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About Neal Thompson

Neal is a journalist/author, an amateur photographer/videographer, and a compulsive reader-writer whose rampant tastes veer from narrative non-fiction to literary fiction to long-form journalism to memoir/biography to sports, history, food, music, and so on. He's also a dad/driver/banker/chef to two skateboarding teen sons and an avid skier and runner. Favorite way to kill an hour: a book, a bourbon, and some Miles Davis.

Posts by Neal

The Enduring Hunt for Nazi War Criminals

Nick1Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, yet the search for Nazi perpetrators continues--as does the publication of books about Nazi hunting, even as the last of them die out.

On Wednesday, an 89-year-old Philadelphia man died just hours before a judge ordered his extradition to Germany for his role in the gassing of 216,000 Jews at Auschwitz. Johann Breyer, who served as an armed guard at the notorious concentration camp, was accused of being an accessory to murder, in what will likely be one of the last Nazi cases on American soil.

Nicholas Kulish's recent book, The Eternal Nazi: From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Dr. Aribert Heim, co-written with fellow journalist Souad Mekhennet, tells the story of how one of the most hunted Nazi war criminals had been living a secret life in Egypt.

Below, Kulish discusses the enduring mystique of the Nazis, and the ongoing hunt for war criminals, with Neal Bascomb, author of the international bestseller Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi.

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Nick_kulish-3Nicholas Kulish: I once read a quote that all villains are Nazis now. When you watch Star Wars the bad guys are called storm troopers and Darth Vader wears the astronaut edition of an SS uniform. When Hannibal Lecter listens to classical music while perpetrating atrocities it’s Mengele whistling Wagner on the selection ramp at Auschwitz. What do you think accounts for the enduring interest in Nazis?

Neal Bascomb: There have been a lot of murky wars since WWII. Vietnam comes straight to mind, but Iraq, and others, as well. With the Nazis, it is very black and white, and at least in popular culture, they like black and white.

NK: In a way the Nazis mythologized themselves, through the films of Leni Riefenstahl, the emphasis on their polished black boots and lightning insignias. But I'm always struck going through the archives how the crimes of the Holocaust are more deeply evil than I remember them.

NB: Yes, when I first began digging deep into the oral and written history of the Holocaust, the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews, I could not sleep for weeks. It is in the details that the horror really comes out.

NK: I was struck reading your book by the way the Israelis hunting Eichmann had a personal stake in his capture, family and friends who were killed, using skills honed as they tried to survive the Holocaust. Was that part of what drew you to the subject?

Nick_bascombNB: What drew me to the story of Eichmann is the legacy of his trial. By the late 50's, the world wanted to sweep the Holocaust under the rug. Historians weren't studying to any great degree. Students weren't learning about it at school. And survivors, many survivors, did not feel like they could openly talk about what happened to them. It was not until Eichmann's trial, the recounting of the horrors that we've both referenced here, that this changed. So here was this great manhunt, spy operation, and it had tremendous positive effects on understanding of the Holocaust ever since.

NK: I found the evolution of German public opinion at the same time to be fascinating. The first great Nazi trials of the post-Nuremberg era were in the city of Ulm. This vacuum cleaner salesman named Bernd Fischer could not accept that his murderous service in the Einsatzgruppen made him unsuited to run a refugee camp. He was given every chance to go away quietly and finally prosecutors said, "We just have to put this guy on trial." The result was a surge of new information about the slaughter in the east and the creation of a dedicated Nazi-hunting team in Ludwigsburg, Germany.

NB: What drew you to the story of SS Dr. Aribert Heim?

NK: Heim was the opposite of Eichmann in many ways. He was a concentration camp doctor and committed terrible crimes but he was not a big fish and no one was really looking for him at first. So through his story, the peaceful life in postwar Baden-Baden, the sudden flight shortly after Eichmann was hanged, the evolution of attitudes toward Nazis can be tracked right up to his naming as the most-wanted Nazi war criminal six decades after the war. The fact that he hid in Egypt and converted to Islam made it irresistible.

Nick2NB: You did such a marvelous job of tracking his years in Egypt. Just fascinating how he transformed into this whole other life. And you see this again and again, even in such an ordinary life of Breyer, the Auschwitz guard recently arrested in Philadelphia.

