Skeletons in the Reacher Family Closet

lee child past tense

 

Lee Child learned style from Hemingway. Or maybe from Elmore Leonard or Dashiell Hammett. He writes short, clean, sometimes incomplete but straight-to-the-point sentences. Brief paragraphs, plus almost as short episodic sections consisting of alternating points of view. Except when he writes long action sequences with lots of ands and Reacher did this and that and then his opponents fall down like flies after being sprayed with insecticide. Reacher gets knocked down, too, and instantly he’s back on his feet again. To stay down long means to die.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

Although the writing is often sparse and minimalist, it’s also detail-rich. Child pays close attention to tiny details, and so does protagonist Jack Reacher.

Past Tense (Delacorte Press/Random House, November 15, 2018) is Child’s 22nd Reacher thriller.

Patty Sundstrom and Shorty Fleck are a Canadian potato farmer and a timber sawmill worker on their way to NYC to sell something valuable enough to raise sufficient capital to start a new life in Florida. When their old car breaks down in the woods near Laconia, NH, not far from where Reacher’s father Stan was born and raised, they plan to spend only one night. Little do they know they might be trapped there for the rest of their lives.

Jack Reacher, walking and thumbing his way across America, sees a sign for Laconia and decides to visit the town where his father allegedly  grew up. Of course, nothing is ever simple in a Jack Reacher novel. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

It’s been said that Reacher walks where angels fear to tread. Whenever he encounters a wrong, he feels duty-bound by his own internal code of honor to set it right. Whenever he finds a bully picking on an underdog, he has to step in. He’s a giant of a man, both literally and figuratively.

And when he gets mad, all hell can break loose.

Those are traits he inherited from his father.

Faithful readers will find many of the elements they expect in a great Reacher novel in the 400 pages of Past Tense: an intriguing  mystery to solve (several, actually); plenty of broken noses and broken bones; bodies piled up like cordwood (some dead, others merely knocked unconscious); a beautiful female cop who proves not only extremely competent but an excellent foil for Reacher to toy with; plenty of bad guys and a few good guys Reacher needs to protect; a realistic threat to life and limb; and a get-out-of-town deadline. What makes Past Tense different, however, is the number of previously-unknown Reachers that may or may not be closely related to Jack.

Like all the other Lee Child novels, I couldn’t put this book down. The dramatic tension and anticipation of violence kept me devouring words. Learning more about the Reacher family was icing on the cake. Highly recommended.

 

Lee and me at Thrillerfest. I’m the guy wearing glasses.

 

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A brilliant, timely, and important story by a masterful storyteller

A Spark of Light

 

A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult (Ballantine Books, October 2, 2018) is an amazing read. Not only does it reveal both sides of the abortion debate from the personal viewpoints of each of the main characters, it does so in an immediate life-and-death kind of way. Then the storyline begins to work backwards, hour by hour, to examine the choices that brought each of Picoult’s characters to this critical crossroads on the same day.

If only we were able to turn back the hands of time to choose over—to make vital decisions with the full knowledge of the consequences of our actions—would we make the same choices?

Do we ever really have a choice? Or do human beings only act out of necessity?

A Spark of Light tackles some heavy philosophical questions: When does viable life begin? Is it with the spark when sperm and egg meet? Is it at full-term birth? What are the responsibilities of parents? Of children? Of men to women? Of women to men? Of society to all children, whether born or unborn?

Of man to God? Of God to men and women? Of fathers to their offspring? Of women to their children? Of women to themselves?

A brilliant, timely, and important story by a masterful storyteller. Very highly recommended.

 

 

What I learned about writing crime fiction from reading Stephen King’s The Outsider

the outsider

 

 

Adverbs may be our enemies, but adjectives, action verbs, and similes are our friends.

 
Kill off characters we’ve learned to identify with.  I think this is what King really meant when he advocated killing your little darlings.

 
Threaten to kill off other characters we’ve learned to identify with or care about.

 
There’s no end to the universe. It goes on and on forever, much like some Stephen King stories.

 
Generate doubt and suspicion by demonstrating—show, don’t tell—how everything we believe to have happened in the story thus far may be untrue. Only the willing suspension of disbelief can provide the proper perspective to help set things right. There really are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

 

 
Must and can’t are dangerous words. Psychologist Albert Ellis termed internalizing such words “mental musterbation.”

 
Show that kernels of the truth lay buried—hidden amongst all that chaff that mucks up human perception—and would surely have been evident if only we’d paid closer attention from the very beginning, if only we hadn’t allowed personal bias to color our perceptions. If only Terry Maitland hadn’t shown our son how to bunt. If only we’d never loved eating cantaloupe as a child. If only . . .

