New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Gregg Olsen, discusses his new book The Girl in the Woods in a video blog post.
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Gregg Olsen, discusses his new book The Girl in the Woods in a video blog post.
I received a somewhat disturbing text from a friend the other afternoon. She was running late for work because she couldn't put a book down that I'd recently leant her. "How can I go? I must read on!" "But, the children!" I cried. She is a nanny, you see, so while I could relate to her plight--I had spent a rare sunny day in Seattle, indoors, eschewing some much needed vitamin D reading the very same book--I didn't have children to keep alive. Such are the perils when one picks up The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. So readers, clear your calendars.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ms. Waters recently, on a not-so-rare rainy day in Seattle, to talk about this historical page-turner, set during a "politically untidy" time that has many parallels to our own.
The story takes place in 1922 in suburban South London. WWI has ended and ex-soldiers are roaming the streets, unemployed and uncertain about the future. In a once grand and genteel house, Frances Wray--a spinster with a surprising past--lives with her mother. "They've lost their men to war, and they've lost income and servants, and so they've had to bring in lodgers to make ends meet, and they are Leonard and Lilian Barber, the paying guests of the title. Francis is at first appalled by their gaudy furniture and bothered by the sound of them moving about upstairs, but finds herself increasingly drawn to Lilian. So the novel is the story of their affair and the sort of dramatic and really violent and alarming consequences that it has for everybody involved."
The novel was inspired, in part, by an actual murder case from that time--a case that had a "classic triangle at [its] heart--a wife, a husband, and a male lover. And, I began to think what it would be like if the lover was female--what that would do to the story, how it would touch on other issues in the period." With this germ of an idea, Waters began researching similar cases in earnest. "I was struck when I looked at those murder cases--and I looked at lots of other murder cases from the period. They did tend to feature ordinary people who by some sort of mistake, by a moment of madness, were plunged into nightmare and into disaster and ultimately towards some sort of violent death. And I was very struck by the fact that people in murder cases like that, they don't know what's coming...In the months, weeks, days leading up to the murder, they were just leading their ordinary lives."
Waters is known for plotting-out most of her books ahead of time, but she admits that she was knee-deep in the writing process before realizing that--despite the murder and the mayhem--the book is mainly a love story. "I really was sort of rooting for Frances and Lilian but very conscious that their love came at a cost...Once I'd realized, though, that that was kind of the trajectory of the book--that it was based on their love--the book came together for me more smoothly. And then it became a novel very much about how their love is put under pressure, how it's tested by this dramatic incident, and the moral complexity of the events that follow."
Sound a bit dark? Fortunately, as fans of other Waters’s novels like Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith can attest, she has a knack for humanizing her characters with pitch-perfect humor for the period that also resonates with a modern audience. "Often humor is so specific to its moment that it doesn't date well. There's nothing worse than, sort of, terrible comics movies from the 20s, for example...The best of them last but they just seem incredibly tiresome now as no doubt our movies will in another hundred years. So, it's trying to find humor that belongs, feels like it belongs to the period and yet still seems kind of funny to us. That’s quite a challenge...We do need to get beyond those static black and white pictures of the past and remember that people live their lives in color, and with laughter, as well as with tears and sternness. The whole range, that's how you bring the past to life."
The Paying Guests was a Best of the Month selection for September.
Stephen Frey, author of over a dozen best-selling financial and political thrillers, including the Red Cell Trilogy, tells us that it’s not just what you know, it’s where you live, that makes for great fiction.
We stand side-by-side on the seventh floor of 23 Wall Street, staring down across Broad Street at the main entrance to the New York Stock Exchange. It’s six o’clock in the evening of October 19, 1987.
“What now?” my friend asks somberly.
We’re young associates in JP Morgan’s mergers and acquisitions group. We recently joined the firm after graduating from business school—and spending a boatload on tuition.
“I’m defaulting on my student loan and enlisting in the army.” I look over at him. “You?”
He nods at the window in front of us. “I’m jumping.”
The Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled 508 points today, Black Monday. It’s a one-session drop of 23% which translates into trillions of lost dollars. We’re assuming we won’t have jobs in the morning. Many people around the country won’t.
