Shame on You, Preston and Child!

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Preston and Child write terrific thrillers.  Special agent Aloysius Pendergast is a fascinating hero who has appropriately been  compared to Sherlock Holmes.  But no writer, and especially writers talented enough to manage without sleazy tricks, should corrupt the biography of real people to further a plot.

In Fever Dream they piggy-back on the fame of painter and ornithologist John James Audubon in the service of a plot about a creativity-enhancing form of bird flu.  Now many thousands of readers, even if they realize that the real Audubon was naturally a supremely talented and accomplished artist and naturalist, wont be able to help associating him with a strange story of illness and insanity.  Shame on you, Preston and Child!

I never quite understood why fiction writers employ researchers, since it seemed to me that tracking down and learning about places, history, etc. as background to a story is fun.  I caught a glimmer of the place of research assistance through the Pendergast series.  The agent knows everything there is to know about fine wines, clothes, art, and furnishings, not to mention literature, music, and ancient languages.  Either Preston and Child are two of the world’s most amazing Renaissance men or they employ a whole team of researchers.

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Free Kindle Book

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Yesterday I posted that a  revised version of Alex Kertész mystery Death of a Gypsy is now available on Amazon.  I can now add that it’s also free (Amazon couldn’t make up its mind about that for a while).

In this adventure Alex is asked to shepherd an old Gypsy from Transylvania to meet his long-lost sister in Paris.  The Gypsies in Transylvania speak Hungarian, which is Alex’s native language, so this should be simple.  It becomes complicated when Alex has to undertake a mission to an isolated mountainous region of Albania.  He’s with his son, an American woman, and two of the Romanian Gypsies.  None of these people speak Albanian, and although one of the Gypsies has an idea of what they will find in Albania, he has no intention of telling the others.

Revised Kindle Book

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A newly revised version of Death of a Gypsy is now available on Amazon.

Hungarian born scientist Alex Kertész shares a common language with the Gypsies in Transylvania, so he foresees no problems when his wife’s family in Paris delegates him to escort an old Gypsy man on a momentous journey from Romania to France.

But the old Gypsy has a problem that’s now Alex’s problem.  Solving it involves a trip to Albania, where Alex finds himself in the middle of a situation that might have been lifted directly out of the Twelfth Century.  It’s also dangerous enough to kill him, and It’s especially hard to defend yourself against a threat that’s too bizarre to seem real.

The Blair Witch Project?

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The Three, published be Sarah Lotz in 2014, is a seriously weird book that reminded me of The Blair Witch Project, that student film effort that was talked about a lot some years ago.  I saw a bit of it on TV, and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.  People claimed that the students filming themselves blundering around in the woods in the dark created a frightening atmosphere that made a not bad horror movie, but after interminable minutes of shaky, out of focus black and white images of bushes accompanied by a sound track of cursing (as the troop presumably tripped over roots, were scratched by branches, etc.) I gave up on it.

Sarah Lotz has done something similar, namely creating a horror story based (almost) entirely on atmospherics, but did it much better.

Her premise is that four plane crashes occur in various parts of the world on the same day, and in the case of at least three of them a small child is the sole survivor.   This seems even more miraculous because it’s not absolutely clear what brought each plane down, and the child survivors suffered only minor injuries.  The notion that the children represent the four horsemen of the apocalypse and presage the end of the world spreads like wildfire.  Ninety-nine percent of the book deals with the many unsettling consequences of the entire situation, but there are indications that there is actually something strange about these children.  What exactly is going on?  Lotz either doesn’t know herself or won’t say.

 

 

Her Lost Daughter

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I read less than half of “My Lost Daughter”, published by Nancy Taylor Rosenberg in 2010.    I plowed on for a while even though I wasn’t enjoying it, but really, there are few things more pointless than reading for entertainment something that isn’t entertaining.  For all I know the plot may be fine, but the characters were becoming more and more annoying.

