Book Review of And She Was by Alison Gaylin

I’ve been looking for a new series to obsess over, and well, the search is over. And She Was by Alison Gaylin stars Brenna Spector, a forty-something private detective who specializes in missing person cases. And here’s the intriguing bit about the protagonist: she is stricken (if that’s the right word) with Hyperthemesia.  (It means she has an incredibly detailed autobiographical memory…yeah, I had to look it up, too.) Spector recalls, with breathtakingly stunning clarity, practically every single moment of her life.

And She Was starts with the disappearance of Iris Neff, a little girl who suddenly walks off from a neighborhood barbecue, never to be heard from again. Cut to a decade later when one of those present at the barbecue–Carol Wentz, a mild-mannered wife with a seemingly boring husband–becomes obsessed with the case.  After years of secret investigations, Carol manages to get a beat on Iris, but before she can reach out to her Carol ends up in the trunk of a car, murdered. That’s when Nelson Wentz, the prime suspect in the murder, hires Brenna Spector, not to track down Iris Neff, but to figure out who killed his wife.  The tension mounts at every turn as Spector finds haunting parallels between the Iris Neff case and her own life.  And, naturally, Spector comes to the conclusion that the Iris Neff case and Carol Wentz’s murder are related.

Once again, I always return to the characters in a story, and Brenna Spector is downright fascinating.  Because of her Hyperthemesia, she is constantly being dragged into the past, revisiting every single detail of her life.  Now, on the surface, this might sound cool, but man, could it get annoying.  The strain of this affliction coupled with the stress of working what amounts to two cases simultaneously really make Spector a dynamic character.  The tension between Spector and Nelson Wentz, who is creepy in a vanilla kind of way, helps create an atmosphere of suspicion, and the love-hate dynamic between Spector and her metrosexual assistant Trent provides comic relief.

Bottom line, I want to read more books featuring Spector, a tough yet vulnerable detective.  I anxiously await the next installment in this series. In the meantime, read And She Was; you won’t be disappointed.

And She Was

Best Crime Novel Opening Paragraphs

Hook ’em early is a mantra I heard over and over again in various fiction workshops, and it is so true. It is also very tough to pull off, but some of my favorite crime novelists manage to establish a unique voice, a unique setting, a unique situation, and a unique character all within the confines of the introductory paragraph. As a writer myself, I can attest to how freaking hard it is to make all of those elements work over the course of hundreds of pages, but the best in the business–Crumley, Woodrell, Chandler, Thompson to name but a few–can do it in the space of a single opening paragraph. I submit the examples below for your consideration and enjoyment.

The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

The Grifters, Jim Thompson

As Roy Dillon stumbled out of the shop his face was a sickish green, and each breath he drew was an incredible agony. A hard blow in the guts can do that to a man, and Dillon had gotten a hard one. Not with a fist, which would have been bad enough, but from the butt-end of a heavy club.

Miami Blue, Charles Willeford

Frederick J. Frenger, Jr., a blithe psychopath from California, asked the flight attendant in first class for another glass of champagne and some writing materials. . . For the next hour, as he sipped champagne, Freddy practiced writing the signatures of Claude L. Bytell, Ramon Mendez, and Herman T. Gotlieb.

Tomato Red, Daniel Woodrell

You’re no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it’s been a gray day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you’re fresh to West Table, Mo., and a new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow but you find some finally in a trailer court on East Main, and the coed circle of bums gathered there spot you a beer, then a jug of tequila starts to rotate and the rain keeps comin’ down with a miserable bluesy beat and there’s two girls millin’ about that probably can be had but they seem to like certain things and crank is one of those certain things, and a fistful of party straws tumble from a woven handbag somebody brung, the crank gets cut into lines, and the next time you notice the time it’s three or four Sunday mornin’ and you ain’t slept since Thursday night and one of the girl voices, the one you want most and ain’t had yet though her teeth are the size of shoe-peg corn and look like maybe they’d taste sort of sour, suggests something to do, ’cause with crank you want something, anything, to do, and this cajoling voice suggests we all rob this certain house on this certain street in that rich area where folks can afford to wallow in their vices and likely have a bunch of recreational dope stashed around the mansion and goin’ to waste since an article in The Scroll said the rich people whisked off to France or some such on a noteworthy vacation.

chandlercrumleywoodrellthompson

Writers I Admire: Daniel Woodrell

This guy is right up there with Ace Atkins and Dennis LeHane for greatest American crime novelist. His work has been labeled country noir because his books usually feature violence and very flawed, hardscrabble Ozarks folks. Woodrell portrays his characters honestly, starkly, but also with compassion, which is one of the main reasons his work is so compelling: he obviously knows these characters.  How they talk, how they think, how they interact with the world: everything is always spot-on.  Too, Woodrell obviously cares about his characters, and that comes across especially in Tomato Red and Winter’s Bone. Another element of his work that sucks the reader right in is the voice. I challenge ANYONE to read the opening three pages of Tomato Red and stop reading. Ditto Under the Bright Lights, which is the only novel of his I know of that isn’t set in the Ozarks; this one is set in New Orleans and is straight up hard-boiled, page-turning fun.

The Maid’s Version is his latest novel, which is high on my holiday reading list. Below are links to excellent reviews of his various books.

 

http://www.npr.org/2013/09/09/207392723/after-tragedy-lost-live-on-in-maids-version-of-the-story

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/157608137

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/17/books/review/Bowman.t.html?_r=0

Writers I Admire: Steve Ulfelder

I’m a sucker for a good series, and the Conway Sax books are not good, they’re great.  Sax, a part-time mechanic, part-time PI, specializes in doing “favors” for fellow Barn Burners, or recovering alcoholics. As a former drunk, Sax has a checkered past, which, in a variety of interesting ways, both haunts and motivates him to assist other former alcoholics, even when they are ungrateful or downright despicable. But what I dig most about Sax is this: he is a decent guy, an American hero in the same vein as the Colson Quinn character in Ace Atkins’s novels.

In “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler says this about the detective: “He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it…He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job.” To me, it’s almost as if Chandler were writing about Conway Sax. 

Aside from the main character, however, there are many other excellent reasons to read Ulfelder’s books. The wonderful clipped prose. The fast-paced narratives typically centered around loyalty and redemption. I could go on, but I’ll let the writing speak for itself. Click on the link below, and read the opening chapter of Ulfelder’s latest novel Shotgun Lullaby.  

http://www.ulfelder.com/books/shotgun-lullaby/

Writers I Admire: Video with Ace Atkins

This is Ace Atkins talking about his latest Quinn Colson novel The Broken Places. Atkins, a former Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, is, in my humble opinion, the best crime novelist in America. In this video, I love what he has to say about American heroes, Mississippi, and, best of all, the craft of researching and writing. If you haven’t read any of the Colson books, you should. They go in this order: The Ranger, The Lost Ones, and The Broken Places. 

http://www.aceatkins.com