“We want you to use pre-agreed upon words on pre-agreed upon pages in your novels. That would allow us to communicate covertly with our people in-country.”
My fork stops halfway to my lips as the man I’m having lunch with speaks up quietly from his seat beside me at the table of a well-known Washington restaurant. Arranged by a mutual friend, this was supposed to be a casual meet-and-greet with a guy from State who, in return for a good steak, would give me cool ideas for the thriller I was writing.
A week later terrorists fly a plane into the Pentagon. We could have seen that plane from the restaurant.
A week after 9/11 I call my friend in New York City. The one I’d worked with at JP Morgan in the late-eighties. A few years before, he’d taken a job with another investment firm, and his office was high up in one of the Trade Towers. I fear the worst as his home phone rings, but for some reason he doesn’t understand, he took that horrible day off to go fishing with his kids. He hadn’t gone fishing in years.
I never heard back from that guy at State about using code words in my novels. Or maybe I did.
In 2014 almost everyone in the country has an opinion on whether the Washington Redskins football team should keep using that name or drop it out of respect to Native Americans.
A few weeks ago I’m in a local mall when someone passes a nasty remark to a prominent Redskins player about how he should refuse to play on Sundays as long as the owner keeps using the name. Fortunately, the player takes the high road and doesn’t engage even as the man keeps harassing him. Maybe he agrees with the man, maybe he doesn’t. But getting into it at a mall with a fanatic won’t solve anything.
However, the incident gives me an excellent idea for a scene in the novel I’m currently writing. I’m halfway through the manuscript.
I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life in and around New York and Washington—cities in which, often times, local news equals national news. That compelling point was made to me recently by a savvy young woman at Thomas & Mercer, my publisher.
And, as I started thinking about my writing career in that context, I realized what a profound effect physical closeness to that phenomenon has had on me in terms of writing what I know. I started my career in 1994 penning (literally) novels set in the financial world. When I moved to Washington in 2000, those “financial thrillers” quickly gained more and deeper political threads. And now that I’ve been here in DC for a while, my genre has become ninety-nine percent political.
“Write what you know” is the oldest and most often used adage in the publishing world, and it can be interpreted in many different ways. It doesn’t necessarily mean that only doctors should write medical thrillers. But, in my case, it’s pretty clear that the Proximity Factor has set the tone for everything I’ve ever written.
Screenwriter and producer Greg Widen shares his authentic and insightful review of the historical thriller, "Elza: The Girl". Hailed as one of the most bizarre true stories in Brazilian history, the tale of 16 year old Elza is brought to life by author Sergio Rodrigues. This tale of conspiracy and death has made its way to the US so be sure to check out this exclusive review!
The impossibility of truth is the theme of writer Sergio Rodrigues’ fictional recounting of an actual event that occurred during the failed Brazilian communist uprising of 1935. An espionage tale of secrets and betrayals and back alleys, it is told in uncertain memory, the ghosts of its participants agreeing on almost nothing about what happened, or even, ultimately, who they were.
Present day writer Molina, a sad-sack journalist with an unfaithful girlfriend (is she?), is hired mysteriously by an old communist from those days, Xerxes, to write his memoir of the uprising. Xerxes isn’t his real name, and Molina’s writing credentials are suspect, so from the beginning the tone is set that no one is quite who they are and historical truth, if it can be said to exist at all, is at best a dull pearl at the bottom of a very muddy lake.
Though Xerxes’ subject is the 1935 leftist uprising against the Vargas dictatorship, his obsession is the brutal murder of a 16 year old girl, Elza, who may or may not have been his the mistress, who may or may not have betrayed the communist insurgents on the eve of the uprising to the police, who may or may not have been 16, blonde, or even named Elza. Such is the rabbit hole Molina finds himself plunged into trying to record what actually happened that fateful year.
Author Rodrigues paints a believable portrait of the leftist movements in South America during the period. Typical of the region and its Latin people, it was always a more romantic struggle than either its European or Russian counterparts, but also, like so much in South America, if felt more passionately, it was also often completely misunderstood. It’s no accident that most of the party’s leaders had German last names.
