WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – MAKE ME, by Lee Child

Make Me cover

 

Most of us regular guys and gals are a lot alike. We go to work and take orders from someone above us five days a week. We’re anchored to our residences by the mortgages or rent we have to pay every month. We don’t often get into fights, and would be apt to turn the other way if we encountered a band of thugs on the sidewalk in front of us.

Most of us – at least the people I hang out with – are happy with our lives. But then there are those days when things seem a little off. The walls around us feel stifling. The bosses and clients we work for make us feel like drones. We step out of a bar at midnight, feeling lightheaded and thinking of nothing but sleep until we round a corner and see four big guys in ski masks, hands in the pockets of their jackets, walking purposefully toward us . . .

“That’d be one of those moments when you want to be Jack Reacher,” my dad tells me, with a chuckle at the other end of the phone. He retired from the Army as a Colonel about 20 years ago. He’s fiercely loyal to the military. If I ask him even now if there was ever a man or woman he worked for who was a first class jerk, he’ll just smile, take a sip of his Hendricks, and sigh.

He will, however, be happy to tell me why he loves the way Jack Reacher, the man at the center of Lee Child’s novels, responds to hubristic authority, and how much he loves fight scenes where Reacher takes on three, four or even more bad guys, felling every one with expert feints, head buts and in general by using their exertion and brawn against them. My dad will also tell you the rule he and I share when it comes to thrillers. If we’re not completely captivated 50 or so pages in, we’ll close the book and move on to another. Could be because we’re shallow. Or it could be because we’re spoiled after reading everything that Lee Child has ever written.

In these books we’re always spellbound from the first sentence to the last – always knowing Child is in complete control of the story and leading us along a carefully twisted path toward a stunning and surprising destination. In Jack Reacher Child has created a character like no one else we’ve read. From his 20s through his mid-30s Reacher was an MP in the Army, which is where he learned the basics of law enforcement and investigation. He grew up as the son of a French woman and a Marine Corps Captain, moving from base to base, which seems to have shaped his personality as a guy who travels the world alone.

Indeed, I still remember my mom calling me one day back in the 1990s to tell me about how they had discovered Reacher. “He rides across the country on trains and buses and stays in different motels every night,” she said. “All he carries is a money card and a toothbrush, and after every couple of days he just buys a new shirt and pants instead of washing what he has.”

At the time these seemed like nothing more than curious details about an interesting character. Two days later when I fell headlong into my first Reacher story I saw the symbolism. Reacher is a wanderer, forever driven to walk toward the horizon, a trait embedded in his DNA and fostered by the lifestyle of military kids accustomed to moving to new places every year or so.  Most of the stories that take place in his post-military life begin with him in transit and stopping off for a few days in a new place where he’s immediately pulled into – or deliberately jumps into – a dangerous situation. Every scenario is unique. In Personal, he halts his self-directed travels for a detour to Paris to take part in a CIA investigation into a sniper who targeted the President of France. In MAKE ME, he gets off a train traveling through a vast stretch of Midwest farm country to visit a tiny town known as “Mother’s Rest” simply because he’s curious about the origin of its name.

That might sound odd if you haven’t read Reacher books, yet but it won’t if you have. He operates solely with his own compass, stopping in random places and usually on impulse or without much thought beyond simple curiosity. In most of the books I’ve read the trouble he immediately falls into is triggered by his innate compulsion to help someone who he feels is about to be a victim. In MAKE ME, he learns within a minute of stepping off the train in Mother’s Rest that there was another guy who was supposed to be on the same train. A private investigator who went to the town on an off-the-books job and who disappeared shortly after arrival.

In this book – like a lot of the Reacher stories – there’s a woman who he quickly becomes involved with. In every case they end up working together, with the women bringing unique insights and skills to the job in every case. I have to say that one of my favorite aspects of these books is that these women are never “love interests.” They’re strong-willed, physically fit women who match Reacher’s wits and intelligence all the way.

