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The Evil in Our Hearts
The best crime stories start with us, right where we are
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Sometimes The Darkest Places Are Right Where We Live
Not long ago, my husband and I watched James Ellroy talk about his life and books and L.A. Noir for a couple of hours. Fascinating? Yes. Weird? That would be an understatement. Elroy is the kind of man who talks about his breaking-entering-and-panty-sniffing days with the same unblinking stare and flattened affect as he talks about his mother’s murder. It’s unnerving.
I couldn’t stop watching him. Here was a man whose life and work have been shaped by one of the worst things any of us can imagine happening to us. He has turned it into more than 20 novels and two memoirs - that follow the LA Noir playbook: flawed heroes, deadly women, the tough but good girl the hero doesn’t deserve living out their drama in a city that glitters from a distance but becomes a labyrinth of shadows once you get close. His livelihood and perhaps his sanity have depended upon looking as deeply as he can into the dark, not running away from it.
That said, I’ve never read Elroy and don’t plan to any time soon. I am not a hard-core reader of crime stories - fictional or “true.” I avoided stories about death and the worse sides of humanity for much of the pandemic. I think I may need to take a harder look now though. I blame authors like Steph Cha, John Vercher, David Heska Wanbli Weiden, and all 20 authors featured in the recently published collection, Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021, a book I’ve mentioned a few times here. The world they write about is the one I live in but never see and not one that a famous white male crime writer has ever shown me.
Some explain the fascination with crime stories is that they can be “cathartic, a “safe way to experience the world” or tickle the part of us that “can’t resist a good mystery or a good scare.” -(Six Leading Crime Fiction Authors Explain Why Theirs is the Most Popular Genre.) Others suggest that these stories, particular true crime stories, help us to “rehearse” or prepare to survive an attack by a serial killer or rapist, or letting us feel glad that we are not the perpetrator or the victim.
A few of these reasons resonated with me -- who doesn’t like a brain-teasing plot or the chance to test our psychoanalysis skills as the story unfolds? And there is something to the idea that we feel a sort of safety when we watch other people - real and fictional - mess up, do evil, get embroiled in the swamp that lies in wait for all of us if we take one wrong step.
The best stories, though, are those that hold up a mirror. That show us our own dark side. They suggest that the border between us and the perpetrators or victims is often slim and porous. We could slip over it at any time. In fact, we may have done it without even knowing.
I found one story like this after another in Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021. the collection assembled by Steph Cha and Alafair Burke that I’ve mentioned a few times in recent weeks. The very first story, “Return to India,” by Jenny Bhatt offers an account of the death of a man, an immigrant who has worked for 20 years in an engineering firm, from the perspectives of those who surrounded him. On the one hand, it was easy for me to judge the gossipy receptionist, the manipulative sales director, the boss who failed to promote him, the conservative man who drank with him at night when they each found themselves alone after work, and the blinkered fed-up gun-toting machinist who collides with the victim in a gross misunderstanding. On the other, I couldn’t help thinking that if I had been in that story, I might not have pulled the trigger but I could easily have been among the others whose complicity sprang from their inability or refusal to see beyond their own corner of the world.
Each of the stories in this book rise from the world we are in right now. Each exposes what Cha calls “the cracks in our characters, our relationships, our communities, our countries.” There are no big-name white male authors in this collection. And, except for one story, there are no private investigators, no detectives, no flawed heroes playing out a predictable “Noir” script. There are husbands, wives, children, immigrants, the privileged, and those who are scrabbling for purchase in our society. They largely abandon stories about serial killers in favor of those who blunder into crime or trouble or choose it in desperation, and must avoid or be buried by an avalanche of consequences.
For example, Alex Segura puts us on a leaky raft with a family fleeing Cuba for Florida through shark-infested waters. E. Gabriel Flores puts us in a car with two women who ponder the nature of bad luck while they head out to stash the body in the trunk. Joanna Pearson takes us to a birthday party for a troubled boy who has arranged through the Internet for a surprise guest who guarantees “chaos.” Laura Lippman gives us a murderous wife who tricks her husband into thinking he is texting back and forth with a potential mistress. Nikki Dolson strips the veneer from a middle-class Vegas neighborhood where the new neighbors are anything but good, and Ravi Howard leads us into the cold, empty kitchen of a new prison with a woman charged with making a cake for a prisoner’s final meal.
I was riveted by these stories and the other 12 that make up the collection. Each one was a jagged-edged mirror that made me look harder at the world and myself, even if it hurt.
