Fame, Infamy, Failure States: true crime and Popular Crime by Bill James

The only real exploration of the appeal of true crime stories I’ve ever found is Popular Crime by Bill James, a rambling journey through major crime stories of American history, with a healthy dose of social critique and analysis. There’s no real thesis, unless it’s that true crime is useful for something other than prurient interest, but it’s interesting nonetheless. The author’s habit of stringing together a long list of vaguely similar cases from vaguely similar times gives the impression of patterns, but his regular admission that he’s not really a historian makes me suspicious of actually trusting these patterns.Popular Crime

He’s so invested in proving that true crime stories have worth, though, that he doesn’t pay any attention to true crime done wrong. And let’s be real – there’s an awful lot of that going around. The ones that drive me up the wall are the ones (frequently serial killer stories) that imply that the victims had it coming. This happens a lot when the victims are prostitutes, slightly less often when the victims are working-class women, and almost never when the victims are well-off white women. (Men are rarely the victims in true crime stories, which is a different analysis all its own.) I still look back with irritation on Murder in the Heartland, a book about a really psychologically interesting crime that ultimately comes to the conclusion, “Bitches be crazy.”

Not only is this insulting, it’s unhelpful. I mean, the insulting is bad enough, but I’m willing to accept uncomfortable truths for the sake of learning something. Thing is, uncomfortable truths are usually not insulting, because insulting is generalizing from biases and it’s really hard to get truths out of that. You have to go out another level, look at the generalizations instead of the thing you’re generalizing about. For instance, from reading Murder in the Heartland, I can’t tell a lot about the crime itself (a woman with delusional pregnancy murders a woman with a physical pregnancy to steal her baby) but you can tell that it comes out of a society that already tends to treat women as irrational creatures and pregnancy as a weird special condition that creates a special moral zone in which everything becomes that much more important. Of course, we already knew that.

Helpful true crime, to me, would be true crime stories that tell you something about why somebody does something awful and what can be done about it. This kind of thing happens most often in historical true crime, which I guess makes sense because then we have enough distance from both the crime itself and the culture to draw connections that make sense. It’s much easier to talk about what made Leopold and Loeb killers than it is to say what made Robert Durst who he is. Not that that means we’re right about Leopold and Loeb – just that we’re more comfortable talking about it.

And maybe you can only get that kind of helpful out of patterns. (That’s how science works, after all. In patterns.) James takes a good stab at it in his book, and even if I’m not entirely sure about all of his analysis, it is kind of interesting that kidnapping was the crime of choice in the 1920s and domestic murder in the 1990s. Whether that’s because one type of crime was considered more newsworthy or because it really did happen more I don’t know, but the pattern has to mean something. (Likewise the rash of women breaking windows in Wisconsin in the 1890s, as chronicled in Wisconsin Death Trip. I don’t know what it means but it was a thing, you know? It was a thing that people did, and I don’t know why.)

All of which is a really roundabout way of saying: I really like reading true crime. Yes, sometimes it feels like a guilty pleasure. Yes, a lot of it is exploitative and that’s gross. But there is something there, something about humanity. In order to understand how something works you have to understand the way it fails.

Why I read bad books

Over my Christmas vacation this year, I read a novel that had gotten a lot of buzz in the months before it came out in an English translation: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker. It was a hefty book – around six hundred pages – and probably the worst novel I’ve read in years. But I read the whole damn thing, and I’m still trying to figure out why.

I honestly don’t know why I keep reading books I don’t like. Once upon a time I believed that it was my solemn duty to finish anything I started, but I got over that a few years ago when I realized that my reading list had already exceeded life expectancy and also people kept writing new books, so that’s not it. I frequently give up on books when I realize that I simply can’t be bothered to turn the next page.

Sometimes I give up when I realize I know everything that’s going to happen in the rest of the book. This happens most often with fantasy or with young adult fiction (and fairly frequently with young adult fantasy), which are, let’s face it, both genres with a pretty high level of predictability. It’s possible I’ve missed out on some good books this way, but I doubt it. Good writing will carry me through a predictable plot, and poor writing is not a good indicator of interesting plot-twists.