Xerxes takes Molina back to a world where both Fascism and Communism still had a certain innocence about them, before Stalin and Hitler forever stained both with mass murder. So the struggle in Brazil during these years between the two has the lighthearted feel of soccer matches, opposing sides trying to best each other in cheers, songs, and bar fights.
But the murder of Elza, alternatively described as the slaughter of a country innocent seduced by a Red boyfriend, or a steely femme fatale police informer, depending what side you were on (and even what month) electrified the country when revealed and helped bring about the brutal repression of the Vargas government that wiped out the movement before it really started. So central to the story is always, “Who was Elza?” In fact, who were any of us?
As Molina plunges deeper and deeper into the memories of the man who calls himself Xerxes, he finds the matter only becoming more murky and confused to the point that basic facts and identities, even about his own life, become so twisted that one can almost feel the birth of where Latin American magic realism sprang from. Truth, about anyone, even ones self, is an impossible quest, so why not just make up the story that suits you?
Sergio Rodrigues’ writing style, though in the form of a spy novel, like Le Carre provides no action set pieces or tingling thrills. It is more, at only 200 pages, a richly told shaggy dog story, only one ultimately with no punch line, which is the punch line in and of itself. Like the work of another historical novelist, Gore Vidal, Rodrigues finds safety in irony, and like Vidal, prefers to reveal the ending at the beginning, finding the real surprises not in plot but in the characters’ self journey to that end. A journey I found interesting, credible, and worth the ride.
J. Carson Black, New York Times bestselling crime fiction author of the Cyril Landry Thrillers, shares an exclusive short story with us based on real life encounters with ghosts while doing research for her books in New Mexico.
DON’T MESS WITH JESSICA – ER, REBECCA
A True Ghost Story By J. Carson Back
The scenic old hotel outside the town of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, is proud of its resident ghost, Rebecca, a parlor maid who came to a bad end. In fact, if you go to their website, the literature boasts, “The Lodge Resort at Cloudcroft: It’s ‘Charmed.’”
It’s charmed, all right. The place (burned to the ground in 1909 and resurrected in 1911) is haunted by a winsome red-headed chambermaid—with one hell of a vicious backhand. I admit I didn’t take her seriously when Glenn, my husband, and I dined at the Lodge’s restaurant, Rebecca’s. I got her name wrong and called her “Jessica,” a few times.
In fact I thought it was funny.
The old lodge has some neat stuff, including a romantic tower—its four sides made of old glass, accessed by a tight stairway and an old-fashioned key. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent time there. You can look down over the canopy of pine right down to the White Sands of New Mexico.
The pool’s cool, too--very 1920s. After a dip, I sat on a chaise and for a few moments watched the late afternoon sun glint off the diamond on my wedding ring—refracting at turns royal blue, green, yellow, orange, and ruby-red.
I really shouldn’t have called Rebecca “Jessica.”
Twelve midnight on the dot—a loud bang sent my husband and I bolt-upright in bed. The radio blasted gibberish from the bedside table. Tinny voices jabbered on the TV, which was up-all-the-way loud, the screen fuzzy black and white with wavering images in black and gray dots.
“What do you bet it’s a prank?” one of us—maybe both of us—said.
Glenn tried to turn off the TV and I tried to turn off the radio. They both kept blaring. Finally, we pulled the electric cords—
Not that we slept very well. The next morning I asked the two young women at the check-in desk if someone had played a prank on us. They gave me a look that said, “Oh, oh.” They swore the hotel wouldn’t do anything like that, and any employee who would---well, they wouldn’t be kept around very long. Paying guests were paying guests.
As we carried our bags outside, I said to Glenn, “Prank. Definitely.”
The drive down the mountain to Alamogordo is precipitous, narrow and winding. The view from the road is a steep drop-off, a deep ravine, and toothy rocks. There’s even a tunnel. Mountain driving doesn’t make either one of us nervous, but abruptly I found myself thinking of Shirley Jackson’s horror masterpiece, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. I remembered the woman driving away from the haunted house (thinking she’d made a clean getaway) suddenly wrestling for control of her car with… something, after which she crashed into an oak tree and was killed.
All the way down the mountain I had that awful feeling: what if Rebecca was still mad?
