C.J. Sansom’s alternate history novel goes on sale in the US tomorrow (1/28). You can find out more about it here.
C.J. Sansom’s alternate history novel goes on sale in the US tomorrow (1/28). You can find out more about it here.
Our favorite books are the ones that surprise us, either by deviating from the clichés of crime fiction, reclaiming those motifs in fresh new ways, or blurring the boundary between genres. Thomas Sweterlisch—whose terrific debut scifi-noir novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, will be published in July—shares with us a list of a dozen books that bridge the gap between science fiction and crime fiction.
Crime writers have perfected the art of fusing the mechanics of plot to explorations of the human condition, so it comes as no surprise that crime and mystery novels often serve as the primary influence for some of the greatest science fiction writing. Narrowing down a list of novels that blend science fiction with mystery writing is difficult—so, please, if I’ve left out a great book, let me know!—but here is a list of twelve of my favorites:
The City and The City by China Miéville
A young woman’s corpse is found in a rubbish-strewn skate park near the docks of a city called Besźel. he senior detective on scene is Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad, but what begins as an investigation into this woman’s death escalates into an international conspiracy involving Besźel’s neighboring city, Ul Qoma—two cities separated by fierce political and cultural differences. Or are they, in fact, the same city? Miéville’s brilliant procedural is set in this labyrinthine world of overlapping cities, lending a Borgesian complexity to a story of crime and conspiracy.
Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
Early in his career, Jonathan Lethem wrote genre-bending science fiction that was as equally bleak as it was comic. “Gun, with Occasional Music” torques Chandleresque P.I. fiction into a future California where Conrad Metcalf tracks the wife of a doctor who soon turns up dead—a classic set up for a private eye. Metcalf is forced to negotiate government-sponsored mind control, tracking his own “karma points” and dealing with highly evolved animals that can walk and talk, including a kangaroo hit man—problems Marlowe never had to deal with.
I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl: Poems by Karyna McGlynn
One of the most compelling collections of poetry I’ve ever read, this book has haunted my imagination for quite some time. These poems distill the essence of noir and the mind-bending sense of fragmented identity of the best time travel narratives. Highly recommended.
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq
Houellebecq is among the most challenging and brilliant writers of our time—many of his works use science fiction tropes to explore sexuality, religion, science and death. The Map and the Territory is Houellebecq’s most accessible book, an examination of visual art told through the story of Jed Martin, a world-famous painter preparing for a show of new works. Although this book is neither science fiction nor a mystery novel per se, it uses elements of both—a near future setting that speculates on art’s role in our current and future society, and the investigation of a startling and gruesome murder that drives the book to its conclusion.
The Nova Trilogy (The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, Nova Express) by William Burroughs
Radical in his use of experimental technique and graphic sexual content, Burroughs remains one of the most influential literary figures of the past century—playing an important role in Beat poetics, “postmodern” fiction, New Wave science fiction and Cyberpunk. Following his most famous novel, The Naked Lunch, The Nova Trilogy is Burroughs’ masterpiece of the “cut up” method of writing, in which he cut apart and randomly rearranged passages of his own writing to recombine language into startling effects. The plot of the Nova Trilogy follows the Nova Police as they track the Nova Mob, a cops and robbers parable set in a media-nightmare dystopia that serves as an exploration into addiction and recovery, while at the same time interrogating the mechanisms of societal control.
El Borbah by Charles Burns
Widely known for his darkly surreal take on teenage angst and sexuality in the graphic novel Black Hole, Charles Burns’s earlier work includes a comic strip about El Borbah, a private detective drawn like a mashup of King Kong Bundy and a Luchador, solving crimes in a Mike Hammer punch-first-ask-questions-later style that takes him through a science fiction crimescape of criminal androids, perverts and mutants.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Gaining popular success and critical acclaim with her noir-infused science fiction novels Moxyland and Zoo City, Beukes’s most recent book, The Shining Girls, refracts the serial-killer thriller through the lens of time-travel science fiction. The novel is polyphonic as we meet the horrific Harper Curtis and his various “shining girls,” young women of different historical eras that form the insane constellation of Curtis’s lust for blood—including Kirby, the one shining girl who managed to survive Curtis’s attack, now tracking her would-be killer through time.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Famous as the inspiration for Blade Runner, Dick’s novel is a somber and philosophically reflective story about a bounty hunter charged with retiring escaped Nexus-6 androids by testing their levels of empathy, the only characteristic that still sets humans and androids apart. Less hard-boiled in tone than Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? utilizes the detective narrative to not only ignite the plot, but to ask questions about desire and what it means to be human. Essential reading.
The Last Policeman by Ben Winters
The Last Policeman is a procedural following a thoughtful detective, Henry Palace, as he investigates the ostensible suicide of a depressed man, Peter Zell—only in this story, the procedural plays out against the background of an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, set to strike in a matter of months and almost certain to wipe out all life on the planet. Winters refrains from playing up sordid violence or the mayhem of a disaster movie, but wisely focuses on the detective as he puzzles out what exactly a man’s life is worth.
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
Fans of Spillane, Chandler and Hammett will recognize the setup: a hard-as-nails private investigator is coerced by a wealthy old man to track down a killer—but Morgan sets this hardboiled mystery in the far future, where “resleeving” (the ability to download consciousness into a new body) is commonplace. The first in the popular Takeshi Kovacs series of mysteries, Altered Carbon keeps the narrative raw-knuckled and brutal.
Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
Told in alternating chapters, the driving plot of this dreamlike novel concerns a Calcutec, one of the agents of The System, involved in an infowar against the Semiotecs of The Factory; it is also the story of a man who finds himself in a strange walled city, tasked to read the dreams from the skulls of unicorns. Indebted to Chandler, Hammett and The Maltese Falcon as well as Cyberpunk, this novel is quintessential Murakami, full of hallucinogenic imagery, pop-culture intelligence and middle-aged ennui.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
One of the most startlingly original and influential novels written in the twentieth-century, Gibson’s Neuromancer is the essential Cyberpunk text, credited with coining the term “cyberspace” and glimpsing into the future of the internet, here called the “Matrix.” Amidst visionary descriptions of networked computer systems and the rise of a self-aware Artificial-Intelligence, Neuromancer is, at its core, a heist novel—the main character, a “console cowboy” computer hacker named Case, is hired by an ex-military man named Armitage to carry off a seemingly impossible theft.
What’s missing from this list? Let us know in the comments!
Experience V.M. Straka’s Ship of Theseus in a way the author could never have imagined: as a downloadable audiobook. Award-winning actor Grame Malcolm reads the forgotten classic from 1949, in which a mysterious figure, known only as S., struggles to discover, remember, or invent his identity.
Sample the audiobook below—and who knows? Perhaps by listening, you’ll be able to contribute to the conversation about Straka that unfolds in the margins of S., created by J.J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst.
Today the newest adventure in Don Mann and Ralph Pezzullo’s SEAL Team Six series featuring Captain Thomas Crocker lands in bookstores, and reviewers are saying it “delivers exactly what fans want” (Publishers Weekly) and “puts the reader in the center of the action—the smells, sounds, savagery of war” (Kirkus Reviews). Below is an excerpt from Hunt the Falcon—enjoy, and don’t blame us if your heart starts racing!
Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them. —Rabindranath Tagore
John and Lenora Rinehart had just watched their thirteen-year-old son Alex dress himself for the first time. It was a special morning. Usually days at the Rinehart house started with a delicate dance, determined by their son’s moods.
Just because his son Alex was autistic didn’t mean he wasn’t smart, John Rinehart reminded himself as his shoes met the uneven surface of the slate walk and he punched the electronic button that opened the door to his dark blue Saab 900. His son was exceptional in the IQ department. But his brain’s ability to control the warp-speed flow of information, and his emotional impulses, was out of whack. When it didn’t work the way Alex wanted it to, the boy got frustrated. And when he got frustrated, he got mad as hell. Screaming, beat-the-shit-out-of-whatever-he-could-get-his-hands-on angry sometimes.
Ask him to find the positive difference of the fourth power of two consecutive positive integers that must be divisible by one more than twice the larger integer? No problem. But little things like buttoning a shirt or fastening a zipper often tripped him up.