Speaking of YA, I frequently give up on something when I realize the author is setting up an obvious and uninteresting love triangle. My response to love triangles is usually “why don’t all three of them get married and work it out?” so I really could not care less about this particular method of building tension. Someday it will go out of fashion again, but in the meantime, I’m sure I’ve missed out on some otherwise good books just because I don’t have the patience for yet another “Team Edward/Team Jacob” pile of nonsense.

I do not, on the other hand, immediately give up just because a character has done something implausible, improbable, or outrageously stupid. The sort of thing that would be called “out of character” in fanfiction but you can’t call it out of character when it’s in the original story, even though you can tell it’s a poor writing choice. I don’t like it, obviously, but it’s not an immediate drop. Neither is a bad plot twist – when something goes unexpectedly wrong, not in the story but in the way you can tell the writer just lost track of what they were doing, I can’t wait to see how it all falls apart next.

So there is a certain trainwreck appeal to reading a really bad book. Some books, after all, are bad, in the same way some movies are bad, not intentionally but with a degree of fascination. This, I think, was part of what kept me going through The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair: the plot revolves around a love affair between a man in his thirties and a sixteen-year-old girl. Everyone’s immediate reaction is disgust, but as soon as he defends himself with “but I really loved her! And she really loved me!” the sympathetic characters agree that everything must be okay and you can tell the unsympathetic characters by their continued insistence that the guy has a serious problem. This is beyond the usual level of bad writing, it’s just bizarre. I kept reading to find out what kind of weird alternate universe the novel was set in. (Turns out it’s also the kind of weird alternate universe where authors receive $3 million advances, date models, and get accosted on the street by admirers, after having written only one breakout bestseller. I should have known.)

I suppose the answer is, I’ll keep reading if something’s interestingly bad. Like anything else, boringness is the death of entertainment, but something that’s so dramatically mis-handled as to catch my attention is bound to keep me going, even if it’s just so I can complain to everyone else about the godawful thing I just read.

Unless, of course, we’re talking about punctuation. Punctuation should never be interesting.

I stayed up until 2AM reading a book about math: How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

How Not To Be WrongOkay, it’s true, I did request this book from the library, I did check it out and sit down to read it. But I really had absolutely no idea how much I would enjoy it, and I definitely did not expect to stay up all night because I just didn’t want to put it down.

Jordan Ellenberg, professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (home of my graduate school, for full disclosure) has written a book about math: not how you learned it in high school, but how it really is, both for professional mathematicians and in the day-to-day world where mathematical thinking is useful. If someone had taught me math like this when I was a kid, I’d be making a whole lot more money than I am right now.

We’re not talking about addition and subtraction here, or even algebra or calculus. Well, a little calculus. And some geometry. But stop, don’t run away, it’s really not that scary. Because mostly what we’re talking about – what Ellenberg is talking about in this book – is the way math works, the way that math shapes the world, and the way we can use math to change the way we interact with the world.

He uses the story of Abraham Wald in the introduction, to suck you in to his way of thinking. Wald was a mathematician working for the military during the Second World War when they came to him with a problem. Here are the planes that come back covered in bullet holes, the generals said. We need you to tell us where to put the armor. The generals were figuring somewhere on the wings, which was where there were more bullet holes than anywhere else. But Wald said, no, you put the armor on the engines. Why? Because the planes with bullet holes in the wings came back. The ones with bullets in the engines? They weren’t flying home at all.

That kind of logic is at the core of what Ellenberg is teaching with this book. And I gotta say, it’s pretty effective. By the end of the book, I understood for the first time the point of purely theoretical math.* Also, I kind of want to play with non-Euclidean geometry. And not in a Lovecraftian way, for once.

As a bonus, Ellenberg is pretty damn entertaining while he’s teaching. Examples range from baseball statistics to politics to con artists, and the book is liberally scattered with amusing footnotes. For example, from a description of how not to add percentages, using the Florida 2000 election as an illustration:

Yes, I, too, know that one guy who thought both Gore and Bush were tools of the capitalist overlords and it didn’t make a difference who won. I am not talking about that guy.

