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I decided to start promoting my debut mystery novel, How Everything Turns Away, at the local library and coffee shop. Here are some highlights!

A full house – for a fiction class in Southwest Kansas, that is
What’s the difference between a crime novel and a cozy? I’m glad you asked!
They even let me sell a book or two
A cozy reading at Patrick Dugan’s in downtown Garden City

Overall, it has been a successful launch for the book. In-person sales are steadily trickling in, a few each day, and my rankings at the online book sellers are moving up and down mysteriously, so that’s exciting. If you know of a coffee shop, book store, or library that would like to have me put on a reading or workshop, let me know!

The Wild Rose Press: Scarlet at Crystal River

After history teacher Darrell Henshaw has his bachelor party crashed by a cake-inhabiting medium, he knows he’s going to have one interesting honeymoon. In a strange Slavic accent, she whispers, “Ven you go to Crystal River, you vill have…two visitors from the other side, two visitors vaiting for you.” These visitors quickly turn out to be Daniel and Mia, the children of migrant workers. Through the course of the novel, Darrell and his new wife Erin must work with translator Luis to get to the bottom of what happened—all while simultaneously having a honeymoon.

This is my first paranormal mystery. It has a lot in common with traditional mysteries. For instance, the detective conducts interviews, gathers clues, and faces personal peril. However, much of what drives his investigation, as the genre suggests, comes from otherworldly agents. A medium tells him about the victims, visions of phantoms and a weeping painting help him ID children, and then eerie Christmas carols haunt a crucial scene.

The setting, Florida in the late 90s, appeals to me as I lived in Florida in the late 90s. I remember bringing in the new millennium in Tangerine, Florida at my aunt’s house as I was living in Orlando at the time. Overbeck portrays this strange time and place accurately, dropping in several fun Easter eggs, such as swimming with manatees and the approaching Bush-Gore election, which would become big drama in Florida politics.

If you’re a fan of paranormal mysteries or 90s paranormal film, you’re sure to enjoy Scarlet at Crystal River.

Postmodern American Fiction

I first began reading this anthology (or perhaps I should say “attempted to read”) a little over a year ago. I thought it would be a good book to breeze through while teaching from home because of COVID. I was wrong. About the breezing, at least. While I was immediately met with authors I have loved and, for the most part, understood: Pynchon, Burroughs, Barthelme, I soon felt as if I were reading something in a foreign language. Robert Coover’s “The Phantom of the Movie Palace” and Mark Leyner’s “The Making of ‘Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog’ ” were two places that had to take considerable breaks, reading other stories or novels, sometimes in actual foreign languages.

One trouble I think I have with postmodernism or rather have had with it stems from the fact that I have been raised in it. In school, “postmodern” has often carried the same weighty context as “calculus.” We will cross that bridge when we get to it. However, all of the art I have loved from that last thirty-plus years has been influenced by it. Some of my earliest memories of movie watching include Star Wars and Indian Jones (pastiche of 30s-50s American serials); Back to the Future (a sci-fi head-trip of multiple timelines); and Edward Scissorhands (and all of its cross-genre, ironic, temporal distorted, and magical realist glory).

The point at which I achievement my long-awaited aha moment came after reading Bobbie Ann Mason’s “Shiloh,” a short story about, among other things, a couple’s trip to the sight of a Civil War battle: Shiloh, Tennessee. After finishing the story, I asked myself, “Okay, so what was postmodern about that?” It took a little research to realize that the gender roles and national identity the story questions are things society has questioned and reformed my entire life. While some aspects of postmodernism feel “other,” most aspects have been adopted whole-hock and incorporated seamlessly. I noticed this most recently while watching Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. The film is at once a straightforward story about Fern (Frances McDormand) who is driven to live in her van and travel the country as an itinerant worker. It’s also a scathing attack of consumer society, which at one point destroys Fern’s entire town and at other times abandons countless characters who only want to work. It also functions as a circular anti-narrative, beginning with the Christmas-rush at an Amazon distribution center during the Great Recession and ending a year later with Fern’s situation unchanged, still showing up to Amazon to work for a month, still traveling in her van, still precariously outside of house-dwelling society. Fern even serves a stint at Wall Drug, the amusement-park-like store outside the Badlands in central South Dakota. I could not help being reminded of Jean Baudrillard’s critique of Disneyland in his seminal work, Simulacra and Simulation. Yet if I did not have this anthology at my finger tips, so recently submitted to my short-term memory, I don’t know that I would’ve noticed any of these elements. Rather I might’ve thought, “Well, that story never really got going.”

