Monday, December 31, 2012

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

story published in 'Lit Noir'

The title story of my collection, "Blood of the Martyrs," was reprinted this month in 'Lit Noir,' an e-zine sold through Amazon's Kindle store for $1 at:

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Blood of the Martyrs published!

I just uploaded my short story collection, "Blood of the Martyrs and other stories," to Amazon Kindle Select! It should be available for downloads in about 12 hours for $1.99. Raise a glass!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Here's the cover art for my upcoming short story collection. It should be out on Kindle later this Fall.

Monday, July 9, 2012

why we love a mystery

This week on the NY Times Bestseller list, 5 of top 10 bestsellers in fiction and 11 of top 20 are mysteries.  Mysteries and crime novels consistently dominate the bestsellers lists in both the US and Britain. What draws us to these tales of murder and mayhem? Why do we stay up late at night reading about violence and vengeance?

Because they are fun. Mysteries are the guilty pleasure of the intellectual. They are puzzles of logic. When Sherlock Holmes cries out, ‘the game is afoot,’ he almost means it literally. For if the classic mystery – the traditional mystery – is a contest between the intelligent sleuth and the clever villain, it is also a duel between the skillful writer and the astute reader, who delights in trying to solve the puzzle along with – and possibly before – the detective. The paradox is that if the reader does, indeed, discover ‘whodunnit’ early on, the game is spoiled. The alert reader far more wishes to be surprised and fooled at the end, and yet find delight in seeing how the outcome was inevitable. This is only possible if the writer has ‘played fair’ with the ‘rules of the game,’ in which the reader can detect along with the detective – and still be assured that the detective will be more clever than the reader.
In Britain, Monsignor Ronald Knox had set out in 1928 the "10 Commandments of Detection," contending, for example,  that the criminal must be mentioned early on, the supernatural must be ruled out, the detective himself must not commit the crime, and "no accident must ever help the detective, not must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right." American SS Van Dine offered 20 rules that same year, insisting, for example, that the reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery with all clues plainly described. “There simply must be a corpse and the deader the better”, and “there must be no love interest”. Dorothy Sayers believed the same thing but fell in love with Lord Peter Whimsey and married him by proxy via Harriet Vane. The Detection Club, which formed shortly afterwards in 1930, asked members (such as Sayers) to swear an oath on Eric the Skull (all in good fun): "Do you swear solemnly never to conceal a clue from the reader?" Members also promised to honor the King's English, use legitimate detection methods in stories, and refrain from stealing other writers' plots, although collaboration was encouraged. Two of the greatest collaborators in the genre – Manfred Lee and Frederick Dannay, the cousins who comprised “Ellery Queen,” regularly issued ‘A Challenge to the Reader” near the end of Queen novels, saying that the reader now had all the clues necessary for solving the puzzle. Queen began his – I mean their – writing career by entering one of the many detective fiction contests of the period, and always saw the detective story as a contest between the writer and the reader.

Some of this rule-making - and breaking - became quite complex. Christie, especially, played with the "rules" as a way to outsmart readers. It was a matter of "you think that I think that you think I think this, so I won't - or will - in order to outwit you." She did things like exonerate a suspect in a trial only to prove he was guilty all along, employed double disguises, broke the convention of "the least likely suspect" in Murder on the Orient Express, and committed the unforgivable sin in The Murder of Roger Akroyd. I should probably not say here what she did with those two books. It would spoil the fun.

Books of this period sometimes looked like games: they included lists of characters, maps of houses, gardens and room layouts, all part of the game. Some included physical clues – matchsticks, coins or facsimiles of letters. One of my favorites is the "sealed mystery" - the last chapter was sealed with an onionskin wrapper. If you returned the book with the wrapper uncut (because you figured out the mystery or gave up trying), you'd get a refund. Small wonder that Parker Brothers launched the board game “Clue” at about this time. The newspapers were full of crossword puzzles and other word games. Edgar Allan Poe, who practically invented the detective story, also produced scores of crossword puzzles, secret codes and other games of logic. One might argue that his first detective story is a kind of game; He begins it with a long essay on ‘ratiocination,’ the art of logic and deduction, and the story is, in some ways, an illustration of his argument in the form of a locked-room puzzle.