“Little things…little victories,” forty-two-year-old John Rinehart said as he reached across the console between the front seats and squeezed his wife Lena’s hand.
She smiled past the straight black bangs that almost brushed her eyes and said, “I credit Alex’s new school. It’s been a major positive.”
“Yes,” John whispered back. His heart felt like it might leap out of his chest with delight.
John felt things strongly. Like his son. Sometimes so strongly that it scared him and he, too, had to fight hard to control himself.
His half-Asian wife was the more emotionally balanced of the two. She understood that tomorrow morning might be completely different; that life with a child like Alex was unpredictable at best.
John found it much harder to let go of the hope that his son would one day lead a normal life. He kept looking for a path, or an unopened doorway in his son’s psyche, that would lead to that result. Which made sense, because part of what he did for a living as the economic counselor at the U.S. embassy was to look for patterns of activity and use them to try to predict future events—Chinese-Thai trade, baht volatility, Thai-U.S. trading algorithms.
He was a brilliant man who studied the world and saw tendencies, vectors, roads traveled, like the one he steered the highly polished car onto now, into the knot of cars, trucks, motorcycles, and bicycles on what the Thais called Thanon Phetchaburi.
He’d learned to expect the eight-mile ride to the embassy to take forty minutes because of the traffic, but he didn’t mind. It gave him and his wife a chance to listen to music and spend some quiet time together.
This morning he didn’t want to think about the embassy where she also worked, as an administrative assistant in the CIA station. Nor did he want to consider the problems he’d deal with when he got there.
Instead he listened as Stan Getz played a smooth, moving “Body and Soul” over the stereo, and he hummed along, feeling unusually optimistic and calm. He even entertained the possibility that when his tour in Thailand ended in a year, he would return to teaching. Maybe even accept the position on the faculty of University of California, Berkeley that had been offered him a little while back. Lena would like that.
The sky above was a murky, almost iridescent yellow. Bangkok was a surreal blend of staggeringly beautiful and disgusting, rich and poor, spiritual and depraved, all living pressed together. He found the yin-yang dynamic of the city fascinating.
Adjusting the air-conditioning, he turned to his wife. “I’m proud of you, darling,” he said.
“I’m proud of you. And Alex, too.”
“Our Alex,” he added.
Through the windshield John noticed a battered blue truck squeezing into the little space between his front bumper and the Nissan taxi four feet to the right. He applied the brake, hit the horn, then turned to his wife.
He noticed the way the light accentuated her cheekbones, then out of the corner of his right eye glimpsed a motorcycle near the back bumper. Two helmets, both black with mirrored visors. The driver and rider looked like aliens.
Past the soaring saxophone solo and through the soundproof door panels, he heard a metal click. Seconds later the motorcycle roared past, narrowly avoiding a bus.
He was thinking about the first time he had seen Lena, standing near the entrance to the Georgetown University library. She was a sophomore; he was pursuing a master’s degree in economics.
He remembered how he had stopped to ask her for directions to White-Gravenor Hall even though he knew where it was. And how when she turned, he was struck by her beauty, and the strength and intelligence in her eyes.
John Rinehart opened his mouth to tell Lena how he had felt at that moment, how certain he had been that something important was happening. But before he could get the words out, the small but powerful explosive device that had been magnetically attached to the car’s rear fender exploded, tearing through the chassis, igniting the high-octane fuel in the gas tank and causing the car to burst into flames.
John and Lenora Rinehart were dead within seconds. Another eight poor souls riding bicycles and motorbikes in the vicinity also died. Twenty-three were seriously injured.
Before Thai police officials had finished their inspection of the site and carted away the wreckage of the Saab 900, a similar magnetic device had killed a U.S. military attaché and his assistant in their car a half mile away. That same day bombs placed by riders on motorcycles killed fifteen more U.S. and Israeli officials in Rome, Athens, Mumbai, and Cairo.
The pain the bombings caused was incalculable—children denied fathers, wives turned into widows, friends and colleagues left questioning their faith in God.
Alex Rinehart, on hearing the news that his parents had been killed, retreated inside himself and refused to talk.
That night, 2,410 miles northwest of Bangkok, Navy SEAL Team Six leader Thomas Crocker wiped the snow from the goggles fastened to his FAST Ballistic Helmet and adjusted the seventy-five-pound pack on his back.
“This remind you of anything, boss?” his blond commo man, Davis, asked in a gravelly voice behind him, little icicles clinging to the half-inch reddish growth on his jaw and chin.
“The Nightmare Before Christmas?” Crocker replied as he retaped the straps on his backpack so they wouldn’t make noise as he approached the target. His left hand burned from a frigid wind that whistled through the craggy rocks along the ridge in southeastern Afghanistan.
“K2,” Davis said, referring to a training climb Crocker had taken the team on, during which a female friend of his had died in an avalanche. Then, noticing that his chief’s left hand was bare, he asked, “What happened to your glove?”
“Lost it attending to Dog.” Dog, a.k.a. Timothy L. Douglas, was the new guy who had just completed Green Team. He trudged ahead of them favoring his left leg and carrying “the pig”—SEALspeak for the MK43 Mod 0 machine gun, which Crocker preferred to call “the nasty.”
Dog, a former middle linebacker at the University of Tennessee, had slipped about a half mile back as they were climbing and ripped a foot-long gash in his right thigh, which Crocker had bandaged up.
“I got a spare pair,” Davis said, white fog shooting from his mouth and mixing with the condensation around them. He removed a pair of black cold-weather gloves from his drop leg pouch and handed them to Crocker.
“Colder than a witch’s tit,” the team leader groaned, shaking his exposed hand to keep the blood moving, then slipping them on. “Thanks.”
He was leading twelve men, all SEALs from Team Six, who had been at Jalalabad Airfield chilling, listening to music, playing video games, reading, sleeping, shooting the shit, when the urgent message came over the radio that Observation Post Memphis (OPM) was under attack. Two things made this significant and alarming: One, the difficulty of the terrain in the middle of the Hindu Kush range combined with the blizzard made it impossible to reinforce the post by air or provide it with any sort of air support. People who had been to OPM referred to it as being “on the dark side of the moon.” And two, five operators from Six had been dispatched to the post a week earlier and were now trapped and fighting for their lives, along with a dozen marines, several national guardsmen from Pennsylvania, and a platoon of soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 17th Infantry Alpha Company.
As a general rule, when teammates are under attack, you don’t sit back at base with your thumb up your ass.
Adding to Crocker’s sense of duty was the fact that one of the Team Six operators fighting for his life in OPM was his running partner Neal Stafford—a former cowboy from Waco, Texas, with two wild young boys and a lovely wife named Alyssa, who was the best friend of Crocker’s wife, Holly. Crocker’s teenage daughter Jenny babysat for their kids.
All of this explained why Crocker had sought out the one helicopter pilot from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) who was crazy enough to brave the fifty-mile-an-hour gusts and drop them off as high up the mountain as possible, and why they had slowly been picking their way through the snow, ice, and rocks like goats. The 160th SOAR was also known as the Night Stalkers. Their motto: Night Stalkers don’t quit.
Coming up the other side—the east side—was out of the question, since the whole Kunar Valley, and most of Nuristan Province, was firmly under Taliban control, and had been for over a year. Most Americans weren’t aware that this part of Afghanistan was called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and flew a white flag with a mujahideen call-to-arms slogan scrawled on it.
Which begged the question Crocker had been asking himself for hours: what the fuck was OPM doing there in the first place? Someone in Jalalabad had told him that a general had it built to monitor traffic along one of the most important access roads to Kabul. Another person had told him that Iranians had been seen in the area.
Was OPM monitoring the movement of arms, heroin, Taliban fighters? Where was that general now? Sitting in some warm room with his feet up watching college football?
Crocker stopped himself. It didn’t matter now. All he cared about were the lives of the SEALs and other soldiers trapped at OPM, and helping to fight back the Taliban assault until the storm abated and rescue helicopters could pull them out.
Judging from the unrelenting ferocity of the storm, that might be a while.
