New Odysseys

The word novel is derived from the Latin novellus. As an adjective, novel means new, fresh, unique. Centuries after its birth, it also began to be used as a noun meaning story.Hey, AMP,’ you say, ‘enough of the etymology.’ Right. Onward.

Novels are adept at delivering ideas and emotions, as well as action, setting, and mood. If an author concentrates on one thing – for example, what people say – the story can fall flat. Talk by itself isn’t dramatic. Discussion devoid of action is a debate, not a story.

We all expect different things from novels. In my case, I want them to tell a complete story. Not just that some guy, let’s call him Odysseus, travelled for years, but how and where he travelled, and when and why, and who helped or hindered him – which are all included in Homer’s epic.

Beyond that, I want novels to tell a new story. ‘But, AMP,’ you say, ‘nothing is ever new under the sun.’ Fair enough. However, there will always be twists and shades: different settings, fresh perspectives, new odysseys.

A little winter levity: Why Aren’t Your Novels set in the Winter? They’re Supposed to be NORTH Noir

The first novel in the North Noir series (Bay of Blood) is set in the summer. The next two will be set in the spring and the fall. “Why no winter settings?” you ask. “No blizzards? No frozen bodies? It’s supposed to be NORTH noir.” Valid point. However, I have a reason – based on research. Well, on observation.

The short answer: Not as many murders take place in the winter. “Why?” Because it’s winter. In Canada, outside the cities, things slow down. Call it hibernation.

“Are you telling me that murderers are huddled next to their fireplaces? That it’s too cold to go out and kill someone?” Maybe. Hell, sometimes it’s too cold to go outside. Besides, murderers can’t risk harming their weapons. Take an axe. If you overuse it chopping wood, it’ll be too dull to whack someone. Consider a shovel. If you break the handle trying to clear ice, it won’t be available to crack someone on the head – a dozen times, of course (we’re talking noir, people). As for a shotgun, if you try to fire it at Minus-30, the barrel will explode or it’ll backfire. Forget about rendering it useless for murder. You’ll be dead yourself.

Windows into Other Worlds

To give a book is to give a window into another world. Even if I like a particular author, I rarely give one of their books blindly, without first reading it.

Books are entirely subjective. You never know if a book will satisfy someone or, better yet, thrill them. You can’t say, “I love this, you better too.” But you can give what you’ve read and admired.

Here are some titles I recommend (most are recent):

NON-FICTION

Figures In A Landscape by Paul Theroux, 2018. Essays for all seasons, from travel pieces to literary criticism to profiles of Elizabeth Taylor, Oliver Sacks, and Robin Williams. Full disclosure: One, I skimmed a few non-travel essays that didn’t grab me. Two, I’m not a fan of any of Theroux’s fiction.

The Rub of Time by Martin Amis, 2018. Essays and Reportage, 1994-2017. A smorgasbord of Amis treats, mostly literary or political, with topics ranging from Saul Bellow to Donald Trump. Amis is regarded by some as the Bad Boy of Brit Lit. They say he’s crass. I say he’s entertaining. Full disclosure: One, I skimmed a few of the almost 50 essays; they weren’t in my wheelhouse. Two, I find Amis’s latest fiction unrewarding.

{As an aside, I feel no compunction to read everything that comes my way – even if it is supposed to be “good for me” or part of the canon.}

FICTION

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, 2019. 2019 Booker Prize Co-winner. Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Clear-eyed, sardonic, accessible. Atwood doesn’t aestheticize The Testaments. The narrative is straightforward. As with all good novels, the prose is subservient to the plot.

Last but not least, my crime pick:

Standing In Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin, 2012. One of my favourites from the King of Scottish Noir. Rankin delivers brilliant banter and black humour wrapped in a cracking whodunit.

Crime Time: A Two-headed Compulsion

Why do writers write crime novels? Why do readers read them? We’d have to delve into the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). 😉 We’d need a thousand hours – no, a million.

Let’s look at things from the reader’s side of the page. That’s what really matters: why readers read, not why writers write. It’s a large question. However, I’m going to take a succinct approach. Crime fiction suffuses the zeitgeist. Crime readers have favourite styles: cozy mystery, private investigator, police procedural, etc. Regardless, they’re all fascinated with one thing. Murder. Why?

I see it as a two-headed compulsion. One, readers want to experience the other side of life: death. Two, they want to experience fear. They crave it, but only fictionally: fear of the unknown, fear of the invader, fear of reprisal, fear of something that will disrupt their life – or end it. Fictionally, of course.

PS: Book sellers claim that everything hinges on sales, i.e., on book buyers. I beg to differ. Buyers are great, but everything hinges on readers. Period. That includes those who borrow from libraries or share a book a dozen times. The more shares (the more readers), the merrier.

North Noir Defined

What is North Noir?” In short, it’s a distinctly Canadian crime series, aka Canuck Noir.

The North element refers to how the world sees Canada – as the North; e.g., the Great White North or the True North (strong and free). The novels are set in the northern Bruce Peninsula, Ontario. The victims are contemporary Canadian icons. While they may be famous, they’re also down-to-earth. Good Canadian sorts. But not too good to die. The police procedural work is typically Canadian. There are no extended car chases, helicopter missions, or gun battles. No over-the-top Hollywood clichés. Those things rarely happen here.

The Noir element refers to a tradition of crime writing linked to film noir, to movies such as The Maltese Falcon, which was first a novel. Noir fiction doesn’t dwell on characters’ feelings. Similarly, in the North Noir series, the protagonist, Detective Eva Naslund, is not sentimental, although she is intuitive.

The crime/mystery genre turns on whodunit puzzles. Readers expect to be both challenged and entertained. With the Naslund novels, I deliver more than puzzles and blood and guts. I always embed – very deeply (no preaching) – an existential conundrum in my novels. The majority of murders hinge on money. In a word, greed. In my current work-in-progress (the second North Noir novel), the main murderee is killed because of his renunciation of money, his anti-greed. Readers get a baffling puzzle, and, if they’re looking, they’ll find a deeply buried ethical message. For me, all novels – even whodunits – should have an existential core.

PS: The first North Noir novel, Bay of Blood, is available in stores and online; click here for full details. Free installments of the second novel, a work-in-progress, are available here.