Sunday, October 14, 2018

Humor in Thrillers

. . . by Karna Small Bodman

We Rogues write thrillers and mysteries where we often see our novels described as tense, gripping, and explosive, with plots featuring spies, secrets and suspense.   But do they -- or should they -- include a bit of humor (for "comic relief" perhaps)? When I read the previous terrific post by our Rogue August Thomas where she described traveling in Scotland and having to allow time for sheep to cross the roads, it reminded me of a scene in my new thriller, Trust but Verify.  


Much of the action takes place in Jackson Hole where we had a summer home for many years and where I had the inspiration for the story.  I wanted to write about a team of Russian oligarchs and mafia types who create a plot that targets a conference of international financial leaders  -- a meeting that does take place every year there at the Jackson Lake Lodge. When I asked a hotel employee how long it would take to drive from town to the Lodge, I was told, "It all depends on the moose breaks." Huh?
I soon learned that just as August experienced in Scotland, to do my research and scope out the area, I had to deal with traffic jams due to the many moose who decide to hang out on the roadways. Of course, I had to include that tidbit in the story. Then I decided to include other "features" of life in Jackson.  In the story my heroine is scheduled to fly from The White House to Jackson (where she later becomes a target of those same Russians), and I couldn't resist creating a scene where her staff is briefing her on the upcoming trip.

     Her assistant says, "Besides the usual hiking and raft trips, they've got a bungee trampoline, a marching band at the Pink Garter Theatre, a hootenanny and a fair that includes pig wrestling and Arapahoe dancers." (All true). She goes on to say, "I think you have to watch out for the bears though.  The Grand Teton National Park Foundation produced a video about how to tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly." (Also true).

     "You're really supposed to stand there and analyze the difference?" her deputy asks.
     The assistant consults her notes. "Here's what you're supposed to do. Take your bear spray, and if you've got a grizzly in front of you, spray it for six seconds." 

     The deputy responds, "Wouldn't it be better to use those six seconds to run away?" 

     At this point my heroine shakes her head and says, "Are you two finished?" 

As for injecting humorous dialogue into thrillers,  it turns out that  some of the most popular and best-reviewed thrillers certainly have relied on humor at times.  Remember the great story written   
back in the 90's by Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana? It features  Mr. Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman who becomes a spy to earn extra income.  One reviewer wrote, "This crisply written novel will drag you down with unbearable tension, while at the same time make you giggle with its satirical parodies and absurd plot.  A masterpiece!"

Another one that was also written decades ago was Len Deighton's The Ipcress File.  In fact this great Cold War spy thriller is said to have "set the standards for the genre.  Highly unusual, with a shrewd sense of humor."  The classic novel has a protagonist who, at first, is a nameless spy, but later is dubbed Harry Palmer when made into a feature film starring the talented actor, Michael Caine.  

Here's another example of a mystery where the author, Ed McBain, (who was a script writer for Hitchcock's The Birds) creates not only great tension but such a humorous plot, it's easy to see how this particular writer is often called "the inventor of the genre."  The novel is King's Ransom. The story is about ruthless thugs who try to kidnap the son of a rich tycoon (shades of our own Rogue, K.J. Howe's quite serious thrillers about kidnapping), but these 'bad guys" mistakenly take the son of his chauffeur.  You could call this one a wise-cracking police procedural.

Finally, an author who is an absolute master when it comes to humor, is friend and neighbor (in Naples, FL)  Janet Evanovich.  While not a thriller writer, per se, she does create what we might describe as "adventures" featuring a heroine, Stepanie Plum, the Jersey girl who works as a "bond enforcement agent" for cousin Vinnie's Bail
Bond operation. Her job is to go after crooks who jump bail. She works with detectives and members of the local police force -- men with jobs that are often featured in mysteries and thrillers. 

Yet, Janet also creates characters that make you laugh out loud midst the chase scenes...characters like Stephanie's Grandma Mazur who goes to funerals of people she doesn't even know because she likes the cookies, or an uncle who talks to door knobs.  Now, the 25th book in the Plum series, Look Alive Twenty-five,  will be out in just a few weeks, and I can't wait to take a break from tension and indulge in what I know will be a very funny tale. 