In MAKE ME, the woman who becomes Reacher’s partner is former FBI Agent Michelle Chang. She’s also a PI now, employed by the same organization as the missing guy. She came to Mother’s Rest looking for her colleague, and despite having the even-keel strength the Bureau seems to require she’s feeling inside-out with worry.

Unfortunately there’s a good reason for that. Something truly horrific has happened to the missing investigator. Something linked to a tale so dark that it borders at times on horror if you let your mind go fully into the places where Lee Child sends you with this story. With the exception of Gone Tomorrow, a story involving deceivingly normal-looking Taliban assassins with the most appalling capacity for evil, MAKE ME is the scariest Reacher story to date.  It’s full of eerie insights about the impact of a barely fathomable level of depression among people who are both at the center and the outskirts of the action. It takes us into the Internet’s Dark Web underbelly. And it moves with relentless speed and intrigue that deepens with every chapter.

That’s mostly what you need to know if you read for enjoyment and like to experience a roller coaster-type sort of fear from time to time. If you write fiction there are a couple of other things you might appreciate. One is Child’s rare ability to write the same kind of sharp and minimal prose that makes you want to read Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain novels again and again. The other is his dialogue, which perpetuates intrigue with a snappy resonance that stays in your head.

Here, for example, are the first few lines of MAKE ME:

“Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy. It was like trying to wrestle a king-size mattress off a waterbed. So they buried him close to the house. Which made sense anyway. The harvest was still a month away, and a disturbance in a field would show up from the air. And they would use the air, for a guy like Keever. They would use search planes, and helicopters, and maybe even drones.”

And here’s a bit of conversation, capturing the way Reacher and Michelle Chang get to know each other, right after Reacher gets off the train in Mother’s Rest:

She came toward him with a distinctive burst of energy, two fast paces, eager, like she was pleased to see him. Her body language was all about relief.

Then it wasn’t. Then is was all about disappointment. She stopped dead, and she said, “Oh.”

She was Asian. But not petite. Five-nine, maybe, or even five-ten. No kind of a willowy waif. She was about forty, Reacher guessed, with black hair worn long, jeans and a T-shirt under a short cotton coat. She had lace-up shoes on her feet.

He said, “Good evening, ma’am.”

She was looking past his shoulder.

He said, “I’m the only passenger.”

She looked him in the eye.

He said, “No one else got out of the train. So I guess your friend isn’t coming.”

“My friend?” she said. A neutral kind of accent. Regular American. The kind he heard everywhere.

He said, “Why else would a person be here, except to meet the train? No point in coming otherwise. I guess normally there would be nothing to see at midnight.”

She didn’t answer.

He said, “Don’t tell me you’ve been waiting here since seven o’clock.”

“I didn’t know the train was late,” she said. “There’s no cell signal here. And no one from the railroad, to tell you anything. And I guess the Pony Express is out sick today.”

“He wasn’t in my car. Or the next two, either.”

“Who wasn’t?”

“Your friend.”

“You don’t know what he looks like.”

“He’s a big guy,” Reacher said. “That’s why you jumped out when you saw me. You thought I was him. For a second, anyway. And there were no bug guys in my car. Or the next two.”

“When is the next train?”

“Seven in the morning.”

She said, “Who are you and why have you come here?”

“I’m just a guy passing through.”

“The train passed through. Not you. You got out.”

I love the sound of all of this – love the way the conversation evolves in the context of what’s happening in that bizarrely empty train depot in that lonely the night somewhere in a vast American prairie. Reacher and Chang are both wary of and drawn to each other, with friend-or-foe questions ticking through their minds every second. It’s a perfect stream of dialogue that characterizes everything that happens in the chapters to come, each one taking you further into a labyrinthian journey of depravity, hoping for a happy ending but justifiably worrying you won’t see it. Regardless of how you feel about what really happens, chances are you’ll whisper “wow” when you finish this latest Reacher novel, before going on the hunt for every single one you might have missed before.

