Landscape as character

Screen Shot 2019-05-03 at 11.21.11 AMRecently (May 2, 2019), CrimeReads did a fine piece on The Importance of Setting, but its focus was on whether it made sense to choose a real place or to invent one.

It’s an interesting read (and of course it added to my TBR pile!), but I’m fascinated with stories that use their settings almost as characters in their own right. Why did the story happen in one place and not another? Could the same story be told in a different locale? Why is this place different from any other?

Some of the most recent novels I’ve read–Buzz Killer by Tom Straw; Below the Fold by R. G. Belksy, Hipster Death Rattle by Richie Narvaez; Record Scratch by J.J. Hensley and August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones–all use the landscape of their chosen city very well.  For Tom Straw and R. G. Belsky, it’s New York City; for Narvaez it’s Brooklyn (Williamsburg); for JJ Hensley, it’s Pittsburgh; and for Stephen Mack Jones, Detroit. 

MultiBookI’m drawn to their subtly (and not-so subtly) expressed exasperation with how cities are changing. Since people started gathering in them, they’ve been a place of excitement, diversity and exchange, teeming with stories, with filth, and above all, a mixing of people. The writers listed above struggle with where we’re heading, and their protagonists and stories reflect that uneasiness.

Change has always been a constant, but this time feels different, they seem to say. In Buzz Killer, Macie Wild struggles with the notion that New York has become “a tale of three cities,” with little or no connection to one another; Belsky’s Clare Carlson struggles to synchronize a former New York’s giddy sense of possibility with what we see now.  JJ Hensley’s Pittsburgh and Stephen Mack Jones’s Detroit are wistfully rendered, detailing and juxtaposing what was…with what is. (My only quibble with Hensley is that when casting about for really violent, dangerous thugs, his Yinzers import a group of–of course!–Philadelphians, as clearly among the worst. C’mon! Cleveland’s closer. They don’t have head-breakers?)

I liked that Hipster Death Rattle focused on Williamsburg, and the fraught changes happening there. It put me in mind of where I live. When people ask where I live, I say South Philly, because I don’t want there to be any doubt about what I mean. It’s distinct from the suburbs (obviously) and from Center City, the Northeast or, say Fishtown. It’s changing, too, but it’s still a mix of people (mostly) getting loudly along. Stoop culture still prevails and a dense web of family and extended family live throughout the neighborhood, just around the corner, up the block; and that family life is still largely enacted in public.

This isn’t where I come from, but it’s where I’ve chosen to be. So far, I haven’t written anything that’s set mainly here in Philly, though parts of both Faithless Elector and Dark Network take place on Catharine Street. But, like the authors and their work I’ve discussed above, I feel that there’s something coming.

Invent a place or work with what you’ve got? There’s freedom in making it all your own, certainly. But there’s more source material in a real place.

 

NOTE: I’ve begun posting reviews of the books I’ve read, and they can be accessed here. I also post them on Amazon, Goodreads and BookBub.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager NoirPolitik thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, working title Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

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Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up copies at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

 

Faithless Electors could have tipped 5 elections, and may tip the 2020 election

The New York Times published an article in their Sidebar section yesterday, “Faithless Electors Could Tip the 2020 Election: Will the Supreme Court Stop Them?” and it references the petition, a Writ of Certiorari to the Supreme Court, requesting a speedy review regarding the question of whether so-called Faithless Electors are independent actors or are bound to vote as pledged.

Cvr page-faithless-petitionThe petition points out that in the 2016 Presidential Election, there were seven (7!) such defections. Thus far in our history, no Faithless Elector(s) has ever changed what might be regarded as the result of a presidential election. But as the petition points out: 

“A swing by that same number of electors [7] would have changed the results in five of fifty-eight prior presidential elections” [emphasis mine].

It goes on to note:

“And as the demographics of the United States indicate that contests will become even closer, there is a significant probability that such swings could force this Court to resolve the question of electoral freedom within the context of an ongoing contest.”

Meaning that it would be best to decide the matter now ahead of the contest rather than in the heat of a presidential election, when it is bound to look partisan and thus illegitimate (Bush v. Gore anyone?).

