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Odd Couples in Crime Fighting

9780399174490_when-all-the-girls-have-gone    Jayne Ann Krentz’s latest work of romantic suspense , “When All the Girls Are Gone,” features a classic feature of crime fiction – the odd couple. Charlotte is earnest and caring; Max is tough and restrained – until Charlotte gets his blood up, anyway. In Krentz’s world opposites attract and romance ensues, as well as quite a lot of danger and suspense.

This pairing has been used so often in crime fiction and suspense novels, I feel like it must be deeply attractive to the reader for some very basic reason. We all want to hope that, when push comes to shove, humans will respect one another’s differences and pull together to right a wrong.

Often, in these odd couple pairings, two heads are better than one – the partners complement each other. Here are some well-known couples in crime fiction. In some cases, opposites attract and romance blooms; in other cases, what happens is deep respect and friendship.

robert-galbraith-the-cuckoos-calling         When J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, decided to write a mystery, she used the pen name Robert Galbraith. Well, her secret didn’t last long; the true author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, her first book featuring the British vet and private detective Cormoran Strike, was revealed, and sales took off like a rocket.

The Cormoran Strike books have convinced me that Rowling is one of the most talented and versatile writers ever. Cormoran is quite a creation – a war hero from his service in Afghanistan, where he lost a leg; a cynical veteran of military intelligence. He is burly, tough and gruff, and doesn’t have much patience for English politesse.  Then Cormoran hires a beautiful young office temp named named Robin Ellacott to fill in as his (much needed) office assistant. Robin is a proper young English woman (engaged to a proper young English man), but she is smart, resourceful and increasingly attracted to Cormoran.

The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first book in this series, is about the death of a beautiful model. The subject gave Rowling free rein to write about the perils of celebrity, something she knows quite a lot about.

There are three books, and a fourth is planned. If Cormoran and Robin don’t pair up eventually I will eat my notebook, but part of the delicious nature of this story is watching the sparks fly while waiting for that to happen.

Here’s another odd couple – Vera Stanhope and Joe Ashworth in Ann Cleeves’ great Vera Stanhope books.  Vera is one of crime fiction’s great creations. She is a single, lonely, unattractive middle-aged woman who looks more like someone’s eccentric aunt than what she is – a Detective Chief Inspector, the head of a crime squad in a northeastern English town. Vera’s fusty appearance hides a razor-sharp intellect and a total dedication to solving crimes.

crowtrapJoe is her sergeant and protégé. This is not a romantic relationship; more mother and son, except that Vera would be a difficult mother – she’s demanding and critical. Joe is a straight arrow – married with children, ambitious to move up in the ranks. He knows he can learn a lot from Vera, but she is very hard to live and work with – a caustic, undiplomatic truth-teller.

The Vera books feature meticulous plotting and great atmosphere; they bring alive Northumberland, a remote corner of northeast England. No surprise that they have been made into a TV series starring the great actress Brenda Blethyn. Because of the popularity of the series, most of the books are now available in this country – try the first, The Crow Trap. (Be patient; Vera takes a while to show up in this story, but it’s worth the wait.)

Moving north to Scotland, I have to mention one of my favorite mystery series – Ian Rankin’s John Rebus books. When Rankin thought up Detective John Rebus of the Edinburgh police, I’m guessing he didn’t realize that he had created a character who would come to be loved by millions of readers.

knotsandcrosses       Rebus is an old-school cop who doesn’t just not go by the book – he throws the book out the window. He smokes like a fiend, has a horrible diet and has absolutely no ambitions other than to solve crimes.

His counterpart is Siobhan Clarke, a young, ambitious woman who admires Rebus’ smarts, but who fears that one day he will jump off the deep end and take her with him. She’s a sharp dresser. She’s a health nut who gets antsy if she doesn’t get to the gym once a day. She knows how to use a computer, which Rebus indefatigably resists. As she rises in the ranks, her association with and respect for Rebus becomes more and more of a liability. It’s a very interesting tension.

If you haven’t tried out these books – I envy you reading them for the first time! Start with Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus mystery. There are 20 Rebus books, and a 21st is due out in 2017.

shadowdeathMoving south to the area around Cambridge, you will find a different kind of odd couple – a detective and a priest. I’m talking about James Runcie’s Sidney Chambers mysteries, starting with Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death.  Sidney Chambers is an Anglican priest who tends to a parish in a village outside of Cambridge. Sidney is thoughtful, intellectual, a gentleman. He has one roguish streak – he is obsessed with solving crimes.