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WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – THE WAYS OF THE DEAD, by Neely Tucker, and THE FALL, by John Lescroart

THE WAYS OF THE DEAD   THE FALL

Narratives are powerful. They’re the reason why Donald Trump, with his Make America Great Again slogan, will win a disturbingly large share of the popular vote in the presidential election. They’re the fuel that turbo-charged headlines about an exotic dancer who was supposedly raped by Duke University lacrosse team members in 2006 and Rolling Stone’s short-sighted rush to expose allegations of the same crime against University of Virginia fraternity brothers in 2014.  They also have everything to do with the reasons politicians are so eager to line up alongside “victims of police brutality” every chance they get.

In these cases and so many more, the narratives don’t have to be true. They’re stories we want to read, and tell, because they confirm viewpoints we hold dear. In my day job I’ve been known to silently rage-on when I see media outlets perpetuating narratives that keep eyes on the screen and advertiser dollars rolling in even though the facts don’t bear them out. In my off hours as a writer and reader of fiction, I become a lot more centered when I’m immersed in stories with simple plot lines that ultimately reveal in truthful and believable terms how complicated real life usually is.

For these reasons and more I’ve been thinking a lot about THE WAYS OF THE DEAD, written by Washington Post reporter Neely Tucker in 2014, and THE FALL, by John Lescroart last year. I read THE WAYS OF THE DEAD shortly after it was published, and was instantly transported back to a period in my life about 20 years before. It was 1994. I was living in a picture-perfect Victorian surrounded by Section 8 housing in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. I often had to kindly negotiate my way past the drug dealers who would be sitting on my front stoop when I got home from 10-hour days on the job, and remind myself to feel sorry for the men and women who were losing their lives to crack addiction when they aired their grievances at the top of their lungs outside my windows in the middle of the night.

I was pretty much rooted to that world, stuck there by a mortgage way higher than the value of my home, and surrounded by the chaos emanating from people who were largely poor, uneducated and often pretty damn mean. It wasn’t all bad – in fact if I hadn’t lived there I never would have enjoyed the years I spent as a mentor to some amazing local kids, or gotten to know some sweet little old ladies who’d lived in the neighborhood since its heyday as D.C.s “Black Broadway.” But there were many times when I felt like I was living in a surreal world, particularly when I’d talk with friends who lived in pricey digs in the city’s leafy upper Northwest environs and who loved to preach about the need to legalize drugs, empty the prisons of people who had been convicted of selling them, and spend more money on welfare and “affordable housing” for the type of people who were making our lives miserable. Still, we managed well enough, right up until a certain November, when Marion Barry was re-elected as Mayor after serving six months in federal prison, an event that made me feel as if chaos was going to reign forever.

Looking back, I view the whole period in terms of how it forced me to try to understand the problems faced by people in poor neighborhoods while also recognizing the power of conflicting narratives. One narrative that was believed and perpetuated by many of my neighbors was that every problem stemmed from “the man” – a euphemism for white people with power and money. They also believed that “the power structure” didn’t care when poor black people were murdered. That narrative had a huge amount of influence because it absolved people of personal responsibility. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t true, or if I didn’t believe it was true, because every once in awhile reasonable people could see some truth in it. Then, as now, the newspapers reported on the deaths of men, women and teens virtually every day. Virtually every time, they were listed as residents of addresses in parts of the city that were known to be poor. There were so many murders that people became inured – they simply stopped paying attention. Yet then, as now, the murder of someone living in either a rich or poor neighborhood who wasn’t black automatically sparked headlines and a what felt like a far greater effort to bring the killer to justice.

It was an uncomfortable truth that I didn’t want to believe at the time. Yet I couldn’t help believing it years later when I read Tucker’s novel about Sarah Reese, a pretty white teenager and daughter of a judge who’s murdered in an alley behind an inner city corner store. Sully Carter, a journalist who knows all of the ins and outs of D.C.’s courts and law enforcement agencies, doesn’t believe the arrest of three black teenagers represents the whole truth of what happened. As a journalist whose livelihood depends compelling storytelling and on being first with the facts, he goes all-in on the investigative reporting that brings the real truth to light.

