The special code on the spine and front flap of this 1944 Doubleday Crime Club novel is an exclamation mark indicating that the editors thought it "Something New." The reader should expect a story that deviates from the traditional whodunit, one that offers more than just "A Chess Puzzle" or "Fast Action" or "Humor and Homicide" as the other categories on the rear of the jacket promise. Turning to the inside jacket blurb and reading that it is yet another in a long line of amnesia crime stories should not deter the reader from opening to the first page. Alarum and Excursion is indeed something new in crime fiction; apart from the unusual story it is one of the earliest noir novels from a woman writer of this period.
There are number of features that make Perdue's book stand out from the rest of the amnesiac crowd. First, her protagonist Nicholas Methany is 62 years old and the CEO of his own oil company. You can probably guess the story is not going to include any action scenes of youthful derring-do. Plus, he has two grown children and a very young wife. Second, the manner in which Methany's memory returns is orchestrated with some of the most original and realistic scenes in a book of this type. He never completely loses his memory, as I expect would happen in a real amnesia situation. Methany can only recall vague moments and envision hazy glimpses of a specific event -- a lab explosion at his firm Seaboard Petroleum that left him injured.
In two of the most cleverly done parts Methany is given modeling clay and he finds himself unconsciously shaping and forming it into a serpent ready to strike. Later he will find an exact replica of that snake in a drawer in his home and it will have great significance to a plot that slowly is revealed to him. In another scene Hero, his wife, puts out her cigarette in an small earthenware container she uses as an ashtray and Methany is instantly taken back to a similar scene in his past. The smell of a perfume, the sound of a voice, the mention of a name -- all of these will jar his broken memory bank and send him into the past, remembering and piecing together his past life to help him explain his present predicament. It's all carefully orchestrated by Perdue and rings true in every instance.
As his memory of the accident gradually returns into full focus Methany learns that two people died and one was most likely murdered. He also learns that the accident was not an accident at all but a plot to undermine the development of a synthetic fuel his firm was about to release. With gasoline in short supply and the US entering the war, Methany is sure his non-petroleum based alternate fuel will be the saving grace for the war effort. He plans to give the formula to the military free of charge or licensing fees. But there are others in his company who disagree with Methany's altruism and see nicoline (the fuel's name) as the means to financial riches if the formula were offered up for sale.
There is a lot to recommend the book: the structure and plot details are imaginative and well thought out, Perdue's muscular prose that walks a fine line between being tough and sentimental, and a cast of unusual minor characters. I will single out Professor Wyndham, a kooky paleontologist locked up at the Crestview mental institution where Methany is recuperating, who walks three steps forward and one back, talks about life on Mars and Mercury and helps Methany in a daring escape. Much later in the book we meet the crude saloon piano player, Beulah Westmore, who has some vital information about Methany's son's involvement in the lab explosion and why it happened.
As each characters' true nature is revealed the novel ventures further into the realm of noir. The strange relationship between Hero, her ex-con father Charley Van Norman, and Methany becomes one of seedy corruption , self-interest and base greed. The finale is as dark as any noir of the 1950s. And the last paragraph is one guaranteed to induce a gasp of awe in any reader. I know let loose with a "Wow!" before I closed the book.
SIDEBAR: In an attempt to learn more about Virginia Perdue I discovered that she had a special relationship with Robert Heinlein. According to The Heinlein Society website in the 1930s Perdue and Heinlein were friends. She was instrumental in giving the science fiction writer advice on submitting his manuscripts to mainstream magazines, not just the pulps, and encouraged him to write novels. Heinlein's second wife also believed that the relationship went a bit deeper than just writers helping each other out with their careers. A feature article on Perdue (rather than the two paragraphs I found) was supposed to appear in an issue of The Heinlein Journal, but I was unable to find it.
I Am Jonathan Scrivener (1930) is the fourth novel by Claude Houghton, a talented, sometimes visionary, and much forgotten writer, who in his time was acclaimed by Hugh Walpole and P.G. Wodehouse. Later other notables such as Henry Miller and Graham Greene would join the circle of those singing the praises of the cult of Houghton. In a long career of writing novels and stories that blended metaphysical philosophy with the tropes of crime and supernatural fiction I Am Jonathan Scrivener is considered to be Houghton's masterpiece. While I did not find it to be wholly ingenious there is enough in the novel to recommend it as a work of insightful observations on loneliness and friendship, also as a genre novel that foreshadows contemporary paranoid thrillers of identity and betrayal.
The basic story sounds familiar to anyone well read in crime and detective fiction of the early 20th century. James Wrexham, after a period of dreary employment in a lawyer's office and a self-imposed solitary life with no real friendships, comes across a newspaper advertisement for a secretary and library cataloguer. He submits a rushed letter the content of which he later cannot recall and is surprised when he is offered the position outright with no interview and never having met his future employer. I can think of a least four other detective novels which begin exactly this way even to the point of the library cataloguing. There are also numerous stories and novels employing the gimmick of the cryptic newspaper advertisement that leads to a whirlwind of unexpected adventures and nefarious plots (Suspense by Isabel Ostrander and "The Red Headed League" come immediately to mind). But Houghton uses this advertisement gimmick only as a springboard from which to launch a story that deviates from any expected traditional mystery novel or tale of intrigue.
There are many mysteries that Wrexham faces in his new position. Why was he chosen? Why did Scrivener leave for Paris so abruptly? Why allow Wrexham complete access to Scrivener's house, his tailor, his friends? Is there some sort of ulterior motive in having the library catalogued? But soon these questions become less mysterious than the man himself. The story shifts into a metaphysical mystery about identity. For as Wrexham soon learns from a variety of friends and associates Jonathan Scrivener seems to be a man of multiple personalities. He is described as a perverse degenerate, a hedonistic adventurer, a misogynous and bitter misanthrope, a lighthearted and witty raconteur, a failed actor, brilliant artist who never reached his potential and so much more. Can he really be all of these at once? Or is he just a fraud? No one seems to really know who or what Jonathan Scrivener truly is. But Wrexham is determined to discover the real man among his many guises.
Wrexham finds himself less a secretary and bibliographer and more of an accidental host to Scrivener's endless stream of guests. Two women even have latchkeys and drop in whenever their whimsy sees fit. The library, a place formerly forbidden to any of Scrivener's friends, becomes a salon for all the visitors and serves as the connecting point between Wrexham, the friends and the absent Scrivener. The books themselves (the cataloguing project is soon abandoned) become the subject of many discussions and reveal even more of the secrets and darkness that Scrivener kept hidden from his friends. Eventually Wrexham will join forces with Francesca Bellamy, a celebrity figure who has achieved notoriety through the highly publicized suicide of her husband, and together they will seek out the mystery of Jonathan Scrivener. Mrs. Bellamy is sure that Wrexham and all the others are the subjects of an experiment, a cruel mind game begun by Scrivener from afar, and that he is perhaps observing them all somehow without their knowledge.
