Week in Review – Vaccines, These Women, Fake Fruit

I’m taking it slow on taking off my mask
“What’s normal anyway” is a great song by Miguel. Also, it describes where I’m at in this weird moment of CDC pronouncements that do nothing to help the fact that you can be vaccinated but you still have to be around other people and they might be wackos. Do you trust the people around you? Do I even want to get back to normal? It feels normal to mask up and be careful about sharing air with strangers.

Sirens and helicopters
You can be careful but on the other hand, things happen. Two people just died when their car went airborne going down a street by my house—a 25% grade and apparent brake failure. Crashed just as the elementary school across the street was getting out. More than 200 comments on Berkeleyside offer food for thought and will give you a good sense of what people who know a lot about manual transmissions think about in their spare time.

Listening and writing
Made a new writing playlist as I enter a swoony, power-mad new phase of writing this book. I finally think I know what I’m doing (or do I?). There’s no way I can pull this off. But maybe I can… Am I crazy, or crazy like a fox? The songs fitting my mood just now:
MIRENME AHORA by Myke Towers – bluster and drama
No Mutuals by Fake Fruit – guitars and attitude
Dakotas by Sofia Kourtesis – dreamy bliss

Earlier in April we went to Mendocino for a few days for a nominal Spring Break. It was less of a vacation than it should have been due to 1) having to work the weekend in order to take off the Monday and Tuesday and 2) Grant getting taken down by shot #2. But we did get a pretty interesting half hour in the parking lot of Van Damme beach. If you’re heading north on Highway 1 to Mendocino, this is the part after Little River that dips down and flattens out momentarily with a beach on one side and state park on the other. We watched a succession of RVs pull in. The first, a big old gray thing, was parked in the very middle of the empty lot piloted by a skinny guy with dreadlocks and one metal leg (pant leg rolled up). He let his pit type dog run out to the beach, sniff excitedly, he walked around a bit, and then they were off. He was noticeable, and I think he liked being noticed. Five minutes later, another vehicle pulled in. A man and a woman, both with the carriage of people who do serious Cross-fit. Their van was black with custom siding – I don’t even have the vocabulary to describe it. But they immediately hopped to, sliding out various panels as if the whole thing were a bit of metal origami, revealing bikes and folding slats. They put on black, well fitting jackets – technical fabrics. And went through a production of folding and opening and revealing. When that was done, they climbed up onto seats they had somehow produced out of all that activity, watched the sunset for five minutes and then replaced everything. Both experiences made me realize what very different people you encounter in parking lots like this.

I’m working my way through the “Mystery/Thriller” finalists lineup from the LA Festival of Books from last month. (“Five of 2020’s best crime writers on where mystery fiction is today”). I’d earlier read S.A. Cosby’s exciting “Blacktop Wasteland,” had already read one book by Rachel Howzell Hall, so was eager to read “And Now She’s Gone.” Soaked up the Venice of Christopher Bollen’s “A Beautiful Crime.” Just finished the very satisfying “Little Secrets” by Jennifer Hillier and am now almost done with with Ivy Pochoda’s “These Women” (the voices!). These are five very different books, but all have these interesting, twisty characters and an incredibly strong sense of place. Crime fiction contains multitudes.

Social media in Berkeley has been all pictures of kids lining up near Berkeley High School to get vaccinated. We are all weeks past shot 2 and I’m just so so grateful to mRNA scientists, all the cool kids working the Curative drive through site at Albany Bulb, and even Big Pharma. These things are miracles. A year after lockdown, and I’m getting a shot? The timeline just blows my mind. And it’s so amazing that now you can just walk into a pharmacy or stand in line at a city park and get one of these things. Now, share them with the rest of the world, please. Thinking of my colleagues in India and hoping there’s a way out of the Covid nightmare soon.

The Double Mystery – Reading The Lost Man by Jane Harper

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

I’m writing a mystery novel, and that has me thinking a lot about plot.

Just before Berkeley shut down for shelter in place, I managed to go to the library and scoop up an armload of books. One of them was “The Lost Man” by Jane Harper.

Harper is an Australian writer, and part of the pleasure of reading her has been to fall under the spell of the beautiful – but often deadly – Australian landscape. In “The Dry,” a punishing drought adds extra tension to a remote community where a man has killed his family – the place is just waiting for a spark to set things off. In “Force of Nature,” a corporate offsite in a wilderness area goes awry when a group gets lost (and one of their number doesn’t make it out). In “The Lost Man,” the brutal December heat is the murder weapon.

I think one reason Harper has been successful has to do with her inclusion of what I’m calling a double mystery – that is, a mystery from another timeline that troubles the present. Here’s promotional copy from Harper’s website:

“And as [Federal Police investigator Aaron] Falk probes deeper into the killings, old wounds start bleeding into fresh ones. For Falk and his childhood friend Luke shared a secret… A secret Falk thought long-buried… A secret which Luke’s death starts to bring to the surface…”

I’ve read all three of Harper’s novels, and I’m sure I’ll read “The Survivors,” which looks like it comes out next year in the States (“When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge. A sunken wreck, a missing girl, and questions that have never washed away…”).

Sounds very similar to “The Lost Man” – not the same thing exactly – but a family, a painful past, old wounds, old mistakes, and so on. The elements are similar, although the details and settings are different. There’s a death in the present, which must be solved – but it’s just as critical to come to terms with what’s happened in the past.

This doubling of mysteries from different timelines isn’t unique to Harper’s novels – far from it. As I was writing this, more than a few books came to mind, like Tana French’s “In the Woods,” or Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects.”

When it works well, it’s very satisfying (and I admit, I’m attempting a similar thing in what I’m writing these days, one reason I’m reading Harper).

Like anything in a plot, it can be skillfully or clumsily executed. It can feel formulaic. Sometimes you see an author reaching for “buried secrets” in their character’s past and immediately see a crutch to bring the stakes closer to home, to raise the tension. (I see this in some mass market fiction where it’s constantly open season on a sleuth’s family, friends, loved ones, second cousins, etc. Just to be in their orbit means you’ll soon be targeted by a serial killer.) But if the job of a writer is to put their protagonists through hell on the way through the narrative, it seems you can do worse than throwing them a mystery that fits exactly like a puzzle piece into their secret wounds. (Of course, in some types of mysteries – many that I dearly love – it’s not a goal to psychologically push the protagonist to the edge!)

This double mystery (or maybe it’s a “past-present”/”inner-outer” mystery – I searched for what to call this and landed on a bunch of trope sites without finding a good classification for it) is challenging because both past and present mystery must feel compelling, but the balance is hard to get right. When I first started drafting the book I’m writing now, I realized I was putting too much emphasis on the past – a clear avoidance strategy because I wasn’t sure enough about my character and what she goes through in the present.

Despite the difficulties, I am trying to master this. I do love it when a main character must grapple with their own demons to solve a crime. However, it seems like many writers who do this really well don’t continue with their characters through a series. How many demons can one character have, and doesn’t it get a bit tiresome revisiting them in every book? It’s hard work to raise emotional stakes. To do it well and believably you often exhaust the demons. I believe that’s why Tana French’s novels skip around among various Dublin detectives. That close psychological mystery can become too claustrophobic and repetitive over multiple books (at least to my taste) if you keep with the same character. I find it interesting that Harper wrote two books with a detective (Aaron Falk), and then has moved to standalones.

Maybe it’s a tradeoff between psychological depth and longevity? I’m not sure. For now, I’m still studying…