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03-08-12: Val McDermid Exacts 'The Retribution'

Entropic Violence

Entropy is the ultimate enemy. Things fall apart — lives fall apart. Or they may be torn asunder, shredded by a stand-in for entropy that takes pleasure in the process. Val McDermid finds entropy everywhere in 'The Retribution,' the seventh entry in her series featuring psychology professor Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan. Jordan heads a task force that targets the bad stuff. She and Hill have worked together on six novels' worth of distressing murder, and put away some very bad men, including one Jacko Vance. As the novel begins the task force is called in on a case involving the murders of prostitutes. Vance has escaped, swearing not just revenge, but retribution. But the task force is told that they're being disbanded due to budget cuts. If Hill and Jordan aren't killed, they'll be fired. Ah, sweet entropy, always the eternal victor.

What sounds like a swan song proves to be a pretty good place to start, so long as you don't mind reading a smidge over 400 pages in as few sittings as you can manage. And some seriously well written violence. McDermid's writing is textured but tense. 'The Retribution will have you hitting the literary rewind button to pick up the previous novels in the series before you've seen entropy do its chaotic worst.

For all the scrupulously crafted suspense, the real appeal of McDermid's novel is her large, diverse and detailed cast of characters. Jordan and Hill have an increasingly complicated relationship, which is accelerated and explored in 'The Retribution.' But most importantly, the task force she heads is a superbly drawn group of individual characters whom McDermid brings to life with no effort. She knows just how much to tell us about her sergeants, Chris Devine and Kevin Matthews, her constables, Stacy Chen and Sam Evans, and of course, Paula McIntyre. They're being unmoored from the safety of their group as they work to pursue two dire murderers. All of the characters are enjoyable to read about, even Jacko Vance. McDermid clearly likes all of her characters, and readers will as well.

McDermid's plotting is unusual, in that you get a rather straightforward madman on the loose in Jacko Vance and a gritty, obscure killer doing things to prostitutes that take the novel well into the range of the horror genre. The novel manages to be both fast-paced and pleasingly dense, full of textures and scenes that you'll want to linger in, even as they're filled with dread. She weaves the personal lives of her task force in well, letting them have enough space to feel real, but hewing closely to the murder plots. Her resolutions are satisfying and rather different, as suits the crimes and those committing them.

McDermid's prose treads the line of detailed, but stays transparent and clean. 'The Retribution' manages to feel rich and full, but you'll read it in a trice. If it's the first book by her you read, chances are it will not be the last. McDermid knows how to explore the appeal of entropy, and those who would — however futile their effort may be — seek to stand in its way.

03-07-12: Archive Reviews: William Landay, 'Mission Flats.'


Editor's note: In case you haven't combed the back archives, here's the unearthed review by much-missed, clearly visionary Terry D'Auray of William Landay's first novel, 'Mission Flats.'

Any place named "Flats" is likely to be bad; the blue chip areas are "heights" or 'havens". If you're in the flats, you're probably in some burned out urban wasteland, probably dominated by pimps, hookers, gangs, drug dealers and junkies, where a white face stands out and spells trouble. Mission Flats, an imaginary section of Boston, is no exception. 'Mission Flats', the debut novel by William Landay, is. Landay takes all the pieces of the typical urban suspense jigsaw and recombines them into an original and satisfying new piece with exceptional characters and layer upon layer or irony.
'Mission Flats' opens with the rape and shooting of a Boston cop some twenty years in the past, followed shortly by the suicide of the perpetrator of that crime, who opted to kill himself rather than wait for the Boston PD to do it to him. Ten years later, another Boston cop is shot in the face while leading a raid on the "Red Door", a well-known Mission Flats drug stashpad. That's just the prologue, and as any mystery reader knows, both these crimes will ultimately weave back into the story that follows.

That story begins in Versailles, Maine (pronounced Ver Sales), a Podunk town frequented by tourists in the summer and fall, and a few hundred "locals" the rest of the year. Ben Truman has abandoned his graduate studies in history to move back to Versailles to care for his mother who is dying of Alzheimer's and has taken the job of Chief of Police formerly held by his father. On a routine check, Truman discovers the body of a Boston Deputy District Attorney in an abandoned lakeside cabin. The killing bears the signature of the Mission Posse, a gang of drug dealers from Mission Flats. Determined to track down the killer, Truman sets out for Boston.

Truman is an untrained and unsophisticated small-town cop, familiar with DUIs and speeders, not big-city criminals. Nicknamed "Opie" by one of the Boston DAs, he is adopted by a retired cop named John Kelly and Mission Flats hot-shot cop Gittens. Together, they educate him in the ways of inner city policing, big-city politics, and what passes for justice in contemporary times. Truman may be backwoods, but he's not backwards; he's a quick study and an intelligent observer, alternately a naive rube or a reluctant tough cop. Or so it seems.

