Magical book

Magical book

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Review: Show Me the Gold

Show Me the Gold
By Carolyn Mulford
Hardcover, 304 pages
Five Star (December 17, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1432829904
ISBN-13: 978-1432829902

Carolyn Mulford’s “Show Me” mysteries — set in Missouri, the “show me” state — follow wounded ex-CIA agent Phoenix Smith to her small hometown of Laycock, where she hopes to build a new, safer life but can’t seem to stay out of the line of fire. The bad guys may not be the Eastern European big leaguers she dealt with as a spy, but their bullets are equally lethal.

In the third series entry (following Show Me the Murder and Show Me the Deadly Deer) Phoenix rides along when her old friend, Acting Sheriff Annalynn Keyser, responds to an urgent request for help in a neighboring county, where four bank robbers have been spotted at an abandoned farmhouse. The women get involved in a deadly shootout with two of the men, but the other two escape, apparently with the stolen gold. Phoenix’s endearing dog, a K9 Corps dropout named Achilles, is hopeless at tracking the escapees, but he saves his owner and the law enforcement officers at the scene when he sniffs explosives and warns them away from the booby-trapped house.

The FBI takes over the investigation, and agents sense that Phoenix isn’t what or who she seems. She can’t reveal her former double life as a covert operative. On the record, she’s merely a consultant for her former employer, a venture capital firm, and her primary personal interest is establishing a foundation to help the families of crime victims. The FBI tags her as a thief who made off with the missing gold. Phoenix’s efforts to prove her innocence and find the missing thieves who have the gold lead her into further danger.

The plot has enough twists, turns, and blind alleys to keep readers turning pages, but the greatest strength of Carolyn Mulford’s writing is her gift for creating likable characters with the kinds of flaws that make us all human. Annalynn is still grieving for her husband, the former sheriff, whose death in scandalous circumstances provided the plot for Show Me the Murder, and doubts that she has what it takes to head up local law enforcement. Phoenix herself misses her CIA adventures and wonders if she can ever resign herself to smalltown life again: “I’d recovered—almost—from my wound and accepted—almost—the loss of my old double life. I hadn’t regained the self-confidence and daring that had enabled me to succeed as a covert operative and as an executive of a venture capital firm. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have [a goal].” Watching this conflicted woman come to terms with her changed circumstances and find a new purpose is a reason in itself to read Mulford’s books.
The small town setting of Show Me the Gold has plenty of the crime and secrets that go into engaging mysteries. Highly recommended for readers who love character-driven stories with realistic small town settings.

The author provided an advance copy of Show Me the Gold in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"Rule" Is Not a Four-letter Word

“There are only three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
“The only rule for writing is to write well.”

Just mention the word “rules” in the company of writers, and those are the first declarations they’re likely to toss back at you.

I don’t know about authors in other genres, but mystery writers tend to get worked up over the very notion that they should write according to rules or, to use a less inflammatory term, the time-honored conventions of the genre. They’re different! They write the way they want to write! They reject all restrictions on their creativity! They hate the idea of “writing to a formula” and believe that rules equal formula.

But when I look at their work, I see that all of them stick to the time-honored conventions. They follow the rules. At least the ones who are published and have an audience do. 

I’m not talking about the brilliant literary writers who blend genres and dazzle us with their unique vision and word play. I’m talking about authors who label themselves mystery/suspense/thriller writers and are aiming their work at that audience. 

Genre readers have certain expectations. We can stretch the limits, get creative and tinker with the genre conventions, but if we ignore them entirely, we have left the crime fiction genre and started writing something else. 

All crime fiction, from cozies to psychological suspense to gory thrillers, is driven by the same questions:
What terrible thing has or is going to happen?
Who is responsible?
Who will stop the villain, and how?

Most crime fiction has a classic three-act structure: beginning, middle, end. Some crime novels begin slowly, some shoot out of the gate on the first page, but most have building action and suspense toward the end, preparing the reader for a resolution and revelation. Crime fiction writers all realize that without conflict they have no story. 