The book is not all sinister musings and melodramatic character revelations. Much to my surprise there were several scenes of absurd humor that came as an unexpected bonus. Wrexham meets the devil-may-care playboy Antony Rivers who takes hims to a Japanese restaurant. The variety of strange foods Wrexham is served is described with grotesque metaphors like a soup that "had long weeds in it which looked rather like serpents who had died in youth" and that "tasted exactly like the old Aquarium at Brighton used to smell." Later Wrexham reports on an argument between a bus passenger and bus driver over the difference of one penny in the fare which reaches a ridiculous conclusion.
Claude Houghton, circa 1933
As the story progresses Houghton has a tendency towards reiteration. He manages to find multiple ways to express his themes, but by the final chapter this reader was weary of them. The interactions between the characters enliven the novel while Wrexham's solo philosophical pontificating tends to drag the novel out of the realm of a novelist into the world of a pamphleteer. Admittedly, there is a suspenseful build-up and Houghton is often eloquent in his speechifying. Wrexham experiences several epiphanies, but due to the repetition the payoff is somewhat anticlimactic.
Sharp readers may catch on much sooner than Wrexham or the others as to Scrivener's exact intentions. The title coupled with a passing reference to Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde may lead some to jump to conclusions about the solution of the core mystery. Houghton, however, has something less sensational in mind.
For decades I Am Jonathan Scrivener had a history of being a scarce book elusive even to the most assiduous of book hunters. Thankfully, the difficult searches are at an end. Curious readers eager to enter the strange world of Claude Houghton can now purchase an affordable paperback reprint from Valancourt Books. Perhaps the cult of Houghton will rise again.
Interception City, Published by Black Mask, March 15, 2013
The best thing any crime writer can do to make his protagonist more sympathetic and far stronger is to provide a worthy (think: very strong, horribly bad or genuinely psychotic) antagonist in the mix.
Endlessly taught in most of the creative writing classes I’ve had, the villain provides the steel spine to any good thriller or action piece. You can make the protagonist as pure or as interesting or even as damaged as you like, but his adversary in evil better be virtually unstoppable.
And evil in ways most of us would rather not even imagine. But as crime or thriller writers, we must. Ask Stephen King.
Anyway, looking back quite a few years, the most obvious example of this to me is the first Dirty Harry movie, called (unsurprisingly) Dirty Harry.
In it, a young Clint Eastwood is excellent as rogue cop Harry Callahan, a legalized killer with a .44 Magnum, but his stature was greatly elevated (as far as the audience was concerned) when he came up against the shockingly savage villainy of the psychotic Scorpio Killer, played with manic intensity by Andy Robinson.
Andy Robinson did such a great job, in fact, playing a murderous and almost-unstoppable lunatic, that it was said producers and casting directors in Hollywood wouldn’t meet with him for a long time afterward, fearing he was too much in real life like the part he’d so brilliantly played.
And when he was blasted away by Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum in the last act, it was a feeling, I’ll admit, of great satisfaction. The Scorpio Killer finally, after getting away with so damn much, paid for his horrifying sins with his life.
Justice. Or just a need on the audience’s part for a form of simple revenge. For being such a terrible person. Seriously.
The bad guy’s antics are, after all, much of the reason (unsavory or not) that we continue to watch, or to turn the page, waiting for that final moment when the villain’s either blasted into oblivion or, at the very least, arrested and hauled away.
In other words, something inside of each of us can’t stand to see the son of a bitch get away with it.
Ten years later, another of the great bad guys, also played with brilliant savagery, was James Remar as Albert Ganz, the psychopath of 48 Hours (the violent but hilarious feature film debut of Eddie Murphy, not the TV news show).
Ganz killed as easily as he breathed, and went off like a Chinese firecracker at the slightest provocation, again providing all of us in the audience with a great sense of relief when Nick Nolte eventually shot him multiple times.
Which brings us, in my opinion, to one of the greatest feat(s) of film villainy in many a year, performed by the superb actor Alan Rickman.
Within four years, Rickman managed to play three of the coldest, yet wittiest, villains the screen has ever seen, thus adding that steel spine to three great thrillers.
In the original Die Hard, 1988, as Hans Gruber, he was the brilliant but murderous killer who masterminded the almost-murder of an entire office building full of people, thus giving Bruce Willis a chance to be exactly what a real hero should be.
In Quigley Down Under, 1990, as Elliot Marston, he was the evil Australian ranch owner who was systematically committing genocide against the aborigines until American gunman Tom Selleck shot him down, along with his two evil cohorts, in Marston’s own front yard.
And last, but not least, in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, 1991, Rickman was the mercilessly evil but wisecracking Sheriff of Nottingham, a part played to the hilt by a truly gifted actor, until Kevin Costner ran him through. And through again, I think.
It’s been a while.
In any case, none of the movies above would’ve been as thrilling, or would’ve played out or ended as strongly, had it not been for the superb villains that each provided.
Which reminds me.
When it comes to superb villains, I have to mention the greatest recent villain to calmly (and sometimes humorously) murder his way across a huge expanse of silver screen:
Javier Bardem as the epitome of heartless and pure evil, Anton Chigurh, in the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, No Country For Old Men, 2007.
A terrifyingly realistic but somehow subdued performance in every way, Javier Bardem’s bad guy even terrified all the other bad guys in the film. And rightly so. And at the same time gave the film such brilliant forward momentum that it rocketed through to the shocking end.
And if you haven’t seen it yet: shocking is the right word.
In any case, my newest crime thriller, Interception City, written under my pseudonym Parker T. Mattson, is now out in paperback, published by the great folks at Black Mask, and will soon be available as an e-Book as well.
And, yes, I’ve tried to make the bad guys very, very bad, heartless and genuinely evil, even hatefully so, just in case some bad things finally happen to them in the final chapters.
Which would be justice, believe me. And will probably happen, but I’m giving away nothing here. It’s a thriller, after all, and I might’ve (or might not have) broken some rules.
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger Atria Books/Simon & Schuster ISBN: 978-1451645828 320 pp. $24.99 Publication date: March 26, 2013
Memory as we all know can play tricks on us. We like to think that there was a time in our past that was " the good ol' days" usually turning to a brief period in our early to late teens. There is a nostalgia for this time that is often distorted with an ample amount of good memories but nothing troubling, unpleasant or -- heaven forbid -- nightmarish. And there is a type of fiction that likes to travel down these nostalgic byways and allow the reader to bask in a fictional past that approaches an idyllic Eden of bliss and contentment. William Kent Krueger 's most recent novel Ordinary Grace (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2013) dares to be a nostalgic novel that starts not with the pleasant but with the horrific.
