‘Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder’

“Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder.” 
― Raymond Chandler

I just finished a novel (see picture) that was 99% technique and 1% nonsense. The author used a technique that’s so ubiquitous these days, it’s got to be more than a fad. It’s an epidemic.

It works like this. You’re reading a high-stakes chapter, probably a thriller, and at the end of the chapter something untoward happens such as, “Bob kicked open the door and noticed 25 men pointing their guns at him.”

You turn the page wondering, more than idly, how the hero’s going to get out of this mess. Do you find out? No. What you see is the beginning of a new section of the book called SIX MONTHS EARLIER and most of that section seems completely irrelevant or, in writer talk: a very intrusive backstory.

There’s no passion in this, and I’m not talking about the kind of passion Raymond Chandler was referring to when he wrote, “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” The story would have been more interesting if it had been a house of cards rather than a house of gimmicks.

The story lacked passion because when it came down to it the story and the characters didn’t really matter. Instead, they were cheap tricks strung together like the kind of necklace you can buy at a pawn shop for a couple of bucks. Unfortunately, the book cost more than that and didn’t have the gumption to acknowledge that, when compared to cheap hookers, it was more false.

The novel, written by an author whom the blurbs said was the next Stephen King or the next Michael Crichton, had an inventive beginning in which a passenger jet arrives at a small airport where the flight pilot and copilot discover that everyone on the ground is apparently dead. Unfortunately, the main characters immediately out themselves as dysfunctional. Suddenly, the novel reminds me of Chandler’s line, “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

At a distance, the story has possibilities worthy of King and Chrichton. Up close, it’s dysfunctional characters and a lot of technique. The author has chosen a distasteful stew of technique, characters who are too broken to even speak to each other, and techno-speak with which to engineer this costume jewelry of a story.

Here’s a spoiler: Google, we learn, might be developing products that aren’t good for us even though they have plenty of technique in them and look like they are good for us. Well, that’s hardly a new idea. Nonetheless, it’s the driving force behind why the ground crew at the airport seem to be dead.

In the final analysis, there’s nothing to see here or, as Chandler says, “The moment a man begins to talk about technique that’s proof that he is fresh out of ideas.”

It takes guts, I think, to tell a story straight rather than relying on stale smoke and cloudy mirrors. Dead on Arrival is dead on arrival.

Malcolm

 

Review: ‘Lowcountry Bribe’ by C. Hope Clark

Authors often ask “What if” when they have an idea for a plot. When C. Hope Clark first thought about a civil servant at the Department of Agriculture reporting an attempted bribe by a farmer, she must have asked “what’s the worst that can possibly happen?”

Carolina Slade (and you don’t call her “Carolina” unless you’re her mother) is a USDA official who plays by the rules. While others might have overlooked hog farmer Jesse Rawlings’ offer of a bribe in hopes he would never bring up the matter again, Slade tells her superiors. After that, the dust never settles.

C. Hope Clark’s protagonist in the dazzling debut mystery/thriller “Lowcountry Bribe,” is a Charleston County manager who coordinates federal loans and their repayment by farmers. When she leaves her desk, it’s to inspect a farm, not to carry a gun and catch bad guys. Yet, as a Cooperating Individual (CI) she has no choice but to help agents Wayne Largo and Eddie Childress prove Rawlings tried to bribe her.

The case is getting a lot of attention from Atlanta. Slade wonders why. Perhaps there’s more to the bribe than she knows, a greater level of fraud that might implicate her former boss who disappeared last year or a co-worker who shot himself in the office last week. Slade can’t even be sure Largo and Childress aren’t investigating her. A supposedly easy “Get Jesse to repeat what he said Friday” turns into a dangerous crash course in crisis management where the stakes are much higher than missed loan payment or a reprimand from the boss.

Some publishers would have categorized “Lowcountry Bribe” as a mystery/thriller/romance because the novel includes romantic elements as well as Slade’s feelings of approach/avoid, trust/distrust insofar as agent Largo and his motives are concerned. Regardless of the book’s official genre(s), the danger and intrigue Slade is drawn into are industrial strength, requiring a CI who is tough enough to view blood on an office wall as “O-positive primer,” savvy enough to think a like federal agent and experienced enough to apply humor and sarcasm to methods and practices that don’t measure up to her high standards.

Clark knows the territory. She lives in South Carolina, has a degree in agriculture, has worked with the USDA for 25 years, and is married to a former federal agent. This information appears on the novel’s back cover. By the time readers finish the novel and find out the worst that can possibly happen, they will have discovered that Clark also knows the territory of deftly plotted fiction, realistic dialogue and place settings, and how to tell a story that burns like a stiff drink with a touch of sugar.

Clark is now writing the next novel in the Carolina Slade Mystery Series. For readers who like great storytelling, that’s the best that can possibly happen.

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy, magical realism, and paranormal stories and novels, including “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”

Review: ‘kiDNApped’ by Rick Chesler

KiDNAppedKiDNApped by Rick Chesler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Three months after wealthy biotechnology company CEO William Archer is lost at sea or kidnapped off his research yacht in the warm waters of the Hawaiian Islands in Rick Chesler’s inventive thriller “kiDNApped,” Special Agent Tara Shores faces a very cold case.

She also faces the uncertainties of three civilians intruding into an investigation. Was Dave Turner really looking for a wedding ring on the ocean floor when his dive boat was stolen and his employer was murdered? What can Archer’s son and daughter from the mainland possibly contribute just two days before the court declares their father legally dead?