Crocker held up his right fist, indicating to the men that he wanted them to huddle around him. Facing him were twelve grizzled faces caked with ice and snow. Aside from his core five, which included Davis (commo), Ritchie (demolitions), Mancini (equipment and weapons), Cal (sniper), and Akil (maps and logistics), there were machine gunners Dog and Yale, Gabe, Langer, Jake, Chauncey, and Phillips.
“How you doing, Dog?” Crocker asked over the muffled sounds of warfare echoing up from the other side of the mountain.
“Hurtin’ a little and embarrassed, but ready to kick some ass.”
“I like that attitude.”
As long as Dog was physically and mentally strong enough to set up and operate the twenty-pound, gas-operated, belt-fed, air-cooled killing machine (capable of firing as many as fourteen 7.62 caliber rounds per second) he cradled in his arms, Crocker didn’t care how much discomfort he was in. To his mind, pain was weakness leaving the body.
“Refuel. Rehydrate,” Crocker barked. “In a few minutes we’re gonna reach the top of this ice cube and enter the shit. I want us all to stick together until I say otherwise. Maintain three-sixty security. Visibility is terrible. I don’t want us shooting at one another. Any questions? Any problems?”
Several of the SEALs shook their heads.
Cal, the sniper, spoke up. “This peashooter ain’t gonna do a whole lot of good in this weather, boss,” he said, slapping the MK11 Mod 0 sniper weapons system he carried slung across his back.
“Manny’s got an extra MP7. He’ll lend it to you. Right, Manny?”
“A round of beers at the Guadalajara when we get back,” Mancini said. The Guadalajara was a popular watering hole close to the SEAL base in Virginia Beach.
“With nachos,” Ritchie added.
Crocker said, “Davis, call the post commander. Tell him we’re approaching from the northwest ridge.”
A marine corporal back at Jalalabad had explained to him that the only possible land approach to OPM was along the northwest ridge, then down rope ladders that had been rigged along the rocks that formed the back wall of the base.
“Roger, boss,” Davis responded.
Guys squeezed energy gel into their mouths, wolfed down energy bars, and gulped water from their CamelBaks. Crocker checked his Garmin 450t GPS with a preloaded 3-D map of the area and confirmed that they were within four hundred yards of the observation post. Visibility was so bad he couldn’t see more than four feet ahead.
Davis pointed at him, and seconds later a transmission from the marine major in charge of OPM blared through the F3 radio transmitter in Crocker’s helmet.
“Tango-six-two, this is Memphis-five-central. I thank the Holy Father for your assistance. Condition double-red here. Need medevac, immediate support. Taking heavy casualties. Two of our guard stations have already been overrun!”
Crocker thought it was both strange and alarming that Neal Stafford was at the post. Last time he had seen him he was halfway around the world, tossing a miniature football to his two young sons on the front lawn of his house in Virginia. Now, as he considered how Neal’s safety might affect Neal’s family and the tender network of relationships and emotions that connected Neal’s life to his own, he felt a responsibility to get him out of OPM unharmed.
“Memphis-five-central, we’ll soon be approaching along the northwest ridge,” Crocker responded. “Alert your perimeter. Is the path clear? Over.” He’d been trained to compartmentalize his feelings in order to effectively do this job.
“Tango-six-two, we’re under attack from the east and the south. Keep following the ridge. I’ll send two men out to meet you. They’ll disarm the alarms and show you the way down. Do you copy?”
“Copy, Memphis. Have them whistle. Three short blasts in succession, so we know it’s them.”
“Three short whistles. Copy, Tango. Welcome and Godspeed. Over and out.”
Crocker saw the wary look on some of the men’s faces and barked, “Be sure to stay alert and stick together!”
“And don’t feed the trolls,” Akil added.
“You’ve got the wrong continent,” Mancini growled back. “Trolls are mythological beings from Scandinavian folklore.”
Akil shook his head. “Are you serious?”
“Yes, I’m serious. When you say shit, get it right.”
Crocker had taken a mere twenty steps along the snow-covered trail at the top of the ridge when the first rounds of automatic fire whizzed by, and he shouted to his men to hold fire and take cover behind nearby rocks and boulders. Then the firing picked up and was augmented by a barrage of missiles, mortars, and propelled grenades.
Pieces of hot metal hissed into the snow and ice. Explosions lit up the craggy landscape nearby, but visibility was still limited.
Crocker was high on adrenaline. His mind worked at warp speed, measuring distance, speed, the sequence of information, and making calculations. Something was very wrong.
“Should we return fire, boss?” asked Davis, crouched to his right.
“Negative!” Crocker shouted.
From somewhere behind him Dog muttered, “This situation is double fucked.”
“Double fucked or not, we’ll accomplish the mission.” Then Crocker spoke into his headset: “Hold your fire. We don’t want to give away our position. Pull back to the other side of the ridge.”
He was referring to the one they had recently climbed. On their way up they had followed a snow-covered trail, and now they literally clung to ice-covered rocks as they moved parallel to the ridge. The muscles in their arms and legs burned as they struggled to maintain balance while carrying roughly a hundred pounds of equipment on their backs. Akil led the way, carefully stepping from one toehold to another, in a generally southeastern direction, keeping his head down to avoid the rocks, snow, ice, and hot metal flying past.
“Tango-six-two this is Memphis-five-central. Report your position!” screamed the voice in Crocker’s headset. “Tango-six-two, report!” The fear in it was palpable.
He wished he could tell the major to hold his shit together. Instead he said sternly, “We’re proceeding, Memphis-five-central. Over and out.”
A large explosion shook the top of the mountain, dislodging an icy boulder that tumbled and hit another outcropping of rock with a large smash, splitting the boulder in two. A refrigerator-sized piece spun toward the spot where Dog, Phillips, and Jake were standing.
“Watch out!” Crocker screamed.
The men had little room to maneuver, and there was nothing the other SEALs could do but watch the massive hunk of rock glance off the backs of their three teammates, who had pressed themselves against the snow and ice.
Time slowed down. Jake froze, his legs went limp, and he fell backward. Phillips stretched his arms out and caught him. Dog’s whole body twisted violently to the left. Crocker saw the acute agony on his face, then watched as the MK43 Mod 0 machine gun flew out of his arms and disappeared into the shower of falling snow. He didn’t even hear it land. Could have ended up hundreds or even thousands of feet below.
Gone. Not that Crocker was worried about the weapon as he squeezed past Mancini, Davis, and Chauncey, reaching for the emergency medical pack at the back of his waist and looking down at Jake lying on the narrow ledge, his blue eyes frozen and staring into space as Phillips tried to remove Jake’s backpack.
“Don’t!” Crocker said.
“Don’t touch him!”
“Sir, he’s breathing but can’t speak.”
“He’s in shock,” Crocker replied, feeling along Jake’s neck for a pulse and finding it higher than normal. He knelt in the snow and carefully reached under Jake’s backpack to the place below his neck where the rock had struck. There was swelling and loose, dislocated bone under the skin. Damage to some of the vertebrae.
“Tango-six-two this is Memphis-five-central. Report your position!” the army major from OPM screamed in Crocker’s headset.
Ignoring him, Crocker turned to Phillips. “Help me lay Jake on his side and wrap him in some Kevlar blankets,” he said. “He can’t be moved. You hear me? Don’t move him!”
“Yes, sir. You want me to stay with him?”
The major from OPM screeched again, “Tango-six-two this is Memphis-five-central. Do you copy? Report!”
“Yeah, I copy!” Crocker barked into his helmet mike.
Panic was dangerous. Phillips touched Crocker’s arm and whispered, “Sir, you want me to remain with Jake?”
The sounds of combat had moved farther down the mountain to the approximate location of OPM. The Taliban had stopped directing fire at the ridge.
Crocker waved Mancini over and said, “Manny, go back the way we came. First reconnoiter the ridge. If it’s clear, retake it. If there are a number of Taliban there, call and inform me. We can’t let the enemy hold that position.”
“No, boss, we can’t. If we do, I believe the base will be surrounded.”
“Which will make it real tough for us to fight our way in.”
“Take three men with you, and let me know.”