At the start of the novel in a foreword written in Frank Drum's adult voice we immediately know that the tale he is about to relate about a specific summer from his teen years is one in which Death paid several visits to his hometown and he and his brother learned that summer usually a time for carefree pursuits can be an unsafe and haunting time of the year. For Frank and Jake is it a summer of losses and gains.
Loss, once it's become a certainty, is like a rock you hold in your hand. It has weight and dimension and texture. It's solid and can be asessed and dealt with. You can use it to beat yourself or you can throw it away. The uncertainty of Ariel's disappearance was vastly different. It surrounded us and clung to us. We breathed it in and breathed it out and we were never sure of its composition.
In a departure from his series featuring series character Cork O'Connor Krueger has written a stand alone novel that is a Minnesota version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Two siblings learn to deal with the brutality of adult crime while simultaneously having their strong moral upbringing put to the test. The twist in Krueger's version is that Frank and Jake Drum have not a lawyer for a father but a Methodist minister. The law of the land does not serve as the background as much as the Law of God does. Tests of faith and moral convictions are at the root of the entire story.
Frank, the elder brother is an outspoken, impetuous, rascal of a teenager while his younger brother Jake is the contemplative, well behaved, voice of reason. He is the embodiment of Frank's conscience and a walking model of Reverend Drum's Sunday sermons. He is constantly reminding Frank not to swear, not to use the Lord's name in vain, not to think ill of others. Frank, on the other hand, is rarely listens, taunt and teases his brother and is constantly leading his borher away from the straight and narrow path. Frank serves as a model of teenage rebellion daring Jake to let loose and misbehave like when he hands Jake a baseball bat and asks him to get even with the town bully by smashing the headlights on the jerk's souped up vintage sports car. Jake gives in occasionally, but usually is seen standing back, remaining silent, preferring the morally right option no matter what the cost. The two of them will pay the consequences for choosing their paths and by the novel's shocking climax will learn to meet at the crossroads of blind obedience and non-conformist independence.
The story begins with the mention of three deaths – accident, suicide and murder – providing the basis for the most elementary mystery for the reader. Which death is which? But this is no traditional whodunnit or puzzle mystery. There is so much more that awaits the patient reader.
The most fascinating aspect of the story is how Krueger deals with a variety of societal outcasts. Jake stutters and has a very difficult time making himself understood when he gets anxious. Then there is Lise, sister of reclusive musician and piano tutor Emil Brandt, who is described by the locals as a crazy woman but is more compassionately described by the adult voice of Frank as "someone who must have been autistic though we were not as familiar with that disorder as we are now." There is an almost supernatural bond that exists between Lisa and Jake. She will not allow anyone to touch her or speak to her but Jake. And this eleven year old boy, wise beyond his years (at times making him a bit too much to take), is the only person in town who can calm her down when she explodes in one of her frightening tantrums.
And there is Warren Redstone, a member of the Dakota tribe. During the murder investigation Redstone becomes the prime suspect. Frank and Jake have previously met the man under a bridge which serves as the focal point for all the violent deaths. They had a disturbing encounter with him there and Frank's imagination gets the better of him when he sees the man put his hand ever so briefly on Jake's leg. When they have their second encounter with him, with police in hot pursuit of all three, Frank will surprise himself by letting Redstone escape. That action will plague Frank's conscience for the remainder of the book. Whether or not it turned out to be the best decision he could have made I leave for the reader to discover.
Ordinary Grace takes its title from a brief episode towards the end of the book in which Mrs. Drum asks her husband "For God's sake, Nathan, can't you, just this once, offer an ordinary grace" before a meal is eaten at a funeral reception. Remarkably, a few minutes later a small miracle takes place in the presence of the entire congregation. It is both poignant and predictable and yet altogether satisfying. There are other examples of miracles throughout the book prior to this scene, some barely noticeable others astonishing in their magnitude. All of them serve as Krueger's belief that somewhere within all of us is an ordinary grace that can lead to unexpected, sometimes wondrous, events.
Most of you regular readers know that I have a genre identiy problem. My first novel, The Harrowing, is a supernatural thriller (because in 2006, no one in publishing would use the word "horror"). These days I'm writing a crime thriller series that's only a little supernatural around the edges - if at all.
But then there's that whole paranormal thing.
Okay, yes, I enjoy writing sex. And let's face it - the romance community not only BUYS books in delirious quantities - they also throw the best parties in publishing. What can I say? I was seduced.
And in 2011 I was thrilled to be asked by the mega-talented and generally amazing Heather Graham to join forces with her and sister thriller writer Deborah LeBlanc to write a paranormal suspense trilogy for Harlequin Nocturne. The Keepers series follows a special set of humans with heightened powers who are charged with the ancestral duty of keeping the peace between mortals and the subcultures of paranormal beings who hide in plain sight among humans in cosmopolitan cities all over the world.
The first Keepers trilogy is set in my favorite American city, New Orleans, and chronicles the individual stories of the MacDonald sisters: vampire, shapeshifter and werewolf Keepers, who fight supernatural crime while trying not to become romantically entangled with the beings they are sworn to protect.
Now the series is back, with a new set of Keepers working to keep the peace between the supernatural Others and those crazy humans in Los Angeles. Three cousins: vampire, Elven and shapeshifter Keepers Rhiannon, Sailor, and Barrymore Gryffald wrestle with their new Keeper duties in a city where the mortals can be as deadly as the paranormals. Joining us for the new series is the fabulous Harley Jane Kozak, who knows a little something something about Hollywood.
Heather and Harley and I actually have a not-so-secret life together: Harley and I are part of the cast of Heather's Slushpile Players and band, that perform and play for numerous conferences and other venues around the country, including Heather's unmissable Writers for New Orleans Conference, held every December in the best city in the world. Over the years Heather has managed to rope us into playing Wild West vampires, zombie strippers, space aliens, and my personal favorite: pink flamingos. In fact, you might say that teaming up to write a paranormal series is one of the more sedate things we've ever done together.
Well, today, I’ve asked Heather and Harley to join me to introduce the books and answer a few questions about writing the series together.
+ How did the idea of The Keepers L.A. come about?
Heather: The Keepers exist to "keep" the status quo between the human life that moves along in happy bliss and the denizens of the underworld who are certainly stronger and many ways and have some very scary talents and/or habits. Our first question to one another was, if you were different and trying to blend in, where would you least be noticed? First go round, we all said, "Hm. New Orleans!" This go round, especially with Harley in the mix, we all came up with "Hollywood!" Harley has worked an "A" list acting career there, Alex has worked as a screenwriter and an activist in the Writers Guild, and my daughter Chynna graduated from CalArts and is pursuing the dream--seemed like, hm, yes! Hollywood. If there's a third go around, my next inclination will probably be my home state and city, Miami, Florida. Trust me! We're pretty oblivious down here. If you were a different species or an alien life form, we'd just all think that you came from somewhere else in the Caribbean or Central or South America.
