sentence length, which topics appear and with what frequency, and where the emotional high and low points of the plot occur.

One thing you should know about NLP software is that it enables the computer to describe a text, but it does not enable the machine to understand the text. For example, in reading Harry Potter, NLP software will point out that virtually every paragraph that mentions Voldemort is full of words that express negative sentiment (words like evil, terrible, fearful, etc.). From this, the software can infer that Voldemort is the villain. However, NLP software does not understand what it reads the way a human does. It cannot answer complex questions like, “How does Mrs. de Winter’s understanding of her world change when Maxim says, I never loved her?”

Most of Archer and Jockers’ findings make perfect sense, and will be familiar to people who read a lot of novels and to those who read the advice of successful authors on the craft of writing. Readers prefer an active protagonist to a passive one. Readers prefer language that’s close to the everyday vernacular over the more formal type of writing that appears in essays. Bestselling authors do not overload their sentences with adjectives and adverbs. They convey meaning with nouns and verbs, which makes the reading experience smoother and more fluid.

Bestsellers tend to focus on a few topics within each work, rather than trying to hit on every theme the author can think of. Typically, the three major topics of a bestseller account for about 30-40 percent of the total topical matter of the work. Certain topics are more likely to make a bestseller: technology, work, family life, close interpersonal relationships. Surprisingly, sex is not one of those topics, and bestsellers in general tend to feature less sex than non-bestsellers.

Archer and Jockers identify seven structural patterns common to the plots of all bestsellers. They present the structural patterns as line graphs, which give a clear picture of the story’s emotional highs and lows. The summary of the classic love story, for example, is “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.” If you were to draw that as a line graph, there would be a high point near the beginning when the boy first meets the girl, followed by a low point in the middle when he loses her, and another high point at the end, when he gets her back.

One of the book’s surprising findings is that the emotional curves of all bestsellers follow one of these seven graphs. The plot lines hold for trashy romances, far-fetched thrillers, and revered literary prizewinners. The Bestseller Code even charts the plots of some of these seemingly disparate novels together on the same graph to show you how similar they are.

Much of the value of this book comes from its clear and well-described insights into what readers respond to, and from the authors diving into a number of texts to provide illuminating examples of the generalized patterns that the computer has revealed. Jockers has more of a traditional English-lit background, and will occasionally touch on books by Virginia Woolfe and James Joyce. Archer comes from the publishing world, and her discussions focus on more current works.

One work they dig into is the unexpected phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey, which, on its surface, seems to defy all the rules. It was written by an indie author with no marketing to propel it, one of its primary topics is sex (and not mainstream vanilla sex, but BDSM) which is not part of the “bestseller DNA”, and both readers and critics mocked the quality and style of its writing. But for all that, it sold hundreds of millions of copies. Why?

This is where the computer analysis really shines, as it points out characteristic patterns of the work without the baggage of emotional or aesthetic judgement that a human reader would bring. The analysis showed that E.L James, despite what some might call a lack of style, had hit on every element of the blockbuster novel, from topical makeup to plot structure to character. The analysis also showed that, based on the number of paragraphs devoted to each topic, the book was more about close interpersonal relationships than sex in general. And “close personal relationships,” the authors remind us, is one of the top themes common to all bestsellers.

While the overall public discussion of Fifty Shades tended to focus more on the sex, the computer was able to see that readers were experiencing, perhaps on a less unconscious level, the same sorts of interpersonal relations that fascinate them in the genres of mystery, thriller, and historical drama.

Even more interesting, Archer and Jockers point out, is the plot structure of Fifty Shades, which is a subtle and unusual variation of one of the six basic structures common to all bestsellers. James’ novel, generally follows “Plotline 4,” which Christopher Booker, in The Seven Basic Plots, calls “Rebirth.” Archer and Jockers point out that “these plots tend to see the main characters experience change, renewal, and some sort of transformation.”

The twist that James put on this basic plot is that, instead of following the plot’s typical emotional pattern of beginning-high-low-high-low-end, she created a series of highs and lows throughout the book, which occurred at such regular intervals that the graph of them looks almost like a perfect sine wave. Archer and Jockers refer to this pattern as the emotional rhythm of the plot.

Outside of the Harry Potter series, which was primarily aimed at young readers, the only “adult” book in the past twenty years whose sales numbers compare to Fifty Shades is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The authors point out that although The Da Vinci Code’s basic plot differs from Fifty Shades, the two books share an almost identical emotional rhythm. Page 106 of The Bestseller Code shows a graph of the two plot lines, with the high points, low points, and inflections points of both novels appearing almost in lockstep. Now who would have thought to compare those two books, or even mention them in the same breath?

Both were runaway bestsellers, and on an emotional level, both provided a strikingly similar reading experience despite their differences in topic, style, tone, and genre. That insight about emotional experience reminded me of a question and answer I read recently on Quora. A reader asked why the Harry Potter series was so popular despite the fact that its plots were not necessarily new and other writers had more interesting styles and were better at world building. An author named Nick Travers offered this response:

I used to think the same as you. I even thought, ‘I can write as well as that,’ so I started to write a novel to prove it.