He also uses an XKCD cartoon as an example. So he’s obviously a man of refined and distinguished tastes.

I could get all dramatic and say that this is an important book and everyone should read it because it will help them – to paraphrase the title – be less wrong all the time, but that would sound preachy, and I hate that. Instead I shall say that this is a massively enlightening and entertaining book, and if you like having your mind blown but always suffered through trig by looking things up in the back of the book and praying you’d remember the formulas long enough to get through the test, you might enjoy How Not To Be Wrong more than you might think.

*It’s because math is based on a very few basic principles, out of which you can create complex structures, but because there are so few building blocks those complex structures tend to generalize well. So you do some math to describe one thing, and then you elaborate on that math in a purely theoretical way, and then it turns out that the same math describes a completely different thing. Which is kind of mind-blowing, really.

Reading, reading, reading.

Oh my god, I haven’t written a blog post in almost a year.

I haven’t stopped reading, though. (Pause here for hysterical laughter at the very thought of such a thing.)

This year I joined the Read Our Own Tomes group on LibraryThing, a group dedicated to reading books that you, y’know, actually own. The Shelf has only gotten larger over the years, and last summer I had to move it. It’s not really a Shelf any more. It’s more…an entire bookcase. And I knew I’d probably be moving again this summer, so I thought to myself – it’s time to get to work on this.

I have no idea how many books were on it when I started. I didn’t keep track, and anyway, I added my ebook collection after the first of the year, so numbers are a little skewed. (Turns out I’d been stockpiling a lot of ebooks.) But as of right now, June 26, 2014, LibraryThing tells me that I have 307 books that I own and have not yet read, and since the beginning of the year, I’ve read 70. Not too shabby, even if most of those books were on the short side, and it’s the massive hardcovers that are really a pain to move.

Still, progress is progress. And besides, when I noticed in February that I was averaging better than a book a day, I resurrected an old goal of mine: to read 300 books in a year.

Does anyone else remember those book quizzes that came on five-inch floppies? We had them in middle school, and we had to take quizzes amounting to so many points in order to pass the year. I actually ended up with twice the minimum number of points, and my teacher printed out a list (on the dot-matrix printer) of all the books I’d read that year. It was more than 300. I can’t find the list any more, so I couldn’t tell you how many more, but still. I was pretty damn proud of myself.

Of course, I was reading shorter books then (I could get through four or five Babysitter’s Club books in a day), and I didn’t have to work, which makes a big difference. But I keep thinking to myself – I’ve done it before. I could do it again.

I’m well on track at the moment: 148 books and counting. And yes, for at least two months, I’ve averaged better than a book a day. I couldn’t review all these if I tried, but it turns out I miss reviewing, and I do want to write about some of them. So look forward, in the next few days, to new reviews at last. And in the meantime, here’s a graph.

reading graph

Aw yeah.

Squee! To Die for Moonlight by Sarah Monette

A short post, entirely to mention something I apparently missed when it was released: There’s a new Kyle Murchison Booth story! To Die for Moonlight, published by the wonderful folks at Apex Magazine.

If you haven’t read any Booth before, you’re in for a treat. I reviewed “White Charles” last year (still my favorite of the Booth stories) but I really don’t think you can go wrong with this, not at all.

And now, I’ll be off to read it. Good night, good night, and happy hauntings.

Make ‘Em Want What You Give ‘Em: libraries, collection philosophy, and culture

This isn’t a book review, but it is a post spun off of a book. It’s also a post about libraries, which is one of those things I keep meaning to write about more, so there.

A few weeks ago I read The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser, a book about the dangers of the personalized web that we’ve all been opted in to without our consent. Pariser lays out the economic models of the free services we all use online every day – primarily Google and Facebook – and describes the ways that these companies’ efforts to put click-worthy links in front of us turn our lives into smaller, less diverse places. This is a huge, fascinating subject, but one example in particular caught my eye.