Shores, a veteran agent who first appeared in “Wired Kingdom” (2010), is about to stamp the case file “INDETERMINATE” because there are no leads and no ransom demands. While Archer’s son Lance wants to drink beer and chase girls until he can collect his inheritance, his sister Kristen wants Dave to return to the ocean floor on the off chance his interrupted search is related to her father’s disappearance.

When their dive attracts unwanted attention, Shores and her disparate crew are suddenly in the line of fire. Kristen wonders if her genius father encrypted a call for help in the DNA of ocean bacteria. Shores wonders how she can possibly babysit civilians who are more likely to get in the way and/or get killed than anything else.

Rick Chesler has written a breathtaking tropical adventure that combines a cutting-edge technology search for clues with a madcap, island-to-island race against bad guys that would put a smile on the face of any James Bond aficionado.

Agent Shores definitely needs a new rubber stamp for her case file: HAZARDOUS TO MY HEALTH.

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Review: ‘Snare’ by Deborah J. Ledford

SnareSnare by Deborah J Ledford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Deborah J. Ledford’s “Snare,” book two of the Deputy Hawk/Inola Walela Thriller Series quickly entangles readers who believe young Katina Salvo’s broken past will remain long ago and far away. A popular California songwriter and recording star, Katina has never released photographs and videos or appeared in a live concert because she doesn’t want her fans to know what happened in Valentine, Nebraska on August 29, 1995 at 11:29 p.m.

After convincing her twenty-three-year-old Native American signing sensation she owes her fans a live concert, business manager Petra Sullivan hand-picks a small theater in North Carolina so Katina can debut in a nonthreatening environment.

However, before they leave for the Great Smoky Mountains, Katina discovers that Petra has been hiding threatening fan mail from her. Both overprotective and nurturing, Petra is the mother Katina was never allowed to have. Katina asks if the series of letters is coming from the father she wants to forget.

While Petra maintains the nasty letters are simply a nuisance downside of being famous, Katina is less certain, and wonders what else Petra has been keeping from her. The concert goes forward as scheduled because, as Petra tells Katina, “you can’t hide out forever.” Plus, Katina’s safety is a top priority through the efforts of the sheriff’s point man on the security detail, Deputy Steven Hawk. Hawk also appeared in Ledford’s stunning debut novel “Staccato” (Second Wind Publishing, 2009).

The concert appears to be a triumph until Katina is attacked by a shadowy man in the audience who escapes leaving few clues behind. Katina thinks she knows who it was. Hawk thinks he is responsible for the security lapse. Together, they plan to ensnare the perpetrator. Against the advice of Petra, Hawk’s girl friend and sheriff’s department colleague, Inola, and veteran officer Kenneth Stiles, they fly to the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico where Katina’s past lies hidden.

In “Snare,” Ledford brings her readers a novel of contrasts: Katina’s horrible childhood vs. a successful recording career, people who can be trusted vs. those who follow their own agendas, Native American beliefs vs. mainstream spiritual viewpoints, and the lush beauty western North Carolina vs. the stark beauty of central New Mexico. “Snare” has been nominated for a Hillerman Sky Award, an honor presented to the mystery that best captures the landscape of the Southwest.

While “Snare” does not quite match the bone-chilling punch of “Staccato,” it excels in other ways with deeper character development, a realistic presentation of Native American society and beliefs, and the role of family and friends in the choices one makes. By no means legato, “Snare” provides an ever-tightening story with a realistic, satisfying and unpredictable conclusion

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If you like the Pueblo influences in SNARE, you may also like the Blackfeet influences in GARDEN OF HEAVEN

Book Review: ‘Staccato’ by Deborah J. Ledford

Staccato Staccato by Deborah J Ledford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“Staccato” is staccato: sharp, crisp, almost percussive–like gun shots, like a cane tapping on the floor or striking a shoulder, like light reflected off a black Porsche Targa, like the piercing cold of a Great Smoky Mountains night.

Two years into his career as a world-class concert pianist, young Nicholas Kalman finds his absent father’s journal. It’s written as a warning to Nicholas, or perhaps a confession. “Beware of this man you call, Uncle,” it says.

The uncle is Alexander, the tyrannical, club-footed, cane tapping maestro and mentor. He’s crafted the talented Nicholas into a dazzling musician who crushes the competition in every venue. He drinks. He expects perfection. He lashes out when angry.

Alexander demands unquestioning obedience from Nicholas, the cloyingly submissive second-string pupil Timothy, the imposing butler Sampte, his niece Elaine, sheriff’s deputy Steven Hawk, and everyone else who dares enter his ten thousand square foot mansion in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Deborah J. Ledford’s thriller tears through mountains and music with a steady rhythm in perfect time with the maestro Alexander’s music room metronome. Nicholas finds a his lover’s body in his Porsche. Timothy perfects his Prokofiev to steal the limelight. Sampte does what he’s ordered to do. The metronome ticks and the cane taps as the bodies pile up, as Nicholas searches for a killer and runs for his life, as Hawk investigates a grim case, as Alexander orchestrates notes and lives, as readers turn “Staccato’s” pages, quickly, crisply, sharply throughout Ledford’s Toccata-like virtuoso performance.

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Tomorrow: A conversation with Pat Bertram, author of “Daughter Am I.”

Copyright (c) 2009 by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.”