Helen MacInnes’ Snare of the Hunter

Classic Romantic Suspense

I can in no way fault Helen MacInnes’ Snare of the Hunter, originally published in 1974 and republished last year along with some of her other spy thrillers.

Though forty years old, the book doesn’t feel dated. Sure, characters must drive to the nearest village to make critical phone calls instead of whipping out their mobile phones. But cells probably wouldn’t work in the Swiss Alps which provide a majestic setting and challenging winding roads to Irina Kusak, who has escaped Czechoslovakia and her ex-husband Jiri Hradek, an ambitious official in that country. He has let Irina go, so she can lead him to her father. A renowned writer who defected to the West some time before, Jaromir Kusak now has written a novel that threatens to reveal Hradek’s most guarded secrets.

David Mennery, an American music critic with a good excuse to be in the neighborhood, agrees to help Irina escape to the West. Years before, Irina and he met in Prague and fell in love, a match thwarted by Irina’s mother, then a high official in Czechoslovakia.

This novel has well-drawn, realistic characters and a well-paced, plausible plot. No 007-style goons or high speed chases here, but the suspense kicks in at the end of Chapter 1 when someone who has helped Irina leave her home country dies. The suspense remains pretty constant throughout the book.

Besides getting caught up in the story, I admired MacInnes’s deft management of viewpoint. Though MacInnes presents much of the story from Irina and David’s perspectives (fairly standard in romantic suspense), she also incorporates the perspective of several other characters. In my own fiction, I tend to play it safe with point of view by sticking to one narrator, whether by the intimate first person perspective (“I”) or by the more removed third (“he” or “she”) throughout a story or book.

When I taught Creative Writing, I used to warn my students about “head hopping,” that is, shifting abruptly from one character’s perspective to another. I also advised them to place any shift at the start of a scene or chapter. MacInnes does that when she ends the first chapter in Irina’s perspective and opens the second chapter from David’s perspective. But in Chapter 4, inside the third paragraph, MacInnes slips out of David’s head and into the head of the flight attendant taking their drink orders. I didn’t get at all lost, though, or even jarred because of MacInnes’ smooth, skillful transition.

What does MacInnes accomplish by doing this? Well, it’s awkward to have a character describe himself. (He knows what he looks like.) So handily, the flight attendant observes David and speculates about him. We readers can feel smug because we know the answers to her silent questions. This immerses us farther into the story.

Later in the plot when the perspective shifts occasionally into a bad guy’s head, we feel the suspense a great deal because we know the dangers that lie in front of Irina and David as they flee through the towering grandeur of the Swiss Alps.

(I really liked the setting cluttered with the tourists, oblivious to the perils around them, who innocently visit those ruined castles and picturesque views.)

Even after the forty years since it first appeared, Snare of the Hunter still thrills.

 

 

Sally Berneathy’s The Ex Who Wouldn’t Die

Sally Berneathy’s Lively Ghost

Sally Berneathy puts us on a speeding Harley with Amanda Randolph at the pulse-pounding start of The Ex Who Wouldn’t Die, the first in her Charley’s ghost series. Sally keeps the action going through a terrible crash and Amanda’s rescue by her husband Charley, who cajoles her, berates her, and bullies her into crawling up an embankment to the road so someone will find her.

Only thing: Charley is acting weird. He says he can’t call 911 on her cell. And when she tries to grab him, she falls right through him. This is logical since Charley’s dead, murdered by someone who’s also out to kill Amanda.

I’ve written about the start of The Ex Who Wouldn’t Die partly to show how well it hooks the reader. But also Sally shows great range in this mystery with a light touch. In fact, some of my favorite parts are the quiet scenes in which we visit Charley’s family home. Again, Sally presents plenty of details–fried chicken on a flowered plate, the songs of the mockingbird Amanda hears from the porch–to let us experience the place in the country where Charley grew up. This house and Charley’s mom exude calm amid the calamities of Amanda’s life. And I found these sections powerful and touching. To me, these scenes are the heart of the book.

And overall, though this mystery focuses on a ghost, its pages are very much alive.

