Friday, September 30, 2011

The Grand Mirage

I haven't made too much headway in my reading lately because I've been busy proofing my own book, The Grand Mirage, which was published as an ebook last week and will become available in paperback sometime next week.

It's been a whirlwind since I decided at the end of August to self-publish this historical thriller. I'd worked on it for literally years and just couldn't find a publisher to buy it, despite the yeoman efforts of my agent, Mel Parker. But I feel like it is a good book and there are people out there who will enjoy reading it. So I enlisted the help of Jose Ramirez, signing up for his "expedited" program at Pedernales Publishing. He's really serious when he says expedite and four weeks after signing the contract, the ebook was available for purchase.

Reading the book through twice in two weekends (and embarrassingly finding new mistakes each time) eased any qualms I might have about taking this step. In all modesty, I think it's just a very good read, with adventure, romance and intrigue, an exotic setting, sympathetic characters, the whole shebang. I'm not saying it's destined to become a classic or a bestseller, but it deserves an audience.

Buy it, read it, enjoy it!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Start and stop

It happens. You pick up a book you think you'll like -- usually one you bought some time ago thinking you'll like it -- and for whatever reason you just can't get into it. It doesn't necessarily reflect on the book. I've started books, such as The Gospel of Judas, that I abandoned, only to come back to it after my eyes were opened to Simon Mawer's talent in The Glass Room and read it with relish.

So I've had a couple of false starts lately. One was John Lescroart's Son of Holmes. This was an early book of his, before his breakthrough into bestsellerdom with the Dismas Hardy series. I saw Lescroart on a panel once and he is an engaging speaker. I read one of the Dismas Hardy books and I suppose I liked it well enough, but I didn't rush back to read another.

What attracted me to this book, which gets fairly mixed reviews on Amazon, is that Lescroart in 1987 did what I always dreamed of doing -- wrote a novel about Nero Wolfe's early days. But he did it in a way completely different from what I would do. He beat me to it in any case, because I was thinking about in the late 1980s, early 1990s. Dick Marek, who bought my financial thriller, pooh-poohed the idea because he thought the audience would be too narrow. I was worried about copyright problems, though you never had to say it was Nero Wolfe, just make it plain to fans that it was indeed he.

This is evidently what Lescroart did. His Auguste Lupa (a pseudonym because this Montenegrin always took a Caesar for his first name -- get it, Nero -- and Lupa of course is Latin for wolf) was that youthful secret agent that the sedentary detective in New York hints at through the 70-some Nero Wolfe stories. Whereas I would have just explored the adventure behind his references to being a spy for the Austro-Hungarian empire, having a house in Cairo, etc., and produce an historical thriller, Lescroart crafts a cozy murder mystery in southern France with a protagonist who already has all the traits of the mature Wolfe -- fat, beer-swilling, lip-pursing, yellow shirts and all.

So what's not to like? It comes across as warmed-over Rex Stout, prequel or not. It is, well, dull. Stout was clever to have Archie Goodwin tell the story, whereas Lescroart's narrator has virtually no personality. Who knows, maybe I'll finish it one day, but after getting halfway through, I don't really see the point.

For the other lapsed book, The Collaborator of Bethlehem by Matt Beynon Rees, I will suspend judgment. I bought this the other day at Politics & Prose and realized too late that it had appealed to me a couple of years ago as well, when I bought it the first time, started it, and stopped it. The writing is unquestionably good, and the setting in Bethlehem is great. I bought it this second time after reading The Essene Conspiracy because I liked the scenes set in Israel. However, Omar Yussef was not grabbing me as a protagonist. I get a little tired of recovering alcoholics as detective heroes, anyway, but when he is also a Muslim, it's particularly tiresome. A Christian friend of his is falsely accused of murder, but who cares? It's a little bit too much paint by the number murder mystery (didn't suspend my judgment that much apparently), but maybe I'll change my tune if I pick it up another time.

Update. Looks like I'm going to have to add David Downing's Silesian Station to the current list of starts and stops. It's probably not fair to the book, since I've been distracted by the need to repeatedly proof my own book, The Grand Mirage, and I'm also spending some time exploring the world of self-published ebooks. Hopefully, I will actually finish one of those and be able to review it for the blog.