But mysteries aren’t only about the puzzles, they are about the people who solve them. Mysteries allow readers to spend time in the detective’s gumshoes for a while.  Along with our favorite sleuth, we get to outwit the killer with our friend within a few hours of reading. From the security of our armchair, bed or tub, we get to be brave and clever for a while. And if it is a character in a series, then we welcome them as friends into our lives a few times and get to know them better than our own families.

A peculiar thing about the genre is that, while usually driven by a crime to be solved – a puzzle – and therefore plot-oriented, it’s the people we remember more than the plots: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, Inspector Maigret, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade,  Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter, Steve Carella, Dave Robichaux, VI Warshawski, Kinsey Millhone, Miss Marple, - well, the list is long. For each sub-genre – the cozy, the amateur sleuth, the police prodedural, the Private Eye, the historical, among others – there is a kind of character that affords a particular insight or comfort for readers.

For example, readers of the ‘cozy,’ where the violence is offstage and the sleuth often quirky or an outright amateur, the battle of wits with the villain is won by a person much like the reader. There is the subtle reassurance of St Paul’s dictum in I Corinthians 1 that ‘God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things that are mighty.”

In the police procedural, readers meet the hardworking middle-class and working class joes who do their job under stress. The police novel is, some say, the literature of the proletariat, celebrating duty in one’s work. Readers find special delight in the rumpled rain-coated Columbo asking just one more question of the elitist, wealthy killer who truly believes he’s gotten away with murder.

One more example: in the PI or hard-boiled story, as in ‘The Maltese Falcon”, readers encounter another kind of  working-class hero who must work for a living and take lousy, dangerous jobs to make ends meet. He is, in the words of the character Race Williams, "a middleman, just a halfway house between the cops and the crooks." Because of this, the hero is often isolated, lonely, and cynical. He is idealistic and a bit sentimental, a tough guy with a noble heart. He’s an urban counterpart of the lone cowboy in The Western who is good with a gun and, like a mounted knight, upholds a code of justice and chivalry. As Raymond Chandler put it famously in his essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He must be…a man of honor – by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.’

The ‘noir’ story may be a game like other detective stories, but it is a rough game.

If even the serious crime novel is a form of game, there’s another reason we play it. One writer put it this way: ‘When we look at clues and details about murder, we get to be a four-year-old playing with rubber dinosaurs: the game is enjoyable because we control what might otherwise give us nightmares.”

It is small wonder that the detective novel emerged in the Victorian Age when the murder rate was twice what it is now .  People wanted some assurance that the police could do their job and keep respectable citizens safe. The books did that. They still do.

Murder mysteries are the modern form of the medieval morality play, where the sleuth is Everyman who works against time, big money, a determined antagonist, daunting odds and his own flaws to expose evil, stop the bad guy and restore the balance of justice. At the end, readers who identify with the successful hero or heroine feel a little better about the world and about themselves. A critic might say that mystery novels are escapist, since they offer a fantasy world in which justice prevails, right always wins over wrong, and love finds a way. But what's wrong with that? That's healing. The odd thing is that we can escape reality and face it at the same time.

That’s because, with mysteries so close to the barest human desires and fears, they have a built-in opportunity to explore life's higher mysteries: love and power, guilt and innocence, good and evil, the mystery of undeserved suffering.  

All literature tries to make meaning out of the frightfully short dash between our birthdate and departure date on our tombstones. Mysteries, dealing so openly with the reality of death, do this well.

It was Aristotle who defined what good literature ought to do, and as it turns out, mysteries do it best.

