Overcoming Limitations of the Suspense Genre


Few love to hear the sins they love to act.

William Shakespeare

Pericles, Act I, Scene I


Judge George Mason is at a moral and professional crossroad with only three choices for a way forward, none of which offer any hope for his nagging conscience.

George, a former criminal defense attorney familiar with internal struggles between loathing, amusement, intrigue, envy, and empathy, is now an appeals court judge hearing motions about a case that has multiple mitigating factors. The case is old, and the clock is about to run out on the law’s statute of limitations for rape. The politics of the appeal and the particular way he and his fellow judges on the Appeals bench prefer to deal with it, each for his own distinctively non-legal reasons, is boxing George into choices he’d prefer not to make. He is also struggling with dark fears associated with death threats from an anonymous troll.

This is a great start and more than enough to keep readers turning pages, not only in the bookstore where a strong start is a competitive advantage yet also on airplanes, park benches and in bed late at night.  Scott Turow knows his craft as a legal thriller writer. He is a lawyer. He is a #1 New York Times Bestselling author who has published eleven fiction and three nonfiction books and sold more than 30 million copies. He also served effectively as president of the Authors Guild during one of the most challenging eras for writers and authors in history. He is more than an author. He is an expert who can translate legal arcana and ethics into meaningful tutorials for the rest of us.

There is another thing that Scott Turow is – he is a novelist, which is saying he is something more. He practices the craft side of his talents deftly in ways that don’t let the seams, the diversions, and the subtle mechanics of literature show. It is the storytelling side of work that qualifies as literary art. His characters grow before us on the page as they encounter life challenges and reveal themselves in the way they react, sometimes freezing, sometimes fleeing, more often planting their feet and facing up to their fears.

Gail Caldwell of the Boston Sunday Globe compares Turow to John le Carre for his ability to share “an introspect’s embrace of the gray-zone ambiguities of modern life.” It’s a good observation and, as a long-time fan of Le Carre’s writing, I can mostly agree with it. The critical difference for me between the two authors is that while le Carre is deeply wary of the government and the people responsible for its present and future, Turow seems to be more optimistic and forgiving, which results in more neatly fitting resolutions. 

Writing this during these trying times when values such as truth and character are so easily compromised by weak, selfish and narcissistic leaders makes me realize how much we have to appreciate in the works of writers and artists during society’s worst moments. LIMITATIONS was written before our current crisis of faith and confidence in our social institutions, which is both good and not so good. Good because it reminds us that man’s struggle with truth and honor has a long and varied history. Not so good because it enables readers to make allowances for George’s and his enemy’s moral and ethical framework.

LIMITATIONS is a good novel and more than worth its low cover price. 

First Picador Edition, November 2006

THE CAT'S TABLE | Michael Ondaatje

Occasionally, writing penetrates the walls we build around ourselves, opens the windows to let sunlight in, and reminds us of who we are, what events shaped us, and hints how we got to this particular place. Michael Ondaatje’s writing does this for me.

Some events take a lifetime to reveal their damage and influence.

This truth, a defining presence in Ondaatje’s writings, is a powerful current in the flow of this novel. The Cat’s Table is understated and life-affirming, with a cast of characters that capture a lifetime of experiences during several weeks at sea.

SAINT: A Priest's Review

What Readers Say:

Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.

I recently had the chance to re-read a wonderful novel which I discovered, somewhat randomly, during my years at Loyola College.  As near as I can tell, it is the only novel of an author named Mark Bailey; entitled Saint, it claims to be “a novel of intrigue and faith.”  The “teaser” lines on the cover of the paperback state: “He is a miracle of science, a messenger of God.  And he has returned.”

The “he” in question is St. Peter.  The book asks us to believe that a bio-genetic researcher in California has made a breakthrough in “memory resurrection.”  By concentrating and injecting DNA from one subject into another, Dr. Andrew Shepard has managed to transfer the consciousness of the DNA donor into the recipient.  Eventually, he obtains a strand of DNA from the bones of St. Peter and succeeds in “resurrecting” Peter’s personality and memories in the body of a Portuguese fisherman, Nicolao Soares.

