Birth of the Metaphysical Thriller

Review of Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson


Everything old is new again. If you spot an exciting, fresh-seeming book called a “metaphysical thriller,” it’s easy to proclaim it as signaling the birth of a genre or sub-genre. But I’m afraid we’ll have to term this only a re-birth. I mean, think about it.

Much of the Bible could be described as a metaphysical thriller, with the entire world’s damnation or salvation as the ultimate high stakes. Prior to the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey similarly fit the bill. Afterward, the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost did so too, quite ably. In modern times many of the books of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams add religious, spiritual or philosophic dimension to the rollicking ride of their plots.

Now, there’s “Alif – The Unseen,” by G. Willow Wilson, a work so compelling and original that it seems to invent a new category of thriller writing, although it Alif the Unseen only re-imagines one.

As the story opens, the eponymous Alif, a young hacker in a nameless emirate on the Persian Gulf, is breaking up with his high-class girlfriend. In order to block her messages, he constructs a new tool, a computer algorithm that’s capable of identifying any keyboard user – no matter how well shielded – by the pattern of their typing and their style of message entry.

The down side: this unique program is a golden grail for the world’s spy agencies. Alif soon finds that he’s drawn the murderous attention of the local government’s digital watchdog, a vicious and spiteful entity known only as “The Hand.”

Complications, as we like to say, ensue. Even Alif’s adept hacker-pals at their undercover HQ, the Radio Sheik (one of many deft jokes that leaven the story), are unable to do much but wring their hands. However, his young Egyptian friend, Dina can help – she’s a hijab-wearing teenager who grew up near Alif, who believes both in “the man he will become” and devoutly in Islam. Both these elements will grow crucial as the plot thickens. Other boosts come from an American woman known only as “the convert,” an aged mullah of the emirate’s principal mosque, and a wily, ancient djinn (genie) called Vikram the Vampire.

Once Vikram enters the tale, it departs the quotidian earth of normal human affairs and enters a scary realm where the physical and spiritual form a combustible mix. The tinder is a manuscript called the Alf Yeom or “The 1001 Days” (a shadow version of the classic, “The 1001 Nights”) that has been narrated by the djinn. A masterpiece of indirect logic and story-telling, the Alf Yeom seems to hold the key to a paradigm shift in computing, one that will move users from rapid-binary to quantum calculations. With this discovery comes immense power, and possibly the ability to unwind creation.

“Alif the Unseen” is a layered work. Besides achieving success as a metaphysical thriller, it is also: a coming-of age novel; a crime story (covering, without seeming to really stretch, crimes by both individuals and governments); a Mideast fantasy-parable; and a digital-sleuth yarn that picks up where cyberpunk classics like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer’ left off. Perhaps most impressively, it’s an East-meets-West story. It introducers a Western reader to the power of Islam’s basic beliefs, and the magic lore of Arab countries. Meanwhile, it also shows Eastern readers how aspects of their culture might appear to Westerners. The net result is a hemisphere-spanning piece of informative entertainment.

Generally I’m not a big fan of metaphysical or fantasy elements in mysteries or thrillers. A little of that goes a long way, and a bunch of it tends to go way too far. And I say that even though the next two novel manuscripts I’m ready to unload on an unsuspecting public include: 1) a philosophic thriller, and 2) a metaphysical thriller. What I truly object to is an unbalanced use of these elements, which I’ll explain like this. Once an author begins to conjure, he or she can only maintain tension by staying internally consistent (within the realm of the story) and externally consistent (within the elements of culture). Too much rule-breaking results in a world where everything is possible, and consequently nothing is important.

Author G. Willow Wilson, herself a convert to Islam, has side-stepped this chasm. I rarely quote from blurbs (I’d rather be quoted in them), but in this case, I can’t resist. On the cover, Steven Hall calls Wilson’s book, “A Golden Compass for the Arab Spring.” And I believe that’s exactly it is. This book can foster communication between wildly different geopolitical worlds. Way off the charts for the achievements of a thriller, and no mean accomplishment for a book of any stripe.


A Starring Role for Meals in Mystery

Review of “Outerborough Blues” by Andrew Cotto

skull4Great food is sensuous, alluring, and… reassuring. That means well-written eating scenes can serve plenty of entertaining and useful functions in thrillers and mysteries. Such scenes can offer readers a break in tension while serving as a bridge between much higher-octane situations; they can both promote and illustrate bonding between characters; and they can also reveal that our hero chef (or villain) has a nurturing side, and a few skills other than delivering karate kicks and impressive feats of marksmanship.

An excellent case in point is Andrew Cotto’s “Outerborough Blues.” Outerborough Blues by Andrew CottoOuterborough Blues.
Outerborough Blues by Andrew Cotto.

This concise, fast-paced novel is illuminated by a half-dozen well-crafted food scenarios. They actually are an integral part of the story, since cooking is the singular skill that allows the hero – a young, half-Sicilian drifter named Caesar Stiles – to roam around the U.S. and make a living wherever he happens to land. During the six days of this tale, he’s hanging his hat in a black neighborhood of Brooklyn, and working a bar, restaurant and juke joint called The Notch.