The best stories, Aristotle said, advance through a series of discoveries – recognitions and subsequent reversals – and this is what occurs in a mystery whenever the detective discovers a clue, a new suspect, an alibi that checks out or doesn’t, or another body – usually the lead suspect. This results in a reversal – a change in direction, a setback, a gap between expectations and results, a new plan of action. The reversals and the setbacks raise the stakes, the danger, and make the protagonist suffer. So our detective endures criticism, failure, false leads, isolation, and the threat of being killed by the desperate villain who cannot bear to be exposed.  The ending must be inevitable, but it cannot be predictable, Aristotle says – it must be a surprise. And this is exactly what happens in a mystery where the puzzle pieces fall into place perfectly at the end, and the reader is delightfully fooled.

Aristotle’s favorite story, after all, was a mystery - Oedipus Rex, in which the sleuth who investigates relentlessly discovers that, ironically, he is the villain.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Behold a White Horse

"Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True." Rev 19:11

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Actor or Role?

Is it the Actor or the Role?

By Kathleen Kaska

Is stepping into the role of Sherlock Holmes as easy as a pair of Persian slippers? Do actors find themselves possessed by the Great Detective as soon as they pick up a script? I’m not sure, but every actor who has played Holmes has won me over—from John Barrymore in the 1922 silent film, to those in later films such as Basil Rathbone, Christopher Plummer or Roger Moore. Even George C. Scott, as a delusional millionaire who thinks he is Sherlock, did a convincing job. And of course, who wouldn’t believe that Jeremy Brett was the one and only, the real Holmes? He was my favorite. But then Robert Downey, Jr. put on the deerstalker cap, stuck a pipe between his teeth, and he became my favorite.

Nonetheless, when I saw a photo of Benedict Cumberbatch in an article announcing his portrayal of Holmes in a new BBC series, his short blonde locks and turned up nose elicited a loud “No way!” After a good friend twisted my arm, I went ahead and ordered the first episodic DVDs, but it was still weeks before I finally slid them into my laptop. They are set in current times and Cumberbatch’s Holmes has taken arrogance, obsession, and self-centeredness to the extreme. I was hooked within five minutes of the very first episode, “A Study in Pink.”

When the 2012 season’s episodes aired, I was on the road and not able to catch the three new and much anticipated offerings, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” “The Hounds of the Baskerville,” and “The Reichenbach Fall.” Waiting till May for the DVDs to be available is like watching a cheesecake in my fridge.

And Benedict Cumberbath? He’s good, he’s convincing; and oh yeah, and now he’s my favorite. How long will that last? Well, I don’t know. But I see a face or two—Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp. Sure, they can do it. Uh oh . . . I’m hearing a voice; an accent. It’s Spanish. Antonio Banderas! Well, why not?

Kathleen Kaska’s The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book features hundreds of trivia about the world's most famous detective, answering such questions as whether or not Sherlock Holmes ever uttered the phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson". Kathleen draws upon the entire Sherlock Holmes canon, plus the hundreds of films and thousands of radio and television programs that featured the detective and his inimitable partner, Dr. Watson. The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book is enhanced with 75 separate quizzes, asking probing, intriguing, fun questions related to all of Conan Doyle's 56 stories and four novels.

Also look for Kathleen’s other two trivia book: The Agatha Christie Triviography and Quiz Book and The Alfred Hitchcock Triviography and Quiz Book. All three have been reissued by LL-Publications.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Mystericale review of VIPER

"Viper, the sequel to Bleeder, is a fast paced, tension-filled thriller. Weaving together the many strands that make the work of Desjarlais distinctive, Viper does not fail to please those who like a book filled with suspense and action. Selena De La Cruz indulges her fondness for high-end shoes while working as an insurance agent and trying to put her past as a DEA agent behind her. But she isn’t allowed to forget. Her old enemies won’t permit that. A man known as "The Snake" is a ghost from Selena’s past and is now intent on killing her. Of the many facets this book shows readers, none of them disappoint. You may not be able to put this book down once you start reading."