I do think nonetheless that Downing has fallen a bit into the franchise writer trap. Since the initial success of Zoo Station, the start of a series featuring British journalist John Russell in Hitler's Germany just before the outbreak of World War II, Downing has kept to the tried and true formula, even to the point of titling each new book after one Berlin's train stations (like Paris, Vienna and other great European capitals, Berlin had a "head" station pointing in each direction of the compass). Subsequent books in the series feature the Stettin, Potsdam and Lehrter stations.

Even at this best in in the initial book of the series, Downing fell short of the drama and atmosphere of Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir, let alone the Alan Furst books. Having lived in Berlin for two and a half years, I enjoy the recreation of the local geography, but I felt like this book was just plodding along and I found myself reading it because it was the book I'm reading right now, and then not reading it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Black Diamond

My review of this book by Martin Walker appeared today in Washington Independent Review of Books:

Martin Walker’s series chronicling the adventures of a village policeman in Périgord is Kool-Aid for Francophiles and a potion to convert remaining skeptics to the joie de vivre that infuses French life.

Black Diamond is the third murder mystery featuring Bruno Courrèges. Fortunately, the series managed to survive the odd-duck title of the debut novel, Bruno, Chief of Police. This new installment has all the elements that have attracted a large and growing following to the novels — an endearing hero who is not only a jack of all trades but also master of them, an idyllic village in southern France steeped in culinary tradition, and a host of quirky but lovable local characters.

Walker, a former journalist who now heads a think tank in Washington, D.C., does not spare the darker side of life in the French countryside — the erosion in lifestyle from drugs, immigration and other social problems that intrude on the idyll, as well as the darker undercurrents in France’s past, from collaboration with the Nazis to colonial warfare in Algeria and Indochina.

It is the colonial past that looms in the background of this plot. A former member of the French secret services who has retired to the fictional village of St. Denis is brutally tortured and murdered as he waits to join a hunting party with Bruno and other local dignitaries. Was the murder related to the victim’s past service in Algeria and Indochina, or was it rather a result of his involvement in exposing potential fraud in the local truffle market? (The “black diamond” of the title refers to the black truffles that Périgord is justly famous for.)

The plot is further thickened by apparently unprovoked attacks on Vietnamese vendors in the local market, which may be related to fire-bombings of Chinese restaurants elsewhere in France and herald an outbreak of gang warfare between these two sets of immigrants. Then there is the appearance of a golden-boy politician in the local chapter of the environmental party, the Green Party, who, coincidentally it seems, has his own opaque past in East Asia.

This environmental zealot, who becomes Bruno’s rival for the affections of an English expatriate with whom the police chief has an on-again, off-again affair, is estranged from his father, a local businessman who must close down his sawmill because it runs afoul of new environmental restrictions.

So there’s plenty to keep Bruno busy. Not that he has to solve these crimes alone. Walker is a master at portraying the overlay of jurisdictions in a France that some people might confuse with a police state. In addition to Bruno, the local constable in the employ of the mayor, there are the gendarmerie, the national force implanted throughout France, and the Police Nationale, France’s version of Scotland Yard, which directs important cases from Paris.

But Bruno must also find time to do some slow cooking the French way, scrimmage on the local rugby team, play Father Christmas at the children’s party, balance the appeals to his tender side as the town’s leading bachelor among the aforementioned English expatriate, an attractive martial arts expert from the Police Nationale and a single mother who is being sexually harassed at that suspicious truffle market where she works part time.

Nothing’s too much for Bruno, however, who manages to ruin two sets of clothes, getting soaked with blood from the murder victim and covered in slime when he rescues a child from a showcase manure pit in an environmental facility.

But Bruno, an orphan who fought with French troops in Bosnia, is a man on a mission. He must singlehandedly preserve the rural life that he cherishes. Walker describes Bruno’s musings about the various threads of his murder case as he looks upon one bucolic scene in St. Denis: “It was a peaceful, happy landscape. But there was a menace lurking on Bruno’s turf, a threat of violence and subtle terror against hardworking and law-abiding people that Bruno knew and liked. … Bruno knew it was his duty to defend the victims, to allay their fears and to bring the intimidators to justice.”

