via thiswasaerodrome Love and Crime: in conversation with Consuelo Roland
An interviewer asked about the detectives in the Limbo Trilogy. The question came as a surprise and got me thinking.
Why are literary suspense writers increasingly drawn to detectives in all their guises?
Detectives in fiction are often alcoholics on the fringes of polite society. We relish the fact that they are loners and that they don’t stop until they find answers.
Somehow, we need people like them to exist. They are strange angels, working cases that relate to the darkest chapters in human affairs, yet not allowing themselves to be co-opted by the shadows. Unlike policemen, they work independently, navigating the sub-realms of the apparently bright world we live in (nobody knows the nuances of light and shadow better than they do).
In Stieg Larsson’s Millennium crime novels, crusading investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and misfit hacker Lisbeth Salander work together to fight right-wing evil. If they occasionally operate outside society, they never operate outside morality.
The detectives in Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap accompany Paola Dante on her journey of transformation – the career woman who walks into the portals of the underground organisation that has swallowed up her husband is not the same person who walks out on the other side.
If anyone can help Paola to impose some kind of order on the chaos she finds herself in, it’s these oddly maverick presences. Gregory ‘The Rottweiler’ August, with his miniature liquor bottles, and recovering alcoholic and ‘has-been PI’ Elijah Bloom, are accustomed to looking for things the police have missed. Bloom, the “pale red-haired warrior”, is Paola’s brother-in-arms in her quest to find her husband. But will he be up to the task? Instinctively, we believe that he will. Nathan the Bear is a new kind of detective for a new age where we are all under constant surveillance. Like Lisbeth and Mikael, he uses computers to solve crimes.
Detective are also clichés. They almost parody themselves in fiction, which makes them reassuring. Paradoxically it is this familiarity that has allowed a new kind of literary fiction to emerge that blends genres and marries different styles to express the complexity of modern life.
Haruki Murakami, in an interview with TheParis Review, describes his novels as a mix of Dostoevsky and Chandler, and says that the tropes of the hardboiled detective story allow him to alter the rules of the game and examine aspects of existence. Like Murakami’s character in A Wild Sheep Chase who sets out to find a mysterious sheep, Paola Dante is personally affected as she searches for what is missing and lost.
As writers, we uncover and cast light on the hidden or secret worlds of others as we explore the themes that interest us. Like detectives, we start with a mystery or a puzzle and do not always know the outcome ourselves.
If I write about crime, it’s because the underworld of the psyche holds great fascination – the violent emotions that direct our actions. Conflicting forces have the potential to spill over into our tidy lives. At this juncture, the possibility of crime exists. I’m interested in the law abiding citizen who breaks the law due to passion or misjudgement. The plot unravels around the consequences, societal and psychological.
Detectives are equipped to navigate the disruptive chaos of criminality – only they appear capable of sifting through conflicting clues and bringing some kind of order back to the world.
To lend our story a cohesive structure while we hunt down metaphysical meaning, we create these emissaries from the other side. They can solve mysteries that appear to be unsolvable, achieving a kind of societal order, but in contemporary literary suspense fiction this multilayered truth is both concrete and metaphorical, real and elusive.
Sometimes a mysterious sheep remains mysterious and a missing husband remains lost but the last line of the story must be written.
Writers make and unmake worlds. It is their job to lead the reader towards a satisfactory conclusion and it helps to follow a skew halo shining in the dark.
The genre question keeps raising its head. And once again, with marketing for book 2 of the Limbo Trilogy underway, and the revamp of my author’s blog on WordPress I had to reconsider my options.
I’ve done a lot of ruminating on this topic. It’s all about different storytelling styles.
Thriller implies a fast-paced thrill ride with a climactic finale. Mystery gets going after the crisis event. Suspense creates drama before the crisis event. These are of course simplistic categorisations and separations because there are overlaps – Mystery and Suspense are often two sides of the same coin – and many books straddle the divides.