At one point, Pariser compares the modus operandi of two editorial boards: that of the New York Times, the venerable institution of newsworthiness, and that of Gawker, the online media network that brings you Lifehacker, Gizmodo, and Jezebel. At the New York Times, they don’t track statistics on individual articles, because the assumption is that the editor assigned that article for a reason and if the editor thinks people ought to read about it, the paper’s staff will write about it. At Gawker, they track the popularity of current articles on a big flat-screen TV in the office and if you don’t write enough articles that make it onto the Big Board, you’ll be looking for work elsewhere. The “give ‘em what they want” philosophy of Gawker, Pariser argues, is disastrous when applied on a big scale, because people tend to ignore things they know they “should” read in favor of something easy and fun right now. If you skim the paper to get to the sports section, you still see the headlines, he points out, but the chances you’ll see something of serious importance while clicking through a Gawker site are pretty slim.

Leaving aside the relative intellectual merits of Gawker and the NYT for a moment, the phrase “give ‘em what they want” grabbed my attention for a different reason – it’s the predominant philosophy in library collections at the moment, particularly public library collections.

There are good historical reasons for this. Back in the day, you had to check out two nonfiction books for every fiction book the librarian would let you have. Heck, back in the day, there were arguments over whether or not libraries should even carry fiction, because it was clearly just salacious nonsense. Patrons ought to be bettering themselves, after all. Eventually libraries became embarrassed by this attitude, and in the early 90s, the Baltimore County Public Library published about their “Give ‘Em What They Want” philosophy of acquisition: if people want romance novels and DVDs, give it to them! Library patrons are the people who vote us our salaries, after all.

It’s gotten to the point where, when the Douglas County Libraries in Colorado decided that since they were getting screwed so hard by the Big Six publishers over ebooks that they’d just buy a batch from Smashwords instead, they were accused of violating good practice by failing to give people what they want. (No, I don’t understand the argument, either. But they did have to rebut it in an interview in Library Journal.)

Look, I’m not saying that romance novels and DVDs and ebooks aren’t great. Of course they are. I get a lot of less-than-100%-necessary things from my library. But if we spend all our money on romance novels and DVDs and ebooks, where do the books about political engagement and green living and social change come from? Suppose that my library shows low circulation for books on women’s history and civil rights. Does that mean we shouldn’t bother with those topics at all?

I’m not saying we should go back to telling people what they should read, or even what they should enjoy. But another point Pariser made got me thinking. Pariser quotes a study finding that a lot of people will put movies they feel they “should” see, like Citizen Kane and Schindler’s List, on their Netflix queues, but keep bumping movies like The Hangover and Scary Movie 3 up to the top. Now, I haven’t seen Citizen Kane. But I straight-up love Orson Welles. Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil are up there at the top of the list of movies I watched on my film noir binge (so rudely interrupted two years ago when I had to move away from my film history library). I don’t feel like I “should” see Citizen Kane, I want to see it. I’m pretty sure I’m going to enjoy it. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.

And books? My god, I can recommend classics with the best of them. Jane Austen is almost a cliché at this point, but there’s always Dickens (any reader who loved The Sopranos needs to read Dickens), and Elizabeth Gaskell for all those Downton Abbey fans, Charles Maturin for horror geeks, and anyone who hasn’t read Shakespeare since high school really needs to give him another try. (I cannot wait for The Hollow Crown to come out on DVD here in the US, so I can start shoving 1 Henry IV at people. And Ralph Finnes’s Coriolanus has been surprisingly popular.)

I’m not pushing these things on people because I think they “should” read classics, although I do think that a firm grounding in the history of literature makes for a more rewarding reading experience all around. And I don’t think anyone should read classics out of a sense of obligation; I think that’s one of the things that destroys a love of reading. But I love Bleak House and North and South and Persuasion and Melmoth the Wanderer and Titus Andronicus, and if you like the kinds of things that make me like those books, you just might love them too. As librarians, especially those of us who do reader’s advisory, we spend a lot of time keeping up with new books so we can give our patrons the new big thing. But there are old big things that are great, too. Sure, Dickens is a harder sell than Robert Galbrath. Doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.