I did not include the fact about Electors potentially overturning 5 elections in my thriller Faithless Elector (pub. March 2016) because it was published before the 2016 election and these 10 defections. Indeed, neither Trump nor Clinton appear in its pages. I wanted the novel to be free of partisanship. It’s a taut thriller with engaging, determined characters set a against a background that exposes the latent weaknesses and potential for mischief in the Electoral College system. The revelation that someone is trying to manipulate the Electoral vote and steal the presidency sets the characters on a dangerous path and pits them against deadly opposition. Based on the good reviews, as well as readers’ generous responses at book fairs and over social media, it seems I have achieved that goal.

Because while its setting is the 2016 election, the latent weaknesses remain in place, as the Writ of Certiorari/Petition makes clear. The petition, in fact, candidly states what I proposed (albeit fictionally) when I wrote Faithless: that in a close election, where only a few votes separate the two candidates, politics of a kind we would not regard as legitimate could determine the outcome.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, Emergency Powers, is coming soon, and he is at work on a fourth book called Bastard Verdict (w/t) .

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Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

The Death of a Thousand Cuts

What would an accidental president need to do to solidify his grip on power?

Good stories demand verisimilitude. To make them believable, a writer has to imagine them from multiple angles. S/he must “see” as the characters see, and that includes (maybe especially) seeing what it is the bad guys want and why. From there, the writer has to imagine how the conspirators would achieve their goals.

pawn-to-king-WhogovernsWhat would an accidental president need to do to solidify his grip on power? That’s the question I set myself for the new thriller, Emergency Powers, with chillingly real implications. I find my stories once again sailing too close to the wind.

In Emergency Powers, FBI Agent Imogen Trager is haunted and undone by a case she failed to solve. When the president dies in office, she knows that the conspiracy she chased down a blind alley still has life in it–and she needs to get back in the hunt. The accidental president is no accident.

The (not) accidental president will take steps to solidify his grip on power, with deadly results. His party controls both Houses, so impeachment hearings or Senate Judicial hearings are unlikely. But he’ll need a pliant Attorney General to thwart, delay and/or make a mess of certain investigations that might bring the truth to light. Moreover, to guard his flanks, he has to secure the allegiance of the Federal bureaucracy.

It’s dismaying that a number of the key moves I ascribe to the conspirators’ playbook turn out to be exactly the kind of thing the Trump administration enacts, and there are spoilers I’m leaving out which also synchronize with both playbooks. I didn’t set out to write a screed against one party or another, nor to malign any particular politician. I wanted to tell a cracking story that would be thrilling…and plausible.

So how is it that our government consistently acts like the bad guys in my books?

Step one in Emergency Powers, after achieving the presidency, is to remove and replace the Attorney General, who will guard against any investigation getting too close. At the same time, the new administration proposes a number of federal rule changes. It’s immaterial whether the rules actually go into effect. The act of proposing them–and observing the reaction–is meant to help the conspirators sort out who is with them, and who is not.  Then, with that information in hand, they begin dismantling the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and move on to Step Two.

Screen Shot 2019-07-16 at 11.12.08 AMI had all this in the first draft of Emergency Powers, which I finished in October of 2018. That same month (unbeknownst to me at the time), Jeff Tien Han Pon was asked to resign as Director of OPM. As of this writing, there is still only an acting Director, Margaret Weichart, who is also the Deputy Director of OMB.  Pon’s resignation came as the Trump administration began work to dismantle the Office of Personnel Management and to bring it under the ambit of White House administration, which folds the daily business of the Federal government into one run by political appointees: patronage politics, or a return to the “spoils system.”

February of this year, the Trump administration appointed William Barr as AG after Jeff Sessions proved incapable of shielding the president from attacks. Barr has been doggedly faithful to his president, if not to his office or the American people.Barr-AG

Thriller writers generally work in broad strokes–assassinations, a terrorist plot, a proxy war. A hero thwarts it all at the last moment. Emergency Powers has all that (no spoilers), but it also works on (and maybe gets too right) the little things.  Not only is there an ugly, violent plot, but the conspirators in my books simultaneously attack seemingly mundane institutions and/or procedures in the hope of slipping by unnoticed…until it’s too late to stop them. Or in the case of Emergency Powers, by the time anyone notices, the conspirators will control all levers of power and levels of government meant to check them. Ideally (for them), the truth may never come out.