I’ve had plenty of doubts – ‘Literary’ sounds so affected and irrelevant doesn’t it? – but I’ve moved away from ‘Thriller’ to ‘Mystery’, and finally settled on Literary Suspense for the Limbo Trilogy. That’s the term that will be used in marketing and promotional blurbs henceforth, including in the main tagline for my author’s website, because it seems to best accommodate the genre-bending style.
Suspense fiction focuses less on frenetic action scenes and more on letting readers wonder with a kind of suspenseful fascination how characters will respond to life-changing situations that are out of their control.
In the Limbo Trilogy dramatic events unfold in a hazardous world full of hidden peril. To engage with dark forces is to discover who one is. To be haunted by matters of the heart is to be human.
The trilogy could of course just as easily (but inaccurately I now feel) be categorised as Mystery Suspense, or just Mystery, but the devil is in the detail, and by using the description ‘literary’ I hope that readers who enjoy the unpredictability of cross-genre fiction will be more likely to investigate books 1 (Lady Limbo), 2 and 3 of the Limbo Trilogy
But on Goodreads they keep it broad and accessible, and on that well read and popular site the Limbo Trilogy would best fall together with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – into the Mystery Thriller genre category.
It was Larsson’s brilliance that helped a vague story in my head fall into place one icy Winter as I waded through the whole trilogy in a Swiss ski hamlet. In my view he writes ‘Literary Suspense’; his trilogy crosses so many genre boundaries that it can hardly be pinned down and accused of using time-worn tropes. And across three books there is inevitably a change in mood and tempo and gravitas. I’ve seen it happen between books 1 (more mystery) and 2 (more suspense), and book 3 in the Limbo Trilogy is already just itself.
Some fantastic books on the Goodreads Mystery Thriller page with amazing covers!
The Limbo Trilogy will be in good company.
P.S. On Goodreads books featured as ‘Suspense’ appear to be more high-octane high-death-rate novels, for the hard-core thrill seekers. Literary suspense fiction is something more nuanced, more about character and growth than about climactic fire power finale.
Suspense is a combination of anticipation and uncertainty dealing with the obscurity of the future.
Research Source: Goodreads | Mystery Thriller Books
I write contemporary suspense fiction about apparently normal people with a hidden double life.
A boy sleeps in a coffin and plans his escape from the family business funeral parlour.
A woman enters a world of sexual and emotional abandon in order to find her lost husband.
The people in my novels exist on the border between real and unreal.
They confront talismanic forces as they walk a tightrope between their everyday lives and another plane of existence where forbidden secrets are currency.
(Author photos credit for this blog, on location in Kalk Bay, Bernadine Jones)
How queer it is to be moved by a room. It happened to me in Sils-Maria, a place I now carry with me. I stood on the doorsill of the cordoned-off restricted space where a man of great intellect had sat at a small desk – the original piece of furniture still there – and pondered the human condition by lamp light. He had rented this room in a private boarding house in a remote village in the Swiss alps, hoping the mountains with their pure glacier air would act as a restorative. I imagined him breathing in deeply as he opened the small window, letting his gaze rest on the stoic grandeur of the scenery, contemplating the path of his first walk when daylight faded.
Some of his copious notes and manuscripts were displayed downstairs: his philosophical stance was controversial − God is dead. For a long time his name evoked the excesses of fascism and Nazism but dedicated scholars continued to engage with his work as philosopher, cultural critic, Latin and Greek scholar, and artist. Today German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is generally viewed as having exerted a profound influence on Western culture and modern intellectualism.
That holiday room, where he spent so many hours ruminating and writing, making palpable ink marks on paper as he held poor health and incipient madness at bay, moved me. Not as a student of philosophy or as an admirer of his intellectual prowess but as a writer. It frightened me to know that at the age of 44 he succumbed to mental illness, . His modest upstairs room came last in the museum tour. You came to it after studying the well-lit writings and photographs and mementoes, on walls and in display cabinets, of other great thinkers and writers whose lives had intersected with his. The Jewish doctor and scholar who believed Nietzsche’s ideas had been misappropriated and devoted his writing to bringing the philosopher’s legacy to public attention. The Italian Swiss poet Remo Fasani who wrote exquisite lines in Italian that pre-empted any attempt of mine to distil that room and its emanation into something true.