NK: It's something you find in other genocides, in Rwanda or in the Balkans, both places I've worked as a journalist. People who would otherwise never have received so much as a speeding ticket commit monumental criminal acts. Can people really understand, looking at an 89 year old at an arraignment hearing, why these trials still matter?

NB: It is an understandable instinct to say about these individuals who are now and again arrested... "Look he's an old, old man. There's no more harm he can do. What's the point? Just let him live out his days in a shabby house." But then you have to take a step back, realize that the point is less about punishment against this one man, and more about the fact that seeking justice should be timeless.  There should be no expiration date. When Ben Gurion gave the order to go after Eichmann, it had very little do with Eichmann and much more to do with two things: One, remind the youth of Israel why their state needed to exist; two, remind the world what the Nazis did to the Jews during the war. That's why these trials must continue.

 

Amazon Asks: “War of the Whales” Author, Joshua Horwitz

Joshua Horwitz spent six years researching the story of the marine biologist and the environmental lawyer whose battle against the US Navy and its secret underwater sonar programs went all the way to the Supreme Court. The result, War of the Whales, is one of those rare nonfiction books that reads like fiction – in this case, a delightful mashup of Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy, Stephen Ambrose and David Halberstam.

War of the Whales was named Amazon’s Best Book of the Month “Spotlight” pick for July. In my review I described it as “a gripping and wholly original tale of the ecological side effects of national security” and “a rare trifecta of a book: important, highly readable, and stunningly true.”

I reached out to Horwitz to ask about his favorite books (duh, Moby Dick), and, as a bonus he shared a couple of cool whale photos.

Describe your book in one sentence?

Whales and submarines collide inside world's deepest underwater canyon. 

Or: Two men take on world's largest navy to save whales.

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

Favorite books about whales?

Moby Dick -- what else?

Favorite book as a child?

Tarzan, King of the Apes series by Edgar Rice Burroughs

What are you obsessed with now?

How few books teenagers--including my daughters--seem to be reading for pleasure.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

My appetite(s).

What do you collect?

Daughters, apparently. (I've got three.)

Favorite line?

Where lies the final harbor whence we unmoor no more? (from Moby Dick)

What's next for you?

More reading, less writing.

What was the best piece of advice you ever got?  From whom?

From Martin Scorcese, as returning NYU fillm alum speaking to us wannabees, on editing. (He was speaking about film editing, but applies equally to text.) -- "Begin with a scalpel, end with an axe."

BBQ King Steven Raichlen on "Ensemble" Cooking

MealsFireworks won’t be the only things flaring in America’s backyards on this Fourth of July.

You’d think after centuries of cooking with fire, man would have it down. But so many backyard chefs still scorch that precious steak or salmon. We overcook, we undercook, we set good food on fire.

For many years and across many books--notably his bestselling Barbecue Bible--BBQ guru Steven Raichlen has been trying to school us. During a recent swing through Seattle, over lunch at Tom Douglas’s Bravehorse Tavern, I asked for a little help: What do men do wrong at the grill?

“They don’t control the fire, they let the fire control them,” Raichlen said, while dunking a fresh-made pretzel into a bacon peanut butter dip.

Too many guys throw a hunk of meat on the grill or cram it full of chicken pieces and hope for the best, instead of practicing Raichlen’s “30-percent rule”--keeping 30 percent of grill food-free, to provide room to maneuver in case of a flare-ups.

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With a World Cup match roaring in in the background, we discussed Raichlen’s new book, Man Made Meals, which moves indoors and aims to teach guys to cook more like women. Raichlen believes women think in terms of meals while guys think in terms of dishes; women cook with a spirit of nurturing while men cook with a spirit of showing off. With his new book he’s hoping to help guys think “ensemble,” from the main dish to side dishes, from deserts to “rockin’ the bar shaker.”

In addition to the crash course in culinary literacy for guys--“What dishes should every self-respecting red blooded American male know how to do?”--there’s an activist message in Man Made Meals. If we’re careful about how and where we buy food, and how we cook, “we can have a positive impact on ourselves and our health, on the health and well-being of our families, and on the well-being of the planet,” Raichlen said.

Speaking of health and well-being... here's one of Raichlen's go-to dishes:


Baby Back Ribs

Baby Back Ribs, with Cider Rum Barbecue Sauce

Shop: Baby backs are the easiest ribs to cook, thanks to their generous marbling and intrinsic tenderness. To up your game, try an heirloom breed, like Berkshire pork or Tamworth.