We made it to the valley floor in one piece. At the foot of the mountain, in the town of Alamogordo, we stopped for gas. I sat in the car and reflected how silly I’d been to think of a red-headed, thin-skinned ghost haunting us just because I’d called her “Jessica.” Of course the TV and radio were rigged. It was just a prank.
About that time I glanced down at my hand--
At the empty socket where my diamond had been.
It was gone.
Louise Penny, “New York Times” bestselling author of the Chief Armand Gamache series gives us an exclusive Q&A about her life and writing process.
Question: You weave a lot of Quebec setting, culture, and the seasons into your novels. How long have you lived in Quebec, and do you write mostly in Quebec or other places like Montreal or Toronto?
Louise: I was born and, for the most part, raised in Toronto – but spent several formative years in Montreal as a child. Later in life, after moving around with my job, I decided I needed to put down roots, to find home. I thought, and thought and sat quietly with it, and realized that Quebec always felt like home. So I moved here. That was thirty years ago. I have never, ever been made to feel like a stranger. Despite being anglo in a majority francophone society. I wanted to bring that sense of place, of belonging, of yearning, of finally finding home, to the books. As well as what it feels like to live and breathe, and eat, Quebec.
Q: Have you received a lot of comments about the French Canadian vernacular/colloquialisms in your novels from American readers?
L: Yes, especially the swear words. The English tend to swear using sexual references, or bodily functions. The Quebecois use a lot of religious words. I’ve heard elderly women (who were not Ruth Zardo) toss off the ‘f’ word as though it was just an adjective. But let me say ‘tabernac’ to them (a derivative of tabernacle) they’d be apoplectic. Of course, merde is pretty universal. I throw in conversational French words here and there, (oui, non, désolé etc), but never anything that cannot be figured out given the context. It’s important to give a clear sense of place, and language is part of that. I also have a pronunciation guide with translation on my website.
Q: Do you do a lot of research about Quebec history before weaving it into your novels?
L: Some. Like many, I’m draw to history anyway, and Quebec has a very rich and at times bizarre history. The trick, I find, and something I struggle with, is finding that golden mean – the perfect balance so that it is neither a history lesson, nor is there a lack of context. Quebec’s motto is ‘Je me souviens’ – I remember. So past and present meld in this remarkable place.
Q: When you write a long running series as you have, how much to you plan in advance the plots for future books?
L: I do now, but when I started I dreamed it would become a series, but didn’t dare believe it, so I really didn’t think beyond Still Life. So I felt my way forward, and prayed for inspiration each day. And each book. But then as my confidence grew, and my connection with the characters deepened even further, I could suddenly see years ahead. Not the details, but the broad strokes. Indeed, I knew how book 9 (HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN) would end when I was writing book 5 (THE BRUTAL TELLING). The difficult part is writing so that the vital backstory, how the characters got to that place, is clear to those new to the series, as well as those who have read from the beginning. It’s not simply bringing them up to speed on the sequence of events, it’s making sure the new readers care as deeply for Armand and Ruth and Clara and Gabri as long-time readers. My books need, I think, to be read through the chest.
Q: Are there ways that the characters or story lines surprise even you?
L: Constantly. I can’t begin to tell you how much fun it is to return to Three Pines and know that a scene will be set in, let’s say, the bistro. With Olivier and Gabri and Ruth….then Gamache and Beauvoir appear. And they need to talk about x, y and z…. but how they get there, how they do it, what other things they say to each other, is always a surprise. I have a goal, multiple goals actually, for most scenes – but how it happens if often a complete surprise. And, it must be admitted, not always a welcome one. My first drafts are a bit of a mess. Like Lewis and Clarke slogging through a bog. In subsequent drafts the story simplifies, clarifies – the characters become more sharply defined. But I have to have something on the page, in order to edit later.
Q: How do you decide to set the books away from Three Pines?
L: Well, now, the original idea was to set all the books in Three Pines, but then, I didn’t really expect there would ever be 10 or more. It became apparent after the third book that this tiny village in Quebec would not sustain the murder rate. And it was becoming more and more difficult to describe it as idyllic. So I decided to set every second book away from the village. Though there might be large sections back in Three Pines, it would not be the centre of the action. This has also allowed me more creative freedom. And, when I do return to the village, ahhhh. It feels like a genuine homecoming, rather that growing tired of the ‘same-old, same-old’.
