Archive for the US writers Category

Working your way up the foodchain: Michael Stanley talk about the slow process of becoming established writers

Posted in African fiction, crime fiction, international crime fiction, interview, police procedural, South Africa, South African writers, US writers, whodunit, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Michael StanleyI first met the writing duo Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears – who together form the nom de plume Michael Stanley – at the CapeTown Bookfair in June 2008, when Deon Meyer made sure to introduce the two authors to the South African literary scene. By the end of the year, two regular guys sitting in the crowd attentatively listening to the crime fiction discussions, were suddenly hot news: they’d hit the LA Times’ pick of the best ten crime novels of the year, were nominated for the Macavity Award, the Strand Magazine Critics’ Award and were finalists in the Minnesota Book Awards.

What makes these two authors stand out is not the fact that they’ve written a series that is set in Botswana, like Alexander McCall-Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. No, I suspect Michael Stanley sniffed a change in the wind and produced an undeniably fresh series that is as much fun as it is serious – a take on crime fiction that’s sorely needed as our collective psyche becomes exhausted with the moral fug that’s hung over us since September 9/11. There’s an intense focus on Detective Kubu and his circle of friends and colleagues, an attention to detail when it comes to Botswana that renders Michael Stanley’s work real rather than pastoral.

Richard Kunzmann: For those of us who don’t yet know who you are and how you came about such a highly likeable character as Detective Kubu, give us your summarised back story (and that of Kubu!)

Michael Stanley: Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. We’re both retired professors who have worked in academia and business. Michael is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. Stanley is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a
pilot. We were both born in South Africa.

a-carrion-deathBecause we are both academics, our original intention in A Carrion Death was to have the ecologist as the protagonist. But we needed a policeman to run the formal investigation. And Kubu seemed to come fully created as though he was there waiting. His nickname is Kubu because of his size – “kubu” being the Setswana word for hippopotamus. Hippos in the wild spend most of the day in pools or rivers, with only their eyes and ears out of the water. They look deceptively docile, belying the fact that they kill more people in Africa than any other animal, trampling whatever lies between them and their objective. So with Kubu. On the surface he appears harmless; a convivial man with a sly sense of humor, who loves his wife, who is passionate about wine and music. But Kubu is a capable, wily policeman determined to rid Botswana of crime and corruption, no matter what gets in his way.Detective 'Kubu' Bengu's namesake

Richard Kunzmann: Both of you must have a deep love for Botswana. How did that come about?

Michael Stanley:When Stanley lived in the USA, he’d go back to South Africa every year to see family and friends. Being a private pilot, he would rent a small plane, fill it with friends, food, and wine, and head off to Botswana or Zimbabwe to watch game or birds. Michael was always one of the passengers on these trips. Over the years we had so many wonderful times in the Okavango or in the Chobe National Park that we fell in love with the country.

Richard Kunzmann: Diamond and drug smuggling are the core themes of your first and second novels. Are these issues close to your hearts or are they a serious affliction in Botswana?

Michael Stanley:Michael worked for ten years for Anglo American, a very large mining house originally based in South Africa. It is a major shareholder in De Beers, which dominates the world diamond market. And of course Botswana has the two richest diamond mines in the world, Orapa and Jwaneng, owned by Debswana, a joint venture between De Beers and the Botswana government. So it was an easy decision for us, as we planned our first mystery, to incorporate diamonds into the story. Once there were diamonds, it was a small step to think about how they might be used illicitly, so we came up with a strategy that would make several of our characters immensely wealthy if the plan succeeded. In reality, diamonds are well controlled in Botswana and there is minimal impact from “blood diamonds” as far as we know.

With respect to the drug trade, Botswana is one of the conduits into South Africa, so it is impossible to ignore. Obviously it is a source of great concern in Botswana, and since our protagonist works for the police, it is of concern for him too.

A Deadly TradeRichard Kunzmann: What struck me most about A Deadly Trade was Goodluck Tinubu’s back story, and the personal tragedy of Zimbabwe as evoked by the different characters. It’s almost as if someone had those tragic tales to tell you….