Four novels later and I can write as well as J.K.Rowling, but the quality of my stories pale into insignificance compared to hers. What I’ve learned is that J.K. Rowling is not a particularly good writer, but she is a master story teller. When she tells a story it sparkles with magic in a way that draws people (especially youngsters) into her world. I wish I could tell stories like that.

The Bestseller Code maps out some of the characteristics and common traits of great story-telling in illuminating ways, and the authors’ commentary on a diverse body of well-known works makes it a fun and interesting read. If you’re interested in understanding what drives readers to buy books, this one is worth a read.

An Update on the Classic Crime Novel

My new novel, Impala, is a thriller in the vein of the classic crime novels of the thirties, forties, and fifties. The best of those novels follow a pattern that goes like this: An intelligent but flawed character gets in trouble after he gives into to some desire or compulsion, like lust, greed, or revenge. He finds himself surrounded by people and powers that will not let him go. His attempts to extricate himself from his troubles only lead to deeper trouble. He’s usually involved with a woman who is either in love with him or betraying him, but either way, their fates become inextricably intertwined. Finally, these stories always convey a mounting sense of inevitability, as if the fates of these specific characters in these specific circumstances could have only one inevitable conclusion.

Impala

Impala – Available September 21, 2016

The best of these novels—such as Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angelalso share a fundamental aesthetic of leanness. There are no superfluous chapters, scenes, or words. If you haven’t read them, you’ll be surprised at how much story these authors can pack into 200 pages or less. Leanness and tautness are essential to a good thriller. You don’t ride a roller coaster in a cushy reclining chair. You might also be surprised, when you return to reading contemporary mass-market mysteries and thrillers, how larded they are with description, back story, and events that don’t add much to the story.

Pop1280

Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280

Many of today’s 450-page bestsellers would have more impact if they were pared down to 250 pages. That kind of editing is hard work, and I think it requires a mindset that many novelists and editors don’t have, but many playwrights, screenwriters, and poets are forced to have. It you wrote a 450-page screenplay, the resulting movie would run for 20 hours. Playwrights, screenwriters, and poets put a lot of effort into reducing characters and scenes to their essence, because they have to. And it’s interesting to note that Kenneth Fearing was a poet, while Thompson and Cain wrote screenplays. Chaze was a news reporter who had to file stories daily, so he was used to getting to the point.

 

The Big Clock

Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock

With the exception of The Big Clock, each of these four books was considered pulp when it was published, and received little attention and no respect from the literary establishment. Today, they’re all considered classics, with The Big Clock and Black Wings now available under the New York Review of Books imprint, which has also rescued a number of other brilliant but overlooked works.

When I was in college and graduate school, I was very much into literary fiction, which I’ll define loosely as fiction one appreciates for the quality of its prose, the depth of its insight, and the development of rich and nuanced characters and themes. Commercial fiction and genre fiction tend to focus more on plot, and when you read it, you’re much more interested in whether the main character is going to get shot than in how subtle idiosyncrasies of that character’s psychology may be a comment on the social, political, and economic conditions of his upbringing.

The Postman Always Rings Twice

James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice

It’s interesting to look back on the classics I read as a student, and to see that many of them were considered pulp fiction (or worse) when they were published. All of Charles Dickens’ novels were published as serials in bi-weekly penny papers, and initially had the taint of being written for the uneducated masses, whose coarse tastes weren’t capable of appreciating refined writing. Many of the classic crime writers, employed by the dime-store pulp publishers, had the same taint.

But these writers all tell compelling stories in clear, engaging prose that almost any ready can identify with. That, to me, is one of the hallmarks of good writing. Clear prose looks simple on the surface, but it actually takes a lot of work to produce. You can’t get to clarity until you’ve sorted through a lot detail. You probably know this from your own life. Think of times when you’ve tried to explain some emotionally important event to a friend. The first time you tell the story, it’s a flood of jumbled words that may go on for 20 minutes without really conveying the essence and impact of what happened. After weeks and months, and sometimes years, you can tell that story fairly clearly, in fewer words, with greater impact. But your mind needed that time to clarify what it wanted to say.

Black Wings has My Angel

Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel

Computer programming and writing are similar in this regard. There’s a parable of two programmers who are asked to write the same program. One programmer starts writing code right away, while the other spends many weeks meditating on the problem that the program needs to solve. The busy programmer churns out an enormous volume of confusing, complicated code that eventually solves the problem. The thoughtful programmer doesn’t write a single line of code until he has boiled the problem down to its essence. He then writes a very short, concise program of crystalline clarity that solves the problem.

The busy programmer’s boss looks at the enormous amount of code his employee has written and, overwhelmed by the complexity of it, says “Wow! You did a great job on what was obviously a really hard problem.” The thoughtful programmer’s boss looks at his employee’s work and says, “There’s not much code here, and from the simplicity of it, it looks like the original problem wasn’t that hard. Why did it take you so long?”

When I look at a lot of today’s literary fiction, I sometimes think the whole literary establishment suffers from the same problem as the busy programmer’s manager, mistaking complexity for genius. I find much of today’s “literary” work to be unreadable because it’s wordy, slow-moving, lacking in substance, and worst of all, larded with unnecessary description and metaphor.