 
The keys to good story-telling, like the keys to producing memorable poems and songs, are repetition and rhythm.  Play it again, Steve. And again and again and again. For old time’s sake.

 
“He thinks that if we all tell the same story, everything will be okay . . .If we all tell the same story.” King tells the same story over and over again as different viewpoint characters relate events from their own perspectives. Then he repeats, as often as needed. Soon the familiar world disappears, and a fictional world–a world that resembles the real world but isn’t the same–replaces it with a world that feels equally familiar.

 

Now that you’ve willingly suspended disbelief, anything is possible.

 

Getting lost in a King story is sort of like taking drugs. “Everything still hurts, but you don’t give a shit.” All you want is more of that old familiar feeling you know so well.

 

The Outsider by Stephen King (Scribner, May 2018) will give readers a few sleepless nights worth remembering. Highly recommended.

 

Somebody’s Daughter is a Compelling Read

cover125277-mediumSomebody's Daughter david bell

 

Somebody’s Daughter by David Bell (Berkley Books, July 2018) is about a missing nine-year-old girl and the petty jealousies and doubts that get in the way of relationships.
Erica, Michael Frasier’s first wife, is a bit of a drama queen. They’d married right out of college, a starter marriage, that ended in divorce a year later. Michael left Erica when her flightiness and impulsivity—two personality traits that had attracted him to her in the first place—became unbearable.
Michael’s new wife Angela is more like he is, a detail-oriented and responsible workaholic, not a wild and crazy emotionally-high-strung attention-seeking risk taker like Erica is or Michael’s sister Robyn was. Or his other younger sister, Lynne, a musician, song-writer, and former rock star still is. Robyn died when she fell off a swing set as an infant, and Michael blames himself for not preventing the fall. Although only a child himself at the time, he was the older brother and should have been watching out for his kid sister.
When Erica rings the doorbell at Michael and Angela’s house to announce her nine-year-old daughter is missing and Michael is Felicity’s father, he doesn’t know what to believe. He and Erica have been divorced nearly ten years, and this is the first he’s heard he might be a father. Angela and he have tried to get pregnant without success. Does he already have a daughter?
Or is Erica lying to get Michael’s attention? Is she trying to break up his marriage to get revenge for his leaving her? Or does Erica hope to get Michael back to be a father to their daughter?
Erica shows Michael Felicity’s picture on her cell phone. She looks remarkably like Robyn did the day before she died.
Parts of this novel read like a typical Jerry Springer episode. Who is Felicity’s father? What will a paternity test prove? Was Erica unfaithful while married to Michael? Inquiring minds want to know.
So do the local police when Erica reports Felicity abducted. Did Michael abduct his daughter? Did Erica abduct Felicity from another mother after Erica had a miscarriage ten years ago? Did a pedophile snatch the little girl when Erica’s attention was averted? Or did Angela, jealous that Erica gave Michael a child, abduct and kill Felicity because she couldn’t have children herself?
The author tosses in a few additional complications and a handful of supporting characters to keep the reader guessing. With  every passing minute, the chances of finding Felicity alive become less and less. The timebomb is ticking. The sands in the hourglass are running out.
Somebody’s Daughter is a compelling read. Highly recommended.

One hell of a weird story! Surreal and spellbinding

what immortal hand

Johnny Worthen’s What Immortal Hand (Omnium Gatherum, October 2017) is one hell of a weird story. It’s the darkest horror I’ve read in a long time.

Michael Oswald stares into the Abyss. He’s already lost his wife, his home, his kids, and now he’s about to lose his job. He feels himself on a slippery slope sliding into nothingness. His self-destruction is nearly complete. He feels as if he has no past, no future. It’s as if time itself plays tricks on him. He loses hours, days, weeks, maybe even years.

He can’t remember his early childhood the way other people can. He can’t even remember half of what happened yesterday. To the world, Michael Oswald is a loser because he values none of the trappings of civilized society. Michael has always been different than others. He believes it’s because he was raised within the foster care system, a ward of the state. He’s had many names, a different last name each time he entered a new foster home, and he has no idea at all who he truly is, who his real parents are, or who raised him during those influential years from three to seven.

Who is he? Where is he? When is he?

What is he?

All his life, it seems, Michael has been aware that there is a caste system—a natural order—at work in the world, even in democratic America. There’s always been haves and have-nots. There’s always been thugs who prey on Travelers. Some people deserve to die and need to be killed as a public service. But, in the end, all living things must die.

If God gives you lemons, get another god. Everyone is born of a Mother, isn’t he or she? And isn’t everyone reborn again and again?

Heh heh.