His odd couple partner is Geordy Keating, a rough-hewn local detective who doesn’t buy any of Sidney’s theology, but who increasingly relies on Sidney for friendship and for another brain to apply to some very perplexing crimes. Sidney is single (at least initially); Geordy is a family man.

You may have seen the TV adaptation of these books, the “Grantchester” series on PBS. They’re a great place to start, but the books go deeper – Runcie’s father was the Archbishop of Canterbury and he is great at considering the great questions of faith and doubt and the war between good and evil, selfishness and generosity in human nature. Start with Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death – you will be glad you did.

ad19b-king_beekeeperFinally, this might be the oddest couple of all – Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, created by San Francisco author Laurie B. King. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes book, the less Holmes had to do with women, the better. But in King’s retelling, Holmes meets his intellectual match in a young woman; they become crime-solving partners and eventually husband and wife.

This is a great vehicle for viewing the Victorian age through the eyes of a woman as well as a man. The series shows no signs of flagging, but start with the first book, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.

David McCullough Web Extra

David McCullough talks about the importance of History with Terry Tazioli.

#502 McCullough Web Extra from Two Dogs Barking, Inc. on Vimeo.

Harper Lee’s New Book Intrigue

This book cover released by Harper shows "Go Set A Watchman," a follow-up to Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird." The book will be released on July 14. (AP Photo/Harper)

harperleeI continue to be intrigued by the hubbub surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. The comments have not stopped, nor has the writing about the subject.  I’ve been following a few conversations on Facebook – folks going back and forth on the racism of both Lee and her character Atticus Finch. More folks going back and forth on whether or not they’ll even read the book. Some think the book and its discovery are fraudulent. Some think the works are revelatory and must be read in tandem. Others – there are may others – don’t want a heroic vision of Finch marred by any new subject matter. Others… well, you get the picture.

I just came across a new piece in, of all things, Boston University’s BU Today – published daily at the university. The article is an interview with a Southern literature scholar at BU. He has some intriguing thoughts on the subject.  BU Interview  Sent me back in a hunt for other articles. Here’s one on a Harper Lee letter and its auction, and an interview with the letter’s new owner. She would fit right in with the Facebook conversations.  Entertainment article And if you missed it, some good reporting from The New York Times on the book and its history New York Times article.  And of course a New York Times review – a very good one, if you ask me.  New York Times Review.

Ah, let the controversy/conversation continue.

Poetry for the Occasional Poetry Reader

How to Be DrawnI haven’t read a poet in a while that made me laugh while he was making me think and feel at the same time, but Terrance Hayes pulled it off. That’s saying something, isn’t it?

I met Hayes a few years ago at a post- awards party for the National Book Critics Circle award winners. It was one of those New York parties where everyone tries to do three or four things at once
~Stand up.
~Eat while standing up.
~Be brilliant and entertaining while standing up and eating.
~Attach yourself to the smartest and trendiest people in the room.

Terrance Hayes

Terrance Hayes

I have never gotten comfortable with eating while standing up. So I flopped down on a chair next to a pleasant looking man, who introduced himself as Terrance Hayes. For the next half hour, I was a. hugely entertained and b. filled in on all the most delicious gossip of the poetry world (the poetry world, a very small world, is full of colorful characters who often do very strange things). I was grateful to him!

LightheadHayes was in a good mood that night – he had just won the National Book Award for Lighthead, a collection of poetry that covered everything from love to sex to racism to music. I would say that Terrance Hayes is a poet you can read and enjoy, even if you don’t read that much poetry.

Which brings me to an admission: I don’t read that much poetry. I think it requires powers of concentration that I just don’t have at the moment, though I aspire to read more of it in the future. I have read enough poetry to compile a short list of poets I can recommend.


Billy Collins

If you, like me, don’t read that much poetry, a good place to start is a slim paperback that came out in 2003 and has been reprinted several times since. It’s called Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry. It’s an anthology of contemporary poems selected by the great Billy Collins, an Irish poet and a rock star in the poetry world.

Poetry 180Collins made his selections with an eye to poems that are “an immediate pleasure.” Each one of these poems is reasonably short, but each one packs a punch, and many of them left me slightly breathless at the end. This collection is highly recommended if you want to put your toe in the water of reading poetry. It’s kind of like a poetry buffet.