Gear: Your basic kitchen and grilling gear including an aluminum foil drip pan, a charcoal grill (sorry guys; you can cook the ribs on a gas grill, but you need charcoal to smoke them), a rib rack (optional), and a spray bottle.

What else: I like to smoke baby backs at a somewhat higher temperature than the low and slow guys on the barbecue circuit. Which is to say, I grill the ribs using the indirect method at 325°F rather than the 225°F of traditional barbecue. I like the way the heat melts the fat and crisps the meat fibers, giving you chewier, meatier ribs than with the lower-heat method. If you prefer your ribs to have a softer texture, cook them at 225°F for 4 to 5 hours.

Time: About 20 minutes preparation time, plus about 1-1/2 hours cooking time 

These ribs sound an apple theme--you smoke them with apple wood chips and serve them with a made-from-scratch cider rum barbecue sauce. Once you master the process, you can infinitely vary the character of the ribs by changing the seasonings. Texas style? Use a rub based on cumin and chile powder and spray the ribs with beer. Jamaican style? Use jerk seasoning and spray the ribs with pineapple juice. You get the idea. 

Makes 2 racks of ribs; serves 4 normal guys as part of a full meal or 2 big guys with corresponding appetites

  • 2 racks baby back pork ribs (4 to 5 pounds total)
  • 6 tablespoons Raichlen’s Rub #1 (recipe follows) or your favorite barbecue rub 
  • 1 cup apple cider in a spray bottle
  • Cider Rum Barbecue Sauce (page 286) or your favorite barbecue sauce
  • You’ll also need: 1 1/2 cups hardwood chips or chunks, preferably apple or hickory, soaked in water to cover for 30 minutes, then drained

1 Set up the grill for indirect grilling, place a large aluminum foil drip pan in the center of the grill under the grate, and preheat the grill to medium (325°F).

2 Place a rack of ribs meat side down on a baking sheet. Remove the thin, papery membrane from the back of the rack by inserting a slender implement, such as the tip of an instant-read thermometer, under it; the best place to start is on one of the middle bones. Using a dishcloth, paper towel, or pliers to gain a secure grip, peel off the membrane. Repeat with the remaining rack (or ask your butcher to do it).

3 Season the ribs with barbecue rub (about 1-1/2 tablespoons per side), rubbing the spices onto the meat with your fingertips. 

4 When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Place the ribs, bone side down, in the center of the grate over the drip pan and away from the heat. (If your grill has limited space, stand the racks of ribs upright in a rib rack.) Toss the wood chips on the coals. Cover the grill and cook the ribs for about 45 minutes.

5 Spray the ribs with some of the apple cider. This keeps them moist and adds an extra layer of flavor. Cover the grill again and continue cooking the ribs until they are darkly browned, cooked through, and tender enough to pull apart with your fingers, 45 minutes to 1 hour longer, 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hours in all, spraying the ribs with cider once or twice more. When the ribs are cooked, the meat will have shrunk back from the ends of the bones by 1/4 to 1/2 inch. If you are using a charcoal grill, replenish the coals after 1 hour or as needed.

6 Just before serving, brush the ribs on both sides with about 1/2 cup of the Cider Rum Barbecue Sauce or the barbecue sauce of your choice. Move the ribs directly over the fire. Grill the ribs until the barbecue sauce is browned and bubbling, 2 to 3 minutes per side.

7 Transfer the ribs to a large platter or cutting board. Let the ribs rest for a few minutes, then cut the racks in half or into individual ribs. Serve the ribs at once with the remaining barbecue sauce on the side.

Raichlen’s Rub #1

Here’s a barbecue rub--sweet with brown sugar, spicy with pepper and paprika--that would feel right at home in Kansas City, Memphis, or North Carolina. Makes 1/2 cup

  • 2 tablespoons coarse salt (kosher or sea)
  • 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons dry mustard, preferably Colman’s
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon celery seeds

Place the salt, brown sugar, paprika, pepper, dry mustard, onion powder, and celery seeds in a small bowl and mix with your fingers, breaking up any lumps in the brown sugar or onion powder. Stored in an airtight jar away from heat and light, the rub will keep for several months.