Michael Stanley: The tragedy of Rhodesia and now Zimbabwe is so stark that it didn’t need a real person to provide the details and pathos. We both know Zimbabweans, black and white. Listening to their stories, coupled with the bombardment of news, made it easy to create a story of personal tragedies and disappointment.

Richard Kunzmann: I thought A Deadly Trade was a lot tighter and leaner than A Carrion Death. How have the two of you developed as writers since your successful debut?

Michael Stanley: When we started A Carrion Death, we had no idea what we were doing. Neither of us had written fiction before, nor had we written together. So the process was slow as we tried to figure out issues of plot and character, as well as how to share the responsibilities of writing, and remain friends. It took us three years to finish the first book.

For A Deadly Trade, we were better organized. We had a good outline of the plot before we started writing. We had learnt a great deal about making our writing more concise and leaner, so it took less time to produce a better draft. We had also refined the way the two of us interact, making the overall process more efficient. A Deadly Trade took about 20 months to complete. There is no doubt that we still have a lot to learn, and we hope we can improve the quality yet again in our third book.

Richard Kunzmann: A writer duo is still an unusual thing to me. How do you work together? Can you shortly take us through the process? What’s easy about it? What’s difficult?

Michael Stanley: We’ve developed a strategy which we think works quite well. Upfront, we work out a map of the plot, a synopsis, and the timelines. We try to get together to do that, and it takes a considerable amount of time. After that, it seems there are usually areas where one of us has a particular interest or a mental picture of what’s going to happen. He’ll write a first draft, and that is the starting point for multiple iterations. Often we will each be working on a different section of the book. This phase we can do by email interspersed with long internet telephone conversations. Eventually we go through each section independently to make sure it’s smooth, stylistically coherent, and that the characters’ behaviors are consistent from one place to another. Perhaps surprisingly it seems to work. Most people can’t discern any changes of style as they read.

Communication is easy thanks to the internet, and sometimes when Stanley is in North America and Michael is in South Africa the time change allows twenty-four hour writing!

Of course, sometimes understanding why the other person doesn’t like a piece is hard. It’s so clear to the original writer! But if one of us is having difficulty with a sentence, chances are that many readers will also. So we listen to each other very carefully.

Sometimes our schedules and priorities don’t match, and that can be frustrating.

Overall, we think that writing together is slower than writing alone, but the benefits of having an immediate, interested reader and someone with whom to brainstorm far outweighs the drawbacks.

Richard Kunzmann: How much of your success would you attribute to the book and old-fashioned marketing legwork?

Michael Stanley: When we started writing we told ourselves that if the books did not succeed it should be because they were not good rather than not known. For A Carrion Death, we received little financial support from our US publisher, which is typical these days. Publishers spend almost all their promotional budget on big names. The US is such a gigantic market (about 150,000 books published in 2008, and about 7000 mysteries) that if the author does nothing, nobody will get to know about the book. Certainly our publisher sent out review copies to reviewers at newspapers and magazines, which was a great help. We suspect that the fact we were reviewed at all was because our book was set in a part of the world that is exotic to most reviewers. And perhaps because of the success of Alexander McCall Smith. The great reviews were because they liked the book.

We wanted a broader profile than the reviews alone. So we put up a website for people to visit (www.detectivekubu.com). We wrote pieces for blogs, magazines, and newspapers. We visited a few bookstores and did events, and attended a few conventions, like Bouchercon. And to people who signed up on our website, we sent an occasional newsletter bringing them up to date on the progress of the next book, as well as about our travels.

So to answer your question, old-fashioned legwork is necessary for most new writers. Only a very few succeed without it. However without a book that people like, marketing will help very little.

Richard Kunzmann: Where do you see your series going? What’s coming next?

Michael Stanley: We are currently working on our third book. A Carrion Death is set in the dry Central Kalahari. Most of the action in A Deadly Trade takes place in the lush riverine forests of the Linyanti in northern Botswana, and in the third mystery we are sending Detective Kubu south west to Tsabong and areas around the Khalagadi Transfrontier National Park.