The story reflects themes from real-life murders on a D.C. street known as Princeton Place. As a reporter, Tucker covered the investigation of the murders and the trial of the serial killer who was responsible. He was inspired to write this novel by what happened in that case, and his knowledge of crime, investigations and the courts shines through every passage. As a result, the story is one of the most gripping murder mysteries I’ve ever read, with beautifully descriptive writing that brings pre-gentrified Washington, D.C. to life. Yet it also reinforces the narrative that white lives are more “important” than black lives in realistic ways. As I read it, I felt that everything that was happening was exactly as it would have been if Sarah Reese had been a real person.

The reality of that narrative makes me uncomfortable because of the sadness I feel over all of the children and teens who are murdered, but also because it gives credence to another narrative that I know isn’t true. Right now mainstream and left-leaning media outlets from coast to coast pulse with coverage of protests that perpetuate the lie that the biggest threat facing people of color is death by police. I would already be inclined to disbelieve this as someone who witnessed plenty of police interactions while living in that dangerous place all those years ago. As someone who’s spent a good bit of time with men and women who have one of the most dangerous and difficult jobs on the planet, I disagree with a sense of barely repressed rage every time I hear it now.

Unfortunately the truth doesn’t matter so much when it comes to this particular narrative because it has so much power, and because it’s a simple “solution” – blame law enforcement – for all of the complicated problems that lead to crime, violence, and interactions with police every day. As such, it plays well with people who feel – on a visceral, real-life level – that black victims of crime don’t get the same level of attention as those who are white.

That narrative is at the center of THE FALL. This is the latest in Lescroart’s line of mysteries about the lives of San Francisco lawyer Dismis Hardy and retired homicide detective Abe Glitsky. I discovered the series years ago with A Certain Justice, which I read while living in that same neighborhood. In that book, the murder of a white man by a black criminal spurs a horrific vengeful murder of an innocent black man, which triggers rioting that will be all too familiar for anyone who lived through the burning of East Los Angeles, Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. The driving force of that book is the desperate plight of an innocent man pegged as the killer by the media, who becomes hunted by the police. While he’s on the run, black and white politicians across the spectrum leverage the killings to solidify their power.

I read A Certain Justice with the same feeling I had reading Neely Tucker’s book – knowing this is exactly the way things would happen in real life. It’s a feeling I had once again when reading THE FALL. In this story the victim is an African-American teenager who’s at the edge of a promising life following a childhood in foster care. She’s murdered during a tough time for San Francisco’s law enforcement community, which is under fire by an ambitious politician fostering the narrative that police spend less efforts prosecuting killers of black people. While Dismis and Abe, who is of mixed race, and their colleagues disagree, they know they have to put everything they have into solving the murders for the sake of justice for the girl and politics as well.

Once again Lescroart presents a page-turning mystery with a mix of clues, misdirection and realistic lawyer drama. Abe and Dismis, who tends bar part-time at an historic San Francisco pub, are both interesting characters. They know they can’t trust the politicians who perpetuate those politics but they can always trust each other. Which is pretty much how the alliance forged years ago with A Certain Justice has endured to this day. Together and in partnership with many other good cops and attorneys, they’ve solved a wide variety of crimes while weathering the city’s racial politics along the way. In these novels they know politicians and the media will always exploit tragedies for their own gain. Yet they always strive to get to the truth even when it’s overshadowed by the narratives people really want to hear.

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WRITER’S CLUB REVIEW – SHARP OBJECTS and DARK PLACES, by Gillian Flynn

SHARP OBJECTS  DARK PLACES

I subscribed to the print edition of Entertainment Weekly for years, and always flipped to the book reviews written by Gillian Flynn first. That’s one reason why her name was familiar to me long before the astounding success of Gone Girl. The other reason was my reaction to the two novels, SHARP OBJECTS and DARK PLACES, she wrote before it.

As a result, I like to pretend I’m part of a special club of people who discovered Flynn before the 15 million readers who kept Gone Girl on the New York Times Bestseller List for 130 weeks. Although SHARP OBJECTS and DARK PLACES were also bestsellers that earned critical acclaim, there weren’t a zillion people yakking about them in the years between 2006 and 2010. There were, however, millions who loved them for their gripping narratives and compellingly believable characters. These novels were also loved by a lot of writers, like me, who continuously searched for books that inspired us to aim higher in our own work.