Cider Rum Barbecue Sauce

A sweet, mellow barbecue sauce invigorated with dark rum and apple cider. Good choices for rum include Myer’s Rum from Jamaica, Gosling’s Black Seal from Bermuda, or the new Ipswich rum from Massachusetts. The recipe makes more than you’ll need. Refrigerate any excess in a sealed jar--it will keep for several weeks. Makes about 2-1/2 cups

  • 1 cup apple cider
  • about 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • Juice of 1 lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
  • 2 cups ketchup (I like Heinz) 
  • 1/2 packed cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup dark rum, or more to taste
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, or more to taste 
  • 1 teaspoon liquid smoke
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 Place the cider, lemon zest, and lemon juice in a large heavy saucepan and let come to a boil over high heat. Let the cider mixture boil until reduced by about half, 4 to 6 minutes. 

2 Add the ketchup, brown sugar, rum, molasses, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, liquid smoke, onion powder, pepper, and cinnamon and whisk to mix. Reduce the heat to medium and let the sauce simmer until thick and flavorful, 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for seasoning, adding more rum and/or mustard as necessary. Transfer the sauce to a bowl or clean jars and let it cool to room temperature. Refrigerate the sauce until serving. It will keep covered in the refrigerator for 3 weeks. Reheat it over low heat before using.

Photo Essay: How Did the Statue of Liberty Get Built?

LibertyElizabeth Mitchell's myth-busting Liberty’s Torch--a Best Book of the Month for July--is a hoot of a story packed with entertaining cameos by Victor Hugo, Ulysses Grant, Thomas Edison and more. At center stage is the maddeningly egotistical artiste, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a snobbish boor who disliked America and her "subpar" people, yet, through persistence and will, found a home for his statue in New York Harbor.

In advance of Independence Day, we asked Mitchell to share a few photos and anecdotes from her rigorously researched tale of how a sculptor’s obsession became a nation's icon.

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We take it for granted that the Statue of Liberty belongs in the New York harbor. But if it were not for one driven man, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, this globally recognizable symbol would never have seen sunrise over the city.

Bartholdi dreamed up the idea of the colossus, he pitched, pleaded, sweated, and schemed to get her built. My new book, Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty, tells this tale of one man battling obstacles and accidents to make his unusual vision a reality.

It helped that Bartholdi birthed this creation during an era when artist, inventors and engineers constantly tried to one-up each other. He had seen the colossal statuary in Egypt, the sphinxes and pyramids, and he wanted to also create something that would last for eternity. All he had to do was solve the mechanical feats, clear the fundraising hurdles, and keep everyone alive in the process.

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1) Here is Bartholdi, looking like Dave Grohl. He was spunky, funny, emotional, and a huge egotist. He alone came up with the idea of the Statue of Liberty and set out to convince France and America to build it. He wasn’t so much in love with America as he was entranced by the idea of crafting a massive statue. He did appreciate that America had successfully created a democracy while his France struggled violently for the ideal.

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2) He originally designed the piece for Egypt, for the mouth of the Suez Canal, but the deal fell through so he went looking for other locations. At the time, America was showing new growth after the Civil War, taking on constructions like Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Bridge. The cross continental railroad had just been completed. The nation seemed a likely candidate to absorb the plan that had failed elsewhere.

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3) Short on funds and public enthusiasm, Bartholdi built Liberty in pieces, exhibiting a bit at a time to raise money to create more. Here is the torch being shown at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia in 1876. At the bottom, Bartholdi set up a kiosk to sell souvenirs and tickets to the top.

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4) Bartholdi showed the head at the Paris Exposition of 1878. It arrived on a wagon from the workshop where she was created, having wended her way through the streets of Paris. People waved and sang the Marseillaise as the massive head passed.

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5) To test the design, the statue was first put together in a neighborhood in Paris near the Parc Monceau. People could pay a ticket to climb up and look over the rooftops.

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6) Liberty was inaugurated on October 28, 1886 in a heavy fog. Bartholdi himself tugged an enormous French flag from her face to reveal her to the world. A few weeks later, he ventured out in a nighttime rain to say goodbye to his creation. He told a reporter that he could no longer sense the immensity of her as he had when he was working on her in Paris. He said, “She is going away from me. She is going away from me.” She now belonged to America.

