News and updates about Gordon's fiction, available at Amazon and at Barnes & Noble, courtesy of Oghma Creative Media.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Research and rabbit holes

I've suspected for a while that the FBI is keeping a file on me based upon my Google search history.

This, I suspect, is something that plagues a lot of writers, but it's really hit home apropos of my murder mystery series, The Snowe Agency Mysteries, the second of which (The Dead Letter Office) just released last week.  I've got a line of them ready for release, and the research for them has resulted in some searches that would look seriously sketchy to anyone who didn't know I'm a writer.  These have included:
  • What anesthetic available to a veterinarian would kill a human the most quickly?
  • How fast does a bubble of air injected into an artery kill someone?
  • Would the remains of a person poisoned to death twenty years ago still show traces of the poison?
  • The behavior of psychopathic individuals
  • The physiology of drowning
  • How hard does a person need to be hit in the back of the head to knock them unconscious?
To anyone who is still concerned: allow me to assure you that I have never killed, nor am I planning on killing, anyone.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Writing takes you down some interesting rabbit holes, and I'm not just talking about writing mysteries.  One of the reasons I love writing fiction is that I learn so much in the process -- it gives me a chance to stretch my own brain a little.  Here are a few things I had to research for books I've written:
  • Living conditions in 14th century Norway (Lock & Key)
  • Communications and surveillance technology (Kill Switch)
  • Ancient Greek timekeeping devices (Gears)
  • Medieval Jewish mystical traditions (Sephirot)
  • Creatures from Japanese mythology (The Fifth Day)
  • The effects of untreated type-1 diabetes (Whistling in the Dark)
  • Viking ship design (Kári the Lucky)
  • The rate of spread of the Black Death in England (We All Fall Down)
  • The structure of Baroque contrapuntal music (The Harmonic Labyrinth)
And that's just scratching the surface.

I was chatting with my publisher a couple of days ago, and commented that fiction should open up new worlds, that if my readers are the same when they close the book as they were when they opened it, I've failed as a writer.  However, writing also opens up new worlds for the writer, lets us explore topics we'd otherwise never look into.  (It's all too easy to get lost in research -- to intend to sit down and write, and suddenly three hours have gone by, and all you've done is jump from one abstruse website to another, as my friend and writing partner Cly Boehs would be happy to tell you.)

There are two things about learning: (1) it's fun.  And (2) you're never done.  And when it comes to writing, there are always new areas to investigate, new worlds to create.

So many stories to tell, so little time.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

What I'm reading (#38)

When a friend gave me a copy of John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel Let the Right One In, and told me to read it even though it's a vampire novel, I was a little dubious despite my sense that this friend is a real connoisseur of excellent books.

I had no idea how wrong I was -- or spot-on his recommendation would be.

I've got nothing in particular against vampires, mind you, but I hate triteness.  And even the most diehard bloodsucker aficionado has to admit that the vampire trope has been a little overdone lately.  (As have zombies.)  But there's always room for a truly fresh take -- something I found out when I had my arm twisted to watch the zombie movie Warm Bodies last year and absolutely loved it.  So I told my pal that I'd be happy to give Lindqvist's novel a try.


I read it in four days flat.  It's riveting.  The story centers on Oskar, a misfit twelve-year-old in Sweden who is the subject of brutal and humiliating bullying by his stronger and more confident classmates.  Oskar, however, is about to have his life turned upside down by two things -- there is a horrifying murder near his town, and the police have no leads on the killer; and one night soon after, he meets Eli, a thin girl with a narrow, waif-like face, shoulder-length dark hair, wearing a thin pink sweater despite the evening chill.

Eli and Oskar strike up a peculiar friendship.  But they are on a collision course with several other figures -- the pathetic, simpering Håkan; the drunkard foursome of Jocke, Lacke, Larry, and Morgan; dark, unhappy, drug-addicted Tommy; and the trio of bullies, Jonny, Jimmy, and Micke.

And after all is said and done, none of them will ever be the same again.

Let the Right One In is not only a twisted coming-of-age story, it's an absolutely gripping novel.  Lindqvist draws you right in to the cold, long nights of a Swedish winter, and has a deft way of making you feel sorry for even the most despicable characters (while simultaneously wanting to check beneath the bed to make sure none of them snuck in while you weren't looking).  It's not a happy tale; if you like neat, tied-up, they-all-lived-happily-ever-after endings, this story is probably not for you.  But if you like brilliant characterization and a plot you won't soon forget, give Let the Right One In a try.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

What I'm reading (#37)

A couple of years ago I read Ava Norwood's first book, If I Make My Bed in Hell -- a gripping tale of a woman caught in a self-feeding cycle of religious indoctrination and abuse who finally decides she's had enough.  It's a gritty, dark, completely engrossing read, so when I heard that Norwood was working on her second book, I couldn't wait to read it.