He looked down at Jake again, then watched Phillips carefully slipping a Kevlar blanket under him. A gust of wind rushed up the side of the mountain, creating what sounded like a wolf’s howl.
A voice in his head reminded him that Phillips had previously asked him a question. He squeezed Phillips’s arm and said, “Yes, I want you to stay with him.” Phillips’s long, narrow face reminded Crocker of a marine he had served with in Okinawa, who fell in love with and married a Filipino prostitute—something straight-arrow Phillips would never do.
Phillips looked up with calm, intelligent, light-brown eyes. “You want me to try to monitor his vital signs, sir?”
“Every ten minutes or so, try at least to check his pulse. If it gets below sixty or over a hundred beats a minute, let me know.”
“Will do, chief.”
Crocker scooted over to Dog. Dog was leaning against the side of the mountain holding his left shoulder, which was hanging at an odd angle. A rocket whizzed overhead and Crocker instinctively ducked. For a second he forgot he was in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan—the setting of one of his favorite movies, The Man Who Would Be King, and throughout history a very dangerous place to be.
Who wants to be king now? he asked himself, looking at Dog, whose head was turned away from Crocker. The Tennessean’s stocky body trembled. Crocker whispered his name, and when Dog turned, Crocker saw tears streaming down his freckled face.
“Fucking new-guy bad luck,” Dog snarled through small, gritted teeth. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Crocker asked, inspecting Dog’s shoulder.
“Letting go of the pig.”
“Fuck the pig. Bite into this,” Crocker said, handing Dog a thick square of rubber he kept in a plastic bag in his emergency medical kit.
“Bite on it and tell me something: Who was quarterback at UT when you played there?”
“What—” Dog’s answer was interrupted by an unbelievable jolt of pain as Crocker pulled Dog’s right arm away from his shoulder, then forcefully pushed it up and into the socket with a pop.
Happier tears streamed from Dog’s blue eyes as he lifted his arm and realized that his shoulder worked again and was almost pain free.
“You’re a lucky man,” Crocker said in a low voice.
“Thank you,” Dog responded, removing the piece of rubber from his mouth, wiping it on his sleeve, then handing it back.
“Grab an extra weapon from someone.”
“Let’s go kill some fucking Taliban.”
Crocker joined Akil at the front of the column. The barrel-chested Egyptian American former marine raised his arm and pointed out a route he had just explored, which he said would take them along the top of the mountain up to the ridge.
That’s when Mancini’s voice came over his headset. “Boss, Mancini. We’ve taken the position. All secure. Advise.”
“Hold, Manny. As well as you can, try to protect the northwest access.”
“Holler if you see any enemy activity.”
“What’s your location?” Mancini asked.
“We’re proceeding south.”
Crocker and the remaining six crossed three hundred yards until they were directly above OPM. There they assembled behind a low wall blanketed with snow. Since visibility was still terrible, Crocker blew three times into the whistle he kept on a chain around his neck.
Someone to his right whistled back. He rose with his HK416 ready and tried peering through the swirling mass of snow. In a crouch he proceeded another five feet, until he saw a blurry dark shape standing beside a collapsed stone wall.
“You Chief Crocker?” the voice asked through wind.
“That’s right, who are you?”
“Lance Corporal Novak, sir, of Alpha Company. Welcome to OP Memphis, otherwise known as the House of Blues.”
This wonderful list of top noir novels comes to Mulholland Books courtesy of Reed Farrel Coleman. Tell us in the comments how many of these books you’ve read…and let us know of any omissions!
Red Cat by Peter Spiegelman
From one of the great underappreciated writers in the crime fiction genre. Red Cat has it all, including the sexiest cover image ever. But the real magic is in the writing. The best dovetailing of plot and subplot I have been fortunate to come across. A masterful PI story of blackmail, performance art, sex, and dysfunctional families.
The Shanghai Moon by SJ Rozan
Sometimes the best books about the Holocaust are not set in Europe. That is surely the case in The Shanghai Moon, a novel set in today’s New York Chinatown and in Shanghai’s Jewish Ghetto circa WWII. It is a heartbreaking tale of murder, robbery, romance, and myth drawn with Rozan’s deft and evocative hand. Why this book didn’t garner more attention is a mystery worthy of Lydia Chin and Bill Smith.
The Last Good Day by Peter Blauner
In the days immediately following 9/11, many authors were compelled to take on the stunning events of that day by rushing at the subject full-speed ahead. Not Blauner. He comes at it obliquely, using negative space, letting suburban drama and tragedy shine an indirect light on the greater horror that had occurred a short commuter train ride away.
The Graving Dock by Gabriel Cohen
The best book in the Jack Leightner series. Better even than the Edgar Award–nominated Red Hook. Here Leightner, a NYPD homicide detective, has to deal not only with bodies washing ashore, but with parts of New York City that often go ignored: its waterways and harbor islands. Cohen uses them not only as a backdrop, but as an allegory for the dark, unexplored, and often ugly places in the human heart.
Die a Little by Megan Abbott
Sure, Megan is a hot commodity these days, but before Dare Me, before her Edgar-winning Queenpin, and her other superb novels, there was Die A Little. This claustrophobic tale set in 50s LA features Hollywood in all its horrible glory. There’s a studio fixer, addiction, prostitution, and maybe even room for a little true love. Maybe.
A Prayer for Dawn by Nathan Singer
A supremely disturbing, very ambitious, yet entertaining novel that defies easy description. It took courage to write it and maybe a little to read it. You’re unlikely to forget it. It would be silly to say more.
Closing Time by Jim Fusilli
Tragedy of a grand scale done in microcosm. The magic is Fusilli’s ability to make protagonist Terry Orr’s pain universal while making it our own to bear. A book of contrasts, particularly Terry’s grief and revenge fixations set against his daughter’s remarkable resilience. He, too, shows a side of Manhattan that, until then, was left relatively unexplored.
Author’s Note: Yes, a lot of these folks are my friends. So what? Yes, most of these selections are set in and around New York City. Again, so what? It’s my list. I promise you that there isn’t a stinker among them. You may not love them all, but you will love some. These books all deserved way more attention than they received.
Reed Farrel Coleman is the author of eighteen novels. He is a three-time recipient of the Shamus Award for Best PI Novel of the Year and a two-time Edgar Award nominee. He has also won the Audie, Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards. He is an adjunct instructor in English at Hofstra University and a founding member of Mystery Writers of America University. He lives with his family on Long Island.
Dark Regions Press has launched a Kickstarter campaign to support the creation of a new novella of psychological horror from Joe Lansdale, author of The Thicket and Edge of Dark Water. This novella will be the second book in Dark Regions’s Black Labyrinth series of handsome illustrated hardcovers. Not only do we know that Lansdale is the best writer for the job, but the proposed novella will also feature artwork by Santiago Caruso. Any contribution to the cause will earn you a copy of the book.
Here’s Joe Lansdale on the project:
“I’m currently working with Black Labyrinth to create a book of psychological horror, and well, a little bit of overt horror as well. It’s a novella, not a novel, but there will be plenty of room for shadow and sounds, and for whatever it takes to scare a reader. What if there is a prison graveyard on an island for the worst of the worst? A place where the unclaimed go? Those who have been executed or died by disease or old age would end up on this island. Taken there by ferry in the middle of the night to be deposited in the ground like rotten rutabaga seeds. And what if on that island are two caretakers, a gravedigger and the ferry man? And with the remains of all that evil there in this dark, lost place in the middle of a great bubble of sea and wind and starry night sky, something goes way damn wrong.
And it isn’t at all what you think it is.
That’s the premise of my novella for Black Labyrinth. The money for the writing of the book, the artwork by Santiago Caruso, and the actual construction and publication of the novella will be, hopefully, provided by a Kickstarter campaign run by Chris Morey, the editor of Black Labyrinth’s novellas.”
Can’t wait to get your hands on a copy? Only you can make this project a reality! Check out the Kickstarter page for Black Labyrinth for more information.