Bushmen SanThe back story of the third book is the conflict between the Bushmen (or San) and the government. This is a conflict that has reached the courts several times in several guises. In a landmark case a couple of years ago, the Botswana Supreme Court ruled that the government could not relocate some Bushmen from the Central Kalahari National Park to settlements outside. Of course the real issue is how nomadic people, who do not believe in land ownership, live in a world of private property, farms and fences. And what is the responsibility of the government to provide education and shelter to people who don’t want to stay in one place? At an even deeper level, society has to address the issue of whether it has a responsibility to preserve cultures such as that of the Bushmen, and if the answer is in the affirmative, how it does that.

Richard Kunzmann: Are translations on the horizon?

Michael Stanley: With respect to A Carrion Death, as of now we have an Italian edition (Il detective Kubu) in print. The French edition (Un festin de hyènes – a feast of hyenas) will be released in September. And a German edition is scheduled for 2010. We have sold the rights to A Deadly Trade to the French and German publishers.

Richard Kunzmann: Can you tell us what are the five most important things you’ve learnt as writers?

Michael Stanley:
1) When you become overly fond of a piece of writing, it probably should be cut.
2) Leave a lot to the reader’s imagination.
3) Believe in your characters. They will push back at you if you try to take them places they don’t want to go.
4) Readers care more about the characters than they do about the plot.
5) Editors tell you what’s wrong, not how to fix it!

Richard Kunzmann: What are the five biggest challenges you’ve faced?

Michael Stanley:
1) Getting to grips with a coherent plot that allows flexible development but avoids dead ends.
2) Letting the characters show themselves rather than telling the reader about them.
3) Getting the book complete in good shape within a given time frame (for the second book).
4) Learning how to market the book to agents, editors and readers.
5) Concentrating on the writing at the same time as doing the marketing!

Read reviews of A Carrion Death and A Deadly Trade

Chelsea Cain 3: Women and violent crime fiction

Posted in crime fiction, interview, thriller, Uncategorized, US writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Switching off the light and forcing readers to imagine exactly what that is, scratching under their beds, is the height of our art as crime writers. And if an author can do it so seamlessly that readers are convinced they actually read the scenes they imagined in your book, you can open a bottle of Moet. Michael Connelly achieved this in The Poet. The PoetTo this day, he tells me, he has people commending him on the terrifying paedophile he wrote about, but in actual fact, the character never directly touches a child, nor is he the main bad guy. And yet, that’s how people remember it. Take the movie Event Horizon, when Lawrence Fishburne’s salvage team finally discover the captain’s log of a ship that’s mysteriously reappeared after disappearing seven years ago. The clip is only about ten seconds long, and nothing in it is clear, but every hair on your neck stands up straight.

Chelsea CainSimilarly, Chelsea Cain’s much talked-about torture scene isn’t actually all there, if you look hard. Instead, we get it in snippets and rags as Archie Sheridan remembers those dreadful moments. And yet it’s the one story that readers remember. So the question is, how far is Chelsea Cain responsible for it, and how much of it comes from the darkest recesses of your own mind?

Richard Kunzmann: At Harrogate you were asked to justify women writers writing violence. And in many interviews you’re asked exactly how sick and twisted you are in real life. It’s almost as if you’re a dirty secret in crime fiction that everyone loves talking about, but no one wants to own up to. Why do you think that is?

Chelsea Cain: Honestly, I don’t think my books are that violent. Isn’t that funny? Because I get that EVERYONE ELSE does. But, with the exception of bad guys, we don’t see any murders. The bad guys are shot quickly in the head. The other murders all take place “off stage” to people we don’t know. We hear about them. We see the aftermath. But we don’t see good people get killed. As for the torture – they’re in flashback, people. You know that Archie is going to be okay. (Fucked-up, pill-addled and nuts, but alive.) The books are graphic, which to me is a different thing than violent. Corpses are described. We see scars and blood and gore and sex. But writing is about description, about unpacking an experience, and I think that getting your spleen carved out by a serial killer deserves as much attention as the layout of a character’s living room. Also, I think if you’re going write about murder, it’s important to make it seem horrible. I have dead teenage girls in Heartsick. We don’t see them murdered, but we see their bodies. And that’s not pretty. To make it anything less than horrific feels irresponsible to me. And to understand what the books are about – the sick romance between Archie and Gretchen – you have to understand that she tortured him and it wasn’t very fun. These characters are really damaged. And to get at that, we have to see a little of what made them that way.