That book, Poured Out Like Water, was released last week, and it far exceeded my already high expectations of Norwood's ability at story-craft.  It's the tale of Shannon Grady, scion of The Big Family In Town -- the child who never could compete with her brother and sister, and who never quite measured up to the high standards of her wealthy family.


But the brash, influential Gradys have some skeletons in their own closet, and Shannon eventually sets aside her desire to be an accepted part of the family, choosing instead to create her own family circle, centered around her dear friend Evie.  And for a while, it seems to be working.

But the ghosts of the past are not so easily laid in their graves, and the members of the Grady family remain on a collision course with tragedy.  Some sins can never be atoned for -- and it's often the most vulnerable who end up paying the price.

Poured Out Like Water is a tour de force, drawing you along into the depths of family secrets, jealousy, anger, grief, and desire for revenge.  You won't be able to put it down.  And I can guarantee that once you turn the last page, you will be thinking about the story for a long, long time.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

What I'm reading (#36)

If I haven't posted any reviews here in a while, I have an excuse; I've been caught up in Haruki Murakami's massive novel 1Q84, which at almost a thousand pages, is not something you can knock off in a day or two.

It's well worth the effort, though.  It's in his signature lucid but surreal style, where you're not always sure that what you're seeing (through the character's eyes) is real.  He has a way of describing the most ordinary, prosaic settings and making them seem otherworldly, places where you might expect to see ghosts.


The book revolves around two characters: Tengo, a writer who just wants a quiet life but finds himself trapped in an increasingly violent vortex of conspiracy; and Aomame, a sports trainer by day, avenging angel by night, who does what she has to with dispassionate calm until the day she's given a job that will change her life forever.  The two of them had a chance connection in elementary school that neither of them has ever forgotten, and they have both spent the time since trying to find each other again -- at the same time, each not knowing if the other even remembered who they were.

Other characters slip in and out of the story.  The aging Dowager, who got Aomame started on her career of righteous revenge.  The misshapen, hulking Ushikawa, a gun-for-hire who will do anything he's told to do if given enough money.  Fuka-Eri, a teenager with a preternatural imagination.  The Dowager's bodyguard Tamaru, who is ruthless and efficient and has a soft spot for dogs.  Aomame's policewoman friend Ayumi.  The Leader, a desperately ill man in charge of a homicidal cult.  All of them play a part -- and the whole time, the two moons of the 1Q84 world hang in the sky, a reminder that all is not what it seems.

To tell you more would be to spoil the ride.  Murakami's ability to transport us to a side-slipped alternate universe, which he demonstrated over and over in such tours de force as Dance Dance Dance, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and A Wild Sheep Chase, is in full flower here.  Pick up a copy, fasten your seatbelt, and get ready for a trip you'll never forget.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Dead Letter Office -- Snowe #2 is almost here!

If you liked the enigmatic Mr. Parsifal Snowe and his band of intrepid detectives in Poison the Well, get ready for a second installment of murder and psychic investigation with The Dead Letter Office, coming in April!


Crotchety, irritable, self-centered, rich Miss Annamae Dyer has been found clubbed to death in her study, and who had a reason to kill her?

Just about everyone.

From her conniving, scheming nephew Robert, who inherited most of her considerable fortune; to her nieces, cool, superior Katherine Yates and artsy, hot-tempered Marie Mackenzie, both mysteriously written out of Annamae's will; to her cousin, Donna Skelly, who has been put upon and abused by the whole family; to her cold-as-ice personal assistant Taylor Bradford -- none of them liked her.

In fact, none of them much liked each other, either.

In a family where every-man-for-himself is the watchword, and there's a cool couple of millions at stake, someone wanted the old lady out of the way.  But who... and why?

Find out in The Dead Letter Office.

Here's a short teaser from early in the story.  Enjoy!