The wide-ranging conversation below between Nicholas Mennuti, one of the authors of Weaponized, and Alan Glynn, whose novel The Dark Fields was adapted for the film Limitless, covers such topics as globalization, espionage fiction, Cambodia, literary influences, and film influences—a veritable “arterial spray” of allusions (their words, not ours!). You’ll definitely want to make time to dive into this fascinating exchange.
Alan Glynn: Nick, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Weaponized and was struck by several things in it. One is the fact that it is packed—action-packed and packed with ideas, which is pretty unusual, I think, and unlike anything I’ve read in recent memory. The highest compliment I can pay it is to say that the book feels like North by Northwest meets Apocalypse Now. Anyone who reads the book will know immediately what I mean: the Cambodian setting, the existential end-of-American-empire angst, the assuming and trading of identities, the espionage, the cat-and-mousing around, the playfulness, the darkness, the betrayals, the reversals, the fun and the horror (x2). Perhaps those movie references betray my age, because the thing is Weaponized is also bang up-to-date in its concerns. In a way, it’s like a primer on globalization. You leave nothing out: resource wars, pipelines, corporations, big data-driven surveillance, private security firms, the outsourcing land grab, the Chinese, the Russians, and you also debate, or pose questions about, the individual’s place and responsibility in all of this. But despite packing these themes into the novel, you don’t ram them down the reader’s throat—it’s not a didactic or polemical book. Instead, you deflect and entertain with car chases and explosions, with tense checkpoint confrontations and with the occasional spurting artery. I suppose my first question is, how important was this balance for you, and how conscious were you during the writing process of trying to strike it?
Nicholas Mennuti: First off, I’m thrilled you enjoyed the book. Means a ton coming from you. I’ve been “borrowing/inspired” by you for a while. That’s one of those jokes-not jokes.
Your question is kind of a bouillabaisse of interesting things to talk about, so if I get a bit circular I hope that’s okay.
I’m kind of an espionage thriller binger and had come to the conclusion that the model hadn’t really changed in years. You either had the sort of fussy-frilly Le Carré model (that of course started with Greene and Buchan) that Olen Steinhauer, Jeremy Duns, David Ignatius, and Charles Cumming have dragged into the 21st century. Or you get the military-jingoistic version of it with Brad Thor, Andy McNab, Lee Child. And I just felt neither of these styles felt like the right way to deal with the chaos of the 21st century.
The world had changed, but espionage fiction still felt very 1989. All of those authors (many of whom I do like) still seemed locked into talking about a world that has kind of ceased to exist. A unipolar world that one man can save from destruction. So I really wanted to talk about topics/places that I felt were being underserved/underutilized by contemporary espionage fiction. Which of course leads you into privatized spying and the third-world. Now, that’s all analytical, and I probably became more aware of that as I went through writing/editing the book. But this desire to break the paradigm was there all along.
But where Weaponized really started was with my enduring obsession with Antonioni’s The Passenger. Do you know that one? It’s with Jack Nicholson. It’s all about identity switching and existential ennui in the guise of a thriller. Only problem is that it’s Antonioni—who had no interest in making a thriller. So I started thinking: what if you made an actual thriller out of this art-movie?
North by Northwest and Apocalypse Now have been obsessions of mine since I was a teenager, so they’re just part of my creative DNA at this point. I’m sure they’re going to be present in whatever I write. If I were writing a romantic comedy, I’m sure there’d be at least one spy and one third-world setting.
Apocalypse Now in particular fascinated me. It reminded me of Graham Greene’s fiction in that the topography of the novel seemed like the perfect literal manifestation of the lead character’s interior. With Apocalypse, I’ve never been sure whether Vietnam looked that crazy, or if it just looked that crazy to Martin Sheen. And that subjectivity runs through Weaponized. I wanted people to feel Cambodia through Kyle. Just like how you feel Vietnam through Willard. That’s also something you got a lot of mileage out of in Dark Fields (Limitless). Just how subjective/expressionistic can I get with this narrator without pulling this out of genre territory. Would you agree?
And what both North by Northwest and Apocalypse Now have in common is that they’re genre movies of the highest order that managed to pack a ton of subtext into the genre without weighing it down.
I mean I could write a page just on how fascinating it is in North by Northwest that Cary Grant’s middle initial “O” literally stands for NOTHING. It’s zero as a place-holder. Is that why he could be mistaken for Kaplan on a metaphysical level in the first place—there’s no one there to start with. It’s no mistake I think that Hitchcock had him working in advertising.
In terms of what I’ll refer to “ideas balanced with mayhem,” I was definitely conscious of it. I wasn’t interested in writing a deconstructivist thriller, where I hollow out all the genre gambits, and turn it into a formal-polemicist kind of thing. The Europeans do that really well, but I don’t.
I set a rule for myself early on that any ideas, either political or philosophical, have to come out of a character, or be on the action line. For example, if I want to talk about French colonialism, it’s going to be during a chase scene at Robinson’s hotel. Or if I want to talk about Russian oligarchy, it’s going to be in a scene where Kyle’s got to pick up a gun.
I have a lot of love for the genre, particularly when it’s really working, so I wanted (and David Guggenheim was so crucial in helping me getting a frame for it) to make sure the book worked as a thriller first, and then go about layering this other stuff in. That said, even before we had the story I knew I wanted Weaponized to feel like the 21st century: fractured, neon, lonely, and set in a series of geographical non-places. I wanted to write a thriller that didn’t feel embalmed.
Glynn: Yes, I can see that, and I think that updating the Cold War espionage paradigm is a great idea, and long overdue. I guess that Le Carré has done it to some extent by moving into the area of corporate shenanigans, but my impression (I haven’t read him post-The Constant Gardener) is that he has become very polemical, even preachy. To be honest, I haven’t read most of the espionage guys you mention, but I have read Greene (he’s in the DNA as much as Hitchcock and Coppola) and he can’t be bettered in terms of exploring a tortured soul that is defined by, and interacting with, a very specific geographical location. Incidentally, just to let readers know, Nick and I have only met once (over lunch more than a year ago with the great John Schoenfelder), so my referencing North by Northwest and Apocalyspe Now wasn’t due to any familiarity I have with Nick; these are connections that jump right off the pages of his and David’s book. Given a little more space, I feel I would also have come up with Greene and The Passenger, and for the same reason.
A bit like the arterial spray, there are so many directions this conversation could go in (Roger O. Thornhill as a proto-Don Draper anyone?) but to rein things in a bit, let me ask you about something specific: Cambodia. In your recent Huffington Post piece, you say that Phnom Penh is a more secure location for your leaker-in-exile protagonist, Kyle West, to end up in than Hong Kong is for Edward Snowden. There is the historical backdrop: Nixon and Kissinger’s incursions. There is the Khmer Rouge legacy. There are the echoes from Coppola (and indirectly, Conrad). You also describe the city incredibly well—the smells, the sounds, the architectural layering. So. Nick Mennuti: Cambodia. Discuss.
Mennuti: I imagine you must have felt the same about the Cold War paradigm, too. Your recent trilogy (Bloodland, Winterland, and Graveland), although not about “espionage” per se, seems to be like Weaponized—one of those trying-to-figure-out-where-we’re-going books, using genre as the vehicle. And you do way more globe-hopping than I do: Congo, Ireland, New York…
Le Carré has gone global, but he’s still fighting the good fight for the British empire. It’s always one heroic lone Brit against the system. And I think that’s done because the system isn’t identifiable anymore. It’s too diffuse for one man to take on. That said, I will forgive him even the worst of The Little Drummer Girl because it gave us a movie starring Klaus Kinski as a MOSSAD agent. That takes some creative casting.
Now Why Cambodia? A couple of reasons: I basically looked at the most reliable non-extradition countries for fugitives (and Thailand was out because they had just handed over Viktor Bout). David and I were sort of on the fence, because we knew the setting was going to be a huge part of this story.
Then I went to the wedding of a close family friend. She had spent years living in Cambodia as an ethnomusicologist. And half her wedding party was Cambodian. I spent a long time talking to them, and by the end of the reception I told David, “It’s Cambodia.” Kyle’s hiding in Cambodia. There was such a sense of hope, wounded history, and grandeur in the way they spoke about the country that it just seemed right emotionally. And when they showed me pics, videos, etc, I knew it was physically right, too.