CSIRichard Kunzmann: In a world were CSI and ultra realism has become a benchmark for many readers and TV viewers, how do you reconcile the fact that psychologically and forensically speaking, a character like Gretchen Lowell is even unlikelier than Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter.Hannibal Lecter

Chelsea Cain: First of all, I’m not so sure that CSI is ultra realistic. They make stuff up all the time. They just add in a lot of lingo that makes it SEEM realistic. Gretchen Lowell isn’t realistic at all. Not a bit. In any universe. She’s not even a realistic psychopath. In real life she’d probably be a very successful corporate lawyer and living in Connecticut. I don’t care about that at all. I care about making her a compelling, enchanting, scary and charismatic character in a series that is clearly fiction.

Richard Kunzmann: So your writing is about being convincing, not really about being realistic? How do you as a writer and reader deal with these two forces when you write a novel?

Chelsea Cain: The trick is to find enough that’s true so that the reader will go along with the stuff you make up. I will do a lot of research and then pull out a few tiny things and ignore the rest in service to the story. The story is what is important to me. And if I need to overlook some fact in order to get the characters into the situation I want them in, then I’m completely comfortable with that. And my goal then becomes to figure out how to ignore that fact without distracting readers.

Richard Kunzmann: Are you worried about taking liberties with poetic licence and leaping over gaps in logic?

Chelsea Cain: I worry about readers looking up from the book and saying, “Wait just a fucking minute.” Because then you lose them. Gaps in logic are fine if you can get the reader on board. It’s another universe. Readers know that. They’re willing to forgive a lot, as long as they don’t feel you’re taking advantage of them.

Richard Kunzmann: The violence is maybe not as explicit as in films like Hostel or Saw, but only just. Are you a big fan of horror?

Jack Nicholson in the ShiningI’m not a fan of torture porn at all. I love cheesy horror movies, and really good horror movies, like The Shining and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But I’m not a fan of the Saw movies. I know there are probably people reading this thinking that I’m a total hypocrite. Some would put my books firmly in the torture porn category. But here’s my defence. I don’t think that label can even apply to books. The thing about movies is that you can’t get inside anyone’s point of view. You, the viewer, are always, by definition, on the outside looking in. You are a voyeur. That’s what makes it porn. All the torture scenes in Heartsick are from Archie’s point of view. We experience it through him. We are on his side. And I think that transforms the experience into something a tiny bit less seedy and exploitive.

Richard Kunzmann: You’ve admitted in a previous interview that films have played a big roll in your life. Which films stick out as having influenced your work?

Law and orderChelsea Cain: My books are more directly influenced by TV shows. Wire in the blood, Law and order: Criminal Intent, Touching Evil. But my head is full of movies and books and TV shows (I am a pop culture sieve), and my characters are all combinations of hundreds of portrayals I’ve seen elsewhere and liked and recycled. The books are often described as cinematic, and I think I tend to construct and portray narrative in a film style rather than literary style. The transitions and props I use are much more movie-ish than book-ish. If a chapter ends with one line, I like to open the next chapter with something that references it, even if we’re now across town, in someone else’s point of view. And everyone is always smoking or drinking coffee or waving pens around – so that they have some props to illustrate how they’re feeling, which is very much an actor’s trick.

Richard Kunzmann: When I first came across Susan Ward, I immediately thought of Kate Winslett’s character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She’s also a character that’s a lot more real to me, someone that I might have hung out with most of my life. How did she enter this series, because she’s so different from all the other characters?

Chelsea Cain:It’s the colorful hair. And you have hung out with her. In that hotel bar in Harrogate. (Blush.) Susan was my way into the story. I’ve never been a cop. Or a serial killer. But I have been a quirky features journalist. I know how that works. She was the last character I invented because I needed some authority. Susan acts as the eyes and ears of the readers, because she’s new to all this, she’s sort of figuring it out with us. In my defence, I am not nearly as fucked up as she is. Nor do I share her, um, complicated past. But we do have a similar worldview. We worry about many of the same things. And we have all of the same clothes.

