Thursday, December 14, 2017

“Heads or Tails” by Damien Boyd

Detective Inspector (DI) Nick Dixon of the Avon and Somerset CID is helping Environment Authority officers catch eel poachers in a tidal estuary. The poachers are indeed caught, but what’s also discovered is a paneled truck, partially submerged in the estuary mud, with a driver who looks dead but isn’t. He’s handcuffed to the steering wheel, and his foot is handcuffed to the floor. No one has a metal cutting tool, and Dixon, the Environment Authority officers, and the Coast Guard have to watch the man drown as the tide comes in.

The autopsy shows the dead man had some gruesome injuries – part of his skull cut out and slashing wounds to his neck. The injuries are almost exactly like the ones a number of victims of a serial killer in Manchester had many years before. The killer may be back, or someone with inside knowledge of the Manchester killings may be a copycat. But why? And how?

Then there’s a second killing. And a suicide atop a long-buried body.

Heads or Tails is Damien Boyd’s seventh Inspector Nick Dixon crime and suspense novel. It’s just as action-packed as its predecessors; when Dixon is around, a lot of things happen, and few of them good. Gangsters, organized crime, serial killers, police corruption, murders, Dixon’s run-ins with superiors (he has a tendency to do that) – Heads or Tails is chock full of things happening.

Damien Boyd
Boyd wraps Dixon’s personal life into the main story. He’s diabetic, and needs to make sure he’s prepared and avoids the foods he needs to avoid. His live-in girlfriend, police Sgt. Jane Winters, is dealing with the finding of her birth mother; because of her own police work, she also plays a crucial role in the story because she knows how to access the “dark web,” the internet most of us never see (and probably don’t want to).

With Heads or Tails, Boyd is maintaining a consistently high quality of mystery story. It’s a fast-paced, enthralling read.


Top photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission (A hillside filled with heather is involved in a critical scene in the mystery).

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

“A Country Life: Poems” by Arthur Elfstrom

You’re helping your parents close down their house, as they prepare to move to a retirement home. Hundreds if not thousands small decisions have to be made. What do we do with this onyx Aztec god, a souvenir from Gatlinburg (oddly enough)? What about that marble lamp your mother loves so much? And that big iron skillet where so many pancakes and banana fritters were made?

And then you find a folder of what at first appear to be old, fading handwritten notes. The notes turn out to be poems, written most of them written by your grandfather in the last decade of his life. Sorting, packing, and decision making all stop as you sit on the floor, reading what your grandfather remembered of his own boyhood.

Something like that happened to Brian Schulenberg, a pastor in Minnesota, as he was helping his parents to move to a retirement home. He found the folder of poems by his grandfather, Arthur Elfstrom (1906-1980). The 68 poems were all written in the 1970s, and they all describe the life and experiences of a boy growing up in the 1910s on a farm in Michigan.

Elfstrom had been a tool and die maker. He’d earned a high school diploma as an adult, long after his teens. It’s not certain when he began to write poetry, but the 68 poems in A Country Life: A Collection of Poems by Arthur Elfstrom were in the folder which bore only the title “A Country Life.”

The poems look back to childhood, and paint an almost idyllic view of growing up. They cover the natural world surrounding the Elfstrom farm – cherry blossoms, a hickory tree, dogwood flowers, a stream and spring, birds. They cover the work of the farm – digging for potatoes, baking bread, a watermelon patch, a threshing machine, farm animals, making maple syrup. They’re about what children on a farm do and how they play – games, fishing, camping, meeting a hermit, falling asleep in the hay, going to school (while the family dog waits all day outside the schoolhouse). And they about the treasures of childhood, including that favorite spot in the woods that you knew the adults were completely unaware of.

Backwood Spot

I longed again to see the scene,
To hear the outdoor noise
That pasture, wood and swamp produce
Just like when we were boys.

The old time farm left little time
For boys to stay away,
But somehow boys know how to plan
And make some time for play.

