August 21, 2011

What Happens in the Vegas Cemetery | Lila LeRoy's Summer Addy – Mausoleum, Top Drawer

What Happens in the Vegas Cemetery Lila LeRoy's Summer Addy – Mausoleum, Top Drawer

August 7, 2011

Mary McFarland's Buzzard Bone: 07 Aug 2011 Review: Deadly Currents by Beth Ground...

Mary McFarland's Buzzard Bone: 07 Aug 2011 Review: Deadly Currents by Beth Ground...: "Beth Groundwater's Deadly Currents is a cozy mystery set in Salida, a small town in Colorado that is located on the Arkansas River. In kee..."

07 Aug 2011 Review: Deadly Currents by Beth Groundwater

Beth Groundwater's Deadly Currents is a cozy mystery set in Salida, a small town in Colorado that is located on the Arkansas River.  In keeping with the cozy tradition, the author portrays Salida so vividly we can imagine we're there, hanging out and having fun with the affable rafting crews in places like Victoria Tavern, where locals make a game of guessing where outsiders might be from. 

The author also acquaints us intimately with the personal and public entanglements of the characters.  Tom King, for example, is the victim of poisoning by Aconite.  He's a real estate developer and city councilman who has squabbled with everyone in Salida.  Tom planned a golf course, but the demands of the course for precious water do not go over well with environmentalist, Lenny Prebble, who organizes the rafting trip that ends Tom's life. Tom is married but having an affair with Evie Olson, daughter of town councilman, Hank Olson, another member of the fatal rafting trip that ended with Tom's murder.  Tom breaks up with Evie before he dies, but his wife, Paula King, remains a suspect in her husband's murder.

But Lenny Prebble, Evie Olson, and Paula King are just three among many who might have wanted Tom Dead.  He'd also been in a bidding war with Nate Fowler, whose daughter was on the rafting trip.  Both King and Fowler were vying for prime development property, with potential to become high-priced country estates and agricultural water rights tied to it.  Add Jeff King as another suspect, since he's been cut off financially by his father, Tom King. 

In Salida, the long list of suspects is pared down by Mandy Tanner, who works closely with Sheriff's detective, victor Quintana, of the Chaffee County Sheriff's Department, to solve Tom King's murder.  Mandy's role as amateur sleuth is reinforced by  her job as a seasonal river ranger, on duty for her second week when the murder occurs. 

Groundwater adds romantic conflict, and again she honors the cozy tradition with light romantic interaction and no graphic sex between Mandy and her boyfriend of three months, Rob Juarez.  The two are at odds when the story begins.  As Mandy makes clear, she isn't the "kind of gal" who'll put up with being checked on nor babied by Rob.  She's athletic and driven by her job as a river ranger.  At twenty-seven, she's in control of her life and plans on keeping it that way.  Mandy further reinforces this point by reminding Rob when he volunteers to fix her toaster, "I can take care of myself" (22).  Mandy Tanner is admirable and strong, yet she's a very likable protagonist. 

Mandy's life revolves around keeping her Uncle Bill's rafting business going after he dies, and helping her coworkers who are whitewater rafting guides.  She maintains friendships as well as professional working relationships with coworkers, including her boss, Steve Hadley, and one of the best whitewater rafting guides, Gonzo Gordon.  There's no doubt that Mandy is emotionally nourished through her job and through her relationships with coworkers.  The fun and camaraderie of the group she works with and has fun with is all tied together by Mandy's love of being outdoors and, especially, of working as a river ranger on the Arkansas River.  Beth Groundwater brings out these story layers quite nicely and as a result does a great job with pacing in Deadly Currents

The action is consistently fast paced, with no lengthy pauses on a single page.  The pacing of the action also dovetails nicely with the whitewater rafting details that the author provides.  From first page to last, from the moment Mandy and Steve look upriver and see a three-raft pod heading for an upset in a class V rapid--and for murder--until the story's end, when Mandy and Rob Juarez discuss merging their whitewater rafting outfits and starting adventure travel trips, the action moves as swiftly in Groundwater's cozy murder mystery as it does in the beautiful but at times deadly currents of the Upper Arkansas River.          

June 8, 2011

Mary McFarland's Buzzard Bone: 08 June 2011 Review, The Lock Artist, Steve Hamilt...

Mary McFarland's Buzzard Bone: 08 June 2011 Review, The Lock Artist, Steve Hamilt...: "It's funny how your life can turn on one talent that you don't even know you've been given. Bet Edgar winner Steve Hamilton recalls that p..."

08 June 2011 Review, The Lock Artist, Steve Hamilton

It's funny how your life can turn on one talent that you don't even know you've been given. 
Bet Edgar winner Steve Hamilton recalls that prescient line from The Lock Artist.  

Steve Hamilton's a tension artist: I bit my nails and kept praying that Mike, aka the Milford Mute, would talk on every one of this novel's three-hundred pages.  He doesn't.  And he gets in more scrapes than an alley cat.  