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

St. Austin Review on BLEEDER

The St. Austin Review, a classy, Catholic journal of the fine arts, just reviewed BLEEDER. Here it is:

John Desjarlais
Sophia Institute Press, 2009
272 pp., $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-93318-456-2
Reviewed by Dena Hunt

A widowed classics professor has been wounded by gunshots while trying to break up a fight between two students. He takes a leave of absence and goes to his brother’s hunting cabin in rural River Falls, Illinois, to recover and to write a book on Aristotle. There, by apparent accident, he meets a priest in a bookstore. Through a shared interest in the classics, they become friends. There is little else to draw them together: the professor is a non-Catholic and the priest is not just a local associate pastor, but a reputed stigmatic with healing powers. Then, suddenly and quite dramatically, the priest bleeds to death on the steps of the altar on Good Friday during the rite of Veneration of the Cross. When an inquest reveals the real cause of death, suspicion falls on the professor.

Bleeder is John Desjarlais’s first novel since Relics, published some years ago and now in its second printing. Readers familiar with Relics may be surprised by the author’s shift from historical adventure to contemporary mystery, but the departure does not lie in a shift in genre alone. Although, perhaps like many others, I enjoyed the amazing depth of historical research in Desjarlais’s first books, I must admit that in this new genre, we see a style far more mature, even innovative, and a much more subtle hand in characterization.

The character of Reed Stubblefield is an unlikely hero, suffering from chronic pain in his hip due to the injury. He uses a cane, performs exercises prescribed by his physical therapist, and takes a potent anti-depressant to control panic seizures and breathing difficulties. At the slightest provocation, he is afflicted with flashback memories of the long illness of his beloved wife of twenty years, who died of leukemia. Life is not easy for Stubblefield; he has problems with his insurance company, problems with his teaching schedule—one can forgive him if he seems a bit self-absorbed at times. He does not even have the Presbyterian faith he once had to sustain him, having allowed it to lapse rather like a magazine subscription that, in his painful attentiveness to his wife’s suffering, he somehow forgot to renew. It’s not that he is angry with God for allowing his wife to suffer and die. He’s not so dramatic as that; besides, one has the feeling that his already over-taxed emotional state could hardly afford serious anger. On the contrary, he seems a very nice, very sad, ordinary man, with whom every reader has something or other in common. Desjarlais’s characterization of Stubblefield is one of the novel’s best features.
But it is the highly textured first-person narration that merits the most attention. Internal monologue is smoothly woven into external events, drawing the reader into the direct experience of the narrator, even while those events are often interrupted by a re-living of painful memories of his wife’s suffering and death and the shooting incident. The interruptions are remarkably seamless, causing no confusion or irritation for the reader, even though their appearance is sudden and unannounced—just as real-life painful memories always are. But add to that the voice of Aristotle, Stubblefield’s constant mental companion, interjecting his own frequent italicized observations, and the result is a multi-layered narration that goes beyond standard stream-of-consciousness. Desjarlais accomplishes this feat with such ease and polish that the reader barely notices it.

What the reader does notice immediately is the descriptive prose, crisp and original, beginning without preamble on the first page: “The patchwork fields of rural Illinois rolled away from the ditches in soft waves, with snow lying in stripes across the rows of cornstalk stubble, like a lathered but unshaven face.” The description alone is a recurring delight, and when it is combined with the unusual access to the narrator’s consciousness, the result is an extraordinarily experiential read.

If the novel has a flaw, it’s in the plot structure of the denouement following the death of the priest. Until that point, the pace has been steady, while tension mounts in anticipation of the tragedy. After that point, however, direction seems obscure. News coverage of the event is quoted in its entirety for three pages, though the article provides only information that has already been revealed. Fewer than ten pages later, the entire police report is quoted, for five full pages—again providing no new information for the reader. Such insertions seem to have a kind of scrapbook effect for the author but add nothing to the story for the reader. When the inquest is scheduled for three weeks later, the three weeks simply disappear from the story, not only a radical departure from the steady pace of daily events up to that point, but also inexplicable, since we leave the hero’s brother lying in the intensive care unit of the hospital, following a near-fatal traffic accident.

