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January 2007

God Knows

Remember the old Nike commercial -- Bo knows? Vincent Edward "Bo" Jackson was the first athlete to be named an All-Star in two major sports, baseball and football. According to Nike, Bo knew not only the sports that provided him paychecks, but also tennis, golf, luge and auto racing. (But not hockey or blues guitar.)

Well, I've been reminded that God knows narrative better than any mortal. On Saturday, Dec. 16th, I posted a story to The Memory Project about my irrational fear of being burglarized. About the same time, Steven Torres, a notable crime writer in his own right, posted an interview with me in which I admitted that I celebrated reaching the end of every novel by buying something for my house. "I'm a homebody and my house is very important to me, a true sanctuary. I love coming in the front door after a long trip. Heck, I like coming in the door after my morning writing sessions at the coffeehouse, or when I've been at the gym. It's not fancy or grand, it's just a Baltimore rowhouse. But it's home and I love it and I feel a contentment here that I can never quite find anywhere else."

You see where this is going, right? Early on the morning of Dec. 17th, less than twelve hours after my admission that I had an irrational fear of burglary, my house was, yes, burglarized, the thief slipping in and out sometime between midnight and 7 a.m.

If one must be burglarized, I guess my experience was close to optimal. The thief took a few small, replaceable items -- an iPod, a Sony Walkman, one Ravens ticket, my knapsack, a billfold with a dollar in it. When I discovered the theft about 8 a.m., the credit cards hadn't been used and it turned out that the Ravens ticket was easily replaced. Plus, everyone was so nice -- the police officer, the crime lab tech, the locksmith. My house is now a fortress, with better locks, reinforced windows, and an alarm system that is turned on at bedtime, something that hadn't been done heretofore. You see, I worried a lot about someone breaking in while I was gone, but not about being burglarized while I was home. In short: This writer's imagination failed, utterly.

Now if one attempted this juxtaposition in a novel -- hubristic public announcement of triumphing over a fear, followed by immediate happenstance of that fear within twelve hours -- it would be decried as too coincidental. But God is like that. Also Dickens. And Charlotte Bronte. Have you read Jane Eyre recently? A character in my next novel is immersed in it, and the choice was a careful one, because of the section in which Jane flees Thornfield and takes on a false identity, only to find that the kind people who take her in are cousins. Oh, and then she learns that she has just received an inheritance that, once shared with her cousins, will allow her to save their house.

Nineteenth century novelists were allowed such coincidences. Twenty-first century novelists, especially crime novelists, seldom are. Yet I would like to argue for a middle ground, the novel that examines the nature of coincidence and its role in our lives. Kate Atkinson's recent novels about Jackson Brodie have harnessed the subject to great effect. The Night Gardener, deservedly acclaimed as one of the best novels of 2006, also has a small coincidence powering the engine of its story. Think of the stories you tell, your best anecdotes. Don't most of them involve a coincidence? The trick, in fiction, is not to end with one.

About the same time I was dealing with locksmiths and security systems, I stumbled on this entry at Laurie King's always excellent blog, about the use of fiction to confront one's greatest fears. I've never doubted that I'm a lesser writer than the two Kings, Laurie and Stephen, whom she cites here, but now I know that my imagination is punier, too. My worst-case scenarios, as embodied by the burglary, are embarrassingly trivial.

My burglar also reminded me of the importance of empathy. I've been writing about crime for a long time, but I have never been the victim of anything more serious than a car break-in. A burglary is minor, relative to the kinds of crimes I write about, yet it left me with a few sleepless nights and a vague sense of unease. What must a real victim feel like?

I also found myself reliving the story from the burglar's point of view -- imagining his entry into the house, his hasty inventory of the things at hand, his nervousness at being discovered. The guy was almost certainly a junkie and not much of a pro, walking by more valuable items to grab what was easiest to fence. Was he scared? Had he been watching the house? It took time for him to get in. (I won't detail how he knew that, or his method of entry.) If he was an addict, was he already in the grips of the need for his next hit, or was he relatively clear-eyed and calm? Did his heart pound? Did he consider heading up the stairs, weigh the risks of waking us? Would we have heard him if we were not so heavily jet-lagged, if our door was not closed? I imagine him surveying the first floor, despairing at our taste and lack of electronics, writing us off as poor marks. And, really, a Sony Walkman? How much can you get for a used Sony Walkman? Five dollars? Who's more pathetic, me for having one, so I can listen to "The Don and Mike Show" at the gym, or the burglar for taking it?

I almost feel sorry for the guy. Almost. That wave of compassion is quickly trumped, however, by an urgent need to hit him repeatedly with a baseball bat. Empathy has its limits.



Out with the old, in with the old

There were some unexpected gifts for me at year's end -- the inclusion of No Good Deeds on both Kirkus and Oline Cogdill's best-of-2006 lists. And the galleys for What The Dead Know arrived. I suppose I should figure out some sort of contest and give away some copies, but for now I have settled on sending two to its dedicatees, both of whom should have their AREs in hand by now. WTDK is dedicated to Sally Fellows and Doris Ann Norris. I met Sally, known for her succinct, astute reviews on DorothyL, at my very first Bouchercon in 1996; Doris Ann introduced herself to me at my first American Library Association event. A decade-plus into this grand adventure, I'm extremely grateful for all my readers, but I have a special place in my heart for those who were there from the start.

Meanwhile, given that everyone is making best-of lists, I'm going to name one book my all-time favorite of 2006: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. (And thanks to the Grumpy Old Bookman for this link , an interview with the writer, Marina Lewycka.) Every now and then I read a book that seems deceptively diverting in the early going, then reveals an unexpected power and depth in its final pages. Bel Canto, for example, is a book whose greatness is revealed only in its resolution. Tractor is one of those, too, with an ending that made me burst into happy tears, then promptly reread the last two pages. It is simply one of the most hopeful, optimistic books I've ever read. My copy went to my mother-in-law -- who reports that she is not impressed, not yet -- but I have a basket of books beneath my desk that I'm happy to send to new homes. Just drop me a line and tell me enough about you so I can continue to play librarian-matchmaker. My groaning shelves will thank you.



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