Beyond those basics, each subgenre has its own conventions — rules, whether you want to call them that or not. A cozy, for example, can’t contain explicit sex scenes with X-rated language or detailed descriptions of brutal violence. Every writer who has been through the agent/editor mill knows how much weight traditional publishers place on easy categorization of novels. If they don’t know what category it fits into — if it’s a little of this, a little of that, not a lot of anything — they won’t know how to market it, review publications won’t know where to place their reviews, and booksellers won’t know which shelf to put it on. But the likelihood is that none of those problems will arise, because it will never be published.

Self-published authors are free to write what they please and ignore all the conventions. They still have to reach an audience, though, and that means categorizing their novels. They may think they’re writing mystery, but if they ignore the readers’ expectations, they won’t reach their target audience and might provoke a lot of negative reviews from people who do buy their work. 

Bestselling authors sometimes wander off track in their twentieth or thirtieth books, letting the suspense go slack and writing rushed endings that outrage readers. Yet their readers will continue buying their books. All that proves is that when you have a solid record of great sales behind you, you can disappoint fans without driving them away forever, because they hope you’ll be back in good form the next time out. It doesn’t prove that ignoring readers’ expectations — aka “the rules” — will bring success to every author. 

I believe that the basic structure, the basic conventions, of crime fiction offer tremendous freedom to the writer. Within that structure, we can go deeply into character, create vivid worlds, explore social issues, raise questions about life and the way we treat each other. The need to solve or prevent a crime provides automatic conflict and tension. With that as a starting point, we can go almost anywhere. As long as we meet or exceed the reader’s expectations, no one is going to think about rules or formulas. All they’ll be thinking is, “What a terrific story!”

Monday, November 24, 2014


The Killer Next Door
by Alex Marwood
Trade Paperback
Penguin (October 28, 2014)

Alex Marwood’s first book, The Wicked Girls (which won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original), was one of my favorite novels of 2013. Shifting back and forth in time, it focused on two women who killed a child together when they were both eleven years old, grew up in separate prisons, and haven’t seen each other since. As adults with new identities and very different lives, they come together again with disastrous consequences. The Wicked Girls is dark and probing, an exquisite psychological suspense novel.  

The Killer Next Door, Marwood’s second novel, is a different sort of crime story, creepy and sometimes grotesquely comic, but no less absorbing. The reader learns from the opening pages that the police are investigating the discovery of body parts in a decrepit South London rooming house and that a missing resident named Collette is believed to be a victim—but not the only one. The story then moves back in time to reveal what led up to this point.

Collette, in her thirties, is on the run after witnessing a murder. Using a fake name (she is actually Lisa Dunne) and carrying a bag of cash that she never lets out of her sight, she returns to England after years abroad to see her dying mother. She takes refuge in the anonymity of the rooming house, although it means putting up with a repugnant, lecherous landlord, and moves into the quarters vacated by a young woman who has mysteriously vanished.  The other females in residence are Cher, a teenage runaway who survives through petty theft, and Vesta, the independent but motherly woman in her sixties who occupies a basement flat. The male tenants are Hossein, a handsome Iranian seeking political asylum, and two nondescript bachelors named Thomas and Gerard. 

One of the men is a serial killer who calls himself The Lover. He keeps his victims’ corpses in his flat as quiet companions until they begin to produce an odor that can’t be covered up with air freshener. Then he dismembers the bodies and disposes of the pieces around the house and down the toilets. The place is plagued with backed-up drains and a stench accentuated by the oppressive heat of summer. When Collette moves in, The Lover is looking for a fresh victim.

The secretive tenants tend to keep to themselves, but one hot night an accident brings them together and sets in motion a continually surprising string of events.

Marwood has the same merciless eye and penetrating insight into human behavior that distinguishes Ruth Rendell’s writing. Although the men are less well realized, the three women are vividly drawn and memorable. 

This novel is not for the easily repulsed, and at times the descriptions of disgusting sights, smells, and actions seem repetitive. Yet—again like Rendell—Marwood finds a macabre humor in all these goings-on. 

In the final pages, Marwood refrains from escalating the sense of dread into a predictable bloodbath and instead takes a turn that leads to a totally satisfying conclusion. Despite the events leading up to it, the ending allows the reader to close the book with a smile and lingering thoughts about the meaning of friendship and family.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.