--Elizabeth Mitchell

How I Wrote It: Alan Furst, on the "special vitamins" of wartime Europe

FurstAlan Furst's thrilling and endearing new historical spy novel is once again set in Europe as the shadows of war darken the continent and its people. As with his previous novels, Midnight in Europe portrays the tense unease of a region--in this case France and, in particular, Spain--on the verge of fracture, with allegiances and loyalties in constant and dangerous flux. Heroes and villains are sometimes indistinguishable, mainly, says Furst, because most of Europe was "scared to death."

"I don't quite understand why, but that era had special vitamins. It just did," he told me. "What was it about ther '30s? I don't know, but there was this bursting of creativity that came along."

Speaking at the annual Book Expo America conference in New York, we also discussed the 1984 trip he took through Europe, on assignment for Esquire. "I came back a changed person," he told me. Interestingly, he rarely visits Europe these days, which is far different from the version of Europe he writes about. "I'm used to another Paris," he said.

Proudly "blue collar" in his approach to writing, Furst is already pounding out the next novel, two pages per day, every day. "I can't fool around and wait for inspiration," he said. Like one of his own characters, he still writes on a typewriter, a Lexmark. "Descendant of the mighty IBM selectric," he gushed proudly. "I think I write better on a typewriter." 

Brad Meltzer is Obsessed with "Ordinary People Changing the World"

RosaBrad Meltzer is a shape-shifter and, apparently, the guy doesn't sleep. Known mainly for the bestselling thrillers he's been writing since his twenties--starting with his 1997 debut, The Tenth Justice--he also writes comic books, screenplays, and hosts his own History Channel show, Brad Meltzer's Decoded.

More recently, he's shouldered the laudable task of inspiring kids--his, and ours. Meltzer's first such efforts--Heroes for my Daughter and Heroes for my Son--led to this year's Ordinary People Changing the World series, the latest of which is I Am Rosa Parks, on sale this week.

The "I Am..." books depict heroic Americans during their childhoods, as regular boys and girls. The first two, Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln, will be followed by Albert Einstein (September) and Jackie Robinson (January).

At BookExpo America in New York last month, we spoke with Meltzer about his own childhood heroes, his love of story, his paranoia, and his radical belief that "a reality TV show bimbo is not a hero." (And if you don't like my interview, check out one of the best book trailers I've seen, featuring Meltzer's family and friends trash-talking him.)

Michael Koryta, on his "Warped and Twisted Mind"

KorytaHe might seem like a nice enough guy. A clean-cut young college professor type or the guy who coaches your kid’s t-ball team. But Michael Koryta possesses a self-proclaimed "warped and twisted mind" that's capable of creating some very creepy characters and some very brutal scenes, which help make his new novel, Those Who Wish Me Dead, his best yet.

The story of a boy on the run from two assassins--and a wildfire--this is Koryta's tenth novel, which seems impossible for a guy who probably still gets carded buying beer. In this interview, taped at last month’s Book Expo America in New York, Koryta and I discussed his mentors and idols (names like Connelly, Lehane, and Koontz), his next book (it starts with a corpse in a cave) and, of course, his deceptively twisted mind. Despite the boy scout looks, Koryta seems to keep getting darker, more curious about the nature of menace in the world, and, therefore, better.

Those Who Wish Me Dead is an Amazon Editors’ Summer Reading pick and a Best Book of the Month in mystery, thriller and suspense.

 

Author-Lawyer Alafair Burke's Favorite "Lawyers are People Too" Books

Our thanks to Alafair Burke for sharing her thoughts on the best and worst ("hearsay!") of legal thrillers and courtroom drama. Burke's latest novel is All Day and a Night, which again features her NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher. Megan Abbott (The Fever) called it “A masterfully plotted, psychologically complex thriller."

As a former Deputy District Attorney in Portland, Burke knows a thing or two about the law; she now teaches at Hofstra Law School. (And as the daughter of James Lee Burke, she also knows a thing or two about the written word). Burke's next project is a first-ever collaboration with Mary Higgins Clark. Their co-authored novel, The Cinderella Murder, is coming in November.

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In 2004, a major editor at a major publisher told me, “Legal thrillers are out.” Having just published my first two novels, both featuring Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid, I desperately needed this death announcement to be premature.Alafair

Fast-forward ten years, and books featuring lawyers are thriving. Perhaps not coincidentally, publishers have also found a way to market books about lawyers without pigeonholing them as “legal thrillers” or “courtroom dramas.”