No road led to this backwood spot
And decades now had passed
Since we as boys roamed o’er this ground
Times rushes by so fat.

‘Twas here we pitched out little tent
Close to the rover’s bend,
And hoped the hour would not come
When this would have to end.

I closed my eyes to hear again
The scolding of a jay,
Just like when we intruded there
Back in that distant day.

A herd of cows again grazed on
In solitude and peace,
While single file upstream there swam
A string of quacking geese.

A contemporary critic might call these poems nostalgic and sentimental. And they are both of those things. But that doesn’t prevent them from exerting a powerful pull on one’s own memories of childhood, and seeing them for what can only be understood in retrospect.

Brian Schulenburg
Brian Schulenberg, the editor of the poems and who assembled them into this book, is the senior pastor at Woodbury Community Church in Woodbury, Minnesota. He’s also the author of three books in the Youth Specialties Quick Questions series and I’m Speechless – Zechariah’s Story, a Christmas one-act play for one actor.

A Country Life is about an American childhood, the kind of experiences that have now vanished for the vast majority of children but which were once fairly common. The poems reflect an understanding that they speak to a vanished time. But they continue to live in memory, and that makes them even more powerful.

Top photograph by Bryan Minear via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

How a narrative orphan became a favorite child

I’d been writing a fiction series. Two books had been published, Dancing Priest and A Light Shining, and the sequel had been sitting in manuscript form, some 70,000 words, for quite some time. There was too big of a story gap between No. 2 and and the sequel, so I couldn’t simply skip over the gap and cover it with some narrative filler or explanation in the sequel. The gap demanded a complete novel.

Ideas weren’t the problem; my brain was seething with them. Neither were plot developments, new characters, and new conflicts. Perhaps I had too many possibilities. And there were fragments and chunks of manuscript set aside or removed entirely.

Could all of this be tied together?

I tried several approaches, and not one worked, or worked well. The more I floundered with manuscript No. 3, the louder the No. 4 manuscript became, like a siren song enticing me into its pages. I didn't want to fiddle with the "gap novel;" I wanted to get on with the one just sitting there, waiting to be finished.

I was getting nowhere. It wasn’t writer’s block as much as it was narrative frustration. I’d stare at the computer screen, try writing some words, and sometimes write more than 1,000 words before I’d throw up my hands in disgust. This isn’t working, I thought. Over and over again.

I knew what my frustration was – that story almost demanding to be written. It would be so easy, with it just sitting there and waiting, for me to turn my back on the gap. But a voice inside my head told me that would be a mistake, because I would be spending an enormous amount of effort combining No. 3 into No. 4, or fixing No. 4 to account for No. 3. Too much would have to be explained. No. 4 made sense only because there was No. 3.

Then I went for a long walk. It was a cold, sunny day in early spring. I left my house and walked my usual twice-a-week walk of about three miles. Somewhere in that first mile, I heard one of the characters speak, and his heart was almost breaking.

At the very beginning of the story, this character is watching the hero leave his home. He’s leaving with him because he’s working with him. The hero’s family is leaving as well. Life has profoundly changed. And this character begins to tell the story. And this is what he says: "I wrote this down because that first year, those first six months, explained everything that came after."

I had my way out of my writing morass. An unexpected narrator.

For the next two miles of my walk, the pieces began to click into place. I couldn’t believe how I had been missing what was now so obvious.

When I got home, I began to write, or actually, rewrite, everything I had up to that point. I turned the manuscript on its head. A villain emerged. So did new characters and sub-plots. A couple of other narrators, including the villain, began to speak. New scenes arose, scenes that took the hero into new directions that fit the story arc. While the story still went from the A to the Z I had originally envisioned, just about everything from B to Y changed, and changed dramatically.

The gap novel was no longer filled a gap. It had been my narrative orphan. And it had become its own story, and could stand on its own if it had to.

And iit's become my personal favorite book in the series: Dancing King.