Q: Are you ever tempted to exempt any one character from murder or heartbreak?
L: Tempted, yes. While I call them characters, I have to say they feel very real to me. I owe an amazing life to each one of them – to Armand Gamache, and Clara Morrow, and Gabri and Olivier and demented, drunken, brilliant Ruth. To cause them hurt is horrific. But these are crime novels, and neither the murder nor the consequences should ever be trivialized. My books are not about death, they’re about life. But life includes death, and pain, and despair, at times. But it also includes love and forgiveness, friendship and goodness.
Q: How do decide to weave multiple plot strings into one novel?
L: I think it’s important, if there are multiple plots, that there be cohesion thematically. I’m often, in fact almost exclusively, inspired by poetry. Before starting to design and consider a book, some piece of poetry (or sometimes lyrics) will touch me deeply. I’ll write those down on a post-it note, and stick it to my laptop. So that when I get lost, (which I often do) I can find my way back. Even in richness, there needs to be simplicity and clarity. Never chaos. The point is not to keep tossing sparkly things out there in the hopes the reader won’t notice that it makes no sense.
Melinda Leigh, best-selling romantic suspense author of “Midnight Betrayal,” shares with us her top suspense reads and takes us on her version of a date where she draws inspiration for her dark and intriguing reads.
One day while I was in the initial stages of writing Midnight Betrayal, I was scrolling through Facebook (procrastinating is an art form), looking at pictures my author buddy, Kendra Elliot, had posted of a gorgeous winery she and her husband were touring. At the exact same time, my husband and I also had a free afternoon. Were we sitting on a lovely hillside patio, tasting wine and enjoying some scenic vistas?
Midnight Betrayal is set in Philadelphia. I love the city, but I admit most of my time there is limited to chaperoning school trips to the historic sites, shopping, or eating. Due to his profession, my husband knows the city more intimately. So I asked him for some help researching locations. To be fair, first he took me to a fabulous lunch at my favorite Cuban restaurant in Old City, where the skirt steak and mojitos are to-die-for.
With the story still in its infancy, I was looking for inspiration and detail. We drove around for a while so I could snap pics of landmarks, homes, and businesses where my plot board suggested I would have scenes. I also wanted to get the feel of some of the neighborhoods where my characters would live. I described the characters to Hubs. He drove around blocks that seemed to fit. I rolled down the windows to absorb the atmosphere (exhaust fumes).
“What else do you want to see?” he asked.
Now we were getting to the interesting part. “I need a few good places to dump bodies.”
L.J. Sellers, best-selling author of The Detective Jackson Mysteries, shared with us five things she learned about police work, while conducting research for her series.
The best part about writing police procedurals is listening to law enforcement personnel describe their work and tell their favorite on-the-job stories. Even better is getting to participate in some of their activities. Here are five things I’ve learned:
1. Forensic work sometimes resembles home life. The processing bay, where technicians fingerprint cars, ATM machines, and other big items looks a lot like a homeowner's garage, complete with a little blue kiddie swimming pool. And inside the lab, there’s a refrigerator, where they hold many things, including entomology evidence (dead flies), and a shower for rising off chemicals.
2. Patrol officers are adrenaline junkies. Just being in a police car in the middle of the night watching for suspicious activity is a rush. I realized this when I did a ridealong. When the officer spotted a drunk driver and chased her at high speeds, with lights and sirens blazing—I thought my heart would burst with adrenaline. I asked the officer what it was like for him after years on the job, and he admitted that cops are all adrenaline junkies.
3. Detectives have less fun. I once had an opportunity to attend a homicide scene, and became giddy with excitement—a true “Castle” moment. But when I arrived, the detectives were all standing around, eating pizza. The reality of processing homicide scenes is much more tedious than you’d expect. It takes about six hours to collect all the evidence, map the coordinates, and interview witnesses. A detective told me they once spent two days in a victim’s house, looking for clues. But they never found any, and the case is still unsolved.
4. Dusting for fingerprints requires a vacuum. Or more specifically, a downdraft table, where technicians use various colors of powder to process fingerprints. The downdraft sucks up the excess powder, which would otherwise go everywhere. I learned this during a tour of the crime lab.