I first started fantasizing about writing a novel because of my frustration at the portrayal of attorneys in fiction, especially crime fiction. I was a huge fan of the genre, but found myself wanting to throw books across the room when attorneys arrived on the page, yelling “hearsay!” and “calls for speculation!” Evidentiary objections, jury selection, and cross-examinations might be real goose bump inducers compared to the average lawyer’s workday, but as ingredients for a page-turner? No, thank you.

In real life, few lawyers go to court. They delve into families, negotiating pre-nups, adoptions, and divorces. They merge and separate corporate entities. Even litigators spend a small percentage of their time in court. The vast majority of cases settle, which only happens after lawyers gather evidence, question witnesses, scour documents, and play chicken with their adversaries.

Michael Connelly understood this when he endorsed my debut novel by saying, “JUDGMENT CALLS expertly shows that the most gripping drama is not found in the courtroom but in the places where choices get made in the shadows cast by politics and corruption and human desires.”

FirmIn other words, when lawyers narrate a story, it’s still just a story, because lawyers are people too.  Here are a few of my favorite books that show the real lives of lawyers, outside the courtroom.

The Firm, John Grisham

Though Grisham’s A Time To Kill is one of the best courtroom novels I’ve read, The Firm captures an altogether different world, expertly portraying the pressures placed upon a junior associate at an elite law firm.

Presumed Innocent, by Scott Turow

Turning the genre on its head, Turow tells the story of a career prosecutor charged with murder. He also masters the use of a (possibly?) unreliable narrator. If you’re a fan of crime fiction, read this back-to-back with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and draw the parallels.

TurowThe Alexandra Cooper series, by Linda Fairstein (The most recent installment: Terminal City)

It’s no surprise that Fairstein, who as supervisor for the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office broke new ground in the prosecution of crimes against women, also broke new ground in the depiction of prosecutors in fiction. Through Alex Cooper, she shows that the power of the prosecutor is not in the courtroom, but in the nearly unreviewable discretion they exercise outside of it.

The Mickey Haller series, by Michael Connelly (The most recent installment: The Gods of Guilt)

Much as Fairstein depicts the out-of-court life of Alex Cooper, Connelly delves into the life of defense attorney Mickey Haller. He’s neither true believer nor scoundrel. He’s just a really interesting guy who happens to be a lawyer.

KermitIn the Shadow of the Law, Kermit Roosevelt

In the way that atmospheric novels treat geographic setting as character, Roosevelt treats the law as a character here, both villain and protagonist.

The Emperor of Ocean Park, by Stephen Carter

I’ve got to include a book featuring a law professor at the center of a sprawling thriller. Yale Law Prof Carter provides a searing portrayal of both academic and judicial politicking.

Supreme Ambitions, by David Lat

This forthcoming novel lifts the veil on the prestigious but cryptic role of judicial clerks. The author, founder of the law-blog Above the Law (think: Entertainment Weekly for lawyers), is a rock-star among law-geeks (to wit, he coined the term “bench-slap,” which now appears in Black’s Law Dictionary).

It’s within this context that I situate my tenth novel, All Day and a Night, which tells the story of a wrongful conviction claim from the perspectives of both recurring character NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and a young defense attorney named Carrie Blank. It has been described as a combination of police procedural, courtroom drama, and psychological thriller. To defy easy categorization is the highest praise I can ask for.

    --Alafair Burke

Cheryl Tan Explores Singapore's Dark Side in "Singapore Noir"

NoirWhat I love about the "Noir" series of pulpy short story collections created by Brooklyn-based Akashic publishers is that each volume makes me hunger to visit that locale's underbelly. I've heard of spy tourists who, for example, visit the sites of Le Carre novels. (David Ignatious explores the idea in this recent post.) I could see these books inspiring a niche new travel meme, with literary geeks venturing into the alleys and red light districts of the dozens of cities in the Noir series.

I also love the pairing of geographically appropriate authors who've curated each volume: Laura Lippman for Baltimore Noir; Dennis Lehane for Boston Noir; and Joyce Carol Oates for the my home state in New Jersey Noir.