What was the last good crime novel you read?
More Crime For You
Your House Will Pay is Steph Cha’s fourth novel and the first outside of her Juniper Song Series. I’m half-way through this novel and had to tear myself away in order to write this newsletter. Set in Los Angeles, the story is about death, revenge, and how two families, one Black, one Korean, both American struggle against the forces outside and within themselves that would pull them under. It is a uniquely “L.A.” story but not one that an Elroy or a Connelly could tell. This story is told from the perspectives of those who are most deeply affected by it. Inspired by the real-life shooting of Latasha Harlins by the owner of the deli where she’d gone to buy some orange juice in the early 90s, Cha creates a story that takes us further than any headlines could do. She brings us into the hearts and minds of the families on both sides of the tragedy and, without offering excuses or apologies or justifications - asks us to listen before we leap to judgement. This is a powerful read and I can’t wait to get back to it. If you are new to Steph Cha, read more about her and the Juniper Song series here on her website and on our Spark Community Recommendations page at bookshop.org.
I read John Vercher’s Three-Fifths towards the end of 2020. Set in Pittsburgh in the mid-90s, the story is about Bobby Saraceno, a young mixed-race man who is a witness to the death of a black man at the hands of Bobby’s friend, Aaron, newly released from jail. Fearing for his safety and his freedom, Bobby tries to hide his secret from Aaron and his involvement from the police but when his father reappears after a 20-year absence, all his efforts are in jeopardy. The tension in this story is almost unbearable at times but I was invested in Bobby by page two and could not put the book down until I saw how it played out.
I read Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden in August. This story plays out on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota where Virgil is hired to deliver when justice is denied by the American legal system (usually) or the tribal council (depends on the politics at the moment). An assignment leads to a life-risking situation for Virgil and the nephew he has raised in the wake of his sister’s death and exposes a level of corruption that is very close to home. As much as the suspense pulled me forward, I was reluctant to rush. There are many moments along the way where Virgil edges closer to being the man he wants to be and the question of whether this would happen was as compelling as the crime that drove the plot.
Next up for me: S.A. Cosby’s Razorblade Tears. The story is about the fathers of two gay men, one Black, one white, who are both murdered. The fathers, both ex-cons, are devastated by the loss of their sons even as they grapple with their shame that they were gay. They have no love for each other but both are bent on making sure the killers pay and team up. I read the opening page and immediately downloaded it onto my Kindle.
For Your Watch List
A member of our Spark community has appeared five times on the long-running show Law & Order SVU. Just last week, Bernadette Quigley appeared in the 500th episode of the show as a mother whose daughter was murdered 20 years ago and the man she believed killed her may be innocent. You can watch that episode here on Peacock ( I watched it and her performance was amazing). Check out the list of her other performances on this show here and search them out on Peacock (the NBC channel for live streaming its shows).
Still no dog
A quick update on the search for our next dog: we are still dog-less and will remain that way for a little while longer. No matches last weekend and our foster pup is still in Mexico so we’ve decided to slow things a bit and see what happens. I will keep you posted. Thanks for all the good wishes and support. I guess it is time to trust that things will work out when the time is right.
That’s it for this week. Happy Halloween. Let me know how you are what you’re reading. As always, if you are looking for a book, browse our Spark Community Recommendations Page at bookshop.org where every purchase supports local bookstores.
Be well. See you next week.
Ciao for now,
P.S. And now, your moment of Zen…Flashback
My dad used to love to say this line from the old radio show The Shadow. It feels right for today and for the theme this week.
Calling for Your Contribution to “Moment of Zen”
What is YOUR moment of Zen? Send me your photos, a video, a drawing, a song, a poem, or anything with a visual that moved you, thrilled you, calmed you. Or just cracked you up. This feature is wide open for your own personal interpretation.
Come on, go through your photos, your memories or just keep your eyes and ears to the ground and then share. Send your photos/links, etc. to me by replying to this email or simply by sending to: firstname.lastname@example.org. The main guidelines are probably already obvious: don’t hurt anyone -- don’t send anything that violates the privacy of someone you love or even someone you hate, don’t send anything divisive, or aimed at disparaging others. Our Zen moments are to help us connect, to bond, to learn, to wonder, to share -- to escape the world for a little bit and return refreshed.
I can’t wait to see what you send!
(And if you’ve gotten here, liked something, and still haven’t hit the heart below, now’s your chance! )