Sunday, September 27, 2015

Book Review: The Lincoln Letter

Copyright © 2015, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

Everything about Abraham Lincoln continues to fascinate historians and inspire novelists. This seems to be the case for the historical suspense novel, The Lincoln Letter, author William Martin's fifth installment in the Peter Fallon series. A few years ago, I wrote a review of the second in this series, Harvard Yard, a book that I thoroughly enjoyed and which I think is his best story of the lot.

In The Lincoln Letter, antique hunter Peter Fallon and his on and off partner Evangeline Carrington are again drawn into an historical treasure hunt, spurred on by the discovery of a letter by Lincoln. Written on the day of his death to a Lieutenant Hutchinson, it states that the lieutenant possesses something that the president wants returned, something that had been missing for three years.

Peter, of course, is determined to find out what the missing something is, and travels to Washington D.C. to dig deeper into the mystery. But, others are also on the trail, people who have more sinister motives. Eventually, they all come to believe that the missing item is Lincoln's "day book", a diary where he has jotted down his thoughts on emancipation of the slaves.

As with his other books in the series, Martin jumps the reader back and forth in time, telling the story of Lieutenant Halsey Hutchinson and the day book; how he got hold of it, lost it, and strove to retrieve it again from 1862 through the end of the war and Lincoln's assassination. Along the way, Hutchinson witnesses historic events and is involved with infamous figures like Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Wilkes Booth, Walt Whitman, and the president himself.

In the present day, Peter and Evangeline face peril at the hands of the competition, who aren't afraid to use murder to get what they want. Of the Fallon novels, this may the the best after Harvard Yard, and is a couple of hundred pages shorter.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Literary Agents and the Police

Copyright © 2015, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

Some writer friends told me about a panel of literary agents they'd heard at a local writer's conference. They moderated an open critique session, where the panel read snippets of attendees' work and offered their quick opinion. Some readings were the opening pages of novels, some were drafts of agent query letters, some were story ideas. The agents were reported to be rude, insulting, and dismissive of the authors' works, offering little in the way of constructive advice or encouragement. In other words, they acted like insensitive snobs bent on crushing the budding authors' dreams.

This all happened about the time of the Baltimore riots, where police were accused of causing the death of an arrested suspect due to negligence or worse. It all got me thinking about group behavior of those in power over others.

Our police have a difficult job, to say the least. Every day, they encounter many of the worst sorts in our society: drug dealers, violent gangs, thieves and burglars, rapists, wife beaters, murderers, liars and cheats. They face disrespect, resisting arrest, fleeing suspects, and numerous false cries of racism and brutality. Every day. On and on. They are human, and the daily dose of inhumanity and crime takes its toll until some, it seems, become jaded and insensitive to the people they encounter on the job. They may become gruff, short-tempered, and too quick to use force. And so the innocent may feel a bit roughed-up, leading to resentment and claims of brutality.

Enter the literary agents. A bit analogous to the police, they, too, are deluged each day with many of the worst sorts in the literary world: inane story ideas, amateurish query letters, sloppy chapter submissions, ignored submission rules, endless cat stories, authors making pitches over the bathroom urinals, and just plain bad writing. Day after day. On and on. So do they, too, become jaded and insensitive, expecting every new submission to be mindless crap? Do they have a knee-jerk reaction at writers' conferences that, of course, everything they hear is worthy of derision, no matter how much it hurts?

Just wondering.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Book Review: Trust Your Eyes

Copyright © 2015, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

Author Lynwood Barclay's 2012 thriller Trust Your Eyes begins where any thriller or mystery should, with what we writers call "the inciting incident."  In this case, mildly schizophrenic Thomas Kilbride believes he sees a murder online.

Thomas is obsessed with maps. The walls of his room and the hallway outside are papered with them. He believes some cataclysm will wipe out all online maps, and he'll be the only one left with paper ones. He discovers a web site named Whirl360 (a thinly veiled reference to Google Street View) that allows him to "walk" streets around the world.  So, he spends all day in his room web-walking Whirl360's streets to memorize everything he sees, which he has the brilliance to do.

Trust Your Eyes image
One day, while web-walking a street in New York City, he looks up at an apartment building window and sees a person's head. A plastic bag is squeezed tightly over it.  A murder in progress, frozen in time by Whirl360's drive-by camera.  Thomas convinces his skeptical brother, Ray, to travel to New York City to investigate.  Ray discovers nothing unusual. The apartment is empty and he's told the girls who lived there have moved away.  He does nothing to dig deeper, but his arrival asking questions is noticed by the wrong people - those who ordered the murder.

The murder is orchestrated by Howard Talliman, the campaign strategist of an ambitious politician, to cover up previous dirty deeds by the politician, who plans to run for governor. Ray's snooping leads Howard's henchman to the picture in Whirl360.  Stunned by what they see, they decide the image must be scrubbed out. He sends a hit woman to the Whirl360 headquarters, who then forces the engineer in charge to wipe the image of the head from the picture before killing him and his wife.

When the head image suddenly disappears from Whirl360, Ray is convinced Thomas was right. It was a murder, and someone made the change just after his visit to New York.

As the story progresses, Howard's henchman tries to find Ray's identity, while at the same time Ray, Thomas, and a friend attempt to discover all they can about the murder so they can take a convincing story to the police.  The tension grows as Howard's operatives discover Ray's whereabouts and set out to eliminate them as loose ends.

Trust Your Eyes keeps you engaged all along, and includes other subplots that entangle Ray as he and Thomas struggle with the murder mystery.