Despite the difficulties with plot in the second half, Bleeder delivers well on its promise as a mystery novel. It keeps the reader trying to guess whodunit, just as a good mystery should; and, as the better representatives of its kind do, it also provides an ending of suspense and real surprise—which I will not spoil for readers by revealing. Any fan of mysteries would enjoy this novel, but for those who also enjoy reading the prose of a master craftsman, I would recommend it even more highly.

Dena Hunt lives in Georgia. Retired from teaching at Valdosta State University, she is working on her second novel.

(image: prototype cover for BLEEDER)

St Austin Review on VIPER

The St. Austin Review is a classy, Catholic journal of the fine arts. Here's their March/April issue review of VIPER (followed by a brief comment or two by me):

By John Desjarlais
238 pp., $14.95
Sophia Institute Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-933184-80-7
Reviewed by Katie St. Hilaire

Sophia Institute Press’s Imagio Catholic Fiction series—the publisher of John Desjarlais’s Viper—was founded in response to John Paul II’s call for renewal among Catholic artists. As noted within the book, the mission of the Imagio Catholic Fiction series is to publish books by authors who are conscious of the “precious gift and responsibility” of being the “image of God the Creator”. These books must be “grounded in a Catholic sensibility . . . [presenting] a moral universe in which God is real and active and in which virtue leads to happiness (if not always success) and sin to death.” The goal of Sophia Institute Press is thus to “[provide] Catholic families a haven from the nihilism and prurience of the world’s corrupted art.” These books are intended to do as John Paul II’s 1999 “Letter to Artists” commanded—to convey truth through image.

In his Letter, John Paul II called “for a renewed ‘epiphany’ of beauty in our time” in order to “make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.” Especially conscious of the widespread disconnect between art and faith that has surfaced in modern times, the late pontiff challenged artists to bring the immaterial world of faith into the sensible realm via the medium of beauty and image. As an image of God the Creator, the artist’s inventions should reflect the work of God in creation, with His glory and majesty. Artists, therefore, have a unique role within the Church. Even if their work is not explicitly religious, it must in some way reflect the mystery of the Incarnation, in which the invisible Word is made flesh, and truth made visible. John Paul II’s message in the Letter might be summarized as follows: artists have an obligation to communicate truth through beauty.

This prelude provides an important standard by which to evaluate the success of this book. The claim that Viper is written with a Catholic sensibility of truth, morality, and purity is made within the pages of the book itself, and so it is impossible not to assess the book in terms of this claim. Working to create such a piece of art is no small endeavor, and as such is highly commendable. It is greatly to be wished that more artists would follow Desjarlais’s example in this respect. However, there are times in which it might be said, the more worthy the task, the more difficult its execution—and this is one of them. The ability to create fiction which conveys truth and yet is not homiletic, a story with its own integrity and yet incarnational as well, is a rare gift. It should not come as a surprise, then, that Desjarlais falls somewhat short of the mark.
Viper’s heroine is the beautiful, fearless Selena De La Cruz, an ex-cop with extraordinary mechanical abilities and a past. Her boyfriend, who, in his sole appearance in the book is shut out of it again for his own protection, is an uninteresting side-character who will need to be prepared to relinquish the proverbial pants in the relationship. Intent upon pursuing justice in the drug war after a beloved brother’s life was claimed by drugs, Selena, though retired into insurance work, cannot resist rejoining the force when she hears of an old rival’s resurfacing. “The Snake” is a deadly enemy, and he has threatened to kill her—that is, after he finishes off a list of nine other names. But his m.o. is strangely altered from the old days, and Selena senses something strange. Desjarlais dabbles in the supernatural in crafting his mystery thriller, playing off of the similarities between the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Aztec goddess Lady Death.

The book is worthwhile in many respects. It provides an immersion in Latino culture, an opportunity to learn about Aztec beliefs, and a positive perspective on Catholicism and reconciliation. It is an entertaining and thrilling read that is hard to put down.