One of the latest entries in the series is Singapore Noir, comprising stories by some of the best-known writers of that ethically, culturally, linguistically diverse country. A Best Book of the Month in Mystery, Thriller & Suspense, Singapore Noir was edited by Singapore-born Cheryl Tan (A Tiger in the Kitchen), who answered a few questions about her home country's dark side.

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NT: Noir? What's noir about Singapore? I thought it was sunny, safe, and squeaky clean?

CT: Oh there's definitely a sexy dark side to Singapore! In the 20 years that I've lived in the U.S. I've always been frustrated that people think of one of a few things whenever Singapore comes up: Caning, fines, strict laws. The country is much more colorful and complex than that. For starters, anyone who's ever visited Singapore will know that the best places to eat in the country are in the red-light districts. While you're sitting there having the most amazing plate of beef noodles, you'll find yourself surrounded by prostitutes and suddenly hungry men. And, although it's true that crime rates there are much lower than in much of the rest of the world, bad things do happen there, of course, even if rarely. There's a huge gambling culture--always has been, even before Sands built a multi-million-dollar glitzy casino a few years ago--and Singaporean loan sharks are terrifying! (You don't want them painting threatening notes on your front door in pig's blood, trust me.) There have been saucy sex scandals plastered across the papers there in recent years, horrific stories of maid abuse, clashes between the poor or the ordinary and the super rich (the country actually has a bar that serves up a $26,000 cocktail).

NT: Will you or the other “Singapore Noir” authors get caned for writing about Singapore’s inky pockets? 

CT: I hope not! Although, I suppose we may find out very soon. If you never hear from me again ...

In all seriousness, these stories are dark, yes--but they also show various facets of Singapore, Singaporean life, neighborhoods and quirky characters that haven't been much explored in literature outside of Asia so far. One of my favorite characters in the book is a feng shui master who doubles as a detective, for example--he pops up in Nury Vittachi's fast-paced "Murder on Orchard Road." When this master is called in to cleanse rooms where bad things such as deaths have happened, he looks around and, of course, figures out more than how to make the chi flow well again in the room. British novelist Lawrence Osborne's "Tattoo" pulls the curtain back on the very vivid world of Geylang, Singapore's main red-light district. 

And several of the stories touch on topics that have made headlines in Singapore in recent years--sex scandals, maid abuse, the growing expat population and how that's rapidly changing Singapore, the rise of the very wealthy. Colin Cheong's lovely "Smile, Singapore," follows a "taxi uncle"--what we call cab drivers--in the heartland of Singapore who's faced with a difficult decision. I also love a little detail he brings to the book--an old tradition of keeping the bone of a dead child with you so its ghost will protect you. It's details such as these that make this book uniquely Singaporean--and one that I think may be a little eye-opening.

NT: Why did you choose the “kelongs,” or old fisheries, as the site for your story, “Reel”?

CT: I've long been fascinated with kelongs, which are these fairly large fisheries on stilts that you see in the middle of the sliver of water that cuts a slice between Singapore and Malaysia. This is an old way of fishing that's rapidly disappearing--and I'd grown up Singapore fascinated with kelongs because my girlhood home on the East Coast of Singapore is not far from where most of the remaining kelongs are. It's a very romantic setting to me--this idyllic spot that's worlds away from the glitzy, modern Singapore that most people know. Looking out at them from the shores of Singapore, I always tried to imagine what life might be like when you're living in a kelong house, perched on slats of wood amid a labyrinth of tall, long stilts, out there in the middle of the water, with little else to do but wait for flotillas of fish to swim into your traps, what dangers might lurk--both in the water and out. Well in my story, something certainly does happen ... you'll just have to read the book to find out!

Spy Novelist David Ignatius Describes His Four Favorite Spy Cities

IgnatiusAs a long-time denizen of the nation's capital and a prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post, David Ignatius has, for a quarter of a century, had a front-row view of US politics and the cloak-and-dagger machinations of assorted spy agencies. That insider knowledge has fueled his brainy and all-too-believeable novels, the most recent of which, The Director, is an Amazon Best of the Month pick in Mystery, Thriller & Suspense for June. The book went on sale Tuesday, and already a movie is in the works, with Paul Greengrass (United 93, Captain Phillips, two Bourne films) set to direct.