Harley: I have no memory of how it started, so I'm glad Heather remembers everything. Although I was born in Pennsylvania and did a small stint in North Dakota and even smaller ones living on location as an actress, I've only really lived in 3 places in my adult life: New York, L.A. and Lincoln, Nebraska. Hollywood was thus a no-brainer, because I don't think Heather and Alex would feel qualified to take on paranormal creatures living in Nebraska.
Alex: You're right, Nebraska would be a stretch for me. I was nervous at first about the idea of writing L.A. because I know it so well as a real place, not an urban fantasy setting. But Heather and Harley hit on the perfect catalyst for the story: the cousins live in this magnificent, if run-down, old Hollywood estate in Laurel Canyon built by a magician friend of their family. That was so true to L.A. but so timeless, I instantly understood how the whole story world worked.
+ Is it true you three only know each other because Bob Levinson was looking for blondes for the first Thrillerfest awards show?
Heather: Yes, we were introduced by Bob Levinson! I will be grateful to him for many things--he's a brilliant, wonderful man--but that he put the three of us together was amazing. I think that first day I felt as if I'd just met best friends that I'd known all my life. We can be miles apart for months and months--and it's still the same, incredible to see one another, as natural as if we'd never been apart. You can see people daily and not have that kind of bond. I'm so grateful!
Harley: Yes, too true. Before meeting her, I'd seen Heather on a panel at the Romantic Times conference, and was wowed by her (naturally). And of course I'd heard of Alexandra Sokoloff (doesn't that sound like a Russian Princess?) I remember thinking, when Bob floated the idea of the three of us, "I hope they like me" -- just like kindergarten. And by golly, it was like kindergarten -- and it still is. Whenever the three of us are together, it feels like playtime! How could I not want to write a series with Heather and Alex?
Alex: We do owe Bob for life. We just can’t ever tell him that. I had the exact same “I hope they like me” feeling. I’d read Heather’s books for years, and of course I’d seen Harley in just about everything. In fact, I once won a nice chunk of money in a “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” style movie trivia party game because I knew Harley had starred with Bill Pullman in a film called “The Favor”. So obviously, it was destiny. Meeting Heather and Harley for the first time, it was completely like we’d always known each other. I couldn't believe how real they were!
The Killerettes, with Bob Levinson
+ What would you say makes you uniquely qualified to write about supernatural mayhem in Hollywood?
Heather: The uniquely qualified here really goes to Harley and Alex--although once Chynna headed to L.A., I definitely became qualified to write about LAX. Seriously, I definitely spend enough time in L.A. and Hollywood, although I admit I'm pretty sure my daughter became a "valley girl" before I actually understood exactly where the valley was. But I also have a young friend who is one of the most amazing "fabricationeers" I've ever met; she works for Legacy Studios and she's been kind enough to bring me through her work place--it's amazing! Robert Downey, Jr.'s Ironman suit is next to a werewolf is next to a mummy is next to a giant rat is next to . .
Alex: Wow, I want to go see! L.A. does have the greatest costumes. Me, I’ve lived here most of my life, but this was my first time setting a book here. Which is crazy, because it turns out it’s so much easier to write a place that you know as well as I know L.A. I can make fun of it with absolute authority and also show off the truly dazzling aspects of the city. And having worked in the film business I had no problem whatsoever populating it with vampires and werewolves and shapeshifters and Elven. No stretch at all.
Harley: In the early 80's I was flown from New York to Palm Springs to do a week's work on location (as an actress) and I was such a yokel that until I was on the plane I actually thought I was heading to Florida. I was confusing Palm Springs with Palm Beach. (Geography is not my strong suit.) I've never forgotten that first time, the plane landing, the sight of palm trees, the feel of the air, so different from anywhere else on earth, the eerie quality of the afternoon light. I came here for another job in 1985 and didn't intend to stay, yet here I am. I can truly say I love L.A.
+ What most fascinates you about the paranormal? To what one influence in your life do you attribute your fascination with the possibilities beyond the "known world?"
Heather: My mom was Irish and immigrated with her family. My grandmother watched my sister and I sometimes and was the world's most incredible story-teller. She had tales about pixies, leprechauns, gnomes, giants, and all kinds of things that went bump in the night. She really used to warn my sister and I to behave or the "banshee's be'd getting you in the outhouse." Her stories were so good we trembled--and didn't realize until we were teenagers that we didn't have an outhouse.
Alex: My dad was my influence, totally. He was a scientist, a complete rationalist, but he grew up in Mexico City, and Mexico is just steeped in magical realism. When I was a kid Dad would tell us ghost stories as if every single moment of them actually happened. He was so factual in every other aspect of his life that I think I got confused about reality. Or maybe it was Berkeley that did that. One of those. And as to what most fascinates me about the paranormal - it's exactly that place where the paranormal and reality meet that I love to explore in my books - the blurry line between what may have been a paranormal experience and what may just be a psychological interpretation. Or drugs. Or just plain crazy.
Harley: My grandma. She was my mother's mother, Scandinavian, and came to live with us when I was a baby. She read coffee grounds and tea leaves, had precognitive dreams, and the occasional visit from recently dead people on their way to the Other Side. And read fortunes in playing cards (along with playing a mean game of rummy).
+ How was working together on a project for you?
Heather: The most fun ever that someone could pretend to call work! When we'd sit together, ideas would flow, we'd laugh, we'd think. I think our first real hash-through day was in the lobby of the Universal City Sheraton. They film there frequently and the walls behind the check-in desk are covered with pictures of stars from the silent era on. I think if I was asked to walk on water with Harley and Alex, I'd be willing to give it a try!
Alex: There’s such a past-life feeling to it, really. I sometimes forget I haven't actually lived in a magical old Hollywood mansion with Heather and Harley; it seems like something that happened.
Harley: Same. Every time I drive down Laurel Canyon and come to Lookout Mountain, I crane my neck, staring at "our" house and half expecting to see Rhiannon, Barrie and Sailor pulling out of the driveway.
Alex: So, 'Rati, the topic for the day is - for writers, can you ever see yourself writing something very much out of what you consider your genre? I never saw myself writing anything in the "romance" category, but the Keepers series not only allows me to write with two of my best friends - it's also expanded my readership to a lot of people who would never have tried my books before because they perceive my writing as "too scary". I'm happy to write something lighter for sensitive readers (there's a lot that I won't read myself because I find it too disturbing), and even happier when once they know me some of those readers cross over and read my thrllers as well.
And readers - do you read your favorite authors in other genres, too, or do you prefer them to stick to what they're known for?
New Keeper Rhiannon Gryffald has her peacekeeping duties cut out for her—because in Hollywood, it's hard to tell the actors from the werewolves, bloodsuckers and shape-shifters. Then Rhiannon hears about a string of murders that bear all the hallmarks of a vampire serial killer, and she must confront her greatest challenge yet. She teams up with Elven detective Brodie McKay and they head to Laurel Canyon, epicenter of the danger, where they uncover a plot that may forever alter the face of human-paranormal relations.