****************

“I have called you together this afternoon,” Mr. Parsifal Snowe said to his staff, “because I thought it might be worthwhile to bring together what we have currently uncovered regarding the death of Annamae Dyer. Recognizing, of course, that we have only recently begun the investigation, and anything we have is likely to be tentative.”
Seth stretched out his long legs and leaned back in the chair, which creaked slightly. “Are we starting from facts? Or from impressions? If it’s the latter, I’d say we have a pretty interesting bunch of personalities in this case.”
Mr. Snowe smiled beneficently at him. “I would argue that the two are inseparable. As I have commented before, cases are rarely solved by hard evidence alone. There is always the human angle—the feelings, the motives, the emotions. Those are critical, however contrary to logic that may seem. Let us begin, perhaps, with the two individuals that you and Ms. Hale interviewed—the deceased’s niece, Katherine Yates, and her personal assistant, Taylor Bradford.”
Seth nodded. “As far as the facts go, their stories jibed. Yates and Bradford both said Dyer was a heinous old bat—”
“—not in so many words,” Bethany interjected.
“Okay, I’m paraphrasing,” Seth admitted. “Yates’s actual words were something like, ‘Our family is an interesting bunch,’ but this was immediately after she basically said the old lady’s will had shafted everyone but her golden-boy nephew. She even used her will to deliver a posthumous smackdown to her other niece, Marie, I forget her last name.”
“Mackenzie,” Troy said.
“Right. And Yates said—about her own sister—‘not that it wasn’t deserved.’ I’d say Katherine Yates cares mostly about status, and keeping herself in control, but otherwise doesn’t have a lot of compassion.”
“Taylor Bradford said she was a social climber,” Bethany said, “and her husband was a bastard of the first water—”
“—not in so many words,” Seth said, with a smile.
“No,” Bethany said. “And to be fair, we didn’t meet the husband. Taylor Bradford had a great many opinions about everyone, and all of them negative, so I’m not sure how much weight to give them.” She paused. “He didn’t seem put off by what he got in the will, though. Seemed quite happy with his two grand and pile of old books.”
“Were the books valuable?” Jeff Kolnikoff asked, and five heads turned in some surprise toward him. Jeff cleared his throat, and mumbled, “I mean, I just wondered.”
“No, it’s an interesting question, Mr. Kolnikoff,” Mr. Snowe said. “And one I hadn’t considered.”
“Wouldn’t that be funny?” Seth grinned. “She wills some priceless book to her research assistant, and no one knows but the two of them. I can see someone like Taylor Bradford laughing up his sleeve about that.”

Monday, December 11, 2017

Excerpt from a work-in-progress: Slings and Arrows

I've started work on the seventh in the Snowe Agency mystery series, entitled Slings and Arrows.  All of the Snowe mysteries have started with the agents -- a client comes in to talk to them about a murder.  This one starts differently.

With the murder itself.

Here's the first bit.  See what you think.

*********************************

A clear October night.  Stars glittering in the frosty air, their cold light casting no illumination on the trees that lined Garwood Avenue.  There was no traffic, no headlights—it was an out-of-the-way cul-de-sac, and was ten past midnight on a Tuesday night, when most of the middle class working stiffs who lived in this part of Colville, New York were sound asleep.

So no one saw the disheveled man staggering his way down the sidewalk.  His face wore a petulant scowl, and he was muttering to himself.  "Goddamn bartender… lotta nerve.  My car keys, no right to take 'em… I'm fine to drive, done it before, never had a damn problem… Tomorrow gonna go raise hell with the owner, get the bitch fired…"

An anemic streetlight's livid glare set his shadow turning underneath his feet as he moved past it.  He looked down at it, watching his silhouette swing from behind him to in front of him, then stretch out, longer and longer.  Something about its silent movement was nauseating.  He hoped he wouldn't puke.  It'd been a while since he'd had enough alcohol to start him puking, and it was worse than the inevitable headache he'd have tomorrow.

His scowl deepened.  And of course Kathy would be up waiting for him.  She always was.  She'd have that disapproving frown that struck a crease in the middle of her forehead, and tell him how he needed to stop going out with his buddies, especially on a work night, one day his boss in the construction company would get sick of him showing up to work hung over, and then he'd get fired.

It was the same lecture every damn time.  He hated that lecture worse than he hated puking.

But there were no lights on in the windows of his house.  He stopped and squinted up at the living room window, wondering for a moment if maybe he'd turned into the wrong driveway.  But there it was, that stupid stained-glass window hanging of a hummingbird that Kathy had gotten at a craft fair.  Maybe when he got inside, he'd take down that ugly-ass thing, find a hammer, and smash it to bits.

He stumbled down the sidewalk, almost losing his balance and falling into the front garden when he had to negotiate a single step up.  He looked at the set of eight steps that led up to his front door, and wondered how, exactly, he was going to manage them.

It was the last thought he ever had.

The sound of the baseball bat connecting with the back of his head loud enough that the man who swung it stepped back, startled, and slipped into the shadow of the hedge where he'd been hiding. He waited for lights to come on, for the neighbors to come and investigate.  The ruinous noise of his victim's skull caving in had been nothing short of horrifying.

But five minutes passed, and no lights came on, there were no shouts of "Who's there?"

He stepped out from the shadows still holding the bat, now swinging loosely from his right hand.  He gave a quick, furtive gesture with his left, and a woman came out from behind a clump of birch trees across the street, and crossed to him.

"Done?" she said in a low whisper.

"Done."  He pointed at the victim's body, sprawled on the sidewalk.  There wasn't enough light here to see him clearly, and the woman went up and knelt next to him, placing two fingers underneath the rough line of his jaw.