Now a question: do you want your thrillers to stick to suspense,  spies and secrets, or do you like authors to lighten it up occasion? If it's the latter, what books have you read that interject humor into a traditional thriller format? Leave a comment below, or on our Facebook page (the icon is at the upper left of this Rogue page).  And thanks for visiting us here at Rogue Women Writers.

. . . Karna Small Bodman
 

Friday, October 12, 2018

Wigtown: One Scottish village, a ton of books, and a reminder to keep hoping


by August Thomas


Do you have Horrible Headline Fatigue?  Just flipping on the news these days can feel like wading into shark-infested waters.  Reading KJ Howe’s gripping (and terrifying) post about government-sponsored kidnappings in China immediately after S. Lee Manning’s delicious reflections on all things pumpkin spiced, I found myself thinking about how – when the world is at its scariest – we all need comfort.  Reassurance.  Hope.  (And, obviously, pumpkin pie.)

(Photo credit: Chowhound.com) 

So in this post, instead of Halloween spookiness, I want to talk about something happy and hopeful: a beautiful, isolated little Scottish town that transformed itself and reclaimed its future – with books.

A couple of weeks ago, while I was in the UK to promote Liar’s Candle, I had the delight of speaking at the 20th annual Wigtown Book Festival – a literary festival unlike any other, in the most improbable of spots.


(Photo credit: Wigtown Book Festival)

The festival volunteers had very kindly offered to pick me up at the Lockerbie train station and drive me into Wigtown.   

"Oh," I said, "How long is the drive from the station?

Two hours, I was told.  Well, one and a half, really, but you’ve got to allow time for sheep. 

(Photo: August Thomas.  Always allow time for sheep!)

A series of generous volunteer drivers relayed me deep into Dumfries and Galloway, the same region of Scotland that served as the thrilling setting for much of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, sometimes considered one of the first true spy thrillers.   
 Image result for the 39 steps hitchcock
 (The Hitchcock film adaptation is -- whisper it-- probably more fun than the book)

The road wound deep into a Landseer-painting Scotland of lochs, luminous green fields and ruined castles (and the odd multimillion-pound boondoggle athletics complex).   The sheep, to my disappointment, remained politely in their fields.  

It was all gorgeous, but you might well wonder: How on earth can there be a thriving ten-day book festival way out in rural Scotland?  Isn't it hard enough to get people to come to book events in big cities?  How is any of this possible?

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(Photo Credit: Wigtown Book Festival)

Wigtown wasn't always a reader's paradise.  Twenty years ago, the town was struggling.  Many local industries were shutting down.  Young people were moving away.  As the festival’s website puts it,

“[Wigtown] had been at its lowest ebb. There were many empty and run-down properties, and the almost derelict County Buildings on the town square were threatened with demolition. Wigtown then had one of the highest levels of unemployment in Scotland..."

Today, that difficult past is only a memory.  Wigtown (population about 1,000) is thriving, with over a dozen bookshops.

(Photo: August Thomas. What bookshop is complete without a badger?)

I arrived at midday, just in time to hear China expert and bestselling author Paul French talk about his new book, City of Devils, about ruthless Viennese gangsters and drug-smuggling White Russian showgirls in 1930s Shanghai.  

 Paul’s lecture was breathtaking – and so was his audience.  Well over a hundred people, in a tiny Scottish village the middle of a weekday, had paid to squeeze into the once-decrepit County Buildings (now gorgeously restored) and listen to a lecture on 1930s China.   People had driven four hours from Edinburgh, or flown up from London; some of us had traveled all the way from the U.S.  Festival staff and more than 100 local volunteers had worked together to make everything come together.    
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 (Photo Credit: Wigtown Book Festival)

How did this happen?  How does a town use books to save itself?

The morning after I arrived, over scrambled eggs at a little B&B in Wigtown, I met the charming Professor Tony Seaton.  Back in the ’90s, after a visit to the famous English book festival in Hay-on-Wye, Professor Seaton proposed that a similar “Book Town” should be created in Scotland.  His inspiration set in motion a chain of events that lead to Wigtown’s selection as Scotland’s “National Book Town”, the creation of the book festival, and the astonishing transformation of the local economy.
(Dawn in Wigtown)

One evening, some of the people who helped create the festival gathered onstage in the rescued County Buildings to reminisce about the progress of the past twenty years.   Their pride was palpable.  I looked at the more than a hundred happy book-lovers around me and thought:  This is amazing. They SHOULD be proud!   
 