Lust. Elven Keeper Sailor Gryffald's body quivers with it, but is it a symptom of the deadly Scarlet Pathogen coursing through her bloodstream or the proximity of shifter Keeper Declan Wainwright?
Sailor and Declan have had an uneasy relationship ever since they met, and now things are about to get a lot more complicated. A killer is stalking Los Angeles, intentionally infecting Elven with the deadly virus, and now Sailor and Declan must work to keep the supernatural peace while bringing the murderer to justice. But, in doing so, these powerful denizens of the Otherworld find themselves straddling a fine line between lust…and love.
Barrie Gryffald's work as a crime beat reporter is risky enough when she's investigating mortal homicides. But when a teenage shifter and an infamous Hollywood mogul are both found dead on the same night, her Keeper intuition screams, Otherworldly.
Reluctantly, she enlists her secret crush, Mick Townsend, a journalist with movie-star appeal, and together, they dig up eerie parallels to a forgotten cult-film tragedy. But it may be too late. With a cast of suspects ranging from vampire junkies to the ghosts of Hollywood past, no one can be trusted. Least of all Mick, who may well prove to be as unpredictable as the Others Barrie is sworn to protect....
Alessande Salisbrooke has been warned about the legend of the old Hildegard Tomb - how human sacrifices are being carried out by the followers of a shape-shifting magician. As a Keeper, Alessande understands the risks of investigating, but she can't shake the nagging feeling that the killings are tied to a friend's recent murder, and she can't turn her back.
With the help of Mark Valiente, a dangerously sexy vampire cop, Alessande narrowly escapes becoming a sacrifice herself. But as the bodies continue piling up, completely drained of blood, one truth becomes all too clear: life is an illusion, and no one-not even those you care about the most-is who they seem.
The opening scene of Cast a Dark Shadow was so bizarre I couldn't resist. A woman screams in extreme close-up and we discover she's inside one of those dark rides at an amusement park. Intercut with her reactions to the fake monsters popping out of coffins and the whizzing and whirring of sirens we watch Dirk Bogarde's boyish face. The titles appear superimposed over various shots of Bogarde's sinisterly lit face, half in darkness, half in shadow. He continues to study the woman sitting next to him with a blank stare on his face. There is clearly something going on in his head but you may not want to know exactly what it is. When they exit the ride we see he's been sitting next to a woman who is considerably older than him. She could be his aunt or grandmother and when we finally recognize her as Mona Washbourne we know she just has to be a good and decent lady. You just have to stick with this movie and find out why this young guy has taken this woman to a spook house ride.
They head to a tea shop and we soon learn that the two are married. Despite his earlier creepy glares in the dark ride Teddy seems to be genuinely devoted to his wife, Monica "Mony" Baer. Wait, does that make him Teddy Baer? Yes, it does. And the relationship seems more like mother and son than husband and wife.
Back home we meet the equally devoted and simple-minded maid Effy (Kathleen Harrison) and an officious family lawyer Philip Mortimer (Robert Flemyng). Mortimer is there to discuss Mony's new will. He advises her against leaving the estate to her layabout unemployed husband. She should keep the present will leaving everything to her sister Dora who lives in Jamaica with her wealthy husband. Leave Teddy the house and keep the money in the family the lawyer suggests. "Teddy is my family. All the family I've got," Mony counters. She is adamant that the new will take effect especially after a recent bout with influenza that seemed fatal. She is worried about Teddy's future. "I always thought your marriage to Philip was a mistake," sneers Mortimer. Perfect cue line for Teddy's entrance.
Teddy (Bogarde) plies his wife with brandy and tea and more brandy
Mony in her rocking chair, which becomes a heavy handed symbol by the movie's end
Lawyer Mortimer (Flemyng) informs Emmy (Harrison) she will inherit £200
Just before Mortimer leaves he warns Teddy that even with a new will he should not be surprised when he doesn't get all he expects. He'll be back tomorrow for Mony to sign the will and alludes to her keeping everything in the family. Suddenly Teddy is worried. Anyone can see where this is leading. Older ailing woman, younger devil-may-care husband, suspicious lawyer, new will in the offing... But if you think the movie is just another run-of-the-mill fortune hunter thriller you'd be wrong. True, Mony meets with an untimely and purportedly accidental death, but the remainder of the film has a few surprises in store.
One of those surprises is Freda Jeffries played with vulgar relish by Margaret Lockwood. A more complete opposite of Mony could never have been found. Self-assured, crass, flippant, bawdy, and most importantly wily, Mrs. Jeffries is a recent widow with some new wealth made from wisely invested money inherited from her late husband. She becomes Teddy's latest target.
Lockwood's character gives the movie just the right edge to lift it out of the realm of the ordinary. She has the best lines in the movie which give it a wicked sense of humor. Sitting in Mony's chair and learning that she is in the room where the death occurred she says, "Oh? So we're in the morgue," and throws back her head in irreverent laughter. Her scenes are cleverly written with an ambiguity reserved for only a few other characters. It's never clear whether she has designs on Teddy herself or if she truly has agreed to the terms of their strictly financial arrangement disguised as a marriage.
With the entrance of Charlotte Young (cool and distant Kay Walsh) a third opportunity for making money complicates the plot. Jealousy rears its ugly head. Freda appears to be possessive not only of the house but of Teddy -- something we wouldn't have expected. Charlotte appears to be just as shady as Teddy. And the film becomes a battle of scheming women vying for Teddy's attention and property.
Based on the stage play Murder Mistaken by Janet Green, later novelized in collaboration with mystery writer Leonard Gribble, the movie successfully escapes the confines of its theatrical origins. John Creswell does a superior job with his screenplay adaptation in taking the story out of its single drawing room set by adding several nicely done exterior scenes, visits to the teashop, a local cabaret (the song "Leave Me Alone" is an ironic commentary on Teddy and Freda's burgeoning relationship), and allowing us to see more of the enormous house. Cinematographer Jack Asher, who would later become known for his camerawork on various horror and crime films for Hammer Studios, gives the film a distinctive noirish look when called for bathing the actors and the oppressive home in menacing shadows.
With the highly melodramatic finale, however, all the creakiness of the play's familiar territory and the staginess of a single room collapse onto what previously had been an above average and often stylish thriller. The dialogue becomes heavy handed, the symbolism of Mony's rocking chair intrudes too often, and the actors chew the scenery with abandon. Kay Walsh resorts to theatrical tricks and postures more suited for the stage than film. Dirk Bogarde so restrained and effectively sinister with terse speeches, unleashes a madman with the fury of a hurricane. His constant shouts of "Get out!" make no sense until the final twist is revealed. What previously been a contained film of cat-and-mouse tactics transforms into a full blown action thriller.