It was just the perfect topographical expression of the underlying themes of the book. Plus, I’m mildly addicted to describing neon. And finally, yeah, I just can’t seem to get away from Conrad, Greene, and Apocalypse Now, and I wanted in a purely mise-en-scene sense to have a little bit of their magic rub off on the story.
And to possibly circumvent a question I know I’ll be getting: Have I spent time in Cambodia? No. I thankfully had plentiful resources in making sure the book was accurate. I wanted the audience to “feel” Cambodia more than believe I had spent time there. The setting was chosen as much for emotional and stylistic reasons as it was for accuracy.
Glynn: That’s really interesting. I had a similar feeling and instinct about the Democratic Republic of Congo, which features in Bloodland. My imagination was initially fired by Michela Wrong’s brilliant book about Mobutu, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurz, and literally for years I wanted to write something set there, knowing full well that I wouldn’t be doing firsthand research. I have small children, and I’m a coward, and Congo, especially the parts I was interested in, seems to be a pretty dangerous place. I met and spoke to a couple of Congolese people in Ireland and got some small sense of the place, plus I did a ton of research, about one-percent of which I’d say ended up in the book. But narratively the Congo sections in Bloodland are filtered through the p.o.v. of a non-local, a visitor, and I felt that in that way I could get around the problem. Clark Rundle was like my little traveling webcam.
We’ve mentioned Kyle West a few times. How about Julian Robinson? He’s a fascinating character, like the lovechild of William Burroughs and John Milius. I’d be interested to know something about how he was formed.
Mennuti: Can we just take a second to discuss how much research gets left on the cutting room floor? You said you used about 1% of it, which although I’m certain is an exaggeration, is probably not all that far off. David and I joke about how we need a “director’s cut” for all the great locations and characters that we were never able to use.
My rule on researching a place is simple: If a goodly chunk of the population is trying to flee it, I don’t need to go there! And I don’t even have kids. I’m not Sebastian Junger.
On to Robinson. Well first of all, I have to give a tip of my hat to Céline. I stole the name Robinson from him. He’s the narrator’s doppelganger in Journey to the End of the Night. So the name already had a fine doppelganger tradition I wanted to tap into.
The inspiration for Robinson was this question: Once the traditional power structures collapse and globalize, what would someone with Robinson’s skill-set do? He’s not going to take a course and learn how to write Java. He’s got to adapt.
Then I started thinking about Highsmith’s Ripley—who to me is the ultimate protean identity shifter. And it’s no surprise then that the set-up of Weaponized mirrors Strangers on A Train in certain ways. When you’re talking Highsmith, you’re also going to run back into Hitchcock. They operated on parallel lines of ambiguous sexuality and ambiguous bargains.
To me, Robinson has become as fluid as the world he lives in. Sexually, politically, morally…that’s why his scenes with Kyle have this erotic undercurrent. Robinson’s first goal with everyone is submission. That can be through either talk, sexual energy, or if necessary, violence. Like the unstoppable march of global capital that can seemingly adjust to any wrench you throw in the system, Robinson can, too.
I don’t want to make him sound like a metaphor come to life. I think he’s pretty fleshed out for the amount of time he gets—but his genesis started more with questions I asked myself than with a particular character sketch. I don’t even know Robinson’s biography 100% myself. I hint at it here and there. I didn’t want to know. I’m not sure even he could tell you. I could tell you what happened to either Kyle or Lara when they were six. But Robinson couldn’t be thought out on those terms.
In terms of you finding him a mix of Burroughs and Milius, that’s high praise, because I think both those gentlemen are total maverick geniuses. That said, does that mean you feel Robinson could be a gay gun-nut with pronounced fascist sympathies? If given some time and a laptop, could Robinson have come up with a better take on the Red Dawn remake, Alan?
Glynn: Have to confess, I didn’t pick up on the Céline reference. I’ve gone way beyond the age where I need to fake having read certain books, so there it is: I haven’t read Journey to the End of the Night. Nor have I seen Red Dawn, by the way—not the 1984 version, and certainly not the remake. But I think I get Robinson, especially when he says that he exists in a world where laws, nations, treaties and stockholders just don’t matter. He’s a terrifyingly 21st-century creation, sort of a mirror image of the modern ideologically or religiously-driven fundamentalist—an extremist from the void. Perhaps Fowler is closer to the Milius school of the gun-toting, fun-lovin’ fascist. If Robinson is post-Empire, Fowler is very much Empire, an interesting dinosaur figure that links back to the Hunt and Liddy era.
On research, yes, the temptation is to try and pack it all in because you did the work, but less is definitely more. Often you’re better off trusting your imagination and then using research post facto as a sort of verification process. It’s a confidence trick you play on yourself and on the reader. I did a hell of a lot of financial research for The Dark Fields, but don’t ask me about it now.
We’re getting a good look at your DNA here: Hitchcock, Greene, Coppola, Highsmith, Celine, Burroughs, Milius. Who else is in there, sluicing around your double helices?
Mennuti: Alan, I may have to press you to read Céline. You can skip the rest of his oeuvre if you like, but Journey is, for lack of a better word, essential.
Ironically, I came to Céline through part of the DNA strand: Burroughs. I was reading an interview with him where he talked about his love for Céline and Genet. Genet’s also part of the DNA. I’d never seen crime written about with such voluptuousness until him. He’s like the literary form of Cammell and Roeg’s Performance. Another part of the DNA, more doppelgangers and crime.
The key to Fowler is in the line: “He liked the orders he was given.” There’s a great quote from a CIA officer who said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I was paid to rob, rape, and steal all in the name of a higher power. It was fun, fun, fun!” Fowler’s of that school. I’m sure he went into the CIA because he wanted to kill someone and not go to jail. So yes, I think they’ve definitely stopped making Fowler’s model. Robinson is the new prototype—although admittedly a particularly virulent model.
I always wondered via Dark Fields if you had a background at all in finance. This is before I met you, of course, and had just read the book.
My favorite book ever is Under The Volcano. It’s so wedged in the DNA that it’s in everything I write (I mean it’s all over Weaponized in spirit, if not in content). Other authors that meant a ton and still do are J.G. Ballard, Martin Amis, Robert Stone, Michel Houellebecq, Nelson Algren, Bret Easton Ellis (the only American author I’d actually identify as transgressive), DeSade, Bataille, Jonathan Littell. And then, of course, there’s the literary monuments that you can’t help but be influenced by: Flaubert, Joyce, Hemingway, Mann, Doestoevsky, Nabokov. They’ve influenced so much of what we love today that you’re almost reading them by default.
But film has also been incredibly important to me, so in addition to Hitchcock and Coppola, the big ones are Paul Schrader (screenplays and movies), Donald Cammell, Godard (until 1967, then he lost me), Fritz Lang, Michael Mann (huge influence), Antonioni (of course), Visconti (the German trilogy), Friedkin, De Palma, Cronenberg, Peckinpah, Soderbergh, Bunuel, Pasolini (the later works), Paul Greengrass, those great Adam Curits BBC docs—and fuck it, I still love Oliver Stone even though he’s done more to disappoint me in the past decade than any other filmmaker. I love his early work so much, I’ll wipe the slate. What a run he had from 1986-1995.
And at this point, David would be infuriated if I didn’t mention some of his great influences, because they’re all over Weaponized: Lawrence Kasdan, William Goldman, 3 Days of the Condor, Parallax View (even with its flaws), and Ian Fleming.
And shit, not to turn this into a love-fest, but Winterland and Bloodland are part of the DNA now, too. As much as I love Dark Fields, I don’t think I’d know what to do with something that high-concept. That’s a compliment, by the way!
Glynn: The arterial spray has now become a torrent. Where to begin? First off, I guess, that “fun, fun, fun” quote was George Hunter White, who said of the CIA, “Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape, and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?” He’s quoted in H. P. Albarelli’s amazing book A Fatal Mistake about the murder of Frank Olsen (and about so much else besides).