Mike the Milford Mute, a high school junior, pulls us inside his silent world by sharing his knowledge of lock picking and safe cracking, and by persuading us that--while accepting responsibility for his criminal activities--he's a victim of circumstances. 

As a boy, Mike witnessed his father bashing in his mother's lover's head and then killing mom.  Running for safety, Mike locked himself inside a gun safe, which his father dumped in the water--Mike inside--leaving the boy to drown.  The event traumatized Mike, aka Miracle Boy, and left him mute. 

The Lock Artist is an addicting read, but how well does Steve wield his literary tropes?  Again, he's master.  I'm better than a paper shredder when it comes to parsing tropes, but I had to stop and ask: is this novel like Pilgrim's Progress?  Or Alighieri's The Divine Comedy, some kind of moral allegory?  If so, what?  

It isn't. The strength of Steve's writing is a key metaphor that serves as the point from which he spins the story.  Everything in this aptly named novel is spun from the lock metaphor.  Steve drills down on this metaphor from the beginning and never--ever--stops.  Telling the story from prison, the Lock Artist says, "This thing that has kept me silent for all of these years.  Locked up here inside me, ever since that day.  I cannot let go of it. So I cannot speak.  I cannot make a sound" (2).

Mike is examined by many pros and becomes outraged that they fail to "unlock his wounded psyche."  He isn't afflicted with selective mutism or psychogenic aphonia; he's just decided not to speak.  While  his occupation lands him in life or death situations that would make us all scream for help, Mike makes not one sound.  Ever. 

Unlocking safes becomes both a tactile and emotional metaphor, Mike's way of communicating by being the rare artist who can feel the tumblers in the locks.  They speak to him, these tumblers, but their feel and sound and math is a silent vocabularly that gleans Mike praise and abuse in equal doses.  He's locked inside himself, can't share that terrible event from childhood, not even with Amelia Marsh, love of his life, so the lock represents his repression, the spinning noises of the ones he can't pick the vocabularly of frustation.

He's hyper aware of his talent.  Mike knows his lock artistry is not only the one talent that he didn't even know he'd been given but also the one upon which his life turns and turns and turns.  "Some talents," he says, referring to his clandestine work for a group of thugs led by The Ghost, a master lock artist, and Fishing Hat, Tall Mustache, and Sleepy Eyes, "cannot be forgiven.  Ever" (59).  So the beauty of the lock metaphor is that we must agree with the Lock Artist, who although he seeks our understanding for why he does what he does, also knows he must do better. 

He finds salvation.  Amelia Marsh, daughter of the man who first involved Mike with the thugs, draws Mike out.  For him, the lock is a form of control, but when Amelia responds to a drawing in which he tells her how beautiful she is by drawing comic panels of her own, he lets go, just a little.  "That feeling I got when I picked that lock and stepped into that dark kitchen . . . I'd have to live without it for a while" (150).  He continues relinquishinhg control to Amelia, communicating by drawing comic book panels depicting his thoughts.  This giving up slowly in exchange for her love culminates when he takes her to the home where the murders occured and draws comic strips on the house's walls, depicting the events.  

Mike's quest is not just about freeing the terrified young boy locked inside him.  Steve Hamilton's lock metaphor serves double duty as a powerful sexual metaphor.  Mike--recall--is a high schooler when he meets Amelia, so this novel is about more than fixing a broken kid and catching thugs.  It's also a coming of age novel, another testament to the strength of Steve's choice of metaphor.  

Mike's sleeping with Amelia, but like Juliet, she's removed from his reach by her father, and he has to track her down.  The lock metaphor becomes synonymous with Mike's busting through his own insecurities and earning a level of intimacy in his and Amelia's relationship.  One day The Ghost shows Mike a forbidding lineup of impenetrable safes--ladies.  "The greatest puzzle in the world, young man, the greatest challenge a man can face," he instructs Mike, "is solving the riddle of a woman's heart" (231).

So as Mike learns lock artistry from The Ghost, he also learns how to open a woman without using brute force, unlike some lock artists who destroy the safes they open.  This skill in opening safes takes a "special kind of touch," like caressing a woman . . . deep inside, Mike is told.  It's important to note that Mike, who eventually wins Amelia, is also known as "Boxman."  He opens safes--boxes--and other boxlike mechanisms; Amelia.  

The Lock Artist is an excellent example of how a writer can take a metaphor and transform it into an Edgar, a well-earned award in Steve Hamilton's case.

May 20, 2011

Upcoming Reviews

In June, I'll be reviewing two novels so we can look under the covers, so to speak, and determine what writing tropes and schemes these two authors use to draw us into their stories.   

1. Beth Groundwater's Deadly Currents

2.  Steve Hamilton's The Lock Artist


May 16, 2011

Review: The Danes Murders

In The Danes Murders, Patrick Haley details three murders that quickened the pulse of rural Clinton County, Ohio, its life's blood the daily rhythms of family and community.

Pat could have spun this true crime narrative with a hard-boiled edge, exploiting his role as sheriff in charge of the investigation.  But he instead chose to write in an understated but engaging style similar to John Douglas' and Mark Olshaker's in Mindhunter and The Anatomy of Motive.