Yusef Komunyakaa

Next up is a poet I saw a few years ago when he was speaking at a local high school. Yusef Komunyakaa was a guest at a local lecture series, which also runs a program that tries (with quite a lot of success) to get kids in local public schools interested in writing. Yusef agreed to read and talk about poetry.

The local high school in question was one my kids attended, and I knew what a tough audience awaited any poet, even an esteemed one. So I sat in the small auditorium and felt an anticipatory anxiety for the guest.

I needn’t have worried. A Louisiana native, Yusef had a deep,musical voice, a no-BS approach and street cred — his poems covered subjects like basketball and war (the Vietnam version, where he served). He read a poem he wrote about basketball – “Slam, Dunk and Hook” – and when he was done, the room was completely quiet. For a second, anyway.

Magic CityNeo VernacularLike Terrance Hayes’ poetry, Komunyakaa’s poems are visceral, musical and wrestle with everyday life, especially as it is experienced by black Americans. He has published many books; one that interests me in particular is called Magic City, which tells the story of his upbringing in Louisiana. If you’re more interested in his poetry of Vietnam, try Neon Vernacular.


Speaking of the South – I was raised in a small town in Arkansas. The poet C.D. Wright is one of that state’s most famous daughters.

(photo/Stew Milne)

C D Wright (photo/Stew Milne)

A few years ago I was reading poetry for a prize committee I’m on, and Wright’s epic poem One With Others was a finalist. I had one of those out-of-body reading experiences that only happens a few times in a lifetime.

One With OthersAs I read along, the realization dawned, and then hit me over the head – this poem was about events that occurred in my home town in 1968 and 1969, when the community was torn apart by the fight to end segregation (my home town was Forrest City, Arkansas, though Wright calls the town by another name in the poem). It’s about the black community’s struggles, and about one very brave white woman who decided to join the Civil Rights marches. This poem was a revelation to me, someone who thought she knew more or less what happened in those tumultuous years. It also captures the sights, sounds and smells of the Mississippi Delta as well as any book I’ve ever read. It won the National Book Critics Circle poetry award for 2010.

Troy Jollimore

I want to mention a more lighthearted book that woTom Thompsonn the NBCC award in 2007 – Tom Thompson in Purgatory by Troy Jollimore. This poem, published by a very small press, is a sequence of sonnets, involving a character named Tom Thompson. Some are about are about a real person, Tom Thomson, a Canadian landscape painter who drowned in Ontario’s Lake Canoe in 1917. In other cases, Tom Thompson is a modern guy who eschews the life of airless intellectual pursuits in favor of a more Thoreau- like existence. Jollimore is a Nova Scotia native with a PhD in philosophy – this poetry collection is lyrical, brainy and a lot of fun.

Kay Ryan

Kay Ryan

The Best of ItFinally, if you like your poems shorter, with a philosophical punch, try Kay Ryan’s The Best of It. Ryan, a former U.S. poet laureate, writes poems that grab you by the lapel and make you think. The New York Times said that Ryan’s “voice is quizzical and impertinent, funny in uncomfortable ways, scuffed by failure and loss.” Ryan is the daughter of an oil-well driller who began her academic career in community college. She has come a long way, and these poems have a visceral quality that reflect life in a way that almost anyone can relate to.

Kazuo Ishiguro Web Extra

Sometimes savage, sometimes mysterious, always intensely moving, The Buried Giant tells a luminous story about the act of forgetting and the power of memory. Kazuo Kshiguro, the international bestselling author and Booker Award Winner, joins Terry and Mary Ann in this exclusive “Web Extra” interview for

Money, money, money: novels and nonfiction about high finance

The British author John Lanchester is one of my great reading pleasures. I was introduced to his work through his 2012 novel, “Capital,” which I still recommend to anyone who can get their hands on it.

“Capital” is a big, rich novel that is set around the time of the financial implosion of 2008. It follows a group of Londoners as their ambitions collide with the ongoing financial train wreck. They include a banker and his wife, a performance artist and his grandmother, a Pakistani family, a Zimbabwean refugee…and others. One of the most interesting and ultimately poignant of Lanchester’s characters is Roger the banker, who is making piles and piles of money. The problem is, the transactions his firm is engaged in have gotten so complicated that Roger really has no idea how anything works anymore (a feeling that in our technology-saturated world, many readers will relate to). As you can imagine, this leads to complications.