I also recommend Sally’s Death by Chocolate mystery series. Featuring another troublesome husband, those mysteries are also light–downright hilarious in spots.

Sally Goldenbaum’s Murder in Merino

Late September Vacation

It’s always a pleasure to read Sally’s latest Seaside Knitters Mystery because for me, living in the landlocked Midwest, it’s like taking a vacation at the shore. When I was a youngster, my family often visited several of my mom’s relatives who lived in New Jersey, if not on the beach, then within an hour’s drive. A trip to the shore isn’t feasible for me now, but Sally’s deft descriptions on page one take me right back there. Plus, contrasting details like “foamy surf crashing against the rocks or water smooth as silk” create tension, ever a plus in fiction, especially mysteries.

For the eighth outing in Sally’s series, the author has chosen autumn as the season–after the tourists have left Sea Harbor, Massachusetts, leaving one mysterious visitor lingering there. Julia, nicknamed Jules, Ainsley soon becomes a subject of speculation for the Seaside Knitters: Nell Endicott, the main viewpoint character of this novel; her niece Izzy Perry; Cass Halloran; and the lively octogenarian Birdie Favazza. Why has Jules decided to stay so long after the season? Why is she so interested in buying Izzy’s little house without ever having been inside it? What’s inside the locket Jules always wears?

With many popular series, readers get caught up in the personal lives of the continuing characters and enjoy following them from book to book just like we enjoy catching up with the lives of old and dear friends. Murder in Merino is no exception. Here we find Nell and husband Ben approaching their fortieth wedding anniversary. Will it go off all right? Izzy and Sam dote over their baby girl while Cass is shocked to see her boyfriend Danny Brandley standing too close to the beautiful Jules Ainsley. Is there something going on between them?

Personally, I also enjoy being in on some of the continuing, comforting rituals of these characters’ lives like the Friday evening potluck suppers on the Endicotts’ deck. The food is delicious and so is this lively mystery, especially when it plunges backwards in time to other folks that once lived in the little house Jules Ainsley longs to own. Why?

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 I’ve included my blog post about the fourth installment in this series. Originally posted on December 23, 2010, as part of the “fiction addict” series, it focuses on what I learned from A Holiday Yarn that helped me write Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel, the mystery I was working on at the time.

Sally Goldenbaum’s A Holiday Yarn

The Power of Thought

Not long ago, in one of the writing groups I belong to, my friends gave me to know that the pace of early chapters of my WiP is hectic. I’ve got lots of plot, they said, but I need to slow down and give my protagonist and my readers some breathers here and there.

By good fortune, at the time my friends told me “You need to slow down, Juliet,” I was reading A Holiday Yarn, the latest in Sally Goldenbaum’s Seaside Knitters Mysteries. This installment has a particularly thoughtful protagonist/viewpoint character in Nell Endicott.

As I read, it struck me that Nell’s thoughts and reactions are exactly the way a person not used to violence might react to murder, much differently than the police detective in Tami Hoag’s Kill the Messenger, for example. Nell is quietly unsettled by the murder and determined to figure out, with the help of her fellow knitters, who committed the crime so that peace will return to their little town.

Another knitting amateur detective leaps to mind, Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple. Like Miss Marple, Nell is an armchair detective who figures out solutions to crimes often while she knits. Over the years, though, Miss Marple has developed a type of wisdom edged by cynicism. Nell’s not cynical but thoughtful and quite troubled about what would drive a person to commit murder.

In more ways than one, Ella, the protagonist of my WiP, resembles Sally G’s Nell more than Agatha G’s Miss Marple. For one thing, like Nell, my protagonist is married though she has three kids while Nell and her husband are childless.

In the years of their marriage, Ella’s husband has shielded her from the type of abuse she experienced as a child at the hands of her stepmother and stepsisters. She’s forgotten about the worst elements of their torment, though they twit her slyly every chance they get, especially about her slight weight problem even though her younger stepsister is downright fat.

Once the plot of my novel gets rolling, the protection Ella’s husband has provided over the past twenty years is ripped from her, her children taken away, and she’s exposed to scorn, sarcasm, blame for a crime she didn’t commit, as well as to physical violence she’s grown unaccustomed to. The antagonists in the book give her lots to think about and to react to along the way.