And that is the very point. If nothing else, Postmodern American Fiction has let me into some of the secrets that have been all around me as I’ve read, watched, and listened. I won’t go so far as to say I have a complete understanding of this ever-evolving art movement, but this anthology has certainly given me a more solid foundation than I had before I set out.

The Wild Rose Press: Good Lookin’

Today, I have the honor of reviewing a book by a fellow mystery writer at my publisher. T. L. Bequette, when he isn’t writing mystery novels, is a criminal defense attorney in California who serves on an annual faculty clinic at Stanford Law School.

Joe Turner, Bequette’s protagonist and narrator, is an Oakland defense attorney as well. When we first meet Turner, he is meeting with a current client, Leonard Dunigan, who is accused of killing a man by “squeezing his skull until it caved in.” From this very first scene we are thrust into Turner’s world in all its dangerous ambiguity.

Ricocheting from this hopeless case, Turner meets with Darnell Moore, a nineteen-year-old black youth who has become entangled with an Oakland gang, the IceBoyz. Moore stands accused of killing a rival Cashtown Killer gangster, the high-school aged Cleveland Barlow. The case seems open and shut. Turner could reduce the charges with a guilty plea. The only problem is, when Moore says he didn’t do it, Turner believes him.

With his southern-accented private eye, Chuck Argenal, Turner races to assembly the clues and the testimony needed to ensure Moore’s freedom. Unfortunately, thanks to a web of nefarious influences posed by the IceBoys and Cashtown gangs, witnesses are reticent to speak. Including Darnell Moore himself. What does he know, and why won’t he tell Turner?

One surprising element of this novel that I really enjoyed was a parallel story told in short inter chapters. Set in 2006, these chapters tell the story of twin boys shuffled around the foster system. When their too-good-to-be-true foster father turns out to be Iago-level evil, they only have one shot to escape. At first I wondered how this would all come to bear on the Moore case, but it kept my attention regardless. All I’ll say is that it does come to bear—in a big way.

All legal dramas will forever remind me of John Grisham, and this one is no exception. For anyone in search of some legalistic suspense or wanting to get an inside view of how criminal defense lawyers approach a case, look no further. The protagonist also reminds me of Robert B. Parker’s detective Spenser. Something about Turner’s wit and the playful relationship he has with the love interest, Edna “Eddy” Busier, a distinguished archeologist, smacks of Spenser. For this reason, fans of Spenser novels and other rye private eyes will find much to enjoy in Joe Turner.

Buy now!

Motherless Brooklyn: A Readable Po-Mo Detective Novel

Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I’m a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. I’ve got Tourette’s. My mouth won’t quit, though mostly I whisper or subvocalize like I’m reading aloud, my Adam’s apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone. (If I were a Dick Tracy villain, I’d have to be Mumbles.)

Thus begins the comic, frenetic, life-affirming, heart-breaking account of an unlikely private eye from Brooklyn, Lionel Essrog. Our detective is driven by his obsessive mind and his equally obsessive need to discover who murdered his boss/mentor/protector Frank Minna.

The Minna men are officially a car service, but they don’t drive anyone anywhere. Instead, they keep tabs of the goings on around Brooklyn for their only clients—two wealthy and well-connected Italians. When Minna is stabbed to death, Lionel must take over operations to get to the bottom of what happened. Unfortunately, others in the organization have their own designs, either to take Frank’s place or to keep Lionel from making matters worse. Lionel must find out what happened to Frank—even if it kills him.

Following the number two in line, Tony, Lionel discovers the plot runs deep, deeper than Frank Minna’s unfaithful wife, deeper than the wealthy clients, even deeper than Brooklyn itself—and it somehow involves uni, a Japanese delicacy, and Frank’s mysterious brother, Gerard, who is now posing as a Zen master.