5. Superglue is a crime-fighting essential. Technicians don't really use superglue, only one of its chemical components, cyanoacetate. They put evidence into what they call the superglue chamber, then release steam and cyanoacetate to form a coating all over the objet. The coating reveals latent fingerprints when it hardens.
J. T. Ellison, New York Times bestselling author of When Shadows Fall, shares with us her favorite summer reads.
I’m writing from my Fourth of July aerie at the beach, which has been affected by weather in the form of both hurricanes and tornados, wild weather for this early in the season. Happily, I have a bevy of books to keep me company:
Jeff Abbott – Inside Man
Abbott’s Sam Capra series (Adrenaline, The Last Minute, Downfall) represents some of the finest writing on the market, and the fact that it’s squarely in the thriller genre—which means the story is fast and intense, and the stakes are stratospheric—makes Abbott one of the best writers out there, as his “who’s who” string of awards (Edgar, Thriller, Anthony, Agatha, Macavity) can attest to. Under the framework of King Lear, Capra, an ex-CIA agent who owns bars around the world as a cover for his new life, gets involved with the criminal family who guns down a good friend. With dead friends, mysterious women, snappy dialogue and clever twists, this is stellar work from an accomplished, sophisticated writer at the top of his game.
Megan Abbott – The Fever
Another Abbott, another great book. Megan Abbott is one of my favorite crime fiction writers. In Dare Me, she delved into the world of high school cheerleaders, showing their base, erotic, deadly side. In The Fever, she’s at it again, this time taking a hard look at the phenomenon of mass hysteria. Abbott got her start in the noir world, and her prose shows the influence—sparse and lean and deadly slick, her observations arch and her betrayals epic. A great read.
Laura Benedict – Bliss House
Looking for a brilliant gothic story? A smart, sophisticated haunted-house novel? An intriguing, alarming, unnerving mystery? Bliss House is your book. Benedict is a beautiful writer, so in command of her story the reader can sit back, relax and trust the ride is going to be a fun one. On the very first page, Bliss House shows itself to be a house with a secret. It’s for sale, forlorn, abandoned by its family. Why would anyone let such a manse go? What horrors hide under the perfect mansard roof? Bliss House itself is a character in this story, a sly and equivocal personality that rewards and punishes as it sees fit. Just excellent.
Joelle Charbonneau – Graduation Day
This book is the final installment in Charbonneau’s The Testing series. This could be just another installment in the hot-as-coals genre of YA dystopian fiction, but Charbonneau breaks all the conventions with a truly unique story that doesn’t follow the typical triptych formula. Cia Vale is a true heroine, reluctant but resigned, and when it comes down to it, the kind of leader we’d all be lucky to have.
Catherine Coulter – Power Play
I write series, so I appreciate just how difficult it is to keep them fresh and entertaining. Coulter is an absolute master at this (and I don’t say this simply because we co-write together.) Power Play is razor sharp and hugely entertaining, a thrill ride from start to finish. FBI agents Dillon Savich and Lacey Sherlock are chasing a ghost from their past—Blessed Blackman, one of the more frightening psychopaths I’ve run across. Great fun, fast read and a perfect summer book.
Diana Gabaldon – Written In My Own Heart's Blood
Gabaldon’s Outlander series (about to be a blockbuster TV show from STARZ) is my all-time favorite set of books. I reread the series every time a new book comes out, which takes a few months, since they’re all huge books. The trick of aging romantic heroes and keeping them sexy and interesting, planting them deftly into the depth of history, and keeping the story fun to read while still educating is a major challenge, and Gabaldon keeps all the plates spinning full-speed. The wildly anticipated newest book in the series, Written In My Own Heart's Blood, does not disappoint—and that’s all I’m willing to say.
Meg Gardiner – Phantom Instinct
The opening of this incredible book absolutely blew me away. Gardiner’s a keen observer and is able to pull the reader into a scene with such intensity you’ll find yourself sitting forward in your chair, eyes glued to the page, jaw literally dropped. I love her prose, but I love her observations and sense of humor even more. When a barfly orders a martini and is charged $14.50, he incredulously asks, “For an ounce of vodka and an olive?” “For turning you into James Bond,” the protagonist, Harper Flynn, responds. This isn’t Gardiner’s first rodeo and it shows. Settle in for a real ride, because Gardiner just keeps getting better.