If You Have to Start from Nothing, Build On It: Tall Ships Down by Daniel S. Parrott

tall ships downI have a fairly serious boat fetish. I blame it on my dad – when I was little, he owned a small sailboat that we’d take out on the reservoir near town on the weekends. I remember curling up on the cushions in the bow, falling asleep to the sounds of waves on the hull. You can just imagine how excited I was when I discovered, in college, that historical naval fiction about the Napoleonic Wars is a thing. My emotional attachment to the Surprise is profound. One of these days, I’m going to save up and take one of those tall ship cruises. And after reading this, I have a checklist of things I’ll be judging before I set foot on board.

Tall Ships Down tells the stories of five major losses in twentieth-century tall ship sailing, breaking down the failures that led to the loss of the ship (and of the lives of crewmembers, in every case) and the impact these disasters had on traditional sailing activities and regulations. There could be so many things wrong with this book. It could be dry, it could be judgemental, it could be defensive. Tall Ships Down is none of these things: it’s interesting, impartial, and deeply invested in only one thing: making sure these kinds of disasters don’t happen again. And even if you don’t care about sailing ships and do not understand the weather gauge and have not the slightest understanding of the difference between a brig and a barquentine, Parrott’s breakdowns of the failures of complex systems are both fascinating and valuable.

A sailing ship is an incredibly complex system, designed over centuries through trial-and-error to harness the effects of bouyancy and wind resistance to move hundreds of tons of cargo, thousands of square feet of sail, miles of rigging, and countless human beings across the most inhospitable territory on the planet. They work, but we don’t always know why, and sometimes we don’t even know how – this is what happens when the entire social structure supporting these complex machines collapses and is then later revived by a small group of people with a passionate romantic interest in the subject. Parrott isn’t arguing that reviving traditional sail is a bad plan (he’d better not be – he was the captain of the Pride of Baltimore II at the time of writing). He’s arguing that it’s hard, and it’s not really like anything else humans do right now, and that ought to be taken into account.

The stories in this book are a fascinating mix of problems and causes, which Parrott never reduces down into soundbytes, but which I’m going to for the sake of a quick comparison. The Pamir was lost because centuries of experience were ignored in favor of someone’s bright idea of how to change things. The Pride of Baltimore was lost because over-devotion to historical accuracy in the design phase led to a ship that was never going to meet modern assumptions about safety standards. The Albatross and the Marques were lost because no one was bothering to keep track of the effects of the changes made to the ships, and the Maria Asumpta was lost because somebody made the wrong decision on the wrong day. Too much historical accuracy or too little, too many changes or not enough, and the good old-fashioned failure of poor seamanship: Parrott neither tries to find a common thread among them all nor throws up his hands in despair at the lack of one. Some things are not safe, he says, but they are worth doing anyway. And we can learn from past failures to make it safer in the future. He doesn’t lay blame on any individual action for any of these sinkings, not even the master of the Maria Asumpta, who was convicted of manslaughter for his choice of heading. Parrott understands that systems this complex fail in complex ways, and the number of possible contributions to the failures are huge. He does his best to look at each and every one.

If the ultimate causes of the sinkings of these five ships are all different, both the fine details and the broad shapes of the problem stand out with striking uniformity. Choices made by the designers, either in the original building phase or when the ships were retrofitted with new rigs or alterations in purpose (such as the conversion from a cargo vessel to a passenger craft), impact the decisions made by passengers and crew during the voyage, which ultimately contribute, if not to the actual fact of the ship’s sinking, then at least to the speed of it. (All of the ships in this book went down in under five minutes, many in under two.) If you only have one hatch offering ventilation to the living space below decks, and that hatch is complicated to secure completely, then odds are good that that hatch is going to let water in at some point, because you can be sure that people are going to leave it open. If you stow your safety equipment belowdecks and the ship goes down in thirty seconds flat, you don’t have any safety equipment. Everything is fine until the moment that it isn’t, and then it’s too late.

Humans are bad at assessing risk, a theme that shows up over and over again in Parrott’s analyses. If we survived it once, we assume we’ll survive it again. We don’t take into account the fact that if we hadn’t survived it, we wouldn’t be here to make a different decision. But humans also like to do risky things, very often because they’re risky. How do you reconcile the two? By paying close attention to other people’s failures, Parrott argues, and by enshrining those lessons into regulations, requirements, and standards of practice. You can’t just assume that people will do the right thing under pressure. Sometimes there’s no time to do the right thing under pressure. Sometimes the right thing to do is well before the pressure starts. And sometimes, yes, people lose their heads and completely under pressure. Don’t count on humans to be at their best when they’re at their weakest, he says; make sure that the weakest points are shored up first. Give people an opportunity to be their best, and they’ll do it. And it will be worth it.