While the novel has been described as a post-modern hard-boiled detective novel, it doesn’t devolve into self-indulgent deconstruction. (I’m looking at you, Pynchon.) Rather, Lethem plays it straight. Lionel Essrog’s motivations remain genuine: he wants to know what happened to Frank and in the end he finds out. Post-modern elements pervade the narrative—from Lionel’s inability to communicate at times and the esoteric, multi-cultural conspiracy at the heart of Frank’s murder—but at no point do they bogart the literal unraveling of the mystery. The story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. To this reader, at least, the ending feels satisfying and earned.

This a perfect novel for fans of the off-kilter mystery, for students of post-modernism, or for readers looking for a hard-boiled detective novel with a contemporary twist.

The Baron in the Trees

When Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò is forced to eat snail soup by his eccentric sister, he retreats to the trees around their estate. Rather than return home and face punishment, Cosimo decides to remain in the trees. He travels from limb to limb around the village, eventually meeting the beautiful Viola d’Ondariva as she swings from a branch. Cosimo explains to Viola the rules of his new game—to never touch the ground. From that point forward, he never does.

Italo Calvino takes the imaginary village of Ombrosa, Italy, for this mock conte philosophique. Through the course of the novel, Cosimo witnesses the real historical events of the Expulsion of Jesuits from Spain, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars. He also interacts with famous figures, including Voltaire, Diderot, and Napoleon himself. From the trees, Cosimo has a number of adventures, takes lovers, and reads and writes philosophy—including a utopian treatise for how to govern a society of men, women, and animals living in the trees.

While the novel imitates and mocks numerous genres, it ends with a love story that is only half-parody. When an adult Viola d’Ondariva returns to Ombrosa, Cosimo realizes that all this time he has been living in the trees for her alone. Their love is pseudo-modern, Romantic, Petrarchan, and above all painful.

“Why do you make me suffer?”

“Because I love you.”

Now it was he who got angry. “No, you don’t love me! One who loves wants happiness, not suffering.”

“One who loves wants only love, even at the cost of suffering.”

“So you make me suffer on purpose.”

“Yes, to see if you love me.”

-Chapter 22

In the end, The Baron in the Trees is a coming-of-age tale, in which a young man resists his father’s influence and the ills of his society, not by adopting the latest counter cultural philosophy (for instance, Romanticism in a time of Enlightenment) but by literally rejecting the earth itself and taking to the trees.

This is a must-read for fans of Italo Calvino, but it should appeal to anyone interested in the Age of the Enlightenment, the Romantic Era, European history, the philosophical novel, or literary satire. For me, the novel started slowly. As Calvino is writing a “high concept” story, he takes some pains establishing his world and explaining the logical ramifications of a young man living in the trees. For example, how did Cosimo eat, go to the bathroom, wash his clothing? After these entailments are lengthily resolved, Cosimo is able to get to the business of spying on his fellow villagers, having adventures, and falling in love. Here the story finally gets off the ground.

Classic Corner: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Kundera’s most well-read novel recounts the lives of four interconnected lovers—Tomáš, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz—and a dog named Karenin.

Tomáš can’t commit to a life of monogamy, even though he desperately loves his wife, Tereza.

Tereza, though she loathes her mother and the Soviet occupation of Prague, finds she can’t remain in democratic Zurich and must return to both out of incomprehensible love and loyalty.

Sabina, Tomáš’ closet friend and mistress, struggles to create art that is not politicized just because she is a Czech dissident.

Franz, a Geneva professor, loves Sabina but can’t love her authentically or fully, pigeon-holing her as a romantic figure—just as the rest of her audience.

Karenin is a dog.

In this modern classic, Kundera reflects on what it means to be Czech in a Europe torn apart by fascism and communism, pulled toward the moderates of ideal conservatism, represented by well-meaning Americans, and ideal liberalism, represented by European socialists.

He also reflects on concepts of censorship, kitsch, responsibility and, of course, the “unbearable lightness of being,” the idea that whatever happens only once, such as human existence as we know it, ought not happen at all.