Our DNA profiles would be quite similar, though I do have some fairly big gaps in my reading. The Céline’s Journey issue will be addressed very soon, I promise. For me, Ballard is essential (High-Rise), as is Pynchon—and going back, Chandler, Fitzgerald, and Melville. I’ve said this elsewhere, but perhaps the greatest books I’ve ever read are the second and third volumes of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography—they transcend everything in their narrative scope and power. In terms of movies, check check check, and add in Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole), Kubrick, Pakula (All the President’s Men is my ideal thriller, no action, no violence), Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy, Fellini’s Amarcord, Haneke’s Hidden, Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, and of course, the ur-text as far as I’m concerned, Chinatown. I saw it first when I was 14, in its first run, and I haven’t been the same since.
But back to business. In your Huffington Post piece, you talk about the thriller as a mirror to events. Earlier we casually mentioned Kyle West and Edward Snowden, but that is an astonishing parallel. In my latest novel, Graveland, there are parallels with recent events in Boston. In some ways, Winterland predicted the bursting of the real estate bubble. I think if you’re observant and writing about the current scene, you’re bound to hit a nerve now and again (equally, you could get it very wrong). In general, how do you feel about hot-wiring the zeitgeist like this?
Mennuti: Don’t worry about the arterial spray, I already warned Mulholland that it could be a distinct possibility!
Before we get to the zeitgeist—and I will control the bleeding—I am so excited that someone else read A Fatal Mistake. I had no idea that book even existed. I was wandering around Barnes & Noble and just happened upon it. First, because of the nifty swirly lettering on the cover, and second, the fact that it was a doorstop—both qualities I look for in any historical novel. But, good God, it was not only a confirmation of all that you feared about the CIA and drug-testing, but as you said, a veritable trip down the rabbit-hole of intelligence agency abuses.
Pynchon. I can’t believe I left him out of the DNA (because certainly almost everyone else made it). Gravity’s Rainbow is up there with Under The Volcano for me. Just seminal.
I have to just say check, check, check to all your films, too (especially All The President’s Men, and of Kieslowski’s Three Colors, Red is the one that has the hardest hold on me. I’m still haunted by scenes from it today). But I’m going to quibble (for the first time in our thus far seamless conversation) with Haneke’s Hidden, which I didn’t love at all. I actually dislike Haneke intensely. But Hidden in particular rubbed me the wrong way. WARNING: SPOILERS.
I just didn’t feel that the sin committed by Daniel Auteil’s character deserved the terrible existential wringer than Haneke put him through. I felt Haneke was just getting off on torturing this bourgeouis couple for no other reason than they were bourgeois. I wouldn’t call the Auteil character likeable per se—but he was a child when he committed his sin. I’m certain he was supposed to be some kind of metaphor for France’s attitude towards its immigrants (particularly the Algerians), which is chiefly one of critical indifference. But I just couldn’t get behind it. I think it also felt like too much of a riff on Lynch’s Lost Highway for the first half hour.
That said, the formal qualities of the film are exceptional and so are the performances. Haneke is clearly a master craftsman. In fact, I feel similarly about him as I do Lars Von Trier, but Haneke lacks Von Trier’s sense of playfulness that comes out at times. Albeit very rarely lately.
Now about the zeitgeist. Here are my thoughts on it: I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty much politically agnostic. People tend to think Weaponized has a leftish feel to it, but I think that’s just them bring their own particular bent to it. It’s not right or left; it’s my particular view of the world.
I think you and I can hit a nerve at times because we don’t come at politics or current events from a particular dogmatic angle. We leave ourselves open. I know sometimes Tom Clancy (or his type) can call a war in Georgia, but it’s only because it’s a fulfillment of his random military-porn fantasies that happened to come true. That’s not “hitting the zeitgeist” to me. That’s just luck. There’s more than luck involved in what we do. I don’t believe in any theories of history. I don’t believe in any ideologies either. I just try to look at the facts on the ground. And if you can examine the facts on the ground bloodlessly enough, you may end up hitting the zeitgeist since you’re not tied down to a firm set of beliefs.
I hate to use the example of Obama here, but I’m going to. I was never enthralled with him. I always felt he was a blank slate that the nation projected all its post-Bush aspirations onto, instead of actually listening to what he was saying. Which turned out to a boon for Obama, because he wasn’t saying anything. He was selling the same bathwater the Democrats had been selling with McGovern and then abandoned to win elections. My views caused a lot of consternation among my friends because they loved the guy. But I didn’t see it. And his terms have basically borne out my initial thoughts to a large extent. This is a guy more interested in the concept of governance than governance itself. And I was able to see it, I think, because I wasn’t looking for a savior in the first place. To me Obama is basically America’s answer to Tony Blair, who arrived after whatever luster Thatcher had given the old Empire had worn off.
I tend to think judging from the “Lands” that you’re pretty politically agnostic as well. I think we have our own moral compass, but it doesn’t lead us politically. The way you write about Congo, or about Ireland, or about the United States, or high finance—you have a certain way of looking at things, but I don’t think it’s political per se. I think it’s your particular authorial voice.
The Huffington article has been interesting because most people got my point loud and clear. But a few really thought I was arguing against any sort of state security or surveillance, which isn’t the case. I’m saying we’ve got far too much of both, and they’re not serving any kind of verifiable point. The bloat has gotten out of control. We need to discuss what kind of a world we want to live in. The point of that article was to make people think about the sheer size of the security state. Even after Snowden, people still don’t get just how much information is being stored.
I’d also like to point out that Dark Fields—and feel free to correct me—kind of predicted the designer pharmaceutical craze and nascent penchant for self-experimentation. It was published in 2001, right? Back in 2001 I didn’t see TV ads for drugs for ADHD, restless leg syndrome, and other various myriad disorders if not created, then nursed to prominence by the pharma industry.
Now I’m not saying you called Lexapro or Zyprexa. But you did nail that people are more willing these days to take pills to enhance their natural abilities, be it their memories, their sex drives, their attention span, etc. You really called the fact that people were going to literally experiment on themselves. And now in 2013, when you start getting into genetic engineering and nanotechnology, Dark Fields doesn’t seem too far off, does it? A real version of Eddie may come around sooner than you predicted.
Glynn: Yes, I agree largely with what you say. I think it’s a combination of paying close attention to what’s going on and then of being politically agnostic about it. Writing with an explicit political agenda is certain death to a story. It can’t be where the impulse to tell the story comes from, and it can’t be where the story leads the reader to. I think it’s fairly clear from my stuff that I have a certain viewpoint when it comes to the dominance of the financial-corporate complex, but what ignites the stories for me is an interest in the psychology of the people involved. What’s it like to be a billionaire plutocrat? If I’m even going to attempt to answer that question, there’s no way I can be judgmental about it. It just wouldn’t work. It quite clearly has to be an act of the imagination. And I think you’re right about The Dark Fields (Limitless). Since the book first came out, the “pharmaceuticalization” and “DSM-ification” of modern life has mushroomed. I was just looking at the facts on the ground, as you phrase it, and here we are over a decade later.
On Haneke and Hidden, I don’t think you can make a naturalistic connection between what the kid did and what the adult is made to suffer—I think it’s a masterful study of guilt and angst in the modern world. The Algerian/colonial context can make it seem like a politically-driven film with an agenda, but I don’t think that’s what Haneke was trying to do. I think it’s a more impressionistic, atmospheric and self-consciously artistic work than that. Oh God, listen to me. Time for another question.
Talk us through the title, Weaponized. It’s certainly a heavily-loaded word. One of the most striking and chilling uses of it I’ve ever seen, coincidentally, was in Albarelli’s A Fatal Mistake, when he talks about the CIA’s attempts to “weaponise LSD.”
Mennuti: You’re absolutely right. You can’t start with thinking, I want to hit the zeitgeist. It has to come from a particular desire to tell a particular story or to enter the thoughts of a particular character.
You nailed the upcoming “DSM-ification” (to quote you) with Dark Fields (Limitless). But I assume you really wanted to write about Eddie. Can I ask a question—the one all writers hate—what came first, Eddie or the story? Did you just want to write about him and the rest came from that initial desire? I’m sure the stock market analysis you had in that novel (extremely accurate I might add) came from thinking things through the eyes of that character. If you suddenly had Eddie’s abilities, why not make money? So then you’ve got to talk about the markets. Because of Eddie you suddenly had the key to go into all these other worlds.