In a time of so much darkness, it’s profoundly encouraging to see a hopeful story like Wigtown’s.   What have you seen lately that’s made you feel hopeful?  Have you ever seen the real life of a place change because of books? 

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

THE ENIGMA

by K.J. Howe



Churchill called the Soviet Union “a riddle, wrapped in a mysteryinside an enigma,” but this description aptly describes another country as well.  For centuries, the very mention of China conjured a mysterious image, showcasing a complex, ancient culture whose development had almost nothing in common with that of the west (except perhaps an invasion by Mongols).  The Chinese language, alphabet, economics, and social pressures are very different from those in the west.  And this manufacturing-driven country adopted its own unique form of communism that has distanced their political thought and value systems from those with which we are familiar.  This alien political mindset has recently resulted in a series of state-sponsored kidnappings that have shocked the world and threatened international order.

President of China
The first series of abductions centered around the book trade.  Hong Kong, while a part of China, is a “special administrative region” governed by a Sino-British accord that affords broader freedoms to residents of Hong Kong than to the people who reside on the mainland.  A group of bookstore owners and employees were involved in selling books critical of the central Chinese government that included gossip about President Xi Jinping.  These works became popular among tourists visiting Hong Kong and were officially banned on the mainland.  However, simply banning the books didn’t satisfy the Chinese authorities.

Between October and December 2015, Chinese Special Forces operatives kidnapped at least five booksellers from foreign countries and Hong Kong proper, detaining them without explanation, including one Swiss citizen.  After a long silence, a series of confessions were released from these booksellers about their “crimes,” and they were slowly returned to Hong Kong after agreeing to settlements with the Chinese government that included avoiding any consultation with lawyers or communicating with their families.  Swiss citizen Gui Minhai was released in August 2017, only to be taken again January 2018 while travelling with Swiss diplomats to Beijing to see a Swiss doctor for his ALS.  Gui remains in custody despite strenuous Swiss efforts to have him released.

In July of this year, China’s most successful actress, Fan Bingbing, disappeared without explanation after making a charity appearance at a children’s hospital.  Fan was a rising superstar, the fifth highest paid actress in the world, starring in the X-Men and Iron Man films, a staple on the red carpet and major fashion industry events.  After a long period of silence punctuated by a denial of any tax evasion by her company, rumors that Jackie Chan had advised her to seek asylum in Los Angeles, a deleted tweet from an official Chinese government agency that claimed to have her “in their control,” an apparent confession and apology for tax evasion has appeared on the internet from Fan.  The new official story is that she has confessed to tax evasion.  Since she is a first-time offender, she will avoid jail time by paying a massive fine that appears to be several times more than her career earnings.  Other documents leaked from the Chinese government indicated that she was targeted by a program to defeat the current “money worship,” infecting the film industry, which was anathema to good socialist policy.  Fan has not yet been seen in public, even after her apology.  Questions about her current status still linger.

The most recent disappearance is perhaps the most concerning from an international perspective.  Chinese national Meng Hongwei was elected President of Interpol in 2016 after a distinguished career in law enforcement.  Hongwei and his family lived in Lyon, France where he carried out his Interpol duties.   Just a few weeks ago, Meng disappeared on a trip home to China.  His wife received a mysterious text from her husband’s phone telling her to wait for a call, and the text was accompanied by a knife emoji.  This message suggested a potential kidnapping, and a ransom demand was expected to follow. 

Mrs. Meng (Chinese wives do not normally take their husband’s names but Grace has done so now to show solidarity with her missing husband) reported his disappearance to French police, and their investigation prompted a Chinese government announcement that Meng was being held in an unspecified location while being investigated for taking bribes and other crimes of “willfulness.”  After publically disputing the charges, Mrs. Meng received a threatening phone call indicating that she should remain silent or two “work teams” would be dispatched to deal with her.  She is currently under French police protection while the search is underway for the teams that targeted her.  It seems only a matter of time until a confession from Meng appears on the internet and a sentence is imposed.

