Books and the single girl
BY AILEEN JACOBSON
May 11, 2004
The last time single women were celebrated in fiction, they were called New Women, says Elaine Showalter, the recently retired chairwoman of Princeton's English department. That was when the 19th century became the 20th.
Now the 20th has turned into the 21st century, and a genre concentrating on the lives, loves, adventures and misadventures of unwed females is once again booming. This time around, it's called Chick Lit.
Many of its best-selling books are wrapped in pink covers featuring swirly letters and curvy legs ending in stiletto heels - though recent trends include an expansion of the color palette.
"Aqua is the new pink," says Sessalee Hensley, Barnes & Noble's fiction buyer, adding that lime green has also entered the mix. So has a host of subgenres, from widow lit (young woman looks again) to bridezilla lit (young woman gets man) to lad lit (sensitive guy looks for Ms. Right) to hen lit (for the more mature woman, who may conclude chick isn't such a bad label after all). "Where does it stop?" asks Brad Parsons, a senior editor at Amazon.com. "The umbrella is getting bigger and bigger."
Did the women's movement ever happen?
"To feel that every piece of literature has to empower women to come out on top, well - what I write is just real life, about those days when you aren't empowered and winning corporate wars or whatever. You're losing your pantyhose and you're lusting after a bag you can't afford. I mean, there's room for both," says author Sophie Kinsella, 34, best- known for her amusing trio of novels known as the "Shopaholic" series.
Her current bestseller, "Can You Keep a Secret?," is also to become a movie starring Kate Hudson. The book - which starts with a young woman blurting out, during a bumpy plane ride, her most embarrassing secrets to a handsome stranger later revealed as her company's chief executive - comes wrapped in retro pink.
Beach reading season
It's one of a recent beach- weather-ready cluster of high- profile entries in the genre, which, most observers agree, jump-started with Helen Fielding's 1998 "Bridget Jones's Diary," was bolstered by TV's "Sex and the City" and has swelled to at least 240 new novels a year, according to Charlotte Abbott, book news editor of Publishers Weekly. Five mainstream publishers have established imprints specializing in chick lit, she says, and they're "now reaching full steam, so that's pumping a lot of books into the market." Other publishers make occasional forays.
Authors have mixed feelings about the grouping and the term "chick lit."
"I think a man might have invented it. I don't think girls would label themselves that way," says Plum Sykes, 34, author of the current bestseller "Bergdorf Blondes" - about the haute world of a Manhattan party-girl narrator who calls herself Moi, her best friend, a fictional department store heiress, and their pals, who get their tresses dyed every 13 days at the Bergdorf family store. (Publishing experts think chick lit was first applied to the popular genre in England, where it's easily as popular as in the United States.)
Sykes, a Vogue contributing editor, fashion celebrity and London-born Oxford graduate, prefers to call her first novel a social comedy, in the manner of "Breakfast at Tiffany's." She also likes the fashion-conscious label "chic lit," as one magazine dubbed it. She did research, she says, to reflect accurately the lifestyles and lingo of Park Avenue princesses: ana for anorexic or perfect, A.T.M. for rich boyfriend, M.I.T. for mogul in training, and M.T.M. for married to mogul, better than the previous two.
"I feel that most chick lit, unfortunately, is about depressed girls eating lots of chocolate," Sykes says over a plate of one sliced apple and one sliced orange at a trendy West Village restaurant, though she admires Fielding and Allison Pearson, author of "I Don't Know How She Does It." On the other hand, she says, "It's great if it helps to sell the books" by getting them to "that huge market that Helen Fielding created sort of single-handedly."
Marian Keyes, 40, another popular author whose seventh novel, "The Other Side of the Story" (aqua cover), debuted two weeks ago and is expected to become a bestseller, defines a different divide, speaking by phone from her home in Ireland prior to her American tour.
"I think that the term is meant to be pejorative, to put women down: Oh, you silly little women with your silly little concerns in your silly little books. But chick lit authors for the first time are helping post- feminist women navigate this world, trying to be the best friend, have a job, have a thin body, have the shiniest hair. For the first time, those conflicting concerns are being addressed, and with humor. The term has made it easier to denigrate these books, not address their substance."
Her newest book tells the tangled tale of three women involved in publishing and love affairs. "The whole career and relationship conflict is very real," she says. "These women are looking for balance, and confused by the demands forced on them."
Funny isn't easy
Both Keyes, whose first novel was published in 1993 (before "Bridget Jones" turned scattered prose into a genre), and Kinsella, a former financial journalist and mother of two, point out that turning out good, funny books isn't easy. Kinsella, in fact, wrote several well-regarded novels under her real name, Madeleine Wickham, before combining her middle name and mother's maiden name into a new moniker, so as not to confuse her readers when she switched styles, she says.