We’d come to visit Sils-Maria after I’d overheard snatches of a conversation between a German lawyer who knew the area well and a Canadian girl in my ski school group. Sils-Maria. You cannot come to St Moritz and not go to Sils-Maria. My skin had prickled at the older woman’s hushed tone; she spoke as people do when a place is special, its effect not quite explainable, as when one has had some kind of a spiritual awakening.
And she was not wrong. It cast a spell over us, its visitors, from the moment we left our car on the outskirts and wandered into the radius of its strange magnetism. It was an entrancing place in the frosty light of late afternoon with its majestic mountains, in the distance a flat plain with solitary trees on the edge of a lake, the wintry sun an incandescent fireball trailing pale golden light across the horizon and onto the shimmering surface as walkers roamed its shores. We walked into the picturesque village and peered into garlanded shop windows, the dream landscape enveloping us, feeling as if we’d stepped into a Christmas snow globe. A local pointed us in the direction of the best bakery and coffee shop in town.
The woman behind the coffee shop counter considered my question, eyed the soft toy husky puppy in my hands, thought a little, tried a name out as she looked at it, shook her head, and then said in decent English, “Olaf. Yes, Olaf. Maybe that is a good name?” I tried it out, holding the furry toy in my hand and looking into its arctic blue baby dog eyes. I’d expected Swiss but I’d gotten Russian. Olaf. It was perfect. I explained it was a gift for my nephew in South Africa. She smiled, popped it into a bag, and processed my credit card. The coffee and cake was excellent.
That’s the kind of town it was. It made you feel as if you’d stepped into a magical fault line where a perfect place existed, but the moment you drove away, or acted outside of some unwritten set of laws regarding what it meant to be a civilised human, then it would no longer exist. Then all that remained would be a thick white fog where ghosts roamed unhampered by visitors, and you’d never find it again.
Refreshed, we donned thick jackets once again and headed for the impassable striated mountains just beyond the town, under a traffic boom, past converted luxury apartment blocks in the shadow of the town’s only ski lift, past traditional homes with curious paintings on their walls and grand old-time hotels, past an avant-garde glass barn house on a flat open field its relaxed occupants clearly visible, past the town library with its carved wooden totems.
The soft falling snow grew denser. Horse carriages with passengers passed us in the gloam, the clip-clop of trotting hooves echoing eerily as they disappeared into whiteness. Realising we’d lost track of time we hurried back to the Nietzsche-Haus museum we’d seen on our way in. As we approached the tall narrow house, dusk settling around us in descending ruffles of pluming darkness, we saw lamps had been lit in some rooms and ceiling lights illuminated others. It was set a little back from the road with a long straight path and stairs that went up to an entrance porch. The front door opened as we reached it and a young Japanese couple slipped out as we slipped in.
P.S. It is widely believed that Nietzsche’s final descent into the darkness of dementia was triggered by an act of cruelty to an animal. In 1889 Nietzsche witnessed a horse being whipped within an inch of its life by a coach driver in Turin. He rushed to the horse’s aid, embracing it and refusing to let go, and the police had to be called. I didn’t know about the Turin horse when I stood on the sill of that humble and sombre room, but somehow it seems apt.
There I was at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, vacillating as I always do between a
feeling of morose despondency (why is it that I never feel less like a writer than when I’m surrounded by the books of other writers?) and a feeling of nerdy joy at the pure bookishness of it all.
It’s one of those places where I can lose myself in the fact of books, relish the pure physicality of their many charms, as I used to do as a child when my father would bring a big cardboard box home with remaindered books and comics.
At FLF there are only new books – unless you wander off to the excellent second-hand bookshop in town – but I can handle that.