Among the many creative and unusual charms of the book is that it takes quite a while, nearly half its length, to present its true villain, Caesar’s ex-con brother, Sallie. En route, it artfully establishes a gritty urban setting, invigorated by music, wreathed in smoke, and inhabited by a highly believable ethnic cast of characters. It also establishes a plot somewhat grander than the typical noir conceit (a hero must traverse a noisome pit of crime and sleaze, somehow defeat or evade the baddies, and emerge amazingly intact on the other side). In this case, an extra dimension is conferred by a home-coming theme: wanderer Caesar must fulfill his mom’s dying wish that he root himself back in his family’s old place, and learn to inhabit his true identity and his life.

To achieve this, Caesar must unravel twin conspiracies to capitalize on the coming gentrification of Brooklyn, choose a winner, defeat hoodlums bent on his destruction, and help a cute French girl save her artist-brother from drugs and decadence. There’s a lot going on, but Cotto lets the reader rest by periodically providing a feast like this: “With the bones I’d taken out of the ducks, I made a stock; from that stock, I made a reduction. From the reduction I made a glaze. With that glaze I shellacked the roasting ducks to a deep mahogany, then stuffed each duck’s hollowed cavity with jambalaya, a thick rice dish with heavy seasoning and crumbled Cajun sausage. For the final step, I surgically cut each duck into eight slices, held the body together, re-glazed one last time, and put them all back in the oven to seal.”

If that scene doesn’t make your mouth water, go buy yourself a baggage tag, write down your name, age and address, tie it to your big toe, then lie back and wait for the morgue boys to come pick you up.

This is a fine banquet of a book, yet not without its flaws. Numero uno problemo is that Caesar’s pal, Don from Trinidad, is a good-hearted bad-ass who j-u-s-t happens to show up big-time whenever Caesar gets in a tight spot. The creaky sound of a deus ex machina being lowered into a plot is never a good thing. And the other problem is a number of copy-editing mistakes so lousy that they jolt a reader right out of the story. Here are a few: “viles” for “vials”; “women” when it should be “woman”; “sown” for “sewn”.

Memo to “ig Publishing” (which brought out the book) – a computer spell-check does not suffice! Hire a good copy editor! With the shrinkage of newspapers, there’s plenty of experienced people out there, many of whom are eager to find work.

End of sermon. Now, I’m hungry. Wonder if I can find a restaurant that serves jambalaya-stuffed roast duck.


Writing Risk

I believe that realistic action is one of the toughest elements to create for a reader, in any form or forum of writing. I’ve turned the problem over in my mind since I posted my first Kindle Single at the end of October. Titled, “Big Wave Virgin,” I built this story to bring a reader deep into the fast-moving tumult of a surf ride on one of the world’s most powerful waves, the break at Maverick’s in Northern California.
Big Wave Virgin

The first key to a good action sequence is accuracy. There’s nothing more jarring to a reader than plunging into the excitement of a pivotal scene, only to be brought up short by a dumb mistake on the part of the author. For example, several times I’ve seen heroes in thrillers or mysteries get ready to take a shot at the bad guy, only to have the gun “jam.” This is major bullshit.

First, the only way a revolver or wheelgun gets jammed is if it’s a double-action weapon that’s been crushed with a dumptruck or pounded with a sledgehammer. Second, if it’s a semi-automatic pistol, the hero needs to have a round in the pipe and the safety on as he approaches the confrontation. If he’s qualified to use the weapon, he’s not going to wait to chamber that round until he’s deep in the jam. So he’ll own the chance to shoot one bullet. Now, when the slide tries to cycle the next cartridge into the chamber, then it could jam. But not before! The only way(s) to keep the first round from going off is if the firing pin breaks or if the primer on the cartridge is defective and fails to ignite. Or your hero is too stupid or gripped to flick off the safety before squeezing the trigger.

People, please. If you’re going to write about guns, let’s spend a reasonable amount of time shooting first, all right?

In the case of that surf piece, I had spent thirty years surfing myself, in conditions ranging from crapulous to sublime. This is not to brag, only to point out the value of relevant experience. Also, in my purview as a professional outdoor sports journalist, I had interviewed and written about big wave surfers up to and including multiple world champ Kelly Slater.

My aim was to describe the high-risk action involved in confronting a wave with a 50 foot-high face, a dynamic, moving structure that releases the mass and energy of a collapsing building as it breaks. And then, to take the reader on a second-by-second voyage through that adrenalized experience. Note that I had two major streams of info available to help me build a realistic scenario: personal experience (my own time in the water) and acquired experience (the interviews).

Not every author can come to crime writing after years with a police department (or a life as a “made man,” eh?) but every author trying to pull off a realistic description can certainly talk to cops, hang out with them, go on ride-alongs. Not every author trying to concoct a fight scene is going to have a black belt in a martial art, but he or she can certainly spend a month learning the basics of an art and talk to practitioners, masters and fighters.

The point is that a story is a virtual world, and one needs to deepen it using best-possible materials. Then the reader has a scene he can dive into without banging his forehead on the shallows.

