Thursday, March 10, 2011

Twofer Thursday

by Jonathan Quist

I'm going to do something today that I would never have dreamed of doing up until three weeks ago. I'm going to mention Jeanne Dams and Joe Konrath in the same breath.

As individuals and as writers, Jeanne and Joe are polar opposites of each other.

Jeanne is a lovely "woman of a certain age" who knows how to look great in a vintage hat.

Joe is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy who makes himself equally comfortable in jeans and tee-shirts or a coat and tie. Well, a writer's corduroy jacket, anyway. And I'm not sure I've ever actually seen Joe wearing a tie.

Jeanne is a former school teacher who writes both contemporary and historical traditional mysteries with strong female protagonists.

Joe is a former teacher who writes both horror (as Jack Kilborn) and thrillers with a strong female protagonist.

If you make a film about Jeanne's life, Helen Mirren would be an excellent casting choice.

If you make a film about Joe's life, try to dig up John Belushi.

I first met Jeanne Dams when she was the executive director, and just about everything else, of the old Of Dark and Stormy Nights writer's conference. (Dark and Stormy continues today as part of the Love is Murder conference in Chicago each February.) Jeanne happened to be the first person to greet me at registration, and though she didn't know it at the time, her welcome prevented me from chickening out and going back home.

I first met Joe through one of his lectures recorded at the same conference, and met him face to face the following year. (I nearly wore out the tape of that lecture, until I solved the problem by getting a car with a CD instead of a cassette player.)

I can say with all honesty that I like and respect both of them, as writers and as individuals, yet they are of two different worlds with very little intersection. But still I am compelled to review two of their books side-by-side. And that just blows my mind.

I love audiobooks, because I spend a couple hours on the road every day, and because I have seen the impact that audiobooks can have on the lives of readers who are unable to read print editions. I was fortunate enough to win an audiobook copy of Joe Konrath's Cherry Bomb at Love is Murder. So I popped it in the car player for a week and a half of commuting.

Cherry Bomb is the sixth in Konrath’s series featuring Chicago homicide detective Lt. Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels. I had previously read the first two in the series, so I had a rough idea what I was getting into. Konrath’s novels are intense, gritty, but also funny. He injects a lot of black humor into the mix. This is a good thing, because Joe Konrath writes some of the most seriously disturbing and generally creepy villains you’ll find anywhere. The humor, some of which could be judged in poor taste out of context but which works well in these books, leavens the mood without breaking it, and provides the occasional release of tension that these stories demand. Cherry Bomb in particular seems to run at one of two speeds: Catch Your Breath and Run Like Hell. And while I didn’t read this book with the idea I’d review it, one notable aspect jumped out immediately – Cherry Bomb has a lot more depth to it than the first couple of books in the series. It’s not that those were lacking anything – it’s just that Konrath is continuing to mature as a story teller. (Joe, if you're reading this, I never thought I'd mention your name and "mature" in the same breath, either. Yeah, you're welcome.)

Earlier in the series, Lt. Jack Daniels was responsible for the capture of serial killer Alex Kork. In Cherry Bomb, Alex is back, escaped from jail and out for revenge. And she’s getting it, through people close to Jack. Along the way, she is sexually abusing some of her victims. Sometimes for her own pleasure. Sometimes to hurt Jack. Sometimes both. But always with a seriously twisted method to her madness.

By the time I started on the final disk of Cherry Bomb, I knew I was going to need a big change of pace. I knew that my public library had several of Jeanne Dams’ novels in audiobook form. I found one I had not yet read in Silence is Golden, the fourth in the Hilda Johansson series. Hilda is a Swedish immigrant, and the senior live-in house maid in service to the Studebaker household of South Bend, Indiana at the turn of the 20th century. Because of her position, she is able to observe things in many places with a servant’s anonymity. But because of her position, her actions fall within strict boundaries that she must work inside or work around. But Hilda is bright, stubborn, and up to the task of solving the problem at hand. Dams treats setting as a character, with the result that Hilda’s world feels very much alive and like a visit home.

In Silence is Golden, the problem is that a local boy, a close friend of her 12-year-old brother, Erik, has gone missing. Erik reveals that the boy had wanted to join the circus passing through town. When he is found, he has been badly beaten, and is quiet and withdrawn. When Erik himself disappears, Hilda has to use all her wits and all resources at her disposal to find him and bring him home safely.

Perhaps it is because I was looking for a light story that I didn’t catch on right away. Or maybe it’s because Jeanne Dams’ characters strictly observe the customs and mores of 1905 South Bend. Or maybe it’s because she uses certain stereotypes as red herrings, later shattering the stereotypes. Whichever, this was not the light, predictable story I expected, and the crime under investigation was not mere kidnapping. Someone was capturing and sexually abusing young boys. And though Hilda could not say it outright, she was nobody’s fool, and wasn’t going to allow it to continue.