The FLF has another useful charm – besides the author panel sessions which are usually highly entertaining and instructional. It’s a place where one meets people one hasn’t physically seen for a while. It’s a place where book aficionados are brought together by a common interest and so they are amenable to meeting for a cup of coffee or maybe lunch, and many a long-delayed meeting has been known to happen there. Or one can just chat to other reader/writers who have come out to enjoy the tepid sunshine that usually accompanies the annual fest.
On this particular day three people told me on three separate occasions how much they had enjoyed The Good Cemetery Guide. One said it was on her top 10 favourite books ever. They all mentioned the cover. I was, as always, astonished by their enthusiasm, not only for the story which has touched people beyond what I ever expected, but for the cover. The original cover, which I acknowledged was beautifully designed but found gloomy and did not believe was representative of the story within, has garnered glowing praise from some of The Good Cemetery Guide‘s most loyal fans.
It’s one of those lessons that an author keeps on learning; the story has its own life once it’s out there in the world, and that extends to how a publisher sees it, and to how its loyal readers view the final physical print book product, including the cover artwork. A well-beloved novel like The Good Cemetery Guide may very well be fondly associated with its cover forever in the reader’s mind. I suspect that those readers might not approve of the new cover which has been a great relief to me; they might find it a little too quirky, not their cover, not the deeply thoughtful one that evokes certain private feelings.
And in a way I understand. Searching through my bookshelves for ’10 books I’d save if my house was on fire’ reminded me of how fond I am not only of particular books but of particular covers. They have the aspect of solid, trustworthy friends.
When I want to replace a favourite book that’s found another home, or if I’m buying my own copy of a much-handled older edition library book, I set out to find the same remembered cover.
So I’ve now included that first, original cover of The Good Cemetery Guide for the Anthony Loxton fans out there who keep reminding me that I’m writing for them.
Every book has a history – the arum lily cover is part of the history of The Good Cemetery Guide!
P.S. There’s a back story to the story – isn’t there always? The first cover design put forward showed an aubergine hearse custom-fitted red spotlights on its front bonnet and the clever graphic of part of a guitar superimposed over the outline of a coffin. It had the effect of a pink skeleton casually deposited on the pavement. I thought it was perfectly suited to the quirky eccentricity of Anthony Loxton, third generation funeral director and accoustic guitar muso, but my publisher preferred the arum lily version.
Today I reached the end of School Side Road and a madwoman was yelling at a figment hiding in a tree. I slowed to a walk and went right up to the tree and peered into the electric-green leafy boughs (given that we’re in the midst of a drought this seemed odd) and there was no one there, at least nobody that was present in the way she and I were. She eyed me suspiciously, her filthy headscarf pitched at a perilous angle, but then continued with her diatribe in street Afrikaans, haranguing an unseen partner, possibly dead, but perhaps passed out just around the corner in a shady spot. “Jy’t my gedonder … Jou bliksem… maar ek … roep vir security, en hulle kom onmiddelik … klap!… Jy gaan sien!” All the way back to busy Old Kendal Road her presence followed me, high as a kite, invoking the forces of law and order upon the unseen entity’s head as she careened around that tree.
It was the turnaround point for that day’s circular route so the small event had come just in time. Some Run/Walk club days when I’m out on the road, jogging the kilometres away in silence, nothing interesting happens but it’s rare. Usually something does.
To run is to leave the body and then return to it, a little surprised to find one’s physical body still stepping out to some ancient rhythm, still anchored by earth’s gravity. To walk is to pause and pay attention. To write is to imagine. The sighting of a homeless woman wailing fulminations up into a hapless tree makes me laugh and then it makes me serious. We live on the same planet and yet we dream in different galaxies. Who knows how she will re-appear on some distant day, which fictional character she will inhabit and inform, which new life she will live? I can present her with choices she never had. If I write her right upon the page she can wrench the same hearts that walk past her heartlessly every waking day.