Oh that night at the bar in Harrogate. I have fond memories of us flooring everyone else with a few rounds of tequila. I just couldn’t believe how fresh-faced Chelsea looked the next day when everyone else looked like they’d been through a war. She was ready for the day’s first round of debates, looking fresher than water, but with a glass of burgundy at hand, of course. Only journalists have that fortitude. But it seems Susan Ward and Chelsea Cain have more than a career in common; as a young Chelsea Cain had a secret crush on the task force detectives hunting the Green River Killer, so Susan Ward has fallen hard for the detective she shadows all over town. Archie Sheridan, it seems, is the kind of screwed man women just can’t leave alone. Read Russell Crowe rather than George Clooney. Russel Crowe

As the conversation draws to a close, I think of Chuck Palahniuk and Stephen King who have both complained about the creepy fans that pester them at signings. So I wondered what kind of people might be following Chelsea Cain around, now that she’s widely known as a sick and twisted writer. Her answer seems to hit the nail write on the head.

Chelsea Cain: I am amazed at how many young women will come up and tell me how “inspiring” they find Gretchen Lowell. Which I think sort of speaks to the lack of powerful female archetypes in pop culture. Gretchen is a black-hearted serial killer with a sado-masochistic streak a mile long, but she’s in control. And young women respond to that. Which is a tiny bit sad for all of us.

Next up:

Evil at heartChelsea gives us a few fast facts about Evil at Heart, due out in four months.

Chelsea Cain interview: Of crochet hooks and intestines

Posted in book, crime fiction, interview, serial killers, thriller, Uncategorized, US writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2009 by richardkunzmann

HeartsickSweetheart
In many ways, Chelsea Cain’s series evokes the same emotions as Jane Campion’s In the Cut – layers of terror and aggression complemented by a sensuality that is so out of place it makes things all the creepier. The main characters are Archie Sheridan, the cop that’s been hunting the Beauty Killer, Gretchen Lowell. When they finally encounter each other it’s not so much the gore factor that sticks in the mind. It’s Chelsea Cain’s success at making us complicit in the sexual obsession that binds these two people together.

We can talk about the things Chelsea Cain did which many other authors have done: studying journalism, flopping from one job to the next, not quite sure what she wanted to do; dying her hair various shades of LOUD; a stint as a PR director and falling hopelessly in love, in Chelsea Cain’s case, with the guy at the video store. Regular girl-next-door stuff, I guess, except, if you go further back in her history, you’ll discover that the macabre streak that runs through her work was already well alive in her youth. You see, Chelsea Cain used to be the neighbourhood gravedigger as a young child. Apparently she created a pet cemetery in her garden for her own pets when they died, then the dead birds she found on her way back home from school, and after that, when the other kids in the neighbourhood found out about it, for their dead animals too.

Me having trained up as a psychologist, and Freud believing that our personalities are set in stone by the age of three, I start our interview by asking Chelsea Cain what the one thing was that scared her as a kid.

Chelsea Cain: When I was five my dad took me to a children’s museum in Chicago and they had this life-size display of Gulliver tied up by the Lilliputians. It scared the shit out of me. For years I was convinced that there was a civilization of tiny people under my bed who would tie me up if I let my hand fall to the floor. But honestly, I was not scared of much as a kid. I had a lot of independence and self-confidence. Probably too much.

Richard Kunzmann: So what convinced you to finally move away from teen fiction and write a thriller? Did your characters come to mind first, or did you decide to shoot for the genre straight away?

Chelsea Cain: Actually, I started with a relationship. I wanted to explore the connection between a serial killer and the cop who’d spent his career hunting her. So it started with that obsession, and then the idea that the serial killer would be a woman. Not just a woman, but a knock-out – the kind of woman that scares the hell out of our culture already, without having killed anyone. The male-female dynamic would instantly complicate the relationship by introducing sexual tension. It seemed like a really compelling set of themes to unravel.

Richard Kunzmann: I see that the Green River Killer investigation was quite close to home when you were growing up. How did those killings impact on your choice to become a crime writer?