Why I’m Leaving Goodreads (or, Amazon Continues to Take Over the World)

You’ve probably already heard that Amazon has bought Goodreads. Or rather, Amazon has bought the gigantic mass of customer data represented by Goodreads’ databases. And, as soon as I’m sure I’ve exported all the data I want, I will be deleting my Goodreads account and moving over to LibraryThing.

Amazon has not been the best of friends to the book industry, shall we say. Their early leap on the ebook bandwagon firmly established a price point for ebooks that requires some substantial changes for the publishing industry to cope with (and continues to do damage to the self-published authors Amazon is so fond of taking advantage of promoting). Amazon has been known, multiple times, to pull the buy button from titles published by publishers that they are in negotiations with, thus hurting authors who have no control over these negotiations. The proprietary Kindle ecosystem locks ebook buyers into a single retailer, not allowing them even the chance to support their local bookstores, which are still an important part of the process of discovering and purchasing new books. But just because you’ve paid for a Kindle book doesn’t mean you own it, as more than one reader has found out the hard way.* Although Amazon’s business model relies heavily on consumer-created data, the way that data is handled is in no way transparent.

Beyond just the book business, Amazon is a rotten corporate citizen. They donate less to charity than other corporations their size, use a variety of tactics to avoid paying sales tax, and the conditions in their warehouses are nothing less than horrific. (Seriously, if you follow no other links in this post, follow those two.)

But it’s just doing business! you might say. Surely they have the right to do business as they see fit?

Sure they do. And I have the right to take my business elsewhere, and to recommend that other people do the same.

I stopped doing business with Amazon a couple of years ago. I took down any links to them, I stopped ordering from them, I stopped using them to keep my wishlists, and I’ve done my best to stop doing business with the companies they own (did you know that Amazon owns ABEbooks and The Book Depository, now? Gaaaah). I want nothing more to do with this company. They’re trying to eat the world, and they’re doing a very good job of it.

I know it doesn’t mean much. I know I’m one of a very few people who make the effort to avoid Amazon, and I do cave now and again for the sake of free shipping and the ease of ordering six totally unrelated objects all in one box. But — do you remember the story of the little Dutch boy, who put his finger in the dike and saved the town from flooding? It’s a hugely implausible story, really, there would be more holes in the dike than just the one. In the real world there always are. But I decided long ago that I would rather be that little boy than the person who shrugs and watches the water come pouring in.


*The same is technically true for the vast majority of ebooks, given the current legal limbo we live in, but I haven’t heard of any other company abusing the privilege in the same way.

Rock Solid Structure: The Art Forger by Barbara Shapiro

(This is my first in a new series of reviews, to be added to whenever I find something particularly apposite, Novels For the Novelist, in which I recommend books that are good for learning from.)

The Art Forger

Although it doesn’t really have the tension to be a thriller, the characterization to be a drama, or the detail to be an immersive experience, I read The Art Forger in less than twenty-four hours, in the middle of National Novel Writing Month, when I was also writing 2,000 words a day on my own novel. Why? Structure, baby, perfect structure.

Novel structure isn’t sexy. It’s not the kind of thing that gets talked about in reviews unless it’s unusually inventive. In fact, the perfect novel structure is invisible, just like load-bearing pillars in a building vanish into the overall aesthetic. In that case, The Art Forger is one step below perfect structure, because it fits the standard pattern so perfectly that its bones sometimes peek through the skin. If you’re trying to learn how to structure a novel, though, you couldn’t do better than to read this book and make notes of chapters and beats.

Turns out Barbara Shapiro is a creative writing teacher. If I had the opportunity to take a class from her, I’d go for it, because she clearly knows what she’s talking about, in this at least.