The reader wants that, too, as Walker skillfully immerses us in the conservative values of the French countryside that he appears to know so well. Bruno, we have learned in his earlier adventures and again in this novel, is far too good a lawman to be buried in this country village. His ambitious girlfriend, the Police Nationale agent he has worked with before, and her boss, want Bruno to join their team in Paris. But he’s fond of his quiet life in the country. His truffles are beginning to grow, his shepherd’s cottage becomes more comfortable each year and the hunting is good.

This third Bruno novel is a splendid introduction to the French country cozy that Walker has carved out as a new subset of the genre. It is on a par with the debut novel both in its depiction of French country life and its slow-paced suspense as a mystery. The intervening novel, Dark Vineyards, suffered from a plot that lacked any really evil villains and where the deaths were more accidental than dastardly murders.

Here the murders are plenty dastardly and the villains are not only evil, but downright nasty. There’s ambiguity, too, and it’s not always easy to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

One thing for sure, though — Bruno is a good guy. Everyone needs a friend in southern France to go spend some time with, and Martin Walker has opened Bruno’s door to anyone who has a few hours to join him in the simple joys of la vie en rose.

Darrell Delamaide, author of the financial thriller Gold, lived in France for 11 years and returned to southern France this summer to read the advance copy of Black Diamond near the scene of the crime.

Monday, September 12, 2011


I’m always a sucker for disaster movies on TV – asteroids, global warming, earthquakes, you name it – so in my new exploration of e-books I readily took up Amy Rogers’ techno-thriller about bacteria that start eating up the world’s oil supply.

This plot device, based on extrapolation of the bacteria that are used to help clean up oil spills, is not completely original, I learn from Amazon, because a 2007 book – Ill Wind by Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason – has a similar premise for its point of departure.

But it all depends on execution, and Rogers does a pretty good job of focusing this potentially global disaster in a dramatic action starring a Latina graduate student at UCLA and restricting the initial disaster to Los Angeles. Motor-driven LA is, of course, the perfect place to feature a gasoline-eating bug and the picture of a city paralyzed and quarantined by the disappearance of all petroleum products is captivating.

Los Angeles is also an excellent choice because of its geographic isolation – a fact few of us non-West Coasters are even aware of. The author uses the mountains ringing LA to great effect as a way of trying to contain the disaster and as a challenge for the heroes trying to provide the silver bullet to end the disaster scenario.

Christina Gonzalez is the grad student who is working with the “mad” scientist character Dr. Chen to tinker with these bacteria so they can be used to convert the hydrocarbons in hard-to-get oil sands into methane – natural gas – that is much easier to recover and kinder to the environment. It is a two-step process, and unfortunately for the planet’s outlook, only the bugs performing the first step – converting petroleum to hydrogen and acetic acid – are the ones who get loose.

Rogers draws Christina as a full and sympathetic character. And her two sidekicks, cousin River and her boyfriend Mickey, also grow into reasonably well-developed characters, with flaws and virtues in equal measure. A good editor would have trimmed the early interaction of these characters, which take on an amateurish quality, to get to the faster-paced action more quickly.

There is also a certain amount of wit in the writing, which, along with the generally good quality of the narrative, keeps the reader turning the pages. The evil corporate guy is a thin villain, and the LA mayor, a Latino who conveniently for the plot served as a helicopter pilot in Iraq, also needed some more fleshing out for the role the author had in mind for him.

Judging by the editorial and reader reviews of Ill Wind, Rogers’ treatment of this disaster scenario, in what is essentially a self-published book, compares favorably to the earlier book, which has the benefit of being “curated” by the very hot editors at Tor.

Techno-thrillers, as Michael Crichton demonstrated so well, are a great niche, so I’m sure Amy Rogers will be out soon with another book. And, who knows, maybe late some night Petroplague will appear as a disaster movie on TV.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Gospel of Judas

I came back to this Simon Mawer novel now because I liked The Glass Room so much and because it seemed like a good segue from The Essene Conspiracy. Aside from the quantum leap in quality of the writing, this is a completely different kind of book. While it has a papyrus from a Qmran type source that offers a radically different version of Christ's life and the founding of the church, like Wachtel's book, like Da Vinci Code and its numerous imitators, this is not a thriller.

It is a novel about a priest's loss of faith, a complex drama in which the discovery of a putative "Gospel of Judas" plays a decidedly minor role and only really in the last third of the book. The story of Father Leo Newman, a British papyrologist who lives in Rome, has as much in common with Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest and J.F. Powers' Morte d'Urban as it does with the garden variety biblical thriller.