"These books never get reviewed in the Times [of London], but I've put as much, if not more, time into them, and consider them as good, if not better," than her previous novels, says Kinsella over lunch at a midtown hotel during her recent extensive American tour. Her chick lit books take "months of planning. Plots really need to be worked out. It doesn't just sort of fall off the pen."
Showalter, Princeton professor emeritus and author, admires the work of Kinsella, Keyes and Princeton grad Jennifer Weiner. (Weiner's "Good in Bed," about an overweight young woman, is being developed for a series by HBO, while her second book, "In Her Shoes," about two sisters, is being made into a movie starring Toni Collette, Cameron Diaz and Shirley MacLaine. Her third book, "Little Earthquakes," due in September, has just been purchased by Universal.) Showalter plans to read Sykes' book: "I read Vogue. I don't see myself as above any of this."
On the other hand, Showalter - who contributed an essay on lad lit for a 2002 Oxford University Press book, "On Modern British Fiction" - says she thinks chick lit is developing in two directions, one thoughtful and the other commercial, such as Miramax's commissioning of a chick lit novel by Kristen Gore, Al Gore's 26-year-old daughter, to be published in September. "They were looking for a D.C. Bridget. It's just like marketing Barbie dolls - surgeon Barbie, beach Barbie."
However, she adds, "With some of these writers, people will look back in a century and think, this is the way it was for young women then. Some will be ephemeral and lost. Under the guise of this rubric, some of these women are writing really fine work about what women face in these times." She thinks some are writing work "as intelligent and insightful" as Doris Lessing and Margaret Drabble, though lighter in tone. The New Women literature of a century ago, she adds, was also more serious, and sometimes written by men, including H.G. Wells and George Gissing.
The 'mother chick'
One writer who has been called the "mother of chick lit" has a decidedly different view from Showalter's. Erica Jong, speaking up via e-mail, is scathing: "Chick lit is nothing more than the contemporary version of the 'How to Get Married Novel' invented by Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen - and done much better by them (needless to say)."
Her landmark "Fear of Flying," she says, "details the disappointments of marriage and the search for freedom and individuality, while Chick Lit is a retro form that details the search for and nabbing of a husband, any husband." Today's 20- and 30-somethings, she says, "are looking for the opposite of what their mothers looked for. Their mothers sought freedom; they seek slavery. They want The Ring, The White Wedding, The Bugaboo Frog Stroller - and hey - let them have it all." They'll come around as they age, she predicts.
Jong's view is "a narrow-minded description of the genre," says Margaret Marbury, executive editor of Harlequin's Red Dress Ink, the first U.S. imprint dedicated to chick lit when it launched in November 2001. "These are coming-of-age stories, finding out who you are, where you want to go," she says. Finding Mr. Right is part of that, she adds, but so are such themes as getting a more meaningful job, dealing with family and perhaps never finding someone to marry.
"One of the most powerful things about this literature is that it can hold up a mirror and make you feel you're not alone.... These books don't trivialize women's problems." The often-pink covers featuring "body elements or shoes or women's underwear" signal the humor and fun inside the books, she says, and also aid bookstore visitors seeking this type of novel to "make your purchases and get out of there."
New author opportunities
Red Dress now publishes three books a month (culled from 200 submissions each month, many through the company's Web site): one "traditional" single-girl chick lit, one internally called "Red Dress grows up" (for readers older than 40) and the third a "wild card" - perhaps multicultural, mommy, lad or young widow lit.
In October, another division of Harlequin (yes, the romance publisher) will launch a chick lit series "for modern Christian women." The first offering, Judy Baer's "The Whitney Chronicles," features on its pink cover the bottom half of a woman with her skirt covering her knees and her heels more sensible than stiletto. It's about a 30-year-old looking for her Mr. Right, a "fabulous, single, Christian man."
"Another thing chick lit has really provided," says author Cara Lockwood, "is that it has given opportunity to a lot of young women writers." Lockwood's second book, "Pink Slip Party" ("When you lose your job, can your mind be far behind?" the cover asks), has just been published by Downtown Press, an imprint of Pocket Books, which is part of Simon & Schuster, devoted to chick lit. A former journalist who now works in the dean's office of Northwestern University School of Communications, she hasn't given up her day job. She's working on book three, which is "inspired by my mixed-race background," Japanese and Caucasian, "but it's still chick lit," a label she doesn't mind.
"I think it's great.... It's another place women can go to find things that are meaningful to them." But she does think it "unfair" that books that appeal to women often are shown less respect than those that appeal largely to men, such as science fiction.