The actual story that slots so neatly into the plot diagram (http://www.novel-writing-help.com/plot-diagram.html) promises to be a little more thriller-y than it ever turns out to be: Claire is a professional artist, making her living painting reproductions for wealthy Internet customers after her career was destroyed by a complicated mess of an attribution scandal involving her, her boyfriend, and an outrageously famous painting. Now, a gallery owner friend of hers is offering her a chance at a new career if she’ll paint a forgery for him: a copy of a Degas that was stolen in the 1990 Gardner Museum heist. The only problem is, the original she’s been given is also a forgery.

Claire is our only point of view character throughout the book, which is great for spending time with Claire and the painting but does mean that all the thriller-y stuff happens to other people. Then, when you start getting people threatening to cut off other people’s fingers, it feels like another book entirely has intruded upon this one, and not in a good way. Claire herself is entertaining enough, like a poor-man’s version of Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary – but to be honest, Cass Neary is a little too much for me most days, so a poor-man’s version isn’t necessarily bad. The rest of the characters serve their purpose in the plot, but they’re not really anything to write home about.

No, I read The Art Forger in about two sittings because it was manipulative in the very best way: the end of every chapter pulled me along to the next one, the story grew in tension until it hit a moment of false peace and then it exploded, and I always wanted to know what happened next. It may not be the next great American novel, but it ain’t bad.

Be a Good Girl and You Won’t Get Hurt: the works of Gillian Flynn

By now it feels like everyone in the universe has read Gone Girl, last summer’s surprise hit thriller. As summer surprise hit thrillers go, I can’t complain: full of psychological complexity and emotional cruelty, it’s an excellent book. The Criminal Minds fan in me was pleased, but not half so pleased as I was when I went back and read Flynn’s earlier novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places.

It’s been a long while since I read an author with such a coherent body of work. Flynn is at her best when she writes about women, and her women are broken, damaged, sharp-edged, and dangerous. While damaged women all too often seem like objects of fetishization, though, Flynn’s damaged women are more than that, because they’re all broken straight down the fault lines that American culture inflicts on all its women. They’re deeply familiar, in a painful sort of way.

Sharp ObjectsIn Sharp Objects, Camille Preaker once found that the only way to get her mind to shut up was to carve words into her skin. When she’s assigned to cover a murder story in her old hometown and she goes to stay with her mother, you can start to see why. Camille lost a sister when she was a girl, but she gained a new one when her mother remarried, and she’s torn between dislike for her thirteen-year-old half-sister and pity that the poor girl still has to live with her crazy mother. The crime, of course, unfolds apace with the family entanglements, and although I felt the twist at the end was a little rushed, it was still incredibly satisfying.

Dark PlacesDark Places is a little more rounded out; where Sharp Objects feels like a play performed on a sparse stage with a handful of actors, Dark Places feels like a strung-out arty grindhouse movie. Libby Day is the only survivor of the massacre of her family when she was seven – her and the brother who’s been in prison for the crime ever since. She’s never gotten her life together since then, so when The Kill Club offers her money to talk to people about what really happened, she might not be happy about it, but she’ll do it. The point of view cuts back and forth between Libby in the present day and her mother and brother on the day before the murders. Libby is by far the most compelling character, though. Mama Day is a woman with lots of problems, but to go into them in too much detail would be to give away the ending, so the story doesn’t. Libby’s brother Ben is a fucked up kid, but Flynn’s damaged boys just aren’t as earth-shatteringly amazing as her damaged girls. (It’s possible that the reason for this is that there are more than enough damaged boys in literature already, while hardly anyone is writing damaged girls in the way that Flynn does. Either way – it was Libby I was hurting for, not Ben, all the way through.)

Gone Girl completes the transition (in content and story structure, anyway) from girls-with-problems to girls-and-boys-with-problems, but the girls are still what you’re here for. Nick is an ass who probably doesn’t deserve the things that are happening to him; Amy is fucked up in an interesting way. To say much more is to give away the whole second half of the book, so instead I’ll just leave you with the quote about Cool Girls, which is about 80% truth and about 90% cynicism, and if you think that doesn’t add up right, you may not be the right audience for these books.

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)