It was like that for me with Kyle in Weaponized. I’ve always related to literary exiles. And it was through my desire to do that that I was led to eavesdropping.
Your concerns with the global financial complex are pretty simpatico with my own—clearly Neil in Weaponized is saying some things I agree with. But what I find most depressing is that no one has any alternative to the system. It’s all about adding a safeguard here, or closing that loophole. We need to think about this. I’m no Marxist. I am a genuine capitalist. And as a capitalist, I can say quite honestly that the current global financial system doesn’t resemble capitalism at all. In fact, it’s quite possibly the furthest thing from it. And calling it “socialism for the rich” doesn’t even begin to do justice to it either.
Which brings me to you saying Blair was a true believer—what do you think he believed in exactly? Do you think his team-building exercise with Bush was to get England back on the global stage again? Or do you think he really believed in the war on terror? When I look at Obama and Blair, here’s what I see and why I juxtaposed them: they are both the last breaths of the Janus-faces of contemporary liberalism trying to adapt to the 21st century. Blair adopted the Clintonian variety, but it was too late. That time had passed. And Obama went back to the more traditional welfare liberalism. And that time has passed too.
You’re probably right about Hidden. You’re not the first person whose opinions I respect who has told me that I’m just fucking wrong about my analysis/opinion on that film. I think I’m just scarred by all the prior bourgeois bashing in Haneke’s movies and dragged my own baggage over to Hidden. I’ve got to give it another try.
I’d love to say I was inspired by Albarelli with the title of Weaponized, but I can’t. The book was originally titled Exile. However, Mulholland Books felt that too many books already had that title and that it wasn’t evocative enough for what the book was doing.
The title was actually the work of the aforementioned John Schoenfelder, who kind of pulled it out of thin air and fell in love with it. Initially David and I were on the fence about calling it Weaponized. We were worried that it was just too hard a genre sell for the book. But the publisher loved it.
As I was working through the rewrite, I started thinking, There must have been a reason John wanted to call it Weaponized—outside of the fact that it’s one strong word, and he loves a good one-word title. And I realized that it was actually the right title. Because it does summarize what the book is about:
Any information in our day and age can be weaponized. Your phone number, even. Since Kyle and Robinson are part of this “new” world and have been weaponized by it, they’re able to survive it. Whereas Fowler and Lara, who are more traditionally weaponized (which is to say, their bodies are weapons), they get lost and suffer. So really the title for me meant “this is the current mind/body schism we’re looking at now.” Where we’re all mind and no body. Which could lead us right into a conversation about someone like Kurzweil if we’re not careful…
Glynn: What you say about the current global financial system is right: it’s not capitalism, just as Soviet communism wasn’t communism. But they’re both big, ugly, elaborate flowerings of human nature’s baser side, and that’s pretty depressing. Tony Blair was and is a true believer in God, and he believed that in pushing for war in Iraq, he was doing God’s work. I think with Bush and the gang, despite a religious patina, it was New American Century ideology all the way, but with Blair it was—unusually for a modern western leader—an almost fundamentalist (and therefore dangerous) religious zeal.
To answer your questions about which came first in The Dark Fields, Eddie or the story, the truthful answer is I don’t know, I don’t remember—the start of a novel is always a sort of primordial soup as far as I’m concerned, with lots of different things going on at the same time. But once I got going, yes, Eddie’s p.o.v. led me into some really interesting areas that I as the writer had to run pretty hard to keep on top of if I wanted Eddie’s experience to feel authentic. As for the parallels between me and Eddie, I’ve said before that The Dark Fields was largely autobiographical—up until the point where Eddie comes across the drug. This is where I’d insert a smiley emoticon.
I think John did very well to suggest Weaponized as a title because it describes the book thematically in so many ways, but it also describes what happens to its protagonist over the arc of the story.
So, to finish up—and this has been a lot of fun—I have two more questions. One, what in your opinion is the enduring appeal of the doppelgänger? I can’t get away from it. I have an unpublished doppelgänger novel, and I’m currently working on a new idea. What is it?
And can you tell us something about the process of collaborating on the book with David? Thanks, Nick. Next time with martinis, okay?
Mennuti: This has been a ton of fun! You are a great, benevolent interrogator, Alan, and yes, next time with martinis. Please write a book that has more New York locations so you can visit again sooner rather than later, because I’m not planning any Irish-based fiction at the moment!
I’d like to go back to Bush/Blair for a moment. I agree with you that for most of his cabinet, the religious invocations for war were purely decorative; however, with Dubya, I think it was genuine. He’d been an alcoholic (or at least heavy drinker) until 40, at which point he exchanged—as many Americans do—Gin for Jesus. So I think his love and need for Jesus was in a direct relationship to how badly he wanted to relapse. I think both he and Blair were genuinely religious men. I’m just not sure which one scared me more. The one (Blair) who genuinely believed—or the other (Dubya) who believed to keep himself clean.
Maybe that was the perfect lead-in to discuss doppelgangers, because we’ve got a pair of them right there.
There’s like six or seven different ways we could go with the enduring appeal of the doppelganger. I could go back to the historical/psychological roots of it, which pre-dates Freud. But I think I’ll just tell you personally why it got its hooks into me:
Lolita. I read it when I was still in college, and Nabokov was one of the great doppelganger dealers in literary history. The relationship between Quilty and Humbert fascinated me almost as much as the love story between Humbert and Lolita. And I always loved the notion of ending a novel like Lolita, a love story, with two doppelgangers facing off against each other in a surreal attempt to find sovereignty. In fact, I stole it for Weaponized—that’s how much I liked it!
I think it’s stayed around as a literary creation for so long because it’s amorphous. You can physicalize the doppelganger and make him the antagonist, like Nabokov. You can make him an obscene embodiment of wish fulfillment—Nabokov again, or Highsmith. You can make him stand-in for what a repressive society does to someone who can’t fit in—e.g. Burroughs. Or you can make him an object of satire of terror, like Doestoevsky. You can use him to explore the schism in one person, like Stevenson. Or you can do a mix of all of those, which is kind of what Borges did. So I think the mutability of the doppelganger has a lot to do with why we keep coming back to them.
I’d love to see you take on a doppelganger novel after what you did with Eddie’s altered states of consciousness in Dark Fields (Limitless). That boggles the mind.
I’d also like to point out that I don’t think Alan linked these questions to insinuate that David and I are somehow each other’s doppelgangers!
Collaboration with David is something that’s been going on since we first met at Tisch. We’ve always shown each other our work. It’s just an instrumental part of my process and his. We’re each other’s first readers.
David is an absolute master structuralist. He has some instinctive story gene that lets him see narrative moves seven steps in advance. Listening to David crack a story is akin to watching great chess players—or at the other end of the spectrum, an ace grifter.
The reason I think our collaborations are fruitful is that we don’t attack a story in the same way. I tend to work from the inside-out, and the story isn’t necessarily what I start with. It can be a character, or a location, or a subject that fascinates me. After I’ve isolated what interests me, I’ll start with the story. David doesn’t work that way.
So in addition to whatever creative fusion you get from our different processes, you also get some good creative friction, because we force each other to look at our material from different angles. I’m prone to digression, and David forces me to be linear. I hate him for it at times—but he’s right.
The last thing you should look for in a collaborator is someone who agrees with you all the time. And David sure doesn’t. And I don’t agree with him all the time either. I think that’s what makes Weaponized interesting: we dragged some provocative stuff out of each other in the process that I don’t think we would have found without each other.
The white-hot suspense novel of the summer is now available on bookshelves around the country: Weaponized by Nicholas Mennuti with David Guggenheim. We’ve shared with you the book’s raves from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, but as readers finally pick up their copies of the book, the response is no less effusive. A few of our favorites from Goodreads:
And we have a special treat for those readers who are quickest to pick up and read Weaponized: author Nicholas Mennuti is answering all questions and comments about the book on Goodreads until August 6th. Come join us in this digital book club! We’ll keep an eye out for you.
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