Perhaps a name change is in order? Carrie Feron, executive editor of Avon Trade (tagline: "... because every bag deserves a great book!"), says her HarperCollins imprint is trying to recast the genre it publishes as metro chic. "We just feel happier saying it ourselves." Almost three years old, Avon publishes two to three books a month, she says, and is getting more diverse. Kim Wong Keltner's "The Dim Sum of All Things" recounts the adventures of a 25-year-old "Chinese-American wage-slave" who lusts after a "white devil" in her office. July brings the debut of "Goddess for Hire" by Indian-American Sonia Singh.
Trade paperbacks are preferred over hardcovers by many chick-lit publishers, she says, because they're more affordable for avid readers, the right size for toting to the beach, and "more attractive" than pulpier mass market paperbacks.
That hasn't stopped Hyperion from going to hardcover with several chick-lit titles, including the recent "P.S. I Love You," a young-widow novel by Cecelia Ahern, the 22-year-old daughter of the Irish prime minister. Ahern has another book coming out in 2005, says vice president and publisher Ellen Archer, as does "Sex and the City" author Candace Bushnell, whose more recent "Trading Up" is about to make its paperback debut. (Also coming in paperback for this summer, from a different publisher: "The Devil Wears Prada," Lauren Weisberger's skewering of her former boss, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, along with its spawn: a host of new assistant lit books, aka underling lit.)
Archer sees Bushnell's books as "social satire," a label that she also applies to her company's July novel, "Gotham Diaries," by Tonya Lewis Lee, wife of Spike Lee, and Crystal McCrary Anthony, wife of former Knicks player and ESPN commentator Greg Anthony (who also co-authored with Rita Ewing, ex-wife of Patrick Ewing, Avon's "Homecourt Advantage").
"Gotham Diaries" is being touted as "an exclusive peek into the world of the super-rich, super-connected African- Americans." Also in an upscale African-American niche is Putnam's new "The Accidental Diva," in which TeenPeople beauty director Tia Williams focuses on an African-American beauty editor of a top, white-oriented fashion magazine.
Barnes & Noble fiction buyer Hensley keeps an eye both on trends and on TV and movie releases - the second "Bridget Jones," she notes, has been postponed - because she has to make sure store shelves are stocked properly. TV's "Sex and the City" and "Friends" boosted the whole genre, she says: "Once people found there are books written like that, they came back." And now that both shows are over, "what can they do but read?"
The genre's evolution
Chick lit is evolving in several ways. Not only is it expanding toward older readers (her summer pick in this category is the upcoming "This Side of Married," by Rachel Pastan) and teens, but it's also building a healthy back list. When readers discover a writer they like, she says, they go back to her previous work. The bestselling back list authors, she says, are Kinsella, Keyes, Fielding (whose "Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination" debuts next month) and two more Brits, Wendy Holden and Anna Maxted.
Amazon's Parsons says much of chick lit is "guilty pleasure ... commercial, disposable stuff," while other books are more literary. Among books he'd place in the latter slot are Elizabeth Robinson's "The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters" and Rachel Cline's "What to Keep" (both of which show a leaping young girl on their covers), and two June books, Jenny McPhee's "No Ordinary Matter" and Bonnie Marson's "Sleeping with Schubert." The Marson book, he thinks, will appeal to "chick lit and classical music fans," especially since it has "a really sharp cover, a drawing of a naked woman playing piano from behind, a bust of Schubert and Manhattan in the background."
While some authors may be "the last to embrace" the term chick lit, he says, "it shows no signs of going away." Adds Hensley: "The main thing is that, despite being called chick lit, the books are really good."
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.
Newsday.com - Book Reviews
Saturday, May 15, 2004
Books and the single girl
Posted by BookBitch at 5/15/2004 08:35:00 AM
Thursday, May 13, 2004
Blame it on the cucumber
May 8, 2004
Ban me? Not without one hell of a fight. When the moral right in Florida turned on novelist Linda Jaivin, a bitter and at times comic censorship battle ensued.
Last July, an 83-year-old grandmother called Loretta Harrison visited her local library in Marion County, Florida. A brightly covered book with a funny title caught her attention. After reading just a few pages, she filed an objection with the library that the book was "to [sic] obsene [sic] for general reading".
"Like a character in the Tom Clancy novels she enjoys," reported the county newspaper, the Star-Banner, Harrison became "a player in an intrigue", triggering "forces she was hardly aware of" and which were out of her control. The result, the paper wrote, would have an "indelible impact on the library system and the community". Marion County, 480 kilometres north of Miami and home to many horsebreeders, Republicans and retirees, has been embroiled ever since in a bitterly contested battle over censorship, sex and the role of the public library.
The book at the centre of the controversy is my first novel, the comic-erotic Eat Me. In the opening, highly parodic chapter, a woman shopper samples both the produce and the store detective in a late-night supermarket. Published in a dozen countries and almost as many languages, Eat Me was a bestseller in Australia and France, and was a book club selection in Italy and other countries.