This is my contribution to "Tuesday's Overlooked Films & Other AV" sponsored by Todd Mason at his blog Sweet Freedom. For more writings on neglected movies, TV, video, radio and possibly music please consult the list of other posts here.
My Name Is Julia Ross, a neat suspense movie, has been a favorite among the film festival circuit and revival movie houses for years now. Early last year it was finally released on DVD as part of Columbia Picture Film Noir Classics, Volume 3. After months of trying to find a store in Chicago that had it for rental I stumbled across it through sheer luck when I found an online version. But like many movies which I have been waiting to see for years (I recall a similar experience when I finally got to watch The High and the Mighty) I was a little disappointed. For me it was an entertaining film with a few surprises, but due to its predictable and very familiar plot a movie that didn't thrill me as much as I had hoped for. Still, there's much to recommend the film.
Based on The Woman in Red by Anthony Gilbert, an out of print vintage mystery I have not read, it tells the story of Julia Ross, a down on her luck and unemployed secretary played with conviction and glamour by Nina Foch. In the opening scene Julia deals with Bertha, a bitter charwoman (Joy Harrington in nifty but unbilled minor role) who taunts her for being behind on the rent and out of work. "Secretary? Sittin' an' writin' all day. Call that work?" she sneeringly throws in Julia's face when the desperate young woman sees an ad that seems perfect for her. Julia rushes out of the boarding house to the Allison Employment Agency to apply.
At the employment office she learns of the odd requirements: no family ties, no boyfriends, and the job will require her to move in and live with her employer. Julia has no choice. She needs the job badly and wants to pay up on her back rent. A simple phone call to Mrs. Hughes by the hatchet faced Miss Allison (Anita Bolster) seals the deal. Julia must wait to meet Mrs. Hughes who just happens to be in the neighborhood for the interview and final approval. She shows up and it's Miss Froy from The Lady Vanishes. Whether she's playing a spy or an English matriarch Dame May Whitty is always a joy to watch. Julia also meets her gloomy but sharply dressed son Ralph (George MacReady with his signature thrilling and gravelly voice). They hire Julia immediately. All shake hands, Julia receives an advance, Mrs. Hughes urges her to go shop for new clothes and they'll meet her at the house later in the evening.
With Julia gone we now learn that the trio are up to no good. Mrs. Hughes drops her charming facade and cries out a bit sinisterly, "She's perfect!" Ralph adds cryptically, "There's even a small resemblance." Mrs. Hughes calls for Peters, a man who spied upon them from a closet. "Did she see you?" "No, madam," he says. "I made sure of that," confirms Miss Allison who we now know is really Sparks. "See that you keep it that way, especially at the house," Mrs. Hughes orders in a stern voice. They close up the agency and head on home. What have they in store for Julia? This doesn't seem like it's going to be your average everyday sittin' an' writing' job.
Julia is being groomed as a replacement for Marion Hughes, Ralph's wife. As the title implies Julia tries to get everyone to believe she is not Marion, but the Hughes family and the servants have done a wonderful job of covering their tracks. Everyone in town and everyone who visits the house think Marion is recovering from a mental breakdown. As the story unfolds we watch Julia do her best to escape and get word to her only ally Dennis Bruce (Roland Varno), a neighbor and friend back at the boarding house, while the villains manage to outwit her at every attempt. Slowly we learn what happened to the real Marion and pray that the same thing does not happen to Julia.
Nina Foch, gorgeous and frightened and later one feisty woman
George MacReady - he loves his knives
Dame May Whitty - Mother knows best
Anita Bolster starts the plot spinning with a phone call
Roland Varno - our hero
Joy Harrington - Bertha is nobody's friend
The combination of smart script, moody camera work, and a director with a keen eye for cinematic artiness raise this familiar story out of the realm of the ordinary. Though utterly predictable from the moment the plot is revealed the movie nonetheless manages to hold the viewer's interest with an enviable panache. The music, the snappy line delivery, the performances from the entire cast -- it's a stylish little movie there's no doubt about it. And there are odd and surprising details that seem to come out of nowhere. Mrs. Sparks draws Mrs. Hughes' attention to Ralph offscreen. Cut to Ralph on the couch seen from behind. He's ripping a negligee to shreds with a pocket knife! Or an entire scene in which we see only Julia's frightened eyes over Ralph's shoulder while Julia and Ralph carry on their dialogue in voiceover.
The expert photography is by Burnett Guffey. After decades of filming B movies and programmers Guffey would go on to win two Academy Awards for From Here to Eternity and Bonnie & Clyde. Muriel Roy Bolton does an admirable job with the economical screenplay by quickly packing in pertinent backstory and stripping down the exposition to its bare essentials so that the meat of the story with all its suspense filled moments can get moving quickly. Even the melodramatic score mostly pulled from stock music written for other Columbia Pictures' films enhances the movie.
But it is largely due to director Joseph H. Lewis that My Name Is Julia Ross is a movie repeatedly mentioned as a something of a mini-masterpiece in suspense films. Lewis was a master at taking potboilers and turning them into entrancing movies that you can't turn away from. Each shot is a work of art. It also helps that in ...Julia Ross he had a top notch cast of talented actors. My Name is Julia Ross was supposed to be filmed in only ten days but studio executives were so impressed with what Lewis was doing they allowed eight extra days so he could produce the best movie possible. Lewis would go on to direct other thrillers like So Dark the Night, Gun Crazy (now something of a cult movie), and the melodramatic and brutally sadistic police drama The Big Combo. Each one shows his attention to detail, performance subtleties, and atmospheric lighting and framing.
With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite MulhollandBooks.com posts from the past year!
Sophie Littlefield: So let’s get the basics out of the way first. You write, I write. You’re the much, much older east coast sibling and I’m the fun-loving west coast one. We both have kids and we both grew up with our noses in books. What else should people know about us to start off with?
Mike Cooper: We’re bicoastal now but we started in Missouri! – and in a much different time, when children were allowed freedoms that seem extraordinary to me now. My memory, perhaps unreliable, is that we were completely unsupervised after school and on weekends. The woods and fields just over the backyard fence were a place of fantastical play: ponds to swim in and skate on, the cemetery and the quarry, the derelict airport with runways like the Bonneville Salt Flats. How could we not become people who live by our imaginations?
Of course, my stories involve ruthless banksters and exploding helicopters, and some of yours have decidedly noir, even dark elements. In some ways our lives were difficult and complicated, and that’s as essential as the sunny memories.
We both came to write seriously somewhat later in our lives. In my case it was after my daughter was born – my wife and I decided that I’d be the stay-at-home parent, and what with two naps a day, I suddenly had time to try what had been only a hobby. (I took one of those naps myself, true.) I recall you publishing stories, fiction and non-fiction, for many years before you buckled down to novels. What was the impetus?