The mystique of China continues with political machinations and the flexing of economic and diplomatic muscles via extrajudicial abductions. We are left with the burning question—are there lines the Chinese authorities will not cross?

Sunday, October 7, 2018

PUMPKIN SPICED

S. Lee Manning: It started with pie. A long, long time ago, back in the golden age of hallowed fall traditions, there was pumpkin pie. And it was good. Really good, especially with whip cream or vanilla ice cream – and you could stick some of those candy corns into the ice cream – or candy pumpkins – which have no taste resemblance to actual pumpkins – but somehow looked and tasted good. The ones made with honey, not with corn syrup, but that’s another long rant for another time. The upshot is, I loved pumpkin pie. Still do. It was part of what I loved about autumn. And I love autumn. It’s always been my favorite season – and October my favorite month.


In the fall when my kids were small, we’d take long drives in the country to view the beauty of the autumn foliage. We lived in Trenton, NJ, but most of our drives were in Bucks County, Pennsylvania or Hunterdon County, New Jersey, and while it wasn’t quite as spectacular as Vermont – it was lovely. We’d listen to the sounds of Dean and Jenny complaining about boring car rides as I excitedly pointed out every Halloween display and every farm stand filled with pumpkins. And then we’d stop for treats, both to give the kids something they liked so they’d shut up – and because with the start of fall, many of the bakeries offered pumpkin muffins or pumpkin bread. I would balance coffee and a pumpkin muffin in passenger’s seat of the car while tuning out the kids demanding to go home. Pumpkin muffins were also good. Not as good as pumpkin pie, but good.


Octobers came and went. Halloween. The kids grew older and more resistant to drives. Jim and I kept going out to see the leaves, and I kept eating pumpkin treats. At some point, I added pumpkin pancakes. And pumpkin ice cream worked its way onto my list. This was still in the early 2000s. Before the deluge.

I bet you know where I’m going.

Yup, the pumpkin spice latte. According to Harling Ross, a writer/editor on Man Repeller, some of the first pumpkin spice lattes were offered in Allentown, PA, not that far from the scene of our yearly rides sometime in the 1990s. I, however, was unaware of that – and didn’t discover this particular fall treat until a visit to Starbucks sometime in the 2005 range, a year after Starbucks introduced it.

A new fall treat.

Yes, I loved pumpkin spice lattes. I added it to the cornucopia of fall delights of pumpkin pie, bread, muffins, pancakes, and ice cream. (Is it any wonder I put on twenty-five pounds in the 2000s?) Oh, wait, don’t forget pumpkin cupcakes.

But sometimes too much of a good thing really is too much. 

Starbucks' pumpkin lattes sales spiked, and their profits along with it. Soon, with the first cool breeze of autumn, pumpkin spice flavoring began to appear in, well, everything.
There are pumpkin spice cleaners. Pumpkin spice soaps. Pumpkin spice candles. Pumpkin spice peeps. Pumpkin spice cheerios. Pumpkin spice Greenies dog treats. Pumpkin spice salsa. 

I went into pumpkin spice overload. I loved the pie, the ice cream, the muffins, the cupcakes, and, yes, the lattes, which to my horror I discovered did not contain any actual pumpkin until 2016. But pumpkin spice salsa?? Cleaners? Peeps? Cheerios???


I’d been pumpkin spiced. As my favorite politician likes to say, Enough is enough. (I live in Vermont, remember?)

I was not alone. Suddenly articles in the newspapers began attacking the season of pumpkin spice. A piece on NPR denounced the yearly pumpkin bacchanalia. Pumpkin spice became synonymous with a certain type of privilege and obliviousness. I didn’t like to think of myself as privileged and oblivious. I may be, but I don’t like to think I am.

And, as I mentioned above, I’d gained twenty-five pounds. Four years ago, I entered a program to prevent Alzheimer’s – and carbs and sugar are high on the list of things to avoid. 

So, I dialed back on the pumpkin. I’ve lost the weight, not solely due to pumpkin discipline, but a little extra self-control in the fall is necessary. 

I still love October – and fall – but try to express it more through photography and walks in the
woods. I still like the flavor. I just like it in moderation. Maybe a slice of pie that we buy from the neighbor who bakes it with pumpkins she grows herself.  Once or twice a season. I still like pumpkin spice lattes, especially if there’s actual pumpkin in it, but fortunately, the closest Starbucks to where I live in Vermont, is 50 miles away. It’s become a rare treat.