It’s death (of democracy) by a thousand cuts, and it’s shocking how closely reality and fiction meld.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

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Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

 

Operating as designed…

blog.StupidWatergate-OliverI don’t write about current events. If anything, my thrillers anticipate them.

We are living through what the comedian John Oliver aptly calls Stupid Watergate, which is “a scandal with all the potential ramifications of Watergate, but where everyone involved is stupid and bad at everything.”

But what if an administration were run by smart, seasoned, ruthless political operatives? What if it were the culmination of a years-long plan? What if–historical norms aside–the President’s Constitutional powers were operating more or less as designed, so that the sinkholes created by the systematic erosion of democracy couldn’t even properly be called a “crisis?”

“If the president does it, it’s legal,” Nixon famously asserted.

And what if one party controls all the levers of power meant to check them? We’re seeing in real time what a pliant Attorney General can accomplish merely by resisting. What if the AG were actively involved?

In my third thriller, Emergency Powers, Agent Imogen Trager confronts this very problem, and she knows that the incoming AG will discredit and close her investigation:

When FBI Agent Imogen Trager learns that the President has died in office, she knows it’s no isolated tragedy but the final stage of a dark network power grab. The new president owes his position to a clandestine power that’s avid for greater control.  Not content with merely “owning” a President, the wealthy, ruthless autocrat known only as The Postman plans to tighten his grip on power by staging a horrific false flag terrorist attack, which will allow his new President to invoke emergency powers and martial law. The pendulum of rule has swung decisively.  Unless Imogen can stop them, it won’t swing again.

As bodies pile up and leads go cold, a break in the case arrives when a dark network operative on the run from the FBI and marked for death by the Postman, reaches out. Trager is wary of trusting him, and not only because he’s offering intelligence that sounds too good to be true.  He’s already tried to kill her once.

That’s the premise of the “noir politik” thriller, Emergency Powers.  

It’s not precisely what we’re experiencing in the moment, but as the earlier thrillers have demonstrated, it’s certainly possible–Faithless Elector pitted Duncan Calder and Imogen Trager against a conspiracy that tries to steal the presidency by manipulating the Electoral College; and in Dark Network, Imogen confronts a diabolical plot–and a mountainous FBI “mole” hill–when Congress convenes for a contingent election.

In Emergency Powers, the conspirators are two steps away from total rule. Unless Imogen and her colleagues can find and exploit a gap in the armor, the conspiracy will prevail. She’s running out of time.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, working title Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

 

 

Record Scratch has writing that’s crisp and direct, with wit, humor and darkness

Screen Shot 2019-06-24 at 3.12.12 PMIn JJ Hensley’s compelling Record Scratch, Trevor Galloway takes a case from the sister of a murdered superstar musician, who expects him not only to solve her brother’s eight-month-old homicide, but to recover a vinyl record she believes could ruin his reputation and his legacy. The client closes the meeting by putting a gun under her chin and pulling the trigger. Galloway’s sense of obligation drags him down a path he may not be ready to travel.

This is the second in the Trevor Galloway series, beginning with Bolt Action Remedy (2017), and following up later this year (Oct. 14) with Forgiveness Dies.

I’m a bit late to the party, not having read the first Galloway thriller, but I never felt lost in the plot, and Hensley keeps the action going. The writing is crisp and direct, with wit, humor and darkness as the trail to what really happened to rock star Jimmy Spartan unfolds. It probably isn’t a spoiler to note that things get violently out of hand for Galloway, but I’ll leave it at that.

As Galloway pieces together the final days of rock and roll legend Jimmy Spartan, he struggles to sort through his own issues, which include having the occasional hallucination. He’s not certain how bad his condition has deteriorated, but when Galloway is attacked in broad daylight by men he assumed were figments of his imagination, he realizes the threat is real and his condition is putting him and anyone nearby at risk. The stoic demeanor and ironic distance that earned Galloway the nickname The Tin Man works well as a device for carrying the story forward, even as that detachment is tested.