After a moment, she stood, and gave a tight, jerky nod.  "Dead."  She pulled out a cloth bag that had been tucked underneath her belt, and held it out open to him.  He dropped the bat in, and she twisted the top of it and tied it shut.

The man said, "Good."  He pulled out his cellphone, tapped the Text app, and after a moment, typed in a name.  In the text box he wrote three letters:

"SPW."

The response came in seconds.  It was a thumbs-up sign.

"Okay," he whispered.  "Let's get out of here."

The woman caught his sleeve.  "You gonna be okay?"

He swallowed, nodded.  "Yeah.  I'll be okay.  You?"

She returned his nod.  "See you in a couple of days."

Minutes later, the shadowed driveway was empty.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

What I'm reading (#35)

Is it possible to hate a book solely because of the very last line?

I ask because that was my reaction to William Sleator's The Duplicate.  I picked up a copy at our local used book sale (one of the biggest in the country -- the Ithaca Friends of the Library Annual Book Sale, a quarter of a million books in a huge warehouse -- one of the high points of my year).  I've loved a lot of Sleator's other YA speculative fiction books, including House of Stairs, Interstellar Pig, Strange Attractors, and (especially) Among the Dolls, which stands out to me as one of the most brilliantly crafted YA speculative fiction books ever written.

So I was looking forward to The Duplicate.


The story itself had an interesting premise; a teenage boy finds a machine that can create a perfect copy of himself, not only physically but mentally.  The duplicate would have all of the original's knowledge and memories, not to mention personality, reactions, and insecurities.  At first, the idea seems brilliant; two identical copies would mean that each of them would only have to go to school half of the time, and one could be doing chores while the other was making out with his girlfriend.  What could go wrong, right?

The answer turns out to be "everything."  David, the main character, does not anticipate two things; (1) that the duplicate will have a mind of his own, and in fact firmly believes that he is the original David; and (2) once the duplicate is created, their experiences and memories begin to diverge, so it becomes increasingly difficult for them to pretend to be the same person.  Also, there are some serious inconveniences.  Only one of them can sleep in the bed, if indeed they can both be in the bedroom in the same time without their parents realizing.  If one is at dinner, the other has to go hungry.

And so on.

The whole thing turns into an increasingly tense drama of errors, as David gets more entangled with a duplicate who turns out not to be controllable, or even friendly.  And when the duplicate creates yet another copy, things spiral out of control.

So far, so good.  Interesting stuff, well written, and we really want the main character to win the day.

But I have this thing about books, movies, and television shows; I hate it when I feel like the creator is playing with me.  It's why the later conspiracy theory episodes of The X Files left me wanting to hurl a heavy object at the television; I felt like the writers came up with the ideas by sitting around a table, sipping scotch and saying, "Heh.  Let's do this.  This'll really confuse the hell out of 'em."  It's why I have no patience for David Lynch movies -- Mulholland Drive made me want to kick a wall.  I don't need to have all the answers -- for cryin' in the sink, I've written whole books where the reader is left to piece things together -- but I want some closure.   And most of all, I don't want to feel like the writer is being coy with me, doing something that has as its sole goal leaving me going, "Ooh, wow, that was unexpected, I wonder what will happen next?"

And that's what happens at the end of The Duplicate.  Everything gets more or less resolved, and on the last page David is having a nice time kissing his girlfriend Angela... and then comes the last line, which reads, and I quote:

"Until the phone rang."

When I got to the end, I said, "What?" followed by an intensifier I will not include out of consideration for my more sensitive readers.  There is no hint of who might be on the phone; the resolution of the story gives you no information about anyone who might be calling, and worse, whose call might destroy the happy teenage hormone-fest that was happening beforehand.

But that's how it ends.  No sequel, no idea of what Sleator had in mind.  Did one of the duplicates survive?  Was there a third duplicate?  Is it Angela's former boyfriend, threatening to knock David's teeth out because they were sitting on the couch snogging?

No way to know.

Like I said, I don't need all the answers, nor do I need everything neatly tied up with a ribbon on top.  My favorite book of all time is Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, after all, and if you know what happens at the end of that book, you'll understand why I bring it up.  But this just struck me as cheap, as a way to create a suspenseful ending that the plot didn't deserve.  At least if there was some other twist in the last chapter, it might give us enough to have at least a guess as to what was going on.

But the end of this book makes me feel like Sleator was just tired of writing, and said, "Heh.  This'll really confuse the hell out of 'em."

Which is a crummy way to treat your readers.

So if you want to read some great Sleator -- and he has more than one really fantastic story out there -- check out some of the ones I mentioned above.  But my suggestion is to give The Duplicate a pass.  Unless you like pointless cliffhangers, which I suppose some of you may.