Monday, September 18, 2023

I Have Some Questions For You by Rebecca Makkai

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This is one of my favorite books of 2023, ticking, as it does, all the boxes —in a nicely clever way — for what makes me enjoy this approach to a mystery story.

Bodie Kane, a well regarded podcaster and instructor in film studies, is invited back to her prestigious former boarding school — Granby — to teach two January mini-mester classes. The podcasting class is the focus of this story. Bodie gives the students prompts to develop their podcast based on some aspect of Granby. Among the prompts of the murder of a teacher and, very personal to Bodie, the murder of a student, Thalia Keith: Thalia had been Bodie’s roommate. The case was quickly solved and the athletic director convicted and sent to prison. But as two students re-investigate the case they begin to question the original investigation.

The narrative is first person from the viewpoint of Bodie. Much of the narrative is addressed to Mr. Bloch, a former teacher and music director at Granby. Why she does this we learn as the narrative progresses. First person is one of my favorite devices, probably because I read noir which frequently uses this voice. I like knowing only what the narrator knows, especially in this case, where Bodie finds herself having to re-evaluate her theories based on what is uncovered.

The author does several things that I thought were pretty cool. One is the quasi epistolary style of many of the chapters which adds an intriguing element to the story with the author keeping us guessing. Another is the way students are incorporated into the story. It isn’y heavy handed and Bodie give them just the right amount of nudging and giving them free rein to pursue their investigation. Having been involved in co-teaching college English classes, the students are very believable in their behavior, reactions, and enthusiasm.

This is a slow burner rather than a thriller, another approach I appreciate. With jump-backs to Bodie’s days as a misfit, out of place student and her student’s contemporary investigation, the book is nonetheless a page turner. Toward the end, the chapters get shorter which has the effect of increasing tension for the reader.

The author works in other issues: cancel culture and the fickleness of the public; the ethics of true crime reporting and the efects of such reporting on the people involved; rape culture; preditors taking advantage of the vulnerable.

Keywords: mysteries, podcasts, true crime, murder, boarding schools.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Gone but maybe not forever

UPDATE: I've changed my mind. I'm going to add my Instagram reviews here as well. Instagram has a 2,200 character limit (including spaces) which forces me to be concise so that's a win for everyone.

Given how long since I last posted a review here, I realized that I was finding it more of a chore than a pleasure. I will leave the blog up since there may be reviews that searchers might find interesting but I won't be posting actively.

I'm thinking that I will be more active on the Macksstacks Instagram account so you might stop by there. though there here isn't anything current there now. I am reading some interesting stuff now that I'm feeling inspired to contribute.

Those of you following me, thank you, and you should de-clutter your feed reader if that's how you follow me.

Best and happy reading


Sunday, June 5, 2022

The Big Book of the Continental Op — Dashiell Hammett, author; Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett, editors

The Big Book of the Continental Op
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The hard boiled detective is probably my favorite archetype character in crime fiction and I thought it would be fun to visit the roots of the genre. Between 1923 and 1930, Dashiell Hammett recorded the cases of the unnamed employee of the Continental Detective Agency, the Continental Op, in 28 short stories and two serialized novels in the pages of The Black Mask magazine. Before I got my hands on this book, I only knew The Op from the novel, Red Harvest, and didn't realize the treat in store to have all the Op stories collected in one volume.

The Op was the earliest instance of a detective being referred to as "hard- boiled" that I came across.  This was in Red Harvest/The Cleansing of Poisonville (1927). Interestingly, later I read another Black Mask author, Carrol John Daily who has his detective, Race Williams, refer to himself as hard boiled in The Snarl of the Beast (19927). Snarl... slightly predates Hammett's use of hard boiled. These are the first uses of hard boiled or hard-boiled or hardboiled however you want to spell it that I've encountered. I'd love to know if there are earlier uses of the term.

The Op differs from most of the hard boiled detectives in that he is an employee of a national agency. We generally see the detective operating solo. Having worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, it was logical for Hammett to put his detective in that environment where Hammett could use his experiences. Also, in appearance, The Op isn't how we typically imagine a detective. He frequently describes himself and is described by others as short, fat, and middle-aged, not your Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.