Pittsburgh, PA, itself plays a role in this thriller. Like Stephen Mack Jones’s Detroit, the author guides us through the city, its neighborhoods and its denizens with familiarity, exasperation and love. I enjoyed every page of Record Scratch, and I read the final third in one night. The picture of a man slowly coming unmoored from the codes to which he had adhered and that gave his life meaning is fascinating, compelling and darkly satisfying. The novel begins and ends ominously: “There are two types of men you must fear in this world: Men who have everything to lose—and men like me.” 

The stakes and the conflict are real. Recommended for anyone who likes forceful, intelligent thrillers.

 

This is one of an occasional series of mystery-thriller book reviews, archived here.

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager NoirPolitik thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, working title Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up copies at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

 

In Below the Fold, every life, and every passing, has its meaning.

Every human life is supposed to be important. R. G. Belsky’s latest Clare Carlson mystery,

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Below the Fold, begins with the death of “a nobody,” the kind of news that falls “below the fold.” Carlson is a veteran TV news reporter, and she knows all about the deaths that matter…and those that don’t.

But Carlson—a TV news director who still has a reporter’s instincts—decides to dig deeper into this seemingly meaningless death. She uncovers mysterious links between the murdered “nobody” and a number of wealthy and influential New York figures. Their names, together with that of the murdered homeless woman, turn up on a list left at a second murder scene. There’s no obvious connection between any of the prominent citizens, but soon there are more murders, and more questions.

Along with a being a compelling murder mystery, Belsky’s novel successfully describes the large and small effects people have on one another, like ripples in a pond, radiating outward, colliding and intersecting with the ripples other lives produce. Those resonances prove key to solving the mystery, so I won’t say more.

Readers who like an engaging, well-crafted mystery with fascinating twists will love Below the Fold. The writing is crisp and economical, and I felt pulled forward into the story as it delved deeper into the mystery. It’s the second in the Clare Carson series, but it can easily be read as a stand-alone. Along with Clare herself, the most engaging character is the policeman-with-a-past Scott Manning.

In less skillful hands, murder mystery victims can often feel like mere plot points; but in Below the Fold, Belsky gives the dead back their humanity. Every life, and every passing, has its meaning.

Highly recommended.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager NoirPolitik thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, working title Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up copies at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

 

Buzz Killer pries open a door on a world that has taken shape and taken hold while few of us were looking

A New York City public defender, Macie Wild, takes the homicide case of a burglar the tabloids have named the ‘Buzz Killer’ for his MO of lobby-buzzing apartments to select his burglary targets. But when he’s the victim of an attempted jailhouse killing and then someone tries to kill Macie, her murder case becomes something much bigger, and more dangerous. Stonewalled by a hostile DA and shut down by a code of silence among her client’s criminal circle, she crosses paths with Gunnar Cody, an ex-detective dismissed from the NYPD’s surveillance unit who seems to be working a similar case.

Screen Shot 2019-06-24 at 3.04.21 PMIn spite of her misgivings about his methods—and initially unsure of his aims—Macie and Gunnar form an uneasy partnership. Throughout, Macie holds desperately to principles she worries are eroding even within her: “Is this how it begins?” she wonders at one point. “A blind eye to ethical breeches until you eventually become inured,” seeing dishonorable practices as standard procedure? Their collaboration and need for the truth will put them on a crash course with more than ethics.

Buzz Killer is a taught and compelling story, well told by a skillful author. The characters are well written, their struggles and qualms are real. And the story doesn’t skimp on atmosphere. New York City itself is a character in the drama. Early on, as Macie Wild, the protagonist, prepares to meet her client, she muses that New York, rather than a divided city of haves and have-nots has become in fact “a tale of three cities.” Through twists and turns, Macie and Gunnar’s quest will take them through all three cities, from the people who work for a living, to the rich and powerful, and into the roosts of the global elite, those silent perches throughout Manhattan, a third of which are vacant more than ten months each year.

Buzz Killer is excellent. It delivers on the standard mystery-suspense, and serves up more, prying open a door on a world that has taken shape and taken hold while few of us were looking. It’s familiar, yet new, and it’s chilling. As strong as the two leads are, the supporting cast offers an intriguing array of characters.

Highly recommended.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager NoirPolitik thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, working title Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up copies at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com