This book is not just about money, though – it’s about the xenophobia brought on by terrorism, and about how people connect (or not) in a 21st century multicultural society. In addition to being an astute observer of human foibles, Lanchester is also an astonishingly funny fellow. That, combined with his big heart, makes “Capital” a classic. Several reviewers described his work in “Capital” as a 21st century version of Dickens. I think Dickens would definitely have approved of “Capital,” but his fellow literary giant Anthony Trollope, who knew a thing or two about money and human nature, would have appreciated it, too.

Lanchester also wrote a post-crash book with the hilariously  dry title, “I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay.” This book was one of many that dissected the financial crash; Lanchester, who developed a layman’s interest in hedge funds,  is fascinated with the fact that so few people understand a financial system that so many people and institutions depend on. Here’s one quote from the book. “Warren Buffett was doubly right to compare the new financial products to ‘weapons of mass destruction’ — first, because they are lethal, and, second, because no one knows how to track them down,”  Lanchester writes. He has a special antipathy for bankers who loaned money to poor people who were extremely bad credit risks, then turned around and sold the loans (and the risk) to someone else. Making money off of people’s gullibility and misery, then running for the exits.

Did I mention Anthony Trollope and his novel of financial scandal, “The Way We Live Now”?  Trollope wrote about the same phenomenon in 19th century London, though Trollope’s scoundrels mostly just ripped off the rich.There have always been people who understand money better than the masses, and I want to mention a couple of book that go back in history to examine that phenomenon.

The first is “Lords of Finance: The Bankers that Broke the World” by Liaquat Ahamed. This 2009 book is a group biography of sorts about four men who Ahamed says basically helped the push the financial systems of the world off a cliff and into the Great Depression. He writes about a Englishman, a Frenchman, a German and an American (ample blame all around). After World War I these men were engaged in an effort to reconstruct the world of international finance. They were wildly different personalities, but they were united by a common fear – that the greatest threat to capitalism was inflation. So they decided to try to turn back the clock and get the world economy to return to the gold standard. And it worked – until it didn’t.  As the world economy began to weaken, their adherence to the belief that the gold standard would provide stability kept those who ran the financial system from instituting measures that would have halted the slide into worldwide depression.

Does this sound like a brainy book? It is, but Ahamed, a professional investment manager, has a gift for characterization and explaining things. This book won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for history and was recommended by Bill Gates, who probably had a very interesting chat with his buddy Warren Buffet about this book.

Another book that looks back at an institution that probably affects everyone is “House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance” by Ron Chernow. Winner of the 1990 National Book Award, this book follows four generations of the family at the center of the J.P. Morgan financial empire. It ends with the crash of 1987, well before the 2008 implosion, but it shows just how deeply the institutions created by the Morgan empire have affected financial policy in this country, and it vividly portrays the ongoing tension between financial institutions and the governments that are supposed to be regulating it.

Finally, I’ve been waiting for a chance to mention “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” written by the French economist Thomas Piketty. This book, an unlikely best-seller, looks at the entire system of capitalism – not just from the perspective of who the winners and losers are, but by asking the question: is capitalism accelerating the division of the world’s population into the haves and the have nots? (the haves would be those folks who are running the hedge funds, among others). Piketty makes a compelling argument that it is. Of course, he has all sorts of detractors. But his book has generated a lot of needed discussion.

Dead Man Walking: Books about the death penalty

The death penalty has been around for a long time, in one form or another, but as things have changed over the years, many societies have moved beyond it. Not the U.S. Such a serious topic, one with so many moral and ethical implications, has of course attracted the attention of many writers. The latest, of course, is Bryan Stevenson and his book “Just Mercy.”

When I started thinking about books that feature the death penalty, I quickly became overwhelmed. I’m going to mention a couple that you’ve probably heard of, and a few that maybe you haven’t.

First up is Ernest Gaines’ classic “A Lesson Before Dying.” This immensely moving 1993 book tells the story of Grant Wiggins, a teacher in the plantation lands of Louisiana whose conscience and moral fiber are tested when Jefferson, a slow-witted man, is charged with the murder of two men in a bar fight. The man’s defense lawyer argues that the man is so slow-witted, it would be like charging a hog with murder, that Jefferson is mentally incapable of such a crime.

Jefferson is convicted, but Wiggins’ godmother convinces him that he has to help Jefferson come to terms with who he is, and achieve the dignity that his defense lawyer denied him. Wiggins, an educated black man, does not really want to get involved in Jefferson’s case, but he begins to visit him, and over time, something profoundly moving begins to happen to Jefferson – and to Wiggins.