One aspect of the period in which the stories are set that stood out for me is that the detective and the police work together. Apparently it wasn't unusual at the time for a detective agency such as the Continental (ie Pinkerton) to have better resources than the police. In Hammett's detective world you see the police allowing The Op to interview witnesses and suspects in their presence, having the Op and the police follow up leads together, and the police don't bat an eye if The Op asks them to stick someone in a cell. Contrast this with Chandler's Philip Marlowe.

The stories are still very readable with solid and interesting plots and characters and narrated in first person by The Op. The modern reader should be aware that the stories reflect the time in which they were written which means that Black and Chinese characters are more stereotypes than people. I'm also reading the republished Hardman series — also hard boiled —by Ralph Dennis set some 40 years later and these editions come with a warning that they reflect the times in which they were written. Personally, I look at these characterizations just as artifacts of the time

Obviously, coming to stories set in the 20s from the modern detective, the absence of technology is notable. No mobile phones so the detectives have to find pay phones and no internet for email — telegrams are frequently used —and web searching. Rather, the detective has to use the tried and true shoe leather method — look at the evidence, find connections, interview everyone, trust nothing any one tells you,  anything, however trivial, might be important later so dismiss nothing. If you think about it, this is the way cases were investigated for the next 70+ years. As a librarian (ret.) I was interested that, in lieu of the internet, The Continental Detective Agency maintained extensive and well organized clipping files, apparently on every criminal and crime committed in the US. I'd love to know how that worked.

In addition to the short stories, this volume includes two serialized novel length stories, The Dain Curse and The Cleansing of Poisonville. The Dain Curse is four connected stories. The first story, Black Lives, is the setup, giving us the main characters in the next three stories and the plot point that a young woman, Gabrielle Leggett might be under a curse. Subsequent stories seem to bear this possibility out.

The four part The Cleansing of Poisonville particularly interested me because it was later sold as a novel titled Red Harvest and Red Harvest was my introduction to The Continental Op. The Op is hired by the editor of the local Personville (ie Poisonville) newspapers. He is murdered before he can meet with the Op and his father subsequently hires The Op to clean up the gang-ridden Personville. 

This story is interesting in that The Op here isn't particularly likable. As the story proceeds, he seems to develop a killing fever, basically orchestrating the killing of members of the gang factions by playing them off against each other. He even shoots down a police detective. Ok, the detective was corrupt but it wasn't in self defense. At one point, a fellow operatives begins to believe that The Op might be more involved in the deaths than is right for a company detective and leaves the job.

Knopf, the publisher of Red Harvest requested numerous changes to the serialized story and there are many small changes in word choice, slang, and rephrasing sentences. There are also major changes to tone down the violence. Hammett was happy with the suggestions but I lean toward preferring the serial version. In one scene in The Cleansing of Poisonville, the gangster Lew Yard is blown up along with his wife and maid when he starts his can. In Red Harvest he is shot walking down his front steps. Red Harvest also eliminates entirely the scene whee the office of the chief of police is blown up. I liked these two scenes because Personville is a mining town and dynamite is readily available and a logical choice of gangsters.

Here is an example of one of Hammett's rewritten sentences:
The Cleansing of Poisonville
Nick stopped shooting. He put both hands tight to his belly and piled down on his face.
Red Harvest
Nick Stopped shooting. He crossed his guns on his chest and went down in a pile on the sidewalk.
I prefer the Cleansing version, "crossing his guns on his chest" doesn't make sense to me.

I recommend reading both versions of the story.

The Big Book of The Continental Op is a must read if you are interested tracing the development of the hard boiled detective genre from its roots.

Keywords: Black Mask Magazine, hard-boiled detective, crime fiction

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Perception vs Reality: An Eyewitness Account and What I Thought I Saw vs What What I Really Saw

 This story isn't strictly about eyewitness testimony and remembering events but it does tell me that what one thinks one sees and what actually happened can very different.

My wife stayed up later than me and the next morning told me she had an unnerving experience when she saw flashes of light — like a camera flashing — coming from the woods behind our house. I asked her to wake me up if he flashes returned and I was asleep.

The next night, the flashing was back and she got me. I stood at the closed back door and there were flashes of light coming from the woods at random intervals. I watched very carefully but couldn't spot the point source of the flashing.