Mawer in fact has such an understanding of the celibate's mind, the emotional stunting that accompanies the vow of chastity, the fragile foundation in faith for this type of dedication, that I checked his biography to see if he actually was in the seminary. If he was, his bio gives no indication of it, so perhaps he has simply gotten to know a number of priests well in his 30 years of living in Rome. In any case, I know from my own experience as a Jesuit novice and seminarian that he describes those feelings with agonizing accuracy.

Less surprising is how Mawer can make Rome palpable with a few deft strokes. These are not elaborate descriptions but telling details that betray an intimacy with the sights, sounds and smells of the Eternal City. I've only spent a smattering of weeks in Rome, but the city came rushing back into my memory in Mawer's narrative.

There is more to say about the plot but it is again the language that for me is in the forefront. It is a muscular prose, as vivid in its description of the tangible as the intangible. It is a sophisticated, sinuous narrative that has room for Latin, Italian, Greek, German seamlessly embedded in the text. In my research about the author, I came across this statement from an interview he gave:

"To write decent novels you have to be in love with the language. You have to feel the texture of it between your fingers, mould it like clay, carve it like marble. Despite all the creative writing programs in the world, I am sure this ability cannot be taught. So I try to use the meanings of words, of place names, of personal names, to inform the narrative."

This is exactly what comes across. In this book, just for instance, Mawer uses the redolent names of Rome's churches to convey the grandeur, the historicity, the plasticity, even, of these monuments -- Santa Maria Maggiore, San Crisogono, Santa Maria dell'Anima, San Lorenzo fuori le mura. His descriptions of the picnics and outings that his mother, the wife of the German ambassador to Italy, made in wartime Rome evoke the splendid ruin of Italy's past. Such pursuit of civilized leisure even as the Axis war machine rains terror on the rest of Europe is reminiscent of Visconti's "The Damned."

Mawer the writer does not seem to have much use for fidelity in marriage. Perhaps there's too little drama in that and it's only the adulterous affair that merits a novel. Leo's mother, the wife of the German ambassador, and Leo's lover, the wife of the British ambassador (no subalterns here) conduct curiously parallel affairs in Rome. Their husbands are similarly cold and detached, the implication being that this is the type of personality that becomes a successful diplomat. The women characters are so much more vibrant, despite their frailty or instability or moral flaws.

Judas Iscariot, the apostle, is the author of the gospel that Leo comes to believe is genuine. But the novel is full of other Judases. Leo's mother betrays her lover in a way that can know no forgiveness (except from the betrayed), and Leo himself earns the title of Judas for turning his back on his priesthood and the 2,000-year history of Christianity.

The details of the gospel are interesting, how it transforms the narrative of Jesus' life simply by shifting a couple of small facts. Whether genuine or forgery, whether a truthful account or deliberate misinformation, the gospel of Judas has little chance of challenging the centuries-old Christian faith. History has too much invested in the received tradition to accept any other truth, even if factual. Yes, the gospel has information that could shake Christianity to its foundations, but it can never earn the credence that would allow this to happen.

Just where the author stands in all this become clear in his account of Leo's "pilgrimage" at the end of the book, which explains why the church will remain triumphant and why it's futile to seek the truth.

Faith has no object to begin with, so it cannot be exposed. As Leo's lover Madeleine tells him when he finally accepts the inevitable about their relationship: "Poor poor Leo, learning at last the only lesson life has to give." "What's that?" [Leo asks]. "That there is nothing else. that there is only you and me, now, at this moment and this place. All else is no more than empty hope."

Just a few pages later, when Madeleine asks Leo if he still believes after the discovery of the gospel, Leo tries to say that belief doesn't just "evaporate."

Madeleine responds: "Doesn't it? That's exactly what it seems to do in my experience. Evaporate, like a lake or something drying up, leaving nothing behind but mudflats and a few dirty puddles and a musty smell of superstition."

Mawer clearly doesn't set out to write bestsellers. This is anything but a potboiler, though it is a compelling read and has its own suspense. Nor will his willingness to mock Christianity and make an apostate priest his hero endear him to legions of believers. But the reader doesn't have to identify with Leo. The reader can see him as a flawed, in some ways tragic individual. The Gospel of Judas is a question, not an answer, and the reader can decide where the truth lies.