I ask myself “What is the meaning of this post?” Eventually, beneath layers and layers, the snake of knowledge lies coiled and waiting for me; across the divide of class and culture the madwoman and I have things in common: born female in Africa, a dread of emptiness, an inexplicable urge to challenge deaf gods, a liking for eccentric headgear. Something subtle and paradoxical has drawn me into her scene as surely as if it were from a famous play with important themes, performed by a world-renowned actor.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is award-nominated novelist, poet and essayist Consuelo Roland @ConsueloRoland
Soundtrack by R.E.M., The Beatles, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Youssou N’Dour, Bob Marley
Lady Limbo began with a cancelled flight and a personal tale of sexual liberation imparted to my mother at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
The details of a mysterious organization reside in a little black book belonging to a helpful ground hostess whose name is forever lost in the torrential downpour of a stormy Paris night. It was fun to turn things around and evoke a world where men are paid ridiculous stud fees to be at the beck and call of willful women who can afford to be extravagant. Occasionally a perfectly ordinary, independently minded woman – such as a sexy ground hostess – will use their services.
From a little black book to a husband that vanishes into thin air is not such a literary leap of the imagination. The only tangible clues to the ‘disappeared properly’ man’s identity are the vinyl long playing records (LPs) carted into his current incarnation: Daniel de Luc, husband.
A man who favours alternative rock, old circus music (think extravagant carnivalesque LP cover art),and African jazz, is perhaps not going to be your average conventional spouse.
A voice for intensity
When Daniel de Luc barges into my novel with all his unpredictable here-now-gone-tomorrow energy he arrives together with cult band R.E.M. Their music is constantly playing in my car. The wickedly intelligent lyrics have the enigmatic aura of a Poe story.
– Consuelo Roland
This latest e-book cover version arrived quietly, over time… As small good things do.
What can I say? I suffer from book cover OCD. It explains everything. The long hours, the diversions, the steep learning curve as I hunted the right image and then the right cover design down…
Evocative cover art attracts me as a kingfisher might spot the glinting scales of a fish about to surface from far off.
Gazing and appreciating is a long way off coming up with a good cover for your own story.
Lesson 1 Learnt: Setting out to find the ultimate cover yourself is a time and energy draining exercise. I experimented with and discarded so many covers and so much good advice – it’s certainly not fashionably minimalistic with a punchy simplicity. Something felt right about this one.
When I first saw the Zebra stripes girl I had a feeling of deja vu, as if Lily, the unintentional cause of a small town funeral director’s life taking an unexpected turn, had somehow stepped out of fiction into life. There she sat, dreaming and remembering and contemplating the future in her quirky outfit, inhabiting an artwork done by a faraway artist who had not read my novel. My nocturnal visitation – the haunting impression of a striking big-boned redhead hovering, trembling with nervousness, waiting near the stage for Anthony Loxton to finish his guitar gig in a dimly lit music bar – plucked from the ether. The balloon was a bonus.
Lesson 2 Learnt: Be persistent and have faith in your own visual acuity. The font I really liked for the title turned out to be problematic – the letters weren’t sharp enough making it look hand drawn and unclear. Eventually after we’d both searched through hundreds and hundreds of fonts my cover designer came up with the existing font, which had the chalk writing look but was still legible even in thumbnail size. It wasn’t a popular font on any of the “best e-book covers” websites I checked out but nothing else looked right so I went with it.
Lesson 3 Learnt: Here’s the biggie – the truth is that just because you love a certain picture doesn’t mean it will easily transform into a book cover. The position of the daydreaming woman had to be adjusted to the right for the title to fit, and the colour hues had to be tweaked with variations so that it was lightened but the white text still stood out, and then more shifting and more colour hue adjustment went on so that the all-important balloon (as per the storyline) didn’t disappear into a lightened background. Using your own mind can be time-consuming and costly. It’s definitely a good idea to get your cover designer’s input on the matter before purchasing the artwork.