Finally I went out on the deck and into the screened room at one side of the deck. If there was someone out there, I reasoned that I didn't want to be a target. The next flash seemed to come from behind me. WTF! I turned and looked at the surrounding houses to see if some household's Halloween decorations were misfiring. While turned facing the house, there was another flash but was coming from inside the house in the dark kitchen. There is a window in the side of the screened room with a direct line-of-sight to the kitchen. Later I discovered that my wife did not appreciate the suspense/horror trope, "It's inside the house".

The kitchen has high ceilings with four recessed dimmable LED lights. I was looking around and noticed what looked like a very faint green glowing dot in one of the lights. I was wondering about the glow when, POW!, it was like a strobe light went off in my face.

I discovered that the ceiling lights had not been turned off but set to maximum dimness. For some reason, this caused one of the lights to randomly strobe. Turning off the light fixed the problem.

Here's my take-away. Both my wife and I were certain that the flashes were coming from the woods. I would have signed a sworn statement to that effect. It wasn't until I left the house to observe from a different angle that the true source of the light was discovered.  

You might wonder how we could not see that the source was inside the house. The combination of recessed lighting, ceiling height, and position of doorways resulted in a dispersed flood of light rather than a point source as you would see if you fired a flash directly toward a window. When the light strobed  it reflect back into the house as if the light was coming from outside. All it took was a change in perspective to identify what was really happening. I'm just happy that we didn't call the sheriff's department to report someone in the woods.

This event has made me appreciate that, no matter how convinced one is, perception and reality can differ greatly.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Review: Dark Things I Adore by Katie Lattari

Dark Things I Adore by Katie Lattari
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 I do love a good revenge story and Lattari delivers in this, her first thriller, Dark Things I Adore

Audra is a beautiful and brilliant art student finishing her master's project under her mentor Professor Max Durant. As Audra's star is rising, Max's own star is fading. His reputation is based mainly on past accomplishments, something he fights against acknowledging. He is thrilled when Audra invites him to her home in Maine to review her thesis collection as he expects he will get her into bed. Unknown to Max, getting him to Maine is the culmination of a plan Audra set in motion years ago. Audra has very different expectations for how the trip will turn out.

The story has an intricate, interwoven structure. In the present, 2018, we have first person narratives from the viewpoints of Audra and Max. Then there is a first person narrative from 1988 by Juniper, an artist and staff member of an artist's retreat, The Lupine Valley Arts Collective where everyone is known only by their nicknames. Interspersed among these narratives are descriptions of paintings from Audra's collection which she calls Her Dark Things. Layered within the paintings are journal entries that read like poems. Whose journal? What's the significance of these journal entries, and how do they relate to the paintings? It must have been challenging for the author to connect three different narratives and the descriptions of art work and make these elements relate in a way that builds the story in a coherent manner. Lattari does it brilliantly.

I enjoyed the way Lattari revealed the characters through the eyes of the three narrators.

From the beginning we see that Audra is presenting two faces. One is that of the devoted protégé and one is the hidden face that shows the contempt in which Audra holds Max and her steely resolve to bring him down. Outwardly Audra presents herself the way one expects to see an artist. But there is more to her: she grew up a country girl in rural Maine and is very comfortable in the woods. Why does Audra hate Max? We find out gradually but the reader can easily deduce that something happened at the artist's retreat in 1988. 

Max is a loathsome character living on his past glories. One of the worst aspects of his character is that he uses women. He draws inspiration from their pain, pain that he causes. The reader would want to see Max brought down for that alone.

Juniper's identity is held from the reader for much of the book. I didn't know who she was until the author revealed it. What we do know is that she was present when whatever happened at Lupine Valley went down. Actually, to be honest, an astute reader will be able to slot many of the pieces together by the first quarter of the book,. I just didn't do a lot of analysis as I read. If something popped out, it popped out.

Dark Things I Adore does have some plot elements that I found slightly contrived but let me quickly add that these did not distract from my great enjoyment in the book. Some of the events that take place when it kicks into full thriller mode are a bit improbable — very neatly choreographed but much could have gone wrong. There is a confrontation that takes place that I, the reader, wouldn't have had but it is entirely in the character of Audra to act that way. There is a twist that actually did occur to me that I'm not sure is entirely necessary but it is handled very deftly. If you're going to have a twist, this is a good example of one that doesn't smack the reader in the face.

Lattari has a real flair for writing thrillers with her character portraits and interwoven plot elements. I hope to see another thriller from her soon. 

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