This is a multilayered book, with many fascinating characters, including a minister who thinks Wiggins should be trying to save Jefferson’s soul, and a white deputy who Wiggins discovers he has more in common with than he would have thought. It is a moving book that will stay with you long after you have read the final page.

“Dead Man Walking” by Sister Helen Prejean. This nonfiction book, by a leading advocate for abolishing the death penalty, is also set in in Louisiana – at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It all started when, living as a Roman Catholic nun in New Orleans, Sister Prejean began corresponding with two convicted murderers. Eventually she began visiting both men and became a spiritual advisor of sorts to both.

This book is a spiritual journey through all aspects of the death penalty, from the plight of the condemned men to the rage of those who loved the victims of the crimes they perpetrated. This story has been turned into a play, a movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, and even an opera – it’s obviously a story that resonates.

Sister Prejean continues to work as an advocate against the death penalty and has written other books, including “The Death of Innocents,” in which she follows the cases of two men she believes were convicted on very flimsy evidence.

The incredibly successful legal thriller writer John Grisham has always been interested in the death penalty. Grisham is from the South, an area where a large proportion of the nation’s death row inmates are incarcerated, and some eventually executed. In 2006, Grisham took a break from writing best-selling novels to pen an nonfiction book, “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town.” It’s the story of Ron Williamson, a man who had to shelve his career as a minor-league baseball player and return to his small town of Ada, Oklahoma. He developed a drinking problem. In Grisham’s account, when a waitress is raped, beaten and murdered, the Ada police department goes after Williamson and one of his drinking partners, Dennis Fritz.

This shocking story tells the story of how the Ada police department and the district attorney used forced “dream” confessions, unreliable witnesses, and flimsy evidence to convict Williamson and Fritz. Williamson’s conviction set in motion a series of appeals, which eventually attracted the attention of the Innocence Project. After 11 years on death row, Williamson, who suffered from several mental disorders, including manic depression and schizophrenia, and Fritz were exonerated through new DNA evidence. Williamson has died, but Fritz published his own book about his experience called “Journey Towards Justice.”

Reading “Just Mercy,” it’s unavoidable to note how many of the people his organization is trying to help are poor and black. A 2010 book that examined the disproportionate number of African Americans who are incarcerated was called “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander. This book became a surprise best-seller – it was published by the New Press, a relatively small independent publisher, but two years later it had sold 175,000 copies after an initial hardcover printing of a mere 3,000, according to the publisher.

Alexander, a law professor who now teaches at Ohio State University, uses statistics and legal citations to argue that the get-tough approach to crime that began in the Nixon administration and intensified with Ronald Reagan’s declaration of the war on drugs has devastated black America. She writes that early one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point, only to find themselves falling into permanent second-class citizenship after they get out. Many people have written about this, but Alexander pushed her argument even further, arguing that this crackdown was a device for pushing back gains made by the civil rights movement. I have not read this book, so I cannot say one way or another whether she makes her case. But it caught the attention of black and white readers alike, especially because the cost of incarceration in America continues to explode, as Stevenson so eloquently notes in his book.

I want to briefly mention a more personal take on this issue – the impact of arguing these cases on those who do the arguing. “Things I’ve Learned from Dying” is a book by David Dow, who has argued more than 100 death penalty cases. In this book, published this year, Dow, a death penalty lawyer who founded the Texas Innocence Network and who teaches law at the University of Houston, writes about three personal experiences: The death of his beloved dog, the predicament of his father-in-law from melanoma, who is struggling with the issue of whether to take on treatments that will prolong, but not save, his life, and one of his cases, an attempt to save an inmate on Texas’ death row.What has he learned? I guess we will have to read the book to find out.

Finally – best-selling novelist Stephen King has never flinched from a tough topic, and his 1996 novel “The Green Mile” is a case in point. It was originally published in six slim volumes, then combined into a single book. It’s the story of Paul Edgecombe, a supervisor at a Louisiana penitentiary (here we are in Louisana again) who encounters an inmate on death row wo has, shall we say, some unusual abilities. This is a brutal, vividly written story with elements of magical realism, told in retrospect by Paul as an old man. Sometimes I have a hard time stomaching the violence in King’s books, but I admire and respect his ability to look straight on at all aspects of human experience.

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