Pat's writing style is spare; the narrative is clear and the story told straightforwardly--no literary tricks or gimmicks.  He's a confident author who knows both subject matter and the writing craft.  His style puts us directly inside Pat's head, with no intervening literary posturing or complexity.  As a result, The Danes Murders fascinates, while Pat's style carries us through this supercharged murder investigation. 

Pat's masterful use of irony, a key literary trope, enhances his storytelling.  He chooses anecdotes appropriate to the story; collectively, they have a tremendous impact on us as we read.  At times, they are humorous and subtle; at times wickedly incisive--but always, they are ironic. 

In 1984, Terry Coffman and Danny Hooks slashed their throats and bludgeoned to death Don and Karen Danes, and their son, Rodney.  A five year old daughter, Lisa, hidden in a closet possibly by her brother before he was murdered, escaped her family's fate.  From the moment he leads his deputies into the Danes' home, until he arrests Coffman and Hooks, Pat pulls us into the story.  Laying bare his thoughts and decision making, he steps us through the investigation, making us feel like we're there, as he and his deputies process the crime scene, as they push themselves to solve the case and, at last, as they arrive at the suspects' homes to make arrests. 

As Pat tells us, he maintained firm control of the crime scene, keeping a calm demeanor with EMTs who insisted on being present before Pat was ready for them.  With the media, he conveyed only those facts he felt they needed to know, despite pressure to prematurely divulge sensitive information. One day, he overheard others deriding his efforts, but he quietly left the court house without interrupting to defend himself.

But Pat's steady restraint is tempered by a vigorous verbal thrust and parry with many whom he encounters.  In one scene, he is searching Coffman's garage for the pipe used to bludgeon the victims.  Coffman's brother-in-law, present during the search, engages Pat in a discussion of the murders, telling Pat how shocked he is by Terry's involvement.  Pat remarks, "I understand your torment" (197).  

A fabulous zinger, the remark is an example of Roman irony, in which Pat uses words with double meaning to elicit a certain response.  To Coffman's brother-in-law, it might have sounded like Pat was empathetic.  However, it's clear that Pat is demolishing the brother-in-law's self-serving attempt to gain undeserved distance from Coffman's heinous crime, or even possibly, to ingratiate himself and pick the brains of the sheriff conducting his wife's brother's murder investigation. 

Pat Haley is a member of the law enforcement brotherhood, and as a master of Roman irony, words are his restraining shield--or sometimes his ax--as in the preceding example.  He is equally adept at using situational irony, in which "an unexpected outcome of a situation is shown to be in contrast with what actually results" (Tropes: Situational Irony).

Situational irony abounds in The Danes Murders, but one example most exemplifies the tragedy for all of the victims.  In this example, Pat describes his return to the crime scene the day after the murders.  Ken Fliehman, Future Farmers of America advisor to fifteen year old victim, Rodney Danes, told Pat how Rodney liked cutting out FFA articles from the newspaper.  Pat shares how emotionally tough it was for him as a father of a son Rodney's age to think of Rodney's life so brutally cut short.  He tells us that he "found [the newspaper] articles of which [ . . . ] Fliehman spoke, neatly posted on the wall above Rodney's bed" (49).  Rodney's youthful dream, pointlessly crushed, is in direct and tragic contrast with what actually happened, a heavily ironic point that Pat makes with this well-chosen anecdote. 

As readers we decide what makes one true crime novel a better read than another based on what we like. Do we like the author's style?  Do we like the kind of stories the author writes?  Do we like the author?  As reviewers, our choices result from more complex criteria.  One criterion that serves authors, readers, and reviewers equally well is a focus on how novels are distinguished among others within their genre.  What tropes mark their authors' styles?  How effectively do the authors demonstrate craft mastery?  

The Danes Murders is distinguished in its style because of Pat's use of comic irony.  Comic irony occurs "[w]hen there is a serious underlying meaning, a contrast or a generalization under a witty, humorous or light statement [ . . . ]" (Tropes: Comic Irony).  Again, examples abound; however, one that epitomizes Pat's ability to engage us involves his recounting of the many offers of help he received during the investigation.

As Pat recounts a phone call from Russ Bradley, sheriff of Greene County, Bradley informs Pat that two more bodies have just been found.  Bradley, wickedly ornery, further informs Pat they're in his jurisdiction, "just inside the [Clinton County] line" (67).  Pat, exhausted and sleep deprived, is flabbergasted, but taking the news in stride he promises he'll send deputies and join Bradley at the scene.  Bradley then replies, "Just kidding, Sheriff.  Let me know if we can help" (67).  Pat tells us it took him days to get Bradley's humor, but being from sturdy Irish stock, he eventually did. 

Pat states, "Humor used the proper way at an appropriate time can be just what one needs to diffuse a stressful situation" (68).  He is one author who, based on his own masterful use of comic irony--used well and at the right time--does very much know.  Using comic irony, he proves craft mastery, distinguishing The Danes Murders among true crime novels and making it a Buzzard Bone pick.