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.

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.”

Impala Wins Gold in Reader’s Favorite Book Awards

ReadersFavorite.com announced the winners of their 2017 awards contest yesterday. Impala won the gold medal in the General Mystery category. Here’s a screenshot from the awards page, showing Impala with its alternate cover:

Impala also won first place for genre fiction in the 24th Annual Writer’s Digest competition, and received honors from Amazon.com, IndieReader, and Kirkus.

The writing life can be lonely and isolating, with discouragement at every turn. So it’s nice to get some recognition now and then.

When I finished writing Impala, I sent copies out to a number of reviewers and contests. One of those contests sent me a private review of the book, giving it F’s across the board. (That’s F like on a school report card. F as in Failure.) The reviewer gave it an F for plot, F for characterization, F for originality, and F for the overall quality of the writing. (That last F, by the way, really pissed me off. I taught high school English for a while, and I know what F writing looks like.)

Then one of the book’s first Amazon readers left a scathing two-star review. Try putting a year of work into something and then getting that response.

Having a day job is much easier than writing. At your day job, people don’t walk up to you and say, “Hey, I just took a look at that project you’ve been working on, and boy does it suck! Oh my God! I had no idea how stupid you are.”

In some ways, the reader-writer relationship is like dating. When you hit it off with someone, it feels like magic. And when there’s a gross mismatch and you just can’t connect, it’s awkward and painful.

Many of the things that those first reviewers disliked about the book were singled out for praise by later reviewers. And most readers seem to like the book. I’m thankful for that.

I’m currently waiting for my latest book to come back from the editor. I’ll do some revisions on that, and then I’ll send it out into the world and hold my breath, the way you might just before you go on a blind date. You know that feeling? Anticipation and dread, all mixed together, as you think about all the ways it could go right and all the ways it could go wrong.

The new book is tentatively titled gate 76, and you can read the first chapter here.

You can find Impala on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and in the Apple bookstore.

 

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.

The Deep Blue Good-By

Two things struck me while reading John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Good-By. The first was the quality of his writing, which can be witty and insightful, and is never cliché. The second was how, especially in the case of this book, the hard-boiled detective genre can pander to male fantasy in the same way romance panders to women.

In this book, every young woman between puberty and thirty practically throws herself at the protagonist, Travis McGee, who who lives on a boat and seems interesting and likable in some regards, but just doesn’t seem to have that much going for him. It’s easy to mock those cheesy romance novels that sell for 99 cents on Amazon, where every guy seems to have tattoos, six-pack abs, a rebel bad-boy streak, and a ready erection. But in MacDonald’s book, which has been widely praised as a work of art, every woman is just a hole waiting to be filled. Every woman is well-built, willing, tipsy, and half nude, when she’s not completely nude.

I get that this was written in the early sixties, when the birth control pill first appeared, and women were exploring the newfound freedom of sex-without-consequences. This was about the same time as Mad Men, and with regard to male-female relations, The Deep Blue Good-By has a skewed perspective similar to the one portrayed in Don Draper’s world.

I get the whole living-on-a-boat thing. I’ve seen enough of that lifestyle in South Florida and in the Caribbean to have a first-hand knowledge of the dissolute ways of the sun-drunk layabouts. They drink a lot, and they have more sex than mom and dad who come home tired from the office at 6PM. But seriously, no matter how bored a woman gets, it takes more than just a complete stranger showing up at her door with a bottle of liquor to get her interested. You might run across one woman, once in a great while, who’s willing to jump in bed with whoever happens by on a lazy afternoon, but the next thousand won’t be like that.

In MacDonald’s book, they’re ALL like that. Even the ones who just got raped. And that’s just wrong. That just doesn’t happen.