E. Lockhart – We Were Liars
I have a soft spot for legitimate teenage angst stories, especially when said teenagers are, as the title clearly states, liars, and the setting is in the world of the upper class. Set in the fragilely beautiful world of the perfectly lithe, perfectly blond, tennis playing, trust-fund spending, who-inherits-because-daddy-loves-you-best sister bickering, über-rich world of the family Sinclair, We Were Liars has one of the best unreliable narrators in years. Cadence Sinclair Easton struggles to put together her life after a head injury, and we the reader never know exactly what’s really happened. The prose is hauntingly perfect, and the story itself will surprise even the most jaded reader.
Aaron and Charlotte Elkins, best-selling husband and wife author duo, of The Art Whisperer, gave us insights into what’s true and what’s not in four different crime scenarios. Can you guess the truth?
SCENARIO 1: EXPLOSIONS
Question: What is wrong with these pictures?
Answer: What is wrong is that all these actors are outrunning explosions (Antonio Banderas and Hugh Jackman are so cool that they're outwalking them.) But can you really outwalk an explosion? Nope. Can you outrun one? Not a chance, and here's why:
The Olympic record for the hundred yard dash is about 11 yards per second. Let's err on the generous side, though, and assume there's someone somewhere that might actually be faster. So say we're looking at 15 yards per second.
And how fast does the shockwave of an explosion travel? 1.5 miles per second. Even Tom Cruise (the guy in the Iron Man suit) can't beat that.
SCENARIO 2: THE MONA LISA
The most spectacular art theft of the twentieth century occurred in 1911, when a workman named Vincenzo Perugia walked out of the Louvre with the world's most famous painting, the Mona Lisa. (A ironic note: at the time, he had been employed in building a protective box for Mona.) Two year later the painting was recovered and returned to the Louvre, where it remains today.
But how do we know that the painting that came back is the very same one that was taken? The Mona Lisa has been copied thousands of times, often by highly competent artists. The great Andrea del Sarto, a contemporary of da Vinci's and a fellow-Florentine, was himself commissioned by Francis I of France to make six of them--of which the whereabouts of none are known today.
The Mona Lisa is unsigned. It is undated.. (Francis bought it from da Vinci in 1517, years after it had been painted.). Why it had been painted is unknown. There is no record of a commission, nor any reliable record of who the sitter was. Many people believe she is Mona del Giacondo, the wife of a Florentine merchant, but real evidence is lacking, to say the least. She wasn’t even called the Mona Lisa until three hundred years later. Until then it had no name, being referred to in the court records of Francis simply as “a portrait of a Florentine lady.”
Question: So how do we know for sure that the picture now in the Louvre is the very one that Leonardo da Vinci painted five hundred years ago?
a) We don't.
b) A fingerprint in the lower right corner definitely identified as Leonardo's.
c) A strand of feather, embedded in the paint, that exactly matches a stuffed owl that he had in his studio.
d) A faded shred of red fabric, embedded in the paint, and shown to come from the bookmarking ribbon of Rubens' personal copy of Manutius's printing of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.
Answer: (a). Not even today's wonderfully advanced forensic techniques can prove that this or any other picture was painted by da Vinci. Or del Sarto, for that matter. Forensics are terrific at proving that an old painting is a fake--the wrong pigments, the wrong age, the wrong kind of canvas (e.g., made by machine instead of hand-woven), etc. But how would you prove that a painting is the real thing, as opposed to an expert copy made during the artist's lifetime, e.g., one of del Sarto's? Thepoplar wood panel would be the right age, the pigments, fixatives, and varnishes would be the very ones used at that time in Florence, and so on.
There is, in nutshell, no way of establishing absolute certainty that we have the right Mona Lisa. Ninety-nine percent certainty? You bet. You have faith in the integrity and competence of the Louvre in this matter, right? So do I. But would you bet your life on it?
Flash: This very morning, a kindly dealer in antique photographs sold us this amazing picture: the only known photograph of Peruggia in the act of stealing the painting. We're very excited!