Green River Killer Gary RidgwayThe Green River Killer was at large from the time I was 10 to the time I was 30. It was huge news in the Pacific Northwest. He raped and killed young women about an hour away from the town I grew up in, and his name became a sort of code for Really Bad Things That Can Happen to You. So, if you were going to go to a concert in Seattle, your mom might say, “Watch out for the Green River Killer.” Or if you were going to take the dog out for a late night walk, someone might say, “Be sure the Green River Killer doesn’t get you.” What they meant was BE CAREFUL. He became synonymous with things that go bump in the night. You couldn’t escape him—there were countless front page stories. And I was aware, very young, that there was a task force of cops trying to catch him, and that really caught my attention, too. I liked the idea of this team of people working to keep me safe. So the character of Archie Sheridan definitely came from my feelings about that Task Force. He’s sort of my child’s eye hero.

Rather than your series being a serial killer tale in the traditional crime fiction sense, it’s the crackling sexual tension between Archie and Gretchen that’s carried from Heartsick to Sweetheart?

I wanted to explore it from the start. I was surprised when people started using the “serial killer book” label. The books are thrillers, sure. But I don’t think of them as being serial killer books. I mean, obviously Gretchen Lowell is a serial killer and she is in all the books. But the books are not about catching her. They’re about what happens after she is caught. The fallout of this relationship. They are, in their own way, more twisted romances that thrillers.

Your books seem to be doing for the genre what Tarantino did for violent films back in the 90s – putting undeniably funny situations together with horrific circumstances. They expose the absolute parody we’ve made of violence and serial killers, embrace it, and take it into a new direction. Is that a fair comment?

Chelsea Cain: I decided early on to embrace clichés and then I really made an effort to subvert them. My characters are right out of central casting. Cop. Reporter. Serial Killer. The ex-wife. The gruff partner. It’s all been done like a billion times. So I tried to challenge our expectations of these stock characters by making them do and say things that are unexpected. But I do think that the books have a dark Tarantino-esqsue humour. At least that was my goal. And the weird thing is that when I give a reading, I find that I can get a lot of laughs. Maybe it’s because when I’m giving it, I cannot say the line (about a corpse) “her eye sockets were concave bowls of greasy, soaplike fat” without smiling. And pulling someone’s small intestine out with a crochet hook? Come on, people. How is that not funny? I think you have to give the reader permission to laugh.

To me it seems that everyone has been so fixated on the torture scene that they’ve missed both the wider picture, and what actually made the books so horrific, namely Archie Sheridan’s own complicity in his victimisation. As much as we are taken aback by what’s happened to him, it’s made more grotesque that he’s still got a hard-on for Gretchen.

How screwed up can one man get?

Feel free to comment on this series of interviews, especially if you’ve read one of the books. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and we might get Chelsea to comment further.

Next up Chelsea and I talk about:
• Women crime writers and extreme violence
• Why women can’t get enough of Gretchen Lowell

Sweetheart: A book that’ll have you sweating in more ways than one

Posted in book, crime fiction, police procedural, review, serial killers, thriller, US writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Sweetheart“Can you feel that your spleen is gone? Does it hurt?”
“Not any more,” Archie answered.
“I think about that,” Gretchen said dreamily. “Having my hands inside you. You were so warm and sticky. I can still smell you, your blood. Do you remember?”
Archie ran a hand over his face. “I lost consciousness,” he reminded her quietly.
She smiled. “I regret that. I wanted to keep you awake. I wanted you to remember. I’m the only one who’s ever been that far inside you.”

These are exactly the lines I’ve come to expect from Chelsea Cain after meeting her and reading the Gretchen Lowell series a year later: funny, sensual and intense, all at the same time. Chelsea Cain’s books might lack thorough police investigations, and the serial killer they depict does stretch belief, but few other crime writers execute their work with such flair. In fact, if the series wasn’t the parody it is – and I’m talking a hefty touch of Quentin Tarrantino here – showing up all the oh-so serious monsters that litter the crime genre today, Chelsea Cain’s thrillers wouldn’t be as wisecracking good as they are.Chelsea Cain

Sweetheart follows Heartsick and delves into the aftermath of that obsessive love affair between Detective Archie Sheridan and Gretchen Lowell, the porcelain-skinned serial killer who very nearly tortured him to death. Our detective is finally out of hospital and back home with his wife and daughter. The scars are healing, his trusty sidekick Henry is keeping a close eye on him, and so things should be as rosy as that first flush after hot sex.