Other key values to bear in mind? Economy, for one. I give you the top message from Strunk & White: “Vigorous writing is concise.” And another: consequentiality. Try to make a large result depend on the outcome of your action scenes.

Pushing the Throttle in Thrillers

Review of “Start Shooting” by Charlie Newton

skull5Any work of art can be judged in two ways. You can assess it according a larger set of values – applying an exterior frame of reference, as it were. Or the work can be evaluated on the merits – does it fulfill its own premise?

When we look at thrillers – especially noir-cop-thrillers like Charlie Newton’s “Start Shooting” – the second method has to sit on the judge’s bench.

Start Shooting [ START SHOOTING BY Newton, Charlie ( Author ) Jan-10-2012

That’s due to the fact that the dynamic of a thriller is essentially internal. A thriller may have some things to say about the world as it is, but it mainly has things to say about itself. That’s how a writer keeps his reader aboard the equivalent of Mister Toad’s Wild Ride

A thriller requires a writer to keep raising the stakes, to keep shoving the accelerator down on the engine of narrative. The author does not do his (or her) job well unless the tachometers stay red-lined, then get pushed ever higher, until it sounds like narrative progress cannot possibly be maintained, since all the pistons are about to blow out through the hood.

The story’s protagonist always must face a growing threat. So the level of dangerous elements, bad characters, murderous impulses, deadly surprises, stinging betrayals, shocking revelations, astonishing plot twists and the ilk constantly must be heightened. And the more exciting a story grows, the less like quotidian life it becomes. Thus, maintaining consistency within the story becomes paramount. An intrigued reader will allow the narrative to part him from the recognizable earth and bear him off like a hot air balloon, but only if the design and operation of the vehicle that carries him are self-reinforcing.

In other words, if the author sets it up that the balloon burners (or narrative engines) are running on fermented rat piss, then the supply of rat piss has to be a consideration. If the pilot is a hair-fetishist ax-murderer with mommy issues, then the lady passenger who’s got her locks tucked under a hat needs to have a slight advantage over the lady passenger who doesn’t. The interior dynamics of the book will determine whether the suspension of belief can be sustained; not the reader’s evaluation of whether or not the events described could ever happen in the “real” world.

Which brings us to “Start Shooting.” The genius of this thriller is how well it succeeds – or even exceeds – at its task. It opens with a prologue, in which one first-person narrator (there are two) says, “Nineteen years I’ve been a ghetto cop and thought I’d worked every heartbreaking, horror combination possible. But I hadn’t.” The speaker is Bobby Vargas, a Latino lover of his tough Four Points neighborhood in Chicago, whose refuge from the stress of police work is strumming blues guitar in dive bars. His older brother Ruben is a homicide detective with a dangerously slick skill-set and a sociopathic sang-froid.

Bobby might be a lover, but the love of his life is apparently a dead girl, Colleen Brennan, an Irish kid with whom this “Rican” had a forbidden teen romance. But she was raped and killed. And the first threat to the adult Bobby comes when a muck-raking Chicago Herald reporter launches a series which looks to indict Ruben and Bobby himself for the crime. The second hit follows rapidly on the first: a supposed ex-FBI, ex-DEA agent, a short, blond stick-of-dynamite named Tania Hahn, parachutes onto the force to facilitate drug busts of the main Four Points gang, the Latin Kings.

Instead, she precipitates untoward violence, and ropes Bobby into a series of frame-ups – including a child-molestation charge – in order to coerce him into assisting with her real agenda: investigating a looming bio-weapon terror attack that will use a plague agent developed by the Japanese in WWII. Tania can get away with all manner of illicit manipulation, see, because she’s an off-the-books contract player hired by the CIA.

If your head has begun to spin like a Tibetan prayer wheel, good, get ready, because as you read on those cranial rpm’s will only increase.

Colleen Brennan’s twin sister Arleen has just come back home to Chicago. She’s a gorgeous waitress-actress with more than one dark secret, who’s returned to grasp at the straw of a possible role as Blanche Du Bois playing opposite Jude Law in a “Streetcar” to be staged at the Chicago-Shubert Theater. Big problem with her plan is that Ruben has Arleen in his grip, and uses her as a pawn and go-fer in arranging a way to profit from the terror attack. Got it? Then add another complication: Arleen is the book’s other first-person narrator; and it just may be possible, as a teen, that she was playing twin-games with Bobby’s head, and she herself was his real first true love.

I tell you all this to reveal what a crafty and complex set of throttle pushes Newton provides on the threat levels in his thriller. Can’t reveal much more without turning my teasers into spoilers, which I don’t want to do, because I wish for you to read the book and enjoy its roller-coaster ride as much as I did. As wild as it gets, the story never quite leaves the rails, because a) it’s internally consistent, i.e. it adheres to its own premises and b) because the prose is so saturated, knowing and gorgeous that it provides a narrative propellant of its own.

There are thrillers more hyperbolic than this one, but they tend to shake you out of the cart before you reach the destination. In “Start Shooting,” the hand on the controls stays masterful.