The main character is a middle-aged judge (she has a grown daughter) who is in a relationship with a handsome, talented, and noble man who loves her very much and is sexually insatiable, to the point where they have intercourse on her desk in her chambers.  And he’s not the first man to find her irresistible and occasion lengthy steamy writing.

Her ex husband, on the other hand, is barely better than a caricature of a horrible person, lazy, parasitical, and before his untimely death, having done everything possible to turn their daughter against her.  He succeeded quite well, taking advantage of the fact that the hard working lawyer wasn’t home a lot.  Up to the point where I stopped reading, the daughter had only appeared as a nasty, spoiled brat (although her mother keeps saying that she loves her more than anything).  I finally put the book down when the loving mother pretends to take her now twenty-eight year old daughter out to dinner but instead carts her off to a mental institution she found (but didn’t research) on the internet.

How to explain this collection of obnoxious and unconvincing characters?  I couldn’t help wondering whether the author wrote this book as unadulterated psychotherapy, bringing her sexual fantasies to life, defending her relationship with her child, and getting a lot of anger at a former husband or boyfriend off her chest.  Psychotherapy may be good for the soul, but single-minded settling of scores doesn’t make a good read.

Great writers can create a variety of believable characters who are not themselves.  Speaking as a less than great writer, I can attest that it’s hard not to write about yourself.  I chose a male protagonist to help me avoid turning the character into me, and even so tended to find myself having him do what I would do in a given situation instead of what his character would do.  Writing in the first person it must be especially hard not to turn your fictional character into yourself, and if you’re going to do that, better make sure that you’re pleasant company.

 

Perdido Street Station

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I read recently that distopias are much more common than utopias in futuristic fiction.  That makes sense, since there can’t be much suspense, danger, or other plot engine in paradise.  There’s plenty of both in the city of New Crobuzon described in China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, published in 2000, but on consideration, it may not be any more of a distopia than some big cities of today.  The political leadership is presiding over a police state with only a half- hearted pretense of democracy, but that’s been seen before.  There’s a lot of pollution and crumbling infrastructure, but that’s nothing new either.  Much of the distopian atmosphere is created by Miéville’s way with words, the endless inventiveness of his descriptions of dirt and decay and the (negatively) evocative names he gives to people and places (there’s a pub called “The Dying Child”!).

Miéville doesn’t explain where this city is, but I could guess that it’s on a planet colonized by humans from Earth in the distant past, on which they have encountered and learned to live beside a number of other intelligent and bizarre species.The two main characters who are introduced at the beginning are a bird man who needs a new set of wings and a human scientist to whom he applies for help.  The scientist hopes to solve the wingless bird man’s problem with unified field theory, but not the version Einstein was working on.  In a civilization in which computer technology is less advanced than the ability to harness magic, scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin seems to succeed eventually in constructing a sort of quantum computer from junkyard finds.  That’s lucky, because he and his friends need every possible weapon to fight some extremely dangerous enemies.

 

NOT Agatha Christie

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Closed Casket, published by Sophie Hannah in 2017, is the second of Hannah’s attempts to continue Agatha Christie’s mystery series featuring eccentric and brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.  She has devised a plot intricate enough to mimic Christie and hasn’t done a bad job of presenting Poirot.  Scotland Yard Inspector Edward Catchpool, narrator of most of the story and Poirot’s foil, is also well done.  The rest of my comments explain why I will avoid Hannah’s first outing of the reimagined Poirot and any third or following volumes.

One of Christie’s great strengths was her ability to create a great variety of plausible characters, some of whom turned out to be murderers but none of whom were obviously deranged or psychopathic (and if they were, it would turn out to be a red herring). The characters chosen by Hannah to populate a Christie-style 1920’s mansion, by contrast, are uniformly weird.  They’re so peculiar, in fact, that I wonder if Hannah has made them so peculiar and unsympathetic as a kind of homage by exaggeration.  Because none of them are at all believable, the entire plot collapses, depending as it does on unreal people behaving more and more strangely.

Too bad.  It was a good idea.