Except they’re not.

HeartsickArchie’s hitting the pills so hard his liver’s about to explode. He can’t look his wife in the eye because he’s too damn busy imagining sadistic sex with Gretchen. As for work … well, all of a sudden a fresh pile of bodies is appearing in Gretchen’s old dumping grounds. Just when we think Archie’s internal world can’t be wound any tighter than the noose he’s pulled around his own neck, Gretchen Lowell escapes from jail and shoots straight for his daughter.

Cain’s timing is on the money, whether it’s comic relief or closing a chapter on a real cliff hanger. Intercutting between the Gretchen Lowell escape and an investigation into the murder of a girl who could potentially finger a sleazy politician for statutory rape, the story keeps us flying downhill at breakneck speed. It’s fast-paced stuff, even if a few plot threads are left hanging, but my appreciation for the book has very little to do with any of that.

Central to the story is the seduction of Archie Sheridan by Gretchen Lowell. Despite the horrible trauma she’s inflicted on him, he can’t stop thinking about her. This is the kind of love story where you know the other person is bad for you, she’ll destroy your soul, but for some reason that’s exactly what you want. In other words, Gretchen is the ultimate succubus.

Layer after layer, Archie is wrapped in the soft velvet of a rapture he knows he won’t survive. Like Pauline Reagé’s O, he realises what’s happening to him, he can see the self-annihilation that lies ahead and yet he goes willingly. The master-slave allusion isn’t an unwitting one, but at times we don’t know who’s who, as Gretchen exposes vulnerabilities of her own. It’s Cain’s sensuous portrayal of this state of mind that is most gripping. As much as this story is a thriller, the taste that remains on your lips long after is not the violence and gore, but forbidden love.

Read this book to the sound of:
Alice Cooper – Poison
Lou Reed – This Magic Moment

Look out for Evil at Heart, the third book in the series, which will be released in September.

Giveaway:
Chelsea has offered to dedicate and sign a hardcover copy of Sweetheart for a giveaway. Leave a comment on the review or series and you’ll be entered into a raffle.

Interview with Chelsea Cain!

Evil at heartKeep your eyes open. I’ll be posting an interview with Chelsea Cain before the close of the week, talking about her books, her writing, and the highly anticipated Evil at Heart.

Check out what others think of the book at Goodreads and Amazon.

Short Stories 2: The perfect mood of Edgar Allan Poe

Posted in book, crime fiction, fantasy, mystery, review, science fiction, short stories, speculative fiction, thriller, US writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Hit PLAY on the YouTube cast and read on.

Previously I made a case for rebranding short stories and giving them the luxury publication they deserve. If you hang on through this series of comments on my favourite short story writers and the editors who’ve compiled them, I have some ideas on how that might be achieved. But for today, let’s share short story favourites.

First off, I have to admit, my tastes lean heavily towards the weird and grotesque, probably because I followed my dad around emergency wards when I was young and saw things kids don’t ordinarily see, and because of a hundred year old tomb I inherited from my grandmother when she died, called A Century of Creepy Stories.

It’s inside the covers of this monster that I first discovered Edgar Allan Poe.

edgar alan poe “And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” – Masque of the Red Death

Depending who you speak to, Poe has been credited with inventing just about any of the modern sub-genres of fiction – the mystery, detective fiction, science fiction, horror to name but a few – but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. What these attributions do attest to is how influential he has been in reshaping how we approach the modern novel and short story. Personally, I’m more infatuated with his macabre prose and the way he deftly crafts suspense than the themes of his finest works.

His writing is always ominous, the ebb and flow of the poetical narration often building into a crescendo that perfectly reflects the ideal form of the modern thriller, hardly ever dropping off into lengthy dénouement. The themes of his best known works often revolve around death and being buried alive, guilt and fear, murder and its consequences, and of course the supernatural. His choice of words is almost always in perfect harmony with the atmosphere he is attempting to create – surely a result of his being a poet first and foremost. His densely packed narratives are imbued with such rich textures that they lure the imagination into a realm where you forget it’s just a … short story.