It made the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list as well as those of independent bookshops in the US from Rhode Island to Seattle. Vintage, in Britain, is publishing a special edition of it as one of the 12 books for its Summer Reading promotion this year, alongside Portnoy's Complaint, Fear of Flying, Jeanette Winterson's The Passion and novels by Martin and Kingsley Amis, among others.
In 1997, the internet filtering company CyberPatrol put the entire website of The Booksmith, an independent bookseller in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco, on its CyberNOT list for publishing the cover of my book, a summary of the contents and a description of me reading the first chapter at the shop. The Booksmith launched a courageous (and successful) fight against the ban. But not even then was Eat Me the subject of moral panic such as we've seen in Marion County.
One member of the library committee that considered Harrison's complaint alleged "emotional shock" as a result of reading the novel from cover to cover. In the end, a majority vote deemed that the book would stay on the shelves. It was a brave decision. Fundamental Christianity and patriotism are the dominant religions of Marion County: at last year's Patriotic Celebration in the First Baptist Church, congregants found inspiration in such hymns as Bring This Nation Back to God.
A few years earlier, the library's director, Julie Sieg, ruled against complainants wanting to remove the sex-education book It's Perfectly Normal from the shelves because it told kids that homosexuality and masturbation were just that, perfectly normal. She decided to have a look at Eat Me for herself. The fruity adventures of my heroines were not to her taste. In fact, she gagged on them, decided that Eat Me was "not worth defending", and pulled it off the shelf.
Enter Brian Creekbaum and Mary Lutes. Creekbaum, a Marion County native, had fought several censorship battles over the previous three years, including the one over It's Perfectly Normal. For this, the informal citizens group he chaired received the 2001 Intellectual Freedom Award from the Florida Library Association. Creekbaum has a lazy Southern drawl, an indefatigable devotion to civil liberties, a sharp mind and a dry wit. Referring to one of chapter one's naughtier bits, he wrote to me in an email, "I find it hard to believe the cucumber has nothing to do with this decision."
Dr Lutes is a former chair of the Library Advisory Board (LAB) and a voracious reader who holds a PhD in social science. She told me she found the first chapter of Eat Me a "knee slapper". Lutes and Creekbaum believed the book was absolutely worth fighting for; there were higher principles at stake. Lutes lodged an appeal against the removal.
This put the ball back in the court of the LAB, an appointed citizens' committee. County commissioners got involved. The Star-Banner published articles, editorials and letters on the subject. One of the editors remarked to Creekbaum when they met, of all places, in a grocery shop: "If you were going to censor a book, that would be the book." But the paper came down publicly on the side of the civil libertarians, with such published sentiments as "let freedom ring - loud and clear". The National Coalition Against Censorship weighed in against the ban. The book's opponents grew more hysterical by the day.
I began to look forward to Creekbaum's emails - he sent as many as half a dozen updates in one day. His thumbnail sketches of the characters involved made for riveting reading. There was the foul-mouthed guardian of public morals and another opponent who accused my book of being part of a "jihad" against America's children. A third was nearly arrested for attempting to read the entire first chapter of Eat Me into the public record. Like others in the anti-Eat Me camp, he's done a great job of advertising the book. A right-wing shock jock, who calls it "absolute pornography", even put a link to the chapter on his website.
As a comic novelist, I could not have dreamed up such fabulous characters as the 76-year-old anti-Eat Me LAB member whose public activities included penning letters to the Star-Banner alleging that "the liberal-dominated media has tried to turn the United States into a matriarchy with weak and powerless men dominated by powerful, aggressive women". (He ended with the reassurance: "Relax, men - in the hierarchy of the sexes we will always be on top." His proof? That young women "work their buns off" to fit into bikinis "to attract a bunch of guys with beer guts".)
The dispatches from the Marion County morality wars were as engrossing as the push for censorship was alarming. The library system in Marion County is one of the largest in America, serving 128,000 registered users in 11 locations. And with the rise of the Christian Right nationally, the same table was being set all over America. Four years ago, the American Library Association received 700 letters of complaint for daring even to raise the topic of erotica at its annual conference.
Pro-censorship activists in Marion County and elsewhere were taking cues from the likes of Karen Jo Gounaud of the Virginia-based Family Friendly Libraries (FFL). Fighting unfiltered internet access in her own library, Gounaud warned of "aroused teen patrons dumping their DNA on the library bathroom floor" and, where private booths were provided, "disgusting unsanitary accidents and rug damage". (A national magazine faxed Gounaud a page from a children's book for her comments; her response was, "That is definitely the kind of book that we would ask to be moved." It was Mother Goose.) It's in this context that Janet Jackson's right breast could bring a nation to its knees.