I am no bio-geneticist, so I can’t really say how plausible the science is.  I am, of course, interested in faith, spirituality, morality, and theology; and the novel poses some interesting questions in those areas.  (Is the researcher “playing God”?  What happens to the personality and memories of the fisherman “host”?)  Dr. Shepard happens to be an ex-Catholic; “science is his religion, the search for truth in the maze of genetics his mission.”  We gradually learn that the death of his six-year old daughter from a brain aneurysm has destroyed his marriage, along with what was left of his faith.  Thus, he wrestles with the age-old problem of theodicy: if God is all-good and all-powerful, then why do horrendous things sometimes happen to good and innocent people?

Even more interesting is the “what if” aspect.  “What if” we actually had St. Peter here in the present-day world and Church?  What questions might he answer for us about Jesus – what He really was like, what He really said and believed, and so on?  And if Peter’s testimony conflicted with the inherited tradition, would it be welcome?

Not surprisingly, in the novel, Peter is somewhat astonished by what Christianity (even the word is new to him!), and the Catholic Church in particular, have become.  Still, at one point, he muses about the constancy of the human condition.  “People don’t change so much.  In my time they were simpleminded, willing to take literally the things their leaders told them then.  You still accept today.  What I see on this television, these assurances that the right medicine, the right shampoo, the right leader, the right pair of jeans will give you a perfect life, is no different from the village fool in my day believing some magic potion will make him attractive to women, when what he really needs is to eat fewer onions and learn a trade and stop loitering about the well annoying other men’s wives.  Everyone wants easy answers, in your time as much as mine.  It’s not the people, only the things they desire, that change.”

There is much wisdom in “Peter’s” reflections, I think.  In fact, having been programmed by the media, we almost certainly have far greater expectations of instant gratification and easy answers than did Peter’s contemporaries in 1st- century Palestine.  What remains constant, however, is the desire – a longing for purpose, for meaning, for direction.  And what also remains constant is that real answers, answers that actually “work,” are never quick, easy, or black-and-white.  Real answers are found in and through relationships, over time.  And real answers always remain partially shrouded in unfathomable mystery.

Near the end of the novel, when he finally succeeds in having a face-to-face conversation with his successor, the present-day pope, Peter offers an even more challenging observation.  “I see too many believers using their faith as an excuse.  They choose their Christ or Yahweh or Buddha or Allah or whatever name they call God by, figure they’ve found the answer, and stop questioning, stop their search for truth.”  He suggests instead that “finding” and even naming God – that is, affiliating with and studying a religious tradition – should be just a beginning.  And he argues that the Church’s mission should be to learn, as much as to teach.

He sums up: “You have the power to make each moment count.  Live each hour consciously, gratefully, generously.  Give something to every person and every creature you meet….  Look them in the eye and feel their concerns for a moment; give to them your undivided attention.  Better yet, share the humility of your own spirit….  Understanding grows from humility of spirit, from learning, not from the conceit of knowledge.  Give that which you most desire to another person.”  In other words, live by the “Golden Rule,” some version of which exists in almost every major religious and philosophical tradition.  Jesus said it this way in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).  Simple?  Yes.  Easy?  Never.

©2010 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J. Old St. Joseph's Church, Philadelphia, PA

This book should have been a New York Times Best Seller. As far as I know it did not make that list. But the plot is great, the biotechnology is great, and the plot twists at the end are excellent. 

   ague | Nov 18, 2007   (LibraryThing)





e-Publishing Opens Doors for Authors

Good Times

Just as when the IBM personal computer arrived (1981), Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh with GUI (1984), the venerable Selectric and Selectric II became obsolete, and a universe of entrepreneurial and artistic opportunities opened to writers, the Kindle, Sony Readers, iRex, Lexcycle's Stanza and other downloadable readers have opened doors to a new world of publishing possibilities. While the major players sort out the e-Publishing landscape, engineer the infrastructure, and build the new e-pub world, we writers are exploring, beta testing, and blazing new entrepreneurial paths ... all while continuing to write, write, write. This is a good time to be a writer, don't you think?

Kindle UPDATE - Kindle vs. B&N Free eReader:  See David Pogue's PERSONAL TECH column, "New Entry in E-Books a Paper Tiger," in the August 6th edition of the New York Times.  Barnes & Noble's new e-reader offers PC access to e-books.  The eReader tablet itself is promised for later.