We asked Ignatius about his top spy cities--where should an intrepid spy tourist venture?--and here he describes why Beirut, Hong Kong, Berlin and Moscow are his favorites.

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David-ignatius

As a journalist and novelist, I’ve traveled the world for decades. Strangely, perhaps, I never carried a camera, so the images are stored in my head--harder to access than photographs, perhaps, but still vivid. Here’s a list of my favorite spy cities. Like espionage itself, most of them are places between two worlds, where people can hide in the ambiguity and shadow between cultures.

Spying is often described as a world drawn in shades of gray, but these spy capitals are anything but colorless. One of the pleasures of writing spy fiction is that I get to revisit these places in my memory and, I hope, take readers along in my imaginary suitcase.

Beirut

Beirut was the setting of my first spy novel, Agents of Innocence, published in 1987, and it’s the city that gave my baptism as a foreign correspondent. It’s a place that haunts me still.

The center of today’s Beirut is a stunningly modern city that straddles the curve of Beirut Bay, with the often snow-capped peaks of Mt. Lebanon visible in the distance on a clear day. A visitor wouldn’t guess that this sparking downtown is built on the ruins of what was the chief battleground of the Lebanese civil war. An informal boundary known as the “green line” divided the Christian eastern half of the city from the Muslim west. It was guarded by snipers, and I still remember the terrified exhilaration of slumping down low in a taxi as it sped across this no-man’s land.

Today, this central area--cleared of its rubble and brilliantly restored--houses the chicest boutiques and restaurants in town. But if I close my eyes at night, I can remember the electricity of sneaking along the quays of the port at city center, reporting a story about the piratical characters who kept commerce operating back then in what was sometimes a free-fire zone.

To the west of the downtown, along a bend in the Corniche, there’s another ghost: The site of what was once the American Embassy. It was destroyed by a truck bomb in April 1983, in what I think of as the beginning of the war of terrorism that still envelops us. I left the embassy about 30 minutes before the bomb arrived. It’s residential housing now, no trace of the dead bodies or the brave embassy staff. But when I close my eyes, I can see the ruins of the building, like a body stripped of its flesh.

Perhaps the greatest spy haunt in Beirut was the St. Georges Hotel. The British double agent Kim Philby propped up the bar there many a night before he defected to Moscow. So did legions of spies and journalists (and probably a lot back then who were both).You can imagine Philby, slight stutter in his voice, chatting with his mates as he maintained what was until his flight the most audacious lie in the history of intelligence.

The St. Georges still occupies the best piece of real estate in the city, but it’s still in ruins from the civil war--a property dispute, evidenly, but it remains in its eerie rubble a bombed-out postcard of a Levantine playboy world that was obliterated by the civil war.

My Beirut will always have as its ground zero the Commodore Hotel off Hamra Street in the city’s western district. Journalists stayed at the Commodore, and most especially, we drank there. George and Younis and the other barmen filled up the glasses at a bar ringed (it was always whispered) with intelligence officers from Syria, the PLO, Iraq, Iran and every other nation that preyed on the ruin of Beirut. Near the bar was the infamous parrot who could imitate the sound of incoming artillery shells, which were all too frequent until the civil finally ended in 1989. The telex machines were in the lobby, and I can remember the sound of my Martini glass as it rattled atop the metal frame of the machine as I punched my telex tape to send a story back home.

To the east in Qarantina was the headquarters of Bashir Gemayel’s “Phalangist” Militia, known as the “Lebanese Forces. One of my Phalangist sources confided that he was secretly carrying on a love affair with a girl in West Beirut, sneaking her across the Green Line. A taste of Romeo and Juliet in Beirut. In a southern suburb, known as Fakhani, was the PLO’s headquarters, a place where the Fedayeen’s main activity, beyond suspicious quizzing of journalists, seemed to be smoking cigarettes.

Hezbollah now makes its headquarters a little further south; every time I go there to interview a Hezbollah official now, I remember what life feels like in a permanent war zone. And every time I travel to the modern, antiseptic airport, I remember the checkpoint on the way, where the Lebanese journalist Salim al-Lowzi was kidnapped, by Syrian secret police it was always rumored. He was found dead with his typing fingers cut off.

It may sound grim, but Beirut even in its worst days was a hauntingly beautiful city. I’d put it at the top of my itinerary for any adventurous traveler.

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