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Getting the Better of a Protagonist and Vice Versa

It saddened me greatly when my principal muse David Cornwell—aka John le Carré—passed away last December twelfth at 89. By my lights, the Brits should make that date a national day of mourning. Were it not for the spell of the holidaze, I would have said something about it at the time, so please allow me to pay my respects now.

David Cornwell / John le Carré, recent photograph

He was a gifted storyteller. It wasn’t just how scrupulously he constructed his characters and how mercilessly he deconstructed them that I admired; he also kept me guessing about outcomes, so many of them equivocal. As in real life, few of his protagonists triumph, and some don’t make it. Along the way, he tends to adjust the attitude of some and lets others slide into more august or shrunken versions of themselves—until, like George Smiley and Peter Guillam in his 2011 A Legacy of Spies, they leap out of retirement. (Le Carré scholars reckon that Smiley would be a centenarian at the time, having cut his espionage teeth in 1930s Berlin.) Being billeted throughout Central Europe by the Foreign Services through the 1960s and having traveled widely since, Cornwell’s settings bubble with both old- and new-world authenticity.

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Tell Me a Fractal

Spaces that stories can inhabit

This craft essay and book review was featured at medium.com in May of 2019. In it I conjecture what it might be like to fashion a novel as a fractal. The novel I was thinking of writing was a sequel to my 2018 thriller Turkey Shoot that would feature its female protagonist. With that in mind I began writing Her Own Devices the following month, completing the first draft a year later. It turned out not to be another thriller, as I’d expected, but a crime story. Is it a fractal? Not in any formal sense, but it does feature certain repeating elements. I’m currently fractalizing its fourth revision.

See the original story here (counts as one of three free articles non-subscribers to Medium may view each month).

“What I hope this book now will leave behind: the idea that new patterns like spirals or explosions or vortex streets might open our eyes to other natural shapes underlying our stories, might let us step away from the arc sometimes, slip under or through that powerful wave, glorious as it can be. I hope that other patterns might help us imagine new ways to make our narratives vital and true, keep making our novels novel.”

Jane Alison, Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Catapult, 2018, pages 248-9.

Think of a snowflake forming around a molecule of water clinging to a tiny particle of something, how it blossoms and diverges as other molecules join in, seeking their hexagonal destiny, becoming a perfect thing of beauty. Then think of it melting, its sharp edges blurring, its interstices blotting out until it plops to earth. That’s a story, right there, in full surround. Matter, space and time at play.

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One Day in Istanbul, the Star of Elliot Ackerman’s Newest Novel

A review of Red Dress in Black and White by Elliot Ackerman. Alfred A. Knopf, 2020, 272 p., with reference to Liar’s Candle by August Thomas, Scribner, 2018, 310 p.

Because I am an American married to a Turk and have written about her country in memoirs and a novel, I tend to gravitate to novels by Americans that are set in that big, messy, volatile country that’s hard for outsiders to get their heads around. Even though it has been a liberal democracy almost a century, modernity still clashes with tradition, poverty mushrooms in the dark shadows of wealth, and as in many countries of late—sadly including mine—its politics have grown distinctly illiberal. As one of Elliot Ackerman’s characters cynically remarks, “There is no Turkey, only Turkish elites.”

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Coronavirus is your friend, in a way

Here in Massachusetts, yesterday the number of suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases grew 30 percent overnight and will probably top 400 today. Most non-critical facilities are now locked down. And so, with a lot of new-found time on their hands more people than ever in my suburban neighborhood are out and about, enjoying the spring weather — biking or walking alone, as couples, with dogs or kids, and actually stopping to talk. Amid all this tsuris, it’s exhilarating to see such stirrings of a community makeover.

The good news doesn’t stop there, so let’s get on with my facile attempt to divert you from your apocalyptic musings. Instead of enduring a pitch for my work this punishing month, find here a public service announcement of sorts.

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Book Review: The “Flag Girl” Stumbles but Never Flags

Liar’s Candle, a novel by August Thomas, New York: Scribner, 2018, 310 p. IBSN 9781501172847

 

Liar’s Candle, a novel by August Thomas

When I learned of this book late last year, it struck a chord. It was the first recent political thriller I had encountered set in Turkey, as is part of one I published about six months later. And so, to compare notes, I gave it a read and found that our books are different animals with kindred spirits. Here is my book report.

The title of August Thomas’s debut international thriller comes from a Turkish proverb, “A liar’s candle burns only until dark,” an appropriate motto for the full helping of duplicity that Thomas serves up. This fast-moving tale whips the reader between locales in Turkey and the US, plus a brief, tense incursion into northern Syria. Changes of scene are datelined, dispatch-style, helping to keep one oriented as the action shifts from one exotic setting to another, for example the presidential palace in Ankara, a hotel in Istanbul, a city in far-eastern Turkey, a monastery in Syria, and even into ancient cave dwellings. Thomas also regularly transports us across the Atlantic to an even more inaccessible location, CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. There we find hard-boiled uber-spy Christina Ekdahl remotely rattling the cages of agents and diplomats working in Turkey in the service of American national security and her own self-serving designs.

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