Maybe it's because our first colonialists were convicts and theirs were Puritans, but Australia seems less prone to this particular style of moral panic. I say this despite censorship battles over movies such as Lolita and Baise-Moi, and the rare book, including American Psycho. So far as I'm aware, there have been no challenges to Eat Me's presence in libraries here; it's even on some university reading lists.
I've read the infamous first chapter aloud dozens of times in Australian bookshops, at festivals and in performance spaces, usually with a bowl of fruit, a large cucumber and a small whip as props. It's a send-up, not a sex act, a fact that most Australians seem to have little trouble grasping. I'm not saying civil libertarians don't have to be vigilant: Helen Vnuk's excellent Snatched: Sex and Censorship in Australia (Vintage) is a sobering read. But we're not the US yet.
Six days after the first article on Eat Me appeared in the Star-Banner, a Marion County resident urged the library to dump a children's book called A Stone in My Hand, by Cathryn Clinton. It is set in Gaza City during the 1988 intifada and is narrated by a young Palestinian girl; the complainant alleged it would contribute to anti-Semitism.
On December 2 last year, the LAB voted 9-1 to retain A Stone in My Hand. Then it turned to the question of Eat Me. After a heated debate in which I was called an "intelligent pervert" and my novel "pure pornography", and it was asserted that people who wanted to remove Christian prayer from public schools were the real censors, the LAB voted 7-3 to recommend that Eat Me stay in the collection.
At the end of February, after nearly three months of dithering, Sieg finally put the book back into circulation. It went straight out to the first person on a long waiting list.
A local shock jock warned that on Judgement Day, Jesus would be questioning Sieg about the pornography she'd made available to little children. Of more immediate concern, Conservative county commissioners, assisted by their county administrator, a retired two-star general from the US Marines, launched a push for more political control over the library collection. A self-titled fundamentalist preacher put his hand up to be on the newly reorganised LAB. The meeting to decide the library's fate was scheduled to take place this week.
Last month, the Star-Banner opinion editor, Brad Rogers, clearly over it, wrote of both Eat Me and It's Perfectly Normal: "That two books out of an estimated 400,000 could be directly responsible for the moral destruction of our community is a bit of a reach."
Linda Jaivin's most recent book is The Monkey and the Dragon.
Blame it on the cucumber - Books - www.smh.com.au
NOTE: The Palm Beach County Library does not own a copy of EAT ME. Let 'em eat spinach.
Posted by BookBitch at 5/13/2004 01:36:00 PM
Monday, May 10, 2004
May 6, 2004
Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore Hosts Naked Booksigning
Saturday May 22 at 6 pm.
Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore is pleased to announce a booksigning for the serial novel Naked Came the Flamingo at its store in Pineapple Grove in Delray Beach on Saturday May 22, 2004 at 6 pm.
Naked Came the Flamingo is the brainchild of bestselling author Barbara Parker, who saw it as a chance to give some “publishing challenged” authors the opportunity to participate in a serial novel. And along the way, she has discovered some very talented writers.
With the first chapter written by Elaine Viets, Chapter 10 by Barbara Parker, and the Epilogue by PJ Parrish, Naked is a tongue-in-cheek spoof on the Florida hard-boiled detective novel. As Reinhard Motte, MD, Associate Medical Examiner for Miami-Dade County, says in his disclaimer in the front of the book, “If only my actual homicide cases were this much fun!”
Appearing at this booksigning will be Barbara Parker, P.J. Parrish, Britin Haller, Stephanie Levine, Randy Rawls, Joan Mickelson, Victoria Landis, Diane Warner, Joan Bond, Barbara Schading and whichever other Naked authors show up.
Admission is free, refreshments will be served, and the public is invited.
Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore is an independent locally owned community bookstore, specializing in the mystery genre, located at 273 Pineapple Grove Way (NE 2nd Ave). Owned by Joanne Sinchuk, Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore has been in business for seven years.
For further information contact:
Posted by BookBitch at 5/10/2004 10:00:00 PM
May 9, 2004
Watching the Detectives
By BRUCE WEBER
Anyone who wonders why crime stories dominate our popular culture should spend a day with Tim Marcia, Rick Jackson and Dave Lambkin. They're Los Angeles police detectives, members of the department's two-year-old cold-case squad, which is responsible for re-examining unsolved crimes through the lens of the latest forensic advances. A conversation about their work sounds like a pitch meeting for a new ripped-from-the-headlines TV series: ''L.A. Law and Order.'' The stories go on literally for hours, and, well, you couldn't make this stuff up, which is ostensibly why the best-selling crime novelist Michael Connelly is here in the squad room, a stuffy, essentially characterless enclosure with a few desks pushed together. He's just starting a new book, and on this January morning he's foraging for material.