Tomáš’ answer to this unbearable lightness is a German phrase he attributes to Beethoven: “Es muss sein,” which translates as “It must be.” If there’s no way to improve upon our mistakes in this life, then Tomáš concludes we must rely on fate. Our actions are our actions because they must be. Therefore, he abandons safety in Zurich and follows Tereza back across the iron curtain to Prague.

The rest you will have to read for yourself.

This is a fantastic novel for anyone interested in Eastern European history, Western philosophy, or the art of the novel. Throughout, Kundera deconstructs his narrative as he tells it, drawing attention to the artificiality of the form and offering insights into the craft of fiction. Despite these post-modern digressions, the narrative remains compelling and infinitely readable.

Art of the Sequel: Silence of the Lambs

As I finish up what is hopefully my last round of edits, I find myself thinking more and more about my next project, a sequel to my current novel. Sequels can be tricky, and they often pale in comparison to the original, so I thought I would look at a novel that is so exemplary that many don’t even realize it’s a sequel: The Silence of the Lambs.

I can’t recall when I first met Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter, but I do know it was the movie rather than the book and I was likely too young.

I recall better my first time reading one of Thomas Harris’ novels, Red Dragon. The first book in the series, it begins shortly after Hannibal’s initial capture. An FBI agent, Will Graham, must consult with the doctor to solve a murder. Unlike the protagonist of Lambs, Clarice Starling, Graham has a long history with Lecter. They worked together profiling killers before Lecter’s incarceration. In fact, Graham is the reason Lecter is behind bars.

The summer after my freshman year of high school, I devoured this book (pun intended), but didn’t pick up Silence of the Lambs until just this year. Now, having read all three of the original series (there’s also a prequel, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet), I can confidently say Lambs is the strongest. Let’s look at why.

Rather than follow up with disfigured Will Graham in the sequel, Harris retires Graham and introduces Clarice Starling, an up-and-coming trainee. He does keep Graham’s mentor Jack Crawford, though. Plucking Starling from Quantico, Crawford sends the trainee to interview Lecter and glean what she can about a recent killer they’re calling Buffalo Bill. While Dragon feels like an in medias res opening, Lambs has the aura of new beginnings. Starling’s relationship with Lecter is also more dynamic than Graham’s. Rather than wanting her dead and plotting toward that end, Lecter falls in love with her—while also kind of wanting to kill and eat her.

While the original Lecter book followed detective Will Graham and killer Francis Dolarhyde, Lambs gives us Lecter’s perspective as well. In a real sense, this POV overshadows the other plot lines. The technical climax of the novel comes as Starling tracks down Buffalo Bill in his home (the night vision goggle scene). But Lecter’s climax is perhaps more memorable: he must escape from Memphis authorities while handcuffed in a roofless cell in an ornate hall on the fifth floor of a building with only one, heavily guarded exit. I won’t spoil it if haven’t read Lambs, but it is a masterful scene—albeit a bit gory.

The best sequels build on what works from the original. They go deeper into the world the author created while also giving readers something unexpected. Silence of the Lambs does this and more.

As I begin to brainstorm and outline for my sequel, I’m on the lookout for sequels that outdo the original. If you have some favorites, drop their titles in the comment section below. Who knows? I just might review some of them here on my blog!

The Sanatorium

With motives and methods so convoluted it takes the antagonist ten entire pages to explain them to our detective, The Sanatorium is certainly not a mystery you’re going to crack on page two. The author, Sarah Pearce, is able to blend together misogyny, archaic medical treatment of TB patients, modernist architecture, abuse of the mentally ill, bribery, serial murder, and Swiss resort life in such a way that this reader came away nauseated. Oh, also modern approaches to depression and anxiety, plus sibling rivalry and repressed memories. One imagines Pearce choosing keywords for her book.

“Which ones would you like?”

Pearce: “Um, all of them, obviously.”