And neither was Jeanne Dams. Her work, particularly in this series, straddles the genre lines between “cozy” and “traditional mystery”. Cozies tend to include minimal violence, foul language and sexual content. In Silence is Golden, which was inspired by a real-life case reported in a 1903 South Bend newspaper, Dams has pretty much said, “No you don’t, buster, we’re not sweeping this one under the rug” and tackled a topic normally off-limits for her genre. She has done it masterfully, without her characters violating their own taboos, and she leaves the reader feeling the same passion for justice that Hilda herself feels.

And that is the heart of why I felt compelled to hold up these two books side-by-side. While Cherry Bomb does not have sexual brutality as a central theme, it is certainly present. Silence is Golden has a strong female protagonist who cannot imagine a world where such things take place. Cherry Bomb has a strong female protagonist whose life is crumbling brick by brick because she lives in that world. These two stories attack from completely different directions, and both yield the same result: I was left thoroughly entertained by the stories, and burning mad at the crimes they portrayed.

Cherry Bomb and Silence is Golden both represent the work of authors at the top of their game, and I highly recommend both, though not necessarily to the same audiences.

I cannot say for certain that my reaction would have been as strong had I read the books separately, but the combination of these two books hit me harder than many of the stories I’ve read that dealt with sex crimes in clinical detail.

How about you? Have you encountered combinations of books or short stories where the combination was greater than the sum of the parts?

Giveaway Time!
As I mentioned, my copy of JA Konrath’s Cherry Bomb was a lucky giveaway from Love is Murder. I want to share the love. So I’m giving away my copy.

This is the Brilliance Audio Unabridged edition, ISBN 978-1-4233-1262-8

Note the word Unabridged – if you give it to your grandkids, and they ask
your son-in-law,“Daddy, what does f*** mean?”, that’s your problem, not mine.

This is truly a twofer – the performance features two top voiceover artists, Susie Breck and Dick Hill. Both are award-winning voice talents. Many of you may know Dick Hill as the voice of Jack Reacher.

The Rules: I will mail this copy of Cherry Bomb anywhere in the world that can accept parcels from the U.S. Postal Service. If you are outside the U.S. and your country has laws that forbid delivery of literature containing profanity or sexuality, that is your responsibility.

The winning entry will be chosen at random from among those with correct answers to the following two questions:

1) What is the name of Joe Konrath’s personal favorite character from his Jack Daniels series?(Hint: The character appears in Cherry Bomb and on Joe’s web site.)

2) What is the title of the Hilda Johansson mystery being released in the fall of 2011?
(Hint: The answer may be found on Jeanne Dams' web site.)

If no entries contain both correct answers, a winner will be selected from entries containing one correct answer, then from all entries.

To enter, send an email with the subject Cherry Bomb and your answer
To Entries must be received by noon, US Central time on Saturday, 12 March 2011. (Please note - this email address is temporary for this contest.)


jennymilch said...

I am an avid follower of anything Joe Konrath, so was very glad to read your post, contrasting him with someone more traditional in bent. Isn't it amazing how those chance encounters--whoever happens to be behind the table when you arrive at a conference--can influence big swaths of life?

Thanks for the post--I will save the giveaway for other readers!

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Hi, Jenny. Thanks for stopping by!

Joe is one of a kind - and so is Jeanne. But I never really expected I'd find any common ground between them. This was a pleasant surprise, which will probably change the way I read. In school, I used to make fun of English majors who had large stacks of books for Comparative Lit classes. Now I'm thinking I missed something good...

cncbooks said...

What a serendipitous occurrence, that you should read these two books that happen to have a common element most readers, including me, would not expect---and I've read books by both authors. Thank you for taking the time to point this out. It's another reason we should not jump to conclusions about any writer's work.

Lelia Taylor

L.J. Sellers said...

Thanks for a fun post! It's always interesting to look at writers you think you know in a new way.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Thanks, Leila and LJ.

One of the things I'm going to try is mixing up my reading a lot more. I've been deliberately reading outside my personal tastes for a few years, but I tend to go in batches until I get tired of a subgenre. Now I expect to do a lot more deliberate genre-hopping.

I'm currently reading Julie Hyzy's Buffalo West Wing in her White House Chef series. I think I'll follow that with a presidential biography, like Edmund Morris' Theodore Rex.

Earl Staggs said...

Very interesting, Jonathan, how you put these two together. I wonder what would happen if the two of them sat down and had a conversation. Somehow, I think they would enjoy it.