He has a lot to select from. There's the story about the rapist and murderer who, in his portable crime kit, along with several pairs of handcuffs and precut lengths of duct tape, carried a vial of another man's semen, which he sprinkled on the rug of the crime scene to throw off the cops. There's the one about the murder suspect being monitored on a wiretap who revealed -- long before divulging the details of his crime -- that he was a homosexual and, to the great glee of the police officers listening in, that he had a crush on Detective Jackson. And then there's the one about the guy arrested for sexually abusing his daughter. The cops tested his semen, but as Detective Jackson recalls, ''they come back and they say to the guy: 'We got good news and bad news. The bad news is that we made you on the DNA. The good news is that she isn't your daughter.'''
Connelly, 47, listens with gratitude and amazement; he isn't used to this kind of openness. He first got to know the Los Angeles Police Department as a reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He arrived from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to take a job on the police beat in 1987 and stayed until 1994, a span that included the Rodney King beating and the Los Angeles riots and ended just before the O.J. Simpson case got under way. They were years when the department was riddled by scandal, the scrutiny of the press was ever-present and the institutional animosity between the department and the newspaper was intense. ''I can't tell you how many times I'd approach a guy and introduce myself, say I'm Mike Connelly from The L.A. Times, and he'd say, 'Good for you,' and turn away,'' he says.
A compact man with short gray-blond hair and a trimmed beard, Connelly has the solicitous manner of a reporter who knows that today a vein has opened for him and doesn't want to stanch the flow. When he speaks, it's in a soft monotone, and his questions are mostly about the details of police procedure:
''If you have DNA, and you send it through the Department of Justice,'' he asks, ''how long until you get the results?''
''Is it just an urban legend that if you get a bone-marrow transplant, it changes your DNA?''
''Have there been changes in the law regarding wiretaps since 9/11?''
Later, asked what he got from the day's research, Connelly says that the wiretap information was helpful. The detectives had described a communications center where several taps were being monitored at once. It's not the usual image of a wiretap in progress, he says. You know the one: a couple of guys hunched in the back of a van with headphones on. Still, the lion's share of his gleaned information was not in the particulars.
''I don't want to underplay procedure and technology,'' he says, ''but to me what's really important is the emotional stuff.''
He noticed, he says, that each of the three detectives had photos of victims prominently displayed on their desks. ''Early on, one of them said, 'You always have one case you fall in love with,''' he says. ''Most people in life have pictures of kids or wives festooned around their desks. These guys have dead people.''
To inform those without a weakness for detective stories, Michael Connelly is the emerging star of the genre. He routinely sells about 300,000 copies of his books in hardcover and about a million more in paperback. While that doesn't approach the really heavy hitters like John Grisham, whose legal thrillers sell upward of two million hardcovers, Connelly is an avowed favorite of critics and other mystery novelists, who give him credit for elevating, if not transcending, the genre. He has been called the natural heir of the Los Angeles crime family, which begins with Raymond Chandler and descends through the likes of Ross MacDonald, Joseph Wambaugh and James Ellroy. And others have been more complimentary than that.
''In the old mystery tradition, in which a crime is committed at the beginning and solved in the end,'' says George Pelecanos, whose 10th book, ''Hard Revolution,'' was just published, ''he's the best mystery writer in the world, I think.''
Connelly is a student of police procedure -- he keeps a small library of manuals at home -- and he comes equipped with a reporter's eye for detail and, as a setting, a city that is rife with atmosphere. He also has a nose for plot; he knows where the skeletons are buried (the bare bones of an early novel, ''The Concrete Blonde,'' were snitched from a procedure manual), and he has the writerly ingenuity to provide their page-turning, seductive flesh.
But what may distinguish him most is his interest in the psychic toll of police work: not how a cop works on a case, as he puts it, echoing a line of Wambaugh's, ''but how a case works on a cop.'' His admiration for the police officers who manage to do the job right is as viscerally felt as a little boy's. He was first intrigued by the police as a 16-year-old, he says, when he witnessed a carjacking in Fort Lauderdale and spent the night in the police station answering questions about it. ''There was definitely a bit of hero worship in it,'' Connelly says of his decision to write novels about cops, which happened not long afterward, when he was in college.
Since then, he says: ''I've come to respect them more, probably. It's a hard job to do correctly, and when you do, it's not noticed. But if you make a mistake or fall victim to the myriad lures of corruption or the other things that can happen to you, then you get noticed. They accept that, and their acceptance of it is the nobility of the job.''