Ironically, while Truman the historian was passionate about uncovering and understanding the details of the past, he is an untrustworthy narrator of his own story. He omits significant segments of the narrative, whether by design or denial. An untrustworthy narrator is a tricky business for a writer, particularly if the narrator's credibility is the peg upon which the plot twist rests. He must appear to be believable, or the twist packs no surprise. But he can't be infallibly credible, or the surprise doesn't ring true. There must be but a whisper of doubt, a circumstance, a comment, an action or reaction that initially holds weight but with thought, or with new revelation, doesn't quite gel. Landay controls this trickiness masterfully, layering his story with whispers of doubt, followed by whollops of revelation, tightening the tension and building the suspense.

Landay is a keen observer and chronicler of people, their weaknesses and their motivations. His story is both a tale of the process of uncovering truth and pursuing justice and a paean to the shifting nature of that truth and the preeminence of moral ambiguity. He invests his characters with fully functional moral compasses, but sets them all to "situational". Working with layered contradiction and reflective irony, Landay cloaks complicated ethical conflicts in everyday reality, makes immoral choices seem credible, and never fully answers the taxing questions he raises. That he can carry the reader through this moral minefield with mounting suspense and ultimate believability is exceptional in any novel, but particularly noteworthy in a first novel.

Landay's prose is fluid, familiar and easily read. His descriptions are vivid, often delivered with sage similes or worldly wit and his characterization is observant, insightful and sensitively conveyed. Sharper editing could have aided in sustaining a more even pace, avoiding the few repetitive segments and errant ramblings, but the narrative flows logically to a satisfying, if shocking, conclusion.

'Mission Flats' is a page-turner with substantive moral and psychological punch, a truly impressive debut novel. Able to create characters that resonate and a narrative with ironic twists and moral grit, Landay is an author to watch.

03-05-12: William Landay Is 'Defending Jacob'

The DA Speaks

Our children are a source of joy and love in our lives. But with the certainty of love comes the potential for much darker emotions; fear, violence, anger, everything we need to protect them from those who would do them harm. The tension between these two poles of being can drive the most lawful of men to actions that are well outside the law. William Landay works this territory for all it is worth in 'Defending Jacob,' a book that lives up to the description of "thriller." With a few simple brush strokes, he pulls readers relentlessly into a vortex of transcendental parental terror.

Landay writes with an easy assurance and command of plot and character. We meet Andy Barber, an assistant District Attorney, as he is testifying in a case that clearly involves his own family. A fourteen year-old boy has been murdered in a park. Barber was the first man on the scene with the cops. As the senior man in his department, he took the case himself. This has clearly proved to be an unwise decision, since he's being cross-examined by his one-time subordinate. It's not the only bad decision you'll read about in this book.

Readers are best advised to go into 'Defending Jacob' as cold as possible. Don't read the dust jacket, and avoid reviews. You're not going to find out much more about the plot from this one. Landay has crafted a consummate character-driven page-turner that is thought-provoking, intense, and packed with surprises that even veteran genre readers will find surprising.

The manner in which the story is told is one of the greatest pleasures of 'Defending Jacob.' Landay weaves courtroom transcripts, courtroom dialogues and more pastoral passages set in the suburbs to create a sense of high-tension that is powerfully underwritten by close observations and characterization. As each page presents a new perspective on events, readers will enjoy the surprises but never feel cheated. And the surprises are engagingly revelatory.

Landay's cast of characters is a nicely drawn selection from everyman's suburb, with a legal leaning. Wives gather in cliques to discuss tragedy, they circle to shield their own and pull back from the excluded, the tainted. Lawyers and judges, friends and neighbors say the right thing to the exquisitely written Barber family. Andy, his wife and their son cope with the murder in an achingly realistic manner. His comrades at work, particularly the oily Logiudice (pronounced lowJOOdiss) are the sort of professionals you might find anywhere; flawed but certainly respectable. The kids in this book seem as daunting and inscrutable and lovable as any you might happen to have in your own life.

Landay's prose is a stand-out aspect of novel that remains wisely beneath the radar. His transcripts and dialogue are crisp without being sketchy, and his suburban interludes are lush but not mushy. There's science and tech in the novel, both in the kids Internet usage and in the courtroom itself, that is engagingly integrated into the plot. Landay knows how to write about the particulars of incoming technology and science in a manner that is interesting to read about even as it advances plot points. He manages to tell us what we want to know without getting on a lectern.

The real trick of 'Defending Jacob' is that readers can enjoy the surprises without feeling as if they've been tricked. Landay is a crafty, smart writer who gets us in his character's perspective and makes staying there tense and enjoyable, even as the revelations unfold. There's no doubt that some will see what's coming, but that won't detract from how much you enjoy 'Defending Jacob.' Landay's characters and their world will become yours while you read this book. You'll see the world through eyes that are not your own, and when you open your eyes on your own world, it will be changed. Joy and love, or fear, anger and violence? Our children are capable of inspiring all of these emotions. But they are not responsible for those emotions, or what they inspire us to do.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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