These books hit that mark for me, for plenty of reasons. In both, I was immediately pulled into the story by a main character who spoke with a voice that commanded my attention. In SHARP OBJECTS, that character is Camille Preaker, a newspaper reporter who’s sent back to her home town to cover a story about a missing girl, which forces her to reconsider what she thinks about the death of her own sister years before. In DARK PLACES, the story revolves around Libby Day, who survived the massacre that killed her mother and sisters, and is now plagued by nightmares from the past and the inability to make meaningful connections to other people or hold down a job as her life marches on.

In both cases, Flynn broke a rule that agents and editors have hit me over the head with too many times. She created lead characters who aren’t very likable people. At least not in the beginning. In the beginning they’re cynical loners. Camille is a woman who isolates herself in a job and thinks every day about her stay in a psychological hospital and the years she cut away her own skin. And Libby is so desperate for money that she’s willing to exploit her family’s tragedy to get it.

Despite these qualities, both characters were people I wanted to get to know a little better, because I had a feeling I really would come to like them. In SHARP OBJECTS my connection to Camille was forged within the first chapter. In that scene she’s talking to her editor – a guy who knows her psychologically tortured history inside-out and accepts and appreciates her perhaps even more because of it. The editor – Frank Curry – is getting ready to ask her to do something that’s especially difficult. As she’s considering it, Camille muses:

“Frank Curry thinks I’m a soft touch. Might be because I’m a woman. Might be because I’m a soft touch.”

Ten years after reading that sentence for the first time, it still captures who I think Gillian Flynn really is. In interviews she’s talked about how she wasn’t “a nice girl” growing up. She was always different from other kids. But you never get the sense that didn’t care about people. Indeed, I don’t think she could ever have created such realistic characters if she didn’t have an empathetic nature. And as shown by the brief passage above, she certainly has a sense of humor.

Still, there’s that first sentence in DARK PLACES, that’s so indelibly creepy, spoken in the voice of a narrator who’s obviously trying to push you away:

“I have a meanness inside of me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders.”

That’s the voice of Libby Day, who’s a desperately unhappy person who doesn’t appear to care about anyone else. But once you learn what happened to her you certainly understand why. Like SHARP OBJECTS, DARK PLACES is built around a murder mystery. Libby’s lived for decades without speaking to her brother, Ben, who was sent away to prison for killing her mother and sisters, thanks to her testimony as a “witness.” As an adult, in collaboration with an odd group of citizen investigators who don’t believe Ben is guilty, Libby is forced to once again confront the possibility that the murders are linked to Satan worshipers while dealing with memories of poverty and paternal abandonment as a child.

Despite the early chapters when Libby appears to act as unpleasant as possible, you end up rooting for her by the end of the book. In between you’re treated to a story that moves quickly, making you feel as if you’ve slipped into a nightmarish fun house, with a weird girl at your side. You’re both blind in the darkness, and feeling your way through the corridors, breathless and terrified by what might jump out at you.

You’ll experience similar sensations in SHARP OBJECTS as Camille likewise confronts a series of mysteries about her sister’s death. In the process she’s forced to spend time with the mother she never got along with and a teenage mean girls-type of stepsister. Amid many questions about two missing girls, Camille is drawn into a whirlwind of bad memories about the experiences that left her body scarred by self-mutilation. Although she really is a bit more likable than Libby from DARK PLACES, and although the dark corridors you traverse with her aren’t quite as frightening, the surprise you encounter at the final turn will deepen your appreciation for Flynn’s expertly twisted storytelling along the way.

As a writer, I was encouraged by both of these books to tap my deepest fears and essentially stop worrying about what anyone thought of me as I shared them. Which made me feel a bit more confident as I listened to reactions to my first novel, Double Abduction, which was published in 2007 and likewise incorporated sharp objects and took readers into dark places. As a reader, I know I will always count on Gillian Flynn to tell stories that are captivating enough to stay in my mind years after I’ve read them to the end.

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