Connelly has written 14 novels since 1992, 10 of them -- including ''The Narrows,'' just published by Little, Brown -- featuring a Los Angeles police detective named Harry Bosch. And in many ways the Bosch novels amount to a chronicle of life in the Los Angeles Police Department in the post-Rodney King era. In Connelly's unflattering portrayal, it is an angry, paranoid force, hamstrung by bureaucracy and riddled not so much by corruption (though there is some of that) but by petty jealousies, small-mindedness and self-aggrandizement.
In such an environment, Harry Bosch is a rogue cop, and real cops like Tim Marcia, an 18-year veteran, say Connelly gets it almost exactly right. Things are changing under a new police chief, William J. Bratton, Marcia says, but for years too many L.A. cops were preoccupied with not getting in trouble themselves rather than with putting bad guys in jail. Harry, Marcia says, is an idealized version of what you have to be in order to do a good job. ''He's very methodical, and he's never interrupted,'' Marcia says. ''That's the way we would like to work.''
Growling, contemplative and skeptical, a man who suffers fools and authority figures with ill-disguised contempt, Harry is an iconoclastic throwback, the kind of guy whom men test themselves against and who challenges women to make him love them. He smokes, listens to moody jazz; he isn't averse to either drinking or heading into danger alone, and he is constitutionally unable to walk away from an innocent in peril or a criminal who might be getting away with it. In short, he is the old-fashioned sort of detective protagonist about whom Chandler wrote in the famous essay, ''The Simple Art of Murder'': ''He will take no man's money dishonestly and no man's insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge.''
Look closer, however, and Harry is a hero for our age. In fact, his tough exterior and noir milieu notwithstanding, he's actually rather soft-boiled. He has a past and a personal life; his mother was a call girl who aspired to higher things; she was murdered when Harry was 11. (Connelly borrowed this detail from the life of James Ellroy.) She gave her son the name Hieronymus, after the 15th- and 16th-century painter whose view of the hellishness on earth becomes a metaphor for the way Harry perceives Los Angeles.
And crucially, unlike just about every other fictional detective, Bosch is aging in real time. He was born in 1950. He served in Vietnam. He has an estranged wife he still loves -- and a young daughter he's just getting to know.
Harry's not a wiseacre, like Robert Parker's Spenser, nor does he have the deep sadness of P.D. James's Adam Dalgliesh. He's a brooder, though, a blue-collar philosopher who believes that the empirical evidence tells him evil exists in the world and that it is his mission to confront it.
''The idea of whether there's such a thing as a waiting evil, it's a question I don't know the answer to,'' Connelly says. ''I ask about it, but it's hard to bring it up with a cop. You have to wait for an alone moment, but I've never gotten a good answer from anybody, which is why it comes up over and over in the books.''
Connelly says he built Harry from a number of cops he met while he was a reporter. And parts of himself? Is Harry's heart his heart?
''If that would be the case, I'd be proud of that,'' Connelly says. ''His heart is the heart I'd hope to have on my best day.''
ou might not expect the Los Angeles chief of police to be a Connelly fan, but he is. Chief Bratton, in his second year on the job, says that Harry's problems with department bureaucracy are ''on the money,'' and that Connelly's portrayal of a 9-to-5 culture in the department is, sadly, accurate. ''Harry would welcome the changes we're trying to bring here,'' Bratton says. ''A year ago, you could be the victim of a rape on a Friday, have three uniformed officers take you to the hospital to do all the lab work, but not see a detective until Tuesday morning. So we're getting closer to his work ethic, in the sense that his work is his life.''
Unknown to Bratton, he's playing a part in Harry's life. A couple of books ago, Harry was fed up and left the department. In the last book, ''Lost Light,'' and in ''The Narrows,'' he's working on his own, as a private detective. But Connelly found that he missed having Harry trying to turn the battleship of the department bureaucracy. In ''The Narrows,'' a new police chief announces a policy that will allow officers who took early retirement to return within three years -- a policy that, in real life, has been championed by Bratton -- and in the next book, Harry will return.
This time, however, he won't be working homicide. He's joining the cold-case squad -- the real one was formed just before Bratton took over -- which explains his visit to the squad room.
He has kept in touch with the three detectives, and since January, one thing he has learned, to his delight, is that the investigation of unsolved cases often leads out of town, offering a whole new set of possibilities for Harry. The three detectives are discussing bringing a serial killer in Delaware back to Los Angeles in connection with an old case, Connelly says, ''and I've been asking them things like, 'What do you say to a serial killer on a five-hour flight?'''
The impetus for the cold-case setting ''was the idea that these guys are coming back to cases that are 15, 20 years old and seeing the long-term damage of violence in our society. Harry's used to dealing with people in a state of shock, not with years of letting something this bad settle into their bones.''