SL: I think the better question is, “What took you so long?” And the answer, of course, is fear. I’m astonished at how much I’ve given away to fear over the years. Oh well, middle age took care of that in a hurry. My first novel was tentative, limp, diluted, and derivative. But I learned something from it and from every one that followed, until I finally ended up writing a novel with teeth.
Nowadays, I seek out opportunities to be brave. Lots of extra points if someone chokes on their coffee when I propose a new project. For instance, when I first told my agent my idea for my January ’13 book (A GARDEN OF STONES, MIRA) the pitch was “Japanese internment in WWII, plus taxidermy.” I stubbornly believe there is an audience out there that longs to be challenged.
Which reminds me. Do you remember when you wrote that short story a few years ago and I read it and told you “that story’s a best-seller for sure, drop everything and turn it into a novel”? And then you spent the next few months writing and polishing and submitting it?
MC: Well, the short story sold… The full-length version never found its audience, unfortunately, although it remains my favorite unpublished novel. That’s how it goes sometimes. I’ve always written stories that I’d like to read myself, but I forget that I’m not an accurate representative of the American reading public.
MC: Indeed. I’d actually wanted to write a full-length Silas Cade story for a while – I’d published some short stories with him as a protagonist. The original concept was a hit man accountant. I was amusing myself there; after years in finance, who wouldn’t want to bring automatic weapons into an audit? Anyway, the character and setting were ready to go – then Wall Street cratered the world economy, and the plot practically wrote itself. (The novel’s tag line could be “Don’t bail them out, take them out!”)
My new agent – the inestimable Heide Lange, at Sanford Greenburger – liked the idea, got an auction going, and sold the book to Josh Kendall at Viking. Josh is a wonderful editor, by the way. However good the book is now, it’s a lot better for having him work it over … three times.
SL: I’ve learned to appreciate a demanding editor. I do not appreciate being let slide. I rewrote a book four times once – it was terrible; it got so I was beginning to doubt my very existence, or at least my relevance to this word-thing I’d created, which seemed to have taken on a life of its own, whose sole purpose was to reveal my own inadequacies. But that process taught me lessons which inform everything I’ve written since.
Incidentally, my editor for that book was roughly half my age. She has since shared with me that sometimes, younger authors are reluctant to work with her due to her relative lack of experience. That’s a mistake, all you aspiring writers out there: I believe you should set your sights on juice and determination, not length of time in the industry (some might argue that there’s a calcification that takes place, a loss of flexibility and innovation, from certain hoary corners).
Of course, it’s often the longest-tenured folks who control the taps for what authors want: rivers of cash and juggernaut-style promotion. So it’s a tricky balance, right? I guess my ideal team would be a fearless, energetic editor who’s still green enough not to have become jaded…and a publisher who’s unflappable, ruthless, and capable of seeing the long view. Strategic rather than reactive. And smart enough to appreciate me. With a lot of cash.
What about you? What do you think goes into the mix for creating quality fiction in 2012?
MW: Here are some things that don’t matter much: Relevance. Plot. Martial arts. And I say this having just published a plot-driven Wall Street novel with lots of action
Seriously, readers want to be entertained. To me that means heroic characters, good and bad; clear conflict over things that matter; and a constant sense of discovery. Every page should offer something new; yet everything new should fit perfectly into the story and world the author has already established.
Also, humor. Not slapstick, not zany, not absurd; just a sly wit, emerging every so often.
Finally, two things to avoid: exploitative violence against women, and bad slang (especially placed in the mouths of ethnicities and ages different from the author’s own).
Of course, all I’ve described here is what I myself like to read. As for relevance, you’ve probably noticed how little contemporary fiction deals with people’s actual lives, and rightly so. Who needs the reminder? There aren’t many authors who can make a typical office job interesting (Joshua Ferris, THEN WE CAME TO THE END, is one example). I’m sure there are several reasons you’ve written about, say, the zombie apocalypse; surely this is one?
SL: I’d say it’s not that most people’s lives are boring – it’s that everyone’s life is interesting at certain times and in certain circumstances, and the trick is to create a story that focuses on those moments, in a way that is recognizable to everyone. Most people know what it’s like to fall in love or feel terror or regret or to long for vengeance – but most of what happens in between these moments would make for crushingly dull prose.
That’s why we turn to genre – the genre elements are a cheat to get us to the place where we can talk about the truly interesting bits without a lot of distractions. The story is never the heist or the airplane crash, but why people feel and act the way they do. Stephen King’s THE MIST features a killer fog not because that fog is interesting – it really isn’t – but so that we can understand David Drayton and his relationships with his wife and son and neighbors. James Sallis’ CYPRESS GROVE isn’t really about the brutally-murdered body that turns up in a small town – yawn – but about Turner, the ex-cop/con/shrink who is pulled into the case, and his uneasy relationship with both past and present. My own AFTERTIME series isn’t really about the end of the world but about Cass Dollar’s redemption.
David Drayton and Turner and Cass are all fiction-worthy, but write about them making toast and you don’t have much of a story. Toss in some rotting bodies or carnivorous insects or zombies and we have something to work with.
Okay Mike, since you’ve got the upcoming release, how about if you have the last word? I’d love to know how CLAWBACK has changed you as a writer – what lessons writing this book taught you, what you’d like to repeat or avoid in the future.
MC: Thanks for asking! At a mundane level, here’s one useful lesson: you don’t have to do any research at all!
For the first draft, that is. Although CLAWBACK is chockablock with detail of all sorts, I filled most of it in during the revisions – after it was clear what I needed. Much more efficient that way. For example, I didn’t bother figuring out every NYC location beforehand. I just imagined the settings I wanted – and then I found places in the city that fit my mental picture.
Which I think illustrates a larger point: story is all. Rhythm and character and making the world right – those are the fundamentals. Everything else is trim.
Second, first-person thrillers are much harder to plot than third-person POV. That’s advice you hear a lot, and as it turns out, for good reason. I’m deep in the sequel now, and it would make things so much easier if I could duck out into omniscient, or even third-close, for just one teeny scene. Or two. On the other hand, much of the appeal of Silas Cade (to me, at least) is his voice, and that would be diluted by other POVs.
Lastly, luck matters. CLAWBACK is all about rotten financiers and one-percenter psychopaths getting what they deserve – but I wrote it a full year before Occupy first showed up on Wall Street. The timing’s been great, and I can’t take any credit at all. Sometimes the stars align. Sometimes they don’t, as my drawer full of unpublished material proves. All you can do is write the best story you can, and try to make yourself laugh and shiver and maybe even sniffle now and then, and trust that readers will be out there.
Sophie, you and I talk often, but usually on the phone, with each other. Sharing thoughts this way and more openly has been fun! Someday we should do a joint appearance or something. Big thanks to Mulholland for giving us this platform.