Going back for a second look at A Holiday Yarn, I noticed that indeed it starts with Nell reflecting on the unsettling events that unfold in the book. Though this lasts only a page before we zip back several weeks and head into a scene with increasing amounts of dialogue, action, and some description, it establishes Nell as a thoughtful person.

The book continues for another twenty-four pages leading up to the discovery of the murder victim. Shortly after this, Nell literally sits down to ponder the events of the night before. Sally gives Nell nearly five pages to react to this event that deeply shocked and saddened her before the narrative moves into the next scene. Later in the book, though not at such length, Nell again takes time to think about what has happened.

Sitting down to think about a murder instead of rushing on to the next thing as my character often does strikes me as a very realistic response of a quiet, thoughtful person unused to violence. Besides the emotional and psychological realism they add, the thought-passages allow the protagonist and the reader to consider the moral elements of the crime before continuing.

And so, following the examples provided by A Holiday Yarn, I’ve already added a quiet, thoughtful scene between two action scenes in my WiP. Thanks, Sally G., for your model, and happy holidays to all who read this blog installment, the last of 2010.

 

 

Juliet’s Favorite Reads for 2013

Becoming a publisher in addition to being a writer has cut into my reading time quite a bit this year, so instead of my usual rate of four books a month, I read fewer than three a month in 2013. But the five I’ve chosen would stand out in any year. (Please note that not all were first published in 2013 because sometimes it takes me a while to discover the book everyone else read the year or so before.)

# 5 – Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent (2013)

When I spotted this novel on the new and current shelf at my local library, its intriguing title and cover drew me to it. I picked it up, scanned the cover with the picture of a dragon shown partly in anatomical detail, and read the back cover. I put it back since mostly I read mysteries. But the clever concept of a fictional memoir of a lady scientist writing about her lifelong study of dragons drew me back. I checked it out and read it with great pleasure. This story of a bookish young girl drawn to dragons from an early age and determined to find out more about them in a somewhat Victorian setting did not disappoint. The Tropic of Serpents, the second in the series, comes out in March 2014 and I’ll buy it in hardcover, along with the trade paperback of the first.

# 4 – Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2012)

When I found out how this book was written, it intrigued me for a rather specialized reason. It’s a fictionalized compilation of emails, articles from scholarly magazines, school documents, letters, etc. As such it goes back to two early traditions in English literature: the epistolary novel, that is, written in the form of letters, like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and fiction written in diary form, like Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. (I have a vested interest in the latter style since I wrote my dissertation about thirty-plus pieces of fiction written entirely or partly in the form of journals. And actually, A Natural History of Dragons fits into the third tradition for the novel in English: the fictional memoir like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.) But no matter why I picked Semple’s novel up, I read it because it’s a touching story of a loving daughter trying to find where her eccentric mom has gone.

#3 – Colin Cotterill’s Killed at the Whim of the Hat (2011)

I’d been a fan of the Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries for their humor and exotic setting in Communist Laos for some time before I discovered Cotterill’s new series with Jimm Juree, a young woman journalist who lives with her eccentric family in a southern Thailand resort town. Just thinking about the title and other quotations from George W. Bush that start the chapters makes me laugh out loud. This is a very enjoyable, lively read.

#2 – Charlie Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession (2013)

I’m putting this first novel near the top of the list not because one of my former students wrote it or even because it’s beautifully constructed of three different plot lines skillfully interwoven, but because at its heart it contains a touching and timeless story of a young man who finds the love of his life through books, loses her, and finds her again, also through books. It is not my top pick only because of my pick is

#1 – Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In (2013)

When my friend Sally Ooms gave me this book for my birthday this year, I hugged it to my heart and beamed. (You can see my joy in my picture on my Facebook profile page.) The ninth in Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series demonstrates this masterful writer at the top of her game. The bad news for those of you who haven’t read these books is I can’t recommend this book to you. The good news is you get to read Still Life, the first in the series, and the other seven wonderful books that precede How the Light Gets In.