Travis McGee is living the ideal guy’s life. He has no job, but enough money to get by. He has no responsibilities, no commitments, no emotional ties, and whenever he wants a little action, he just strolls on over to one of the neighboring houseboats, where there’s always a party, and picks out a woman to bring home. And he actually complains that they’re not fulfilling. Just flip the genders of the protagonist and harem here, and you have a romance novel. Except that a romance novel ends with the traditional woman’s fantasy, where the main character gets to keep her one-and-only forever on after. This one ends with the traditional man’s fantasy, where the guy ends up unattached with nothing to get in the way of his continued booty hunt.

Other books in the classic pulp/crime genres include a good bit of sex as well, but it’s not quite so over-the-top as here. Jim Thompson’s protagonists usually have a steady, adoring girlfriend, and a second woman on the side. But in Thompson’s case, the protagonist is usually somewhat insane, and his “other woman” is insane in some catastrophically complementary way, like nitro and glycerine. Many of the better books in the genre, like Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel and Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock, follow a formula in which one particular man plus one particular woman equals disaster.

The overall plot of The Deep Blue Good-By is nothing ground-breaking. It’s genre fiction, after all, and a hard-boiled detective novel ends with the wise and cynical detective outsmarting the wily and dangerous bad guy. Plots aren’t that big a deal in genre fiction. They have to have twists, but we all know how they’re going to play out. Romance novels end with the woman getting her man, just as surely as thrillers end with the good guys sticking it to the bad guys. It’s how it all plays out that keeps our interest.

And McGee, for all his flaws, is consistently interesting. When you dive into this novel, you dive into his world, and you get to live there for a while. Although McGee can be quite insightful, you know his view of the world is skewed and unreal, just like you know the world in a Carl Hiaasen novel is skewed and unreal. You’re there for the ride, and McGee makes the ride worth the effort.

MacDonald’s rich style brings characters and places vividly to life. However, it’s a bit too elaborate for some of the action scenes. Sometimes you get to the end of a thirty-word sentence, and you wonder, “Wait, did he hit the guy or not?”

If you want a little flavor of his writing, and of McGee’s perspective and insight, the long paragraph below is a shining example. McGee has just been flirting with a waitress in order to get some information out of her. She’s very young. Nineteen or so. And of course, she comes out of the encounter desiring him (of course!), but he’s not interested.

The references to rabbits and bunnies are double-edged. McGee has already talked about people breeding like rabbits, and the vast space America still has to absorb its booming population. He’s also referred to some of the young women he’s picked up from the houseboat parties as rabbits, because each one is just a quick, impersonal lay.

Here’s what’s going through McGee’s mind when he walks away from that 19-year-old waitress he was just flirting with:

Bless them all, the forlorn little rabbits. They are the displaced persons of our emotional culture. They are ravenous for romance, yet settle for what they call making out. Their futile, acne-pitted men drift out of high school into a world so surfeited with unskilled labor there is competition for bag boy jobs in the supermarkets. They yearn for security, but all they can have is what they make for themselves, chittering little flocks of them in the restaurants and stores, talking of style and adornment, dreaming of the terribly sincere stranger who will come along and lift them out of the gypsy life of the two-bit tip and the unemployment, cut a tall cake with them, swell them up with sassy babies, and guide them masterfully into the shoal water of the electrified house where everybody brushes after every meal. But most of the wistful rabbits marry their unskilled men, and keep right on working. And discover the end of the dream. They have been taught that if you are sunny, cheery, sincere, group-adjusted, popular, the world is yours, including barbecue pits, charge plates, diaper service, percale sheets, friends for dinner, washer-dryer combinations, color slides of the kiddies on the home projector, and eternal whimsical romance–with crinkly smiles and Rock Hudson dialog. So they all come smiling and confident and unskilled into a technician’s world, and in a few years they learn that it is all going to be grinding and brutal and hateful and precarious. These are the slums of the heart. Bless the bunnies. These are the new people, and we are making no place for them. We hold the dream in front of them like a carrot, and finally say sorry you can’t have any. And the schools where we teach them non-survival are gloriously architected. They will never live in places so fine, unless they contract something incurable.