An excellent example of this skill is his surreal description of the masked ball in The Masque of the Red Death , where the revelers are doing their utmost to pretend that they are not mortal and a mysterious plague cannot touch them. It’s the desperate act of embracing life and hope that ultimately makes them as ugly as any demon painted by Hieronymus Bosch. Hieronymus Bosch

My essential reads (roughly in order of favourites):

1.The Masque of the Red Death (for an excellent reading, download at Librivox here)
2. The Pit and the Pendulum
3. The Cask of Amontillado (for an excellent reading, download at Librivox here)
4. The Fall of the House of Usher

Fans reputedly include:

Bob Dylan, Stephen King, H.G Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, H.P. Lovecraft

Check out what others thought of Poe’s writing at Goodreads and at Amazon.

Best read to the music of:
Lycia
Preisner

Review: Veniss Underground, Jeff Vandermeer

Posted in book, fantasy, lord of the rings, review, science fiction, US writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , on April 15, 2009 by richardkunzmann

veniss-underground Any crime writer or reader that thinks nothing can be learnt from writers outside of the field, particularly in other sub-genres, has sorely missed the joy and necessity of reading widely. Jeff Vandermeer shows how a sense of place completely alien to the world we know can be rendered with absolute clarity and wonder at the same time.

Nicholas, a washed-out holo artist, is desperate to secure the patronage of a mysterious man only known as Quin who, through biological engineering, creates fantastic creatures to serve the city-states of Veniss. When Nicholas disappears, his twin sister Nicola launches a frantic search for her brother which brings her and her former lover Shadrach ever closer to the ultimate truth behind Quin and the dank subterranean world of Veniss Underground.

Many years ago I happily walked away from fantasy, thinking the genre had reached its pinnacle with Lord of the Rings and was now deadly repetitive. But Vandemeer’s vision debunks all my preconceptions and exposes my hubris in thinking the genre has nothing new to offer. Mixing fantasy with science fiction and adding a hefty dash of the Kafkaesque, this author produced a haunting and beautiful tale. It helps that he has kept the story short; if it had been any longer one’s willingness to suspend belief would have been sorely pressed. What makes this novel especially intriguing is the author’s style and language: it is playful and poetic, while remaining streetwise and gritty. There isn’t a lot of character development – a problem that’s endemic to a genre that focuses on place – but Vandemeer has more than enough made up for it with a breath-taking and phantasmagoric world.

Review: Last Car To Elysian Fields, James Lee Burke

Posted in book, crime fiction, James Lee Burke, review, thriller, US writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2009 by richardkunzmann

last-carJames Lee Burke is arguably one of America’s greatest hardboiled detective authors, and Last Car to Elysian Fields not only does that reputation justice, it strengthens his position as a crime writer with an immense literary range that borders on the poetic.

Detective Dave Robicheaux is asked by Father Jimmie Dolan to join him on a trip into St. James Parish, where he meets the daughter of a musician who disappeared years before. Soon strange links begin to emerge between the musician, a savage attack on Father Jimmie Dolan, a fanatical and conflicted assassin, and the filthily rich whom Dave despises. The detective is drawn into the familiar collection of sordid secrets and escalating violence, as echoes of his own unresolved past begin to affect the direction of his case.

Burke is a masterful storyteller, who weaves an intricate web that hums with tension along its cords. What I appreciate most about his novels is that he doesn’t rely on tedious red herrings and cheap last-minute revelations to keep the thrill going; instead, he provides us with so much information about the people and circumstances that Dave encounters that we must distil the answers at the same pace as Dave Robicheaux. In other words, Burke allows us to be detectives in his novels, not passive viewers waiting for the next corny surprise. This plot line is as solid as his detective, and his Louisiana is as vivid and infectious as feverish dreams. His style remains wonderfully articulate and timeless, and one can only say the Robicheaux series is like a loyal old dog: it’ll never let you down.