One thing the detectives provide in January is a crucial theme -- that recent technology has turned police work upside down. Once it was the job of detectives to identify a suspect and then take fingerprints and blood samples from him to compare with evidence at the scene. Criminalists, that is, forensic experts, played a subservient role. Now, Detective Lambkin says, with the establishment of data banks for fingerprints, ballistics and DNA, ''the criminalists can come to us and say, 'This is your guy.' So you can't do the job anymore like we used to.''
This is especially pertinent to their current assignment, in that the changes have created an almost laughable backlog of work. Astoundingly, there are nearly 11,000 unsolved murders since 1960 on the books in Los Angeles, and the seven detectives on the cold-case squad are sifting through them to decide which ones might benefit from the application of techniques that were unavailable when the crimes were committed.
Connelly asks specifically about the difference between investigating cold cases and fresh ones. The speed necessary in pursuing a fresh case, he is told, means that you don't often form attachments to victims or their families. Cold cases, however, involve an enormous amount of desk work and research, of reading investigation reports and examining old evidence to familiarize yourself with the particulars of a case; murder books -- the notebooks kept by detectives as chronicles of each case -- can be more than 500 pages long. So even before you do any interviews, you know the victim almost intimately.
Detective Marcia tells Connelly a story about his recent visit to an elderly hardware-store owner to inform him that the investigation of his sister's 1969 murder was being reopened. The man broke down in tears. ''We were premature on that one,'' Marcia says, ''because we just got the DNA report back, and we don't have enough evidence to work with. So we just put this man through the ringer again, and even though we gave him hope for the moment, we're going to have to call him back and say we're sorry, but we don't have the evidence to continue. Emotionally, that's tough.''
Connelly came to writing crime novels first by accident and then by design. The son of a real estate developer who moved his family from Philadelphia to Fort Lauderdale when Michael was a boy, he was at the University of Florida, studying building and real estate, when he went to the movies one night and saw Robert Altman's film adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel ''The Long Goodbye.'' ''That led me to the book, which led me to all of Chandler's books, and something hit me,'' he says. ''I wanted to switch my future and become a writer.''
Of course, other than witnessing a carjacking, he'd had no experience with crime or the cops. It was his father's idea that he become a reporter to learn the territory. So Connelly went to journalism school, where among other things he met his wife, Linda. (They have a daughter, now 7.) And in 1980 he went to work for The Daytona Beach News Journal; in nine months he covered one murder.
He moved back to Fort Lauderdale and spent six years on The Fort Lauderdale News. There he was luckier; in 1986, the city had more murders per capita than any other city in the country, earning it the title ''murder capital of America.''
By the time he moved to The Los Angeles Times in the summer of 1987, he had tried twice to write a novel and hadn't succeeded. But on the day he first set foot in town, he received what amounted to a sign. The headlines that day were about a mammoth bank heist, in which the crooks tunneled into the vault from underground. To this day, the crime has never been solved. But it became the centerpiece of Connelly's first novel, ''The Black Echo.''
He left The Times in 1994, and three years ago, he and his family moved back East, to Tampa. But Los Angeles continues to provide fodder for his fiction, and he visits frequently. All the books are filled with descriptions of contemporary L.A., tidbits from its history, glimpses of its underworld. Many of the plot points were born in the city as well. ''The Narrows'' has its climax during a roaring rainstorm that turns the ordinarily placid Los Angeles River into a furious torrent, an idea Connelly borrowed from a historical incident in which a boy drowned in the river in spite of a massive effort to rescue him.
In his view, however, the greatest influence on his writing occurred before he arrived. He was in Fort Lauderdale, shortly after the city earned its unfortunate sobriquet, and the police department, to earn some counterbalancing publicity, granted a reporter, Connelly, a week's access to the homicide squad.
''And lo and behold, we had three murders, all in the middle of the night,'' Connelly says. ''So I'm filling notebook after notebook, fantastic stuff. But the epiphany came in the last five minutes of that week. I'd noticed at the murder scenes that the sergeant I was staying closest to would at some point go up to the body, take off his glasses and put the earpiece in his mouth. It was always a solemn moment, and I was building all kinds of things into what he was doing. Was he silently promising, 'I will find who did this?' That kind of stuff.
''So then at the end of the week I'm sitting in the squad room doing the final 'thanks a lot,' and he starts remarking that he'd spent three nights without sleep, and he takes off his glasses and drops them on his desk to rub his eyes. And I noticed that the earpiece of his glasses had a deep groove cut into it. And I realized that it was from his teeth, that his teeth are clenched so tight when he's looking at a body that they cut into his glasses. It dawned on me at that moment that that might have been the most important thing I'd seen.
''And that, now, is what my life is, a pursuit of that kind of detail.''
The New York Times > Magazine > Watching the Detectives
Posted by BookBitch at 5/10/2004 04:22:00 PM