One hell of a weird story! Surreal and spellbinding. Johnny Worthen’s What Immortal Hand is the darkest tale I’ve read in a long time.

 

 

 

Supernatural Noir

the corpse and the girl

 

John Urbancik’s style is spellbinding. He’s a consummate craftsman. His writing seems like a cross between Raymond Chandler and Stephen King, with maybe a little Richard Thomas thrown in. Maybe some Lewis Carroll, too, to make it even more surreal.

The Corpse and the Girl from Miami (Dark Fluidity, 2017) is a mystery within a mystery. It’s noir and a supernatural thriller all in one.

And, despite everything else, it’s also a love story.

It’s set in Boston, MA, not in Miami. There are some displaced Floridians (Ofelia, Mr. Maker, Armando Luis Salazar) prowling the New England darkness one unusually stormy night, but they have no special love for Bean Town. Neither does The Corpse.

Imagine waking up in a cemetery with three bullet holes in your chest and no pulse. You have no remembrance of who shot you or why. You can’t even remember your name.

Piecing together his identity and solving the mystery of his murder turns into a herculean task for the dead man. There’s another walking dead man and a burgeoning cast of characters, some of whom may be aligned with powerful supernatural forces, to complicate the plot.

No one tells the truth. Ferreting out who killed whom, who is working for whom, and who’s a good person and who’s a bad person keeps the reader turning pages.

If you like a good mystery in an urban fantasy with supernatural elements, you’ll love The Corpse and the Girl from Miami.

Why so many serial killers?

 

“If every age gets the lunatics it deserves, then our age of anxiety deserves those who are in the grip of a compulsion.” Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions by Sharon Begley (Simon & Schuster, February 2017) hypothesizes that “compulsions are a response to anxiety, and modern life is filled with overwhelming anxiety.” Compulsions offer us an illusion of control in a world gone mad. “We cling to compulsions as if to a lifeline, for it is only by engaging in compulsions that we can drain enough of our anxiety to function.”

The idea behind Begley’s book was so compelling that I simply had to buy it. I’m a compulsive bookaholic who needs to know what’s inside every book (which may be an impossible task) or continuous wondering will drive me crazy.

That’s my excuse, anyway, for buying books, and I’m sticking to it. I’ve become a compulsive book hoarder. Books are more than a compulsion with me, they’re an obsession. And, as long as I have a book to read or a book to write, I don’t feel the need to kill anyone.

Is compulsion an anxiety disorder? Is it a personality disorder? An addiction? A syndrome? What’s the difference between Impulsive and Compulsive drives? Everyone feels anxious. Everyone is occasionally impulsive or compulsive. Should impulsive and compulsive behaviors be considered pathological only when they become so excessive they interfere with normal life functions?

Can we control our impulsive and compulsive behaviors? When do we know we need to?

Serial killers are addicts who get pleasure from risk-taking. They thrive on anxiety rather than feel a need to alleviate anxiety. They’re addicted to the pleasure they get from causing pain. They know their actions are wrong, but they can’t stop until they get caught. Seeing how long they can get away with doing something dangerous and forbidden is half the fun. They’re more concerned with what happens when they do something than when they don’t do something. They’re thrill addicts who need regular fixes or suffer the pains of withdrawal. Serial killing is addictive behavior, It isn’t compulsive.

Compulsive behavior, on the other hand, results from worries about what will happen if one does not possess something (knowledge, an object, followers on Facebook, love, money, drugs, bullets, soldiers, words in print, etc.) in sufficient quantity or quality to prevent disaster. It is the opposite of risk-taking. In one’s mind, possession is seen as the only thing that can prevent a future catastrophe from occurring.

Addictions can become compulsions only when worry about what may happen if you can’t continue the addictive (pleasurable) behavior takes over. You no longer get pleasure from risk-taking, but must take different risks to avoid pain caused by discontinuing the risky behavior. Like feeling compelled to kill in order to cover your tracks and not for pleasure. Like stockpiling books you’ll never have a chance to read.

When anxiety becomes fear, compulsions can become obsessive. You’re terrorized that unless you get things just right, absolutely perfect, calamity will happen. You, and only you can prevent bad things from happening, especially to ones you love. Only scrupulous adherence to a magical ritual (like buying certain books or writing them a certain way) will prevent disaster.

As a writer of crime-suspense thrillers, I enjoyed this book ‘s insights immensely. It was written in language a layman could understand, covered the gamut of compulsive behaviors, and tried to tie things together in a nice package. More importantly, though, this book taught me that when compulsions serve a useful function and contribute to a successful life rather than destroying it, being compulsive isn’t always bad.

Maybe that means I’m not as crazy as I thought.