And that’s fine - for my weight, my health, and for the enjoyment. Because something that becomes common – and omnipresent – loses that special quality that I associate with the fleeting beauty of autumn. 

So where do you fall in the pumpkin spice continuum?  Do you love it, hate it, or are you somewhere in between?

And, by the way, the photographs here are my way to compensate for the lack of sugar

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

8 Scary Halloween Movies I’m Not Going To See – But YOU Should!

Jack Nicholson in The Shining
By Gayle Lynds.

It’s true that I write international thrillers with lots of suspense, politics, and action.  Crime!  Spies!  Violence!  Death!  I love reading great thrillers, and I love watching great thriller movies.  But — and it’s a big but — there’s no way you can bribe me, harass me, or shame me into seeing a so-called Great Horror Movie.

They scare me.  I have nightmares.  I can’t get some of the graphic images out of my mind.  The blood in a thriller movie affects me far less than the blood in a horror movie.  There are lots of theories out there why some of us are like me, and the majority are like, perhaps, you. 

There’s the “excitation factor.”  You get excited; I get icky frightened.  Also, there’s early childhood experience — when I was age four, I was scarred by the first Godzilla movie, to which I responded by crawling under the theater seat and refusing to leave, not even for chocolate ice cream.  Perhaps in my mind I’m still down there.  Hmm.

There’s also something about bonding — people bond over horror movies.  They laugh, they pretend to shiver, they shake with real fear, they get, well, aroused.  Not me.  In my mind, I’m already running for cover ... and to my computer to write a THRILLER.

I could go on and on about all of the theories, but this is the month of Halloween, of ghosts and goblins, and things that go thump in a starless night.  With that in mind, I’ve done the next best thing to going to one of the durn things ... here’s a list of 8 (supposedly) terrific horror movies that you should see, descriptions and details from IMDb.

Click on the title for a direct link.  Have funnnnn!

The Shining (1980)
A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where an evil spiritual presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from the past and of the future.  Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick and co-written with novelist Diane Johnson. Based on Stephen King's 1977 novel The Shining.  Stars:  Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and Danny Lloyd.

Frankenstein (1931)
A classic!  An obsessed scientist assembles a living being from parts of exhumed corpses.  Director: James Whale.  Stars: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff, and John Boles.

Halloween (1978) 
Fifteen years after murdering his sister on Halloween night 1963, Michael Myers escapes from a mental hospital and returns to the small town of Haddonfield to kill again.  Director: John Carpenter. Stars: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Tony Moran.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)  
There is panic throughout the nation as the dead suddenly come back to life. The film follows a group of characters who barricade themselves in an old farmhouse in an attempt to remain safe from these bloodthirsty, flesh-eating monsters.  Director: George A. Romero.  Stars: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, and Marilyn Eastman.

Beetlejuice (1988) 
A recently deceased husband and wife commission a bizarre demon to drive an obnoxious family out of their home.  Director: Tim Burton.  Stars: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, and Annie McEnroe.

Trick 'r Treat (2007)  Five interwoven stories that occur on Halloween: An everyday high school principal has a secret life as a serial killer; a college virgin might have just met the guy for her; a group of teenagers pull a mean prank; a woman who loathes the night has to contend with her holiday-obsessed husband; and a mean old man meets his match with a demonic, supernatural trick-or-treater.  Director: Michael Dougherty.  Stars: Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Dylan Baker, and Rochelle Aytes.

House on Haunted Hill (1959)  
A millionaire offers $10,000 to five people who agree to be locked in a large, spooky, rented house overnight with him and his wife.  Directors: William Castle and Rosemary Horvath.  Stars: Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Richard Long, and Alan Marshal.

Pumpkinhead (1988)  After a tragic accident, a man conjures up a towering, vengeful demon called Pumpkinhead to destroy a group of unsuspecting teenagers.  Director: Stan Winston.  Stars: Lance Henriksen, Jeff East, John D'Aquino, and Kimberly Ross.

Do you have a favorite must-see horror movie?  Please hit the comment button and tell!