There are some objections, however, which cannot be ignored. The foremost of these is that Viper contains some breaches of verisimilitude and weaknesses in plot structure. In order to be considered art or literature, fiction must be believable, credible. When the reader is unable to reconcile elements of the plot with his understanding of reality, the book crumbles, as any “willing suspension of disbelief” becomes impossible. An example of this problem is Desjarlais’ casual use of fictional Marian apparitions as a plot vehicle, the depictions of which are out of keeping with true, approved apparitions. While imaginative, this plot device may be confusing to non-Catholics or unschooled readers. These problems put the novel more in the category of entertainment than art.

Other minor objections also present themselves. The book includes a few similes which, though undoubtedly original, are such that they decrease the overall quality of the writing. Two of these, by way of example, are “He glanced around, furtive as a finch in a neighborhood known for its cats”, and “warmth washed over her like a summer breaker on the beach at Acapulco”. Finally, there are some lewd references which would be inappropriate for young readers.

While I once again highly commend the effort of producing Catholic art and quality fiction, I cannot give the book my unqualified recommendation. It is a fascinating mystery and a fun read, with Catholic themes and more substance than your average best-seller. However, in reference to John Paul II’s standards for Catholic art, we may say that some of the harmony and integrity perquisite to beauty is lacking, which in turn limits the work’s ability to convey truth.

Katie St. Hilaire is a graduate of Ave Maria University, where she obtained a B.A. in literature with a minor in philosophy.

OK, everyone is entitled to an opinion and I appreciate the intelligent forthrightness of Ms. St. Hilaire's evaluation. I concede that Viper is not on a par with, say, Hillary Waugh or Dante. But sheesh, like Graham Green, I make a distinction between literary fiction and (what he called) "entertainments," and Viper - as genre detective fiction - is most definitely 'an entertainment.' It seems that it succeeds well on that score. My models in the field are Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler - not committed Christians, by any stretch, but great stylists.

I have no idea where the text is "lewd" - I'd never write something I wouldn't let my granddaughters read. And everyone knows I blush easily. I was extremely careful about this, especially since I was writing a female protagonist. Sophia Press is also highly protective of their reputation, and the editor certainly wouldn't allow anything 'lewd' to pass - not that there was anything in the first place. This comment really puzzled me. I wonder if it had something to do with the crime scenes? They ain't pretty. But I'm no fan of of 'gross' and even those scenes were treated in an understated manner - more sanitary than what you'd see on NCIS, Law And Order or CSI. There's certainly nothing sexually offensive, and no profanity.

As with all my novels, I conducted assiduous research, and I did so with Marian ("Blue Lady")apparitions. The descriptions are in complete keeping with the reported visits in Mejugorge (not yet approved, as indicated in the story) and Garabandal, Spain (also not yet approved). It was important to have 'not yet approved' visits as the models since the appearances of "The Blue Lady" in the book are obviously 'not yet approved' but under investigation.

I admit that the weaving of "The Blue Lady" idea into the main plot poses difficulties, but it was immensely important to the underlying themes. The question about her real identity is intimately connected to the Mexican-American backdrop: is she Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of Mexico and the Americas, or the Aztec goddess of death (or perhaps "Saint Death", the female Mexican 'Grim Reaper')? "Guadalupe" comes from an Aztec phrase meaning 'she who crushes the snake,' and Mary is often depicted as crushing the serpent Satan under her foot (as prefigured in Genesis 3:15); Aztec female deities like Coatlicue are depicted wearing skirts of snakes, so there is a spiritual contest of sorts in the background between Mary the Mother of God and Coatlicue who is called 'the mother of gods', a deity whom the antagonist admires; and the drug dealer suspected of the serial killings is called "The Snake." There are other connections regarding Selena and the girl visionary Jacinta, but I'll stop here.

Pope John Paul The Great is one of my heroes, and I love his letter to artists. I'd like to think my literary short stories are in keeping with his high vision, and that my 'entertainments' - the novels - are the kinds of works that open people to the possibilities of faith and wonder. The books are not preachy on purpose, but I certainly can't help but produce mysteries that point to 'higher mysteries.'

(photo: Selena De La Cruz)