That paragraph shows many of McGee’s most fundamental characteristics. He feels both empathy and contempt for the troubled people around him. He laments the unfulfilled promise of their lives, but he doesn’t mind taking advantage of them when it suits him. Even in the end, when he restores a tiny measure of justice to a badly wronged woman, he’s just gotta get a piece of booty for his trouble, because, hell–it’s what she wants.

I look forward to reading more of MacDonald’s work. I just hope that in subsequent novels, McGee’s blood starts flowing a little more toward his heart and mind, a little less toward that other place.

 

Thirty Years a Detective

30yearsadetective

Although this is by no means a great book, it is well worth reading as a historical document. The book is not a biography or autobiography of Allan Pinkerton. If you want that, look elsewhere. It is a fascinating description of the practice of crime in 19th century America.

This book’s main flaws are 1) it often reads like advertising or even propaganda for the abilities of the Pinkerton agency to thwart crime and protect moneyed interests, and 2) the prose is wordy and overwrought, even by 19th century standards.

There is more than enough interesting material in here to excuse both of those flaws. As one Goodreads reviewer notes, Pinkerton (or his ghostwriter) tends to write that many of the criminals in this book were geniuses, or somehow super-criminals. Actually, many of them were, which is why they’re included in this volume. If the book described the cat-and-mouse game between smart, resourceful detectives and crude, run-of-the-mill criminals, it wouldn’t be too interesting.

There’s an entire chapter on “burglars,” which in this book refers specifically to those who crack bank safes (as opposed to typical house burglars). Of the safe-breaker, Pinkerton says:

…experience has demonstrated beyond question that he is possessed of more than ordinary mechanical knowledge, and that his energy and patience are phenomenal. Nor is there any reason why this should not be so. The burglar is trained to his vocation by the hardest discipline known to man.

Pinkerton goes on to say:

So exceedingly proficient have many of them become in the art of safe-opening, that I have known of more than one instance where burglars have been taken from their prison cells to open safes and vaults whose owners have forgotten the complicated combinations…

The “safe-openers” of the 19th century were akin to the hackers of the 21st century. They had to outwit the most sophisticated security designs of the cleverest minds of the era. But unlike today’s hackers, they had to do their work onsite, in the dark, almost always between the bank’s closing on Saturday evening and when its reopening on Monday morning.

Like today’s best hackers, the safe-openers worked with a set of specially-made tools, often of ingenious design, and many of which they built by hand specifically for the task. The best of these criminals carefully studied safe manufacture and design, knowing that they could defeat the security of the safe only by attacking it at its weakest point. Pinkerton provides illustrations and descriptions of some of these tools, and describes how they were used in specific heists.

A number of bank burglaries described in the book depend less on cleverness than on perseverance. Sometimes burglars, like hackers, ignored the obvious point of attack and found a way into the vault that no one would have ever anticipated. (If you’ve seen the film Sexy Beast, you’ll have an idea of how this type of burglary works. It depends on tremendous audacity, patience, and perseverance.)

The book also contains a long chapter on counterfeiting, which describes a number of fascinating characters. Counterfeiters are by nature patient, subtle, wily, wary, detail oriented, and highly skilled. Compared with common thieves, who rip people off one at a time, counterfeiters operate on a huge scale, and by the time anyone recognizes that false currency is in circulation, the perpetrators are gone.

Thirty Years a Detective is most interesting as a description of how crime was practiced in the 19th century, and how it was detected. In this book, as in The Expressman and the Detective, Pinkerton shows that there is a fine line between the top-notch detective and the top-notch criminal. Both are deceptive and elusive. Both employ similar tactics to case their targets. Both are preoccupied with the questions “How does one deceive an honest citizen?” and “What weaknesses in the system can I exploit for gain?”

The criminal works forward from these questions to engineer his crime. The detective works backward to figure out what was done, how, and by whom. The criminal merely has to commit the act. The detective has the much tougher job of proving it was done, who did it, and how. In this book and in others, Pinkerton admires and laments the misapplied genius of his toughest adversaries, and it really is an interesting read.