You’ve probably had a teacher or professor somewhere along the way whose lectures left you swimming in confusion, and you thought, “Wow! They are so brilliant, my mind can barely grasp a tenth of what they’re saying.”

Actually, I think that person was just a poor communicator, and perhaps unable to clarify ideas even to himself. You should have come away thinking, “Wow! My grasp of the subject is so much deeper and clearer than it was yesterday.”

That kind of clarity—focused words that build over time to impact the mind and the emotions—is what the old crime writers were good at. It’s one of the distinguishing characteristics of enduring popular fiction.

Impala tries to follow in that vein, though of course, crime today is different from what it was in the mid-twentieth century. Much of it has moved online, and the characteristics of the successful criminal have changed, with intelligence, cleverness, and stealth replacing force, intimidation, and ruthlessness. (Though those latter three have their place, when push comes to shove, as it often does in the world of crime. Impala‘s protagonist learns this the hard way.)

If you’re interested in learning more about the illicit markets of the dark web, which is where all the trouble starts in Impala, The Economist’s article on cryptomarkets provides an excellent and fascinating)introduction.

So far, the reviews for Impala have been very good. They’ll be available online closer to the release date in September, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the general public responds to the book.

 

Black Wings Has My Angel

Back in the 1990’s, I wandered into Twice Sold Tales in Seattle, and the clerk asked if she could help me find anything. I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular, so I said, “How about something dark? That I can’t put down.”

She lit up and said, “Oh. Have you read Jim Thompson?”

She showed me a shelf of titles from Black Lizard, and I picked Pop. 1280. I studied English in college, and had done plenty of reading, but that was the first book I ever found that I literally could not put down. I started reading it late at night, and finished near dawn. I recently re-read the book, and it was just as good the second time around.

The editor at Black Lizard who brought Thompson’s books back into print was a guy named Barry Gifford. If you ever saw or read Wild at Heart, that’s his work too. I have to say, I’m grateful to him for rescuing all those books from oblivion.

Gifford recently wrote the introduction to the New York Review of Books’ reissue of Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel. In the intro, Gifford says that during his years at Black Lizard, this was the title he most wanted to publish. I can see why. How did this one get lost in the first place? And why had I never heard of Chaze before? Was it because he, like Thompson, was writing for the dime-store pulp publishers?

Black Wings has My Angel

Black Wings opens with escaped convict Timothy Sunblade finishing up some roughneck work on an oil rig in Louisiana. He’s got enough cash to make his way out West, and he’s got a plan in mind for a heist that will set him up for life. But the partner who helped him plan the heist didn’t survive the prison escape, so he has to find someone else. After all, it’s a two-person job.

Before he leaves town, he goes to a hotel for a bath and some relaxation. He asks the bellhop to find him a hooker, and the bellhop returns with something more than he expected. Sunblade says:

[I] wanted to tell her the bellhop had me all wrong, that what I wanted was a big stupid commercial blob of a woman; not a slender, poised thing with skin the color of pearls melted in honey.

As you can guess, Sunblade soon learns that this black-winged angel is as tough and steady as any partner he could have hoped for. Over time, he lays out the plan, and she’s in.

I won’t give away any more than that. But I will say this is one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read. It’s up there with Jim Thompson’s best, and it shares some similarities with his work. The prose is strong, and the voice is compelling. There’s no wasted metaphor, as there is in so much crime fiction, where the narrators seem to throw in comparisons that give the story a hard-boiled flavor but don’t make much sense or add any insight.

The characters in Black Wings are deep, compelling, well drawn, and psychologically complex, even by the standards of the best literary fiction. There’s a reason why the New York Review of Books, which has republished the brilliant works of John Williams, among others, chose to republish this. It’s quite unusual to see dime-store pulp picked up by a literary publisher, but the book is that good, and it gives you the best of both worlds: the lurid thrill of pulp, and the depth of true, masterful writing.

The two main characters, and the extraordinary relationship between them make the book memorable. Timothy Sunblade reveals himself through first-person narration as a man who is clear-eyed, thoughtful, disillusioned, sensitive, brutish, sure of himself at times and wavering at others. Virginia is revealed both through Sunblade’s perspective and her own words. She’s an unusually rich character: at times wise, world-weary, sure of herself and what she wants, and at other times crazed, like a caged animal, but always strong.

The story provides a rich depiction of time and place. It’s set in about the same year as it was written, in the early 1950’s. The action takes place mostly in Louisiana and Colorado, where the author, Chaze, lived and worked. The atmospheric detail of the location and landscape adds depth and presence to the story. Many authors don’t handle that location well, writing long descriptive asides about the townspeople or the countryside that distract from the story, or seem pretentious and writerly. Here, every word of description brings you closer to the characters and the story.

The arc of the story, as in many of Thompson’s novels, is one of darkening fate, and inevitable tragedy, in which flawed characters let their weaknesses get the better of them. Watching their slow descent is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. The characters continue to deepen throughout the story, all the way to the final page.

If you like a good noir, and good writing, check this one out. It’s one of the best, and it’s one that sticks with you.