With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite MulhollandBooks.com posts from the past year!
Everyone reacts differently to the disappearance of a child. Some husbands and wives look straight into each other’s eyes without needing words, while others are like strangers lying side by side at night, still as corpses, staring at the ceiling.
There are men who want to beat someone so badly they can’t walk right for a month, while others drink themselves into oblivion or pretend nothing has changed. And there are women who can’t look at another child or family without remembering what they’ve lost.
As a journalist working in Australia and the UK, I reported on far too many stories that involved missing and/or murdered children. Right from the outset, I was thrown into the deep end by a grizzled old chief of staff, who decided to use my young, fresh-faced innocence to illicit photographs from grieving relatives. I was designated as the ‘death knock’ specialist and I once did twelve in a day after a mining disaster in Cobar in western NSW in 1979.
One of the things I discovered was that people react differently to tragedy. Some invited me into their homes, sobbed on my shoulder and took me through every photograph in the album, wanting to tell me about the loved one they had lost. Others showed no emotion at all and appeared almost detached and untouched, as though nobody had told them the news or they were in denial. Many shut the door in my face and once or twice I was threatened with violence, including have a gun pointed through a crack in the door.
Grief, I discovered, is an individual as a fingerprint.
I hated that part of the job and sometimes vomited in the flowerbed before reaching the font door. I had no right to intrude upon their grief, regardless of whether the deaths were in public interest or otherwise.
It was during this period of my career that I also covered the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain in the famous as the ‘Dingo Baby Case.’ Azaria was an 18-month-old baby who disappeared from a campground at Uluru (then known as Ayer’s Rock) in August 1980. Her mother, Lindy, told police she saw a dingo leaving the tent with something in its mouth.
Lindy Chamberlain was convicted in the court of public opinion long before she was ever tried in a courtroom. People didn’t like her. She was cold. Distant. She didn’t look like a mother whose baby had just been snatched. With her Beatle’s haircut and her saucer-sized sunglasses and her stony face, she failed to shed a tear through two inquests and a criminal trial. She blamed a dingo. The entire nation blamed her.
I didn’t believe Lindy either. I trusted the evidence of forensic experts (later discredited) and I thought there was something about her detachment and stoicism that came across as cold and calculating. I was wrong. I should have known better. I had seen how differently people grieve.
Lindy Chamberlain served three years in prison before doubts began to emerge about the forensic evidence against her. Then came a bizarre and tragic accident, which proved that what she’d been telling the truth all along. An English hiker, David Brett, slipped and fell to his death from Ayer’s Rock in January 1986. As police searched for him they discovered a baby’s matinee jacket at the entrance to a dingo’s lair. It was the jacket that Lindy always insisted that Azaria had been wearing on the night she disappeared.
A judicial inquest quashed the conviction, but it was not until June of this year, 32-years-later, that a coroner formally ruled that a dingo had taken and killed Azaria Chamberlain.
Missing children create a particular silence around them that is filled with a dreadful wondering. I remember being in Europe with my whole family in May 2007 when Madeleine McCann disappeared from a holiday apartment in Portugal. My three daughters were fascinated and appalled by the case. We were driving through Spain and Italy and they would look at vans, or study little girls to see if they bore a resemblance.
Since then, Maddie’s parents, Gerry and Kate McCann have devoted themselves completely to the pursuit of the truth, campaigning fiercely to keep the story in the news. They have grieved in public, written books, made documentaries and lobbied police and politicians.
I have no insight into Madeleine’s whereabouts or what might have happened to her that night, but whenever I watch her parents being interviewed, I think of the other children in the family, the twins Sean and Amelie, who were sleeping only a few feet away when Maddie disappeared.
Kate McCann has admitted that the twins are ‘haunted by the tragedy’, which worries me. They were two at the time – too young to comprehend what happened. I fear for the twins and I feel for them, particularly when the parents admit ‘the twins comfort them’ when they are grieving. Am I the only one who thinks that the twins deserve to grow up without living in Maddie’s shadow?
Does there come a point when the family must accept what’s happened and say goodbye, or should they fight to keep hope alive, regardless of the cost?
These are some of the questions that are touched upon in my new novel, SAY YOU’RE SORRY, a psychological thriller centred upon the disappearance of two teenage girls, Piper Hadley and Tash McBain, who go missing on the last Saturday of their summer holidays. The mystery of their whereabouts captivates the nation. There are prayer vigils, church services, makeshift memories and messages of support. In a sense the missing girls become public property, belonging to everyone, as their fate is discussed over garden fences, water coolers and in post office queues.
This phenomenon of public mourning has been labelled ‘mourning sickness’ by psychologists who believe that it is partly a product of mass media and the 24-hour news cycle. Witness the worldwide outpouring of emotion when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris. There were makeshift memorials, condolence books, sympathy cards and flowers that covered the front of Kensington Palace and filled embassies around the globe. Ian Jack, writing for The Guardian, argued that people were no longer simply observers of a news story, but had become active participants.
This is the emotional landscape of SAY YOU’RE SORRY. The families of the missing girls each react very differently. The Hadley’s are drawn closer together, campaigning tirelessly to keep Piper’s memory alive, while the McBains are torn apart, unable to look at each other without being reminded of what they’ve lost.
There is a mystery to be solved, of course, and the trail is dark and twisted, but it is the characters and psychology that fascinated me most.
I will leave the last words to Piper:
We disappeared together, Tash and me. It was on a clear night at the end of August after the Bingham Summer Festival, when the funfair rides had fallen silent and the colored lights had been turned off.
They didn’t realize we were gone until the next morning. At first it was just our families who searched, then neighbors and friends, calling our names across playgrounds, down streets, over hedges and across the fields. As the hours mounted they phoned the police and a proper search was organized. Hundreds of people gathered on the cricket field, dividing up into teams to search the farms, forests and along the river.
By the second day there were five hundred people, police helicopters, sniffer dogs and soldiers from RAF Brize Norton. Then came the journalists with their satellite dishes and broadcast vans, parking on Bingham Green and paying locals to use their toilets. They did their reports from in front of the town clock, telling people there was nothing to report, but saying it anyway. This went on for days on every channel, every hour, because the public wanted to be kept up to date on the nothingness.
They called us “the Bingham Girls” and people made shrines of flowers and tied yellow ribbons to lampposts. There were balloons and soft toys and candles just like when Princess Diana died. Complete strangers were praying for us, weeping as though we belonged to them, as though we summed up the tragedies in their own lives.
Michael Robotham has been an investigative journalist in Britain, Australia and the US. One of world’s most acclaimed authors of thriller fiction, he lives in Sydney with his wife and three daughters.
Say You’re Sorry, picked by Stephen King as a Best Book of 2012 and praised as “suspenseful and intriguing” by People and “chilling” by Entertainment Weekly, is now available in bookstores everywhere.