In a typical mystery/thriller fashion, our detective must move from likely suspect to likely suspect. The difficulty inherent in The Sanatorium, however, is the suspects become increasingly unlikely until we are left with a pair of murderers who’ve been given so little attention and motivation that their capture rings hollow. Let me get specific—and warning there are spoilers ahead:

  1. The killings are a two-woman job. That’s right, lady serial killers, so you know their motives must be big.
  2. The primary killer is reeling from a date-rape. This attack, by her brother’s friend, leads her to bind, torture, and murder a series of uninvolved young women. Wait, what? I can’t have written that correctly. Let me check…nope, that’s right.
  3. The secondary killer is all in it for revenge. Namely, she seeks to avenge her great-grandmother’s grisly…wait, great-grandmother? I don’t even know my great-grandmother’s name! The idea that someone would know what happened to their great-grandmother and then take any action whatsoever is far-fetched. That the distant trauma would turn them homicidal is laughable.

Then comes the epilogue. There we learn of a super-secret character lurching around the sanatorium this entire time, watching our detective and intervening when necessary. Either Pearce is covering her bases and tying up inconsistencies or she’s planning a sequel. Let’s hope it isn’t the latter.

I made the colossal mistake of not reading reviews beforehand. I should’ve checked Kirkus Review, at least. Their pithy verdict says it all: “Oh, dear.”

Story Analysis: A Good Man Is Hard to Find

In this classic 1953 story by Flannery O’Connor, a grandmother subtly navigates her family’s travel plans…with disastrous results.

Read the story here first.

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is an absolute favorite of mine to teach. Unlike, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” or “Revelation,” it resists a straight-forward moralistic reading. While O’Connor’s Catholicism is overt in those stories—and many others like it—here it comes to the reader at a slant, and a disturbing slant at that. Though the story resists an easy moral, it offers writing students a great look at escalation, intention, and irony.

“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida,” the story begins and everything that unfolds from that point onward is a direct result of her desires and meddling. In order to avoid the terrible fate of Floridian travel, she warns her son Bailey about a dangerous outlaw nicknamed The Misfit who has broken free from prison and is supposedly headed to Florida. “You read here what it says he did to these people,” she tells Bailey. “Just you read it.” From this point forward, she uses fear, deception, and filial and Christian obligation to steer her family toward absolute tragedy.

One thing I noticed the last time I read this story was the cat. Because her son doesn’t want to bring the family cat, the grandmother must hide it beneath her valise in a basket. Once the grandmother has guilt-tripped, tricked, or otherwise manipulated the characters onto that fateful dirt road, hilly with “sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments,” the grandmother realizes the house they’re looking for with it’s mythical silver-filled “secret panel” is located elsewhere.

“The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up, upsetting the valise.” What comes next is a beauty of escalation, cause-and-effect, and payoff. Pitty Sing, the cat, leaps onto Bailey’s shoulder who is driving the car. He sends the car turning over and its occupants flying.

There on the side of the road, the family waits for help, but are met instead by The Misfit himself. At this point, all of the grandmother’s conniving and cajoling fail. In the end, she gives up trying to control others and has a transcendent moment, seeing the Misfit not as a tool for her use (to strike fear, to persuade, to comment on the state of the world) but as a human being with a soul: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!”

The theological implications of this moment and the stark critique of the grandmother’s brand of Christian judgment are profound, but what I am most drawn to as a teacher and writer is the ironic cause-and-effect that drives the narrative forward. In nearly every action, the grandmother inadvertently causes their meeting with The Misfit to come about. It is all her fault. O’Connor makes no concessions about this. The grandmother begins with a simple argument—If you don’t listen to me, we will all be murdered by this monster—and develops and complicates it throughout.

A simple set of rules for a devilishly ironic story could be derived at this point:

  1. The protagonist is her own antagonist.
  2. Her actions necessarily push the story forward to the climax.
  3. Finally, the end is the exact opposite of what she wants or said she wants.

Concerning #3: What does the grandmother want in this story? She wants to tag along and she wants to call the shots. In the end, she does just that. The irony arises, not because she meets the Misfit or because she feared the Misfit. Rather, she has used him as a boogeyman to achieve her far less profound goals. If her true goal was to be a part of the family’s trip and determine its destination, then voila, she has succeeded. We laugh or recoil or toss the story across the room because through all of her fear mongering she has produced the very monster herself.

In the end “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a critique of the entire family—the fear monger most, but also those people willing to be lead by the fear of bad ends, as improbable as they may be.